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Elder Sister

Elder SisterLife is not simple when you are under pressure because of prominent positions and authority of those close to you. To be somebody’s sister, daughter or wife is enough to give some people a feeling of pride and of one’s own significance. Larisa Shoigu has had the opportunity to feel this kind of pressure on two levels. At first, at the level of Tuva, it was because of the authority and prominence of her father. Later it was on the level of the entire Russia – because of her brother, who is the Minister of Emergencies and a Hero of Russia.

Nevertheless, this slender woman with an elegant boyish haircut has always made certain to be herself – an independent personality, who does not live on the fame and merit of her relatives.

She has been able to make independent decisions since she was in kindergarten. She astonished her relatives when unexpectedly, after first having tested herself in the morgue, she chose the profession of a physician. She astonished them even more when, after finishing school, she went to work in a psychiatric institute – in other words, in a madhouse. And she made the most crucial decision already at a ripe age, when she drastically changed her life: she left medicine to become a delegate. On December 2, 2007, she was elected in Tuva to be a delegate of State Duma of Russia.

We meet in Moscow in her parents’ apartment. Her own apartment is undergoing a prolonged renovation, and I delicately bowed out of holding the interview at the State Duma, to avoid pressures of officialdom.

We arrived to the entrance of a standard building near the South-West metro station simultaneously, the delegate carrying a load of cakes for tea.

We are met by Mama – Alexandra Yakovlevna – in the cozy two-room apartment, the walls of which are lovingly decorated with family photographs.

Papa – Kuzhuget Sergeyevich – is not here, he is hospitalized.

Mama makes tea and the daughter is helping. We bravely attack the cakes and talk. And for some reason it starts to feel like we have known each other for a long time, even though we meet for the first time.

Riding on a dog

- Larisa Kuzhugetovna, what is the best thing in your life?

- That is very difficult to say, I have never thought about it. Most probably, my family. Thank god, Papa is 89, Mama is 86, and they are both with me, alive. And all my closest relatives are nearby. That is probably the most important thing in this life for me.

- And what is your earliest clear childhood memory?

- That was already in Shagonar, where we moved from Chadan. A courtyard, a fence, and a huge dog. The yard is covered with snow. The snow sparkles. The snow was fluffy, white, and some sort of unusual astonishment stayed in my mind.

Then, already later, I remember my little brother riding on that same dog like on a horseback.

- You are the older sister. By how much?

Elder Sister- I am 2 years and 4 months older than my brother. There is 8 years between me and my younger sister Irina. Sergei and I were born in Chadan, but Ira already in Kyzyl.

You know, mom often laughs, because many people say that they remember Seryozha running around Chadan. But that is impossible – we moved from Chadan when he was only 3 months old.

You know, a feeling that you have a brother is such a special, good feeling, it must be on some subconscious level.

- In childhood, brothers and sisters always fight; who was usually the winner – you or your brother?

- Just like all children, my brother and I always fought – with variable success. Until the moment when he understood that he was stronger than me. And from that time we could just argue to defend our opinions. We have always been close and we stay close – in spirit and in ways of thinking. We can share our problems, plans, doubts, and crazy ideas.

He is a close person with whom I can share everything.

- Who was the leader, older sister or younger brother?

- You know, somehow we were very self-sufficient when growing up. Nobody was the leader. It seems to me that nobody was leading us or bringing us up, because Mama and Papa were at work from morning till night. They never pressured us, never dictated – do this, do it only this way. There was never any pressure on our feeling of individuality, no pressure on the personality.

Papa was always going on business trips, Mama was at the ministry, she was working there as an economist. And, basically, we were left to our own devices.

Do you know, I have another memory from childhood. We are sitting with my brother by the window on a chair, and are waiting for mama and Papa. Alone. It is night. Late. They are not there. They are at work. And we sit and look out the window. At that time we still were living in a communal apartment, that is how we lived in Kyzyl at first.

We did not have any babysitters. I dropped out of kindergarten.

The yard of my childhood

- How is it possible to drop out of kindergarten?

- I simply said that I won’t go to the kindergarten anymore, and that was that. I did not like the kindergarten, because we always had to be together with other children and do everything together all the time. And I always had a feeling of defiance, I was like that.

