Nikolay and Maria Yefremov hold hands and gaze at grandsons Paul and Dan Chuyashov.
The Ukrainian couple emigrated from their homeland 18 years ago as the Soviet Union dissolved. America, says their daughter Lubov Chuyashov, offered them the opportunity to practice their Christian faith without persecution.
“Praise the Lord,” Nikolay says in his native tongue, raising up his hands and smiling.
Those words brought the Yefremovs – now in their 90s and married 70 years – lives marred by adversity and horror. And yet during this Easter season, Nikolay and Maria stand as a living testament to faith and hope and renewal.
“I am amazed by them, to know just how much they went through … and that they are still alive,” said Dan Chuyashov, their 16-year-old grandson.
A simple knock on the door brought them together. Desperate for food and work, Maria came to the front door of Nikolay’s family home in the city of Novoaydar, in easternmost Ukraine.
Her family had been destroyed by famine in the early 1930s – victims of a genocide engineered by Josef Stalin that the Ukrainians call the Holodomor.
Though historical accounts vary, it is widely believed that 6.8 million were starved or murdered as Stalin targeted an entire class of people called Ukrainian kulaks, independent farmers who resisted or didn’t comprehend his drive for collectivization. He dismantled the successful farms that had helped feed Slavic Europe for generations. It was happening at the same time American farms were ruined by drought, dust storms and the economic collapse that marked the Great Depression.
As Stalin strengthened his grip through fear and networks of loyalists, modest family farms such as Maria’s drew suspicion and discrimination.
One day her brother Vasiliy – 13 years old at the time – was falsely accused of stealing food.
Members of a large komosol, Communist Party youth from the local school, came to the family home and killed the boy.
Maria’s father was later sent to prison for his resistance.
Not long after, Communist Party officials seized the family’s farm and dragged her mother from the house. They murdered her on the property, stripped her corpse of clothing and left her body for the family to bury. Some of Maria’s other siblings were also killed.
Maria and her remaining family members scratched a shallow grave into the earth and scattered. Maria was perhaps 18.
From that day she began suffering health problems. Her daughter, Lubov Chuyashov, blames the trauma.
“My mother has never been in good health. It is through God’s love she is here,” says Lubov, as Maria’s eyes well with tears that streak her cheeks and frame her smile.
The stories deliver her to the past, and she doesn’t recognize Nikolay for a moment, his shock of white hair and a long beard so different from the black-haired, clean-shaven man she wed 70 years ago.
After Maria’s mother was killed, she left her farming village and went to work at a hospital.
She fell ill, lost her job and was forced to go door to door seeking work, shelter and food.
It was then that she met Nikolay, who worked in the coal mines and lived at home with his father, a veterinarian.
After a brief courtship the couple married Jan. 11, 1940, in a simple ceremony. There are no formal pictures.
They felt happy, blessed and ready to start a family.
The war raging in Europe seemed so far away. Stalin had inked a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. He had weakened his Red Army through purges of officers and damage inflicted upon the people.
Maria and Nikolay’s newlywed bliss ended abruptly in June 1941 when Hitler unleashed the largest military invasion the world had ever seen.
After German troops seized the Ukrainian city of Kiev, they pushed through the rest of the fertile region in hopes of seizing the Russian city of Volgograd, which had been renamed Stalingrad.
As the Nazi bombs and artillery shells fell, neighbors gathered at the Yefremov home, where a large cellar offered safety. At first some in the Ukraine thought the Nazis might be liberators from Stalin’s tyranny. Such notions quickly faded as the country was destroyed.
“My parents believed in God, never lost their belief, and the neighbors knew this,” Lubov said. “Regardless of the circumstances, they always had joy in the Lord and that gave them strength to live on and overcome all the trials.”
Many of the elder Ukrainians and Russians making their homes in Spokane have similar stories of persecution and grace, says Tatyana Bistrevsky, who serves as a cultural liaison and interpreter for the region’s Slavic immigrants.
Maria gave birth to two sons during the early war years.
When the Soviets captured and destroyed an entire German army at Stalingrad and began pushing the Nazis back, the Yefremovs endured more tragedy.
Their two sons, Vladimir, 18 months, and infant Yvgeny, died of starvation; Maria was so malnourished her body couldn’t produce enough milk for her babies.
As the Soviet army clawed its way back through the Ukraine to expel the Germans along the notorious Eastern Front, Nikolay was sent to a Siberian gulag for spreading his faith.
Soviet officials later seized Maria’s Bible.
She had scribbled notes in the margins that referenced passages she found inspirational. The Soviets accused her of writing codes for the Germans. A suspected spy, she was placed in a line with others to be shot. But as the firing squad leveled their rifles, an officer noticed the small bulge in Maria’s tummy. He halted the execution and spoke to Maria. She softly told the officer of the baby growing inside her.
Not wanting the death of an unborn child on his conscience, he spared Maria and baby Yvgeny, who now lives in Pensacola, Fla.
They survived the remainder of the war, and Nikolay was released in 1948. He met his 5-year-old son for the first time.
During his family’s telling of the story, Nikolay begins to sing. It is a beautiful song of praise and gratitude. His daughter Lubov smiles and dabs a tear.
The couple had six more children in the years that followed, rearing them all Christians as Nikolay mined coal by day and ministered to an underground Christian community by night.
The Soviet government continued to persecute the Yefremovs for their beliefs, even threatening to take their children in 1960 for teaching the Bible.
When his coal mining job ended, Nikolay worked for a large tractor company and the family lived on a small farm. They lived in a home built from oak timbers that still stands today.
Nikolay, Maria and their seven children lived hardscrabble lives under Soviet rule. They occupied one part of the home, a cow-calf pair lived in another, and the other third of the home stored coal. They kept rabbits under the house. Chickens roosted upstairs. Maria kept a large potato and vegetable garden to feed the family. When their oldest son Yvgeny was ready to graduate from school, Soviet officials still trying to break the family’s faith offered him a choice: “Your God or a diploma.”
He chose God. Yvgeny later had his Ukrainian citizenship revoked and was told he could leave the country. He traveled to Israel, then to Rome and ultimately to Fresno, Calif.
About 35 years later – after he had moved to the United States – he received a letter from his school. It was an apology and his diploma.
He then sent for Nikolay and Maria.
Other family then began to immigrate, and the family did what Americans do – they spread out.
Yvgeny moved to Florida, and a daughter, Olga, now lives in Indiana. Three daughters, Lubov, Lidiya and Galina, live in Spokane. A fifth daughter, Larissa, has died.
Only one son, Anatoli, decided to stay in Ukraine. He works as an electrician in the same coal mine where his father toiled and prayed.
In all, Nikolay and Maria have six living children, 39 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
They are an important part of the region’s Slavic community that now totals between 28,000 and 32,000 people.
Bistrevsky, the cultural liaison, said the population is largely protestant Christians who are grateful for the religious freedoms of this country.
“They want to do something for their new country,” she said. “We don’t have so much to offer, so we pray.”
The Yefremovs are members of the Slavic Baptist Church in Spokane. Lubov says their ordeals make Psalm 33:18-19 especially meaningful:
“Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy; to deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.”