Ilona Koroleva was born on June 9, 1969, on a Soviet military base in Priozersk, Kazakhstan. With two big brothers (Giorgi and Constantine were five and 10 years older than her), she was the third child of Oleg, a military officer, and Inna, a hairdresser whose clientele included other women on the base. Life wasn’t easy for the young family, and became more difficult after Ilona’s parents divorced when she was still young. Oleg eventually moved away, losing touch with the family, and leaving Ilona to be raised by her mother and brothers, especially Constantine, who became a father figure to her. She was a playful and loving child with many friends, and found happiness wherever she could. One of her favourite places to visit was Lake Balkhash, just outside the city, where she’d go swimming.
When Ilona was a teenager, she moved with her mother and brothers to the Russian city of Kaluga, where she joined a local hiking club and a paratroopers’ club, completing so many jumps she eventually became an instructor. Always popular, she made many new friends. After finishing high school, she attended Moscow State Technical University, which had a campus in Kaluga, and studied electrical engineering. Ilona earned a degree in the subject, but it wasn’t her passion; she loved working with people, so after graduation, she went back to school and obtained a diploma in psychology.
While at university, Ilona met Andrey Korolev, who was also studying electrical engineering. Andrey was a practical, down-to-earth young man who was drawn to Ilona’s free spirit and her warm-hearted nature. “We were like the North and South Pole,” he says, but still, “we got along right away. I don’t know a person who didn’t get along with her.” They fell in love and had two children: Argur, in 1989, and Elena, born seven years later. On Feb. 16, 1996, they were married in a Russian Orthodox service in front of friends and family. “I was the happiest person in the world,” says Andrey.
As a young couple, Andrey and Ilona had worked various jobs, including, for a time, as electrical engineers. They even opened their own retail business. But life was hard in Kaluga, a “provincial town whose economy was dying,” says Andrey. The Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991, and “young capitalism has a very ugly face. Everybody needs money, and nobody knows where to go.” They thought about moving to Australia and Europe before deciding on Canada in 1996. Ilona thought it would be a good place to raise the children.
They weren’t accepted, however, until 2002. Though he was a bit nervous about having to adjust to a new country, Andrey recalls Ilona being excited about life in Canada. The family moved into an apartment in North York, in Toronto, where most of the neighbours were Russian expats. Andrey worked as a garbageman and did odd jobs in the building; Ilona worked at a deli. Their new life wasn’t always easy, says Andrey. They struggled to make ends meet at times, and worried about the kids; at first, “there was a language barrier for the older one,” he says. But Ilona settled in and got to know her new home, paying visits to Lake Ontario, which reminded her of days spent at Lake Balkhash.
Eventually, the couple pooled their savings and made a down payment on a condo in Etobicoke. They decided to get a family dog, and chose a German schnauzer named Pont, which Ilona loved to walk. “When we visited the breeder, the dog picked her,” Andrey recalls. “He sat in front of her, and put his head on her knees.”
In recent years, the family had adapted to their new life in Canada: Andrey worked as an electrician, and Ilona as a customer service representative for a transportation and logistics company, which made her happy, he says, since she got to interact with people every day. The children were thriving, too. Elena excelled at school, and last year, Argur, now 20, moved out on his own, with plans to attend university.
A few months ago, Ilona was laid off. She sent out resumés, and threw herself into different causes, volunteering at a Russian library and studying Reiki healing (a type of spiritual massage therapy). She also spent more time at the local Russian Orthodox church than ever. “She’s always been concerned about others, but lately, she seemed concerned about everybody on earth,” says Andrey. “She started going to church and praying every day.”
On March 29, Ilona took Pont out for an afternoon walk. She was standing on the walkway outside their home when a car veered out of control, hitting a tree and then crashing into her and the dog, killing them both. Ilona was 40 years old.