My grandmother was raised in a “5-wall” house at 70, Sovetskaya Street in the Mordovian village of Sabur Machkassi about 60 km from the city of Saransk. In 1926 Sabur Machkassi was considered a large village with a street and a half lined with houses and a large kolkhoz which employed virtually the entire population of the village.
My grandmother frequently remembers how hard everyone worked. Her grandfather was considered a kulak and was sent away to Siberia in the 20s. But as his convoy approached the prison camp Stalin’s article “Dizziness with Success” was published in Pravda, and my great-great-grandfather’s convoy was turned around. He came back to the remnants of of his large tin-roofed house which at the time consisted of a solitary corner of two white-washed walls.
My grandmother was baptized in the village church and she remembers her first communion. The bread soaked in church wine tasted so bad that she could not swallow it. “When I came out of the church, I spit it out and my mother slapped me so hard!” She also recalls how some time later, she watched as the church steeple was broken down and a granary was set up in the building by the local authorities. “I never understood why they had to break the roof, why they couldn’t have kept the building as it was and stored grain in it if that was so necessary…” she said when we came to see the now-restored church building.
My mother and grandmother and I took the trip from Saint Petersburg to visit my grandmother’s sister’s grave in Sabur Machkassi. Aunt Tonya was the oldest of the four girls in my grandmother’s family and passed away in August. Since the time of the WWII Sabur Machkassi has seen a slow exodus of its residents to nearby towns and to Saransk, yet traces of the old village, and of my family, still remain.
After seeing the haphazard village cemetery, in which all of the grave markers were painted in light blue, we visited the home of my grandmother’s cousin’s daughter Lusia. She was a woman in her late 60s with magnificent, crystal-clear blue eyes. Lusia took us around her impressive household which included a large house, land with an orchard and vegetable patches, and an array of animals including cows, goats, broiler hens, rabbits, and a pig who we only heard grumbling in the darkness of its pen. At dinner we were joined by her daughter-in-law Lena who is a teacher at the village school.
“I teach at the elementary school level, 1st through 4th grade” she said, “all the subjects.”
The village school has ten teachers and nine grade levels. There are 30 students at the school. This year there were five graduates, and four new students came in. To complete all eleven grades and obtain a high school diploma, the most motivated kids have to finish school at a nearby town. “Those who do well go on to study at the university in Saransk,” Lena said, “others go to the vocational school in Komsomolskoe.”
“My husband used to teach history but he doesn’t any more. When he left the school we had very little money, and small salaries,” she said. Her husband Slava now works at the cement factory nearby which has replaced the kolkhoz as the largest employer in the area.
“The factory is in disarray right now, lots of people have been laid off. It’s horrible! They do pay regularly, but the salaries have been cut. It all has to do with the crisis probably.” She paused for a while. “Or maybe there’s no crisis at all, and they’re just making a big deal over nothing. I don’t know.” There are no strikes however and the population lives more or less at the mercy of the factory employers.
Lena was born in the larger village of Chamsinka close to Sabur Machkassi. “I finished college in Saransk and then was sent over here to work in the school. I worked for a year and then Slava came to work.” Now she lives with her husband and two kids in the same house as Lusia.
I wondered out loud at what life must be like in such a small village, with its one-and-a-half streets, simple wooden houses and gradually aging population. “It’s not so bad!” Lena and Lusia both said laughing. “If only there was steady work! Otherwise things here are good. It’s calm,” Lena said.
After dinner we all took a stroll down the main street of Sabur Machkassi and came up to number 70. “It looks pretty much the same,” my grandmother confirmed. The current occupant of the house came out at the moment and watched us from the porch. To my disappointment, however, we did not talk to her or ask to see the place. The house now belonged to someone else and even my family’s memories did not give us the right to claim it any longer. As we turned around my grandmother pointed out little concrete shed overgrown by tall grass and lilac bushes. “This is where they used to make us kids sleep in the summer!” she remembered.
Soon after that we left to go back to Saransk and drove past the giant complex of the cement factory with signs that read “MordovCement: Outside of Time.” That evening I mused about our day, visiting relatives living and dead, and about the vast, lush expanses of the Mordovian countryside.
Over the past eighty years these places have been transformed by ideological revolutions, wars, and technological advances. Computers can now be found even in the village homes. The population has been employed by a variety of corporate structures and has seen beaureacrats’ titles change. Religion has been abolished and restored, and people’s lands were taken away only to be re-given. Yet some things remain as they were when my grandmother had to sleep in the shed. The same houses stand, the same wheat is grown in the fields, the church is as it once was, and the grave markers in the cemetery are still blue.
A friend once pointed out to me that in Slavic homes things are always ticking. This is true. Pretty much every Slavic home I know has a clock that ticks in almost every room. That evening, as always, I found the ticking mollifying. At the end of the day, when the house fell silent and sleep was creeping through the rooms, I felt at ease, alone with the relentless, steady, quiet ticking of the passage of time.