Valeya And Raya

Youth Festival


[We reproduce below a short piece written by Samar Sen way back in 1965. It appeared in the 29th January 1965 issue of NOW]

When do you cease to be young? One wondered in 1957, before and during the massive, spectacular Youth Festival in Moscow. It seemed anybody with some enthusiasm for the company of the young and able to pay 300 old roubles could join in. Many who did were over 45.

A member of the Festival had to be on his toes. As the programme was vast, varied and often uncertain, one went to Hotel Ostankino every morning and over a breakfast of porridge, three eggs and tea with lemon, made shrewd inquiries, kept quiet about the information obtained and hunted on the sly for tickets. The hotel was a babel of many tongues. The Indian delegation was a curious assortment. Most of the bright lads had come from London. There were two Sikhs, a 60-year-old father and his 25-year-old son, both so popular with girls that sometimes one apprehended parricide.

On the opening day, the Indians went by truck to the Lenin Stadium and marched into the arena in their regional costumes. The Sikhs with their beards and turbans almost stole the day, but much to their chagrin they noted that Raj Kapoor, who appeared on the scene with a singular flourish, got a lustier ovation.

There seemed to be some tension between the French and the Egyptians over Suez. But it blew off.

The evenings were dedicated to concerts, open-air shows and rallies all over Moscow. It is difficult to remember all the details of the Festival which brought young Russians in contact with the world outside, but the wayside acquaintances we made became a permanent feature of our life as long as we stayed in Moscow. On our way to Sokolniki Park for a mass get-together we ran into a Russian male, to whom I took a dislike at first sight, and his two companions—Valeya and Raya. The sturdy stocky man of indeterminate age and with an un-Russian name (Walter) said he was a student of Moscow University and a boy friend of Valeya's. Valeya, about 27, looked gloomy because, as we soon realised, her man had the airs, though not the looks, of a Don Juan.

During the war Valeya had lost her mother who was captured, tortured and killed by the Germans for taking food to partisans. There is hardly any family in the Soviet Union which did not lose one or two members in the war. After the war, her father, back from the Army, married again. The step-mother and the amount of vodka consumed by the father made up her mind. She came to Moscow for a living and did deskwork in a plumbing concern. She had an extraordinarily rich voice and the songs she loved were Ukrainian, wistful, melancholy and humorous.

Raya too had lost her parents in the war. Her first marriage was unhappy. Vodka again. She got a divorce and was in charge of a Pioneer school. When we met she had a child of about 4, a big-headed nervous boy who stammered, took fright at the slightest thing and cried. His large, melancholy eyes seemed to reflect the horrors and the uncertainty of the war his parents and grandparents had lived through. Raya herself had sprightly brown eyes. And she had a delightful habit of winking at you when she wanted to make a point.

Valeya became a frequent visitor to our home. She lived quite near; once or twice we returned her visit. She stayed in a very small room in an old wooden building, which, however, had central heating. The room was packed with small things. There was the small radio; there was the inevitable carpet hung on a wall. The big communal kitchen was used by a host of people. The corridor reeked of sunflower oil, the cooking medium. Valeya helped us in our household chores; queued up with us in shops, went with us to the kino and advised the male folk about how to be sober and happy. She got used to us, our pranks and our chillies.

Raya lived in a suburb called Babushka (grandmother), was younger and better off, though the house was no better. Sometimes we would not see her for months. Then she would phone up, promise to take us out to a summer camp for children and would not turn up. She suffered from some curious ailment.

When the great drive came to bring Production closer to Life, Valeya had to give up desk-work and go over to a tailoring concern where they paid her less. She had to tighten her belts. Her distress increased as Walter, with her money, began to intensify his philandering. At last the affair broke up. A few months later Valeya left for Rostov-on-Don. We heard an unconfirmed rumour that she had married a provincial. We wished it were true ; with a whole generation lost in the war, it is very difficult in Russia for women of her age to find a mate.

Raya married again. A few days before we left, she came with her child and with a few presents. She looked much better, fresh and fleshy. Her eyes looked even brighter. I don't remember why we began to talk about the days of the German occupation. Perhaps we did so because the Berlin Wall had just come up. Raya told us how the Germans had killed her parents near Moscow. Were all the Germans bad? No, Raya replied, there were good as well as bad Germans. "But the Finns were terrible.."

It is good that the last Youth Festival took place in Helsinki.

Now, January 29, 1965

Vol. 51, No.26, Dec 30, 2018 - Jan 5, 2019