- A little girl of the Soviet times without a feeling for a collective? That is impossible.

- And this girl of the Soviet times even wrote an essay where I disagreed with the authorities. I wrote that Natasha Rostova, whom everybody praised, was not an exemplary heroine at all, certainly not my heroine. At the time, an intern from the pedagogical institute was teaching us, and she said that I was not right, and gave me a lower mark, even though I never received a mark like that for an essay.

But my teacher would never have lowered my mark for my ideas. We had a magnificent literature teacher, Mariya Mikhailovna. She allowed us to think.

Anyway, I left the kindergarten and sat at home. We lived in a very friendly two-story building on the street of Red Partisans. I remember all the holidays very well, when we, all the children, would be in one apartment, and our parents with all the neighbors and friends in another. I remember how the adults sang and danced. I also remember, and that was during the Khrushchev era, when there was a bread shortage. You could get snow-white rolls from imported flour, but no bread. So the adults would collect all the children in one apartment, we would stay there with our neighbors the Kiselevs’ grandmother Nastya, and Mama with the other neighbors stood in lines for bread all night. The wife of the “obkom” stood on the lines with everybody else.

There were many children in our yard. We were all very sociable and good friends. I remember all the games that we all used to play together, burn-out circle, a ball game where you drop out when they hit you with the ball.

- In the yard of my childhood, it was called “sour circle” they don’t play it anymore, just like other yard games that we used to enjoy so much. And did you play “ten sticks”?

- Yes. You had to put ten sticks on a plank and hit the plank.

There was also a time when we produced a play. It was the idea of Nadezhda Krasnaya, who also lived in our yard, now she is a National artist of Russia. She was older than the rest of us and took the role of a director.

- We wrote up the invitations and took them to the mailboxes. The dressing-room was in our cellar in the yard. The show was right in the yard, and all the children were in it.

- What about your family traditions?

- Always to welcome the children’s friends. No matter who showed up or when, they were invited in and fed. No matter how busy Mama and Papa were, we always had a home. And all our friends could come to our apartment, at any time.

Mama used to bake pirogi. Nobody else could bake like she could. We had huge two-bucket pots, and they were always full of her baking. And our home was always full of people – my friends, my brother’s friends.

Possibly because my sister is eight years younger, we were always closer with my brother. We knew the same people, went to the same school. All of us finished the First school. It was a good school, with very strong teachers. We had a remarkable principal Pyotr Vasilyevich Markelov. I do not know if he is still alive or not, they left Kyzyl later. He taught mathematics, and his wife taught chemistry.

There was another tradition – Papa’s briefcase full of candies. Papa used to go often on business trips to Moscow, when he was the chief editor of the newspaper. And I remember his briefcase – large, full of candies, which he used to bring from Moscow.

And we always shared these candies with everybody in the yard. We always treated everybody.

There is a funny story revolving around candies. I remember very well how one time we went with my brother to buy a present for Papa. Mama gave us the money, and we went to pick something out. Right where the “Sayany” department store is now, there used to be little food shops. And we brought chocolates, chocolate coins. We gave him what we would have liked ourselves, and though it was very good.

There was also this rule: we never knew if parents had any problems or difficulties at work. It never carried over to the family.

When I went to school, it was complicated with books, and we were always borrowing them. Papa would be given a little book with a list which books could be borrowed. But mostly I was the one to do what was necessary.

And how I loved books! That was always the best present for me.

And another tradition – Papa used always bring flowers to all us women, no matter how expensive. Where did he only buy them? Each one of us got her own bouquet, Mama, myself, my sister. Individual bouquets. When I was eight, I had to have surgery. I had frequent tonsillitis, and they did a tonsillectomy. It was winter, and my birthday is January 21. But Papa was in Moscow on a business trip. So he sent me a congratulatory telegram to the hospital. I remember how the doctor came and read that telegram which came all the way from Moscow – for a little girl, a first-grader. We had a very good childhood.

Grandma’s “little pillows”

- And which of the candies of your childhood did you especially like?

- No matter how silly it may seem – “little pillows”.

- Sold without wrappings, in many colors, shaped like little pillows, the cheapest and most ordinary in late 50’s -60’s? I remember them very well, my grandmother loved to drink tea with them, and I along with her.

