DAVID PRATT - TROIKA
It was three o’clock on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1937, when the knocking came at the door. It woke both of us. My husband, Igor, went to open it, and I followed him. Three men stood there. All were in the uniform of the NKVD. The captain wore a side arm and his two subordinates carried submachine guns.
There were no introductions. “Go and get your pistol, colonel,” said the officer. One of the guards, his gun raised, followed Igor into the bedroom. When they returned, the captain said, “Get dressed. You are coming with us.”
I expected my husband to protest, to argue that there must have been a mistake, but he said nothing. Except that as he put on his uniform, with one of the NKVD thugs standing on guard, he mouthed to me, “Tell Kornichov.” By now I was shaking uncontrollably.
He returned to the hallway in his uniform. The captain reached forward and tore off Igor’s three rows of medal ribbons, and then his colonel’s shoulder boards and the red star on his cap, and threw them on the floor.
The captain nodded to the guards, and they began to search the three-room apartment. They took pictures off the walls, dumped books from the bookcases, slit open the mattress on our bed. They checked the flowering plants on the balcony. They found my diary and confiscated it. All the papers from my husband’s desk they swept into one of our suitcases. They also took my Communist Party card and my doctoral diploma. When they had created sufficient chaos, they gave Igor the suitcase to carry and turned to the door.
Ignoring the three men, Igor put down the suitcase, turned, and embraced me. “I will come back, Annushka,” he said. Tears were running down my face. I could not say anything.
There was no question of sleep. Like a robot, I began to sort out the mess the security men had left. Where had they taken Igor? Why had I not demanded to know? How could I find out? When they found they had made a mistake, would they release him immediately? Whom could I ask for advice? Then I remembered that Igor had told me to contact Andrei Borisovich Kornichov, his best friend. He was four years younger than Igor; they had met at the Frunze Military Academy when they were both captains. I would call him at eight this morning, when he would be in his office at Sixth Army Headquarters.
But then it occurred to me that the telephone line from the apartment building might be tapped, and I would run a risk of compromising Kornichov. But then again, they had my diary, which recorded the many visits and dinners we had had with him. And my husband had asked me to contact him. Oh, it was all so complicated! I must ask Igor; then I remembered.
I sat on the sofa, frozen, for a long time. In the end, I made a decision, and came back to life. I made a cup of tea, dressed, and went out. I greeted the neighbors I passed in the hallways and on the stairs. They all looked away from me. Despite the early hour of the arrest, word had clearly spread.
It was the beginning of June, and the trees were in full leaf. It was an hour’s walk to the headquarters of the NKVD at the Lubyanka prison. This was a name that brought dread to every Soviet citizen from the Baltic to the Pacific. Everyone knew of the screams from the cellars, of the people who went into the building and did not come out, of those who returned via a long detour to the labor camps, and would not talk of it.
As I entered Lubyanka Square, at that time called Dzerzhinsky Square, I saw a long line of women outside the huge block of the building. Most of them were carrying parcels. I went to the back of the line and asked a middle-aged woman where I could get information.
“This is the only place,” she said. “But it will take three hours to reach the window.”
“I must find out where my husband has been taken,” I said.
She must have seen my desperation. “Moya bednaya dorogaya,” she said, taking my arm. “My poor dear. When was he arrested?”
“Last night. He is a colonel in the 29th Rifle Regiment.”
“If he is military, they would certainly have brought him here.”
Her face became blurry. She caught my arm before I collapsed. I retched. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have not eaten.” The line was passing us by as new people joined it.
“I am carrying food for my dear one. I can give you something, comrade.” She started to undo the string round the parcel, but I stopped her.
“I could not possibly,” I said. “Is there no food in the prison?”
“Very little and very bad,” she said. “This is a way to keep in touch. When you get to the window, the guard will check the name on a list. If he accepts the parcel, it means your husband is still there.”
“And what if he rejects it?”
“It means your husband is not there any more. Listen, my dear, it is best if you come back tomorrow. If you come at six, you will be near the front of the line when the window opens at eight.”
“Thank you for your kindness. I hope your husband is soon released.”
“It is my son.”
I walked back slowly to the apartment. When I got to my building, the concierge, a fierce old woman, said, “There is a message for you, Citizen Moroshkin. From a Major Kornichov. He asks you to call him.” The name of the concierge was Rubika, and she had never forgiven us for refusing to bribe her whenever we needed a plumber or an electrician. She listened from her seat by the door as I made the call. Kornichov answered. “Anna Mikhailovna, I won’t be able to get away until 7.00. Is it all right if I come at 7.30?”
I had completely forgotten that we had invited him for dinner.
“Andrei Borisovich,” I said.
“Is something wrong?”
“No. No. Yes, come at 7.30. We shall be delighted to see you, as always.”
