We had to decide: to die or to live
Both my mother and my father were born in 1899. My mother, Synotova Agrippina Vladimirovna, came from Vologda. When she married my father, she took on the job of a typist at local infantry courses: she was a very literate and professional typist. Up to this day I have no idea where she acquired those skills, as she lost her mother when she was three. There was no father, she was brought up by her aunt.
My father came from Yaroslavl peasantry. His father, my grandfather, came to Petersburg to work and settled there. Before the war, he worked in a school and was in charge of the school’s property. My father graduated from Realshule in 1921. Realshule was an advanced school, with a focus on practical education. There were many technical subjects. There were also gymnasiums in tsarist Russia i.e. educational facilities with a focus on humanitarian subjects. Before applying for the Realshule, one was expected to have basic school knowledge at the level of the 4th grade, if my memory serves me right. Starting from the 4th grade, one could choose a humanitarian focus, in other words, the gymnasium, or a more practical, technical focus towards math, trigonometry etc. – the Realshule.
By the time my parents married, my father had already been a student of the river department of the Institute of rail transport. He had worked in this profession for his whole life. Upon graduation, my father was assigned to work in Rybinsk. My mother followed him there, and that’s where I was born, in 1928. In 1934 we returned to St. Petersburg and stayed at my father’s parents’ house. Back then, they lived on the 7th Krasnoarmeiskaja street – between Fontanka and Obvodnij channel, in a big house. My grandfather worked as a steward. That position provided him with a big apartment; my family got a room. I remember the room having the distinct smell of matting. We piled all our belongings there, including everything we had purchased in Rybinsk.
What do I remember best from those three years? I remember clearly the day Kirov was assassinated – December 1st, 1934. My grandmother was a skilled seamstress – she created outfits for actors, artists, and ballerinas. I remember once how my grandfather came home and said: “I brought you red banners – sew black ribbons to them”. The radio played mourning music. The people became agitated – everyone loved Kirov and considered him to be the next head of the Communist party.
I went to school in 1936. By that time my parents had their own apartment. It was in a magnificent district of the city, overlooking Neva, in the house of Kutuzov with columns (h.30). There was a stable in the yard, and my parents turned this stable into an apartment. We moved there and lived there for some time. Mother did not work because my father was an engineer and had, as they used to say, a good salary. And I went to school (first and second grade) at the intersection of Pestel street and Fontanka. I remember our teacher clearly, we all loved him. Our class was amicable, but occasionally, some fights with the boys would break out. I remember once, I lost my temper and got into a fight with a classmate. Later, I fell seriously ill. I needed hospitalization because I had diphtheria. My mother said: “I am not sending her to any hospital!” My father had to move out in order to avoid getting infected. He had to pass us the food through the window (we lived on the ground floor). A doctor used to visit me at home. My mother was both a nurse and an orderly woman, the apartment had to be disinfected every day. During that time my father met another woman and left us for her after I recovered, despite the fact that he and mother lived together for 17 years. Mother was in a terrible state. She used to say, “I will move away, anywhere, just so nothing reminds me of us living together”. It was 1938. My father found us a new apartment on Lermontov Avenue. The kitchen, the entire second floor and our rooms were divided in half. We had a large room, 30 square meters. It seems that it used to be a dining room (ceilings with fretwork: fruits in the corners and in the middle) with two exits; one led from our room directly to the corridor, the other – to the kitchen. Downstairs, on the floor below us, lived the former owner of this house. I don’t know who she was. She was very cultured, as I remember her. She didn’t communicate with the others a lot – she was a noble.
I went to the third grade to a school at Kriukov channel in front of the Nikolski chapel. It was a former German gymnasium, the Germans used to teach German there. I went to the third, fourth and fifth grades there.
When the war started I was twelve and a half years old. In the summer of 1941 my mother sent me to a summer pioneer camp in Pribytkovo. The nature there is wonderful. Parents’ day was scheduled to occur on the 22nd of June, 1941. I remember how we were getting ready. There was a large festival dedicated to the opening of the camp. Then our parents came and said that the war had started. My mother faced a choice concerning what to do with me. There were two options. The first – a train would come and take us directly to the east right from the camp; the parents who would disagree could take their children with them. My mother decided that I would be safer with her. That train did not get far. The Germans attacked the train with the children. I do not know who survived there.
We returned to the city, mother was sent to dig trenches. Women worked in trenches because all the men went to the army. Some were conscripted, some volunteered. And I did the shopping. Things were still normal with food. I bought sugar, sunflower oil, everything I could find. Bread was already rationed, I think. The first product cards in the city were for bread. Of course, we did not eat our bread card away, but we bought everything. I remember, our room had a very big Venetian window and a table on which we used to put paper and rusk. The neighbors in the house were nice, and the inhabitants of our apartment were very friendly. That atmosphere remained even after the blockade was lifted, despite the fact that most of the neighbors had changed. A married couple lived in one of the rooms before the war. She was a mapmaker and was busy with landscape surveying before the war. She gave us advice: “Agrippina Vasilievna, take Jenija and go to the cabbage field”. There was already no cabbage, so we gathered the remaining green leaves and pickled them. It was known as “Khriapa” during the blockade. I cannot remember exactly how much of it we took home and pickled. So, by the end of 1941, we still had a minimum reserve of food left.
