A Sacha Christmas Story
Hello, my friends! As the Americans say, I wish to you the tidings of the season, “Happy Holidays,” yes? It is the Christmas season, in Russia as well as in the west, but of course our Christmas season really points to the day of January 7 by the calendar, thirteen days after the Christmas most of you enjoy. Only the New Year, and in my family, the November 7 anniversary of the Oktyabrskya Revoliutsiia, the October Socialist Revolution, are more eagerly anticipated. I will spend this Christmas Eve feast with Grandmama, and my Uncle Grigoriy, and my father and mother, and my brother Sergei also. Vasily my wingman, and Sergei’s men, are all far from home and we will have a place for them at the table. I am already planning to make the kutya, which is the special porridge of wheatberries and other grains, and poppy seeds we eat at the Holy Feast to ensure happiness, success, and an untroubled rest.
I believe it is similar to my American friend Shaniqua Deitz’s (you will remember, she is called “Sugar” by the Americans) tale of how the Americans of the South eat the black-eyed peas on New Year’s day for luck. I miss my American friends, now that they have all gone south themselves, to Iran, for the war there, and I think often of them, and Captain Bones, and his “Jolly Rogers” who will once again miss this time of year with their families, as they fight our shared foe.
Speaking of Sergei and I, we became involved in a most unorthodox (I believe that may be a pun, no? We are Orthodox Christians; at least, my mother and I are) event recently. And because of this, my family will be taking the Christmas feast in a new place indeed. It is my beloved Commander who is at fault for this, this time. It is cold in southern Russia this time of year, and Kolya, the squadron weather officer, had warned us to dress warmly for temperatures would be near zero (by the Celsius scale, of course, I know that my American friends out there reading this don’t use metric measurements) at our base in Adler, outside Sochi.
Things are winding down around here for the holidays; the Wahabbists are quiet, the territory south of the Gumista River is not boiling right now, and our 41st Tank Division has things in occupied Abkhazia pretty well pacified. But just when one feels warm and complacent, things begin to go wrong.
This season endows one with a certain spirit, does it not? And so it was with my Commander, who was out and about with the Army general who commands the 41st Division on a tour of the frontier. Finding that the families of the town of Achandara, on our side of the Gumista in the Gudauta administrative region, were without certain necessities, he returned to the 41st Division’s headquarters base-camp in Gantiadi and set about organizing help in concert with the United Nations mission there. Vasily and I, and my brother and his men, were summoned to help with the relief effort. You will remember this place, when I was last meeting with Kemal, my brother’s men pushed off from there to rescue me. I remember this place well. Our convoy was well-received by the people of the town.
We were invited to take a meal with the mayor and his family; I, my Commander, and some of the leaders of the tank battalion involved in our little efforts. And this is when my story begins, as I helped the old babushka, the grandmother of this family, and her daughter, with the washing in the kitchen. A photograph, in a weathered leather frame, of a young man not much older than I, draped in black. I asked the daughter, Natalya, who he was; of course, I supposed, he was a soldier or other fighter killed in the war. I was not prepared for her answer.
“It is my brother, Nicolai. A week ago, captured by the Wahhabists. He is held for ransom, and we do not have the money they demand.” I put down the cup I was drying, took her hand as the tears came. She went on. “He is not the only one, Alexandra Dimitrievna. Many of the young men of our town have been taken. The Wahhabists take them, and hold them, and kill them if we do not pay. They use the money to fight you.”
I was outraged. It is not enough that the cursed mujahids oppress the people of the south. They have to raid those under our protection as well! “How long has this been happening, Natalya?”
“Over the last two months. It began after their Ramadan holiday ended in October, that is when the first one was taken. This family could not pay, and the Wahhabists butchered him as a warning to us all. Since then, my father has emptied the treasury to meet their demands.”
I did not understand. We have a full division of tanks in the north! I pointed this out to her. “But why have you not gone to the military police?”
“We cannot. More will die if we do, they have told us this.”
This cannot stand, I thought. I promised her we would help. The military was here, now, in their very midst. But how to return the young men of this village without their captors killing them outright? I bit my thumbnail, considering, when I heard my Commander calling me from the dining room. I hurriedly excused myself, planning to tell all to him. But as I entered, I found the men in close conversation.