June 14, 2017

The First Pancake is Always Lumpy

The First Pancake is Always Lumpy
Filming and interviewing gets underway. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

The Children of 1917 Expedition is underway.

We began in the most logical place, in St. Petersburg, the birthplace of the Russian Revolution. And we began at a very symbolic time: June 12, Russia’s independence day.

Those who remembered the history of 27 years ago, were marking the day in 1990 when Russia declared its independence from all the other Soviet republics. Yet a not insignificant number of people all across the country also came out to participate in meetings against corruption. But the majority of Russians took this Monday holiday in its most literal sense and simply rested.

For our team, it was a double holiday, perhaps even a triple.

First, the night before our team grew by one. At the last minute, as our ship was sailing from the shore, Zhenya Mashchenko jumped on board as our documentary cameraman. He had just returned from a six-month trip to Asia, where he had been making a film about a hired assassin who had gone into retirement. He returned to Russia safe and sound, and with a burning desire to film something interesting in Russia. And we made him an offer he could not refuse: a tour around his homeland in search of the secrets of long life. And exclusive interviews with centenarians.

Second, we interviewed and filmed the first “child of 1917.” And, despite the fact that this was the “first pancake” of our journey, it was lump-free (as the Russian proverb has it: первый блин всегда комом, “the first pancake is always lumpy,” meaning the first try on something is always a flop.)

Alexandra Nikolayevna Antonova {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Alexandra Nikolayevna Antonova is the most beautiful woman in the world of long-livers. Slender and fit, she is strong and graceful, like a ballerina in retirement. Her movements are deliberate and noble, like a dowager queen. Nature gifted her with fine, porcelain skin that even wrinkles have not spoiled. She has an attentive, lightly sardonic gaze, and a soft, intelligent way of speaking.

There is a shared myth we have about the true Petersburg babushka: a noblewoman, a graduate of the Institute for Noble Maidens, a blockade survivor, and a frequenter of the Mariinsky Theater and Hermitage Museum.

The truth is that Alexandra Nikolayevna was born into the family of a railway trackman in a distant village, received a degree from an accelerated accounting course and arrive in Piter (that is, Leningrad) as an adult, a few years after the war.

Her story is the century’s-long tale of a single mother struggling for a modest place in the sun. It is a tale of arriving in Leningrad with a babe in her arms and a fictitious letter of invitation to Leningrad (without which provincials were simply not allowed into the city) in her pocket, of how a simple Russian woman conquered the cradle of the revolution.

“The most difficult thing in life,” she said, “is the apartment problem.” All other problems that she encountered in her hundred years, she said, were nothing by comparison. And somehow she won for her and her family a very compact, five-room apartment in the city. And there, over several decades, she hosted crowds of random visitors and longtime friends, visiting from all across the country.

Alexandra's library {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Many of those former visitors are no longer of this world. But Alexandra Nikolaevna, living to see her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, has given her large “mansion” to her relatives and moved into a small top-floor apartment. For two years, she has not left the walls of her new home. She spends her days chatting with her daughter, reading books, getting her exercise walking between the kitchen, the bedroom, and back again. Occasionally she will go out on the balcony and, from her ninth-floor perch, survey the area with her theater binoculars.

{Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

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