By now we thought we had seen it all. But one should never forget to be ready to be surprised.
From downtown Krasnoyarsk, a half-hour drive through dense forests takes us to a thriving village of 2000 in the city’s northern “suburbs.” A nicely kept house on a dusty, rutted street is home to Tamara Sudakova and her daughter Nina. Tamara’s son Vladimir comes out through a brilliantly painted blue and yellow fence to greet us. He is tall and imposing, but offers a ready smile and a firm handshake. A retired crane driver, he has come to spend the afternoon with us while we interview his mother. And, he is quick to point out, he has driven here, so he cannot join in imbibing.
Imbibing? Um, we came here to work!
Vladimir and family are having none of it. “We are Russians, we can’t help ourselves,” he laughs, pointing to a long table stacked with fresh vegetables, potatoes, chicken, mushrooms, and of course vodka.
Misha, who never touches vodka, was adamant that he could not partake in the many toasts over the meal. This leaves Nadya and I to hold up the team’s end of the toasting, pitted against a very strong home team in the person of Nina.
Nonetheless, thanks to the sobering quantities of food, we were able to hold our own, and soon enough were allowed to get down to work and interview Tamara.
And what an interview it was.
* * *
Tamara Ivanovna, like her son, has a long, distinguished northern European visage. The 100-year-old skin below her eyes sags, giving her the appearance of someone who is very sad, yet Tamara is nothing of the sort. She is incredibly loquacious, with a very detailed memory, and has a great sense of humor. All it takes is one question and she relates a 15-minute story, never tiring. On some topics, she laughs repeatedly between thoughts, as if to underscore the irony of something she endured.
Vasya the cat walks across the frame of Misha’s video, finally settling onto my feet, providing serious warming where none was needed.
Tamara was born in the village of Volkova, two months after the start of the February Revolution, and her family was made up of hard-working, modestly successful farmers. As a result, in 1930 their modest wooden home was requisitioned to be the village hospital. They were declared kulaks and sent to Magocha (about 500 km from Chita), then to the village of Tupik (“Dead End”), 100 km north of Magocha, and then finally to Krasnoyarsk. Here Tamara got an education and then pursued a long career as a schoolteacher and school administrator in a nearby village.
This helps explain how she can command a room, and why she is such a great storyteller. And perhaps why she began to compose poetry – really good poetry, by the way – that she recites for us with very little prompting (she has hundreds of poems, but unfortunately none of them have been written down). She shows a memory and recall like no centenarian we have met on this trip.
Here is one of the chastushkas she offered
У меня под окном
У меня мужа увела
Но она о том не знала,
Что мужик мой пьяница.
А я теперь переживаю,
Что он обратно явится.
Beneath my window
There’s a new arbor.
My husband’s hooked up
With our new neighbor.
But she doesn’t know
That the man’s a drunk.
And now I worry
He might just come back.
And yet that is still not all: Tamara Ivanovna is also a centenarian eco-maker. She knits beautiful, nearly indestructible floor coverings from plastic bags. As we left (yes, after more feasting and vodka), she gifted us each with one, which we are taking to our far-flung corners of the world, along with her poetry and stories.
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