By Anna Berseneva-Shankevich – Alexander was present at the birth of almost all of his children. Eugenia studied his family tree and made an astonishing discovery. When many of their friends divorced, the Ulyevs endured a trial which made their family even more united. They are confident that their life is a chain of miracles from the Lord.
Alexander Yurievich, fifty-two, entrepreneur;
Eugenia Anatolievna, forty-nine, chief financial officer.
They have been married for twenty-six years.
Maria (from the first marriage), thirty, a project manager, married with two children;
Alexandra, twenty-five, a farmer, married with three children;
Anna, twenty, a student of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of Humanities;
Gregory, eighteen, a student of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of Humanities;
Elizaveta, sixteen, a ninth-grader;
Yuri, fourteen, an eighth-grader;
Andrei, twelve, a sixth-grader;
Vasilisa, nine, a third-grader.
I realized that Zhenya [a diminutive form of the name Eugenia.—Trans.] is the love of my life when we were on the point of breaking up. She went on vacation to Greece with her family without saying anything to me. And since “big things are best seen at a distance” I realized that I can’t live without this woman. I reappraised my values and arrived at the conclusion that she is the person I really need.
I keep in mind the following words from the Gospel all the time: Bear ye one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). No one is supposed to “pull a blanket over himself”. The family is a carriage pulled by two, and only this way it can be “delivered to its destination”. Neither of the spouses is a “passive passenger”. Each of the spouses pulls it as far as he or she can. Each should take into account the other’s ability and not demand more than he or she can give. Prayer is absolutely essential; marriage is the synergy of man and God. And, of course, there should be love—reciprocal feelings. This is what keeps the flame of the family relationship alive. I disagree with some people who say to their spouses: “I am Orthodox, so go away! Don’t kiss me! Don’t embrace me!” I think that is a serious error of many Orthodox people.
I have never been afraid of having many children. As we say, a human being is born together with his lot. I used to work a great deal, realizing the need to feed everybody, to provide them with clothes and shoes. And we would have had more children but for my wife’s illness. Ever since husbands have been allowed to be present when their wives give birth in our country I was next to my other half at the birth of all our children beginning from the third one and cut the umbilical cord myself. Some men are afraid of this, but I don’t understand what they are afraid of. This process didn’t turn me away from my wife; on the contrary, she felt my closeness, my involvement—I didn’t sit out somewhere or move away. I was beside her throughout the delivery. When the labor took longer than expected, I could go to work, work a little, and get back home. We have an excellent doctor, Elena Yaroslavovna Karaganova, who delivered almost all of our children. She would go to our place, and once she left a note with her wish on the wall of our nursery room: “I want this room to never be empty.”
I think that there is a reason why the family is compared with a church. Even the hierarchy is similar in them: Christ is the Head of both, the husband is the priest, the wife is the deacon, and the children are the parishioners. No church rector will tolerate scandalous things in his parish. I am quite a stern and straightforward person and demand obedience; yet I love them, I spoil them, and sometimes try to supplement or make up for one thing with another. I am not ideal and sometimes I am unfair. In the world, at work, while communicating with others you control yourself all the time. And then you come home and see that your nearest and dearest love you and are ready to forgive you for everything. And at home you may let yourself go and lose your temper. But whenever such things happen, I come first and apologize.
When we were young inexperienced parents, the book, Baby and Childcare, by Dr. Benjamin Spock, was a bible for my wife. However, Spock understood nothing about bringing up children. Then we integrated the life of the Church, and our way of thinking changed. Though we do punish our children, the level of punishment depends on the child’s age and the gravity of his misbehavior.
We used to punish them for lying and stealing.
I am ashamed to reveal this, but once a group of small children goaded one of our children into picking his granny’s pocket. But, as psychologists say, “any child is capable of doing anything.” It is important for parents to assess this action and react so that the child will remember this forever. It is strange to see extremely permissive parents. I find it strange and unpleasant to observe a child do very foolish things like rolling on the floor, squealing or banging his feet or fists. Once one of our children had gone beyond the permissible limits, punishment would find its hero. Some say: “How can we punish children?” Quite simply: just as a superior punishes his subordinate. Every parent should take special note, that you should by no means hit, scream, humiliate or verbally abuse children at the slightest provocation. You can punish them, but without humiliating them. Punishment should not be hurtful. Your child should clearly understand what he is being punished for. His parents should keep order and observe rules, and not lose their temper in a fit of irritation. So, in our family punishment is always preceded by a talk.
We had our children baptized right after their births without waiting for a month, or two, or until they grew up and understood who Buddha and Allah are… Our children received Communion almost every Sunday from birth. Now Anna sings in the church choir and Gregory helps in the altar. I will be happy if my children remain with God forever and keep their faith. It doesn’t matter what occupations they will choose.
