Tbilisi - May 5, 1975
“Hello my dear Tamara,
I got your letter! Thank you for your warm wishes. You know I don’t have a sister. I love you, as if you were my own sister. Certainly, our children will write each other like we do, and be friends. Here nothing have changed, all is still the same. How are you? Write and don’t forget me. Love and kiss you. Farida.”
In early 1957 Farida Abdullayeva, a 10-year-old ethnic Azerbaijani living in Tbilisi in the Socialist Republic of Georgia, started corresponding with fourth grade Lusia Golubeva from Dneproderjinsk (now Kamianske), an industrial port river city on east Ukraine. Lusia was proud of this paper friendship, often bringing to school the presents Farida used to send her. A schoolmate of her, Tamara Kodonech, wished she could have such a friend and asked Lusia to share with her Farida's contacts. It did not happen, so one day Tamara peeked at one of the letters, copied Farida’s address and wrote a letter. After a few weeks, Farida's response arrived - it was May 1957. When Lusia knew about it she got upset and stopped writing to Farida.
Farida and Tamara have been penpals for 60 years.
Correspondence among children was common during the Soviet era - letters were considered a tool to promote collectivism and internationalism, albeit limited to the Soviet republics, as well as to motivate pupils to study as bad performing ones were not allowed to have a penpal.
Farida lost her mother when she was five. As her father remarried, she was raised by her grandfather Suleyman Abdullayev. Born in 1850, Abdullayev was an assistant of Mirza Fatali Akhundov, a well-known Azerbaijani dramaturgist and playwriter who had relocated from Baku to Tbilisi where he died in 1878. Akhundov married Abdullayev with his favourite assistant Peri Abdullayeva and gifted them with a house in the old part of Tbilisi. Farida grew up there, wandering in the narrow alleys by the Sheytan Bazaar, the Shah Abbas Mosque (now turned into a traditional Turkish bath) and the school named after Mirza Fatali Akhundov.
“We were both pioneers [a children’s organization operated by the Communist party],” recalls Farida, now 70. “Being a pioneer came with responsibilities. Pioneers had to study hard otherwise they were restricted from sending letters to each other. Corresponding helped young people to be more active, to socialize. Across the Soviet republics correspondence was in Russian.”
Russian was the lingua franca across the Union which allowed people to communicate as well as officials to read the letters and, more often than not, censor them.
For decades they sent each other letters, but otkritka (cards), and presents.
“I still remember the green earrings, sport bag, the famous Rolling Stone sweater, a Caucasian silk textile...” explains Tamara in an e-mail correspondence.
“Hi dear Farida!
It is your friend Tamara. In the first lines of my letter I want to say thank you for the beautiful herbarium that you sent to me. I am answering to your questions. The weather is so sunny, it is warm outside I study very well at school You are asking why Lusia Golubeva does not answer to your letters. My answer is: ehen she knew that we are corresponding with each other, she stopped to be friend with me. It seems she might be offended. That’s all. Write to me, I will wait for [your letter].
Years passed - the two friends finished school and married. Life brought Abdullayeva to Abdalo, a village near Bolnisi, in eastern Georgia. In 1970 Abdullayeva lost her husband and moved back to her grandfather's house in Tbilisi. Tamara's letters provided her with a much-needed emotional support, the difficulties strengthened their friendship.
Then in 1977 Tamara felt it was time to match names with faces. She wrote to Farida that she would travel to Tbilisi, she wanted to meet her. Finally, 20 years since their first letter, the two women hugged each other.
“It was summer. I went to meet Tamara at the train station. When the train was approaching to the station I became more and more excited. I saw Tamara's face through the window, and recognized her immediately.”
“We hugged. I felt I found a close person to me that I had lost many years ago. I found my friend after 20 years of friendship, whom I saw only in photos. I had many feelings," recalls Abdullayeva.
Tamara came with her husband and her two daughters. She was excited to see the city that she learnt to know through Farida’s letters.
“The Botanical Garden, the beautiful Meidan, Narikala, the magnificent statue of Deda Kartlis, the beauty of Tbilisi itself amazed us,” notes Tamara. “I will never forget how Farida was waiting for an hour in line to buy the famous Lagidze lemonade, which was sold only in one place in Tbilisi. Georgia, unlike Ukraine, was flourishing.”
It was not their only encounter. In 1985 it was Farida to travel to Dneproderjinsk with her two daughters. The Soviet Union was still on its feet and traveling among the republics was cheap and relatively easy.
As the USSR went into meltdown, so did its postal service. Relations like Tamara and Farida’s were among the many casualties - no mail service - no letters.
The silence lasted over a decade. In 2006 Abdullayeva, with the help of her daughters, managed to track down Tamara - through the Internet. The two women in their ‘70s are back in contact thanks to social media, first through Odnoklassniki, a Moscow-based social network which is popular in the former Soviet space, then through Facebook and Skype.
The Soviet Union championed, on paper, what the regime called the “Fraternity of Peoples” as promoted by Carl Marx’s social class theory - thus Farida and Tamara see their long-lasting friendship as a real application of that principle.
“Our daughters are also friends,” says Tamara with pride. “We both have grandchildren, and after us they will also continue their friendship. It will be a great pleasure for us if the "fraternity of peoples' that we have started will be continued after us."
The friendship between the two women survived the mighty Soviet Union - through letters they shared life and death, as well as joys and sorrows. They grew and aged together.