THE SOLID OBJECTS OF STAGNANT EMPIRES
“The Myth” and “Jew” are two excerpts from The Naked World, a story of four generations of one family, interspersed with accounts of the Great Terror, essays, and flashes of childhood memories in the Thaw and post-Thaw Soviet Union. Chapter 2, “The Myth” focuses on the family’s story during the Great Terror, relating events and behaviors in the face of the regime. It includes the story of one of the main characters, grandmother Alexandra, beginning with her turn-of-the-century childhood, which continues throughout the book. Each chapter closes with a meditation on motifs like déjà vu, tessellating patterns of wallpaper, and the very hologram of a family myth.
I was born a decade after the Night of the Murdered Poets, “The Doctors’ Plot,” and the hastily-made plans for the deportation of the Jews. Those years still came up in quiet conversations around me, and rumors kept surfacing – of trains that had waited back then for thousands of Jews to be transported to Birobidzhan, a tiny patch of taiga on the Trans-Siberian Railway near the China-Soviet border, and of barracks built for people like my parents and grandparents and their friends and colleagues and those chance acquaintances at the Conservatory – all those people with warmly familiar patronymics and last names and long noses almost like mine and even longer.
In 1944, Hanna Arendt wrote an essay “A Jew as Pariah.” In fact, the Jew was a double pariah, quite paradoxically, but intrinsically, not belonging to any realm, including the realm of Jewishness itself. It was that loss of belonging even to one’s own community of pariahs that made one a true pariah – made one a Jew. Just like a Russian émigré in the 1920s – a stateless person with a so-called Nansen passport, stripped naked of national and cultural identity in the new world of her hosts, people clad in their culture to which they have the right of the first-born; or like any refugee who is fleeing from one place but not necessarily to another, one acquires a right to freely create her own destiny. Such an émigré, a natural in the art of pariahdom inevitably becomes an outsider in the very community of outsiders to which she belongs.
And then the unexpected happens: having left one’s native land, the émigré regains a real bond with it – and with that, regains the freedom of choice, and rediscovers her voice in the dialogue. It happens suddenly and unbeknownst to her, maybe even much to her surprise. This newly-found bond may be uncomfortable and unwelcomed, but it’s there. Now, neither she belongs to her motherland, nor her motherland to her. It’s the bond of equals, a matter of her free will.
Their relationship is now not unlike the relationship between a father and a daughter whose lives diverged but who remained linked. She begins to understand just how much they have in common, and the degree to which her world had been shaped by the formerly imposed connection.
Silence does not beget forgetting. On the contrary,
just as forgetting itself, it constitutes an integral part of memory.
Alexander and Alexandra. The First Arrest
Alexander was arrested in the early spring of 1928, as he was working on his graduation project at VKhUTEMAS. For three days, beginning with the search and during the ambush set up in their apartment, everyone who happened to stop by – a friend, a colleague, a random acquaintance – was also arrested. Alexandra, pregnant with their first child, who would be my father, was endlessly playing Chopin on the piano, as a way of coping with fear, while the black leather jackets were turning the place upside down. She was 22, he was 29.
She couldn’t find him at the first train station and rushed to the other one. She ran along the cars of the departing trains hoping that he would notice her. And then she saw him. He was standing in the moving train car, with several guards next to him. It was still a passenger car – soon, prisoners and the exiled will be transported in freight trains. She was trying to guess, by the direction the train was going, where they were taking him. North, she decided. Indeed, it was the town of Usolye on the Kama River in the Northern Ural Mountains. Yelabuga, the Tatar town in which Marina Tsvetaeva will hang herself thirteen years later, is on the same right bank, farther downstream.
In the summer, she went to see him. They would break the rules and go to places outside the boundaries of his exile. They’d take a boat and row to the strange islands in the middle of the river where everything was unnaturally large, the trees and the grass, but utterly scentless. “Like Chernobyl?” – I asked.
After a month, she had to leave. The sparkling white steamboat was filled with a young happy crowd, Soviet youths out on a river excursion. She sat in her cabin, waiting for the boat to leave the dock. The boat took off – and suddenly returned to the pier. She thought it was a sign: she would stay there with him. But the boat gave a shrill whistle and took off again. She sat in her cabin until she suddenly felt the baby kicking for the first time. She washed her face and went up onto the deck.
