Our first meeting took place at the Cultural Centre in Roslavl that hosts the Veterans' Council. Natalia Zuyeva comes here from time to time. She was sitting in front of me. I involuntarily paid attention to her amazingly clear and very beautiful eyes. It is not said in vain that the eyes are windows to a person’s soul.
Despite Natalia Zuyeva's advanced age, her eyes were shining with some kind of inconceivable power. If I may say so, they radiated energy. She was full of kindness. That was exactly kindness. I realized that later, after I met with Natalia several other times. Each time I discovered what a generous and very selfless person she is.
Natalia told that she remembers the first day of World War II very clearly. In the morning, she went to the forest to get some lilies of the valley together with her classmates. They made fun, laughed and enjoyed their lives. They had finished their compulsory education (8 classes,) and were looking forward to adult life. Some of them were going to work. Others decided to continue their studies. They dreamed and made plans for the future. Cheerful and happy girls went back home for lunch, but on entering the village, they noticed that the women they met were crying. They immediately thought that something had happened in the village... However, great grief came not only to their village Sosnovka in the Ulyanovsk region.
They heard: “War! War, girls, war!” At that moment, for the 15 years old girls it was hard to imagine how scary it would be and how it would change their lives.
They Heated Hands With Their Breath and...Made Shells
The school was soon turned into a hospital, and women were sent to dig trenches for a month. In December, Natasha Zuyeva herself started working as a multifunctional laborer to a military factory. Mostly, girls and women worked while men were in the field.
“We had only two guys,” recalls Natalia. “We got training and worked at the same time. Someone who was older and had some kind of experience worked directly with machine tools, and we were at the assembly line...”
Natalia stops talking, reflecting on the past. You can see perfectly well that she is casting mind back to that distant and terrible time. Their factory was directly supervised by Stalin and Zhukov. The products were immediately shipped to the front, as the Army was in great need of shells of different calibers.
“We produced the 37mm shells, the 45mm ones, and also mines ...” recalls Natalia. “There was a rule – until we finish the task, no one goes home.”
She speaks calmly and impassionately, without fanfare. Both then and now, Zueva is confident that she was just doing her job together with others and she was doing what the country needed. Meanwhile, the country had been ravaged by a bloody war, and cities were destroyed under fire. The Nazis were razing villages and towns to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the field.
“In 1941, winter was harsh and frosty,” recalls Zueva. “We had to collect mines in the street. So, we warmed our hands with our breath and worked on it... I remember one important task. Someone said that it was for Smolensk... We stayed at the factory for 24 hours until it was completed…”
She looks at me with her clear eyes, and I try to imagine her and those girls who did not leave the factory all day long. That is how the common Victory was forged – by girls’ gentle hands.
Without that truly nationwide help and support, it would have been impossible to break Nazi Germany’s backbone. By that time, it had seized a half of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of experienced specialists from different countries were working for it at dozens of military plants.
Shells Exploded in Their Hands...
"We sat on a powder keg,” Natalia Zuyeva continues telling her story. “Three people died. They were exploded...”
What the girls were making was not toys. They were making shells that exploded if handled carelessly.
“Later on, other military factories along with their personnel were evacuated to the central military base in Glotovka,” Natalia recalls. “They lived together and supported each other. There were no arguments or scandals.
We tried to solve every problem quietly and calmly. We knew that our headaches were nothing compared to what was happening in the battlefield. We listened to the news bulletins on the radio. So, we understood what was happening and where the military operations were taking place.”
“We Were Waiting for Victory as a Pie from Oven”
Many decades later, she still takes it just as a regular job. They worked amid frosts and lived on short rations, but they understood that they had to do everything they could to ensure victory. They were so looking forward to that victory and awaited it with hope. Sometimes they dreamed without confiding their secrets to anyone about what would happen when the war ended...
Natalia recalls that they put brief notices in the boxes with shells: “Hit the Nazis!,” “Shoot!” and “For victory!” As she put it, they were waiting for this victory as “a pie from the oven.”
Uttered by a person who had to live on the bread line during that hungry and cold wartime, “a pie from the oven” is a particularly meaningful phrase. How should people have craved for that pie, if there had been no crumb in their mouths a day or two? Perhaps, it is difficult to find a more concise and meaningful expression.
This phrase precisely reflects people’s mood of during the war.
Victory Day is the Most Important Holiday
It is not surprising that Victory Day (May 9) is the most important holiday of the year for veterans. In addition, Natalia Zuyeva treasures the letter she received from Vladimir Putin on her 90th birthday. She shows me the envelope, takes it out and reads: “You have had a great school of life; you bravely tackled the challenges and selflessly rebuilt the country from the ruins. You always feel that you belong to the fatherland and believe in the right thing. You pass on great love for the fatherland, as well as responsibility for its present and future to us and future generations.”
Old and Young Worked for the Victory
Natalia’s father worked in a smith’s shop at a railway station. Rail fastening was of high necessity. As the railways were bombed all the time, it was required in large numbers. Her farther would work round the clock, because other experienced masters had been drafted to the frontline. Only boys were left to help him. He had to teach them everything from scratch. So, he worked with the boys. During World War I, Natalia's father was drafted to the army.
Kindness and Sympathy Are the Most Important Things in Life
After a pause, Natalia unwittingly compares how people used to live then and how they live now. Her story makes it clear that modern technologies and domestic work done by machines are not of primary importance for her. The main thing for Zueva remains the fact that people were simpler and kinder previously. They trusted each other and helped in any way possible.
“The window in our house remained open all night. We only hung gauze on it so that mosquitoes would not fly in. Today, there are iron bars on the windows, iron doors and locks everywhere,” Natalia says. It is noticeable that she still cannot accept this life filled with so much envy, anger and deceit.
“You Need Help People, Then you to get Help in a Difficult Time”
Natalia Zuyeva lived for a long time in the Udmurt Republic in western Urals for a long time. She remembers that people there are very good and kind. They helped their neighbors and friends with everything. As a person of that generation, she does not understand that one can wish others ill. For many years, Natalia helped people in any way she could. Maybe, for her open and truly loving heart, God endows her with long life.
For many years Natalia worked as a housekeeping manager at a local school. This year, before the self-isolation regulations were imposed on the town in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus, she came to a meeting with schoolchildren. The staff welcomed her with joy. They kissed and hugged her and asked about her health. It was obvious that they were genuinely happy to see her.
Natalia is blessed to have not only grandchildren, but also great-grandchildren. If possible, she helps her daughter around the house with whom she lives in Roslavl. She tries to move more and goes for a walk every day. The phrase “moving is living” sounds somehow quite different from her. You understand that it is not just a manner of speaking. A simple woman who is a worker, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother, who has been working all her life, has done so much good and believes that in any conditions – even the most difficult ones – one must remain a bigger person. She remains confident that good human relations between people come first.