July 08, 2017

Two Riverbanks*

Two Riverbanks*
Tatyana Orlova {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Tatyana Semyonovna Orlova spends the summer in a home just 100 meters from the great Volga River, a river that here, in the forests of Tver oblast, is neither wide nor deep.

We actually planned to row across the river to visit Tatyana Semyonovna in a quaint little boat – all three of us, to say nothing of our equipment. Our producer Misha felt that this would be epic and symbolic, and that the film footage from the boat, as it cut across the Volga, would greatly enhance our project. He even went so far as to book rooms in a hotel directly across the river from the village of Nechayevshchina, where our heroine lives.

We gazed at a splendid little house on the other side of the river, and estimated how long it would take to get across the Volga. According to the map it was about 500 meters.

“A trifle,” cheerfully intoned our producer, who had rowed for sport in his youth.

And then we looked at the boat we were planning to rent.

In contrast to our producer, this vessel did not inspire optimism. There were also ominous ripples on the water, suspicious thickets of water lilies, and alarming snags lying just below the surface here and there. The eyes of our filmographer Zhenya, who, like myself, had not rowed for sport as a youth, were full of hopeful supplication as he gazed at our producer. We did not want to drown at the very outset of our project.

Apparently, Misha himself was also no longer enthralled by his idea and, looking defeated by the long drive that had gotten us this far, decided nonetheless that we would get back in the car and drive the long way around. In other words, spend an hour bouncing over potholes along a wondrous country road.

Then Misha came up with a better idea: he called our heroine’s daughter, Valentina Alexandrovna, and asked her if she could drive over and get us. I felt that this was a bit much to ask of an elderly woman (after all, if her mother was 100, then the daughter should be over 70), but she readily agreed.

An hour later, a surprisingly young and powerful woman arrived. She smiled from the depth of her soul at my question, how she managed to preserve her vigor of body and spirit: “Constantly work on yourself,” was her answer.

Valentina Alexandrovna led us on a sightseeing excursion through the surrounding area. We saw the wooden frame hospital where her mother had worked, two military graves, a wayside cross, and heard the story of a local village that the fascists torched, along with all its residents.

When we arrived at the appointed location, Tatyana Semyonovna was already waiting for us in the yard outside her home. Barely had we greeted one another, when she began her side of the interview. We had not even set up the equipment or turned on our camera. It was the first time on our trip we had met such a lively storyteller.

Tatiana Semyonovna Orlova

We ended our shooting when the slow summer sun finally slipped beyond the horizon and the mosquitoes were becoming particularly ferocious. In order to return to our side of the river, we ordered a motorboat taxi. And once we had packed up our gear and set out on our return path, it became abundantly clear how correct was our decision to abstain from rowing.

It turns out the distance from the village to the hotel was not 500 meters, but three and a half kilometers, and all of it across rather un-calm waters. The strangest thing is that this body of water is not really a river. It is a network of lakes, into which – from the north, and out of which – to the south, flows the modest Volga, which then proceeds to loop through the Russian plain, gathering waters and width as it flows south to the Caspian.

The fence enclosing Orlova's yard.  {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

We sailed away from Nechayevshchina, rounded a wooded cape, and passed along the shore not far from the house we had seen in the morning from our opposite shore. Someone was very lucky to live amid such beauty, right on this lake (river?), among gardens that flow down to the water.

The next morning we returned to Tatyana Semyonovna and continued our conversation about the past. We talked about our heroine’s brothers and sisters, and unexpectedly learned that her sister Antonina, who was born in 1927, lives and breathes, and not just anywhere, but in the very prosaic little home that we had admired from afar for two days!

Orlova's house, and the road to her sister's home. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Need we even explain how fortuitous this was – the opportunity to photograph these two sisters together, one 90, the other 100? Misha rushed off to Antonina Semyonovna’s in order to bring her back, to set her alongside Tatyana Semyonovna and do a double-interview.

He returned an hour later, alone, gloomy and silent. To our careful query, where the second babushka might be, he only answered, “We’re not going to talk about that now.”

Tatyana Orlova's 90-year-old sister, Antonina. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

In a somewhat troubled state we finished our work, said goodbye to our heroine, and left. In the car, Misha explained why he had returned alone. Antonina had refused to return with Misha to her older sister’s place. For nearly half a century, it turns out, the two of them have not spoken a word to one another. She explained to Misha about the spat that precipitated this break, and how it had split the family in two. The cause of this tragedy was so banal that it takes but one word to describe it. Yet here, perhaps, it is more appropriate to place a period.

* The reference here is to a well-known Russian song:

У реки два берега, но одна беда,
Всё никак не встретятся эти берега.

Rivers have two banks, but a single tribulation,
Never shall they meet beneath our shining sun.


Sixteen seconds on our visit with Tatyana Semyonovna.  {Video: Zhenya Mashchenko}

Historical Perspective

This photo was captured by the famous Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky in the village of Izvedovo, just a few kilometers from the village of Nechayevshchina, where our heroine Tatyana Orlova lives. It was taken seven years before Tatyana was born.

Izvedovo, 1910 {Photo: Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky}


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