In 1928, the poet Nikolay Zabolotsky shut the door tightly behind him and handed his wife a sheet with a poem about the Terror. Then he read aloud another, an innocuous lyrical poem about nature, in which the first lines and the rhymes are identical to the ones in the first – they were supposed to help him reconstruct the dangerous poem when better times arrived. Then he burnt the first poem.
My father, Victor, was born in Moscow in late October of 1928, on the eve of the Great Break, the year when Stalin celebrated his 50th anniversary and Alexander was serving his first exile. His birth coincided with an unexpected arrival of a parcel from Usolye. It meant that Alexander was alive.
Within a few months, the main Soviet newspaper Pravda – The Truth – published penitent letters from the exiled members of the opposition. There were rumors that those who would admit to and renounce their political activity, real or alleged, will be allowed to return. One of these letters was from their relative, Sergei Gorny – Alexandra’s brother-in-law, her sister Liza’s husband. It was because of this family connection to Gorny, a prominent member of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party, that Alexander had been arrested. During his interrogations at the Butyrka prison, Alexander denied any connection with any political faction of the Party. He wasn’t even a Party member. He just didn’t see any reason to repent. He wrote no letters to Stalin, signed nothing, and served his entire sentence. It wasn’t strategy or calculation on his part, it was just the way he was, with his down-to-earth common sense, pride, and innate independence. It was this behavior, however, that saved him twenty years later, when he was arrested for the second time.
Alexander returned home when Victor was almost one year old. He quickly discovered that he didn’t feel the love he expected to feel for his son – a frail, nervous stranger who would turn blue during frequent tantrums. His feelings were probably not as complicated as Alexandra thought – he did love his son, he just wanted him to be different.
Before they led him away, Sergei Gorny kissed his 6-year-old son Dima so hard that he knocked out two of his baby teeth. His wife, Alexandra’s older sister Liza, was arrested several months later. Gorny’s sentence was “10 years of labor camps without a right to correspondence.” Usually this meant execution, but there was still hope. They didn’t tell Liza where her husband was; neither then, in 1937, nor in 1956, after his posthumous rehabilitation. Even the date of the execution was deliberately changed.
This proud, egocentric man, who was the Soviet Consul General in Turkey in the early 1920s, one of the creators of the Plan of Moscow’s Reconstruction, Le Corbusier’s correspondent, and the owner of a huge collection of cold weapons, was the reason my grandfather was arrested and spent 10 years in jails, transits, and exile.
“I can sense your dislike and wariness of S. G.,” Uncle Dima wrote to me. “I know that the family blames him for what had happened. Maybe all of you are right, though I doubt that such a brave, ironic, and honorable man as Alexander could have been spared the meatgrinder of 1930-40s.”
“I’ve always admired and adored my father,” – Dima wrote in the next letter, “but I know practically nothing about him. I don’t even know his real name. I don’t know what he liked, what he loved, how he erred, or what illusions he held – I only know how he perished.”
In 1993, during the brief period when the KGB archives were open to the public, Dima was able to access his father’s file – case №3329, and the transcript of the trial. The reading out of the charge, the prosecutor’s speech, the questioning, the verdict, additional questions, more questions again, deliberations, and finally the verdict – took all of 10 minutes, from 6:15 pm to 6.25 pm. The certificate about the implementation of the sentence that same evening was neatly attached to the file. The case also included the records of the four-month long investigation and the interrogations that preceded the trial. It was obvious that Gorny was tortured. The first protocols were signed confidently and legibly; after that came illegible scribbles – his fingers must have been broken. He was accused of planning a terrorist attack against Comrade Stalin. He didn’t sign or admit to anything.
Liza wasn’t charged with any crime – she was arrested simply as the “wife of the traitor of the Motherland.” There was a special camp in Kazakhstan for such wives and daughters, who were over 15 years of age. It was known by its acronym: ALGIR. The women were fed dinner only if they met the day’s work quota; they were allowed to send one letter to their family every three months. At the time of Liza’s arrest, Dima was supposed to have been taken away to a special orphanage, but there were too many arrests and orphanages were overflowing, so the boy was handed over to his grandmother, Liza’s mother. At the beginning of the war, Liza’s oldest son, her best friend and kindred soul, the 17-year-old Yura, enlisted and perished in the first battle in the North. He had hoped that if he volunteered, his mother would be released. She wasn’t. The death notice arrived when Liza was already in the camp.