During the blockade, only 125 grams of bread were given away. Bread contained cellulose. The workers had the biggest ration, followed by the officials and the dependents. My mother was considered to be an official. I could not get the card for children, obviously. We prepared calves-foot from carpenter’s glue. The smell was horrible. When I ate, I covered my nose.
My mother found a job before the war, as my father only paid alimony. The Vitebsk railway station had a postal department, and she printed waybills for cargo, and worked as a typist. I remember that train station having a canteen. My mother worked there, and thus, had a pass, she took me to that canteen where I could eat cupcakes. That was in September of 1941. Nothing could be bought in the shops. Later that station was liquidated, and united with the Moscow station. The Vitebsk station had stopped functioning, but my mother got a job at the postal department in the new place.
The city was bombed on the 8th of September. An aerial alarm was raised at 8 p.m. We knew we needed knapsacks with documents, a shift of clothes and a pillow. Everyone was supposed to go to one of the vaults. We had a vault in a house on Lermontov Avenue, 22, where we lived, but it was small, we did not go down. However, because we had a large spiral staircase that led to Lermontov Avenue, we used to lay on those stairs during the bombardment. It was a horrible experience. A bomb falls – you hear it and wait for what is going to happen next. When the alarm was called off and we went outside, we saw the entire avenue filled with broken glass. The avenue led to Dekabrist street, Sadovaja street used to intercept it at some point. That area, from Sadovaja to Fontanka seafront, was impassable; there was a hospital for the wounded on Fontanka – it was bombed.
I remember the afterglow, the sky itself was burning. Badaevskij storage houses, containing sugar and supplies, were on fire. The whole food supply was destroyed. I remember being overwhelmed by fear, how are we going to live on? But a human being can get used to anything. You could synchronize watches at 8 p.m. with the sound of aerial alarms. Those meticulous Germans started the bombardment at exactly 8 o’clock. It was extremely cold outside. Our house was heated by a furnace, but we had no fuel. And exhaust pipes were frowned upon as they acted as signals that someone was living there, someone who had to be destroyed. This is why we purchased a small stove and used it to cook. But it also needed fuel, so we burnt furniture, primarily.
During the first months of the blockade the schools were still open. It was so cold that the ink froze in the inkwells. We had those spill-proof inkwells, in which we dipped pens #86. The school back then was unrecognizable – no one was running, jumping, laughing – all of it was gone. Everyone walked the corridors slowly. We used to go upstairs, sit in the classrooms, shivering, waiting for our class to be called to the canteen. It was on the ground floor, we were given warm yeast soup – yeast mixed with water with a pinch of salt. No bread, obviously. Many children brought empty cans from home. And the governess and the teacher on duty carefully watched them to ensure those children eat the food themselves. It was prohibited to take the food home. This went on until December of 1941, when we suddenly heard an announcement: “Kids, stop going to school, there will be no yeast soup”. That’s what it was like in 1941. And after that, in winter of 41/42, the schools were in fact closed. There were attempts to continue education in the vaults. Firstly, there were too few children to separate them into classes. Secondly, there was hunger, frost, and bombardments. In the spring schoolchildren were sent to the weeding (and later to the harvest) of carrots and other root vegetables. You could go there by tram, they were already operating. During the Leningrad Blockade every surviving child was sent to work in the kale yard. A female German teacher was our supervisor. She took care of us by giving us parts of vegetables, and even allowed us to take a couple of carrots or turnips, depending on what we were weeding.
My mother and I lived on the third floor, in a room with a high ceiling, just like in the old buildings. We got our water from Fontanka. I remember that there was a bakery that opened at 6 o’clock in the morning. They used to announce when you could buy bread during the following week. There were days when even 125 grams of bread were not available. It was cold no matter what you put on. People wore various dressing gowns, every warm piece of clothing they had under their coats. People took their place in line an hour in advance. Their look was frightening; everyone was angry, hungry, with sunken cheeks and wide eyes. There once was a horrible event. A boy grabbed someone else’s bread from the scales (the customer hadn’t taken it yet). People rushed to him and started beating him; he quickly put the bread into his mouth and swallowed it.
Later, after the 1941, I saw people walking along the railing of a bridge, holding onto it. Some of them stopped, slipped down and lay there, motionless. They froze to death. I remember going to work, walking past a man lying on the ground wearing felt boots. When I was returning home, he lay without his boots. There were platoons of AAD patrolling the city – young women who were collecting the dead. There were some privileges in those platoons, for one, the ration was a bit bigger. However, they did not always find all the dead. There were seven corpses in our apartment. My mother and I were the only survivors.