I made stuffed dumplings. I was still acting automatically, thoughts of Igor in the cells at the Lubyanka whirling in my mind. Andrei was right on time. As soon as I opened the door, he said, “Anna, what’s wrong?”
“Igor was arrested this morning.”
“My God, this is terrible news.” He put a finger to his lips but kept talking, asking me for details, as he went around the living room, checking baseboards, looking behind pictures, examining light fixtures. Then he did the same in the bedroom, the tiny bathroom, and the kitchen. “It’s all right,” he said, “We can talk.”
I poured us each a glass of schnapps, which I knew Andrei preferred to vodka. “What can I do, Andrei?”
“Igor will be in the Lubyanka. You could take some food for him.”
“I know. I went this morning, but the line was too long and I didn’t have any food. What is happening, Andrei? How could they arrest my Igor? I know about the purges of course, but I never dreamed they would affect us. The world doesn’t make sense any more.”
Andrei took the bottle and poured us each more schnapps. “What is happening is this. Since Nikolai Yezhov became head of the NKVD last year, there has been a massive increase in arrests. In the last six months close to half a million people have been detained. Those arrested have begun to realize that the more people they name as accomplices, the sooner the interrogation will be over. If each prisoner names 200, and each of those 200 names another 200, soon every citizen of the Union will be in a labor camp. The NKVD is becoming overwhelmed.”
“But how can they suspect members of the armed forces, of all people?”
“You know that Marshall Tukhachevsky was arrested last month. All officers like him, who were commissioned when Trotsky was Minister of War, are in jeopardy. Almost all the army and corps commanders have been arrested.”
“But they will find Igor innocent, surely?”
“Anna, you must prepare yourself. No one is ever found innocent. Well, except if the NKVD accidentally picks up an informant. And sometimes even they are convicted. They need informants in the camps, too.”
I served up the dumplings. Andrei set to with relish, but I found myself unable to eat.
“Eat up,” Andrei said. “This may be a long process, Anna. It is too early to lose faith.”
“Andrei, I just can’t bear the thought of Igor being mistreated.” I began to cry.
“It’s a terrible thought, Anna, but they don’t always use brute force. The usual method is called the conveyor. Teams of interrogators question you non-stop day and night. After a few days you don’t know what you’re saying or even what you’re thinking.”
“And what happens after the interrogation is over?”
“Once the confession is signed, there is a two-minute trial, then three possibilities. Shooting. Labor camp, or ‘Ten years without right of correspondence.’”
“What does that mean?”
“But Igor has done nothing at all.”
“Certainly he’s done nothing. But there is a saying that the penalty for doing nothing at all is ten years.”
“I shall write to Comrade Stalin. He cannot know what is going on.”
“Your letter would never reach him. And you would be arrested the next day. And he does know what is going on. He, not Yezhov, is directing this purge. But his lust for numbers is out of control. There are quotas for every district. In some parts of the city, the NKVD is pulling names randomly out of the Moscow Directory.”
We talked late into the evening. Whatever happened, Andrei said, I could rely on him to do everything he could. He would return at the end of the week to see how I was getting on. I slept fitfully that night, waking frequently from terrifying dreams.
I got to the Moscow Suvarov Cadet School, where I had taught mathematics for the last six years, at my usual time. One of my colleagues was in my classroom.
“The Director wishes to see you,” he said. The absence of a greeting was less than polite, but I did not press for an explanation.
The Secretary in the Director’s anteroom said, “Citizen Maroshkin, the Director wishes me to tell you that you have been deprived of your position.”
I pushed past her and opened the door of the director’s office. He was at his desk, and jumped up in some confusion. He was tall and gray haired. “Comrade Director, I don’t understand. What is happening?”
He had always been very courteous, using the polite form of address and praising my work. Now he stumbled over his words, his face flushed. “Citizen, you are, ah, have been declared the wife of an enemy of the people. I’m afraid there is, ah, no longer a place for you here.”
It would have been pointless, and unjust, to dispute with him. What else could he have done? I left his office, and the school, first interrupting the lesson in my classroom to fetch some personal items. The students were mostly seventeen-year-olds. Some glared at me, others looked more sympathetic.
Deprivation of my work, which was my vocation, was a staggering blow. But I had other things to think about. At least I now had the day free, and could take a package to the Lubyanka. I made cabbage soup and put some in a jar with a screw lid. I wrapped two boiled potatoes in newspaper. I put a stuffed chicken breast in a brown paper bag, and finally filled a jar with juice made from boiled fruit. I did not know whether messages were allowed, so I did not write one. I wrote on the outside, Colonel Igor Sergyevich Maroshkin, ORS (Order of the Red Star).
It was about noon when I joined the line in the square. I had eaten before I left home, and felt ready for a long wait. I noticed that people, almost all women, in the queue were talking to one another much more than was customary in Soviet crowds. I felt conspicuous in my white blouse and navy blue skirt. The woman behind me looked at my parcel and asked what was in it. I described the contents.
