1. Peasant childhood.
Sergei Lemeshev was born in the village of Staroye Knyazevo, some 50 kilometers from the small town of Tver. It was a poor little village that still had no roads as late as the 1980's. His parents, Akulina and Yakov, had married without their families' blessing. Yakov's father Stepan was a "wealthy" peasant—who became so angry upon learning that his son had married a girl from a poorer family that he did not give the newlyweds any real estate at all. Peasants without land automatically became farm laborers. Only beggars were poorer and more looked down upon.
Akulina got a job from a local landlord. Yakov was often absent, since he travelled from one town to another, trying to earn money as an unskilled worker. Soon Akulina gave birth to sons Nikolai and Sergei. In his memoirs, Lemeshev described the earliest period of his childhood:
At age three or four Sergei began to "sing." Spending a lot of time alone at the servants' quarters, he stood on the window sill and "sang" lispingly about everything he saw in the back yard, for example "The-e-re go-o-es Mikha-a-alka, the coooach-man."
When Sergei was five, his father converted an old barn in the village into their first home—a small log cabin with two windows and a low ceiling. The family moved in and Akulina began to work for prosperous peasants. Her third son, Alexei, was born at that time. Since she worked all day long in the field, Sergei helped her to care for the baby, rocking him to sleep in the cradle or bringing him to the field to his mother.
No matter how hard Akulina worked in the field, she could get no rest at home. “ Like all children, we had no mercy on our mother. As soon as she came home, tired out, we usually began to pester her for fairy-tales! She was a good story-teller, but often fell asleep from fatigue half way through a word, and we pitilessly woke her up, demanding that she continue exactly from the same place at which she fell asleep. We knew those fairy-tales so well that we easily corrected her when she made mistakes.”
Fun and games continued for peasant children for three or four years, then, at age eight or nine, they were considered adults.
Peasant life was severe, and was not essentially different from that of the 10th century. Bad soil and ancient agricultural methods led to the permanent danger of hunger, especially for vulnerable families like Akulina and her children. Patriarchal laws, which made it possible for Yakov's family to watch indifferently as Akulina struggled against poverty, made the situation worse. She was only able to get help from her mother and four younger brothers, also poor, who lived in the adjacent village. Sergei remembered his uncles fondly: "I loved being at my grandmother's. They were friendly, got on together very well and treated my mother with tenderness and sympathy. I never saw them drinking vodka, and never heard swear words from them. We did not associate with my father's family, though our log cabin stood within three meters of my grandfather's house."
Sergei's grandfather Stepan and his daughters Anisa and Pelageya. 1900.
If Akulina and her relatives were mild and quiet people, Yakov was a different kind of person. Sergei remembered him as a hot-tempered man, whose wrath could scare other villagers. He was also an excellent singer, though there were good singers on both sides of Lemeshev's family.
Akulina was one of the best singers in the village. She had a fine voice and sang very expressively.
"My father's sisters also loved to sing, especially two of them. Natasha had a powerful, clear soprano, which stood out in every chorus. We recognized her voice from three kilometers! The voice of the youngest sister, my aunt Anisa, had a wonderful timbre. Anisa herself was very gentle, kind and extraordinarily shy. When I was thirteen, she married a young man from the nearby village, but immediately after the wedding she escaped from her husband's home and came back to her parents. She lived all her life with her older sister." [Sergei did not write, due to the Soviet atheistic ideology, that Anisa was very religious, along with some other relatives of his.] “Because of her shyness, Anisa sang mostly when she was alone. One day I was fishing and overheard her singing. She gathered flowers and sang "Nichto v polyushke ne kolyshetsa," /"Nothing sways in the field." Her voice was, as they say, angelic—I've never heard such a timbre again. If the Revolution had occurred ten years earlier, Anisa would have been a famous singer."
Later, Lemeshev's younger brother Alexei developed into a dramatic tenor. But Lemeshev's family was not exceptional. The village of Staroye Knyazevo, like any other Russian village before the Revolution, was full of good singers. Fyodor Chaliapin, in his book "The Man and the Mask," wrote about the great peasant culture of singing:" You see, Russians sing from the cradle, they always sing. At least it was so in the days of my youth. People who suffered in the darkness of life sang the songs that were full of pain or were desperately joyful [...] Russians were obsessed by singing."
A shepherd . Photo by N. Svishchov-Paola, before 1917.
Sergei began to sing consciously when he became his mother's main helper, at age ten. A typical peasant boy's "jobs" were fishing and picking berries and mushrooms. This required him to spend a lot of time alone and he could sing, because the patriarchal laws prohibited children from singing in the presence of adults.
His father died in 1912. Apparently, Yakov had sapped his strength a long time before. In early Spring he forded the river and fell ill, presumably with tuberculosis. He did not live to be forty, but several years before his death he had shown Sergei how to fish, which was very helpful. Soon Sergei became such a master that he not only provided his family with fish, but sold fish to other villagers. Aside from the small fees he received, this earned him respect and praise from his mother and neighbors. Another job of his—picking mushrooms for his family and selling the surplus, was also profitable. He knew every bush in the forest which sheltered mushrooms:
All this does not mean that Lemeshev's childhood was sad. There were many holidays in which he and the other children took part. Weddings, along with Spring and Autumn agricultural holidays, were celebrated with songs, games and "khorovod" (a peasant round dance). All the boys, including Sergei, dreamed about becoming an accordion player. It was "prestigious," as accordionists were the main heroes of every holiday.
Another joy in children's lives, though connected with certain difficulties, were the visits of an old junkman, "Uncle" Ilia. He traded cheap sweets and candies for old clothes and bones. (Perhaps he collected them for making glue or paper.) As soon as Ilia's cart appeared in the village, all the kids rushed headlong to their houses.
The most pleasant of "jobs" was, perhaps, pasturing horses for the night during the harvesting season. The Lemeshevs did not have their own horse, but Sergei willingly worked as a shepherd for richer peasants. "First, that always made it possible for me to be among people of my own age; second, the small fees I received for my work, such as a flat cake or an egg, provided a welcome addition to my rations, because I rarely got enough to eat at home. But material things were not the main attraction. We used to gather at sundown, mount unharnessed horses, and lead one or two more horses on a rein. A big piece of sackcloth, which we used at night as a bed and a blanket, served as a saddle. Fore the pasture we chose a meadow within 2 or 3 kilometers of the village, usually near the swamp or at the edge of the forest where the grass was unsuitable for use as hay. There, fifteen or twenty boys and girls, from age 8 to 15, hobbled the horses, found a cozy place somewhere under the tree or in the bushes, and settled around the bonfire. Then we got out our food and told funny stories or fairy tales (usually scary) while we ate. The fairy tales were usually about witches, demons and rogues. Scary or humorous stories were always the most successful, and there were excellent story-tellers among us. You would shake from fear, with shivers going up and down your spine, but you could not stop listening.
Lemeshev was a clever pupil and soon the teacher began to ask him to control the younger children while she was busy with the older ones. "Walking past our cabin, she often praised me to my mother: "Akulina, your Sergei should be sent to town to study in gymnasium." But that was impossible. The family needed a worker. In 1914, after he finished school, he began to learn shoemaking.
Copyright © 2012 by Natalia A. Bukanova. No part of this blog may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the author.