Jean Lombard's Russian Connection

From an early age I loved books and reading. At 9 years old I was diagnosed with a shadow on my lung – early stages of TB - and sent to hospital for the most part of a year. At the Richmond hospital in Dublin the medics decided that I was too old for the children’s ward, so I was placed in a general women’s ward. What a diverse collection of women I lived with, from all walks of life. I still remember individual women. During that time several women died, and every evening after lights off, most of the women would say the rosary together. A Jewish woman and I were the only non-participants whom I can remember.

It was during that year in hospital that I started reading the Russian classic writers, and my interest in Russia and things Russian has continued for most of my life. When I was a teenager I fell in love with Russian poetry, and continued to be a passionate reader of Russian literature. I can remember friends saying to me - what about all those terrible names? How can you remember them and keep track of them? - somehow that didn’t bother me. I lost myself in the tales and poetry of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, Goncharov, Pasternak and Yevtushenko. I never dreamt that later on I would walk in Tolstoy’s house and garden, look at his pictures and clothes, listen to his voice played on an old fashioned tape player; see Gogol and Chekov played at the theatre in their own country and language, and just soak up the passion and feeling of the places they lived in.

When I was 23 I went to live in London, flatting with some friends and living on cabbage and mustard, my rent taking up half of my wage - eleven pounds a week less tax. I regularly read the advertisements on the front page of the London Times and one day on the top of a London bus on my way home from work, I saw an advertisement - 'nanny wanted for British embassy family with 2 small children to go to Moscow'. I plucked up the courage and applied. I was asked to go to a house way south of London, where the grandparents of the children lived, the family being at that time home on leave from Moscow.

If I was chosen, I was to live in the grandparents' house for a short time with the family, to get to know the children before leaving for Moscow. When I think back now, I really had no idea of what was entailed in going to Moscow, what was needed for winter clothing, I really hadn’t a clue. Nor had I any notion of how difficult the language was - I was on another planet.

Well I got the job, and somewhere - perhaps in my sister's house in Ireland - there are still the letters I wrote home from Moscow to my family in 1966.

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An Irish Woman in Czarist Russia
by Jean Lombard