A few weeks back, I was visiting my parents and going through boxes of old photographs. Some faces meant nothing to me, but others did, because several years ago I sat down with my grandmother. I asked her about our family history (what she remembered of it anyway), who was who in some of the photos, and noted the names + relations down at the back of each photo.
My family’s history could probably make a really good historical drama (think Downton Abbey meets Saving Private Ryan), but the ironic thing is my grandparents and great-grandparents rarely talked about their lives – both for fear of prosecution + not really wanting to relive many of the things they’ve been through.
I grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia – the city of 3 revolutions, the cradle of political and social change in 19th and 20th century Russia. But in our family, no one talked about the communist revolution, or the WWII much. I only know snippets that my grandmother remembered (and wanted to share), or that my mother knew from her grandmother (my great-grandmother).
My maternal great-grandmother came from a very wealthy family and married into one that came from ancient Russian nobility. The family legend goes that when she was getting married for the first time, she needed 17 wagons to carry her dowry. At the end of her life, in the 1970s, every time she saw a documentary about the Hermitage Museum she’d note – in passing – that before the revolution they used to have a tea set, or furniture, just like in the museum.
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My biological great-grandfather died long before the World War II, and I think even before the revolution (a blessing, I guess, with a surname Skuratov and aristocratic ancestors, he was likely to have been persecuted anyway – together with his family).
My great-grandmother remarried, this time, a pro-Soviet officer, which I’m sure helped the family in the long run (this is all speculation on my part, of course, as there is very little written record).
A lot of my relatives died of hunger in the 900-day siege of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) during WWII – but my great-grandmother and her two daughters survived it. The horrors of the war and the siege were never discussed in our family, so again, I know virtually nothing about it, apart from the general stuff we learned at school.
Even that general knowledge makes me want to weep, so I understand why they never wanted to talk about it.
All I have are these damaged and faded photographs, which miraculously survived through the revolution, the war, the displacement and the struggle.
It’s brutal winter, there’s no food. You live on 200 grams of bread a day. You trade your diamond + ruby rings for an extra piece of bread for your kids.
You’re being carried to safety across the frozen lake under Nazi bombing, but you take those precious photographs of your family with you.
I know I’m truly lucky to have these photographs and to know at least snippets of my family history. Some of my friends’ families don’t have even that. Their grandparents orphaned and displaced at a very young age, not knowing their history or where they come from.
And still, I wish I had more, known more, talked to my grandparents more, learned about what their life was like when they were growing up, what their parents did, how they spend their days, the games they played, the books they read, what they dreamt of.
I’m guessing, in a rather roundabout way, this is why I do what I do.
It’s why I document families the way I do.
It’s why I find documenting life – our wonderfully happy and safe life, warts and all – so very important! It’s why being in your family photographs is so important. And also, why printing them is so important.
One day, 100 years from now, your great-grandchildren will look through old boxes they brought down from the attic and discover what you – and your life – looked like – even when you’re no longer there to tell them about it.
Words and photographs contributed by Antonina Mamzenko.
Antonina Mamzenko is a natural light family photographer that specializes in candid and natural family photography in London. Her gift is seeing beauty in the everyday, and capturing glimpses of family life – from the mundane, to the funny, to the happy, to the tender, to the tired and everything in between. You you can follow her at: Website // Facebook // Instagram