August 29, 2017

The Last Hero

The Last Hero
A Bashirian sunflower field {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

We take a day train from Samara to Ufa and revel in the changing landscape from the Volga basin to the wide horizons of the steppe. We are nearing the foothills of the Urals, and as we enter Bashkiria, there are rolling hills and mesa-like formations with light sprinklings of vegetation.

Ufa, our destination and the capital of Bashkortostan, is an oil-rich city that, when compared to gritty Samara, is very clean and well-kept. There are not many old, wooden buildings, but plenty of gleaming new skyscrapers and broad avenues. This is a town that west-Siberian oil and gas has rebuilt.

Sunset from the last car on the train to Ufa. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

Our Bashkir “hero”, Sabiryan Asfandiyarov, lives about 50 kilometers south of the capital, in the village of Sakhayevo. To get there, we drive over well-paved roads through rolling hills under active cultivation. In several places wide sunflower fields stretch to an aquamarine horizon. Every few kilometers there are pull outs for cars that offer covered picnic tables and views of fertile hills and fields.

A retired local journalist, Rashid, is driving us to Sakhayevo. Rashid’s presence is vital. This, our first male centenarian on this leg of the expedition, is not only completely deaf, but, we are told, speaks no Russian, only Tatar. So we have printed out our questions in Russian for Rashid to translate on the fly into Tatar.

Nadya, Paul and Rashid (second from right), work through some Tatar language source materials about Sabiryan with his daughter, Guzel, center. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

But the first obstacle we must overcome is not linguistic but gastronomic. We are greeted by a table groaning with food. A bowl of homemade pelmeni is set down in front of each of us. “That’s how we do it here, 15 per person,” says Rishat, Sabiryan’s son-in-law. The pelmeni are incredible, but clearly we should not have eaten breakfast.

* * *

It turns out that Sabiryan can read Russian just fine with his one good eye, and even speak it, though in a very thick Tatar accent. So Rashid shows him the printed questions on an iPad and he offers long, fascinating stories in reply.

Sabiryan Asfandiyarov. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Wounded three times in the war, Sabiryan served eight years in the military, having been called up to serve in 1938, and ready to be mustered out when the war began. He drove tanks, including an American-made one, and lost his right eye under fire in Hungary in 1945. He at first refused to have the eye removed, thinking a one-eyed man would never find a wife, but eventually was convinced by a doctor it was the only way to save his other eye. Three days after finally mustering out, he was at work as a cashier on the kolkhoz.

A neighbor comes by and recounts how 360 men left the village for the war and only 120 came back, and now Sabiryan is the last one alive.

“He is our last hero,” the friend says.

That may be, but Sabiryan can’t seem to understand what all this fuss is about.

When we are done with all our questions, he says we are here asking him all these things about 100 years ago, but he has a question for us. All these journalists come around visiting, he says, but none of them can tell him what is going on in Loch Ness, and what it is that lives there.

We try to convince him it is just a myth, but none of us have any real facts to offer in our defense, and so it seems that Loch Ness will continue to bother Sakhayevo’s last hero for the foreseeable future.

Sabiryan and his immediate family, in the garden where he likes to sit in his greenhouse. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

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