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Sunday, 20 April 2008


In the 16 years or so that I have known this singular woman, my father’s former lover who served 8 years in Soviet jails and camps through her association with him, every fact that I continue to discover about her only inspires me.

When my 17 year-old son David went to Moscow in March 2008, on a school trip, he took some money from my mother who selflessly supports Noka.. She lives in dire circumstances in a decrepit little dacha (the word means something like a “shack”, rather than the grand homes of the rich and nouveau-riche that dwarf Noka’s crumbling abode in the rural outskirts).

Elena, who collected the money from my son and helps look after Noka, got to know this unique lady through her godmother, who was imprisoned in the Gulag alongside Noka. From Elena I have now learned for the first time two anecdotes that illustrate the extraordinary qualities of Noka.

When Elena’s godmother arrived in the Gulag it was after a year of sleepless nights of interrogation just like Noka. Elena continues the story in a recent email to me:

“When my godmother's group of new convicts arrived at the camp in the late 1940-s, they were taken to the baths - whatever those looked like - to wash. She was in a horrible state of mind, having spent a year in prison during interrogation, and expecting worse to come. (She came from a well-to-do Moscow family, close-knit and loving, and although her mother and herself had had their fare share of suffering it was not until her arrest that she lost her friends, her church, and the whole of her Moscow world.) As they came in, she saw some young women inmates, who had just washed and were going to dress. She says she was stunned by Noka's beauty - and thought -"Well, if such perfection can survive here - all hope is not lost!'

And another bit - did you know, that while Noka was in the camp, she looked after abandoned dogs and cats, and had such a reputation for it, that people from outside the camp (from the 'free' world) would smuggle puppies across the barbed wire so she could look after them...(A mysterious feature of the Gulag life - however cruel and dreary its existence was, the people who ran Gulag could never make it completely soulless...and while the inmates themselves were starving, they still managed to spare a bit for a hungry dog...unbelievable!)

And she would call her friends and give away the parcel her sister sent her, and would look after an old lady who got no help from home, and would share whatever she had with those who had nothing.”

This explains to me the mystery why even today, disabled and without running water or sanitary facilities at 93 and no family to care for her, Noka continues to look after a menagerie of cats and dogs ….

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