I, Myself

In a post-perestroika Russia, a dying soldier remembers with pride his time in the Soviet army.


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To say that Ivan Ivanovitch Goglovia was a good friend would be much the understatement. We had been through a lot together, more than just the wars and bloody political intrigues of the Stalin years. It was too late by the time they had diagnosed cancer and palliative care was prescribed. When he took to bed, I vowed to visit him at least once a week. It was doubly sad since the celebrations of the Fifth Anniversary of the return of Saint Petersburg’s original name [Санкт-Петербург] had just begun. There were some of us who will always think of our city as Leningrad, but a celebration is a celebration.

Initially, I would come Thursday mornings, visiting first with Fedora Fëdorovna, the faithful servant who had been with the family ever since the siege during the last war. Now she assumed the additional role as his nurse. She was ancient and remembered the old ways, respectful of the uniform and the history of the Goglovia family who had served Russia for generations. She often repeated to me how her own grandmother nursed Petya Ivanovitch, Ivan’s great uncle, after the Great War.

“My babushka heated the compresses on the stove, close to the vent. A cast iron skillet or a brick would be used. If there was a burn involved and we needed to impregnate the rag with suet, then of course the skillet was used, or if it was a paste of herbs — also we used the skillet.” She paused to make sure I understood. “So you see Comrade Puzanov, you have no need to worry about your friend. If you had time, I could tell you about each of our heroes I nursed back to health after the last war.” She pointed to the Defense of Leningrad Medal I proudly wore on my chest. I guessed that she heard these stories so often from her mother that she had made them her own.

I wondered if perhaps she too was in Leningrad during the siege, or if she along with other children had been rescued in one of the transports of civilians sent east to safer regions. Perhaps it was my friend’s family who had protected her and her mother during the siege. If so that would explain her loyalty. It would make for a sad history, one that he had never related. But no matter, one way or another she was connected to the Goglovia family. I said nothing about my medal, drawing her after me into the sickroom.

“I think it would be better that you spent your time looking after Ivan Ivanovitch and not recounting stories.” Later I regretted my cruel words.

I put up with her folk remedies for the sake of my friend. Many of her “healing” syrups had a base of vodka, which may have accounted for her high spirits. As for her borscht, I can personally attest that it was excellent.

She guarded Ivan Ivanovitch like a jealous wife and I was a young courtesan. Only after two or three glasses of tea would she consent to bring me to his room. But first I had to hear her protests: “The Master is sleeping.” “Comrade Goglovia doesn’t wish to be disturbed.” “Ivan Ivanovitch had a bad night and needs to rest.”

Initially, by one subterfuge or another — on my way back from the bathroom, a fictitious ringing of the phone in the hall outside his bedroom, or a call from my friend — I would gain entry to his bedside. Finally I won Fedora Fëdorovna’s trust and, when I came to visit, she would take my coat and lead me to his bedroom, cautioning me not to overstay my time.

As soon as I entered his room, Ivan Ivanovitch grinned and struggled to sit upright. I would help, one hand on his elbow, the other arranging the pillows behind his back. He would greet me warmly: “My dearest Sasha, so good of you to come see your sick friend. And what should we talk about this time?” As he settled back he would inquire about my family. Occasionally he would slip back in time and ask, “Are we meeting the goals set by Comrade Stalin?” And of course he’d comment about the weather, sighing about the cruel Russian winters.

Inevitably he would find a connection in our conversations that offered an opportunity to talk about one war or another. He would go on about how he was always at the front, advancing against the enemy or leading a charge, breaking through the enemy’s defense. “Comrade Puzanov, you would be proud. I would be at the very front of the line. My men fought valiantly. Russia is always right.” I could easily imagine him waving a sword over his head.

His face would turn red from the effort. It was as if he were once again there, struggling with a heavy pack, leading the charge of which he spoke. And then, after catching his breath, he would sigh, “I, myself. Such glory. I, myself, Ivan Ivanovitch …” His eyes would close; he was already dreaming. I would sit back in my chair by the side of his bed, waiting patiently in case he would wake suddenly. But he remained asleep, exhausted by the battle. I would quietly take my hat from the foot of his bed and go fetch Fedora Fëdorovna from the kitchen where she would be shuffling between one pot and another on the old cast-iron stove.

It became a familiar pattern, my dear friend relating battles real and unreal where he played a crucial role — and there were many, Ivan Ivanovitch being a student of military history. Perhaps it was the pain medications combined with what I suspect was Fedora Fëdorovna’s generous dispensing of her healing herbal remedies. Frequently my visit would end with Ivan Ivanovitch declaiming in a weakening whisper, “I, myself, Ivan Ivanovitch …” It became my cue to pick up my hat from the foot of his bed and quietly exit, hearing the gentle snores that soon followed.

