Memory (1956–2006)


Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ did not remain secret very long. A transcript was printed in a brochure and sent to Party organizations across the Soviet Union with instructions for it to be read to Communists in all workplaces. In the weeks following the Twentieth Party Congress, the speech was heard by 7 million members of the Party and 18 million members of the Komsomol in Soviet factories and offices, universities and schools. The speech was also sent to the Communist governments of Eastern Europe. Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, tried to conceal it from the population of the GDR, but the Polish leaders published it, and a copy reached the New York Times, which ran it on its front page on 4 June. From the West, the text of Khrushchev’s speech filtered back to the GDR and the rest of the people of the Soviet Union.1

The speech threw the Party into confusion. In local Party offices throughout the land there were animated discussions about what to make of the revelations, with some Party members blaming leaders who had failed to speak out earlier and others criticizing Khrushchev for raising these questions at an awkward time. By June 1956, the Central Committee was so concerned by these voices of dissent in the rank and file that it sent out a secret circular to local Party leaders calling on them to clamp down on criticism by purging and even imprisoning members who overstepped the accepted boundaries.2

Outside the Party, some fearless people took Khrushchev’s speech as a signal to discuss and question everything. The intelligentsia was the first to speak. ‘The congress put an end to our lonely questioning of the Soviet system,’ recalls Liudmila Alekseyeva, a graduate of Moscow University who later joined the dissidents and emigrated to the USA.

Young men and women began to lose their fear of sharing views, information, beliefs, questions. Every night we gathered in cramped apartments to recite poetry, read ‘unofficial’ prose and swap stories that, taken together, yielded a realistic picture of what was going on in our country.3

Khrushchev’s speech took away the fear that had silenced many prisoners after their return from the Gulag – and now they began to speak as well. ‘The Twentieth Congress was the beginning of a thaw inside of us,’ recalls Larisa Levina, whose mother, Zinaida, returned to Leningrad from exile in 1956.

My mother hardly said a word about her life in the labour camps [Kolyma from 1937 to 1946 and the Potma camps from 1949 to 1953]… But after the Twentieth Congress she started talking. And the more we talked, the more our ideas changed – we became more sceptical. Our relationships changed as well – freed from my mother’s fears, we became closer as a family.4

Children of Stalin’s prisoners, burdened with the disadvantages of a ‘spoilt biography’, suddenly felt encouraged to voice their sense of injustice. Angelina Yevseyeva was working at a munitions factory in Leningrad when the text of Khrushchev’s speech was read out to the Party workers at the plant. Someone told her of the reading, which she managed to attend by slipping in unnoticed to the Party offices. At the end of the reading, Angelina became hysterical and sobbed uncontrollably. She recalls:

No one understood what was wrong with me. I had a perfect curriculum vitae (anketa) and had even been elected as a deputy to the city Soviet. No one knew that my father had been arrested as an enemy of the people in 1937. I had never said a word to anyone. And I was always afraid that they would discover my secret. But when I listened to the speech, I felt released from this fear. That is why I cried. I could not help myself. After that, I started telling people the truth about my past.5

For Lydia Babushkina, whose father had been shot in 1938, Khrushchev’s speech gave official sanction to the feelings of injustice she had harboured since her childhood, when her father disappeared. Before 1956, she was too frightened to talk about her feelings even to her mother and her grandmother, who were themselves afraid to talk about the arrest of Lydia’s father, mainly because they both worked in a munitions factory where they feared they would be sacked if their spoilt biography were discovered. Their silence had sometimes made her doubt her father’s innocence. But after Khrushchev’s speech, Lydia no longer had such doubts. At last she summoned up the courage, not just to question her mother about the arrest of her father, but also to express her feelings to her fellow workers at the clothing factory where she worked near Smolensk. One night in the dormitory attached to the factory, Lydia told the other girls that Stalin had been ‘the real enemy of the people’ because he had ordered the arrest of innocent citizens like her father. The other girls became frightened: ‘Quiet, quiet, they can arrest you for talk like that!’ But Lydia was not put off: ‘Let them. I’ll tell them, loud and clear, that I’m saying exactly what Khrushchev said. Let them listen, and they’ll realize that it’s the truth.’6

But such talk was still exceptional. Even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak as openly or critically as Lydia did. The accepted understanding of the Khrushchev thaw – as a time of nationwide debate and political questioning – was largely shaped by the memoirs of the talkative intelligentsia, which are hardly representative. Open talk was possibly the norm among city intellectuals, who used the thaw to grapple with the history of the Terror, but for the mass of the Soviet population, who remained confused and ignorant about the forces that had shaped their lives, stoicism and silence were more common ways of dealing with the past.

In 1957, Aleksandra Faivisovich, the hairdresser from Osa, spoke for the first time to her daughter Iraida about her arrest and the years which she had spent in the labour camp near Arkhangelsk, where she was then still living. Aleksandra’s rehabilitation, which she had just received, had given her the confidence to tell Iraida something about her past. Iraida recalls their conversation:

She told me that she had a new passport [given to her on her rehabilitation], that the record of her arrest had been ‘wiped clean’, that she was innocent, and that therefore she could talk. But all she could bring herself to say was that my father had been put in prison ‘for his loose tongue’ [he had been overheard complaining about shortages in the shops]… and that she had been arrested because he was her husband. She said that many people had died in the camps – ‘they dropped like flies’ – that they got sick and no one cared for them. ‘They treated us like dogs.’ That was all she said.

For the next quarter of a century, until her death in 1980, Aleksandra did not say another word to Iraida about her arrest or the labour camp. All she would say, when her daughter questioned her, was: ‘I have a new passport. I am clean.’7

Zinaida Bushueva never spoke about the camps. She did not tell her children about the circumstances of her own arrest, or of the arrest of her husband, who was shot in 1938. Even in the last years of her life, in the late 1980s, she would put up her defences whenever she was questioned about the past. ‘In our family,’ recalls Angelina,

no one talked about the reasons for my mother’s arrest, or why we had no father. It was a closed subject. After the Twentieth Party Congress, I tried to find out more, but Mama would just say: ‘The less you know, the easier to live,’ or ‘The more you know, the quicker you grow old.’ She had many of these expressions to close the conversation down.

