"That day, I Was Supposed to Die"

WWII veteran Marya Stepanovna Khrestina, with Hieromonk Paul (Scherbachev) WWII veteran Marya Stepanovna Khrestina, with Hieromonk Paul (Scherbachev) May 9 in Russia is a holiday for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or age. It is Victory Day, the day that marked the end of the "Great Patriotic War," as World War II is commonly called in Russia, the day that exhausting, excruciating suffering came to victorious close for a people who gave all they had in order to preserve what they had.

War veterans (those still alive today) don their military garb and medals of honor, and graciously receive their due veneration from the younger generations. A familiar placard reads, "Spacibo Dedu za pobedu!" which means, "Thank you Grandpa for the victory!" There is an awareness that all owe their continued existence as a nation to the self-sacrifice of those who went before them. Not only of Grandpa, but also of Grandma.

One such heroine of military valor is still dwelling peacefully in an apartment on the north side of Moscow. Her name is Marya Stepanovna Khrestina, a former paratrooper. Ninety-four years old, long in retirement after decades as dean of the foreign languages department of the Moscow Medical Academy, she is mentally spry, and remembers everything about her service in the war as if it had all happened yesterday. As she moves about her modest apartment leaning on her walker, she blames her lack of total independence from man-made supports on a wrong turn of the leg as it made contact with the earth, under the billowy protection of a parachute. But no complaints! Her commander always told her that a paratrooper has no right to complain about anything.

Marya Stepanovna is sitting at the head of the table, smiling gracefully as she enjoys the customary salads and caviar appetizers. "Where were you on this day, March 9, 1945, Marya Stepanovna?" ask the adoring children of her faculty professors. "Well, you know, on that day, I was supposed to die." Marya Stepanovna was encamped outside of Vienna; her division had just been informed of the end of the war, and was ordered to appear in the city to celebrate. The other officers and soldiers were climbing into the jeep, and she would have gone with them, but in her impatience she had forgotten her military jacket. "Go and get your jacket," her commander said to her, "and come in the next vehicle." As hard as it was to be left behind even temporarily, orders were orders.

The passengers of that first car could not wait to reach the celebration, and tried to shorten the distance by taking a different road, but Marya Stepanovna never saw them again. Their jeep hit a mine, and everyone was lost.

"Why wasn't I with them?" She still asks, remembering the jubilant faces, if not the names, of all those comrades-at-arms who perished that day, at the very end of the war. Her friends look at her knowingly. "It was because of the prayers of your Aunt Anisya."

"Ah, yes, Anisya," she says, casting an involuntary but thoughtful glance at her icon corner. "Marya Stepanovna," tell us again about your General, and Aunt Anisya." She retells the story with her customary historical accuracy.

"I was back in Moscow after the war, and had just left our office for the evening, when a black, official automobile drove up and stopped next to me on the road. It was our General. He opened the door, and said, 'Marya Stepanovna, get in. I am going to visit your home this evening.' 'Comrade General,' I said, 'perhaps some other evening?' I felt very awkward about the attention. 'I am coming this evening, and that is all there is to it,' he said. Of course, we didn't have anything to offer him but potatoes, just like everyone else at the time."

Marya Stepanovna lived with her Aunt Anisya, a very religious woman from Ryazan Province. Anisya possessed no more than an elementary education, but she could recite Scripture from memory, and she was more versed in the Law of God than any Supreme Court judge is versed in the Constitution. This same Anisya would receive the unexpected guest that evening, and serve him boiled potatoes. Naturally, the cozy assembly began talking about the war.

"Why do you think you won the war?" Aunt Anisya asked the General, placing her work-worn hand on his elbow and looking him in the eyes. "Do you think it was your technology, your fighting, your leadership? Ah, no. It was because you turned to God!" Marya Stepanovna was all ears, but unafraid of the consequences of her aunt's words. After all, the general had invited himself.

"He sat at our table, talking with Aunt Anisya until 4:30 in the morning," recalls Marya Stepanovna, still amazed after nearly seven decades. "Later, when I saw the General again, he told me sincerely that my Aunt Anisya was the most intelligent person he had ever met in his whole life."

Marya Stepanovna was a member of the Communist Party, as anyone in her position would have been during the years she was a dean in the academy. So, besides the prayers of Aunt Anisya, what motivates a hieromonk from Sretensky Monastery to bring her flowers and candy on Victory Day, and Holy Communion on Sundays? "I took care of all my subordinates, and everyone received an apartment," she says, matter-of-factly. "I especially loved Natalia Kirillovna (Scherbacheva, the head professor of the French language department), and when her little boy needed to be accepted into a good school, I made sure it was arranged." The "little boy" is now Hieromonk Paul, a graduate of the Moscow Theological Seminary.

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