All children, or almost all of them, go through a stage in which they invent imaginary playmates. Russian children are no different from any others in that respect. Viktor and Katya Boikia’s little girl, Vika was no different. When Vika was about five years old, she was constantly talking to her parents about her friend “Natasha”. Of course, her parents didn’t pay much attention to her. They thought that it was funny, and sort of amusing… except for one thing… “Natasha” was always hungry… Vika was always going to the kitchen and raiding the refrigerator, cookie jar, or bread bin for food… “for Natasha”. Now, Vika, unfortunately, takes after her father, who is a short, stocky man with a tendency to gain weight rapidly… so after a while, Viktor and Katya began to become a little concerned.
One evening, last summer, about ten o’clock, Vika was in the process of making one of her “raids” when her mother stopped her and confronted her. “You shouldn’t be eating at this hour, you know. It isn’t good for you.”
“It’s not for me, Mama. It’s for Natasha”. Vika beamed. “She’s always hungry”.
“Well,” Katya Boika, said somberly to her child, “you tell Natasha that it isn’t good to eat at this hour. She’ll have to wait until morning like the rest of us”.
“All right, Mama”. Vika nodded. “I’ll tell her”.
The next evening, it was the same… about ten o’clock… half an hour after Vika had been put to bed. Once again, she was in the kitchen, foraging for food “for Natasha”.
Once again, Vika’s mother sent her back to her room with a stern admonition concerning “Natasha’s” late night eating habits. “Bad enough in the daytime”, Katya told Viktor, as they settled back in to continue watching television. Down the hall, they could hear Vika’s voice as she somberly delivered the message to her imaginary friend.
Not too long after that, Viktor’s father passed away. The family, of course, traveled to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) for the funeral, and to help tie up “loose ends”. St. Petersburg is a lovely city… a tourist mecca, and the traditional capital of the Russian Tsars… and known throughout the world for having withstood a three year long siege by the Germans during the Second World War. Over half of the population died in the “Siege of Leningrad”… mostly from disease and famine…
Shortly after their arrival in Viktor’s boyhood home, Vika began to investigate the flat. She had, of course, been there before, but with the adults so preoccupied, she now had a more or less free run, so long as she didn’t break anything… about which she had been sternly warned. Vika was a curious child, and the big flat on Nevski Prospect was fascinating to her. It had been in her father’s family for many years, and was filled with mementos of generations past.
No one paid much attention to Vika for about an hour… then, she came running up to her mother, shouting, and waving a small, framed photograph… “Mamma… Look! It’s Natasha. What is her picture doing here in Grandfather’s flat?”
Shock, horror and realization crossed Katya Boika’s face as she looked at her daughter, and then at the aging photo. It was an old family portrait, taken shortly before the Second World War. Viktor had shown it to her once. In it, among others, were Viktor’s grandparents, whom he had never met, along with his father and his aunt… who had died… during the Siege of Leningrad… some fifty years before… at the age of five… of starvation.