Guest blogger: Sven Ljungholm. Meet Sven Ljungholm in a series of articles. Sven was leading an air company many years before he became a Salvation Army officer. He served in USA, Sweden and as one of the pioneers when the Salvation Army restarted its work in Eastern Europe.
Our Moscow offices were located in a building that was part of the immense Russian Kremlin complex. It was two doors from the impressive suite of offices that housed the Minister of Social Protection, Madame Ella Pomfilova. She was a regular un-announced drop-in to our office and twice brought a very special visitor, President Boris Yeltsin's wife, Naina. Our discussions centered on the social service needs of the Russian people, partnering with local educational institutions in the training of social service professionals, and establishing a daily feeding program to Moscow's 80,000 elderly, poor population.
The need for volunteers in Moscow was no different than what we experienced in St. Petersburg (the city of Leningrad's name had changed during the course of the preceding 12 months).
Among the many students, government employees and professional social workers who came to our aid was Igor. Igor was a man in his late 30s, one of our first recruits and sworn in as a soldier by General Eva Burrows. He walked with the aid of crutches, wore large, thick-lens spectacles, and often appeared to be teetering, off balance, perhaps due to his rather large head and upper torso. He had though a gentle and endearing manner; he seemed particularly well suited to act as our uniformed volunteer receptionist and telephone operator. His appointment to that position ensured that he would not be required to move about the offices too much, and afforded him a necessary and respected role.
There was constant traffic in and out of our offices. Visitors included government officials from many nations; Ambassadors, a delegation from the Vatican, and countless NGOs, all seeking information on how best to aid in the distribution of medical equipment, medicine, food and other urgently needed supplies. The country was bankrupt and without even the most basic social services structure.
Igor worked feverishly to answer the telephone and to coordinate the visit of the many who came to us for information. We had become the unofficial representative of the Russian government in disseminating, coordinating, and establishing the necessary roles of many foreign NGOs. However, there was also a personal area of very real concern... Igor. His daunting and ever increasing responsibilities seemed to wear on him. When there was a lull in telephone calls or slowing of traffic entering the offices’ double-doors, Igor would place his large head on the desk and simply doze off. Whenever necessary, a gentle prod brought Igor back to reality, and for the next few minutes he was again wide-awake and active. As the weeks and month wore on, it became clear however, that Igor's strength was waning. But who could possible deny a man of such gracious spirit and dedication his appointed role?
It was spring, 1993, and Igor was at his desk, putting his head on the desk between telephone calls. This day though was different. The telephone rang, and visitors came calling, but by late morning Igor wasn't responsive. No degree of trying to rouse Igor brought any sign of life. The local medical team, with a clinic in our building, was called and subsequent to examining Igor announced to a stunned group of his colleagues that he was dead. We later learned that Igor was well aware that his time in this world was limited, and even more so if he took on any strenuous activities. Igor had been warned that the simple act of leaving his apartment might be too strenuous and deemed a health risk.
Although no one ever alerted us to his delicate medical conditions there were many days when I thought seriously of asking Igor to resign his role as the unpaid, official "office coordinator". The daily demands on Igor seemed to be taking its toll on him. Thinking back I now know why I didn't do so. His appointment to that highly visible position wasn't really made by me, it had been made by a much higher authority.
Igor worked in one of the nation's most respected, historical and honored buildings, not at the direction of his government or me; he was appointed by the King! Igor worked and died in Royal service and now wears the Crown of Life.