From the sparkle in her eyes and the energy she exudes, one would never know that Valentina Ivanova had lived most of her life in primitive conditions in Siberia.
Banished, or Blessed?
Staying faithful to God and His Sabbath in Siberia
By Barbara J. Huff
From the sparkle in her eyes and the energy she exudes, one would never know that Valentina Ivanova had lived most of her life in primitive conditions in Siberia. Many of those near the age of 60 are languid; years of inconvenience, discomfort, and disappointment are etched on their faces.
That’s not the case with Valentina! She sprints instead of walks. She jumps instead of steps. Her smile brightens the darkest room; and the love of Jesus is reflected in her blue eyes.
In the Beginning
Alexander (Sasha) Ivanov finished medical school in Moscow in 1959. Medical school graduates were assigned a place to work for three years. After that they were free to work where they wanted. He was given the choice to stay and teach at the medical school or go to Osinniki, Siberia, to work.
Sasha knew that if he stayed in Moscow, he would have Sabbath problems. He thought that if he were far away in Siberia, he would be less likely to be harassed; so he chose Siberia. A year later he and Valentina were married.
Sasha had problems with Sabbathkeeping from the very start of his career. He did not have to work the first Sabbath he was in Osinniki. But early the next week he was fired because he refused to work future Sabbaths for which he was scheduled.
In the first two years after graduating from medical school, Sasha worked at various jobs in eight cities, including one job he held for an entire year. He was watched night and day for some infraction of the Communists’ interpretation of the law.
After the KGB found Sasha at a home church, the local newspaper printed an entire page describing a man who chose the Bible over the scalpel. He feared that his medical license would be revoked. All this time Valentina stood by Sasha and cheerfully moved from one place to another. Eventually Nadia, the first of two daughters, was born.
In 1962 Sasha went to Anzherka to apply for work as a doctor who accompanied ambulances. He offered to work any time except Friday and Saturday, but he was scheduled for those days anyway. “I cannot do this,” he told his supervisor. He was subsequently fired. For a couple weeks he had no work at all.
At the beginning of the following week, Sasha received notice to report to the KGB office and was told that if he didn’t find work by the end of the week, he would be arrested. During that week he looked for any kind of work. He saw “Help Wanted” signs in various shops, but each time he inquired, he was turned away. Managers of the shops said, “Yes, we need help.” But when Sasha presented his passport, they said, “Sorry, we do not need you.”
It seemed that his arrest was inevitable.
One day Sasha saw a sign advertising for a painter. Eagerly he went inside the building. The manager said, “Yes, we need a painter. Let me see your passport.”
When the man opened it and saw the name “Ivanov,” he said, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but the KGB has told everyone in the region not to hire you. I’m sorry.”
Defeated again, Sasha went home, knowing that he must report to the authorities the next day because the week was over and he did not have a job.
The next morning, with reluctant footsteps, Sasha made his way to the KGB office. When he didn’t return home, Valentina knew he had been arrested. After three days in jail and a mock trial, Sasha was sentenced to three years of exile and shipped to Mariinsk to work at a collective farm. It was a month before Valentina knew where he had been sent. Nadia was 13 months old; Valentina was 25.
Valentina eventually received a letter from Sasha’s telling her that the collective farm near Mariinsk where he had been sent was called “Victory.” With only this information, Valentina set off with a large bag and a backpack to find her husband. Leaving Nadia with a friend, and after a seven-hour train ride, Valentina arrived in Mariinsk.
It took awhile to find someone who knew where the farm was located. Eventually she was told about a man who was taking a truckload of supplies to Victory farm. She found the man, and he agreed to let her ride along.
Many types of people were sent to Siberia in those years: political prisoners; people like Sasha, who had been exiled because of some phony charges; and criminals serving sentences. Valentina was certain that this truck driver fell into the latter category. But she had no other way to get to the farm. She had to see Sasha, for she knew that his food would be inadequate and that he would need encouragement.
During a snowstorm the truck became stuck going up the final hill to the farm. It wasn’t far, only about a kilometer (half mile). Valentina chose to carry her heavy load up the hill in the snow rather than stay in the truck. As she approached the farm, she saw a building that appeared to be barracks. When she got nearer, she saw a man coming from the building. “Is there a man here named Sasha Ivanov?” she asked. Joy rippled through her body when the stranger confirmed that her husband was there.
Sasha was speechless when he saw his brave, smiling wife. She spent the night at the farm, then went back to her home and prepared to move to Mariinsk. Spouses and families of those who were exiled were allowed to live with their family members.
When Valentina and Nadia arrived at Victory farm, they were assigned to live in a tiny house with a woman who, with her husband, had been exiled there in 1937. Although her husband was dead, the woman stayed on because she had no other place to go.
The space in the tiny house allocated to the Ivanov family was actually just a windy corridor. Happy to be together in spite of the accommodations, the Ivanovs enjoyed this arrangement for 10 days.
One evening Sasha did not return from his work of caring for farm animals. He had been transferred again. Later he told Valentina that party officials told him that the country was not rich enough to use doctors as laborers on a pig farm. Communists may have been blind to many things, but they were not blind to Sasha’s unused talents, or to his integrity.
Again Valentina waited eagerly for word from anybody who might know the whereabouts of her husband. Eventually Sasha was able to get a letter to Pastor Zozulin, who made arrangements to move Valentina and Nadia by train. Thus began Valentina’s second quest to find her husband.