At the end of Liza’s sentence, 15-year-old Dima went to Kazakhstan to rejoin his mother, to whom he had been writing polite formal letters every three months, and to help her move to the place she would be exiled indefinitely. She had long dreamt of this reunion with the last sliver of her family and believed that her love would overcome the emotional distance between her and the difficult teenager, but Dima remained a stranger. On the first day, Dima didn’t have the strength to tell her that Yura had perished, but she found the death notice in his pocket as she was preparing his clothes for disinfection while he was in the bathhouse.
After the official end of her sentence, she had to stay in the camp for another month, which Dima spent in her barrack, making friends with the other inmates’ children and even falling in love for the first time. He was the one who suggested a town they could live in within the exile zone, and the two strangers went there together.
In the childhood photo, Liza (b.1898) is on the far right and Zina (b.1908) is on the far left. I loved them both. The oldest and the youngest Margolin sisters lost their husbands to the purges and were cut off from their children; both lost their sons – to war or accident; Liza lost both of her grandsons. Their surviving sons were taken away and raised by grandmothers, and no later reunion could repair that. Both spent years in Gulag and exile: Liza – 18 years, Zina – 21. Both came back with a gently naïve (Liza) and ironically resilient (Zina) smile and those Margolin bluest eyes without any shadow of bitterness.
After her husband’s execution in 1936, Zina was arrested the second time; her only son Sasha was exiled with his grandmother, Zina’s mother-in-law, a Russian peasant, to an island in the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan – the sea that is dry now. Zina ended up in the worst of the worst – the Taishet Corrective Labor Camp in Eastern Siberia. There, the quiet and shy Zinochka, once a sickly child, then an adult with TB who always had to take her own temperature, cut trees and rolled logs along the wooden ramps. If she didn’t complete the day’s work quota, she’d end up in a solitary cell. After serving 10 years, she was released from the camp, but was rearrested within a year and exiled again, also within Siberia, but this time indefinitely. Zina’s mother-in-law taught her grandson to despise his counterrevolutionary Jewish mother. “Still,” – my own grandmother would always remind me at this point of the story, “this simple and stern woman was ultimately kind to Zina: she visited her in exile.” Sasha reluctantly reunited with his mother in the 1960s, already as an adult and a father. It was the happiest time in Zina’s life: she had suddenly acquired a family. A year after their reunion, Sasha perished in a car accident in the mountains of Central Asia, the place of his and his grandmother’s former exile. He died instantly. The woman passenger got out without a scratch and not a single one of the eggs in the basket she was holding in her lap was broken.
In the KGB file that was given to Dima in 1993, there were pages with the protocols of Zina’s interrogations, during which she was forced to testify against Gorny.
Alexander and Alexandra. The second arrest
He was arrested again on June 3, 1948. This time, the arrest itself didn’t take long. The NKVD operatives rushed into the apartment, groping under the pillows in search of a gun. Then they showed the warrant for Alexander’s arrest and one of them led him away. The others continued the search.
He spent over a year in transit jails, trying to maintain his sanity. He exercised and rubbed-down with cold water. He made a sleeping bag out of the prison blankets and slept undressed, while all the other inmates slept in their day clothes. When he got lucky, he’d find some paper scraps or cardboard and then he would draw.
They wanted her to denounce Alexander, they wanted her to collaborate with them and to inform on her colleagues at the Library – she couldn’t even understand what they meant. One of them said: “If you don’t want to think about yourself, think about your son, a student.” She began having hallucinations: she actually saw Victor, my father, being taken away – the son of an enemy of the people.
She packed up a small suitcase in case they came for her: just a few things – warm underwear and clothes, a piece of soap, a toothbrush, and a round cardboard container with tooth cleaning powder and cheerful italics: Cleans teeth and silverware. But she couldn’t bring herself to do the same for Victor.
The last transit was the worst. First came the overcrowded train that went east for about two weeks, crossing the country until they reached the end of the happiest ⅙ of the Earth’s land surface. There, on the shore of the Okhotsk Sea, at the Vanino Sea Port they boarded an old steamer. In the hold crammed with inmates, the majority of whom were different varieties of criminals, they reached the Nagaevo Bay – the gates to Kolyma.
As soon as the inmates stepped on the solid ground, they had to lie on the permafrost face down. Those who didn’t, were shot in the back of the head. For the rest of his life, Alexander was tortured by this memory. He couldn’t forgive himself for obeying.