There were a few times when I met his daughter-in-law, Anna Pytovnaya, as I was leaving. She was clearly angry, holding her father-in-law guilty of what she felt was the madness unfolding once again in Chechnya and the militaristic blindness endemic in Russia and her husband in particular. She brushed past me, barely acknowledging my presence, sneering when I asked about Alexander, her husband — I was humbled when Ivan Ivanovitch named him in my honor. She must have queried Fedora Fëdorovna as to when I usually came since I ran into her only once in the following six months, and that was when I stopped briefly while in the neighborhood at another time.

Shortly before he passed, Ivan Ivanovitch had Fedora Fëdorovna fetch his ribbons and medals, fastening them to his bed robe. Even when his eyes were closed, he would take comfort in patting them. Once when there were sounds of a crowd rising from Nevsky Prospekt he insisted I help him to the large window where he did his best to stand at attention and snap a salute. It was as if he were standing once again on the Presidium. I confess, I had to wipe a tear from the corner of my eye before helping him back to bed. With great effort he whispered, “We won’t tell Fedora Fëdorovna about this.” Soon after, he fell asleep and I left.

Unfortunately I was called out of town for two weeks. The day after I returned to St. Petersburg I rushed off to visit my dear friend. Fedora Fëdorovna cautioned me when she took my coat that he had faded significantly in the fortnight I was gone. Even so, I was not prepared for how wan and emaciated he had become. The room smelled as if death circled his bed, deciding only at the last minute to spare him so that we could talk one more time.

Fedora Fëdorovna cracked open one of the large windows. The incoming air fluttered his blanket, returning Ivan Ivanovitch to the land of the living. He was barely able to nod, but his faithful servant — for indeed that was the diffidence shown to him by the old babushka — rushed to his side and gently lifted him onto a mound of pillows, crooning, “There, there, Ivan Ivanovitch, I promised you that your friend would be coming soon and here he is, standing there at the foot of the bed.”

I could see that he did his best to smile, but then with his eyes he directed Fedora Fëdorovna to the large book about the German siege of Leningrad on his nightstand. She understood and immediately put it in my hands, opening it to the passage that he had intended me to read.

My eyes skimmed the page until I came to the paragraphs describing a critical counter-attack along the Volkhov Front in 1943, forcing the Wehrmacht to retreat from their positions along the Volkhov River line. Ivan Ivanovitch had played a major role in our offensive.

Fedora Fëdorovna hurriedly moved a chair to the head of the bed and I sat down, holding the book out in order to see my friend over the top of the pages. I had served with Ivan Ivanovitch in Leningrad from June of 1941 until after the siege was lifted in January of 1944. We bore witness to the millions who were starved and killed by the Nazis. This battle was only one of his many heroic efforts to save Mother Russia.

I had read the first two sentences when Fedora Fëdorovna tugged my sleeve. Ivan Ivanovitch was struggling to speak. I lowered my ear towards his lips. “I, myself, Ivanovitch … verfluchte Deutsche [cursed Germans].”

He closed his eyes. I had forgotten that he had studied German at the university and initially admired Hitler, claiming that strong leaders were necessary for strong countries. He had celebrated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in 1939, telling me that Stalin was just buying time to build up the Soviet military, since by that time we all knew that war was inevitable. I continued reading, anxiously looking at my friend more than the words. Suddenly his eyes opened and he wheezed, “Alles sind Tod [all are dead].” Then no more.

Fedora Fëdorovna took the book from my hand, holding it above the nightstand. It was then that I saw the notice from the War Department. She nodded and started to reach for the letter, of which a black-bordered edge was visible. I shook my head. There was no reason for her to give it to me — a black-bordered edge of the note was visible. Tears fell from her eyes; her lips moved — dva. Ivan Ivanovitch’s son had died in Chechnya; there were now two dead.

I called on Anna Pytovnaya that evening. When informed of her father-in-law’s passing, she laughed in my face. “My Sasha followed in his footsteps, only he got there first. There was no need for us to start up in Chechnya again. Don’t expect me to shed a tear for the old fool always going on about the greatness of the old Soviet. You’d better go now. This is the last of me with that family.”

Ivan Ivanovitch Goglovia’s interment was the following week. The family plot was 50 kilometers southeast of St. Petersburg. I arranged for Fedora Fëdorovna to ride with me and two other comrades from our battalion. There would be no other mourners and no military honor guard. Ivan Ivanovitch had been explicit in the arrangements that he had made a year before his demise. It was as if he’d had a premonition of his son’s end in Chechnya. I was silent as the coffin was lowered into the grave. One of the burial ground attendants closed the gate to the family plot when we left, its rusted wail followed us to the waiting car.

We sat silently on the drive back to St. Petersburg. My hands folded in my lap, I noted the opaqueness of my skin and the ever-greater number of age spots. Gray clouds had pushed down from the Gulf of Finland, threatening rain. I directed my questions to them about the patriotism that culminates in aggression and the price paid by all for a piece of land. As for why Ivan Ivanovitch’s final words were in German, I will save that question for him. It won’t be that long a wait.

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