Zinaida Bushueva (centre) with her daughter Angelina and her son Slava, 1958

According to her daughter, Zinaida took no interest in politics. ‘She could not allow herself.’ The fear she had brought back from the camps led her to adopt a position of ‘uncritical acceptance’ of everything she was told by the Soviet regime. She saw the contradictions between propaganda and reality, she had direct experience of the injustices of the regime, but, like millions of other ordinary Soviet citizens, she ‘never stopped to reflect critically’ on the reality she had observed. Acceptance of Soviet reality was a coping mechanism that helped her to survive.8

Nadezhda Maksimov grew up completely unaware of her family’s history. Her father, a peasant from the Novgorod region, had worked as a carpenter in Leningrad. Arrested twice in the 1920s, he was rearrested in 1932, when Nadezhda was only three, and sent into exile with his family to Arkhangelsk, where Nadezhda spent her childhood oblivious to their reason for living in the Arctic Circle. Her father was arrested and imprisoned briefly yet again in 1938 (Nadezhda believed he was away on a work trip) before the family settled in Penza. In 1946, Nadezhda enrolled as a student at the Medical Institute in Leningrad and went on to become a physician. It was only shortly before her mother’s death in 1992 that Nadezhda found out about her father’s multiple arrests and the eight years he had spent in various prisons, labour camps and ‘special settlements’. She saw her father’s name in the newspaper, along with the names of her grandfather and her uncle, in a list of former political prisoners, posthumously rehabilitated after the collapse of the Soviet regime. Nadezhda showed the list to her mother, who at first said: ‘It was all so long ago. Why drag all that up again?’ But after Nadezhda insisted, her mother told her everything. Her parents had wanted to protect her by not putting her in a position where she would feel obliged to declare her spoilt biography. ‘Throughout my life, whenever I was asked to complete a questionnaire,’ explains Nadezhda,

I was able to write ‘No’ in the section where they asked if I had any relatives who had been repressed, and because I did not know about my father, I was able to say that with a clear conscience, without any of the anxiety which I would have felt if I had been forced to lie. I’m sure that’s why I always got away with it.

Her parents had maintained their silence even after 1956; they still thought it was too dangerous to tell her about their past, in case she told her friends, or the political circumstances changed. As a consequence, until the age of sixty-three, Nadezhda, as she herself admits, had little concern for the victims of the Stalinist regime – an indifference that was no doubt shared by other Soviet citizens whose lives were unaffected directly by the terror. Reflecting on her life in the 1930s and 1940s, Nadezhda recalls:

I had heard about the repressions, but they made no impression on me whatsoever. In 1946, for example, there were mass arrests in the neighbouring village in Penza, but somehow they passed me by, I did not understand or even try to understand what was going on… Today I find it hard to explain this – that these events took place in parallel with my own life, but didn’t affect me in the least. Somehow I managed to avoid it all.9

The grave of Nadezhda’s father, Ignatii Maksimov, Penza, 1994

Tamara Trubina did not find out for over fifty years what had happened to her father. All her mother, Kapitolina, told her was that he had disappeared in the Far East, where he had gone as a voluntary worker on various construction sites. Kapitolina had met Konstantin, an engineer, in 1935, when she, a young doctor, was sent by the Komsomol to work in the Gulag administration in Sychan, a small town near Vladivostok, where he was working as a penal labourer on a building site attached to the Gulag. In 1938, Konstantin was rearrested. Kapitolina had no idea where her husband was. She knew only that he had been sent to a labour camp somewhere in the Dalstroi Gulag network in north-east Siberia. After leaving the young Tamara with her mother in Perm, Kapitolina returned to work as a doctor in the labour camps of Kolyma. Because her marriage to Konstantin had not been registered and she had kept her maiden name, she was able to conceal her spoilt biography for several years. Eventually the commandant of the Gulag section where she worked found out about Konstantin, but the need for doctors in the camps was so acute that he kept Kapitolina’s secret and protected her. For thirty years, Kapitolina continued to work as a doctor for the NKVD, and then the MVD, rising to become a major in the Medical Division of the KGB, before her retirement in 1965. Until 1956, she never gave up hope that in the course of her travels around the labour camps of Kolyma she might discover Konstantin, or find out something about him. By helping other prisoners like him, she felt, at least, as she herself expressed it, that she was maintaining a link indirectly with her lost husband. Then, in 1956, she was told the truth: Konstantin had been executed in November 1938.

Tamara and Kapitolina, 1948

For nearly twenty years, Kapitolina had lived in constant fear that her colleagues would find out that her husband was an ‘enemy of the people’. She was afraid to speak of Konstantin even with her family. So the revelation that he had been shot – which she took as evidence that he may well have been guilty of a serious crime – made her even more withdrawn and silent about him. She said nothing to her daughter, who asked about her father with increasing frequency. ‘Mama never spoke about my father,’ recalls Tamara.

She kept all his letters [from the 1930s] and some telegrams, but she never showed them to me. She always steered the conversation on to other subjects. She would say, ‘I don’t know what he did.’ The most she would say was, ‘Perhaps his tongue got him into trouble.’

After her mother’s death, in 1992, Tamara was advised by her uncle, a senior official in the KGB, to write to his police colleagues in Vladivostok and ask for information about Konstantin. The reply she received informed her that her father had been shot in 1938 on charges of belonging to a ‘Trotskyist organization’, but it made no mention of his imprisonment in any labour camp. So she continued to believe that Konstantin was a voluntary worker in the Far East, as her mother had told her, and that he had fallen out of favour with the Soviet authorities only during 1938. It was only in 2004, when Tamara was interviewed in Perm in connection with this book, that she learned the whole story. Shown the documents which proved that her father was a long-term prisoner in the Gulag, she at first refused to believe them and insisted that there must be a mistake. Mentally she was not prepared to see herself as a ‘victim of repression’ in the Soviet system where she had enjoyed a successful career as a teacher and perceived herself as a member of the Soviet establishment. Perhaps, Tamara acknowledged, she owed her success to her mother’s silences: had she known the truth about her father, she might well have hesitated to make a career for herself.10

The suppression of traumatic memories has been widely noted as a psychic self-defence for victims of repression in all totalitarian regimes, but in the Soviet Union there were special reasons for Stalin’s victims to forget about the past. For one thing, nobody was sure whether Khrushchev’s thaw would last. It was possible that it would soon be followed by a return to repression; and, as it turned out, the thaw was brief and limited. Throughout the Khrushchev period, the regime made it clear that it was not prepared to tolerate any discussion of the Stalinist repressions that might lead to criticism of the Soviet system as a whole. Even at the height of the Khrushchev thaw in the early 1960s – a time when Stalin’s body was removed from Lenin’s Mausoleum, when Stalinist hardliners such as Kaganovich, Molotov and Malenkov were expelled from the Party, and when the perception of the Stalinist regime was changed for good by the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s searing Gulag tale One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) – there was no official recognition of the millions who had died or been repressed, no public monument, no government apology, no proper reparation for the victims, whose rehabilitation was granted only grudgingly.