“Ach,” she said. “You cannot send in glass. It could become a weapon.”
“And all the other things the guards will confiscate,” the woman in front of me said. “It is bread the prisoners need. Or potatoes. Calories.”
“Don’t put ‘colonel’ on the parcel, just his name,” another offered.
“Angel moy,” another woman said, “Your husband has just been arrested?”
The women clucked sympathetically. For me, there was nothing to do but go home and start again. When I got close to home, I stopped at the bakery across from my apartment building. The next day, my parcel was accepted at the prison.
The third day I went to the bakery, as I waited in line, I saw Zadinka, the concierge, walking quickly across the square. When she reached the shop, she called to the baker, “Do not serve this person! She is the wife of an enemy of the people. Also she is not working. She is sotsial'nyy parazit, a social parasite. He who will not work, let him not eat. Lenin.” A young woman with glasses in the queue added, “And Marx.”
“I am not a parasite! I am unemployed.”
“Citizen, there is no unemployment in the Soviet Union,” said Radenka. There is work for all. Get out and find it.”
I went home. On my door, someone had pinned a paper with the words, “Enemy of the people.”
I remembered that Andrei was coming over. He arrived promptly at 7.00. I served mushroom and potato soup and buckwheat kasha with liver.
“The loss of your job is serious,” Andrei said. “You must have an income. In education, the best you could get is child care, which pays almost nothing.” He was silent for a minute. Then he took a notebook from his pocket, wrote on a page, tore it out and handed it to me. It said “Alex Bushmanov, Dept. 31C, Avtozavodtsy. Dorogoy Alexandr Vasilevich, Please do what you can for the bearer. Do svidaniya! Till next time. Andrei Borisovich.”
“We grew up in the same village in the Crimea,” Andrei said. “The Avtozavodtsy is the Stalin Motor Works. It’s in Proletarskii District, a twenty-minute walk south of the Paweleska Railway station. The works employs nearly 40,000 people. Many of them are immigrants from all parts of the Union. The NKVD can’t keep up, though they’ve arrested many members of the management.” He paused. “The work may be hard, but you will get paid and food is cheap at the factory canteen.”
Before I left to go to the factory the next morning, I found Nadezhda, who lived in a communal apartment downstairs. She was slightly impaired, and lived by doing errands and odd jobs. I instructed her about taking bread to the Lubyanka every day. I gave her brown bags with Igor’s name written on them, and enough money to buy a loaf each day and keep the change as a tip. I would make the delivery myself on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Proletarskii District, in southeast Moscow, was a long way from where we lived, and it took me some time the next morning, and several requests for directions before I found Department 31C at the factory. On the way I passed the sports hall and the winter garden. The Motor Works was a huge industrial complex, and a Soviet showplace. Outdoors, closely-cropped lawns were edged with meticulously kept flowerbeds. Bushmanov, a big man, had an office with barely room enough to hold him and three typists. On his door was a sign saying Advisor to the Assistant Director of Personnel. He read my note and nodded, putting it in his pocket. He asked for my passport and copied my name on a form. Then he took the form to one of the typists and had a few words with her. She was clearly familiar with the procedure, because she quickly made up three new forms, then led me out of the room.
First we went to another office, where I received a works identity card, then to a store room where I tried on several sets of coveralls until I found one small enough. Finally, we walked into a huge workshop, where automobiles and trucks in various stages of construction moved along, hung from conveyor chains, as men and women worked on them. The typist yelled to me over the noise, “The system is based on that of Henry Ford in the USA. Soon we will overtake American production.” We stopped at a work station where a male and a female employee were putting wheels on ZiS 5 trucks. The boy and the woman would lift the wheels into place, the boy would start the nuts and the woman tightened them with a hand wrench.
The typist spoke to the boy and gave him the last of her forms, and he left. I stepped into his place. The conveyor did not stop, and I immediately found myself helping to haul a wheel into place, grabbing nuts from a box and screwing them on the bolts. I was too slow, and my co-worker had to work like a whirlwind to do half of my job as well as her own. Over the noise, the typist yelled, “Comrade Isayev, this is Comrade Moroshkin.”
My partner nodded. She was of medium height and wiry, probably about 30, but with some deep lines in her face. After I had worked for half an hour, I felt as though my arms were falling off. I tried boosting a wheel with my knee, but it threw my partner off and she slapped my leg. Suddenly the conveyor stopped. There was shouting from all over the line, and mechanics ran to the location of the stoppage. Isayev pulled out a tobacco pouch and rolled a cigarette. “Each time the line stops, our pay is docked,” she said. You have not done this kind of work before.” I shook my head. “It will get easier. In a week, you will be working like me.”
