From Russia, with love

What I learned from what ‘Mama Zoya’ lived.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Vassa lives in the village of Kalach, Russia, in the Ural Mountains.

Were it not for Zoya Fedorovna, my time in Russia would have been merely a rich adventure in my life. But Russia was much more than an adventure. It was a gift – and Zoya’s home my second home. I, along with her son Nikolai and his friends, did philanthropic work in villages where building trust had a chance of trumping politics. For 10 years, starting in 1999, we traveled more than 40,000 miles, following tire tracks across fields that turned into roads without names, which took us to people who showered no little kindness on us.

By my third visit to Talitsa, a village in the old and gentle Ural Mountains, it was the most natural thing in the world to call her “Mama Zoya.” I thereafter slept on an extra cot in her room, where we spent early mornings talking. The moment I’d turn over, she’d get up and come sit on the edge of my bed and begin some new story. It took me a long time to pinpoint what made her face so childlike, and then, suddenly, I knew: It was as if the sun were always shining on it.

Life never allowed Zoya to be nostalgic. When she was 17, war carried off youth, love, and things sentimental. She was hurried through a medical course and made sole “doctor” of a village orphanage – with one assistant her own age. Zoya was in charge of more than 50 of the thousands of children sent from what was then called Leningrad to distant villages as the ravages of World War II consumed more and more of Russia.

After years of being in Mama Zoya’s presence and listening to her stories, I came to be in awe of her ability to care. Her stories were all equally remarkable, though it’s hard to fathom how one person could have experienced so much. 

There was, for example, that early morning in May 1943.

Someone began pounding on the door. Exhausted from yet another night with too little sleep, Zoya, then 19, got off the divan (where she always slept fully clothed during the war) and quickly took in the situation. Her heart melted at the sight of the little boy looking up at her. His mother was having trouble, he said, pointing to the horse cart behind him in which she lay. It was still six miles to the nearest hospital. Zoya started out with them but, halfway to the hospital, they had to stop. Telling the boy to hold the blanket firmly and shield his mother from the wet falling snow, there, on the roadside, Zoya delivered twins.

Because of people like Mama Zoya, I learned to speak Russian. It mattered greatly to her (and to all my friends) that I understood their stories. They yearned for the good of Russia to be shared, yearned for us to care about each other – and they still do. 

Slowly, I came to see that caring is more than love. It didn’t matter if you agreed with someone or if it was hard to get along. There was a moral demand to care. Mama Zoya was not naive. (How could she be, with such a life?) She was constantly observing events and proclaiming, “What kind of stupidity is this?!” Still, the world’s stupidity didn’t obviate what she saw as the need to care.

By the time the sun had risen through the mountain ash and into our window, Mama Zoya would leave me to write in my journal. Soon the courtyard door would begin swinging open and shut, with the morning breeze blowing in friends and neighbors – each to be given a cup of tea and something to eat. There was no such thing as too many guests, an awkward time to arrive, or the need to knock. 

“From generation to generation our house has always been full of people,” Mama Zoya once told me. “My father always said, ‘No one ever stole your wealth with his stomach.’ ”

When Mama Zoya got to the curtain that served as the door to our bedroom, she would turn to me and say, “Write about the people.” When I was back in the United States, virtually every time I called, which was close to once a week, she would ask, “Have you written?” 

I cannot help caring about a people who so cared for me. Mutual caring is even more dear, I’ve found, during difficult times. Without Russia, I wonder if I ever would have known such caring. But only now I realize that something more than human affection allowed us to transcend our different backgrounds – not to mention historical conflicts and continuing difficulties. It is what Tolstoy wrote in his epic “War and Peace”: “It is possible to love someone dear to you with human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”

Thank goodness Tolstoy wrote that. Thank goodness for writing. Thank goodness for my Mama Zoya.

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