City Teacher, Nurse, Actress Gave War a Female Face
Published: May 6, 2005 (Issue # 1067)
For The St. Petersburg Times
Yekaterina Bazarnova in a group of Soviet soldiers on May 8, 1945, as Germany capitulated. The next day she entered Berlin.
On June 21, 1941, she was 16 and acting in a drama group's performance of the Ukrainian play "Platon Krechet" in Bolshaya Murta in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region. The play was a success. Everybody congratulated her. Life was filled with joy, happiness and laughter. Her friends took her home.
The next morning she woke up with happy feelings - the sun, summer ... but suddenly the good times were all gone - Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union and it would be almost four years until peace returned.
Yekaterina Mikhailovna Bazarnova, who at 80 still works as a history teacher in St. Petersburg, spent most of her teenage years at war. From 1941 to 1945 she was at the front, from the first till the last day, even despite the saying that "war does not have a woman's face."
Bazarnova doesn't tell her story often. She remembers the horror of it all too clearly. And she is by nature humble and becomes very shy when someone asks her about the war. Her colleagues at school No. 327 in St. Petersburg learned her story by accident, after seeing her photographs. There are only three. She has saved them with great care. One was taken on the first day of the war, the second on May 8, 1945, and the last, on the next day, Victory Day.
"I never told them about my war. I kept it to myself. It's painful to remember," she said.
Nor did she mention the many medals she was awarded. Among them are a "Medal for Capturing Koenigsberg," "War Honors, first class, of the Great Patriotic War," "For Victory Over Germany," the "Order of the Great Patriotic War," and the Order of the Red Star.
And when she was asked to describe what she had done during the war, she smiled and said: "What deed? I didn't accomplish any feat. I was just living and doing what I had to."
Before she can be coaxed to start her tale, tears fill her eyes and her voice begins to tremble. She apologizes and starts to speak.
"Our family lived in Tambov in southern Russian. My father died before the war. Mom was left with three children. Of course, it was rather difficult. My oldest brother went to work at a factory. I dreamed of becoming an actress, studied in a drama group, and acted.
Bazarnova had a normal childhood. She was fond of sport, loved skating and participated in city hockey competitions and gymnastics. She was full of life and devoted a lot of time to ballet and drama. And the ardor of this young girl was infectious.
"One friend told me that she had become a master gymnast just because I had inspired her when we were together in school," she said.
After seven years at school she enrolled in medical school.
"I didn't tell my mother, so at first she thought I was still going to school, but I was already studying medicine. I wanted so much to be a nurse," she said.
After graduating from medical school at age 15 Bazarnova was sent to the settlement of Bolshaya Murta in the Krasnoyarsk region in Western Siberia.
"I was full of hopes; my dream had come true," she said. "And what was especially important for me was that I continued acting.
"I remember that when I arrived at the hospital, local boys ran and asked if it was true that a 15-year-old girl had come to work as midwife. I answered, 'No, not 15, 16.' Then they told me about a drama group in the settlement."
"On the evening of June 21, 1941, I was so nervous and excited on the stage that I held the telephone receiver the wrong way up and everybody laughed. But everything was very nice."
"The next morning I was so happy, I ran to the doctor's assistant to get some milk - he had a cow - and Professor Voino-Yasenetsky, who lived in our house, stopped me."
Voino-Yasenetsky was a famous surgeon. He was also Bishop Luka, whom the atheistic Bolsheviks had sent into exile. Voino-Yasenetsky had spent 17 years in the gulag in the far north and then come to Siberia as a doctor. He was affectionate toward Bazarnova, took care of her, enjoyed working together with her and called her "the yellow-beaked sparrow."
"Where are you hurrying, yellow-beaked sparrow?" he asked.
"To the doctor's assistant for milk," Bazarnova replied.
"He asked me about the performance. I was so glad, he talked to me and then he said, 'the war has started.' I didn't know whether to be glad or sad. Why? Because there were military preparations in the Far East. Girls used to walked through our town wearing military uniforms and we envied them ... "
That day Bazarnova didn't get her milk.
She was taken to Krasnoyarsk and given military boots and a uniform. Her feet were too small for the big boots, so a soldier she knew as Uncle Vasya adapted the boots so they would fit.
The young nurse found herself on the hospital train where she worked with Voino-Yasenetsky until 1943. They collected injured soldiers and transported them away from the front to the east, but nevertheless the train was bombed on several occasion. Carriages were shattered, there was blood everywhere and everyone suffered.