The stoppage lasted about twenty minutes. Somehow I made it to the end of the day. My fingers felt numb. On the metro, I could not raise my arms to the overhead rail and had to find a place near the door where there was a vertical pole. That night, I slept little. My shoulders ached, and so did my back, and it was impossible to find a comfortable position.
Radinka, the concierge, stood up when she saw me as I was leaving for work in the morning. “Citizen Moroshkin,” she said grimly, “You must leave your apartment.”
“Leave? What do you mean?”
“By Sunday midnight. By order of the Housing Committee. Another family is moving in on Monday.”
“I don’t understand. Comrade, what am I to do? What will I do with the furniture? Where will I live?”
“That is not my concern, citizen. Everything will be confiscated if you are not out on time. There is a letter for you.” I tore it open on the way to the metro. I thought it would be something about the apartment, but it was from Communist Party headquarters, announcing my expulsion from the Party.
On the train, I thought of the days when Igor and I would take a break and stay in one of the Moscow hotels, the Lux or the Oktyabr. One night would cost 50 roubles, which was more than my weekly pay at the factory. My face must have shown my stress, because after we started work, Natalia Isayev said, “A bad day?” When we talked, we had to shout, but at least no one could hear us over the noise of the machinery. I could not speak, I just nodded. “Tell me, moya devushka, my girl,” she said.
“My husband has been arrested and I have to leave our apartment,” I said.
“I guessed something like that. My husband also, he is out there.”
“Where one laughs and a hundred weep. Do you have anywhere to go?”
“No. I have nowhere. I must leave by Sunday. Where do the people live who work here?”
Some live in barracks. The boy you replaced sleeps in the factory, under a bench. Many workers live in Shanghai, as I do. Ah, I see you don’t know it. It is a slum, not far from here. You would not want to see it.”
“No, I would like to see where you live, Natalia.”
“All right, you can come after work and have a drink with me.”
It took half an hour to walk to Natalia’s place. On the way, she showed me one of the barracks. They mainly consisted of huge dormitories, with several hundred beds. The beds had mattresses filled with straw or leaves, but no sheets, blankets, or pillows. Men and women lounged on the beds smoking and reading newspapers.
After the barracks, we came to a seemingly endless area of shacks built of canvas, corrugated steel, and random pieces of wood. In some of the shacks, you would not keep chickens. The street became a muddy track. This was Shanghai. I did not see any bathhouses, indeed there did not appear to be any running water or electricity. We entered a hut through an open door. Two men sat at a table with glasses and a bottle. There were three beds, no windows. That was all. As we came in, the man with his back to us was saying “That prick-face in the Kremlin…” I gasped. He could not possibly mean our father, the universal genius, our beloved Iosif Vissarionovitch! The man sitting facing us immediately struck the other on the mouth. “There is a visitor,” he growled.
I looked around the room. There was no sink. On the table was a bread box, a primus stove, and a kerosene lamp. “This is cozy, for three people,” I said.
“Three!” exclaimed Natalia. Six! The other three are on the night shift.”
Natalia introduced us, using only first names. “This is one place where we can speak freely,” she said. She pulled a bottle and two glasses from under one of the beds. “To free speech,” she toasted. The three others raised their glasses, and I felt I had to do the same.
The man who had been struck, who looked Tatar or Uzbek, did not seem resentful. “You have been turned out?” he guessed.
“It was the NKVD,” I said.
“Ach, the bastards. They are killing hundreds, every night, at the Butovo shooting range, the vlagalishcha.”
My heart went cold.
Early Saturday morning I was at the Lubyanka with a parcel containing a loaf of bread and six boiled potatoes. The parcel was accepted, but when I tried to ask questions, the warder shouted at me to move along.
I had made up my mind I would live in one of the barracks. I arranged to move in Sunday night. I went to Pawn Shop 56, a few blocks from our apartment. The pawnbroker sent his horse and cart to fetch our stuff. I had to give him everything I could not fit in a small suitcase. I got a very low price; there were too many other people doing the same thing. It was only enough money to keep me in food for three months. I did not put the money in my wallet, but in a small bag that I tied to my bra. These were my emergency funds.
I was learning not to think. How else could I have survived the sight of the empty apartment? The place I had lived in with Igor for four years, the place of so many times of great happiness. As I left the building, suitcase in hand, the concierge Radinka was at her post. She said maliciously, “Goodbye, Citizen Moroshkin.”
“Goodbye,” I said, “and good riddance to you.”
“Fascist scum! Trotskyite!” she yelled after me.
The first night at the barracks, I did not sleep at all. I did not undress, and I was too warm in the stifling dormitory. As a newcomer, I had been given a bed near the water closet at the end of the huge room, and a procession of people, men and women, passed all night. I felt hung over, irritated, and itchy in the morning. However, this was my fifth day on the production line, and the work did not seem as bone-breaking as on the first day.
