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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

House Is Burning on the Threshold of Change

I heard what sounded like either gunfire or explosions, which echoed across the rooftops of the village. Crowds of villagers headed in the direction of the white billows of smoke. I knew many of them because this was not the first summer I had spent in this town in the Tverskaya oblast, some 150 kilometers north of Moscow. I made my way to the two burning houses on the edge of the forest. The only person who had been home during the fire was Vova, 6, the son of Pyotr Ivantsov.

He had run outside, and watched the blaze without calling for help. A neighbor noticed the fire only after it had leaped from the log izba to the adjoining two-story brick house. The flames consumed the house's paneling, parquet floors and new furniture.

The crowd was deadened by the horrible sight. The flames in the brick house hummed like a stove with a good draft. The water turned to steam as firemen hosed down the crackling roof. Then the windows burst and fierce balls of flame shot out. Above the house, a hot column of air was lifting black ash into the sky, swirling upward like moths at night.

Someone called out to Pyotr's son: "Vova, there are sparks flying over there. Come here. How did it happen?"


"Were you playing with matches?"

He nodded.

"And the fire started by accident?"

Another nod. And then he looked at everyone and said, "No, I did it on purpose. Grandma Manya told me to."

His grandmother had been buried six months ago, and no one understood at first what he was talking about. But Vova added, "When Grandma Manya was sick, she told me, 'Do what they kept me from doing.'"

In the village, it was expected that the Ivantsov family's drawn-out conflict would not turn out well, but no one thought it would end like this. For half a year, the boy remembered the promise he made to his grandmother, and now he had kept it. I was told how Pyotr Ivantsov sent his aging mother first to a mental hospital, where she was diagnosed with heavy depression, and then to a retirement home.

In the village, there were differing opinions on the matter. Some criticized Pyotr, others sighed and justified his actions. She was his mother after all. But she was old and crazy. She had tried to burn down her own house. Others said Grandma Manya couldn't stand to watch Pyotr kick his own sister out of the family home. Pyotr's sister Klavdia was married twice and raising three children on her own, two of them born out of wedlock. She couldn't stay in one job for more than six months.

Pyotr and Klavdia grew up without a father. Their mother worked on a collective farm from dawn to dusk. They lived very modestly and wore old clothes. But even then, the differences in their characters were obvious. Klavdia got along with everyone and wasn't shy about wearing a second-hand dress to a dance club. Pyotr was withdrawn and spent his evenings reading. People said he would get what he was after. And they were right.

Pyotr had been a poorly paid engineer in the city before he got his start in business. He first rented out a dilapidated banya in the suburbs, added a steam room and two pools. His business grew. He built two kiosks near the banya and later opened several stores.

In the village, Pyotr was respected for his business acumen. People would come to ask his advice and sometimes ask him for work. Those he took on said things like, "He demands a lot from everyone, but he pays well. It would be nice, though, if he joked a little every so often." When these words were repeated back to Pyotr, he would say "You can't keep everyone happy. Besides, work and fun don't mix."

This is what bothered him most about his sister Klavdia. He was sure that it was her light-hearted nature that made her life so difficult. She married fools, and serious men courted her only briefly. Pyotr often criticized her publicly, driving her to tears. His wife, Vera, tried not to interfere in their relationship. But his mother came to Klavdia's defense.

This annoyed Pyotr: "Why stick up for her. She's lazy. You watch her children while she runs around town. I help her with money. It has to stop."

"She's your sister," his mother would say. "You should show more compassion for her."

Compassion was something he never had for his sister. He built the new house because it was too crowded at the old izba. But this didn't bring peace to the family. One weekend, Pyotr threw Klavdia out, accusing her of not being capable of controlling her children and saying they were a bad influence on Vova. The entire village then saw how Klavdia led her three children to the electric train to go into town, where she had a room in a communal apartment. From that moment, Grandma Manya began her scheming and unintelligible muttering. Going into the woods to gather grasses with Vova, she would say, "When I die, you will get better. These grasses here are for a cough, and these are for heartache."

"Is your heart sick?" Vova would ask.

"It has been for a long time," Grandma Manya would answer. "I'm upset about your father most of all. What does he need a house for if Klavdia's children cannot run around in it?"

Everyone thought the brother and sister would make amends after their mother's death. But Klavdia and her children left right after the funeral.

Pyotr arrived the day of the fire when the izba and house had already been reduced to ashes and soot-covered walls.

"Your doing?" Pyotr asked his son.

The boy nodded, saying, "Grandma Manya told me to."

"Are you making things up?" the father asked.

"No," the boy shook his head. "I saw her yesterday in a dream."

Grabbing him by the hand, Pyotr jerked him into the car and left.

As I was passing by the house on a recent day, I saw Klavdia and her children. They were standing near the burned house, looking at the blackened walls.

I am reminded of them now every time I return on the electric train to Moscow and see children wandering about with outstretched hands, when they ask for help "with whatever you can." And it seems to me that they are all Klavdia's children, whose brother freed himself from the responsibility of helping them. I understand his instinctive wish to have everyone around him be as hardworking and skillful as he is. I share his disgust for laziness and irresponsibility. I suppose that the inevitable changes in our lives force people with such traits to drink from the bitter cup of poverty and shame. But I can't help thinking that Klavdia's children, who are also forced to drink from this cup, are not guilty of having been born into these transitional times.

Igor Gamayunov is a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.