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Posts Tagged ‘Cossacks’

My mother, brother Anatoly, and sister Galina. As my family spent years as a displaced people, few photos exist of me in my early years.

As we left Sarakin or Krasnadon near the Caspian Sea at midnight in a  snowstorm, my mother told me I was dancing and singing with excitement, like I knew everything would be O.K.  My grandmother blessed us one by one and gave us salt bread and an Icon of our Savior, and on our way we went.  All over the Crimean region, people were coming and going with no idea what was going to happen, except that it would be bad.

There were Russian partisans on one side, Germans on the other–supposedly coming to save Russia from communism–Americans bombing overhead, and refugees like us going in all directions.

My father and I sat at the front of the caravan, leading the horse-drawn wagon we had found as we fled.  My mother was busy inside the wagon, cleaning and organizing our few belongings. She piled up our pillows around the sides of the wagon, imagining that the down stuffing would cause any stray bullets to ricochet away from us!

The Cossack wagon train stretched for miles behind us, winding its way through smoke-filled, burning villages where the unlucky inhabitants had either deserted their homes or died in the bombing. Sometimes we found shelter in abandoned barns or empty houses; more often we just camped in the fields.  Wherever we stopped for the night, I snuck out to forage for food- bags of beans or sacks of potatoes that had been left behind in the rush to evacuate. Even in the most deserted villages, we could not find peace; we were unwitting targets for the American bombers seeking out the lines of the fleeing Germans and Italians. The first flight of planes would perform surveillance; the second flight would mark the target; then the third would drop the bombs, with infernal explosions that seemed to come at all hours, without warning.

As we drove the wagons and herds of horses through the passes and down from the mountains into the first village on foreign soil, it became apparent that armies were approaching from all sides, and chaos took over.  My father grew tired of answering the same questions over and over-What should we do?  What did we hear?  Finally, when he hesitated to reply to another wanderer wanting to know where we came from and where we were going, I piped up in my four year old’s voice to give the answer I had heard my father exasperatedly give to many of our fellow travelers–“From nowhere…to nowhere!”

For the first and only time in my life, my father turned to me and gave me a smile and a hug. I remember feeling that for once, my father had actually recognized and acknowledged my existence as his daughter. Perhaps he did not think I was such a fool after all! Maybe my older sister was not his only beloved, maybe not even his favorite! Alas, this gesture was to be the only real display of love and affection he ever gave to me.

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My earliest memories are of my family’s wartime home in White Russia, where the Cossacks had thrived for centuries in the fertile black earth steppe of the Kuban river region, beyond the valley of the Dnieper. I am a Cossack by birth and by temperament- a Cossack like the first cavalrymen, freebooters and petty nobles who left Muscovy, Wallachia and Moldavia to take up a nomadic existence in the open grasslands of the steppes. The Cossacks were always warriors and rebels–expert horsemen, they formed bands of irregular cavalry, fought the Turks, the Swedes and the Czar’s armies by turns, and united briefly around 1700 under the great Ivan Stepanovic Mazeppa. Unfortunately, our Hetman Mazeppa withdrew the Cossacks from their traditional alliance with Moscow, when he sided with the mad Swedish warrior King Charles XII against Peter the Great. Chasing Charles’ invading army south, the Russians burned the Cossack capital of Baturin, massacred all its inhabitants, and routed the Swedes at Poltava in 1709.  Having taken the wrong side, the Cossack people were split up, as Mazeppa fled south to exile and death in the Ottoman empire. After that, most remaining Cossacks became subjects of the growing Russian empire, living ordinary lives as farmers and merchants in the Dnieper river valley region. They eventually united to form the six federated republics–  the Cossacks of the Don, Terak, Orenburg, the Ural, Astrakan, and the Kuban – my home.

For all those captive centuries, though, the wild Cossack spirit longed for the freedom of the gypsy caravan life. Like all the White Russians, we chafed under Communist rule, but unlike many rural folk we survived the worst part of Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, because we were not kulaks or landed peasants opposing collectivization. Our nomadic ways meant that the Reds could not hold down our farms or towns for very long. But when World War II erupted, my father Feodor Ivanovich was arrested by the communists as a leader of the Cossacks, probably because he was born in 1900 before the revolution, and studied at the Czar’s imperial academy.