In 1964, Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, and the relatively liberal climate of the thaw came to an abrupt end. Censorship was tightened. Stalin’s reputation as a ‘great war leader’ was resurrected for the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet victory, when a bust of the dictator appeared by his grave near the Kremlin Wall. Brezhnev clamped down on the ‘dissidents’, who were first organized by the protest movement against the show trial of the samizdat writers Iulii Daniel and Andrei Siniavsky in February 1966. The persecution of the dissidents was a powerful deterrent against the discussion of Stalin’s crimes. Millions of people whose memory of the Stalinist regime might have made them think or speak more critically about the Soviet system pulled back, afraid of giving the impression that they sympathized with the dissidents, whose references to Stalin’s crimes were a form of opposition to the Brezhnevite regime. People again suppressed their memories – they refused to talk about the past – and conformed outwardly to the loyal and silent Soviet majority.

Among Stalin’s former prisoners the threat of rearrest was real enough to reinforce this silence for several decades after 1956. The KGB may have been defanged by the ending of the Terror, but it still had access to a huge range of draconian punishments, and its powers of surveillance, which reached everywhere, instilled fear in anyone who dared to think or speak or act in ways that could be seen as anti-Soviet.

Inna Gaister was working as an engineer in the Tsvetmetavtomatika Laboratories in Moscow in 1977 when she was called to the telephone to speak to an operative from the KGB who asked her to come in to the Lubianka. ‘Naturally, I began to get the shakes,’ recalls Inna. ‘I could not think at all.’ Her mind raced back to her arrest in April 1949, when she had been summoned in a similar manner in the midst of her thesis defence at Moscow University; to the arrest of her sister in June 1949; and to the arrest of both her parents forty years before, in 1937, when Inna had been twelve. Inna responded that she was in the middle of an experiment and so couldn’t come in straight away. The KGB official told her that he would ring again in half an hour. Inna frantically began to call her friends, both to warn them that they might be summoned too and to let them know where she was going, in case she did not return. When the KGB rang back, Inna once again refused to go to the Lubianka, so the operative began to question her about her acquaintance with Lev Kopelev, the former Gulag prisoner, dissident and writer, who was soon to be expelled from the Soviet Union. Kopelev was an acquaintance of Inna, as he was of hundreds of other Muscovites, and had given readings at her house. Somehow the KGB had found this out, perhaps by tapping her telephone, or more probably from an informant who had been at one of the readings. Inna was terrified. For the next few days, she lived in expectation of her imminent arrest. She threw out all the dissident literature she had been storing in her apartment, in case it was searched by the KGB, and cancelled any further readings in her home. Inna was not arrested. The incident had no further repercussions. But the call had stirred up painful memories and had left her with feelings of anxiety and fear that disturbed her for many years. ‘All my life I have struggled with this fear,’ reflects Inna, ‘I am always afraid.’ It is hard to say what frightens her. ‘It’s nothing concrete,’ she explains. ‘It’s more like a feeling of inferiority, of some vague defectiveness.’11

This anxiety was widely shared by Stalin’s former prisoners. Zinaida Bushueva lived in constant worry and even expectation of her rearrest throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It was not until 1981, when she received a clean passport, without the mark to signify that she had been imprisoned in a labour camp, that her fear began to diminish, although even then, according to her daughter, she ‘was frightened all her life that the Terror might return, right until the day she died’. Maria Vitkevich, who spent ten years in the Norilsk labour camp after her arrest in 1945, remains frightened to this day. ‘I cannot rid myself of fear,’ she explains.

I have felt it all my adult life, I feel it now [in 2004], and I will feel it on the day I die. Even now, I am afraid that there are people following me. I was rehabilitated fifty years ago. I have nothing to be ashamed of. The constitution says that they can’t interfere in my private life. But I am still afraid. I know that they have enough information about me to send me away again.

Svetlana Bronshtein, who was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp in 1952, still has nightmares of the Viatka labour camps, where she served three years of her sentence before her release in 1955. If she could find the energy to do the paperwork and stand in the queues at the American Embassy, she would try to emigrate to the USA, where she believes her fear would disappear.12

Cowed and silenced, the majority of Stalin’s victims stoically suppressed traumatic memories and emotions. ‘A human being survives by his ability to forget,’ wrote Varlam Shalamov in Kolyma Tales. People who had suffered terribly did not talk about their lives. They very rarely cried. ‘To this day I cannot weep,’ reflects Inna Gaister. ‘In Stalin’s time people did not cry. Within me there has always been some sort of internal prohibition against crying which comes from that time.’13

This stoicism has been widely noticed by historians. In her book on death and memory in Soviet Russia, the British historian Catherine Merridale notes that the Russians became so used to suppressing their emotions and remaining silent about their suffering – not so much in the sense of unconscious avoidance (‘denial’) but as a conscious strategy or coping mechanism – that one might wonder whether ‘notions of psychological trauma are genuinely irrelevant to Russian minds, as foreign as the imported machinery that seizes up and fails in a Siberian winter’.14

Psychiatry suggests that talking has a therapeutic influence on the victims of trauma, whereas the repression of emotions perpetuates the trauma, the anger and the fear.15 The longer the silence continues the more these victims are likely to feel trapped and overwhelmed by their unspoken memories. Stoicism may help people to survive but it can also make them passive and accepting of their fate. It was Stalin’s lasting achievement to create a whole society in which stoicism and passivity were social norms.

