Photo Essay “Seasons of Vera”

Vera Zenko chased after the Nazi wagon carrying away her mother who was pregnant with her younger sister. The soldiers took pity and threw the mother off the carriage. Today, Vera is 91 years old. She calls her current life her “final seasons” and tells her biography to photographer Tatiana Tkacheva through the contents of her dress closet.

I first saw Vera in Volozhin, Belarus, when she was walking to the pharmacy. Vera was wearing enormous sunglasses, a checkered dress and raspberry-colored socks and shoes. It was love at first sight. I walked up to her to make her acquaintance and, five minutes later, we were sitting in her home and she was showing me her outfits and narrating their history. Later, I visited and stayed with Vera in Volozhin several more times.

She has lived her whole life here, during which time, the multicultural Polish city of Volozhin came under Soviet rule and later became Belorusian. Vera’s four brothers and sisters were scattered all over Ukraine and Belarus. Vasil and Olga are, by now, deceased, survived by siblings Nina and the youngest, Galina. Their parents came from a peasant background: the mother tilled the fields, while the father, who was literate, worked for the local, as they say today, “self-governing authorities”. Vera stayed in her native city. Here, she got married, taking the last name Perepecha, gave birth to three children, worked and eventually raised her grandchildren.

This past January 1st, Vera turned 91 years old. She is not afraid of old age. Once, Vera told me that she is living out her final seasons, when every spring can become the last. She loves to dress up. The closet contains her entire life: each dress comes with its own story, its own memory.

“This is the end of my life. Everything important already happened and passed. Childhood, famine, war, love, children. Papa was executed by the Germans. Mama was left alone, pregnant with Galina, with the four of us children. In memory of Papa, I keep a hand-woven belt. He never beat us but I was mischievous and, once, he threatened to punish me if I don’t stop making trouble. I got scared. Stopped acting out of spite. I keep the belt to this day.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera went to buy a gold-accented fabric for her daughter’s prom dress. She was going to have the dress sewn in the House of Fashion in Minsk. But the atelier in Volozhin refused to sell the textile without a dress order. So, she had them make this lilac dress, just so that they would sell her the prom dress fabric. 

“I saw myself in the mirror for the first time when I was around ten years of age. We were selling sorrel to local Jews. Their house had a mirror. I became upset when I saw my reflection — I was pale, skinny and wearing an ugly dress. I ran home and cried. Mama stood me by a pail of water and said that I am the most beautiful. For one baggie of sorrel, we were paid five kopeks. My sister and I bought necklaces. I chose the lettuce-colored one. Went to the well for water, bent down to see if it’s deep or not and — whoosh — my necklace flew down. How I cried! It is probably still down there.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera’s outfit with a hat. She purchased the hat when she worked at the passport office in Volozhin. The hat is Vera’s favorite accessory.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera bought this dress for her daughter, as to not let money go to waste after the collapse of the USSR. The daughter got married. The dress stayed with Vera. On the right: Vera in her daughter’s wedding dress.

“So much happened over those years. I had to obtain everything on my own: education, work. Back then, major literacy was not required. I had four years of Polish school, then we were overtaken by the Soviets and studied under them for one year, then the Germans arrived. I stayed away from their school. They were recruiting into the Yunak — that’s like the Young Pioneers for the Soviets. Me and a few other kids got scared and ran away. After the war, I completed tenth grade through night school. By then, I was already working in the passport office. I had nice handwriting and was instantly hired. I started having money. I could now sew and buy outfits. The dresses invented themselves. The styles we drew from pedestrians in the city streets. Mama made patterns. My sisters and I did the stitching. I really loved hats. When I would go to Minsk on a business trip, I would buy myself a new hat.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera wearing the belt she keeps in memory of her father.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera wearing a skirt she turned into a dress with straps. The shirt was sewn by her daughter to wear for school military training. On the right: A suit Vera bought in a second-hand store to wear at her granddaughter’s wedding.

“I was trendy. I liked getting dolled up. And I had plenty of suitors. But I loved Sergey, my husband. For five years we had a friendship. He spotted me for the first time when my girlfriend and I were strolling the street, in the wintertime. That was a thing to do in our town: the young would get together and promenade back and forth along the streets. The boys would check out the girls. And then walk them home.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera, wearing a dress handed down from a girlfriend. Purple is Vera’s favorite color.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera is wearing a transparent white blouse and a patterned skirt. Such white blouses were popular in Vera’s youth.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera, in a dress created by her daughter for her seamstress exam. The necklace comes from France, brought by Vera’s sister.

