Alla's Lessons on Hardship and Hope
Alla was about six years old when the Siege of Leningrad ended.
“I remember walking by dead bodies frozen in the snow as I made my way to the river to chop through the ice for water.”
Also known as the 900 Day Siege, the Germans and Finns encircled Leningrad in 1941 with the Finnish forces choking off the city from the north and east. The siege lasted until 1944. About a million Russians and Red Army defenders in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) died from starvation and war.
The situation in Leningrad was so desperate, its inhabitants fed off the dead bodies of their neighbors and melted wall paper paste for its nutrients to survive.
One of Alla’s ancestors (a grandfather, I think) had been a Russian Imperial Guard, serving the Romanov monarchy. When the Bolshevik revolution dethroned the monarchy in the October Revolution of 1917, Alla’s family became an enemy of the state.
Alla’s family suffered enormously under the Communist regime in the years leading up to the Seige of Leningrad. The Party had a long memory.
The Great Escape
I met Alla in the late 80s. She was about 50 years old and living in the Denver area.
I have no recollection about how we found her, but a friend, Bill, and I recruited her to teach us the Russian language. We planned to spend two weeks in a Russian language institute just north of Moscow, and we wanted the freedom to roam the city on the Moscow Metro.
Over the course of about six months, anecdote by anecdote, Alla parceled out to us her amazing story.
With middle-of-the-back-length, grey-streaked dark hair, Alla was about 5’ 10” with an athletic build. She exuded confidence. We learned that in the early seventies, she had been part of the Russian Olympic team, preparing for the 1972 games. I can’t remember her event, but it may have been the javelin. She was a medical doctor with two kids who traveled with her and the team, and while on a trip to Austria for a pre-Olympic track meet, she stepped off the train filled with her teammates while the Russian guards were looking the other way.
Alla told us that she and her husband had an agreement, that if ever there was a chance to escape to the West, she would take it. And that they would meet up in America, if he ever had a similar opportunity.
I can’t remember all the details, but after avoiding capture in Austria, she and her two young boys (five and seven) made their way to Italy, stealing food from the gardens of villages to survive. She talked about surviving for weeks on tomatoes, sleeping on the ground during the day, and stealing food at night. They were almost captured several times, but somehow, Alla and her two boys found their way to Los Angeles.
I wish I had recorded our conversations, because the story was so incredible – and almost unbelievable. I almost don't trust my memory.
Come to find out that when she stepped off the train in Austria, she was also pregnant with her third child. She didn't know it at the time.
First Doctor, then Nurse
She and the boys somehow made it to Los Angeles. And as I recall, that is where she had her third child. She was broke, alone (now with three boys), and had the presence of mind to sit for the nursing license (called the NCLEX). Apparently, she had to convince whatever institution that offered up the exam to allow to her to take it.
She failed it the first time because she could barely read English. She passed it the second time six months later. As a trained physician in Russia, she was super smart and had the basic knowledge to pass the exam. She went to work as a nurse.
Somehow, Alla made her way to the Denver area. She married an engineer from Martin Marietta, and by the time I met her, she was in the process divorcing him. Within months of beginning classes in Russian with her, Alla invited me and my friend to her house near Evergreen, Colorado, for a party to celebrate the upcoming wedding of one of her three sons.
Shots of Vodka and Former Husbands
I have two memories of that evening: My friend and I grew fond of Alla. Our informal language sessions often turned into hour-long conversations and laughter.
The first was standing just outside her house among the pine trees with her three boys, now in their twenties. We all were handed shots of Russian vodka. Together we threw down the vodka and then smashed the shot glasses against the foundation of the house, a Russian tradition.
The other memory was seeing her soon-to-be divorced American husband, who slipped in and out of the kitchen all evening, like an unwanted sullen dog. And then seeing her first husband (from Russia) who lived in the basement. Apparently he had escaped to the West as well. It was a scene from a Saturday Night Live sketch.
I wanted to ask Alla how the family dynamics played out with two husbands in the same house, but thought better of the question. I don’t think she had divorced her first husband. Or at least, I don't know how she could have. That evening, the original husband seemed happy and engaged us in conversation.
Alla's Greatest Gift
Alla had a way of complaining about our lack of progress in learning the Russian language. With a twinkle in her eye, she’d compare us to one of her star students. I think the student was a University of Colorado coed. I was in my twenties, and I only cared about learning just enough of the language to enjoy my time in Moscow.
One final snippet from the few months with Alla:
I remember asking her about the final days of the Siege of Leningrad. She was only six. She probably couldn't remember much or maybe had compartmentalized the darkest moments. She likely responded as she reflected on the whole of her life.
“How did you survive? How did you keep going when your father just died of starvation during the siege and you had barely enough energy to walk to the river for water?”
She paused. And looked at me quizzically.
“You have to live, don’t you. You just do what you have to do to survive.”
My friend and I grew fond of Alla. Our informal language sessions often turned into hour-long conversations and laughter.