Our fifth nominee for a Nuannaarpoq Award is:
Parameters: 20th-21st centuries, Russian, real, human, female, living
Nuannaarpoq qualities: authenticity, beauty, enchantment, innocence, kindness, resilience
References: ‘The story of a childhood’, interview with Maria Voiteshonok, in Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets, trans. by Bela Shayevich (New York: Random House, 2017), pp. 225-35.
Photo credit: Patrick Fore at unsplash
Maria Voiteshonok is a writer who was interviewed by the Russian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, some time between 1991 and 2001. She doesn’t know when she was born as her parents were political exiles to Siberia and as such, her status was liminal or, as she puts it, she exists but she doesn’t.
The interview transcript describes a desolate childhood of material and social deprivation in a brutal context where the alleged political sins of the fathers were visited on the sons, or in this case, daughters. Maria and her sister, who contracted tuberculosis due to the subterranean conditions they lived in, soon became orphans and survived on scraps, begging, knitting and occasional, rudimentary care. Finally, Maria was rescued by an aunt.
What shines through the suffering and injustice is the yearning soul of a child seeking even fleeting solace in play, in beauty, and in poetry. Maria describes heart-stopping moments when some passing adult shows her kindness. In addition to a testimony of the girl’s resilience and capacity to enjoy short reprieves, these stories also underline the life-changing power of kindness, no matter how ephemeral the gesture. A reminder that you can save an emotional life with a simple act or word of tenderness.
In the first two examples we share with you, Maria comes alive in venturing out from a dark and dank hovel into the dazzling but all too short Siberian summer:
Finally, the sun would come out! Summer! I’d go above ground … The beauty all around me was blinding, and no one had to cook anyone anything. On top of that, everything was singing, all the colors were out. I tasted every single little blade of grass, every leaf, each flower … every little root. One time, I ate so much henbane I nearly died.
On another occasion, her consumptive older sister finds the strength to teach poetry to Maria, in between her coughing fits:
When the coughing subsided, Vladya would call me over: “Repeat after me … This is Pushkin.” I would recite: “The frost and sun, a gorgeous day! You’re dreaming still, beautiful friend!” I tried to picture winter. How it had been for Pushkin.
Despite the hardship of her life – or because of it – Maria has a powerful urge to play, making her own dolls without ever having seen a doll, using any old scraps of cloth and her own hair:
The scraps… Where had those bits of fabric come from? They were many different colors, a lot of them magenta. Someone had brought them to me and I sewed little people out of them. I would cut off pieces of my hair to make them hairdos. They were my friends … I’d never seen a doll, I didn’t know a thing about them. By then, we lived in the town, but not in a house – we lived in a basement. With one little blacked-out window. We even had an address: 17 Stalin Street. Just like other people …
She also recounts a moment when she realised she was human, just like other people, because a woman cut some flowers from the garden to give to the two half-starved girls. It seems to have occurred to someone that a child can’t live on crusts alone and may need some emotional or aesthetic sustenance.
Vladya knew how to knit, and that was the money we lived on. The woman paid us, and then she said, “Let me cut you a bouquet.” A bouquet – for us? We’re standing there, two beggar girls in some kind of respectable setting… Cold and hungry… And here she is giving us flowers! The only thing we ever thought about was bread, but this person saw that we were capable of thinking about other things as well. You’re locked up, walled in by your circumstances, and suddenly, someone cracks the window … Lets in some fresh air. It turns out that besides bread, besides food, people were capable of giving us flowers! It meant that we were really no different than anyone else …
Lastly, two examples of the turnaround triggered by signs of affection. In the first instance, when Maria was taken into care, a nurse saved her from slipping and in so doing gave her a shot of love, which works upon her love-starved soul like an epiphany.
I also remember Maria Petrovna Aristova, a respected teacher who’d visit our Vladya in the hospital in Moscow. We weren’t related to her or anything… She’s the one who brought Vladya back to our village, who carried her home … Vladya couldn’t walk anymore. Maria Petrovna would send me pencils and candy and write me letters. And in the temporary foster center, when they were washing and disinfecting me … I was sitting on a high bench … all covered in foam. I could have slipped and broken my bones on the cement floor. I started slipping … sliding down … and a woman I didn’t know … a nanny … caught me in her arms and embraced me: “My little chickadee.”
I saw God.
In the second instance, she finally finds a home and family and the stability and love she receives helps her overcome years of physical and emotional deprivation.
“Oh my little birdie …” my aunt would coo. “My buzzy … my little bee… ” I was always pawing her, bugging her. I couldn’t believe it… Somebody loved me! I was loved! You’re growing, and someone is appreciating your beauty – what a luxury! All of your little bones straighten out, your every muscle.
We hope you are inspired by this sturdy, fragile, life-loving child. Please feel free to browse earlier Nuannaarpoq Award nominees, either by clicking the banner, or visiting individual nominations, also below. More to come!