Grandfather died when I was ten. “When there are no veterans left, please publish my memoirs”, he told me.
|Grandfather, grandmother, and my mother. Photo from the Selensky family archive.|
In winter grandfather fed blue tits. He hung a piece of bacon on a string in the balcony and we watched the birds. Grandfather even fed mice when granny was not looking. He left a piece of stale bread under the gas cooker and waited patiently for the mouse to come. Then he called me in a whisper, “Mila!” I crept to the kitchen quietly to see a pink nose and whiskers protruding from under the cooker.
He was given the nickname, “Little mouse” when he was four. He was left home alone when mother worked in the field. They used to bake huge loaves of bread. On coming from work the women saw that the edges of the bread were eaten by mice. They cut those bits off and fed them to cows. Once they found little Ivan sleeping on the bread. They laughed and said, “We have finally found the mouse who's been eating the bread.”
Once Grandfather decided to please me and bought a whole box of ice cream, no less than twenty cones. He himself did not have a sweet tooth but of course he knew that most children do, so he always put a lot of sugar in my tea.
Grandfather also encouraged me to eat plenty of onions and garlic and explained that they contained vitamin C. Much later I found out that he had suffered from scurvy when he finished school. He went to Zagorsk to study to be a camera man despite his mother's strong disapproval. Grandfather attended lectures during the day and unloaded sacks of sugar in his free time to earn a living. His diet was bread and sugar and his condition became so bad that he, a very strong and robust man, was wheeled in a wheel-chair to the lectures. His mother gave in and came to forgive and care for her prodigal son who was her favourite. She brought onions, garlic and germinating wheat rich in vitamin C.
His mother Anna was devout, shrewd and very stern. They respected her and were a little afraid of her in the village. It was believed that all her three sons returned from war thanks to her ardent prayer. There was a loss in every family apart from the Zelenukhins. Grandfather was close to death many times, but miraculously survived.
“I was lucky,” he would tell us. “Once I gave an order to wheel a canon to fire at the bunker that was disturbing us. The bunker was destroyed but a mortar started firing at our canon. A mine blasted behind the canon, then in front of it. The next one was to be “ours”. I ordered to wheel the canon into a “pocket”. The gunners grabbed the cannon but everyone was reluctant to pull the canon at the front as it was the most vulnerable position. I shouted to the gunner in charge and together we started pulling the canon. The next mine killed all the gunmen and we two remained alive.”
The sons were fighting at their front and their mother was fighting at hers. Later she became a nun. Grandfather used to say, “If we believed in communism as ardently as my mother believes in God, we would have built it already.”
They said about Grandfather that he was born “old”, meaning he was mature, responsible and serious.
Grandfather had a unique and truly charismatic personality. Neighbours, colleagues, subordinates and superiors had a special attitude towards him. A famous doctor, academician Amosov who treated Grandfather for tuberculosis, said, “You are a mysterious man! Go home and keep living as you have lived. If anything bad happens I shall send an airplane for you.”
Grandmother confessed that she could not cook when they got married. She was only nineteen and during the war they had hardly had enough to eat. So she cooked terrible soup, and Grandfather praised it, “Oh, it is delicious, dear Claudia”. Later she asked him why he had praised her awful cooking, and he answered, “It didn't matter. I knew you would learn”.
My aunt told me that she studied a lot at night when she was preparing for entrance exams. In the morning grandfather crept into her room with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, put it beside her bed and left quietly. She was woken up by the wonderful aroma, drank the coffee and got up. She also said that she never paid any attention to her mother's scolding, but a sad look from her father made her feel ashamed. Grandfather never scolded his children, let alone physical punishment.
Everything was in perfect order at grandfather's land allotment. Once he wanted to give his three-year-old son a task to make him feel useful. So, grandfather tore a plank from the fence and said to the little boy: “Look, son, the fence needs mending. Here is a hammer and some nails for you. Please help me.” The boy was so happy and proud to help Dad. When it came to helping Grandfather, no one ever felt bored or annoyed. Helping Grandfather was a privilege. He himself liked all sorts of work. He put his soul into whatever he did, and watching him at work, he always wanted to join in.
Shortly after the war my grandfather got married, and his first child, my mother, was born. Suddenly, grandfather was struck with tuberculosis. At the age of twenty-nine he was disabled. During the war he had spent hours in cold water. He went under the ice with canons and horses when they were crossing the Volga in winter during the battle of Stalingrad. On another occasion, he spent sixteen hours standing in the cold water mixed with melting ice. He related:
|Stalingrad buring. Anti-aircraft canons firing at German planes, 1942.|
All these ordeals had an effect on Grandfather's health. He died aged 62. It was the first grief of my life.
Grandfather wrote his memoirs for many years and thought them so important that he kept writing until the day of his death.
Every year on the 9th of May (V-Day) I promise myself to read, sort out and type all Grandfathers papers. Grandfather participated in the Battle of Stalingrad, the biggest battle on land in the twentieth century, which took two millions lives on both sides. Its anniversary has passed, but I am only beginning to work on the papers.
I take out the handwritten copybooks and the typed papers and start reading.
Ivan Zelenukhin, a platoon commander, is twenty years of age.
“The gunmen under Kurtish' command destroyed five German tanks. But the gunmen of the second canon abandoned the canon and ran to the trench as soon as the saw the approaching German tanks. The nearest tank was only 200 metres away and I had no time to think so I ran to the canon, aimed and fired. The tank stopped and caught fire. This was my first destroyed tank. I triumphed. But the most important thing is that the gunmen returned to the canon having realised that tanks can be destroyed. They set fire to three more tanks in no time.”
Just to think that a twenty-year-old set an example to other people without judging, but rather giving a hand. He was like that in everything. I cannot read on because of the tears. This young, fearless and resourceful warrior is my grandfather. I read some of the memoires aloud to my sons. They listen attentively. I say to the boys, “His blood is running in your veins. Look what a wonderful great-grandfather you have!” One of the boys mentions, “But how can his heroic genes show when there is no war?”
Who told you, darling, that there is no war? Your battle is more frightening than grandfather's. At least he knew who his enemy was and fought. And you, my sons, are growing up in a politically correct world. You will have to fight against drug addiction, face make-up for men, virtual reality and triumph over common sense. I beg you, my boys: win this victory!