13 Октябрь 2014| Shelyakhovskaya (Gruzdeva) Maria Aleksandrovna

The Family Archive of the War Years

My peers and I, born soon after the War, from our early years knew that it was horrible, it was painful time. But reading, decades later, the extant wartime letters, one after another, you begin to understand how long—incredibly long—were the years, months and days of the wartime separation from the beloved ones both for those who were at the front and for those who waited for their return…

Our future Dad and Mama started writing their first letters to each other as early as in the peace time, in 1933. At that time they both had just finished the first year of Leningrad State Pedagogical Institute named after A. I. Herzen, where they were studying at the Department of Language and Literature. In 1935 they got married and began to live as members of one joint family with our Mama’s parents, Polina Viktorovna and Ivan Gasparovich. (Grandad’s patronymic, “Gasparovich“, is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable; he was a Lithuanian, his father’s name was Káspar).

In July 1937, Natasha [my sister] was born.

In 1941 the family consisted of four people: our parents, Natasha and Granddad (Grandmother died in 1938). By the beginning of the summer, Dad finished his postgraduate education at Herzen Institute; the subject of his dissertation was creative work of D. N. Mamin-Sibiryak [Russian writer]. For 23 June, Monday, the defense of his dissertation was appointed.

Mama was working at the Library of the Academy of Sciences and, at the same time, doing postgraduate studies; she studied Lithuanian-Russian comparative grammar. In early 1941 she went through pulmonary tuberculosis, therefore the family tried to find a countryside dwelling [dacha] to rent for the summer as early as possible. They managed to rent a dacha, not expensive (a garret room), in Pargolovo [half-an-hour’s travel from the city by train], and for weekends Dad and Mama went there with 3-year-old Natasha. Grandada didn’t go to the dacha—perhaps because the dacha season was the only period when he could have a rest at home from the inevitable ado of everyday life of the young family: the flat in Leningrad, where all lived together, was (though separate from other flats) one-room.

Since late 1920s Ivan Gasparovich had worked at a tram depot as a metalworker; in 1941 he continued to work there, in spite of his advanced age. In the forthcoming year 1942, the family was going to celebrate his 70th birthday.

This is what our parents told us about the beginning of the War. On Sunday 22 June the weather was beautiful. After breakfast Mama stayed at the dacha to do chores, while Dad went with Natasha to Shuvalovsky Park. There, Dad suggested playing American Indians: on their heads they put “Indian” headdresses of burdock leaves, , and they wore this funny headgear while they tried to scuff up as much dust as possible on the country road, to have even more fun.

On the road they met a woman, who looked at them in surprise and said: “Don’t you know, war has begun!”

Dad did not immediately understand what she was saying, so impossible war seemed in such a sunny and carefree day. “What war?” — “With Germany, it was announced on the radio.”

The First Weeks of Wartime

On the following day, 23 June 1941, the Academic Council gathered at Herzen Institute—a carryover from peaceful days. Aleksander Ivanovich defended his dissertation[1]. According to the regulations of that time, the degree of Candidate of Philological Sciences was conferred by the Academic Council immediately after the successful defense.

Those who had defended a dissertation were entitled to draft exemption — as people said at that time, they had bron. But Dad did not hesitate a moment over how to act. He went to the front as a volunteer. In the beginning of July, he was enrolled as junior lieutenant in the field forces, in the 5th Rifle Division of Citizens-in-Arms[2] (He received the rank of junior lieutenant a few years before, having been trained, like other students of the Pedagogical Institute, in a military camp.)

It was more difficult to decide what other members of the family should do. It seemed necessary to leave Leningrad. But Ivan Gasparovich categorically refused to leave. Somewhere he got a heavy pre-Revolutionary saber, and sharpened it himself. He always was laconic, and now he said: “If they enter the house, I’ll meet them at the threshold with this saber». Trying to dissuade him would have been of no use.

In the first days of the War, evacuation commissions were created in every district of the city. Parents were told that it was necessary to evacuate all little children without delay. So, in our family it was decided that Mama would stay with her old father, and Natasha should be evacuated with the kindergarten of the Academy of Sciences.

The kindergarten was evacuated to Valdai[3]. As it turned out, this was towards the sweepingly advancing enemy[4]. Natasha has a memory: children, herself included, hiding with their teacher under a lone tree, a wailing aircraft falling down towards them.

The Germans were rapidly nearing Valdai, while in Leningrad it was relatively quiet. And so Mama decided to bring Natasha back home. She sent a written request for this with an Academy driver (he was often sent out to the camp where the children were), and he soon brought Natasha back.

In Leningrad, she was terribly frightened by air raid warnings. As soon as she heard a siren wail she threw herself on the ground and sobbed for a long time. And Ivan Gasparovich strictly told his daughter: “Take Natasha away, it is harmful for her to stay here”. And so, on 26 July (the day following Natasha’s 4th birthday) Mama and Natasha went to Vologda Oblast to stay with Valentina Zaslonovskaya, a friend of our parents’ student years. They left in a hurry, taking with them only the most necessary things.

