Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Babushka

A passage from A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army
1941-1945, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Novigradova
(Pimlico/Random House, 2006):

We enter an izba [a traditional log house], which is cold and dark,
like a grave. In the izba, a seventy-year-old woman is sitting amid
the cold and darkness. She is singing songs. She welcomes us merrily
and eagerly, like a young person, without grunting or whining,
although, apparently, she has all the reasons to complain about her
fate.

[...]

She tells us the whole story in a kindly, calm voice, without any
bitterness, resentment, pain or reproach. With a tsarina-like
generosity, she gives all that she has to our frozen horde: a dozens
logs which would have lasted her for a week, a handful of salt,
leaving not a single grain for herself, half a bucket of potatoes. She
keeps only a dozen, along with her pillow, a sack stuffed with straw,
and her torn blanket. She brings a kerosene lamp. When our drivers
want to pour some petrol into it, she does not allow this. 'You will
need this petrol yourselves.' And she brings a tiny bottle in which
she keeps her sacred reserve of kerosene and pours it into the lamp.

Having graced us with warmth, food, light and soft beds, she retires
to the cold part of the izba. She sits down there and begins singing.

I went to her and said: 'Babushka, are you going to sleep here in the
darkness, in the cold, on bare wood?' She just waved me off with her
hand. 'How do you live here alone? Do you have to sleep in the cold
and dark here every night?'

'Ah well, I sit in the dark, sing songs, or tell stories to myself.'
She boiled a cast-iron pot of potatoes, we ate and went to sleep, and
she started singing to us in a hoarse voice, like an old man's.

'Oh, I used to be so healthy, like a stallion,' she told me. 'The
Devil came to me last night and gripped my palm with his fingernails.
I began to pray: "May God rise again and may His enemies be
scattered." And the Devil paid no attention. Then I began to swear and
curse at him and he went away immediately. My Vanya came to me last
night. He sat down on a chair and looked at the window. I said to him,
"Vanya, Vanya!," but he didn't reply.'

If we do win in this terrible, cruel war, it will be because there are
such noble hearts in our nation, such righteous people, souls of
immense generosity, such old women, mothers of sons who, from their
noble simplicity, are now losing their lives for the sake of their
nation with the same generosity with which this old woman from Tula
has given us all that she had. There is only a handful of them in our
land, but they will win.

The regal generosity of this pauper has shaken all of us. [...]

pp. 53-54

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