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My World

Ordinary Heroes
Helen Womack

Antonina Gololobova is in no hurry to enter her new house. Rather, she lingers outside in the garden, pointing to where the old garage, banya and vegetable store used to be. Eventually she and her husband Pyotr, a businessman, do invite us inside. But now Antonina’s talking about lost family photographs and heirlooms. She’s still not concentrating on the new house.

The Gololobov family—Antonina, Pyotr and their two grown-up sons, Gennady and Alexei—are grateful to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of course, that he’s kept his promise to the victims of this summer’s wildfires and built them new houses. They have received a three-room bungalow on an estate of identical houses, built on the ashes of the old village of Laskovsky, just outside Ryazan.

“Frankly, I didn’t expect it,” said Pyotr. “A politician actually keeping a promise, well!”

“It’s a pleasant surprise,” agreed Gennady, a nanotechnologist at the local university, “although I haven’t decided yet whether Putin will get my vote.”

Before the fires, the Gololobov’s had an old, four-room wooden house, into which they’d put 25 years of effort and loving energy. It wasn’t just a dacha but a home in which they lived all year round.

While Uzbek guest workers put the finishing touches to the bathroom and kitchen of their new bungalow, they laid out sandwiches and mandarins on the living room windowsill as an impromptu housewarming. Pyotr cracked open a bottle of vodka and after the toasts came the still-vivid memories of the inferno.

“All summer, we’d seen the smoke from camp fires down by the lake,” said Antonina. “We thought, with the extreme temperatures, the authorities would close the forests to campers. We thought surely someone would put the fires out. Then one evening, the wind got up and blew the fire right over our village. The sky went dark. It was like a nuclear explosion.

“We phoned for help but nobody came,” she continued. “The firemen arrived only after three streets had already burnt down. It was crown fire (in the tops of the trees), impossible to put out. The birches were like candles.”

The family fled in their own cars. Along with Antonina, Gennady and Alexei were 93-year-old blind grandmother Yekaterina Ustinova and Alexei’s young wife Natalia, seven months pregnant. Like the captain of a sinking ship, Pyotr stayed behind to fight the flames and try to save the house. Antonina was convinced he had perished.

“The heat was indescribable,” Pyotr said. “I couldn’t go on; in the end I too had to run. I saw our dog Polkan and let him off his chain. ‘Go lad, take your chance,’ I said to him but I’m afraid, you know…”

Pyotr broke off, ostensibly to check on the progress of the workers in the bathroom. He was close to tears.

“So, show me the new house,” I said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

It was warm inside, with the gas central heating switched on. True, the doors and fittings were cheap but they could be changed. The three rooms were all wallpapered in inoffensive pastel shades. The house had potential, as the estate agents would say.

“It feels like living in Germany,” said Pyotr. “I don’t like the fact that the houses are all the same.”

“On the other hand, we have infrastructure now,” said Antonina, “water, gas, cable television and asphalt on the pavements. The village girls will be able to walk to the bus stop without getting mud on their high heels.”

From a sociological point of view, the new housing has created some interesting issues.

“As I mentioned, we were quite well off before,” said Pyotr. “We had a big house into which we’d invested years of effort. So you could say that for us, these standard, lower-middle class bungalows are a step down. But many in the village were living in rough shacks. Now they will have to learn how to be modern homeowners, maintaining their property and dealing with legal matters like insurance.”

Back in July, four families in Laskovsky considered themselves lucky because their wooden houses escaped the fires. Now they look on enviously at the new homes of their neighbours. “One woman in the old houses was so upset, she took an overdose of sleeping tablets,” said Antonina.

She sighed. We were back outside again, looking at where the Gololobov’s duck pond used to be, now just a pile of fresh top soil. I sensed that Antonina would happily swap places with the people in the old wooden houses—or rather, she simply wanted her own wooden house back again.

They survived the fires with incredible bravery. But now Antonina and Pyotr, on the verge of retirement, face an even harder task—letting go of the past and truly entering into their new home.

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