Ivaan, as I've mentioned before, was passionately interested in history. He spoke about certain historical events as if he had actually been there. One of the events that captured his imagination was the Siege of Leningrad. For Ivaan, I suppose, it wasn't really a historical event, because it took place around the time he was born.
We often spoke about what life must have been like for Russians during the Siege of Leningrad. Because it took place over a considerable length of time, and got worse as time passed, it must have taken both physical and moral strength to survive. Ivaan once asked me what I thought I'd miss the most under conditions like that, and I told him the unrelenting cold weather would probably be the hardest for me to endure.
It was during a discussion about the Siege of Leningrad that Ivaan and I came up with a play about an imaginary group of women during the siege. Ivaan named it The Bath Lottery. Here's the story:
In an abandoned warehouse in Leningrad, a group of six women who are strangers to each other begin congregating and as they get to know each other they start acting as a collective, meeting almost every day and sharing their personal stories. Their husbands, brothers, sons are all absent from their lives: fighting the enemy, dead, in prison, or have simply abandoned them.
The women share what little they have and provide emotional support and comfort to each other. One day, in a conversation about what they miss most, one of them says that even more than food and warm clothes, she misses having a hot bath. This gets the women thinking, and one of them, realizing there is a large metal tub in the warehouse, suggests that they collect all the wood and paper they can find, light a fire, fill the tub with snow from outside, melt the snow and heat the water over the fire, and hold a lottery. The winner of the lottery gets to take a hot bath, and the rest of them get to sit around the hot fire and keep warm.
They put the plan into action. Over a number of days they collect anything they can burn, build a firepit and start piling the snow into the tub to melt. On the day of the lottery, one of them rushes into the warehouse with a pile of half-rotten, frozen potatoes she has unearthed from somewhere. They put the potatoes in the embers to cook and draw straws to determine who gets the hot bath. The rest will sit around and eat the potatoes. The eldest woman, Masha, wins the lottery for the bath. Once the water is the right temperature, the other women help her into the tub. They sit around on the floor eating the potatoes and talking. Finally one of them passes a potato to the elderly woman in the tub and says, "Here, Masha. Have a potato. You will feel like you're in heaven." No response. "Masha!" calls the woman, thinking she's fallen asleep. No reply. The women get up and look into the tub and see that Masha, lying in the warm water, has died.
Everyone who hears this story thinks it's the saddest story and would make a horrible play. But I agree with Ivaan. It's a beautiful story.
When I wrote in an earlier blog post that I felt like I was living through the Siege of Leningrad, it was because I was without a bathtub for two days. Fortunately, I did have a giant rubbermaid bin and plenty of hot water, so it was a poor facsimile of the Siege of Leningrad. A friend actually volunteered to come over with potatoes.
I have this advice about bathing in a rubbermaid container. It's easy to get into. But it's very hard to get out of without tipping the entire thing over. Just bear that in mind, in case you're ever required to play a part in Ivaan's play, The Bath Lottery.
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