“I procured myself a plush coat. An uncle fastened wooden heels to the rubber booties. Mama would tie a beautiful scarf on me and pin it with a brooch, so that all the flowers were visible. Sergey fell in love with that scarf. Later, he would say that he did not see me or my girlfriend, just the scarf. I was wondering why that little soldier was following us around everywhere. We lived together for thirty one years. Raised three children. Lived in peace. There was no time to quarrel.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera, in a dress from her daughter-in-law. Vera was already retired when her son got married. The bride’s parents were against the union. Vera let the newlywed couple live with her and helped raise their firstborn. On the right: Vera’s daughter-in-law wore this dress when she first started dating her son.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera in the plush coat she got through special connections in a store in Volozhin region. She is wearing a floral pattern scarf called “shalinovka”. Vera was wearing this scarf when she first met her husband Sergey.

“Gold teeth used to be in fashion. I really wanted to put in golden crowns. Sergey tried to talk me out of it. But I did it anyway. I frequently recall how he sat me on his lap, hugged me and kept saying that he loves me. Sergey died from cancer after Chernobyl. He disintegrated in mere months. With him died all his money. I was left alone. The children were still in school and needed help. I handed all my pension over to them and tightened my belt. My mother-in-law, when she was dying, gave me her notebooks with prayers. Once I helped a woman cure her finger just by praying over her. The finger healed. Then, people started coming to me, asking for help. I did not deny them.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera is wearing slacks she bought when she was hospitalizedl with cancer. Vera does not like slacks. In everyday life, she prefers skirts and dresses. But in the cancer ward where Vera was hospitalized, everyone wore trousers.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera is wearing her daughter’s prom dress. To obtain this fabric so that it could be turned into a dress at the House of Fashion in Minsk, Vera had to commission another dress for herself in the Volozhin atelier (see lilac dress in first photo.) On the right: skirt and blouse, purchased by Vera at a department store 10-15 years ago.

“I did not accept money, but I did not reject food. That is how I survived. I am ugly, long-nosed. When I compliment myself, then I start to see — it’s true, I am beautiful. Each face works well with its own nose. All the young are beautiful. There is a whole album of these photographs. But life flew by as if in one day. Yours will fly by too. I’ve been thinking that it’s time to start giving away my dresses. What good are they to me? If I die, they will be thrown out. This way, I will give them away to people myself. I don’t have a favorite dress. Whichever one I am wearing is my favorite. Let me show you what treasures I have. I am so rich except I don’t have a father or a mom…”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

A gray coat  worn by Vera’s daughter when she was a college freshman.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Dress and shoes Vera set aside for her funeral.

*   *   *   *   *

*NOTE FROM THE TRANSLATOR:

I found this to be a very compelling human interest story and wanted to bring it to English-reading audiences. I had to take a few liberties and adjust the translation for easier readability / flow in English (mostly in the photo captions) — but I tried to stay true to the original voices of the author of the article and especially Vera, with her particular minimalist style of expression.

The original story in Russian was published on March 16, 2018, by Tatiana Tkacheva, on the website www.takiedela.ru that serves as the information portal for the charitable project “Nuzhna Pomosch” (“Help Needed”). I am not affiliated with them, though I do come across their posts sometimes and it appears that they do good work. They certainly deliver an admirable social service with releasing stories such as this one, from all over the vast expanse of Russia and former USSR, giving publicity to people and places overlooked or forgotten by the world at large. 

Russian Elections 2018 Viral Video Analysis: Putin Is Never Named But All Other Candidates Are Clearly “the Wrong One”

My previous post was about a recent controversial Russian election video that went viral and caused quite a stir within the Russian-speaking Internet. The satirical clip implores every citizen to vote, by threatening an alternative future, in which symbols of Western liberalism and Soviet conservatism are collided into the “worst case scenario” that will surely happen if Russians abstain from voting and let the wrong candidate take the presidency. Here is the video again:

After a more thorough re-watching of the video and reading up on the election candidates, the symbols of the “doomed future” are beginning to make more sense to me.