Nobody is more stoical or accepting of his fate than Nikolai Lileyev. Born in 1921, Nikolai was conscripted by the Red Army at the age of eighteen, captured by the Germans in 1941 and taken as a POW to work on a farm in Estonia, and then in various mines and factories in Germany. In 1945, Nikolai returned to the Soviet Union, where he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in the Komi labour camps. On his release in 1955, Nikolai was not allowed to return to his native Leningrad, so he lived in Luga until 1964. In 2002, he wrote his memoirs, ‘The Unlucky Do Not Live’, which begins with this prologue, written, he insists, without the slightest hint of irony or black humour:

I have always been extremely fortunate, particularly in the difficult periods of my life. I am lucky that my father was not arrested; that the teachers at my school were good; that I did not fight in the Finnish War; that I was never hit by a bullet; that the hardest year of my captivity I spent in Estonia; that I did not die working in the mines in Germany; that I was not shot for desertion when I was arrested by the Soviet authorities; that I was not tortured when I was interrogated; that I did not die on the convoy to the labour camp, though I weighed only 48 kilograms and was 1.8 metres tall; that I was in a Soviet labour camp when the horrors of the Gulag were already in decline. I am not bitter from my experience and have learned to accept life as it really is.16


In 1956, Simonov divorced the actress Valentina Serova and married his fourth wife, Larisa Zhadova, who was then pregnant with his child. Larisa was an art historian, the daughter of a senior general, the Second-in-Command of all Soviet Ground Forces. Her father had been furious when she married her first husband, the poet Semyon Gudzenko, who died in 1953; when she announced that she would marry Simonov, he threatened to expel her and her three-year-old daughter from the family house (‘Isn’t one poet enough?’). Larisa was a serious and rather stern woman, cold by comparison with Valentina. She took charge of Simonov’s private life and became his close companion, but she did not inspire him to write romantic poetry.17 Perhaps he wanted order and quiet in his life.

The break-up with Valentina had been as turbulent as the rest of Simonov’s relationship with her. Things began to fall apart after the birth of their daughter Masha (Maria) in 1950. Valentina, who had always been a heavy drinker, became a chronic alcoholic as her beauty faded and her career in the theatre steadily declined. There was a series of scandalous affairs at the Maly Theatre, for which she was reprimanded several times and then dismissed by the authorities in 1952. Valentina’s behaviour was a huge embarrassment for Simonov, who at the time was under growing pressure from the Stalinist hardliners in the campaign against the Jews. Simonov had constant fights with Valentina, whose drinking bouts and violent fits grew worse as she sensed that he was preparing to leave her. In 1954, he moved out of their apartment on Gorky Street. He was already seeing Larisa, as Valentina was aware. In a last effort to rescue their relationship, he got Valentina the leading role in a play at the Moscow Soviet Theatre, and promised that he would return to her if she ‘pulled herself together’. But Valentina, as he must have known, was incapable of doing that. She was sick and needed help.

Simonov and Valentina Serova, 1955

In the spring of 1956, Simonov finally decided to divorce Valentina: Larisa had told him that she was pregnant, and he could not risk another scandal, if he refused to marry her. Valentina did not want a divorce. Like many of the couple’s friends, she took the view that her husband was abandoning her just when she most needed his support. Perhaps this was unfair. There was little understanding of alcoholism in the Soviet Union, where heavy drinking was commonly regarded as a part of the Russian national character, and without medical support there was not much Simonov could do for her. Valentina fell into despair and drank so heavily that she ended up in hospital. Just then the divorce was legalized. Valentina had a nervous breakdown. She was confined to a psychiatric hospital five times over the course of the next four years. Masha lived with Valentina’s mother for most of this period. The girl was profoundly disturbed by the strains of living with her alcoholic mother and by the disappearance of her father.18

In 1960, Dr Zinaida Sinkevich, the main consulting psychiatrist in the hospital where Valentina was confined, wrote to Simonov, accusing him of having caused Valentina’s breakdown:

Valentina Vasilevna gave herself to you entirely… There was no aspect of her life that was not in your hands – her self-esteem as a woman, her career as an actress in the theatre and the cinema, her success and fame, her family and friends, her children, her material well-being… And then you left, and your departure destroyed everything! She lost all confidence, her ties to the theatre and the cinema, her friends and family, her self-esteem… Wine was all she had left, the one thing on which she could rely, but without you it became an escape from reality.

Looking back on these events in 1969, Simonov confessed in a letter to Katia (Larisa’s sixteen-year-old daughter from her first marriage who had lived with Simonov since 1956) that by the time of his divorce from Valentina he had felt ‘not a shred of respect, let alone of friendship’ for his alcoholic wife, and that his ‘one regret’, for which he blamed himself, was that he had not left her ‘many years before’.19

Simonov had always had this cold and rational capacity to cut people out of his life if he disapproved of them or calculated that they were of little use to him. In the 1930s and 1940s, when political loyalties were considered higher than personal ones, Simonov had broken off many relationships, and for that reason he was left without close friends when his manoeuvring came back to haunt him after 1956. Perhaps it goes to show that in the end it is impossible to be a Stalinist in public life and not let the morals of the system infect personal relationships.

After the divorce, Simonov made a conscious effort to cut out of his life everything to do with Valentina, although he continued to help her financially until her death in 1975. He bought a new apartment and dacha. He excluded their daughter Masha from the rest of his family, not inviting her to birthday celebrations, family anniversaries, book or film parties. In his 1969 letter to Katia, who had demanded to know why she had not been allowed to meet Masha, Simonov explained why it was for the best for them to be kept apart.*

Today there is a nineteen-year-old girl [Masha] who has been brought up by her mother with very different views and rules to my own – and therefore, although she carries my name, she is spiritually alien to me. I don’t consider her part of my life, even though for many years I devoted much time and energy to ensuring that she have a more or less normal existence, an almost impossible task since she was living with her mother, who for more than twenty years had drunk, then cured herself, then drunk and cured herself again.

I have never wanted you to know or meet this girl or to have any relations with her, because it would have made her and you unhappy. And I don’t think there’s a reason why you should know her now. Neither of you needs that. In life there are difficult decisions to be made, times when a man must take responsibility and do what he believes to be right, without asking others to carry the burden.20

It was only in the 1970s that Simonov softened in his attitude towards Masha, who then appeared at family events.

For Simonov the marriage to Larisa and the birth of their daughter Aleksandra meant the start of a new life. ‘As for your sister, she is eight weeks old today,’ Simonov wrote to his son Aleksei in March 1957.

She is losing her dark colouring and slowly turning red – so there is hope: that she will be a strong person, with healthy views on life, that she will walk and eat and talk as a person should – in a word, that she will become someone with good principles.

