01 June 2009

ALMA ATA


When my mother was eight years old, with a black pinafore and giant white bow in her hair like every other Soviet girl, a stocky, porcine-featured teacher informed the class;

“The Vygovsky children are excellent pupils. It is a pity that their father is a priest.”

My mother, who is barely five foot tall as an adult, stood up to address the teacher.

“My father is a good man!”

After this, her older brothers would scurry off when they spotted her in the school grounds- too mortified to be associated with her. Several times my mother’s family had to leave a city after the local papers published articles denouncing them. To glean something more of my mother’s life I pored over black and white photographs after school, learning the names of uncles and ancestors I'd never met. Mama was born in China like thousands of other Russians escaping the brutality of the Soviet regime. Two years after her birth, Stalin died and her family was amongst thousands of émigrés that tentatively returned to their county. First settling in a large city in the Ural Mountains, they embarked on a tour of Central Asia, shunted around by the government who were afraid of the influence a priest could yield over a parish. The names of the cities my mother lived in read like poetry; Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. Frunze, Kyrgyzstan. Abakan, Khakassia. Novosibirsk. Leningrad. Alma-Ata means Father of the Apples; my mother fondly recalls the unbelievably aromatic fruits of the region, the mountains and the bubbling melody of speech in bazaars.

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