In 1997, my husband and I met Fr. Alexander Turikov, who became our spiritual father. He made us integrate into church life, inspired us to have many children, and set the general tone to our life. We are blessed to have this father-confessor: he is a strict priest from a family of Moscow clergy; his grandfather, a protodeacon, instructed Fr. John (Krestiankin) before his ministry.
And then we met Elder Iliy. It was the very beginning of our life in the Church and we knew very little. We went to Optina Monastery with our friends. En route we offered several old women a lift. They agreed, and we asked them on the way: “Are there any elders in Optina?” They answered: “Yes, there is Fr. Iliy.” When we arrived, we went into the church. It was empty because the Liturgy was over and people had gone. It was during Bright Week in May. While we were standing by St. Ambrose’s relics, an elderly priest was led into the church and seated on a bench. I had a gut feeling that it was Fr. Iliy. As a young, plucky pregnant woman I ran up to him to receive his blessing. Later no one could believe us that we had met Fr. Iliy “by chance”: “That’s impossible! They hide the elder and don’t allow anyone to approach him!” It must have been Divine providence. After that we went to the elder regularly.
It was a real blessing because many difficult situations in our life were solved through the prayers of Fr. Alexander and Fr. Iliy. Looking back at the past, I see that we were walking that path like tightrope walkers on the edge of the precipice. It is important to carry on looking ahead and not below; it’s the only way of reaching your destination.
The main prerequisite for a good marriage is choosing someone you would throw in your lot with. For me the main criterion was the following: finding the kind of guy I would want to share a foxhole with. Will he “defend us shooting back to back” or not? I felt my future husband by intuition. I broke some window glass in his car accidentally. He took his jacket off, rolled up his white shirt’s sleeves and started replacing the glass. I was gazing at his face attentively, expecting irritation; but he did his work with perfect calm: undoing and removing the broken glass and replacing it. I thought: “That’s a real guy!…”
It’s not to say that I couldn’t see myself being a mother of many children—I was misdiagnosed with infertility. And when the first baby was born, it was like a miracle. The doctors persistently tried to persuade me to have abortions. They said about one baby that “he will be born with hydrocephaly”, and about another one that “he has Down syndrome.” I would sign the papers refusing abortions while weeping, and each time gave birth to healthy, beautiful babies. When we had five children, I went to Fr. Iliy in Optina and asked him: “How many children will I have?” He was silent for a while and then said, “Eight will be enough.” And when I carried the eighth baby to full term with great difficulty and with protuberant eyes, I came to Optina again, and the elder told me, “You shouldn’t have more children.” And some time later I was diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer. I was forty-six. The chief doctor waved his hand and went out to have a smoke; I read the verdict on his face. I called my husband and told him that I had cancer. He replied: “I love you. I won’t abandon you. I will be with you.”
I have been living with this diagnosis for the third year now. There was no point in having an operation because metastases were everywhere; but I underwent chemotherapy. Everyone who was undergoing treatment with me has since died, but I am in remission. Fr. Iliy said that my survival was obtained by my children’s prayers and tears. He had prayed for me on his knees in the church with my daughter Anna, and then he said to her, “This cross is a gift to your mama from God.” And he was right—I became very weak, but I have acquired a lot spiritually. I remember thinking, when I lay in bed more dead than alive: “Oh my Lord! Why do they argue? Our life is so short—we all must love each other!” All these mutual reproaches are trifles that mean nothing! Someone has not given you a cup, or talked to you in the wrong way or said the “wrong words” to you…
During that period, many of our acquaintances—both Orthodox and secular—got divorced. A husband who nags at his wife with her many children is like another “careless and foolish child” to her. Then she “throws him away like lumber”. That is a tough moment. I with my cancer could have become worthless too, but glory be to God, over the years of our family life we managed to nurture the love which helped us remain together. Being with a seriously ill person all the time is a huge problem. I am not even able to make soup. I collapsed when I was cooking soup last time, so I was rushed to ICU. But everybody is saved near a sick person.
My illness served for the good of all my children. I fell ill “just at the right moment”: they had gotten used to exploiting me. I was cherished only during my pregnancies and as long as the youngest were infants. But by that point I had not given birth to children for a long time and everybody had relaxed. Once I had been diagnosed with cancer, everybody came to their senses and realized that their mom might die. The typical teenagers’ complaints that their mom is doing something wrong stopped. After all, we live in the world, our children have strong temptations, but my position in the family has been that of “making concessions”. Though I have a difficult character and rather bad temper, my grandmother used to teach me: “Don’t worry about it.” At first I couldn’t grasp the meaning of her words; but now I have come to understand them and even teach my children that they should distinguish between the things which someone does deliberately and what he does out of weakness. We should feel this distinction and not trigger conflicts.