During the morning, Natalia shouted to me. “They shot Tukhachevsky.”
“Saturday night. After his trial.”
Tukhachevsky, who in World War I earned five medals for bravery in combat, escaped five times from German captivity, and became a marshal at 42.
“He confessed,” Natalia shouted.
“To being a German agent.”
I was attaching nuts to bolts with sore fingers. If they could break Tukhachevsky, then who could withstand them?
The second night I slept like the dead, and woke to find my emergency money gone. My first thought was, “I will never get the furniture back.” But I surprised myself by my lack of emotional reaction. It was gone. There was no one to accuse, no one to complain to. How someone knew where to look, and had taken it without my waking, I don’t know. But I’m told there are Russian pickpockets who can strip you naked without you noticing. I hurriedly checked my suitcase. My wallet was still there in the hidden compartment. I had more than enough money to last until my first pay day.
I took my meals in one of the many workers’ canteens. The food was not good, but it was very cheap. Although I was always slim, I lost weight, but I gained muscle.
It was late one afternoon, a month after I started at the factory, when, as we bent to pick up a wheel, Natalia said, “Do you know about your hair?”
“What?” I asked.
I dragged my nails across my scalp and looked at them. My self-possession deserted me, and I gave out a howl. The conveyor moved on with one wheel of the truck missing. There were yells and curses from the men down the line, which shuddered to a stop. But by now I was half-way across the shop floor.
I recovered my presence of mind sufficiently to fetch my suitcase and dump the overalls at the barracks. I also stopped at a chemist shop and bought a bottle of lice shampoo. It was imagination, but I felt that my scalp was on fire. The concierge at Andrei’s building knew me well from the several visits I had made with Igor. She apologized that she could not let me in, as Andrei had not yet returned from work. I walked around the block eight times before I saw him coming toward me.
“Andrei Borisovich,” I began, and burst into tears. “I am so sorry. I quit the job you got for me. No, don’t come near me. I am lousy! I have lice! I must wash my hair right away!”
He led me to the doorway to the apartment block, we both signed the register and walked up the two flights of stairs to his two-room apartment. There was no chance of a shower. The toilet was down the hall, and did not even have a wash basin.
“I’ll put some water on to heat,” Andrei said. “Do you want me to leave while you wash?”
“No, it is all right,” I mumbled.
“I think I will go and get a paper, anyway,” he said.
After he left, I removed my clothes, and examined my armpits and pubic area. Fortunately they were not infested. I poured hot water into the kitchen sink and rubbed the shampoo into my hair, vigorously and for a long time. I rinsed my hair several times. Then I changed the water and repeated the process. I was dressed when a knock came on the door signalling Andrei’s return. I told him I was going to go to a small hotel.
“Let’s talk about that over dinner,” he said. He had been a bachelor since his divorce before I met him, and he cooked well, using the single burner to make cheese blintzes with plenty of cinnamon. I was grateful after the bland food of the factory canteen.
“When I was a captain,” he said, “I used to live in a communal apartment, three rooms with five other officers. Before that, in barracks. I am glad to have the space and the privacy. It is less than you are used to, Anna, but I want you to share it. You can have the bedroom for your exclusive use. I will sleep on the sofa. Let me say at once, Anna, that I have no ambitions other than to continue our friendship as it is and has been.”
“I couldn’t do that, Andrei. It would not be appropriate. It’s very kind of you, but people would talk. And I would not be good company. I am so anxious and grieving for Igor…”
Andrei let me babble on until I ran out of things to say. Calmly and respectfully, he answered each of my objections. In the end I said. “Well then, let’s try it for a day or two.”
When I woke in the morning, Andrei had already left. My first thought was that I would cook him something really nice for dinner. I chose Chakhokhbili, a Georgian dish made with chicken and tomatoes. On the way out of the building, I chatted with the concierge, Olechka. I asked whether she knew of any job openings in the neighborhood. She said the day-care across the street was always looking for workers, because the pay was low and the work part-time. I immediately went there and applied. The Director, a woman in her fifties, asked about previous employment. I told her frankly I had been fired from my previous teaching job as the spouse of an arrested officer. She hired me anyway. The teachers worked in two shifts, 7.00 am to 1.00 pm and 1.00 pm to 7 pm. I was taken on for the morning shift, and started work the next day.
I was in charge of eleven 4-year olds. They were adorable, and well looked after. You never saw a child with a snotty nose. The program consisted of games, stories, songs, and physical activities. They had two compulsory naps, at 10 am and 4 pm, and a good lunch at noon. I was not using my expertise in mathematics, but compared to putting wheels on trucks, the job was heaven.