Domestic happiness coincided with the Khrushchev thaw. For Simonov the changes of 1956 represented a spiritual release, even though at first he had his reservations about the rejection of Stalin. After 1956, recalls Aleksei,

my father became happier and more relaxed. He was not so overburdened and pressured by his work. His hands, which had suffered from a nervous condition for as long as I remembered as a child, became normal once again. He became more attentive and warmer towards people close to him. It was as if the thaw in politics had thawed out his heart, and he began to live again.21

In August 1957, the Laskin family celebrated the golden wedding anniversary of Samuil and Berta with a banquet in a Moscow restaurant. The festivities were organized by Samuil’s nephew, the writer Boris Laskin, who was well known as a humourist and satirist. The printed invitations and decorations in the restaurant were a lampoon of Soviet propaganda, with slogans such as ‘50 Years of Happiness – An Easy Burden!’ and ‘Your Family Union is a School of Communism!’ Simonov joined in the celebrations and even contributed to the costs, despite his usual disapproval of jokes ridiculing Soviet power. Simonov had good relations with the Laskin family after 1956. He remained friends with Zhenia, helped her with money, often took her advice on literary affairs and advanced her career as an editor at the pro-thaw journal Moskva by sending her the manuscripts of poetry and prose that came his way.* There was perhaps an element of guilt in Simonov’s attentiveness towards his former wife. As he embraced the spirit of the thaw, he must have been troubled by the moral contrast between Zhenia – a fearless champion of samizdat who helped to publish censored writers – and his own role in the Soviet literary establishment. At Zhenia’s fiftieth birthday celebrations in 1964, an evening with family and friends at Zhenia’s new apartment near the Airport Metro station in northern Moscow, some of these writers recited poems they had composed for her. The mood was warm and humorous, full of tenderness and love for Zhenia. Simonov made an awkward speech that went on far too long. He was visibly uncomfortable talking about Zhenia in a room full of writers who admired her for her moral courage and generosity, her willingness to help other people regardless of the dangers to herself. Simonov was rescued by his seven-year-old daughter Aleksandra, who walked into the room and ran towards him. He grabbed hold of her and asked her to ‘congratulate her auntie Zhenia – quickly!’ Aleksandra took hold of the microphone: ‘Dear auntie Zhenia, happy fiftieth birthday, and tell Alyosha [Aleksei] to shave his beard!’22

For Aleksei the thaw marked the start of a new relationship with Simonov. In 1956, the sixteen-year-old boy wrote a letter to his father in which he spoke about their previous estrangement when he had lived with Valentina, and about his hope that they might become closer in the years ahead:

I believe in you, not just as a father but as a good, intelligent and honourable man, as an old friend. This belief is a source of strength for me, and, if it helps you, even just a bit, then I am happy. Remember that your son, although very young and not very strong, will always support you… We have rarely talked about your private life – only once I think… I never felt at home in your house – it wasn’t anything obvious but when you were ‘away’ there were conversations that were difficult for me. I avoided going to your house when you were not there. My relations with Masha were also difficult – I could not accept her as a sister… None of that is important any more. Now I feel that things will be different. It is good that you are calmer, happier. I am sure that I will be friends with your new wife – my feelings for her are already very warm. We will become closer, Father, and I will not be just a guest in your house.23

In the summer of 1956, at the age of sixteen, Aleksei finished school and, encouraged by his father, joined a scientific expedition to the remote region of Iakutsk in eastern Siberia. For Aleksei the expedition was all about proving himself as a man, in the image of his father, who had left school and gone to work at a similar age. ‘Tell Father that I will not let him down,’ Aleksei wrote to his mother Zhenia in his first letter home. In his letters to his father Aleksei compared the expedition to Simonov’s own ‘university of life’ in the factories of the First Five Year Plan. His father responded with a tenderness and informality that Aleksei had never seen from him before. In one letter, which Aleksei would treasure all his life, Simonov wrote:

It is customary in these letters for a father to give advice to his son. Generally I don’t like to do this – but one piece of advice I will give you before you go off for the winter. You no doubt have heard, or can imagine from what I have written on the subject, that I was not guilty of cowardice during the war. Here is what I want to say to you: I did what I had to do, according to my understanding of human dignity and my own pride as a man, but remember, if you now have the satisfaction of having a living and healthy father, not just a tombstone or a memory, it is because I never took stupid risks. I was very attentive, restrained and careful in all situations where there was a real danger, although I never ran away from it. It should be clear why I am writing this to you…

And now, my friend, I must run to the Writers’ Union and tell the young writers how they should and should not write – and you meanwhile feel free to put in any missing punctuation marks and correct my grammatical mistakes. Yes?

I kiss you, my sweet one, and squeeze your paw. Father. 31 August 1956.24

In September, Simonov joined Aleksei in Iakutsk for three days. He enjoyed the primitive conditions and comradeship of the expedition, which reminded him of life during the war (‘He is very pleased that he can still go hiking with a rucksack on his back,’ Zhenia explained to Aleksei). For the first time in his life, he sat with his son, drank with him by the camp fire and talked openly about his life, about politics and about his hopes for the future. Isolated in literary society, Simonov now found a soul-mate and a loyal supporter in his son. ‘He is very pleased with you in all respects,’ Zhenia wrote to Aleksei after seeing Simonov on his return. ‘He is pleased with the way you have turned out, physically and spiritually, and with the way that you are seen by your contemporaries.’ As for Aleksei, he had never known his father so happy and excited: ‘He was full of the Twentieth Congress, of his new family, his daughter, his new house, and his new novel, The Living and the Dead. It seemed to him that he could turn over a new leaf and live his life in a different way.’ During those three days in Iakutsk Aleksei fell in love with Simonov. The ideal father he had pictured all these years had finally materialized, and Aleksei flourished; his new connection with his father gave him a sense of independence and maturity. In his letters from Iakutsk, Aleksei explained to Simonov his ideas on literature and life, and asked for his advice, man to man. ‘I have great hopes for our forthcoming meeting,’ he wrote to him in February 1957. ‘There is so much I must tell you, so much to ask you, which I cannot put in a letter.’25