The verdict: it is a pro-Putin video after all. How can I tell?

For one, all I have to do is read comments under my own YouTube posting of this video: whether people love it or hate it, they assume it’s pro-Putin — which is consistent with the trend I’ve seen around the internet. And Putin supporters and sympathizers definitely claim this propaganda video as their own. Well, them plus every kind of international troll, to be more accurate. Just a moment ago I received another notification from YouTube: “Uncle Adolf commented: ‘I’ve watched this 6 times today and counting. It’s just too good!'” Now, I would likely succumb to soul-crushing cognitive dissonance, if it turned out that YouTube member “Uncle Adolf” uses anything other than a photo of Hitler or a swastika as his avatar, but — *whew* — of course it’s a photo of Hitler with a swastika on his arm…

Another giveaway is that the video’s main cast includes well-known faces. To use the classical joke formula — in [Soviet] Russia, the role plays the actor. Translation: if you want to have a job as an entertainer, be pro-establishment. Mainstream actors would not have likely agreed to participate in this video if it had been put out by the incumbent dictator’s opposition — it’s too risky to their careers and reputations.

But mainly, I believe that this video is meant to endorse Putin because all other candidates are, one way or another, referenced in the worst case scenario presented in the video. Basically, in addition to Vladimir Putin, who is amusingly categorized as an “independent” candidate, you have seven electoral candidates that represent several other positions — namely: communist, liberal and, well, the inane political stylings of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy — the batshit bonkers leader of the ultranationalistic LDPR party who belongs in an ideological league of his own.

And so, here is the break-down of the video clip imagery:

The “imbecilic” school uniform of the son, so eerily reminiscent of Soviet-era “young pioneer” uniform — that’s the sign and consequence of electing one of the Communist candidates: Pavel Grudinin or Maxim Suraykin. There is also the bathroom scene where the protagonist tries to hide from all the people in his house and hears the PA announcement that toilet visits are limited. This, too, is an intentional flashback to the infamous socialist “communal apartments”, with multiple families crammed into the same living quarters, forced to share the kitchen and the bathroom with dozens of apartment-mates with no hope of privacy (and no end of drunken conflicts.) It was, indeed, a nightmare and it makes sense that it would be used as a scare tactic to prevent senior citizens from letting their USSR nostalgia guide their vote.

The arrogant “foster gay” obscenely eating a banana in the lead character’s kitchen — that’s your “horrifying” future if you cast your ballot for the liberals — presumably represented by Ksenia Sobchak (but really — it’s aimed at the phantom of the one candidate that would likely be fighting for the LGBTQ rights of the nation, but who was barred from the elections: Alexei Navalny). The dark-skinned soldier inserted elsewhere in the video is another subtle implication that the USA and western Europe are advancing on Russia with their ridiculous ideas of “diversity”. Better vote for the “right” candidate before you, too, are forced into tolerating humans that don’t look or live like you, pal.

One of the things that shocks the video’s protagonist during his “worst case scenario of not voting” dream is his son’s request for a huge amount of money to pay for private security at school. I take this as a stab at the entrepreneurs among the candidates: sure, Russia is a thriving capitalist paradise, but you don’t want it to get out of control — tsk-tsk, hint-hint, nudge-nudge, Boris Titov, candidate representing the Growth Party…

Finally, the cartoonishly absurd General who alternates between dabbing and enforcing the military draft until the age of 60 — that’s what you get if you vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Which is oddly on point. The threat seems extra exaggerated, until you read up on this gentleman’s plans to “improve” the Motherland in the twenty first century — such as reconstituting the Soviet Union, circa 1985. It is the only part of this obnoxious video I have to agree with: this belligerent fossil Zhirinovsky is off his everloving rocker! (I mean, they all are, but this guy… ufffff…)

In fact, allow me to leave you with an election video Maestro Zhirinovsky put out himself back in 2012 (he’s runs in every election) — to give you an idea of the messages he sends. I have translated and subtitled the video into English — but the visuals are pretty powerful on their own…

(warning — cruelty to animals)

Happy voting, everybody.

P.S. For more information, check out the full list and descriptions of Russian Elections 2018 candidates and their platforms.