Once in Magadan, Kolyma’s ‘capital’, he was offered a job and a room, but he opted out for a small settlement on the Route, the deadly road through the wilderness. Within days, he set out on a truck – the only way of transportation in Kolyma. Around him, the hilly tundra spread for hundreds of miles, covered with intermittent dwarf pine and punctured by camps – serpentine roads, guard towers surrounded by the triple barbed wire, wooden paths to the gold sifting tower in the center, little figures carrying wooden knapsacks with uraninite up the hill or pushing wheelbarrows up the hill, to the tower, where they would overturn them onto conveyor belts as if it were a sacrifice to some deity. At night, a red star would light up on the factory building – it meant that the plan had been met and the workday was now finally over. If the Route came close to a camp, he would hear the same song spilling out from the loudspeakers – “I know of no other country/where a man can breathe so freely” – and then the empty windy tundra again, covered with 140-day-old snow, so hard that it had to be sawed or hacked with an axe if you needed to melt it for water. The wide-open, always wakeful tundra, with its lead and uranium and gold below its cracked cuirass. In the spring, the earth grew pink with cranberry vines, permafrost turned fluid and moveable, and corpses would emerge from under the snow: the locals called them “snowdrops” – the bodies of those who had tried to flee half a year earlier.
He did not perish, he returned from Kolyma after six years – not unscathed, but not a broken man, either. He never talked to me about his experience and I don’t think he shared much with Alexandra. He severed the years stolen from his life the way he ended his relationship with his Kolyma wife. We never knew her name.
Alexandra. Her book
She would sit there, dressed in her favorite white lace shirt, with a large but delicate enamelled blue pendant that she wore for all our family get-togethers. She was in her 90s, and then 101, and 104, and 106. She would leave the door unlocked, and from the threshold I would see her by the festively-laid table, ready for our little feast.
She lived in one of the gloomy buildings of Ivy Hill, on the outskirts of Newark, NJ. The only request she made when she moved here 25 years ago, numb and indifferent after losing her daughter, was not to have westward windows, and of course – she would smile – she ended up in this apartment that was facing true west. In the summer and during those long New Jersey autumns that never seem to become winter, her place would be turn a fierce orange, and my left cheek felt the heat of the window glass as I passed it on my way to the kitchen.
We would sit and talk by that blazing sunset, until the aching, throbbing cloud – burnt-orange, and then scarlet, would finally be replaced by the tightly-curtained dusk that had nothing to do with the two of us. We would then pull the string switch on the table lamp between us and scrutinize its crème fabric shade with a peculiar pattern of little embroidered hollows, as if we were some tea ceremony practitioners, and the lit circle around us would shrink to the size of the table and there were only she and I, and in that warm light it seemed as if she moved even closer to me.
We drank strong black tea from her eternal cobalt Moscow teacups, so familiar to many ex-Soviets, and sampled Russian chocolates, taking them out of their foil wrappers. On long summer days, in the lingering sunset, the golden foil reflected the neighborhood and the city and the blazing arc of the Jersey horizon. She would play with these foil rectangles as she talked – her lifelong habit – smoothing them with her fingernails, folding them until they became thin strips like little bookmarks in an invisible book, marking this or that fragment of the oral family saga – my favorite stories that I heard dozens of times that still sounded new. And I saw them all: her musically-gifted brother who died in his sleep at 27, the very night she visited him and slept in the adjacent room, and her sisters and their childhood mischiefs and sorrows, and their grown-up tragedies – about their resilience and discreetness, and about everything she blamed herself for.
Alexandra. The book
Her turn-of-the century childhood. Their games: hoop rolling, diabolo sticks, and forfeits. Their Russian gymnasium. The Beilis Case. Their music lessons, and singing, and the open windows in the summer dacha and their invisible neighbor, a beautiful girl, the daughter of the Moscow Conservatory professor, playing the piano inside – she would disappear in the purges of the 1930s.
There was a distance between the children and their parents. This distance, this gap, made it impossible to ask a direct question or to offer direct advice, let alone to pronounce a judgement or a ban.
They were vacationing in Crimea when WWI began. There was panic and chaos at the train station. Her mother, my great-grandmother Reizl was afraid of getting separated from her children during boarding and kept calling out their names: Liza, Lyonia, Fanya, Anya, Shura, Zina! Liza, Lyonia, Fanya, Anya, Shura, Zina!