Aleksei’s closeness with his father was short-lived. The intimacy they had achieved in Iakutsk could not be repeated in Moscow, where Simonov had no time for his son. Politics divided them. Aleksei was swept along by the democratic spirit of the thaw, towards which his father remained sceptical, if not totally opposed. Aleksei was too young, politically too immature, to mount an articulate opposition to his father’s politics. He had no real thoughts, for example, on the Kremlin’s bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, when his father had supported sending in the tanks to crush the anti-Soviet demonstrators in Budapest. Yet there was in Aleksei an element of latent protest and dissent, which was perhaps connected to the history of the Laskin family. In 1956, Aleksei applied for his first passport. In the section where every Soviet citizen was required to register his ethnic origin, he was determined to write down Jewish, even though he had the right to register as Russian, the nationality of his father’s family, which would make his life much easier. It took the concerted efforts of all the Laskins – and the insistence of Samuil and Berta in particular – to talk him out of it. For Aleksei, identifying with his Jewish origins was a conscious act of political dissent from the values of the Soviet regime. His views on other matters displayed the same attitude. Aleksei was repulsed by the falsity and hypocrisy of the Komsomol. He was deeply impressed by Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, a blistering attack on Soviet officialdom, and wrote to its author to tell him that it was a work of genius that was badly needed for the country’s political reform. He signed the letter with his grandfather’s name (‘Aleksei Ivanishev’) rather than his father’s, so as to avoid the connection being made with Simonov, who had criticized the novel for giving rise to anti-Soviet sentiments, and had forced Dudintsev to tone down its assault on the bureaucracy before printing it in Novyi mir. Simonov was far more cautious than his son towards the reformist spirit of the thaw. ‘If one steps back for a minute and looks at the country and the spirit of the people,’ he wrote to Aleksei in February 1957, ‘one can say without exaggeration that we have travelled an enormous distance since 1953. But when some writer considers it his duty to stir up unnecessary rebellion, then I have no sympathy for him.’26

Simonov’s own de-Stalinization progressed very slowly. The revelations of the Twentieth Party Congress had both excited and shaken him, and it took a while for him to come to terms with them. For Simonov the crucial moral test of the Stalinist regime remained its conduct in the war. It was while working on his great war novel, The Living and the Dead (1959), that Simonov began to grapple with the central moral question raised by the war: the regime’s appalling waste of human life. The novel deals with many of the issues that had been excluded from the public discourse on the war: the devastating effect of the Terror on the military command; the chaos and confusion that overwhelmed the country in the first weeks of the war; the climate of mistrust and the incompetence of the officers which cost so many innocent young lives. Drawing on his diaries and memories of the war, Simonov retells the story of the fighting through a series of vivid scenes where officers and men struggle to make sense of events and carry out their duty in the face of all these obstacles. He shows how people were changed by their experience in the war, becoming more determined and united against the enemy, and implies that this human spirit was the fundamental cause of the Soviet victory. Simonov had always seen the leadership of Stalin as a crucial factor in the war. But in The Living and the Dead he began to reassess Stalin’s role and moved towards the populist conception – which he would develop in his final years – that it was the Soviet people who had won the war and that they had done so in spite of Stalin’s leadership. As Simonov suggests, the chaos and mistrust that Stalin’s reign of terror had fostered in the army led directly to the military catastrophe of 1941; only the patriotic spirit and initiative of ordinary people like the heroes in his book had reversed the crisis and turned disaster into victory. Simonov had touched on some of these ideas in his diaries of 1941–5, which he filled with observations of the war. He had discussed them with his friends, including the writer Lazar Lazarev, before 1953. But as Simonov himself confessed at a literary evening in the Frunze Military Academy in 1960, he had ‘lacked sufficient civic courage’ to publish these ideas while Stalin was still alive.27

Throughout his life Simonov retained an emotional attachment to Stalin’s memory. His own personal history and identity were too closely bound up with the regime to reject the legacy of Stalin root and branch. For this reason, Simonov could never quite bring himself to embrace wholeheartedly the Khrushchev thaw, which seemed to him a betrayal of Stalin as a man and a leader, and as a betrayal of his own past. He could not deny Stalin any more than he could deny himself. Even at the height of the Khrushchev thaw, Simonov held firm to many of the dogmas of the Stalinist dictatorship. He took a hardline position on the Hungarian crisis of 1956. ‘Several thousand people were killed in the events in Hungary,’ Simonov wrote to Aleksei from Calcutta in 1957, ‘but the British spilled more blood during the partition of India, and not in the interests of the people [the motive of the Soviet actions in Budapest, according to Simonov] but simply to stir up religious hatred and rebellions.’28

After 1956, Simonov was seen by liberal reformers as an unreconstructed Stalinist, and by the old Stalinists as a dangerous liberal, but in fact throughout the Khrushchev years he was a moderate conservative. He recognized Stalin’s mistakes and saw the need for limited political reform, but he continued to defend the Soviet system that Stalin had created in the 1930s and 1940s as the only solid basis for the progress of humanity. ‘We have made mistakes on the road to Communism,’ he wrote to Aleksei, ‘but the acknowledgement of our mistakes should not lead us to waver for a moment in our conviction that our Communist principles are correct.’29

When Brezhnev came to power, in 1964, Simonov’s moderate conservatism found official favour, as Khrushchev’s policies of de-Stalinization were gradually reversed and the Kremlin opposed any real political reform in the Soviet Union or the other countries of the Warsaw Pact. From the mid-1960s, Simonov emerged as an elder statesman in the Soviet literary establishment. His books were widely published and made standard reading in Soviet schools and universities; he frequently appeared in the Soviet media; he travelled round the world as the official face of Soviet literature; and even by the standards of the Soviet elite, he enjoyed a privileged lifestyle.

Aleksei and Konstantin Simonov, 1967

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Soviet victory in 1945, 9 May 1970, Simonov gave an interview to the newspaper Socialist Industry in which he clarified his position on Soviet history since the end of the war:

I have spent a lot of time studying the history of the Great Patriotic War and I know a lot more now than I did when the war had just ended. Of course, a lot has changed in my understanding. But my main feeling, which you get when you travel round the country and see the building going on today, when you see what has been done and what is being done, is that our cause in those times was just. However hard it was, however many lives were lost, our people did what needed to be done during the war. If they had failed in that difficult endeavour, our country would not be what it is today, there would be no other socialist countries, no world struggle for freedom and independence from colonial rule. All of that was made possible only by our victory.30

For people of Simonov’s generation the war was the defining event of their lives. Born around the time of the Revolution of 1917, this generation reached maturity in the 1930s, when basic values were reshaped by the Stalinist regime, and moved towards retirement in the Brezhnev period. From the vantage point of the 1960s and 1970s, these people recalled the war years nostalgically as the high-point of their youth. It was a time of comradeship, of shared responsibilities and suffering, when ‘people became better human beings’ because they had to help and trust one another; a time when their lives had greater purpose and meaning because, it seemed to them, their individual contribution to the war campaign had made a difference to the destiny of the nation. These veterans recalled the war as a period of great collective achievement, when people like themselves made enormous sacrifices for victory. They looked back at 1945 as an almost sacred time-space in Soviet history and memory. In the words of the war veteran and writer Kondratiev:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. That is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult and unforgettable years. The memory of all our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.31

The commemoration of the Great Patriotic War served as a reminder of the success of the Soviet system. In the eyes of its loyal citizens, including Simonov, the victory of 1945 justified the Soviet regime and everything it had accomplished after 1917. But the popular memory of the war – in which it was recalled as a people’s war – also represented a potential challenge to the Soviet dictatorship. The war had been a period of ‘spontaneous de-Stalinization’, when, more than at any other time, the Soviet people had been forced to take reponsibility for their own actions and organize themselves for the war effort, often in the absence of effective leadership or control by the Party. As the post-war regime feared, the collective memory of this freedom and initiative could become dangerous if it gave rise to ideas of political reform.