I insisted on paying our food bill, which consumed most of my pay of 20 roubles a week. I took on all of the cooking and housework. I did the laundry, pressed Andrei’s uniform, shined his shoes. All this time, Andrei had been making enquiries about Igor. I later learned that he had, at personal risk, written to Yezhov, arguing for Igor’s innocence. All he could come up with was that Igor was still in the Lubyanka, which we already knew. We both understood that this meant a confession had not yet been extorted from him. I was still employing Nadezhda to take bread to the prison. I went down to the basement one afternoon in July to give her the money for the next week. She was sitting at the table on which she slept at nights. On the table was a brown paper bag with my husband’s name on it. Nadezhda was eating the bread from the bag.
“What on earth are you doing?” I exclaimed.
“They did not accept the parcel today,” she said.
My heart turned over. “Only today?”
I was angry with her for not telling me immediately, but too preoccupied to scold her. My fear about Igor being interrogated was now replaced by my fear about his fate. There were only two possibilities: he had been sent to a camp, or he had been shot. A strange thing, to be hoping that your husband has been sent to an arctic camp to do unbearable work at 30 below zero.
Andrei said, “I may be able to get a look at the list…”
“Of those sent to the camps?”
“No, of those…”
“Who have been shot?”
He nodded unhappily.
Days went by. I slept badly, dreaming of cellars and men with pistols. I could eat almost nothing. Catching my face as I passed the mirror above the sink, I saw a woman with hollow cheeks, dark circles under the eyes and lines of strain around the mouth. Only my four-year-olds provided distraction.
It was about a week later. Andrei came home more silent than usual. I was impatient but fearful to question him. It was after dinner when he said, “Anna, I have bad news.”
“Yes. The name, I. S. Moroshkin…” he swallowed, then continued, “appeared on a list of those shot on the 20th of July.”
I put my hand over my mouth to stifle my cry. Then I ran into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed. I sobbed and sobbed. Tears were unending. At some point in the evening, Andrei came in. He put his hand on my shoulder. “I am so sorry,” he said. “I am so very, very sorry.”
I was still crying at midnight. I felt that I was going insane, that the only escape was into insanity. I got up, went into the living room and lay down beside Andrei. “Hold me,” I asked him. “Just hold me.” Slowly my sobbing subsided, and I went to sleep in his arms. Andrei was gone when I woke.
I managed to hold myself together through the morning at the preschool. In the following days, I became two people. One was the public persona, composed if somewhat sad. The other was the grief-stricken widow, sitting alone, crying quietly, her thoughts full of memories and of the terminated hopes for herself and Igor, the brilliant future he would have had, the children we might have had together. All ended by a bullet in the back of the head. Igor would encourage me, not forcefully, but by the occasional word or question, to talk about my feelings, and would listen by the hour as I spoke.
Thus summer stretched out its warm days into September. Leaves on the trees turned gold, russet, scarlet, then fell. After the first frost, the nights became cold, but the days were warm and cloudless. Then in mid-October came the first snow storm, snow set in at the end of the month, and crews of men and women with shovels appeared to clear the roadways. At the preschool I had to deal with children’s buttons, pull felt boots on their four-year-old feet, and hoods over their blond heads. My grief was still sharp, but not as oppressive. I began to realize that in many respects I was fortunate. I had not been arrested, as were many wives of enemies of the people, I had not been sent to a camp, I had a place to live, sufficient to eat, and a job that I enjoyed. My passport had not received the damning stamp saying I could not live within 100 kilometres of Moscow. And I had a good man in my life, who made no demands on me, but seemed to appreciate my company, as I did his.
Gradually our shared life began to open up. Andrei would occasionally invite a colleague and his wife over for dinner, or we would meet at a restaurant. These were people he trusted, and who had enough courage to socialize with the widow and best friend of an enemy of the people. He never introduced me as his wife or fiancée, or even his podruga, girlfriend, but simply as his druga, friend. Christmas Day was not celebrated in the Soviet Union, but it fell on a Saturday, and we went to a private party at a restaurant where caviar and Russian champagne were served. There was a gramophone with a lot of records of American music. I loved dancing, but Andrei was a hopeless dancer, so our efforts at the tango were unsuccessful and we stuck to waltzes.
We lived on hope in Russia, and so we stayed up late on New Year’s Eve to welcome the New Year in the hope that it would be better than the old. Some time between eleven and midnight, Andrei put on a serious face and said, “Anna Mikhailovna, I have something important to ask you. I have come to care for you deeply, and I can honestly say I love you. We seem to be able to live together very harmoniously. I think we are very compatible (we had not slept together since the day I learned of Igor’s death, and we had never kissed on the mouth). Don’t answer yet, I have more to say. I understand that Igor will always be first in your heart. That is as it should be, and I shall always think of him as my best friend. He is, in fact, another bond between us. Therefore I have the honor to ask you to marry me. Let me add something. If you decline, I want us to continue just as we are, as roommates, and I would not discourage you from looking for a husband elsewhere. I want you to take as much time as you need before giving me an answer.”
