Dinner with an ex-Soviet submarine commander

It’s funny how people with the most amazing stories to tell are often the least vocal in sharing their experiences. This was certainly the case with the driver we hired for our short stay in Belarus.

Yevgeni had met us early one morning at a rainy railway station in western Belarus. We were a group of 9 from the UK and Poland, here with my father to find the place where he and his family had spent the early years of their life before they were deported eastwards in 1940. On that first day, Yevgeni merely dropped us off in the nearest town and left us to explore with the help of a local historian, as had been arranged. He expressed some surprise as to why we wanted to spend time in this place, but seemed friendly enough.

The next day, he was with us for the day. Driving us to the little village where my father was born, and staying back and observing while we explored places that meant a lot to my father, and to the rest of us through our parents’ childhood stories. At first watchful, as it became clear we were just a bunch of visitors wanting to take pictures and memories from otherwise unremarkable places in the Belarussian coutryside, Yevgeni relaxed but still said very little. We had an official escort who could speak Polish, and he did all the talking. Once we said goodbye to our local escort, it was Yevgeni’s job to drop us back at the station in time for the night train.

We were very early, and rather than spend several hours at the deserted station, he invited us to his home to see where he lives and have some food. We were thankful for his hospitality, but reluctant to accept, being a group of 9 and imagining that he lived in a small appartment in the city it would be a big imposition. But he asked again, and we agreed to visit for a drink after we’d got ourselves a snack in the city. So he collected us again, and took us to his home.

It was certainly not a humble appartment. I had assumed he worked as a bus driver, but he actually owned the vehicle, and two others, and was contracted to work by the tourism services when visitors were coming. He was in the middle of renovating the home, and clearly was an accomplished builder and mechanic. As he showed us around, we all shared stories of our lives and work. That’s when he described to us his 20 years of service in the Soviet navy, and how he had reached the post of submarine commander. Indeed, he had been in a submarine that was a sister vessel to the Kursk, which suffered a terrible tragedy several years ago. He and his wife, who met us with the same hospitality and warmth, now fostered a number of children from the south east of the country; children whose families had been devastated by the Chernobyl accident.

Throughout the evening Yevgeni shared his stories and listened to ours, a mix of Russian and Polish sufficient to allow free-flowing conversation. He maintained a humility and quiet dignity about him that demanded respect, and at the same time endeared him to us. He had lived a full life, no doubt packed with adventure and some danger, and now kept up a busy “retirement”, using his pension which was likely a generous one against the low cost of living in that part of the country, to both feed an entrepreneurial spirit and also to help children from the poorer parts of the country.

Life in Belarus is not easy, but meeting Yevgeni and the others we encountered on our short stay in Belarus left us with a very positive impression of the country; if not of the way that the country’s political system has held the people in an economic timewarp, then in the friendliness, warmth and dignity of its people.

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Freelance travel writer

One Response to “Dinner with an ex-Soviet submarine commander”

  1. Costa Rica Towns #

    Interesting! to be a submarine commander has to be one of the most demanding jobs in the navy indeed

    September 23, 2009 at 9:34 pm