Mothers with many children are very patient people. Now I tell all my friends: “Girls, you shouldn’t neglect yourselves! The motto ‘everything for the children’ is fine, but your good health is for the children too. You should go into hospital for check-ups and get your rest.” We have introduced a rule in our family: The parents’ bedroom is off-limits. If your mom is having a rest there, you aren’t allowed to bother her. Today many parents put their little ones on a pedestal. I don’t judge anybody; I did the same with our first two children; but when I tried to put the third child on a pedestal, I understood that “Bolivar cannot carry double” [a famous phrase from The Roads We Take—a short story by O. Henry.—Trans.]. Children are egoists by nature, but in large families they learn to keep their distance.
Our dad’s rigidity has kept the family in balance. If he were mild and courteous, everything would have fallen apart long ago. Our family is a patriarchal one. I try not to cause problems and follow my husband’s disposition. There are the brilliant words of Elder Paisios: “Fishermen don’t go fishing unless the sea is calm—they wait patiently for the storm to pass.” We should wait for good weather. Earlier, when my husband would scold me, I would say: “When you die, you will approach the gates of Paradise, where the Apostle Peter will ask you: ‘Are you Alexander Yurievich? Is this your wife Eugenia? Please, please enter! You have suffered so much with her!’ The best place in Paradise has been secured for you!” And everybody would laugh.
My mother worried a lot when I gave birth to so many children. She grew up in a large family—the oldest of four children. She had a hard childhood—they lived in an izba [a peasant’s log hut in old Russia.—Trans.] and everybody would give her orders: “Bring a pail of water! Chop some wood!…” She was overburdened in her childhood and this terror haunted her throughout her life: “My Zhenechka [an affectionate and diminutive form of the name Eugenia.—Trans.] will be the oldest child in a large family! Not for anything!” So she decided not to have more children, and I remained the only child in the family. Once she started reproaching me for having a lot of children, and I replied: “Mom, maybe I am finishing the task that you didn’t finish?” One day she walked through an underpass and saw a beggar with dirty children around her. “And I at once imagined you sitting there!” she confessed. But with the help of God we are fairly well off, and we even had a big house built quite unexpectedly. We even had no money to build the foundation, so we borrowed a large amount. We initially intended to build only one story. If I had been shown our present house beforehand, I would have never believed that we could ever afford it. But everything is possible with the help of God.
A very interesting story is associated with my husband’s family. We used to have photographs of his great-grandparents, on which their names and patronymics were indicated. We started praying for their repose (my husband reads the Psalter for their repose regularly). And all of a sudden, information on these people from the pictures came to light. We thought they were from the middle class, but it turns out that they were of the hereditary nobility. That is, my husband is descended from an ancient noble family on his mother’s side. It was founded by a mirza [the title bestowed on members of the highest aristocracy in ancient khanates on the territory of what is now Russia, such as those of Kazan and Astrakhan.—Trans.] who came to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1645—1676) and was baptized. The Maysov noble family lived in the Tambov province. In the late nineteenth century they began to be concerned with the common folk, opening many schools for them and working as teachers. And after the Revolution the authorities didn’t touch them; they were neither dispossessed nor imprisoned—the locals held them in such high respect. My husband’s great-grandfather, Pyotr Semyonovich Maysov, worked as a principal; and his son Yuri was a war hero—he was killed on the Kursk Bulge [in the Battle of Kursk: July 5—August 23, 1943, which started as a Nazi offensive of the “Operation Citadel” with attacks on the Bulge from the north and south simultaneously, but resulted in a significant victory for the Soviet forces.—Trans.]. It happened on July 9, 1943, and half a century later—on July 10, 1994—his first great-granddaughter Alexandra was born.
All our children have always studied at “Pleskovo” Orthodox boarding-school near Moscow. We have lived close by since 2004. A benefactor established this school especially for large families. When Anna was a first grader, only one boy and one girl from her class didn’t have any siblings; all the other pupils had five, six, or eight siblings… Everybody would wonder: “How is it that you have neither brothers nor sisters?” Though by the fourth grade that boy already had a sister and the girl had a brother and a sister. Such is the power of the team!.. As you look at school photographs in the archives, you see the same faces year after year, since brothers and sisters bear a great resemblance to each other. The teachers have the sense of déjà vu all the time: having taught Simonov, Ulyev, and Gritsishin, they have Simonov, Ulyev and Gritsishin again in the fifth grade. And they are all friends! And all of us are either godchildren or godchildren’s parents. It’s an incredible community!