“Our Russian Family”
Once again, this story will be a little different. First, it is in six parts . . . six very abbreviated parts. Each of these ‘adventures’ have been cut short, with only a fraction of the real story told. As I write these words, fond memories flood my mind, filling me with intense feelings of love and gratitude to this family and our relationship together. I probably could have written many other chapters to this, as our experiences with our Russian friends go back many years and include many adventures. But . . . for now, we’ll try to limit the stories to these six.
For years, our friends and relatives would ask the questions “Who are these Russians?”, or “How in the world did you meet them?” or “How ever did you . . .?”
So . . . I suppose the first thing I should do is answer some of these questions. Beginning with the story of how we even met this family is interesting. One day at home, over breakfast and coffee, Diana and I read an article in the newspaper about an organization called “Family to Family”. This was a non-profit organization who were connecting people in need from different countries with someone here who might want to help, by sending gifts, money, food, or just letters. (There is an organization of the same name still operating under Family-to-Family.org, but is now only an American charity helping out poor American families)
The part we liked about it was there was no massive ‘Charity’ organization that collected money and ‘perhaps’ pass on a little to the people who needed it. Once they connected you, they bowed out and it was up to you to continue the relationship. At that time, we had a choice of several countries, single or married, with or without children, young or old (seniors). Most of the countries were third world, Eastern Europe, or other troubled areas.
We decided to choose a family with two children (we also had two at that time), in Russia. We were ‘assigned’ a young couple with twin girls, living in the beautiful village of Gatchina, just outside of St. Petersburg. It was an interesting beginning, the only problem was they did not know any English and my university Russian was almost non-existent. So talking on the phone was impossible, letters had to be translated, and we had to use the Family-to-Family options to send them things. The organization had stickers to put on any parcels indicating they were for humanitarian purposes and not subject to customs or duties, etc. This didn’t work very well as most of the things were stolen before they even got to them. The woman in Russia found another lady in the village who spoke English, to translate the letters, coming and going. So for some time, we managed to communicate a few times, as we tried to compare our lives, our kids, and other matters. After some time, we would communicate by fax, as mail was so slow and usually stolen or opened or ????
Not long after, the lady who was translating asked us if we knew anyone who would correspond with her, as she wanted to practice her English. After thinking about it, we decided to correspond with her ourselves. Thus began a wonderful relationship with Tatiana (Tanya) Bondarenko and her husband Anatoly (Tolik), and her two children Irina (Ira) and Alexander (Sasha). Tanya had known English for years, and had even taught English to children to the village, and of course her own children. She worked for the Russian Academy of Science at the foreign office of the Gatchina Nuclear Physics Institute. Her job involved making arrangements for visiting scientists from all over the world, so her English was important. Thus, telephone calls, fax transmissions, and eventually emails continued for years, as we all watched our children grow up. From that point on, our connection to the first couple was lost . . . I suppose they felt it was not worth the effort.
This severance of communications was complete after we sent a large Christmas parcel to both families via special courier, and after several days of customs haggling in Russia, they finally released the parcels. I think some customs ‘official’ figured he could collect a little extra on this transaction, and wanted Tanya to pay the equivalent of one year’s salary to release the parcels. Tanya had most likely seen a lot of this kind of bureaucracy through her career, and was smarter than that, and she managed to out-manoeuvre him and have it cleared. It was not easy, as she had to take time off her job to battle the Russian (most likely a Soviet leftover) bureaucracy and corruption. There was nothing clandestine or mysterious about these parcels. They contained Christmas gifts, children’s clothes, candies, some special canned goods, toilet paper, school supplies for the children, and other things that any family with children could use, but were most likely not readily available to them. I had been fighting from our end with Russian and Canadian Embassies, Consulates, and the Family to Family organization to honour their ‘Humanitarian’ stickers on the parcels. After about three days of wrangling with officials, Tanya finally had the parcels released from customs and delivered their parcel to the other family, and we no longer heard from them. It was a big disappointment, but we carried on with Tanya and her family. This connection continued to grow over the years, and became one of our most important and beloved international relationships !