At the beginning of the new year, and on Christmas eve (though few people knew of it) a celebration was organized in one of the schools of Oktiabriskij district. Every surviving child was invited. There were few children left in the city, some were immobilized, some died. However, that blockade celebration stayed in my memory forever. The fir-tree stood there, decorated. The hall was heated, but the children were covered in clothes, nobody got undressed. Everyone was excited to get a present, but after receiving it, no one opened it, they saved it for home. Then they took us to the canteen, fed us warm soup and oat cookies. No one danced, no one laughed, there was no roundelay around the tree.
Time passed. It was getting worse and worse. Reserves were vanishing. So that you can understand how it was, a big aluminum saucepan was placed on a small stove; mother put six spoons of millet, added some salt – and we got a bowl of slop — a soup.
Then there was a moment when I was lying, and she asked me:
— Jhenechka, are you cold?
— Not really…
— Jhenechka, are you hungry?
— Not really…
Our strength was fading. And so, my mother made a decision, we needed to move. We used to walk to Nikolski Market, then we went back and only after that allowed ourselves to eat. It was already dark, it was winter and there was no electricity. We lit our lamp using lamp oil or castor oil – but we tried to save the castor oil, so we could eat it.
In January, 1942, both our reserves and the reserves of the city ran out. We were saved by a couple packages of cocoa we found; we diluted and drank it. All of a sudden came the order to hand out land-lease presents (American ships with humanitarian aid came to the port): we received 300 grams of ham, sausages, a bottle of vegetable oil and some clothes. I got a very decent coat with a fur collar, I continued to wear it after the war. But that support was minor, and it ran out quickly. Only a few were saved by those “presents”.
It was time to choose: to live or to die. Mother took me to work with her. It happened that a new two-month course for letter sorters was established. After finishing the course, I started to work as a sorter. For the most part, I sorted the triangle letters from the square. I was in charge of correspondence from Ural and Siberia – the biggest parts. In October of 1942 I was 14 years old, I was really short, so they made me a stool so that I could reach the upper cells of the rack. They contained correspondence for railway directions and large cities. I was very diligent, exceeded the standard, and was on good terms at work. In the spring of 1943, I took part in the cleaning of the city, in addition to my job. When the snow melted, human waste resurfaced that needed removal in order to prevent epidemics. However, we were spared that fate. The bathhouses were opened again, there were Usachev bathhouses near our home. We went there, although, undressing was rather frightening, people were as skinny as skeletons, like anatomical manikins.
I really wanted to go to school, but I was not excused from work. You could not quit at that time. If you quit, you were considered to be an enemy of the people. The people in charge would say: “if you quit, who is going to work?” My mother and I went to the district Committee, they said “Let her go!” By that time, November of 1943, I was awarded the medal “For the Defense of Leningrad”. And later, in 1948, “For Valiant Labor”. In the autumn of 1943 I became a schoolgirl again. I was supposed to go to the sixth grade. We came to the director, and she said: “I cannot accept her. She knows the taste of money, she won’t want to study”. However, we managed to convince her and I got accepted. That is where I met Galya Rakova. It was a female school. Galya reminisced, “You always sat at the first desk, listening to the teacher attentively”. We studied in the sixth and seventh grade of school #231 of Oktiabrskij district. But when children from the occupied territories started arriving, the school got over-crowded, and she was reassigned to Kriukov channel, in the “backs” of Mariinsky theater. I studied there from the 8th to 10th grade. I was a real socialite, even the chairman of the squad committee. We visited hospitals and organized concerts. I remember collecting glass vials. The glass factory hadn’t opened yet, but the vials were needed to sort the medicine.
Was my mother a believer? Not really, but there was a small icon in the corner. After the war, we lit a candle in front of it on special occasions – on Easter, for example. I remember Victory Day well. I was running to school to attend a celebratory meeting, and strangers walked right up to me, they would hug and kiss each other. And there were fireworks in the evening. It was a great celebration!
After graduating, I decided to apply for a place at the institute. I’ve wanted to become a chemist since school. Together with G. Raikova, we entered the faculty of chemistry at LSU and studied together there for five years. Since then we parted ways, but we are still good friends. She became a post-graduate student, her specialty was “macromolecular compounds”, and I got a job in a special section of the radiochemistry department, where nuclear fuel was being developed. There were also people from Tashkent, Kazakhstan. Some were transferred from the physics department. Our group was a privileged one. We received a larger scholarship. We had to study for 5 and a half years, because the program was expanded. I wrote my candidate thesis in 1957, and in 1959 my mother died. She survived the blockade, worked two jobs so that I could receive my education. Then the disease came. In 1959 I met my future husband, Lev Mikhailovich Krijhanskij, whom I have been happy with for 53 years now. My mother said, “Jhenechka, I can die in peace, because you have a real friend by your side”.
Translation into English by Sonnova Julia and edited by David Curry