For many years the memory of the war was downplayed in the public culture of the Soviet regime. Until 1965, Victory Day was not even an official Soviet holiday, and it was left to veterans’ groups to organize their own celebrations and parades. Publications on the war were tightly censored, and war novels politically controlled.* Wartime newspapers were withdrawn from public libraries. After 1956, there was a partial relaxation of these controls on the memory of the war. Memoirs by war veterans appeared in print. Writers who had fought in the war as young men published stories and novels drawing on their own experience to portray the reality of the soldiers’ war – the ‘truth of the trenches’ (okopnaia pravda) as it was often termed – which functioned as a moral counter-balance to the propaganda version of the war. But these publications were pushing at the boundaries of what was permitted by the Khrushchev thaw: the Party was prepared to blame Stalin for the military setbacks but not to challenge the official narrative of the war as a triumph of Communist discipline and leadership. In 1962, Grossman was told by Mikhail Suslov, the Politburo chief of ideology, that his war novel Life and Fate, which had been seized by the KGB after its submission to the journal Znamia, could not be published for at least 200 years (it was first published in Russia in 1988).

The memory of the war was even more tightly controlled by the Brezhnevite regime, which used the commemoration of the Soviet victory to create a powerful display of public loyalty and political legitimacy for itself. In 1965, Victory Day became an official Soviet holiday, celebrated with enormous pomp by the entire Party leadership and featuring a military parade on Red Square. A new Museum of the Armed Forces was opened for the anniversary; its vast display of memorabilia elevated the remembrance of the war to the level of a cult. Two years later, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was erected near the Kremlin Wall, quickly becoming a sacred site for the Soviet state and a place of ritual homage for Soviet brides and grooms. In Volgograd (previously Stalingrad) a monumental site of mourning was completed in 1967. At its centre stood a vast sword-bearing Mother Russia, the tallest statue in the world at 52 metres high. It was at this time that the endlessly repeated statistic of ‘ 20 million dead’ entered Soviet propaganda as a messianic symbol of the Soviet Union’s unique sacrifice for the liberation of the world.

Mother Russia, part of the Mamaev Kurgan War Memorial complex in Volgograd

Simonov was too much of a soldier, he had seen too much of the war’s realities, to have any part in the manipulation of its public memory. He had thought for many years about the meaning of the war and about the reasons for the Soviet victory. His thinking on the war became a sort of moral contemplation about Stalin and the Soviet system as a whole: whether it was justified to spend so many lives to win the war; and whether it was force that had spurred the people on to victory or something deeper inside them, the spiritual force of patriotism or stoical endurance, unconnected to any politics. During the last decade of his life, Simonov collected soldiers’ memoirs and testimonies. By his death, in 1979, he had amassed a large archive of memoirs, letters and several thousand hours of taped interviews.* Many of these testimonies were recorded in A Soldier Went (1975), a ‘film-poem in seven chapters’, each one reflecting on a different aspect of the soldiers’ experience, with interviews and readings from the works of Simonov. In a way that was extraordinary for its time, the film brought to life the horrors of the war and the suffering of the soldiers, who were portrayed as ordinary human beings behaving with courage and resilience in the most difficult circumstances. One of the film’s longest chapters dwells on the soldiers’ injuries, featuring an infantryman who was wounded seven times yet still marched on to Berlin. The film was a homage to the Red Army rank and file – to the courage and endurance of millions of unknown and neglected heroes who brought about the Soviet victory – by a man whose writings on the war had usually taken the perspective of the officer. According to Marina Babak, the film’s director (and Simonov’s lover at that time), there was a strong personal motive in this act of homage, because ‘Simonov felt that he had never shown sufficient courage’ in his life. ‘Simonov insisted that he should not be seen in the film at all,’ recalls Babak. ‘He said that he was unworthy to appear alongside a soldier.’32

The film ran into trouble with the military establishment, which took exception to its gritty realism and populist conception of the war (the censors insisted on the addition of a sequence paying homage to Brezhnev as a war leader). The Brezhnev leadership regarded all attempts to commemorate the suffering of the people in the war as a challenge to the government. From the mid 1960s, many of Simonov’s writings on the war were either banned from publication or published in a censored form. His war diaries from 1941, prepared for publication as a book (A Hundred Days of War) in 1967, were turned down by the Soviet censors, despite Simonov’s personal appeal to the Party leadership (the book was finally published in 1999). The same fate befell his essays on Zhukov and his war diaries of 1941–5 (Various Days of War), which were published with major cuts in 1977.33 His documentary film If Your House Is Dear to You appeared in 1966 only after a long battle with the censors, who cut it heavily, while the film version of his novel Soldiers Are Not Born (1964), the second volume of The Living and the Dead, was so badly butchered by the Soviet censors that Simonov withdrew the title of the novel and even his own name from the final version of the film, which was screened as Retribution in 1967.

These battles with censorship strengthened Simonov’s determination to search for the truth about the war and about the Stalinist regime. His notebooks from this time are filled with reminiscences about his encounters with Stalin, with self-interrogations about what he knew and did not know (or did not want to know) about Stalin’s crimes when he had been part of the dictator’s court. The more he learned of Stalin’s lies and murders, the more he tried to distance himself from his past.