The thought in my mind was what Igor had once said, “I know no one of greater integrity than Andrei Borisovich.”
“Andrei Borisovich,” I said, “I love you too. How could I not? You have been so enormously kind to me. But I cannot accept your proposal. I am the widow of an enemy of the people. I don’t know why I was not shot, as were so many other wives and their families. I have been expelled from the Party. If we married, you would endanger your career, and perhaps also your life.”
“Naturally, I have thought about this, Annushka. It is true that the purge of the army is not yet over, but the most vulnerable are officers senior to me and Party members. I am thankful I never joined the Party. Nevertheless, we all live with the sword of Damocles over our head. That is nothing unusual for a soldier. So let us accept it and live our lives as fully as we can.”
“It is just that I could not bear to lose another husband.”
“I will not press you, Anna.”
The church bells, which once would have welcomed the New Year, had been silenced by Stalin, but at this moment, Andrei’s old clock on the mantelpiece began a whirring which meant it was about to strike.
I took Andrei’s hand. “I will be your wife, Andrei Borisovich,” I said.
It took more than four months to complete the formalities. I had no death certificate for Igor, and could not obtain one, so I had to divorce him. It tore my heart, but I told myself this was irrational. The process was bureaucratic but not difficult. Meanwhile, we continued our platonic existence. We had tacitly agreed to share the bed only after our wedding.
We were married on May 14, a Saturday, when the parks of Moscow were full of tulips and flowering trees. We walked from the registry office to Red Square, but instead of making the conventional pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb, we wandered among the apple and cherry trees of the Kremlin garden. Then we had ice cream at one of the “Ameriki” kiosks that Mikoyan, the Minister of Food, had introduced after his visit to the USA. We followed this by coffee in the summer café in Red Square.
Our married life was better and more complicated than I had expected. Sometimes, when I was alone in the apartment, I would cry from a mixture of happiness for Andrei and sadness for Igor. Our lovemaking was often desperate from the knowledge that at any time doom could overtake us, that this time might be the last time. After work one day in September, I went to the clinic nearby on Leninsky Prospekt, and a week later told Andrei I was pregnant. I had always thought that it was I who could not conceive. Andrei was overjoyed. “Of course, we will call him Igor,” he said. He would lay his head on my abdomen and talk. “It’s a wonderful Mama you are growing inside, malyutka, little one,” he would say.
Andrei bought me a violin, and I resumed the music I had abandoned at twelve to concentrate on mathematics. I visited our neighbors on both sides to ask if they would mind before I began to practise. Neither objected, and the old lady of the couple on our left would always say, “You play like an angel, my child,” whenever me met.
We occasionally went out to a cinema, especially enjoying films by Eisenstein and Protazanov. Our favorite occupation, however, was walking. Andrei, of course, was an infantry officer, and I knew he took pride in joining route marches with his soldiers, and outmarching men half his age. But he never objected to our walks. We lived near the Moscova river and loved to walk through the parks along its banks.
The summer came to an end. I and my four-year-olds, some of them now five, were browned by the sun from playing out of doors.
A knock came on the door one afternoon in November. You must understand that this was the most dreaded sound in Russia in those days. More than thunder or police sirens or even artillery when the war began. I asked Andrei never to knock on the apartment door, even if it was locked.
My heart beating painfully, I opened the door, and confronted—the ghost of Igor! I took in the iron-gray, close-cropped hair, the lean face, the colonel’s shoulder boards, the three rows of medal ribbons. Then I did what any woman in my position would have done. I fainted.
I regained consciousness sitting on the sofa, with the ghost sitting next to me. I put my hand on his knee and squeezed. “You are real,” I whispered.
“As real as you.”
“Where have you been?” I seemed to be able to think only of banalities.
“In Kolyma.” He held up his right hand. Two fingers were missing. “Frozen.”
I lifted his hand to my lips and kissed the stubs of the missing fingers. Then I blurted out, “But I am married, Igor! We thought you were dead. I have married Andrei Borisovich.”
“I know. I have been in Moscow a week. I have been rehabilitated, along with many thousands of others. Yezhov is finished. When the officials learned of my rehabilitation, they could not do enough for me. They provided me with a copy of your divorce papers, and the shooting lists from last June. The I. S. Moroshkin shot was either a clerical error or a different man with the same initials.”
“But Igor, we must celebrate. Come with me and we’ll get some food and wine. Andrei will soon be home.”
“No, Anna. I will let you break the news to Andrei. I will come back tomorrow. Tell Andrei that I have no wish to interrupt your lives. If you wish, I will never see you again.”
“Do not say such a thing!” I gasped. I walked him to the door, having to restrain myself from embracing him with the passion I felt. I watched his back as he walked away down the corridor. He was as straight as ever. But when he was arrested he was four years older than me, and now he was ten. But then I realized that the events of the last year had aged me also.
