Today I’ll continue to talk about the second of two lost and newly-found photographs with amazing stories. Both are the oldest of the surviving photographs from my family’s archive.
Last week, I told you about the first photograph which depicts officer Irinarh Uskov with his friend on this article. Today I’d like to talk about the history of the second image.
About three years ago I was horrified when I discovered these two photographs to be missing. All this time I thought that they were stolen and sold to an antique shop. But about a week ago, my sister found them while she was cleaning the flat. I considered it a good sign to tell you the story of these photographs.
Here on this photograph is my great-grandmother Valentine Uskova and my great-grandfather, Red commissioner Zhilkin.
Valentine was miraculously saved during the revolution that destroyed her family. Her childhood was spent within the monastery walls. Her parents sent her there following the tradition in which the youngest daughter should spend the rest of her life in prayer for the family. During the revolution, the parents of Valentine decided to save her from being raped and death. They secretly took their youngest daughter away from the convent and gave her hand in marriage to a communist.
I don’t know the name of my grandfather. When my grandmother told me stories of our family, he was usually referred to in those stories as Zhilkin. It’s likely that he preferred to call himself by his surname, following the fashion of the revolutionary years.
Before the revolution, Zhilkin gained fame in the margins where he lived. He was incredibly lazy. He inherited a horse, which at the time was considered a luxury. But he didn’t even bother to care for her. As a result, the poor animal slipped on its own body waste and died. This story shocked the others, and his fame quickly spread around the town.
Almost all the time, Zhilkin indulged in idleness and dreams. His greatest dream was to marry a girl from a rich and, at best, from a noble family. The 20th century brought unprecedented wind of change in Tsarist Russia. Zhilkin heard about marriages between members of different classes more often.
When the revolution broke out in Russia, commissioners and security officers preferred to recruit representatives of the poor into their ranks. Their hatred for the upper class was so strong that it deprived them of pity and compassion to the world which the Bolsheviks were going to completely destroy.
Naturally, lazy Zhilkin was disastrously poor. That is why the Bolsheviks made him a commissioner and gave him a weapon. Sure, for other people it was a shocking decision – a famous bum became a representative of the new government.
I don’t know how Uskov’s family found him. Being intelligent and insightful people, they learned about his dreams and proposed that a beautiful 15-year old girl, daughter of a merchant and a noblewoman, become his wife. Such marriage didn’t bring wealth, but for Zhilkin it was no longer necessary. Now in his hands was, though small, power. Of course, he immediately agreed to take Valentine as his wife. Marriage then took place.
One of the conditions of the marriage was to have the wedding in a church because relatives of Valentine couldn’t abandon the traditional Christian rituals. It could harm the career of Zhilkin, so the wedding was held in secret. The old priest was surprised to learn that he must hold a wedding ceremony for someone who recently took his wealth “to the needs of the revolution.”
In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin destroyed all those people who started the revolution. He feared that in one moment the ideological revolutionaries would rise up against him. This resulted in machine arrests and repression. Along with the noise of the wheels of this machine made was the disappearance of commissioner Zhilkin. However, fate was on Valentine’s side once again. Realizing that Zhilkin’s fate is also what awaits her, she went to a remote village in the Ural. She took a stack of photographs with her, among them was this one.
She lived a long life and died at 94 years old. When I was little, we were friends. I still remember her words well:
“First there was the Tsarist Russia, I don’t remember it – I was in the monastery. Then there was a revolution, war communism. It was a terrible time, a time of violence and death. Then there was the NEP (New Economic Policy of Lenin). People cheered up, it seemed that everything will be fine.
But when Stalin came half the people disappeared in an unknown direction, and the other half was intimidated of the tyrant. Started the war, in a few years it was over. Everyone forgot about their own fear – you had to rebuild the country. Rulers were replaced one after the other. That threatened the Soviet Empire’s collapse. A new era began. Every 20 years, everything changes in this country. But for some reason, people were convinced that all, as it is today, was and will always be that way. Everything will pass, and the reality now , too, will disappear…”
You may read the first part, Two Pearls of My Family’s Archive (Part One): Irinarkh Uskov, here.