Granddad stayed in Leningrad.

The First Wartime Letters

1941, 26 July. [note from A. I. Gruzdev left at home]

Dear Sonechka and Natashenka.

Go without me, as I won’t be allowed home today. I’ve been appointed a commanding officer, I’m taking over the command, therefore I can’t be away. Your things are at the station, I think you’ll entrain somehow.

Be in good health, happy journey, good-bye.

My address: Field Post Station № 448, Division Headquarters, to junior lieutenant Gruzdev.

The address, probably, will change.

Valentina’s husband, Vasiliy Duryagin, was the chair of a district executive committee (a position now called “head of district administration”); so, at the beginning of the War he was not drafted to the army (there was bron for this position). Vasiliy and Valentina had four children: two girls, 7 and 4 years old, and two boys, a 2-year-old and a nursing baby. An adult brother of Vasiliy’s, Kuzma, also lived with them.

Sonya and Valya, as friends, decided to keep the household jointly. So, together with our Mama and Natasha, it became a combined family of 9 people, of whom five were children.

1941, 3 August. [from S. I. Gruzdeva to A. I. Gruzdev at the front]

Dear, inestimable friend! Where are you now and what is happening to you—are you alive, are you in good health? I am in hope, and—as I told you—I will be in hope and I will wait for you for a long, long time, until you come. It cannot be that we should have already parted forever. I do not weep for you, I do not long for you—I wait for you and I’ll wait till you return. And you—you remember how we talked about it, don’t you—desire to live, do not forget in a battle that one should be careful and brave, circumspect and cool-headed—and if one is brave even a bullet does not reach him. If wounded—survive without fail; if one passionately desires to live, one does not die from wounds.

You know, don’t you, that the biggest and the best part of my life is you. Don’t worry about us—we’ve settled in excellently. We are registered at Valya’s[5] place. She and Vasya[6] are really remarkably good people. We’ve been integrated into their family.  Решили, что работа We decided that it would not make sense if I went out to work, as then there would be a family of 10 people, and one housemaid couldn’t cope with our kindergarten. (That is, if a housemaid had been hired, it would have made 10 people instead of 9, so it was decided not to hire a housemaid—Ed.) As for your money, I’ll receive it regularly.[7] There are very many evacuees—they arrive one full train after another, one full boat after another. Write as often as possible—don’t write anything except you’re alive, and that’s all.

Valentina worked as schoolteacher, and our Mama decided to take over almost all the housework: she cooked, fed, washed, and busied herself with the children.

1941, 4 August. [from A. I. Gruzdev to S. I. Gruzdeva in Totma]

It is unknown to me as yet whether you have managed to arrive at your destination or you are still on the journey. Probably I won’t hear from you soon, as I gave you my first address inexactly. Everything here, where we are, is as before. Our aviation has not even once let the fascists come to the city by air. As for us, we won’t let them on the ground, and as for water, that is not to be thought of, because our navy is stronger than the Germans’. After we last met I haven’t been to the city. Now we are in the field, learning.

Are they paying you money at the military office? They should pay on the 15th of every month.

I often recall you both. At nighttime it is as if I feel the velvety warm little body of Natasha—the little body I lifted from the little bed every midnight for three years.


[1] The system of defending dissertations for post-university degrees in Russia is the following. There are two types of degrees that require defending a dissertation: Candidate of Sciences (equal to PhD) and Doctor of Sciences (which is higher than PhD; one of the prerequisites for the Russian Doctoral degree is having a monograph published). The dissertation is submitted to the academic council consisting of 15-25 members, competent in research work. The PhD-level (Russian Candidate) dissertation can be submitted only after passing three special examinations (Foreign Language, Philosophy, Specialty); these exams are taken once a year by specialized examination commissions. After the dissertation has been submitted to the academic council, two official opponents—experts in the field of research where the dissertation work has been done—are appointed by the council. The responsibility of the official opponents is to study the dissertation closely and to write their official opinions of it. At the academic council meeting devoted to the defense of the dissertation, the person seeking the degree must make a report on his or her research; the official opponents make their speeches in which they give their comments on the dissertation and ask questions. Other members of the academic council may ask questions too. After answering the questions a secret ballot is taken on whether the author of the dissertation is considered deserving of the degree.

[2] The Citizens-In-Arms Army began to be formed at the end of June as a volunteer army of those who were not to be mobilized. During the first three months of the War alone, 10 citizens-in-arms divisions were created and sent to the front.

[3] Valdai Hills is an area in the northwest of the European part of Russia, located about 500–800 km south-east of Leningrad.

[4] The offensive of Hitler’s troops was rapidly moving in from the West on a broad front.

[5] Valya—a diminutive of the name Valentina.

[6] Vasya—a diminutive of the name Vasiliy.

[7]. The family of a military man could, through the military registration and enlistment office, receive money from his salary—it was called “to receive money according to a military certificate”.


© Translation into English and endnotes by Christina Petrides (USA)
and Maria Shelyakhovskaya (Russia).

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