August 14, 2017

Taking Care

Taking Care
Galina Grebneva with a photo of her husband. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

If it is the case, as asserted previously, that a not insubstantial measure of our heroes’ longevity can be attributed to the care and support they receive from their children and grandchildren, then Galina Grebneva and Marina Goncharova, both born in 1917, are further proof of this thesis.

Galina Grebneva (born Kortova) is a diminutive woman with neat, shoulder-length hair. Blind and with slightly diminished hearing, she is a profoundly tender soul. She smiles and laughs when Misha tells her how fine she looks in the yellow dress she has donned for our photo shoot – the same one she wore 60 years ago to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

Galina Grebneva in the dress she wore to Queen Elizabeth's coronation. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Galina never admits to being tired, and when asked how she is doing, replies with a sing-song, legato-cadenced “kho-ro-sho.” When we ask what is her favorite meal, she replies without hesitation, “Caviar on buterbrody” (an open-faced sandwich). She has a sweet tooth and repeatedly asks for just a bit more sugar in her tea.

This remarkable centenarian is living out her days with her daughter Irina in a cozy two-room apartment, one room of which is a shrine to Galina’s life and achievements, filled with displays of photographs, orders and timelines to show the groups of students that come to visit each May 9.

“Did we go hungry? Of course we did,” Galina said, referring to her life in Leningrad.

In 1937, she was a student at the Institute of Railway Transport Engineering in that city when she met her future husband, Sergei, a rising star in the Communist Party. He came to deliver lectures. For him, it was love at first sight; for her it took a bit longer. They grew close singing together in a choir, but they would not marry until 1945, carrying out a tender correspondence during the war that has been preserved in the family archive.

Galina and her daughter Irina. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Galina was active in the Party and struggling to finish her degree while taking care of her ailing mother and grandmother when Leningrad was blockaded by the Germans (“Rockets did not land on me,” she says drily). Eventually allowed to evacuate, she could only bring one person with her. Grandmother was left behind.

Shortly thereafter, Galina moved to Kirov, to be with her father.

“The first time I went to the banya in Kirov, I had not undressed for three months. The women there saw me and began to cry. Where my belly should have been, there was only a cavity. I had sticks for legs and circles for knees.”

Some of Galina's medals and awards. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

After the war, Galina’s husband joined the foreign service, and they lived all over the world (South Africa, England, Ceylon, Batumi, Spitsbergen). 

In 1967, while in Moscow between postings, her daughter Irina recalls, the family was given a samizdat, mimeographed copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. They were only allowed to keep it for two days. Galina and Sergei read it simultaneously, one passing a finished page to the next. They did not sleep for two nights. Galina believed what she read in the novel, Sergei did not.

The family was always close, always active in sports and outdoor activities together. Even today, two of her children call her every night to check up on her. Once a month, on special days, a cousin who comes and takes Galina and Irina to a church three minutes away - Peter and Fevronia Church. In 1999, a few years before her husband Sergei died, the couple had an official church wedding.

Galina’s great-grandfather was a peasant who gained noble status for his service in the Crimean War. For this “crime,” it was harder than it should have been for Galina to enter the Komsomol and later the Party, and yet she persisted. For this reason her daughter Irina, in a love-laced jest, today sometimes addresses her mother as “your highness.” As when Galina asks for a bit more to eat.

“And what can I give your highness?” Irina asks as we sit around a table for tea.

“Well, perhaps some caviar buterbrody?”

"Well, perhaps some caviar buterbrody." {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

*  *  *

Born in the village of Baryshskaya in Simbirsk guberniya, Marina Goncharova recalls vividly how as a child she attended school during the week in the nearby town, and would go home on weekends to be with her family and to refill her provisions for the week to come. And how between home and school she had to walk alone through a wolf-infested forest.

The story is something of a metaphor for the grit Marina has demonstrated throughout her long life.

A charming, healthy woman with the monotone voice of one whose hearing is long gone, Marina has an astounding memory for the facts and details of her life. We show her a photo from her institute days 80 years before and she quickly and easily puts a name to every face.

This driven centenarian was the first person in her peasant family (which included seven brothers and sisters) to obtain higher education. She got her degree from Kazan University and went on to become a doctor.

Marina and her namesake granddaughter prepare for her photo shoot. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

In 1936 she met Alexander Plastov, who was also training to be a doctor. They fell in love and he proposed, but she was not ready. She insisted she had to finish her studies. Plastov finished his courses and went to Perm, where he was doing army service. They corresponded for two years, planning to marry when he demobilized, then the war came along. Marina never heard from him again. She would not learn of his fate for 73 years – an unexpected benefit of her long life. It turns out Alexander had been serving as a doctor in a birthing hospital near Vitebsk, Belarus, where he had sheltered some wounded partizans, disguising them as women in labor. He later joined the partizans more directly, was caught, and paid the ultimate price. He was subsequently named a hero of Belarus. A monument honoring his heroism hangs near a hospital in Vysochany, Vitebsk oblast.

The hands of a centenarian doctor. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

But Marina’s life went on. She got her medical degree and received her first posting to Petropavlosk-Kamchatksky, which she calls the most difficult time in her life – the hospital didn’t even have X-ray machines. But there she met her future husband, also named Alexander, a surgeon, and for the rest of their long career together they were dispatched to work in trying situations at military hospitals throughout the USSR.

In 1950, when the couple was posted in Kudeptsa, near Sochi, Marina went into labor with her second child. Her husband went looking for a car to take her to the hospital, but did not return in time. So Marina delivered the child herself, completing the delivery and cutting the cord before her husband returned.

Marina loves to sit on the balcony and take in the sun. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

The couple finally ended out their career in Grozny (Marina mustered out with the rank of major; Alexander with the rank of lieutenant colonel), where they retired, living there for 38  years until the recent unpleasantries there forced them to move north, to Tarusa, to be nearer to family.

Alexander died in 1987 and for the past 30 years Marina has lived in Tarusa, visited daily by her namesake granddaughter and other family members. While she is confined to a wheelchair, her mind is sharp, she is an active reader, and she loves to play cards with her eighteen-year-old great-grandson.

And she often wins.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
22 Russian Crosswords

22 Russian Crosswords

Test your knowledge of the Russian language, Russian history and society with these 22 challenging puzzles taken from the pages of Russian Life magazine. Most all the clues are in English, but you must fill in the answers in Russian. If you get stumped, of course all the puzzles have answers printed at the back of the book.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602