20.01.2017, 10:21

Nina at ninety: China's Russian babushka

 Nina at ninety: China's Russian babushka

 JINAN, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Nina is a mix of Slavic and Chinese features: brownish eyes, high cheekbones, and a rural dialect distinctive to eastern China that is hard to understand for most Mandarin speakers.

Ninety-year-old Nina was born in Vahevo village of Vologda Oblast in northern Russia in 1926. Her father, a Chinese merchant whose hometown was in northern China's Hebei Province, brought her to China when she was seven. She never returned.

The nonagenarian caught public attention in November last year when she celebrated her 90th birthday. Her foreign roots and a legendary life that survived tumultuous wars and found peace in a remote Chinese village fascinated the public.

She lives in Mansi River village in eastern China's city of Zibo, about four hours by train from Beijing. She shares a six-room courtyard, about 200 square meters, with her daughter-in-law, 66, who takes care of her. Nina's husband, adopted son and daughter have all died.

"I've lived here for so long that I don't speak the language of the Soviet Union any more. Here I'm called Liu Molan," she says.


When she came to China, Nina lived with her parents in Yili, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The family sold goats and milk for a living. Nina spent three years at a middle school, run by the Soviet Union, for expatriates in China.

At 17 she married Liu Chunshu, a Chinese officer in the Kuomintang air force. Her husband gave her the Chinese name Molan, meaning orchid, and she has used it ever since.

Nina's family were also the victims of a lengthy war started by the Japanese imperial army. Millions of people were displaced, and she lost contact with her parents and brother.

"At the time, there was war everywhere. Who dared going home? Soldiers held guns at my back, and I could not turn my head and look back," she says. "My family lost almost all our belongings. Not even a photo of my parents was left. I hardly remember their looks."

Even now, decades later, Nina cannot watch war dramas on television.

"I don't like them, the shootings," she says. "And I don't like entertainment programs either. I watch news."

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Nina traveled with her husband to his hometown in Shandong Province.

"My husband had long wished to bring me back to Shandong, but my mother disagreed. She heard that it was poor here," she says. "I thought, poverty is not to be feared. He is my husband and I should be with him."


Nina lived through the best and worst of times in China, a place she now calls home. Resilience, optimism and a strong spirit helped her face the many tests of life.

Today she keeps herself busy growing vegetables and feeding the chickens. In winter, she burns a coal furnace to keep warm. Her grandchildren live in the same village and help her add coal to the stove.

During the early years in the village, Nina and her husband lived a simple life, content with very few belongings. Liu Chunshu worked as the village accountant and was a teacher for the local elementary school.

"People respected my family because my father-in-law was a man of culture, and he never spoke harsh words," says Wang Wenfeng, Nina's daughter-in-law.

But in 1974, Liu had a stroke and became bed-ridden. Nina took care of him for the next 15 years.

"He lost all his teeth, so I would chew his food and feed it to him," she says.

In order to sustain the family, Nina worked heavy odd-jobs, pounding stones and carting away chicken dung.

"For one full cart of chicken dung ... I earned 35 cents. I worked, no matter how hard it was. As long as I worked, I found money to buy food," she says.

In 1989, Liu died, with their son and daughter dying years later.

"I have to keep working, and carry on my life for them," Nina says.

Years of hard labor have bent her back, and her big brownish eyes are set deep into their sockets. Though the signs of age are clear, at 90 years old, Nina is proud of her health despite a small heart problem. A local clinic removed a cataract for her last week.

Nina receives about 10,000 yuan from the government every year, and Zhu Xunyong, the local Communist Party secretary, has promised to help her repair her house.

"We hope she will continue to live a long and happy life in China," he says.


Nina still knows and writes Russian, though with grammatical errors. She sings popular Russian wartime songs when she works, and teaches her grandchildren a Russian word or two.

"For such a long time, I never spoke Russian. I almost forgot," she says.

Occasionally, Nina receives interested Russian visitors.

"It is probably hard for me to find a relative in the Soviet Union. I've become a Chinese for so long," she says.

Nina makes Jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), and puts Chinese couplets on her door for the celebration of Chinese New Year due to arrive next weekend.

Though she still remembers the language, Russia, or the Soviet Union as she calls it, is very much a distant memory, and she does not follow the goings on in her country today.

Asked what she thinks about Vladimir Putin, she is terse.

"Who's that?"