Updated: Apr 21, 2021
My maternal grandmother, Baba Valya, was born as Valeria Emmanuilovna Kunina in 1912. She came from a family of pretty well-to-do Jewish grain traders in Azov region. In the early 1920s, after the Russian Civil War, the family moved from Azov to Rostov and then to Moscow.
While growing up in Moscow, Baba Valya quickly abandoned what she considered the confinement of her family. She was an enthusiastic young pioneer and leader in various pioneer camps and children’s organizations. She was always popular and lead a highly social life. When she was older she even became a district deputy in Moscow Soviet, that is, the city government! She graduated from the History Department of Moscow State University. She and my grandfather Misha met as university students.
At the beginning of World War II in the Eastern Front, after she gave birth in Moscow in August 1941, Baba Valya and her sister went into evacuation in what is now called Mari El region on the river Volga. My grandfather went to war; he first saw his daughter, my mother, only after the war, when she was already five years old! In evacuation, Baba Valya got a job in a local country school, teaching history and literature. There were no textbooks, so she taught just by telling stories. Food was scarce and one time somebody offered them a sack of flour as long as they could pick it up themselves. Baba Valya somehow got hold of a cart and horse, but she had no idea how to operate it. After a while, she figured out that the horse responded only to obscenities screamed at it. As this was a dire situation and she was desperate to obtain that sack of flour, Baba Valya managed to imitate the intonation she heard the men used when they yelled at their horses. She realized that if she just used this intonation, she could say anything she wanted and it still got the horse moving!
When the war ended, Baba Valya found a translator job for her sister at the famous Soviet news agency, TASS, and pulled my grandfather from the army because, after the war was over, he ended up as director of an officers’ military club in the provinces and was not allowed to move from there. Eventually, she moved the whole family back to Moscow where, after many years in a communal apartment, she secured, in the 1950s, a new apartment for the family. Back in the capital, both my grandparents went to graduate school in the History Department at MGU. Afterwards, Baba Valya worked in the Higher Party School for Soviet nomenklatura who had to catch up on their education. This job provided her with excellent and much needed connections and probably saved her from Stalin’s post-war Antisemitic campaign and purges. She flew under the radar by wisely taking that teaching job, way below her educational status and involving a lot of tedious traveling all around the country. After Stalin’s death, she went to work at the Institute of Marx-Engels-Lenin where she had a good Soviet-style career as a research fellow, heading the sector of History of Workers’ Movement in 19th century England and Ireland. She retired just before Perestroika, which she embraced.
Baba Valya was always surrounded by friends and had a loving family. In addition, she had incredible vitality, curiosity, and gratefulness, which made her life as happy and fulfilled as it was possible under the circumstances.
Baba Valya loved me more than she loved anyone else in the family, and I am very much like her. I inherited her positive attitude, vitality, and resilience. I also have many objects that belonged to her. This Chinese figurine shown in the photograph used to stand on her table at home. In Fen Shui Taoism, it represents Shou, the Blessing of Longevity, which my grandmother certainly possessed. She died at 98 years of age.