Note: another difference we see between European and North American terminology. She mentions they live on the third floor and has placed little ‘post-its’ on the windows. If you count the floors, we would say she lived on the fourth floor. We start at the bottom, with 1, 2, 3, 4. Europeans start with Ground floor, then up to the first, second, third, etc. This can be confusing when booking a room or similar exercise.
The Bondarenkos were an interesting family, most likely middle class in the community they lived in. As I said, Tanya knew English and had a very skilled and responsible job. Tolik was an engineer in construction, and so the skills and intelligence of both of them were certainly passed on to their children, Ira and Sasha. These two went through school with top marks, and even through university with excellent results. I think Sasha is now working in a ‘private bank’, and probably sees a lot of money leaving the country.
During this period, we became friends in Vancouver with a young nuclear scientist whose wife was from Gatchina. He had earned some degrees at UBC and was working on his PhD, and used to travel between Vancouver (TRIUMF) and Gatchina, Russia, to the Nuclear Physics facility. Through this connection, we were able to send occasional gifts, letters and a bit of money to our friends via him and other travelling scientists. One of the items we sent quite often was seeds, seeds for vegetables, flowers, etc., which were either impossible to get or very expensive in Russia. Our local supplier, ‘Westcoast Seeds’, kindly donated a lot of their ‘last year’s seeds’, which they could not sell. They had their own program where they sent these seeds to third world countries, and when we described our situation, the Russians also qualified. This supplied not only enough seeds for the Bondarenkos, but most likely the entire village!
So the relationship continued, each family watching the other growing up, monitoring activities, and listening to our travel stories, most likely with envy. When we first started this project, we noticed that very little was said either on the phone or in letters about the government. I am sure this was a habit dating back to Soviet times, when such talk could be dangerous, even deadly, so we avoided any discussions on these matters.
It always seemed strange to us, that a country as big and advanced as Russian had a reasonable medical system, but nobody trusted their own medications. This became very apparent when one of the family needed some medicine, and they would phone and shop all over St. Petersburg for a pharmacy who sold the medicine made in Switzerland or France or any place but Russia!
Another thing was the salaries and payment system, especially for government employees. A third generation woman doctor we knew, head of her field Ob-Gyn, was forced to retire to a miserable one or two room flat, with less than $100/month pension. Not enough to live on, so she had to come out of retirement and work for several more years. Also, sometimes Tolik had to work for several months before they paid him. There was always a joke going around which said “They pretend they are going to pay us, so we pretend to work.”
As the children grew up and completed university, their worlds began to expand. Because Tanya spoke English, she taught it to her children and even offered English classes to local children. This gave the kids a distinct advantage when they studied English in school, and Ira expanded her English even more. I remember I sent her a copy of my first book as a gift, “Westcoast Legacy”. She used this book in an advanced English class at university, picking out examples of my writing, like alliteration, foreshadowing, and other examples of literary devices to illustrate and discuss in her class. She also belonged to a school choir group who made some trips into Europe, where she most likely picked up a little French and German as well as expanding her ‘world knowledge’. Later, she studied and learned Mandarin which helped her get a job for an international import/export firm in St.Petersburg as a translator.
They were always trying to convince us to come to Russia, as they knew we travelled a great deal, whenever we could. All this time, Tolik, who couldn’t speak English, would say “I’m not going to travel until I can go to Canada!” That was his target, a target we remembered for years to come.
Both families watched the other family as the children grew up, finished school, university and struck out on their own. Sasha got married, divorced and married again. They have a lovely daughter, who is now growing into a beautiful woman. Irina has married a lawyer, Sergei, and has two sons, the pride of Tanya’s life and a joy for Tolik as he helps them grow.
Tanya was alway at home in the kitchen, turning out Russian staples and delicacies to tempt any palate. I will have more to say about this in subsequent stories.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this story.
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