This Russian writer remembers moments in her harsh Siberian childhood where someone showed passing kindness and in so doing, made her and her sister feel they were recognised as human beings.  Coming as they did from a family of political exiles, in a system where the political sins of the father were definitely visited on the daughters, they were taken aback to be treated with anything approaching warmth. 

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 …

Vladya was her older sister, dying of tuberculosis, and yet still teaching her little sister about poetry.   See also other examples of Maria’s capacity to take pleasure in the beauty of nature, or her own invented dolls.  And she almost dies of happiness when someone shows a sign of passing affection.  

Source: interview with Maria Voiteshonok, in Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets, trans. by Bela Shayevich (New York: Random House, 2017), p. 228-29

Photo credit: Carrie Beth Williams at unsplash


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