In defeat we gain...

I planned to record an interview with my grandfather. He has something to tell, because he was growing up during and right after the war. Besides, my paternal relatives have a rich history.

My great-great-grandfather was dispossessed because he had used hired labour and had been engaged in usury (lending money at interest).

His son, my great-grandfather (I will call him “P.” like the first letter of his name), was a soldier who took part in the Soviet-Finnish war. While the former was unable to forgive the Soviet authorities for taking his social status, the latter was a convinced communist, he volunteered for the army, and for the rest of his life he decisively defended the actions of Stalin’s administration. “It had to be done, otherwise, there would have been no country,” this is what, according to my grandfather, my tipsy great-grandfather P. used to say.

P. was born in 1914 in Biysk. After spending 10 years at school, he went to work at a factory. P. got married in 1937, and in the same year his first son was born. A second son, my grandfather, was born in 1939. During the Soviet-Finnish war, he was drafted into the army, where he stayed after officer training. P. served in the military until 1954. The military profession was associated with constant personnel changes, which is why my grandfather’s family was moving all the time. During 10 years of school, my grandfather had to change as many as 9 schools. They lived in Central Asia, the Baltics, Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova.

According to my grandfather, my great-grandfather didn’t like to talk about the war. Once he told him about his impression of the first shot that hit the enemy. According to grandfather, P.’s face, usually devoid of strong emotions, turned into the face of a frightened child. “Humans must not kill humans,” P. told my grandfather and his brother. When P. went to the front of World War 2, he already had two sons, and after the war his daughter was born. So he had something to defend.

P. could not reach Berlin. When crossing the Vistula (1945), a high-explosive projectile hit his trench. Of the 15 people, only two survived. P. received severe burns, including of his face. “I remember,” said my grandfather, “it was painful for him to shave. However, over time, the face healed, over 10 years the pain disappeared, and the burns became almost invisible.”

Why do I have no full interview with my grandfather, and most importantly, why is there no name in the text, no name of his father or his father’s father? Because my grandfather first agreed to record the interview and publish the materials, and a day before this recording he refused. Training, fruitful preparation, writing questions, asking people I know to record the interview and translate it into English… In the end, time and effort became a disappointment, but only at first…

Grandfather explained his refusal. He did not want to take the history of the family outside the family, and, despite all my persuasions, his viewpoint on this issue remained the same. Another reasoning he gave (by the way, he mentioned this one first and said it much stronger) was the discrepancy between the grandfather’s own opinion about pre-war and post-war events (and the participation in these events of certain people) and the opinion that is currently heard in the Ukrainian info space. First of all, it’s about the leveling of the role of ideology in the victory over fascism. He said, “The communists won the war, my father was a communist. I do not want this opinion to be distorted and ridiculed. Seryozha, it depends on how people understand it. I don’t want to be misunderstood…”

My grandfather refused, as I have already mentioned, one day before the scheduled recording of the interview, while I was calling my grandfather to finally agree on the time of the meeting. After the refusal, I’ll tell the truth, I was very offended… Of course, I told him nothing about it, but for another 10 minutes I tried to convince him that, save for the project participants (about 30 people), no one would see this material, and these participants would not criticize any position, because the main purpose of the whole project is research, not evaluative judgment. But it was all for nothing. After the phone call, I was indignant, to put it mildly, “Couldn’t he have warned right away… Or at least two weeks before!” That’s what was going on in my head for the first 10 minutes after the conversation with my grandfather.
I realised it would be very difficult to find a new respondent, especially because I had a lot of work to do. I tried to find a new “living book” and even made arrangements with my aunt-cousin, whose father was also at war, but… COVID-19! She is currently in isolation with a mild form of the virus (I wish this year of continuous failures would end soon).

Going back to the story with my grandfather, it is worth saying that the resentment lasted for about a day for me. After cooling down, I tried to reflect on the situation. It turned out to be very useful, because I started to look at the situation of wasted time and effort from a slightly different angle. To ask questions for the interview, it was necessary to conduct a series of preliminary conversations with my grandfather. For 3 weeks, every 2-3 days, I would call him and ask for some information in order to prepare a pool of questions based on them. Obviously, the conversations were not only about family history, but also about other topics. Before that, my grandfather and I would not have frequent conversations on the phone in the evening (although in the summer he visits us almost every day, and we talk a lot and thoroughly). Now, I always call him at least once every 3-4 days, and we talk on different topics. Fortunately, my grandfather is an intelligent man, and he has things to share.

Self-reflection helped me analyze another interesting point. During the phone conversation one day before the interview, which would never be recorded, I was listening exactly to what my grandfather was saying. It wasn’t until a little later that I remembered exactly how he said it. His speech is usually confident, even when he does not know something or when he’s wrong, and it continues to be so. But this time his voice seemed… full of self-blame. Someone may ask, “So what? He let his grandson down, he didn’t keep his promise. How else should it sound?” Perhaps a person who thought so would be right about some other man, but not about my grandfather. His inflexibility (I would say stubbornness) and his confidence that he is right usually reaches unprecedented proportions. The confidence that his actions are right would always be heard in his voice. And here, I heard a note of guilt in this voice…

After playing that conversation with my grandfather in my head once again I definitely got convinced: he has his reasons not to talk about those times in public, and these reasons I must respect. The whole story gave me, in addition to new contacts and the useful knowledge gained during the training, hours and hours of conversations with my grandfather. Everything I wrote at the beginning, I managed to absorb during our phone conversations.

Am I frustrated with wasted time? Yes, I still can’t get it out of my head. Would I like to return the time I spent talking to my grandfather? No! It is for this that I want to thank the project, for the excuse to have an incredibly interesting conversation with a close family member. It’s surprising, but three hours before writing this text, I once again spoke to my grandfather on the phone.

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