Seventy-eight-year-old Alexander Razeyev spent five years in the archives, piecing together the history of his native village, Maloye Ishutkino. He traced his own family lineage back to 1667 and then explored the family histories of the rest of the village’s current residents.
The retiree organized his findings into chapters and told the story of Maloye Ishutkino in the best literary language he knew. And then, at the end of 2019, he published The Village of Maloye Ishutkino and its Residents. He thought people would welcome his work. They did not.
Apparently, not everyone likes to reflect on the past, and many would simply prefer to close their eyes to their family history.
The Collective Farmer
Maloye Ishutkino, population 217, is a tiny Chuvash village in Samara Oblast. Before Alexander Lukich Razeyev* became interested in its history, there was basically no easily available information about it.
Alexander Lukich and his wife Irina live in a small home across the street from the ancient Church of the Archangel Michael. A long chapter in Razeyev’s book is devoted to the church.
Snow white hens bandy about the Razeyevs’ irreproachably tidy yard. The home has well-scrubbed floors, and the mirror and television have been covered with white tablecloths. Two weeks ago in Moscow, for reasons as yet unknown, their son Alexander passed away. Irina’s eyes are swollen shut from crying, but Alexander is holding it together.
We go for a walk. Any stroll through this village would be short. There is just one central street nestled among hills. As the first order of business, Lukich takes me to the cemetery. His ancestors are buried there, and at the cemetery’s entrance is the fresh grave of his son. Fingering the wreaths on Alexander’s grave, sent by friends from all over the country and the world, Lukich smiles guiltily and admits that, before his son’s death, he had no idea he had so many friends.
Razeyev does not consider himself to be either a writer or a historian. “I’m a simple collective farmer,” he said, swallowing the l in the word kolkhoznik. “Life was like it was for many in those times: school, agrotechnical college, and the army – I was an aviation mechanic. I was a good student in school, and they recommended me to an institute in Samara, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. Just like me, they were collective farmers. We were poor; we had to work. I don’t even remember whether I ever dreamed of a profession.”
Razeyev has loved literature and history since he was a boy in grade school, yet life did not give him the opportunity to pursue those subjects in greater depth. After serving in the army, he returned home and began the difficult work of a mechanic on a collective farm. Occasionally, out of curiosity, he would pepper the old folks with questions: Who was Ishutka? Why is the village named after him? How did the village church survive in the 1930s, when all the churches in surrounding villages were destroyed? But that was the extent of his historical research. “By the time I became seriously interested,” he said, “many of the old-timers were gone. It’s such a shame that we didn’t listen to the old folks’ stories when they were still alive; we just weren’t interested.”
In 1983, Lukich, his wife, and their five children moved to Novospassky, a settlement in another district. There he got a job in a new state farm, much larger than the kolkhoz where he had been working. Back in Maloye Ishutkino, he and his wife had had a modest home without any indoor plumbing, their children walked five kilometers to school, and Razeyev had to trudge the same distance to work every day.
Novospassky, on the other hand, offered civilization: asphalt, an apartment with running water, school, a kindergarten, a personal car with driver – a life of luxury.
“During my interview, the director of the state farm asked, “Can you install angle sprockets on the manure conveyor?”
“Yes, I can do everything with my own two hands,” I replied.
“That’s it, you’re hired!”
The Razeyevs lived in their Novospassky paradise until they retired. Then they returned to Maloye Ishutkino.
“By that time, the kids had all scattered, and my wife and I were left with a four-room apartment. What, were we supposed to play hide and seek there?” Razeyev asked. “It was after retirement that I developed a passion for history.”
The Call of the Ancestors
Lukich would occasionally see historical notes about neighboring villages in rural newspapers: “When they were founded and by whom, how they developed, what sorts of historical relics had survived, how people lived during the war – that sort of thing. So I thought, ‘What do I know about my own village?’ I went around bothering our old folks, and I wrote my first book based on their stories. Yet their facts would conflict: someone, for example, said that the name Ishutka was Chuvash, someone else said he was Mordvin. There was a lot that the old people didn’t know, there were many inaccuracies. So, not finding any official dates or information anywhere, I decided to go to the archive in Samara.”
Razeyev did not know how to work in the archives. He simply showed up and said that he was an interested resident who wanted to learn more about his village. The archive staff guided him, and Lukich dove into the documents. He emerged only a week later.
From that visit, his first, Razeyev returned with the fact that Ishutka was actually Chuvash (in one fell swoop dispensing with the long dispute between local Chuvash and Mordvin residents). He also clarified the name of the town’s first priest and dug up all sorts of other pieces of information.
In awe at the quantity of unknown and interesting facts that were preserved in the archive, Lukich soon returned to Samara. And there they told him about the existence of the church register, through which he would be able to study the history of his family.
“I dove in and, searched for my ancestors, beginning with my father and grandfather,” he recalled. “And I dug deeper and deeper. I excavated all the way back to the 1600s. I reconstructed the Razeyev family tree. Then I started searching for other village families. And, thanks to the register, I traced the family names of all the residents of Maloye Ishutkino, going all the way back to 1762. Who was born or died when, and who they married and where they were from.”
