By Larissa Varlamova
My mother, Vanda Wollert was born in St. Petersburg, but she had only known her native city by the name of Leningrad. At the age of 7, Vanda lost her father to the purges of Joseph Stalin when he was arrested in the middle of the night for reasons still unknown to this day.
With her father arrested as a “traitor to his people” (“vrag naroda”), Vanda and her mother had to flee Leningrad and were exiled to Sevastopol, Crimea on the Black Sea. After finishing high school, at the age of 16, she studied to be an actress and subsequently began performing classical roles on stage with a professional dramatic ensemble theater in Sevastopol. Vanda was a beautiful girl, talented with a strong and gutteral voice as she sang those old Russian gypsy songs which had been passed on to her through the generations — songs that had never been written down. She sang those songs from the bottom of her soul and there was not a dry eye in the house, after hearing Vanda wail those gypsy caravan camp-fire laments; she was a true and natural artist with a tender heart.
My father, Boris Arleninov (1923 – 1998), a native of Saratov, was also an actor who had studied dramatic theater in Tsiflis, Georgia – but his career had been cut short when he joined the Soviet Navy in 1941. At the age of 19 he was wounded and captured by the Germans, where he managed to escape from a temporary prison camp. But under Stalin’s regime, Boris would immediately be branded a “traitor to his country” and this meant certain death, because he had not killed himself when the German’s captured him; he had allowed himself to be taken, and then escaped. So he could not go back to his life as a soldier, and he fled. On the run, Boris changed into civilian clothing and ended up in Sevastopol where he found work as an actor with the theater, where he met Vanda, who was performing there. They fell in love and the rest was a turbulent adventure throughout Russia and Germany until finally, when World War II ended, Boris and Vanda found passage to Canada.
They got married on December 31st, 1953 at St. Peter & St. Paul Russian Orthodox Cathedral and after having settled into their new lives in Montreal, had two daughters, Alexandra (Sasha) and Larissa. Sasha and I were both christened at St. Peter and St Paul’s and I married my husband George Ostrowski, in 1987… of course, at St. Peter & St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In the early 1950’s, my parents, though working at regular day jobs once immigrating to Canada, were still very passionate about acting and missed the theater terribly. Along the way, they met other Russian actors and artists in Montreal, all recent immigrants, who also missed their true calling in the arts and the theater — and together, they began organizing and staging classical Russian plays, many of which were held in our parish hall on the same stage that is still standing there today. Using their meager resources and some donations, Boris and Vanda managed to put on amazing performances and thrilled audiences along with extravagant and intricate stage design and costumes — what a treat it was to be there in those days!
From the mid-1950’s until the early 1980’s, Vanda and Boris Arleninov continued to be the “toast of every party” and staged many children’s plays and performances with the members of our parish and their children — St. Peter & St. Paul’s was a happening place! Many Saturday nights hosted by Boris and Vanda were fundraising events to help raise money for our parish. They put on elaborate variety shows and the evenings were always filled with live music, comedy and drama.
Many of my parents’ contemporaries, and members of our parish, who would remember those wonderful years at St. Peter & St. Paul Cathedral throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s; are also not with us anymore. But I know that my parents and all those people that have gone before us, who gave so freely and joyfully of their time, their talent and their energy, who brought us closer together as a community, who brought joy and art to our people here in our cherished parish at St. Peter and St. Paul’s — I know that they have all found each other again in Heaven, and are happy, joyous and free.
May they rest in peace.