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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aunt's Voice Makes Lebed Sound Reedy

So I says to her, I says, 'If I was you,' I says, 'I'd tell him where to go. Tell him not to bother calling anymore, the drunken layabout, and find yourself a decent fellow.' But they never listen, these silly young girls. They have to make their own mistakes."


The voice, booming across the concrete, resembles a fog horn or a factory siren. It makes the voice of General Alexander Lebed sound like a reedy soprano. It is the voice of Aunt Katya, or "Katyukha," who has an opinion on every subject under the sun.


You'll hear it, whether you want to or not, if you come within a 10-kilometer radius of her bench in the yard behind a house where I sometimes visit friends just outside Moscow.


Winter was quiet as the empty yard was muffled in snow. But last week the old women came out to sit and watch the world go by, as sure a sign of spring in Russia as the chirping of the birds.


I was sunbathing peacefully on a bench on the other side of the yard when the voice started up. The only comparable sound I have ever heard was the din made by a group of women mine workers in the showers at a pit in the Donbass. But they were a choir. Katya is a solo act. At best, her companions on the bench are a softly cooing back-up chorus.


"So anyway, I says to her ..." At first I thought Katya was shouting at the top of her voice. But this was just a quiet gossip. The real yelling began when Katya, an enormous woman in an apron and woolly hat, spotted her weedy husband teetering home after a bottle or two.


"Kolya," she roared. "Kolya, get over here." And I nearly fell off my bench from the vibration.


Katya is not a person you can really interview. You feel you are talking to an express train. But before she launched into a lecture about how I was too lightly dressed for the April weather, I did manage to extract from her that she used to work as a blacksmith in the local machine-building factory.


Hot and noisy work. Hence the habit of shouting, although lesser voices would have gone hoarse long ago.


Neighbors supply the background information that she was once a heavy drinker, until the doctors told her to give up vodka. Now her favorite topics are the evils of alcohol and problems of health. I guess she will not mind me telling you that she has been a martyr to constipation, since she broadcasts this fact on her very own local radio station anyway.


When she was still drinking, she loved to hold parties in the yard, which often degenerated into fist fights among the neighbors. Once, when they were all very drunk, they decided to go boating on the river, where one of the men drowned while trying to retrieve a woman's dress that had fallen in the water. Afterwards, a wake was held in the yard, at which Katya led the wailing of the mourners.


But after the fights, and even the tragedies, jollity would return, and Katya would take her accordion and sing chastushki (popular songs) with words far too filthy for this family newspaper.


"With her voice, she could fill a stadium and drown out the three tenors," said one neighbor. "But unfortunately, she could never sing in tune."