She stood like a small Russian doll, her blonde hair falling out from beneath the rough wool cap, her blue eyes tearing against the cold. Her slender body was more than double its size, bundled in sweaters and coats against the blowing cold.
“Sventlana, come in here!”
Sventlana heard her grandmother’s voice coming from behind the frosted pane of the window but she didn’t listen. She turned her face up to the night sky. There were stars glittering in the darkness above, whirling about like a celebration. It was the kind of starry sky that dreamers recited poems about, and painters painted paintings about. But even at her young age, she was already poet, nor painter. Even if she had been, she had come to understand that Siberia was no place for dreams to grow, only to die.
She shivered, and not only from the cold. There was another fear creeping through her.
She searched the edges of the sky, looking for an end to the darkness. But she could not find it. Not north, not south, not east nor west. She felt as if she was trapped without enough air to breathe. No escape.
She was only fourteen years old. And the place that she had always known to be her home no longer felt safe.
Her home. Novosibirsk. It still bore the scars from Communism’s long reign. The fresh scars were from capitalism. More efficient perhaps, but no less cruel for the efficiency.
There existed no record of her family’s arrival at the barren fields that they came to call their own. Whether exiled as political prisoners, migrants searching for work, criminals, or lost wanderers no better than gypsies, no one could say. There are no written records for some secrets. By the time of Sventlana’s birth, her family had occupied space in Novosibirsk for three, four, perhaps even five generations, working the same flinty plot of land – land that belonged first to the Czar, then to the State and then now, to themselves. Like other families in her village on the outskirts of the city, hers was an extended clan made up of aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. They lived in a small gathering of huts and modest two-room houses each with a smokestack rising out through the eastern wall.
The men filled the village with laughter, arguments and fights during the planting season when they returned to work their stony soil, planting their crops and then harvesting their grain. During the summer, when there was meager grass to graze, they tended their herds of goats. Then, there was milk to drink and fresh meat to eat, not the cured and salted meat that they saved for the long winters.
Ah, those long winters. During the bitter cold of the winter, the able men slipped away, looking for work further away, leaving behind the lunatics, the invalids, and the criminals.
As soon as Sventlana was old enough to see beyond her small clan, all she could see was darkness. Rather than the world opening up for her, she saw it closing in. And always in shadows and darkness. In Sventlana’s mind, Novosibirisk was always dark. Dark and dingy.
The small amount of electricity available to power the lights was severely rationed and whatever electricity there was beyond the means of most of the families in the village.
What light and warmth that did exist was the product of the black iron wood burning stoves that burned throughout the winter and even part of the early summer – each house had a stack of wood right on the porch almost as big as the house itself. But there was no stove that could protect a soul completely from Novosibirsk’s cruel winters, when the winds came whipping down from the steppes.
The cold winds could rip the skin from your bones. Stepping outside was a risk. Dumping the slop bucket went to the smallest and the weakest – because the others wouldn’t do it. Which meant, it often fell to Sventlana.
“And not so close to the door this time!” her brother, Dimitri, told her. “The last time you left a pile of shit for me to step in.”
“Shh, I don’t want that kind of talk,” their grandmother said, glancing quickly at a painting of the Virgin that hung above the stove.
“The truth is the truth,” Dimitri stated.
Sventlana, for her part, only glared at her brother. She feared the outdoors during the harsh winters and he knew it. Making her stray any further from the house than was necessary was a cruel game that he played on her.
By late summer, it wasn’t cold that plagued them. Just the opposite. The stifling heat kicked up the dust, washing all color from the days. Rains watered the crops but filled the streets with mud.
It seemed to Sventlana that all she ever did when she was a girl was to clean and help her mother and grandmother cook.