- And my grandmother Arina Pyotrovna, Mama’s mother, also loved those little very soft caramels – the “little pillows”. She kept them in her closet, and she was always giving them to me. I remember their aroma to this day.

They were always taking us with Seryozha to visit grandma. There was this funny event, when I was very little, and they were taking me from Grandma’s back to Tuva. In Moscow, Mama bought chocolates from the capital for me, and I threw a fit - I don’t need this, I only want the candies like my Grandma used to give me. Mama could not figure out what special candies they could be. Then Grandma wrote to her – I used to give her only ordinary “little pillows”.

I have not seen such candies anywhere lately. They don’t sell them anymore.

Grandma’s house stood in an orchard. The house smelled of homemade linen, she wove it herself. I remember lying on a bed like on a featherbed. And her silhouette from the back, all in white. It is evening. She is praying before going to sleep. She was praying, and I was watching.

Grandma took me to be baptized in secret. She baptized Seryozha too, when he was five years old. Later she owned up to mama, but she kept hiding it from Papa – she was afraid that he would get angry; it was not allowed for party members to baptize their children.

You know, it was such a feeling of peacefulness, when I used to visit her. Peace and contentment.

It was so frightening

- Where was this fairy-tale house of your grandmother?

- It was in Stakhanov, in Luganskaya region, in the Ukraine. It was an interesting town; its name was changed four times in the Soviet times. Until 1937 it was called Kadievka, then from 1937 to 1943 – Sergo, in honor of Sergo Ordzhonikidze. When in 1943 the Red Army liberated the town from the fascists, the name was changed again to Kadievka. And then in 1978, after the famous coal cutter Stakhanov died, they named it after him. These are the same places that Fadeyev wrote about in his novel “Molodaya gvardiya” , about the activities of the “young guard”

- The biography of your father, Kuzhuget Sergeyevich Shoigu, born in 1921 in the Kara-Khol sumon of Bai-taiga district, journalist, writer, state and party activist, is well known in Tuva, also thanks to his two autobiographic books. But where are the roots of your other half – the mother’s lineage?

- The maiden name of my mother, Alexandra Yakovlevna, is Kudryavtseva. She was born in 1924 in Orel region, 40 km from Orel. Their village was conjoined with the railroad station Zmeyevka.

Before the war, the family moved to the Ukraine, to Kadievka, now Stakhanov. That is where Mama grew up, and all the relatives still live there.

When the war started, she was 16. It was all so frightening that she remembers the exact date even today – the Germans came on July 12, 1941. The three of them – Grandma, mama, and the daughter-in law – mother’s older brother’s wife, lived through the war together. Mama, to avoid being taken to Germany, hid in the attic.

But at the very end of the war, when the Red Army was already coming, Mama and her friends went to barter some things for bread. They got to Gorlovka, and the police caught them. They were taken to a horrible place fenced with barbed wire, and people would be taken from there to be thrown into mine shafts.

But they managed to escape after dark; they crawled out under the barbed wire. At first as they were crawling, a policeman shouted at them. Then later another policeman saw them, and not only did he not stop them, but called to them to go faster. Her whole arm was torn up by that barbed wire.

Some local women hid them, and they went home in the morning. By that time Grandma was sure that Mama was dead. In 1951 Mama finished the Kharkov agricultural institute. She was assigned, as things used to be done, to work in Tuva. She had no idea where she was going. But, once she got there, she stayed. In Chadan, where she was working in the administration of the state farm, she met Papa. He was the editor of the district newspaper. They got married, and now they have been together already for 58 years, all their lives.

- It was not quite accurate to call you the eldest sister. Your eldest sister lives in Chadan – a half-sister, Kuzhuget Sergeyevich’s daughter from his first marriage. Several years ago I visited her at her invitation in her cozy and hospitable house, and she spoke about Alexandra Yakovlevna and all of you with great warmth.

- We are always in touch. And now especially often, since Papa is in the hospital and Svetlana is worried and calls all the time. We help her daughter and grandson.

Her mother died, and she was adopted by Papa’s parents, as is customary in Tuva. When Papa got married again, Mama at first did not even know that he already had a daughter. And Papa helped his parents until the end of their lives, and put all his relatives through school.