I dimly remember a stormy night when we were at my Grandparents Alixanova’s home gathered together, having learned that our Uncle, the village priest, had been shot by the communists.

Soon the war reached its climax as the end of World War II approached, and my father escaped from prison in the chaos of the struggle roaring through the Caucasus. My father, who had sworn never to become a communist, announced that rather than submit to the ravages of the Reds, we would leave Russia forever! Unfortunately, he had no idea where we could reach safety, so  the old gypsy way of life was thrust back upon us, as we were caught between the advancing Red Army and the retreating Germans. As they had hundreds of years before, the Cossacks again wound up on the wrong side of a struggle between two warring giants.

Fleeing through Romania and Hungary toward Austria, my family joined with 60,000 other Cossacks–a people without a country–to seek haven in the West. I was just three and a half years old in 1943, when we started our journey; my father Feodor had been a leading merchant, so he led our caravan on his great black horse. Behind, in a rickety wagon filled with pots, pans, pillows and blankets, my mother Palina drove a team of two horses down the deep ruts of the trail. My older sister Galina guarded our lone cow, tied to the back of the wagon, while my older brother Anatoly walked behind with our other two horses. These animals, the covered wagon and its meager contents were all that we had left in the world.

The last gesture my father made before we crossed the border and left Russia forever was to reach down and grab a handful of dirt–the soil of Mother Russia, the rich black earth of the steppes, the source of life itself in the hearts and minds of all Cossacks. He wrapped the dirt up in a piece of his cotton leggings, handed it to my sister and commanded her, “Never forget where you came from!” She carried that fistful of earth with her for the rest of his life, and keeps it today as a remembrance of our birthplace.

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I am Born!

 I am a Russian and a Cossack by birth, a Venezuelan by exile, an American by choice, and a Mexican by fate. I was born in Russia in 1939, when World War 2 was brewing, AA was in its nascence, and the world was changing as it always will.  My family lived in a small village in the Kuban area, the ancestral homeland of the Cossacks along the southern border of White Russia. This is the story of my life- a journey in which everything stable and safe was torn apart by war, flight and exile. I spent my first half century of existence seeking out the wildest extremes of adventure, danger and stimulation, whether from sex, alcohol, drugs or incessant wandering. If there is any simple explanation or easy excuse for my wanton ways, it is probably the fact that I started out in life as a refugee, and never could settle down in any one place. And to tell the truth, there was never a city, a man or a career that was exciting enough to hold me for very long.

Can I dream, imagine, or pretend to remember, being born on December 20, 1939?

Around midday, my mother Palina gave birth to a funny looking dark-haired girl, and the first words I heard were my father angrily asking, “Whose ugly monkey is that?” He abruptly turned and stormed out without bothering to give me a name. Outside at the window, two children stared in at the newborn; these were my sister Galina, age 10, and my brother Anatoly, age 16 years. They had come home from school when our family’s maid told them they had a new baby sister. Galina exclaimed, “What in heaven is that?” Anatoly replied, “It looks like a round football with black hair!”

When my mother Palina came home the next day with that ball in her arms, the first thing they noticed was my huge “blooming eyes,” staring intently and taking everything in. Anatoly my brother had blonde hair with green eyes; Galina my sister had blonde hair with brown eyes. Palina had brown hair and big, dark, loving eyes. But this little one had hazel eyes and dark hair! My mother said, “Well, I don’t know who she looks like, but we have to give her a name. What shall we call her?”

Galina looked at the funny furball and said, “Mum, do you remember that opera by Glinka, from the Pushkin poem, ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’?”  My mother, remembering, got a big smile on her face and said, “Yes, that’s it, we will christen her Ludmila!”

I smiled and appeared to nod my little head as if in full approval.  In a moment, we were all in agreement:

Ludmila I became.

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