Sunday, March 02, 2014

Lyubo, bratsi, lyubo - for Varvara

Into an émigré family in China in the 1930's, a bright, fierce soul was born, the granddaughter of a Cossack ataman: Varvara. Her first language was Russian; the second, Mandarin. Later, when the family made its way to the United States, English became her third language, and a new identity, which she proudly owned.

Varvara possessed a ringing, authoritative, powerful voice from her youth. Early on, she learned to take the reins in life. She sang her way through operas and symphonies, directed choirs, and obtained several college degrees, supported in her career by her beloved husband. And then, when he passed away: it was at this time that Varvara's life took a different turn. She decided to attend seminary, and became a chaplain, first in a remote Alaskan village; then she returned to what she had always thought of as her native land, although she had never seen its soil--to serve it as best she could.

Varvara journeyed to Russia as a Protestant chaplain, during the difficult times in the 1990's, delivering needed medications. There her heart turned even closer to her roots: she met an Abbess whose words moved her profoundly, and found herself singing her way back into the Orthodox faith, while serving, and assisting those who were in need--especially young women.

At that time, in some cities in the Russian Far East, in winter-time, inside the apartment buildings, the temperature was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Food was not making it to all of the places where people lived. Young girls, in many places, were considered disposable fodder. Varvara opened a house to them, started a church, directed the choir. She was too good! Too noticeable. Varvara played chess with the Bishop--a stalemate. Varvara played chess with the oligarchy: she lost.

When Varvara came rushing back to the states to withdraw a large sum, to help a young man with a terrible dilemma--and told me the truth about what was happening to the deliveries of food aid to the Far East, how they were ending up on the black market--perhaps I should have cried, "Varvara, be careful!" But she was ever the warrior. She may have saved a man--but ended up being expelled, absolutely unjustly, from her beloved motherland, forever.

Did that end Varvara's mission? Far from it. She continued social work with children and the elderly until her last breath.

Fourteen years ago, Varvara presented me with a gift: a blue dress she had worn at a concert; I had the honor to sing with her, several times, in a choir. It is still my favorite dress; I will keep it as long as I am able.

It was with sadness that I heard of Varvara's recent passing.

Varvara, vechnaya pamyat'! Memory eternal. May her soul dwell with the blessed. Varvara taught me: it isn't the label pasted on your forehead that matters, but that you keep your candle burning, and never stop singing.


I think Varvara would smile at the song I have posted above, Lyubo, bratsi, lyubo, lyubo, bratsi, zhit' (Lovely, brothers, lovely, lovely 'tis to live)--sung by Zhanna Bichevskaya, so I am including it here in her honor.

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