Love and loss in war and peace

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Li Duoli waited more than six decades to pose a question to a girl he had known, and secretly adored, as a lovelorn adolescent in the former Soviet Union.

“Her name was Lyolya Shegenkova. Between 1942 and 1950, I grew up with her at the Ivanovo International Boarding School,” he said. “The last time I saw her was in June, at her home in St. Petersburg. Afflicted by terminal cancer, she was nearing the end of her life. We talked about the past, and I said to her, ‘We all liked you-all the boys were mad about you. But which of us did you like most?’

“From her pale, slightly trembling lips came a Russian name. That name once belonged to another Chinese boy in my class,” Li, 79, said. “You think I was disappointed? Not at all-it was a moment of sweetness, and one had to have been in Ivanovo during those hard times to understand it.”

Founded in 1933 by Elena Stasova, a Russian Communist who was once the Comintern’s representative in Germany, the Ivanovo International Boarding School was attended by the children of communists employed elsewhere.

Nazi invasion

The hard times started on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. “Within 10 days, the Germans had advanced 600 kilometers across the Russian border. By the end of October, they were on Moscow’s doorstep,” said Li, who was born in the Russian capital in 1936 while his parents were studying at the Comintern University in the city.

“By the time the war started, my parents had long gone, leaving me in a Moscow kindergarten. I went to the Ivanovo school in late 1941. Of the 600 or so children there, more than 100 were Chinese.”

His mother would write occasionally, and the letters, in Russian, were read to Li by his teachers, even though he could speak the language. While the contents of those letters have long slipped from Li’s mind, his memories of the aerial bombardment are undimmed. “The city of Ivanovo is only 300 kilometers east of Moscow. Its military airport was a major target,” he said. “Every time the siren sounded at night, we ran out into the dark forest. We sat by our teachers in a cold cave and with the sound of bombs incessantly in our ears, we waited for the all-clear. Usually, we had to wait until dawn.”

That experience was shared by Li Shuhua, who was born in Vladivostok in 1936, the son of Chinese communists. “In June 1941, my family-my parents, my 6-month-old brother and me-was in Moscow. The bombs soon started to fall, and every time we went to hide in the air-raid shelters, which had been dug within a few days of the outbreak of war, Mom would tie a doughnut around my neck. She was preparing me for the worst,” he said. “My father was a news announcer with Soviet Radio, responsible for broadcasting to China. While we waited, he worked by candlelight, translating and proofreading scripts.”

In late June, when the bombing intensified, the family was relocated to the Ural Mountains. “Dad didn’t go with us. He wanted to continue broadcasting,” Li Shuhua recalled. “I know that he later volunteered to dig anti-tank ditches on the outskirts of Moscow, working in the freezing rain for 14 hours every day. When he returned to the radio station in late October, almost all the staff had left, but once again, he stayed.

“He broadcast the news to China when Soviet soldiers marched through Red Square on Nov 7, 1941, in a parade to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution which had taken place on that date 24 years before,” he said. “It was a highly symbolic moment, but the tanks and troops were marched straight through Moscow and out to the defensive lines.”

In the Urals, about 1,800 kilometers from Moscow, Li Shuhua was feeling the full scourge of war. “Hunger is what I equate with war. At one point, my little brother nearly starved to death,” he said. “Mom got a job weaving nets at a factory. The nets were suspended from giant hot-air balloons along the invasion line outside of Moscow at an altitude of about 600 meters, and many enemy planes snared their propellers in them. With the salary Mom earned, hunger slightly loosened its grip on us.”

Tough existence

Li Duoli resorted to “stealing” to kill his hunger: “I ‘stole’ vegetables I’d planted months before-turnips and potatoes-in a plot maintained by the teachers and children,” he said. “Once, I was caught red-handed by a slightly older boy who was tending the plot. He allowed me to leave with a lapful of turnips, but only after he’d given me a terrible dressing down. No outside supplies of food or coal were provided, but by plowing the icy land and collecting wood in the forests, we survived the long Russian winters.”

Germany surrendered on May 9, 1945. Li Duoli was age 9, and he remembers VE Day as one when “we were allowed to eat as much chocolate as we could”.

Life at Ivanovo was improving fast, and when Li Shuhua arrived at the school in 1947, he felt as though he was in heaven. “My parents left the Soviet Union that year. My father was suffering from a severe gastric illness, unable to work. They took my little sister, born in 1944, with them, leaving my younger brother and me behind in Ivanovo,” he said. “I wasn’t sad at all. For one thing, I’d never seen so much food before, nor had I ever seen so many Chinese. I made many friends, including Li Duoli.”

There was also a lively cultural scene, according to Xiao Suhua, who spent nine years at Ivanovo. “Even before the war ended, a dance troupe was formed inside the orphanage by a woman who had received formal ballet training, but was unable to perform because of a hip injury,” the 78-year-old former dancer said. “I was the only boy in the (full) troupe.”

Li Duoli witnessed his classmate’s early talent. “During the war, a school building was converted into a military hospital, and we performed for the injured soldiers to cheer them up. I was a backup dancer, but Xiao was always the lead.”

After the war, Xiao’s talent quickly made him a local celebrity, not just at the school, but also in the wider city, and he won municipal dancing competitions several years running. “In the winter of 1949, the Moscow Dance Academy came to the city to recruit new talent. My dance teacher organized a truck to take me to the place where the auditions were being held. I danced for the judges and they gave me the nod,” Xiao said. “But I didn’t go to the academy, because in 1950, almost all the Chinese children at the boarding school were asked to return home by the Chinese Government.”

Homecoming

Acclimating to China was tougher than many of the children had envisaged, according to Li Shuhua, who, along with Li Duoli, was among 78 students repatriated to China. “After 11 days traveling by train, we arrived at the Chinese border and I was met by my mother. But in the days that followed, my excitement quickly gave way to boredom and anxiety because I didn’t enjoy the Chinese food Mom prepared for me, nor understand a word of Chinese.”

For the next few years, he shut himself off from reality and attended Russian schools on the Sino-Russian border. “I was 16, and still unable to speak Chinese. Eventually, my father became very angry with me and sent me to a primary school in my hometown. Embarrassingly, I was in the fourth grade,” he said, adding that he had fully assimilated within a couple of years.

He studied Russian at Liaoning University and became a professional translator, working for Xinhua News Agency for more than two decades. “Those days in the former Soviet Union determined the course of my career,” he said.

The same could be said for Xiao Suhua, whose missed opportunity to study at the prestigious academy in Moscow didn’t prevent him from becoming a famous figure in the world of Chinese ballet. “I’m forever grateful to my teacher for the exposure to the arts she gave me at Ivanovo,” he said. Now a professor at the Beijing Dance Academy, Xiao visited Moscow earlier this year to judge a national ballet competition. His flawless Russian surprised and delighted the audience.

“With government funding, I trained at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in the late ’80s. Since then, I’ve been to Russia again and again,” he said. “‘Golden’ is the word I would use to describe my life there during the war. It’s hard to believe, but that’s how I genuinely feel. It was an age of innocence.”