When I told Andrei that Igor was alive and was back in Moscow, he said, “This is the most wonderful news! It is a miracle. Anna, Annushka, you must go back to him.”
“But I am your wife, Andrei. I am carrying your child.”
“Let us talk about it, all three of us.”
When Igor came the next day, he and Andrei embraced warmly. We chattered away, jumping from one trivial topic to another, our minds filled with more serious questions.
“Igor Sergyevich,” I said, “Andrei Borisovich and I—“
“First let’s eat,” Igor said. “Then we will talk. I propose a toast, to you, Anna Mikhailovna, to you Andrei Borisovich, and to the expected little one.” We returned his toast, and all of us raised a toast to svoboda, freedom. I had used the month’s grocery money to buy champagne and a pheasant for dinner.
When I had cleared the dishes away we sat around the table like three people about to play cards. Igor opened the conversation. “It would be dishonest of me to deny that I love Anna as much as I ever did. You are the two dearest people in the world to me. But I believe, Andrei, that Anna is yours by right of marriage and by reason of the child she is expecting. I therefore renounce all claims. I have been offered a posting to Novosibirsk. It is a promotion. You do not need to see me again.”
Andrei said, “Whatever happens, Igor Sergyevich, our friendship is sacred. You were and are Anna’s first love. But for the catastrophe through which we are living, you would still be her husband. I am prepared to live with the memory of the happiest days of my life.”
I spoke up. “Listen,” I said. “This is how it will be. I shall go to live with Igor. But I will stay married to Andrei until the child is born, so that he can proudly bear the name of Igor Andreevich Kornichov. Then, my love, Andrei, I shall have to divorce you and remarry Igor. But I want you very much to be part of our lives and that of the baby, as much as you can, and as much as you wish.”
I think both my husbands were surprised at the clarity and decision with which I spoke, but no more than I was. I moved in with Igor as soon as he got an apartment, a spacious three-room place. I was delivered of a beautiful healthy son in March, 1938. With pain in my heart, I obtained a divorce from Andrei, and the next month I married Igor. Andrei was best man. As little Igor’s understanding developed, we told him all the facts of his parents and his birth. He understood that he had two fathers, but as soon as he could talk he called Andrei Uncle Andryusha.
Former head of the NKVD, Genrik Yagoda, who had been dismissed in 1936, was executed in 1939, and his successor, Nicolai Yezhov, under whom we had suffered so much, followed him in 1940. It was said that Yezhov screamed and howled hysterically as they dragged him to the room with the sloping floor for hosing down blood, which he himself had designed. Any relief we might have had was ended when we realized the nature of the man who replaced him, Lavrenti Beria, known for saying “Give me an honest man for one night, and in the morning I’ll have him confessing he’s the King of England.”
I was promoted to Assistant Director of the Day Care, and my salary rose to a magnificent 25 roubles a week. This was a time when a much wider range of consumer goods were available in the stores. The latest fashions were on offer in the high-class boutiques. The wife of the Minister of Food, Zhemchuzhina Mikoyan, led the move to manufacture perfume, hand soap, and washing powder. We lived comfortably, and because rehabilitated officers were untouchable, with some security.
This period ended abruptly when the Germans launched their invasion on June 22, 1941. Both Igor and Andrei were sent to the front, in different sectors. I was suddenly called by the army to teach statistics, my specialty, at the Military Academy of the General Staff in Moscow. The older professors had been shot under Yezhov, and the younger ones had been deployed to the front. The students were the best and the brightest of the Soviet army, and eagerly accomplished the tasks I gave them: Using probability theory, how would you determine which parts of an aircraft are most vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire? Given lethal radius, enemy concentration, and production costs, determine which has the greatest expected value in terms of kill ratio, the Katyusha rocket or the 122mm howitzer.
As I come to the end of this story, it is 1994, and I am 87 years old. My life has spanned the period from Tsar Nicholas II to the dissolution of the USSR. The entire Soviet experiment. How would we summarize it? Words are insufficient.
My son is head of an engineering firm. He and his wife have a son and a daughter, Igor and Andrea. I lost my beloved husband—General Igor Sergyevich Moroshkin—four years ago to a stroke. Andrei’s death took place decades earlier. I received the following letter in April 1944, from a Major Dmitrovich somewhere on the Rumanian Front, and with it I will close this account.
“I write with great sadness to inform you of the death of Colonel Andrei Borisovich Kornichov. He died leading his men against a machine gun post, throwing grenades as he advanced.
“Colonel Kornichov was the bravest of men and the best of companions. His loss is deeply felt by all of his troops and fellow officers.
“I send you my deepest sympathies, Comrade Anna Mikhailovna. My own grief is tempered by the honor that is mine to have been the friend of Andrei Borisovich.”
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