Ailana Kuzhuget, our cousin, lives in Kyzyl, she is a scholar, married to Yuriy Minayev, and we also are often in touch.

I was lucky with men

- What is your favorite place in Tuva?

- It is impossible to single out separate places in our Tuva – everything is so beautiful. Of course you know the smell of the steppe? The air full of the aroma of wild wormwood is incomparable, there is nothing like that anywhere else in the world.

Or the places where the Old Believers live – the Upper Small Yenisei. Boulders stick out of the water, there are rapids, water running like mad, and you can sit on that humongous boulder for hours and just watch all that incredible beauty all around. And that feeling of confidence and trust, and at the same time that thrilling strength and power.

Everything is beautiful in our Tuva.

As one person said: we should cover up the whole Tuva with a hat, make it all into a protected zone and never touch anything, to preserve it all.

- Is it possible to live in Moscow, yet say: in our Tuva?

- It is possible. Moscow is a cosmopolitan city. With its craziness, overwork and with its snobs. It is a city which swallows all people and catches them up in its insane energy. Having lived in Moscow, it is difficult to adapt to another place.

But you always love the place where your real life is. And my real life is connected with Tuva. We moved to Moscow, because our family ties are very strong. It is our basic principle – to stick together. We believe that we should live close to one another. When life scatters a family, they become alienated, and that is not right.

Sergei has been living and working in Moscow for a long time already. Ira did not come back to Kyzyl after university – she got married, then she lived in Sayanogorsk, Abakan, Moscow.

I lived in Kyzyl with my parents, and they never thought – how would we live without her? With my husband, we were drawn, but did not really want to go to Moscow. But somehow things worked out that way. Papa was very sick, he had terrible asthma, and he could not survive the Kyzyl winter, he had very bad asthma attacks. Our son finished the first institute, and there was no work for him in the city. So in the end, somehow it was done very fast - in two weeks, we left. In 1998, during the default. I left in the position of a vice-minister of health of Republic Tuva, which I received in ’98.

- So your brother pulled everybody to Moscow along with him?

- Everybody came here with their own fate. But he did pull us, of course, he did – Sergei. I have been very fortunate with the men around me. Starting with Papa. Then – brother, husband, son.

When Papa got weaker, my brother became the main support. He took over all of Papa’s functions of the protector and the head of the family.

So it turned out that we all went to Moscow. And we decided to settle down in the same district – southwest. It is not by chance that we all live in the same district, it was very intentional, so that we would always be visible and accessible to each other, and so that we would be within walking distance, just in case.

Only Sergei does not live in Moscow but in the suburbs.

It is not possible to rip the heart into two pieces

- Considering the two cultures which live inside you, whom do you feel to be – Russian or Tuvan? Have you ever felt torn into two parts?

- I simply never really thought about it. I just felt like a human being – with my own worldview, and attitudes.

- Yes, our generation really did not think about these things. But later, in the 90’s, there was a time when the passport classification of “Nationality” suddenly became very relevant and painful.

- Yes, it is true. Somebody I knew, back in Kyzyl, once told me: “I don’t envy you, neither side will accept you. You don’t fit anywhere.”

Even today one still can feel it. I know many things that are said behind my back: she is not a real Tuvan. But I have never said that I am 100% Tuvan. My mother is Russian. Why should I have to renounce it? My Papa and Mama are equally close and dear to me. How could I ever say that I am only one or only the other? It is impossible to tear the heart into two pieces.

- And has anybody ever tried to get a unanimous answer from you? Like that blunt question that adults sometimes use to mentally put a child’s back to the wall: and whom do you love more – mommy or daddy?

- Of course they tried. But it is abnormal.

In our family, we always accepted and still accept everybody. And we had and have all kinds of friends. Now, when all the borders are open, everybody associates with everybody else. I have friends and acquaintances of all possible nationalities. So should I single people out, with whom I should drink tea and with whom I should not? It is ridiculous.

And also outright stupid. In any case, it is harmful and limited thinking. There is a feeling of national dignity, and then there is small-town nationalism. They are two different things. Nationalism is the most repulsive trait. As Starovoitova use to say in her time – it is the same thing like being proud of having been born on Tuesday.

Nadezhda Antufieva, “Centr Asii”,, translated by Heda Jindrak
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