My grandmother Olya has lived all over Russia and Ukraine. Olya’s father, my great-grandfather Sava, was a pilot and an officer in the Soviet air force, and like any military family, they moved between numerous postings during the first 13 years of her life, until Sava’s regiment, the 6th Guards Airborne Division, was disbanded in 1959. In 1962 they settled in Odessa, where he first taught math at an elementary school and then became the director of education at the mayor’s office.
Sava met Anya, his wife and my great-grandmother, in 1939 in a rural village in Western Ukraine. They were married in 1940 and spent the beginning of the war in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which is only about 50 kilometres from the eastern border with Russia, where Sava taught new recruits how to fly. He was also responsible for taking the new pilots to the front. Not a single person survived from Sava’s first batch of students, but this brutality wasn’t uncommon for the Red Army. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Soviet Army was tragically unprepared, lacked modern weapons and technology, and most soldiers were poorly trained. Stalin also ordered them to fight till the last man, regardless of whether there were enough weapons or ammunition for every soldier. The USSR’s death toll during WWII numbers over 26 million, more than a third of the total death toll during the war, which is estimated to be about 60 million.
In the spring of 1943, Anya was nine months pregnant with Olga’s older sister Vera, and Sava was moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he began preparing to fly his own plane. At that point, Kharkiv had been under attack by German forces for nearly two years, and had switched hands between the Nazis and the Soviets several times. Seventy per cent of the city had been destroyed. Anya gave birth to Vera on a blanket outside a bomb shelter in September. She refused to go inside because she was worried that the building would collapse on her. She called for an ambulance but the paramedics told her they wouldn’t come for her until after the raid. By the time the ambulance came, Vera had already been born, and they were taken to Kharkov Regional Hospital. Three days later, Sava put Anya and their new baby on a freight train, which went 4,000 kilometers across the USSR to Almaty, located in the eastern part of the country, about 200 kilometres from the Chinese border, where they were reunited a month later. Sava spent the rest of the war flying with the 6th Guards and was part of the Budapest, Bratislava-Bronovskoy and Prague Offensives.
Olya was born in 1947 in the peaceful Moscow suburb of Monino, about 10 kilometers outside of the city proper. At the age of five, she moved with her parents to Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Baikal in Russia’s far east. Two years later, they moved again to Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains, where Olya lived till she was 15. Though she’s lived in Odessa since then, she’s always felt a connection to Russia, and goes back to visit often, despite having parents of Ukrainian descent. “For me, home is Russia—no one can take that away,” she says defiantly, as if speaking those words in Ukraine is illegal now. It may not be against the law, but pro-Russian folk are regarded poorly in my homeland since the conflict started in winter 2014.
Sava died in March of 1995, just a few months before my birthday. Today, Anya, my great-grandmother, is 97 years old, and her eye sight and memory are slowly fading. But she still speaks of her husband, Sava, and their adventures all over the Soviet Union with great enthusiasm and love.