"Once fate gave me a gift. I met my mom in my native Tambov." But the encounter was so emotional Bazarnova won't say more about it.
Everyday life on the train was dealing with tortures, pain, and the moans of the injured who were waiting for help.
Bazarnova remembered her dramatic experiences and performed for seriously wounded men, sometimes acting out whole plays in a solo performance.
"One sick man told me: 'you should go to the teacher's institute, not to the medical. After the war be a teacher.'"
At the beginning of 1943, the hospital train was disbanded. Its staff had become very close to each other. Saying goodbye was difficult.
At this time General Pavel Rotmistrov formed the 5th Guards' tank army. And it was as a member of the headquarters of this army that Bazarnova passed through the most important events of World War II.
The army took part in the Kursk battle, the Korsyn-Shevchenskaya and the Yassko-Kishenevskaya operation. Then, as the Red Army's supremacy over its German foes grew and grew, she pushed on with the army into the Baltics, Koenigsburg and finally to Berlin.
A guardian angel seems to have kept an eye on her during this time. Bazarnova remembers one day having to bring something to the military unit. The road she took went through a large open area and she was surprised that nobody came to meet her. When she arrived the whole unit was looking at her with wide-opened eyes. Only then was she told that she had just walked unharmed through a minefield.
"I remember May 8, 1945, very clearly. The day was sunny, there was silence, no shooting, no noise from cars, nothing, just silence. And there was a field in Berlin completely covered with lilac, it was a shorter lilac than the one that grows in Russia ... We were wearing full uniform. I even have a photo - I'm a senior lieutenant of the medical service. We are having a rest on the edge of this field. You can even see my future husband. We are full of joy, waiting for something."
There was a short delay while the remnants of the German military command were summoned for a short ceremony of capitulation.
On May 9, the army paraded outside Berlin and entered the destroyed German capital. Bazarnova wrote her name on the wall of the Reichstag where it remains to this day.
After the war Bazarnova worked as a nurse in a hospital in Brest until she was demobilized in 1946.
"After the war I went back to Tambov and saw a notice about students being enrolled in the teacher's training institute. I remembered the words of that soldier. Since then I've been a teacher, in spite of urgings from my family to take it easy at home: you're leaving your children, you always go to school."
Today Bazarnova is preoccupied with her work at school and the creation of museums. She has devoted her life to them. The first museum she created was in Furstenberg in former East Germany. It is called the Lenin Museum. The second is a memorial museum to 26 officers in Baku who were shot by the Bolsheviks for revolutionary activities. Bazarnova's third museum gives the history of St. Petersburg's school No. 327, which has won many awards. The main one was first prize in a national competition of school museums in 2000, the 55th anniversary of victory year.
"The last museum doesn't have revolutionary themes. But before, when I was a member of the Communist party: Lenin, Stalin ... I was so proud of my father who had been a pre-revolutionary member of the party and I thought I would continue his cause."
She still collects information about those who left school No. 327 to fight in the war, preserving the memory of their achievements. She even arranged the reburial from Latvia to Russia of Viktor Voronov, a graduate of School No. 120 (now No. 327), a Hero of the Soviet Union who fell in battle in Latvia in 1944.
She has also guided walking tours for her pupils in St. Petersburg, showing them sites associated with the Siege of Leningrad, the Great Patriotic War and the architecture of St. Petersburg.
"If they see it once, they will remember it. And they will take their children to these places," Bazarnova said.
And her pupils remember what she has shown them. They also remember their teacher.
'This wonderful teacher gave me a start in life, she shared her experience with me," said Yekaterina Filimonova, today a student of Smolny University. "I developed a feeling of pride and responsibility for those who had been to my school, for Russia, and for people like Yekaterina Mikhailovna.
"I became a guide in the school museum, which helped me to break down some of my defenses when it came to dealing with other people," Filimonova said. "It's so important to form relations with people, to leave a good impression about yourself."
Bazarnova's children take after her. Her daughter Irina graduated from the history department of St.Petersburg State University and her son, Nikolai, like his father, from the Naval Academy.
Bazarnova's husband was a military doctor whom she met during the war. The marriage came later. He died several years ago.
Although the children are like their parents, there is one key difference: there is no war in their life.
Bazarnova and her husband and many other ordinary people, whose names are not even known accomplished a great deed and presented them with life and peace.