Good and Faithful Servants
It was a joyful reunion when Sasha collected his little family from the train station. However, that was the easy part of the journey. The three of them went the next 50 kilometers (30 miles) by truck. With another 50 kilometers to go, Sasha found a little Mongolian pony that was “half dead” to take them the rest of the way. They put their little pile of belongings on the cart, placed baby Nadia on top, and she and Sasha walked behind.
“The scenery was breathtaking,” says Valentina. They were in a quiet, peaceful river valley surrounded by mountains. Part of the time they traveled on the frozen river. However, the river had begun to thaw, so there was water on either side of their track. Night fell, but the travelers pushed on.
Suddenly the quietness was broken by the sounds of another horse and cart coming toward them on the frozen track. Soon the two horses were nearly nose-to-nose on the narrow path, and there was not enough room for the two conveyances to pass. The man in the other cart, in a drunken stupor, was unaware of the dangerous situation.
Sasha’s solution was to tilt the other sledge up and lift one runner off the ice and to carefully, oh, so carefully, lead the two horses past each other.
Exhausted from their ordeal, Sasha and Valentina had no choice but to keep walking. Their hope revived when they came to a little settlement where they found a home in which to spend the night. By now they had walked halfway to their destination, approximately 25 kilometers (15 miles).
The next day they found the cabin to which they had been assigned. Even though it had no windows, it was a most welcome sight to the weary travelers. Located on the side of the mountain, with a river flowing through the valley, the cabin’s surroundings were magnificent and peaceful.
They arrived in March, which gave Valentina time to plant a garden and harvest the crops before Sasha was reassigned in September. During their three years of exile they lived in four places.
With Sasha’s exile nearing an end, another daughter, Tanya, was born, leaving the family wondering where they might find work. While Adventists who lived in cities were often unemployed or working at menial, thankless tasks, Sasha was doing the work he loved and for which he had been trained. Adventists in the cities were harassed; no one bothered the Ivanovs. The rich Siberian soil always produced a thriving, abundant garden; so the family had plenty of good food to eat. These were happy years for the little family.
The Ivanovs were surprised and relieved when the administrator of the regional Siberian prison system offered Sasha a job. While in exile he had had no choice where he would work. Now, however, he had a choice, as his status had changed from being an exile to being a free man.
“Dr. Ivanov,” the man said, “you will have problems with your Sabbath wherever you go to find work. We value your work, and we want you to work for us in a different facility.”
Prison officials sent a helicopter to move the family and their belongings to the new location. They bought furniture for the family and settled them into a new home. This last move was to Novokuznetsk, where they lived in the same apartment for 25 years. Nadia and Tanya went to the same school for 10 years. Even though their little second-floor apartment had no toilet, no sewer, and no running water, and they cooked on a woodstove, the Ivanovs felt richly blessed.
Children of God
Sasha never again had Sabbath work problems. Altogether he worked 30 years as a surgeon in Siberia. When asked about the most difficult time in her life, Valentina brushed off the question. “Oh, everything was easy.”
Then she became serious and continued, “When Nadia started school, my real fears began. We would not send her to school on Sabbath, and the KGB threatened to take her away from us and put her in an orphanage.”
One Sabbath Nadia’s teacher came to the house and asked Nadia to go to school with her. “I will take you to an orphanage if you don’t go,” she told the first grader. Nadia politely told the woman that she would not go to school on Sabbath. The teacher went to town to speak to the director of education.
“What kind of student is this girl?” he asked. The teacher had to admit that Nadia received all A’s. “Let them keep her at home,” he said. “We have students who attend all the time and don’t do nearly as well.”
After the fifth grade, however, Sabbathkeeping became a bit more complicated. The school held classes in shifts, and students went to school either mornings or afternoons. Afternoon classes began at 2:00 p.m.
In December and January the sun went down at 3:00. That meant that all winter Nadia, and later Tanya, had to miss two days of school each week.
Nadia recalls spending every Sunday studying to do her lengthy homework assignments. When she missed class on Friday and Sabbath, she never knew exactly which material had been assigned for homework and what had been covered in class. When she called schoolmates to ask about her assignments, they feigned ignorance. They had been instructed not to tell her anything. To compensate, Nadia studied constantly, and ended up at the top of her class.
One might think that Valentina’s daughters had a lonely childhood. Nadia says that that was not the case. They did not feel alone. They accepted their situation as a way of life. Their teachers talked openly against the girls in front of the other students. Nadia says that no one talked to her at school. Their family was branded as crazy and dangerous. Most parents would not allow their children to visit the Ivanov home.
Finally there was a breakthrough when Nadia was in seventh grade. Some neighborhood children were often home alone and frequently came to the Ivanov girls for help with their schoolwork. After that, other girls ventured into the home and discovered and spread the word that the Ivanovs were a normal, happy family, living in a comfortable home. They even had a radio and a piano!
Valentina’s fears about the children being taken from her were replaced by knowing that it’s possible to be true to God and also have community acceptance and friendship. Valentina cannot understand why anyone would feel sorry for the family being exiled to Siberia.
“We don’t know anyone who has only joy, happiness, and roses in their lives. Everyone has problems and difficulties,” says Valentina. “These difficulties make us stronger. We do not fear the future. We just try to find ways to overcome and survive. This keeps us closer to God because we need His guidance and wisdom in everyday living.”
Siberia is a cold place with untouched forests, wind, wolves, bears, and other wild things. But from all of this Valentina drew warmth, joy, peace, and happiness. Was Valentina really in exile? You decide.
Barbara J. Huff lives in Florida, United States, with her husband, Lee. Material for this story was taken from an interview with Valentina when the author lived in Russia. Sasha, 80, and Valentina, 77, are retired and live in Belgorod.