Shura (Alexandra, my grandmother) lost her shoe and had to hop on one leg all the way from the train station to their house.
In the late fall of 1915, the last Czar visited Ekaterinoslav. Preparations were underway for weeks and included learning to low curtsy. All the town students were lined up along the town’s longest boulevard that extended from one end of town to the other. It was a gloomy cold November day, and Reizl wrapped the girls’ feet in newspapers. They stood there for a long, long time. Finally, Nicholas II appeared and was driven past the row of students. As he rode, a wave of bows and bobs followed suit. When he reached Alexandra, she sank in a deep curtsy. He was standing in the open car in his soldier’s trench-coat. “He looked kind of bland”, she would add pensively.
Memory tempts – just turn your back to it for a minute and it solidifies, quickly hides in a glass sphere, and becomes your myth – like those figurines, the sparks and the glitter scattered on the mottled cotton batting between the thick window panes of the semi-basement apartments by your feet, when walking home from school.
Your grandmother’s – and before that, your great-grandmother’s – cobalt cups, and the two remaining resilient familial plates made god-knows-when at some famous imperial porcelain factory – who cares? – they used to be what they were: cups, plates, long before your own life, and now have become unnaturally important, and their inflated presence, their presumed power to protect are never doubted by you.
What they call collective memory, however, is an entirely different matter altogether. You become timid and deferential to that cloudy screen above you, the murky canvas slashed with the confident brush strokes of the seemingly random searchlights – the screen that is so unreliable, and yet strangely shielding.
Each time when you raise your eyes to the stars, you see the past, and each time when you raise your eyes to the moon, you see the reflected present. Past and present blend within you like the stars and the moon and those sparks of tiny flowers on a dark Soviet apron. And if there is a rhythm, it’s muted.
Without the wall and its familiar cramped warmth, the thin darkness of the room at going to sleep time is incomplete. A street lamp’s ray, reaching the high fifth floor manages to slip through the sliver between the heavy striped curtains that have survived several Soviet eras. Material things in stagnant empires lack fluidity. They don’t even get older. No matter how sturdy the stuff from which Soviet citizens are made, their furniture is sturdier still. Solid objects are dormant and seem eternal. Take, for example, the curtains. They resemble an ancient horizontally striped seascape, but I know that in the morning, drawn apart with a quick jerky motion (blinding light rushes to the wallpaper to make it look even more uneven and yellow), they will turn into pillars that I saw in father’s books on architecture.
The nighttime ray of light, on the other hand, is slow and predictable, like an actor playing the same role over and over, still slightly different at each performance. It brings out furniture corners, and the silhouettes of my clothes on the chair. This little theater comes out in the foreground as soon as eyes get used to the nothingness – that dense brown cloud with tiny sparks that follows the click of the light switch. During the day, in the kitchen, I watch the same tiny sparks of starry flowers on the dark fabric of my nanny’s apron. They strangely distract me.
No matter what happened during the day that passed, the night world remains mine, as I stare at the curtain, at the nightly ray of light, and the stripes of a late trolleybus on the ceiling. A whole familiar journey lies ahead of me, the long gently sloped foothills before the sudden blackout mystery of the night plateau.
My parents leave the door to the foyer between the room and the kitchen slightly open. I turn on my right side and look at the pattern on wallpaper, until it becomes three-dimensional, and then wait for the pattern to reveal itself to me. I know I’ll finally capture its elusive persistence, but it keeps avoiding me, maybe because of the borders between the panels, that bump of the double stitch, where the edges overlap and shift the pattern, and I have to start again in the new foreign territory where the motif seemed entirely unfamiliar and new.
On the other side of the wall, someone puts on the same song every night – Lilies of the valley, lilies of the valley with the weird word: ‘love’ – lyubOv’ – its long fluid “yu” coming out of nowhere. The word is strangely disturbing – this letter “yu” is like a sliver through which narrow light flows into me, and the soft sign at the end is mysterious, it seems to mean something – something important – something that everybody else, but me, knows.
 VKhUTEMAS is an acronym for Vysshie khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskie masterskie (Higher State Artistic and Technical Studios). It was established in 1920s Moscow as a specialized institution, preparing master artists, professors, and directors to work in both industry and higher education.
 Algeria in Russian. The sad paradox is that, to a Russian ear, it evokes something warm and pleasant, very much unlike the harsh continental climate of Kazakhstan or any Gulag camp, for that matter.