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Stalin – my temporary father

  • Date: 28 Oct, 2007 at 12:27AM,
  • 1 commentary
  • miniatura kresby z disertační práce J.S. Dcery nepřítele státuWhen I was in first grade, I saw a photograph of a girl who looked to be about seven. She had blond curly hair and Stalin was holding her next to him, dressed in his generalissimo uniform, with many medals on his chest.

There were other dignitaries in that photo taken in Red Square during the Workers’ day parade. The photograph also showed rows of smiling men and women looking up at the podium where Stalin was hugging the girl with blond curly hair.


She was holding flowers in her small right hand and had her left hand on Stalin’s shoulder. I was jealous of the girl in that photograph and would have given anything to be the one held by Stalin during the Red Square parade.

I knew about Stalin’s goodness from my first grade teacher Mrs. Svobodova, from the local official who was shouting into a horn while a chauffer drove him through our Prague suburban neighborhood, and from our President Gottwald who spoke generously about Stalin on the radio. They all taught me that Stalin was our Savior from the bad Germans, our leader who was going to protect us from the bad imperialists in the West, and that he was going to remove enemies in our own homeland. My dad was in prison at that time. I did not know where he was. My mom would just say, “Dad is away and he’ll be back when he is back.”

I remember she cried a lot. When she did not spank me, she yelled at me during the few hours we spent together in the evenings, after she returned home from work. In the morning, she was gone before I got up and drank the glass of milk and ate the slice of bread with butter that she left for me on the kitchen table. The clothes that she wanted me to wear to school, which I hated, were thrown over the kitchen chair. On Sunday afternoon, my mom took me for walks and we stopped for an ice cream cone. When it was too cold for a walk, we went to Mysak Café for caramel pudding. My mom never talked about Stalin. I had no aunts and uncles; my grandparents died before I could know them. 

But Mrs. Machova, my schoolmate Zdenek’s mom, was better than any aunt because she was a great cook. My mom was not a good cook, but she did bake a good apple cake and three varieties of Christmas cookies. It was in the middle of winter that mom allowed me to stay home because she thought I had tonsillitis. On her way to work, she rang the bell of Mrs. Machova’s apartment at five in the morning before she crossed the street to the tram stop. Mrs. Machova knew the signal. It meant to pop in to see that I was changing my wet neck compresses. Even better, she would bring me lunch. How I loved those sick days. I had books to read and we had a radio with two stations. On Sundays, we had a fairy tale broadcast at 1 o’clock after lunch. There was always music on the radio. Only one family in the neighborhood had a small-screen black and white television set. Mr. Benes, who was a sports announcer, had privileges to shop in the special currency store Tuzex which only important people could use. Mrs. Benes was nice enough to let some of us kids in the neighborhood watch the children’s program in the late afternoon.

The day that I stayed home with tonsilitis, the radio announcer mentioned that the next song coming up was Sulika. I knew that song from Mrs. Svobodova, our first grade teacher. She told us that Josef Visarionovich Djugasvilli was Stalin’s real name. He changed it to Stalin because that name meant "steel." Stalin was not Russian; he was from Soviet Georgia. His favorite song was Sulika from his native Georgia; it has a sweet melancholic melody.

To find the grave of my beloved I walked far.

I tortured my heart with pain and sorrow.

I will always love you.

Where are you Sulika; let me know.

I will always love you.

Where are you Sulika; let me know.

Close to a village, I saw the rose.

The tear from the rain of mist was quivering.

Your blossom is still so fresh.

My Sulika, you are my world.

To be near his rose,

Nightingale hid in the tree.

Do you rest here, I ask.

Tell me Sulika, my girl, that you are.

On that cold day, when I was in bed with my sore throat, keeping warm with a thick quilt and adding coal to the stove in the kitchen that generated enough heat into the living room which was also my mom’s and my bedroom, I heard Stalin’s much loved Sulika. With the first note coming from the radio, I jumped out of bed, took my neck compresses off and stood at attention while the singer sang Sulika with a sad sounding tenderness. Nobody ever taught me to stand at attention for that folk song, but I did. With nobody around, I was saluting my temporary father figure Josef Stalin.

After the winter was over, I was in our local park with my teacher and first grade schoolmates. We observed men dressed in unusual uniforms sweeping the path and soldiers in unusual uniforms standing around, watching the men work. This was before I visited my father in the labor camp where he worked in the uranium mines as a political prisoner. It was before I saw him wearing the same uniform as those men in the park whom my teacher called the “enemies of the state.” The men who took my dad away when I was six and let him return home when I was sixteen followed orders of those who bowed to Stalin.

When I was so jealous of that girl with blond curly hair in that famous photograph, I did not know that I was the more favored daughter of Stalin’s. Because all he did was imprison my daddy for ten years, but I could see him once or twice a year for a quarter of an hour. While the other little girl’s mommy and daddy never returned because Stalin had them executed as “enemies of the state.”

Jana Roubikova — Svehlova

My thanks to the Editor, JoAnn Cooper

© Jana Svehlova