After exhausting the resources of the Samara archive (he has no idea how many times he traveled there), Razeyev set out for Orenburg. “Our village has been a part of Samara Province [gubernia] since 1861,” he noted. “Before that, this was Orenburg Province. Their archive therefore might also have some important information about our village. That drew me like a narcotic. I just wanted to know as much as possible.”
Razeyev didn’t know anyone in Orenburg, and he didn’t have any money for a hotel. So he slept in the train station. “I’d wake up in the morning and walk to the archive,” he said. “In the evening, I returned to the station – and that’s how I spent a week there. I found so much information! I learned how the province was divided up into districts and volosts.* Of course, you can’t hunt down everything in a week, plus I was copying everything down by hand, and that takes a long time. So I returned there again later.”
News of Lukich’s avocation spread through the village, and when he headed to Orenburg for the second time, the local priest gave him a thousand rubles for traveling expenses. Meanwhile, Razeyev recalled an acquaintance he had in Orenburg. He dug up the contact information and gave him a call. The acquaintance promised to take care of Lukich on his next visit and put him up in a hostel. And he paid for it. “He helped me as if we were fellow villagers,” Lukich recalled happily.
After Orenburg, Razeyev traveled to the archive in Kazan. There, he paid his own lodging at a hostel. Then he traveled to Moscow, where his son Alexander welcomed him, put him up, and helped him get around. That was followed by another trip to Samara…
The archive trips put a serious dent in the retirees’ budget, so they saved money wherever they could. Much of the information Razeyev sought exists in open sources, accessible via the internet. So, to minimize his travel expenses, his children gave him a laptop computer and internet access. The 75-year old (at the time) Razeyev learned his way around the internet and perfected single-finger-style typing. Things definitely got easier, but he didn’t stop visiting the archives. Meanwhile, his wife Irina never objected to his hobby, in fact she encouraged it. “It’s a good thing,” she said. “After all, we found out about our ancestors!”
“I even found a few relatives!” Lukich exclaimed. “There’s an infectious disease specialist working in the Isakly Regional Hospital. He became interested in the book and asked me to send him a copy. I took one to him and he said that his relatives were born in our village. I asked their last name, opened my documents, the church register, and found out that they were Razeyevs. I told him: “You and I, we are relatives, can you imagine?”
“And there was another case with a close friend. We had been friends from childhood until his death. And it turns out that we too were relatives. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to tell him that before he died.”
No Money, Yet Still You Write
After many years of work (Lukich painstakingly transcribed and copied out by hand everything that had anything to do with his village and its residents), the kolkhoznik had collected in his home the most detailed archive imaginable on his native village. The contents of his second book are rich indeed. He sorted through all the census tables he had been able to find, compared statistical data across documents (number of residents, houses, and whatnot), and discovered inconsistencies. He wrote of the entire region, of springs and ravines, of the lives of villagers across the years, of the Pugachyov Rebellion, about the war years, what they ate, what diseases they had, and how many people died and when. He described how the residents of Ishutkino survived during the Volga famine of the 1920s, how the kolkhozes were established…
The 1921 Crop Failure
(From Chapter 1)
There was no rain during the entire summer of 1920. Winter crops did not sprout… Over the course of the spring and summer of 1921, not a drop of rain fell. All of the grasses and trees withered… This all led to a horrific famine. According to the stories of old-timers, everywhere you went the roads were filled with people on their last leg, some in a throng, others all alone. They were all in rags – women and children, or children on their own. People, standing beneath a window or in room, begged “for Christ’s sake,” or they sobbed, their eyes full of tears, pleading, “I haven’t eaten anything for three days, my young children are dying of hunger at home, please spare at least a crust of bread.” There were cases, and they were not rare, where people fell and died as they were walking along, and their corpses just lay there, not of use to anyone, tossed aside. My late mother-in-law, Maria Terentieva Fyodorova, recounted how a woman, all dressed in rags, with a small baby in her arms, overcome by hunger while walking to our village, fell down dead in the street and crushed her still living child.
A 1921 Labor and Defense Council report remarks:
From every direction one could hear the hungry cries of children. The Department of Public Education was surrounded by a crowd of hungry, half-dead children, who had been brought and left there by their half-dead parents, in the hope that the authorities would take pity on them. The financial department did not have funds to help anyone with anything… As a consequence of the famine, banditry increased. Peasants began to eat working livestock, completely ruining their livelihoods.
The disastrous years of 1921 and 1922 left peasant households without livestock… Here and their rumors of cannibalism were heard. To back these assertions up with facts, I consider it my duty to cite official documents that confirm these descriptions.
Buguruslan District Multistore
Consumer Society Food Department
3 May 1922
April 21 in the city of Buguruslan, the peasant family of Vasily D., from the village of Tolstoy, Bogorodskaya Volost, was brought and admitted to the hospital. It consisted of his wife Domna, 41, son Dmitry, 23, daughters Anna, 15, and Elizabeth, 4. The family was caught practicing cannibalism. Domna and her son Dmitry were luring children into their banya, slaughtering them and eating them. They also fed Anna and Elizabeth. There was a total of ten victims. Dmitry also stabbed his wife and ate her corpse. The Food Department has informed the Provincial Union of the above.
Chairman of the Board, Representative Ivanov
One more document:
To the administration of the Buguruslan Regional Multistore. Cons. Soc.
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