‘There was a time when, although I had some doubts, I loved Stalin,’ Simonov wrote in 1966. ‘But today, knowing all the things that I know about him, I do not and cannot love him any more. If I had known then what I know now, I would not have loved him then.’34

During the last years of his life Simonov became increasingly remorseful about his role in the Stalinist regime. As if to redeem his sins, he tried hard to promote the work of writers and artists who had been censored or repressed in Stalin’s time. Encouraged by his wife, Simonov became a private collector and champion of the Soviet avant-garde in art (he organized a major retrospective of the long-forgotten artist Vladimir Tatlin). He played a leading role in the campaign for the publication of works by Osip Mandelshtam, Kornei Chukovsky, Vsevolod Ivanov and for the Russian translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik. He gave money to writers who had suffered in the past – including Borshchagovsky, Vera Panova and Nadezhda Mandelshtam – and petitioned on behalf of many others for housing, jobs and readmission to the Writers’ Union.35

In 1966, Simonov set in motion a process that culminated in the publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s subversive masterpiece The Master and Margarita, a fantastic social satire in which the devil comes to Moscow and brings out the worst in everybody through his anarchic pranks. Impossible to publish while Stalin was alive, the manuscript had been hidden in a drawer since the writer’s death in 1940. In 1956, Simonov had been made the chairman of the commission in charge of Bulgakov’s literary estate by the writer’s widow Elena Bulgakova, who was an old acquaintance of Simonov’s mother. Simonov gave the manuscript of The Master and Margarita to Zhenia Laskina, who was then working at Moskva, a journal much in need of exciting prose to boost its falling subscription sales (upon which its standing and subsidies depended) after the ending of the literary thaw, when it had become a rather dull and quiet magazine. Simonov was doubtful that Zhenia would succeed in getting the book past the censors, who were tightening up on literature. He had even advised Elena Bulgakova to accept some cuts to get the book published. Having read the manuscript at his dacha over a weekend, Yevgeny Popovkin, Moskva’s editor, confessed to Zhenia that he was afraid to publish it, even though he knew that it would make his name. Popovkin advised Zhenia to take the manuscript to one of Moskva’s editors, a retired censor who had good connections at Glavlit, the committee in charge of literary censorship, and who, as an editor, had never had a manuscript rejected by the censors. With the help of this retired censor, Bulgakov’s manuscript was passed with relatively minor cuts and published in instalments in Moskva from November 1966. The November issue (150,000 copies) sold out overnight. There was a huge demand to subscribe to the journal for the next two years, the period it took to serialize Bulgakov’s extraordinary novel, which appeared to Soviet readers as a miracle in the oppressive atmosphere of the early Brezhnev years. Delighted by their success, Zhenia and Simonov commemorated the historical event by compiling a scapbook of all the passages that had been cut by the censor. They made three copies of the book: one for Simonov, one for Zhenia and one for Elena Bulgakova.36

Simonov’s support for these initiatives was a public statement about his politics. By setting out to rescue suppressed works of art and literature, he was aligning himself with the liberal wing of the Soviet establishment. These efforts, which he undertook on his own initiative (he had no official position in any Soviet institution or journal), earned him the respect of many artists and writers, who made him the chairman of literary commissions and organizations like the Central House of Literature in the 1960s and 1970s. Simonov had not become a liberal in the sense of the dissidents, who were pro-Western and anti-Soviet, but like many Communist reformers in the Brezhnev era, he was open to the idea of a fundamental change in the politics and culture of the Soviet system. Simonov did not openly criticize the Brezhnev government. But privately he was opposed to many of its policies – not least to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 in order to suppress the ‘Prague Spring’ of Alexander Dubček’s reformist government. The crisis of 1968 was a major turning-point in Simonov’s political development. It radicalized him. He began to question whether it was possible or even desirable for the one-party system to survive in the stagnant form which it had developed under Brehznev’s leadership. According to his son, if Simonov had lived a few more years, he would have welcomed Gorbachev’s reforms:

As a senior Party member there was only so far he could go, of course. He would have had to break his Party mould completely to come out in support of Solzhenitsyn, for example, and he could not do that. I do not know what he really thought, and what he forced himself to think in order to keep himself in check, but I know that he went on evolving politically to the end. That, for me, was his strongest quality – he never lost the capacity to change.37

The development of Simonov’s political ideas in his final years was intimately linked to his re-examination of his past. Simonov became increasingly remorseful about his own conduct during Stalin’s reign. As he admitted his errors to himself, he grew more critical of the political system that had led him to make them. His feelings of contrition were sometimes so intense that they bordered on self-loathing, according to Lazar Lazarev, who was as close as anyone to Simonov at that time. Lazarev recalls that Simonov would castigate himself, both as a writer and as a man, at public occasions. Simonov was known for his self-deprecating irony. His friends and admirers took it to be part of his personal charm. But there were times when they must have realized that his self-criticisms came from darker impulses. At his fiftieth-birthday celebration at the Central House of Literature in 1965, an evening of speeches in praise of Simonov attended by more than 700 guests, he seemed to grow impatient with the kind things said of him. At the end of the evening, shaking visibly with emotion, he approached the microphone to deliver these extraordinary words:

On these sorts of occasions – when someone reaches fifty years of age – of course people mainly like to recall the good things about them. I simply want to say to the people here, to my comrades who have gathered here, that I am ashamed of many of the things I have done in my life, that not everything I have done is good – I know that – and that I did not always behave according to the highest moral principles – neither the highest civic principles, nor the highest human principles. There are things in my life that I remember with dissatisfaction, occasions when I acted without sufficient willpower, without sufficient courage. I know that. And I am not saying this for the purposes, so to speak, of some sort of repentance, that is a person’s private business, but simply because, by remembering, one wants to avoid repeating the same mistakes. And I shall try not to repeat them… From now on, at whatever cost, I will not repeat the moral compromises I made.38

These feelings of remorse intensified over time. He regretted the way that he had written about Stalin and the White Sea Canal during the 1930s. He felt remorse for his participation in the wartime propaganda of the Stalinist regime, for having gone along with Stalin’s lies about the ‘criminal behaviour’ and ‘treason’ of those Soviet generals who ordered the retreat of 1941. He felt remorse for his shameful actions in the Writers’ Union between 1946 and 1953 – years he found it ‘painful to recall’, as he wrote in an essay on Fadeyev: ‘There are many things that are hard to remember without dissembling one’s feelings, and many more that are even harder to explain.’ In the last years of his life Simonov engaged in a long struggle to understand his actions in the Writers’ Union. He interrogated his own memory and wrote several drafts of a personal account about his role in the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign, which remained locked away in his archive. Yet he never tried to defend or justify his actions in those years. Lazarev recalls an evening at Simonov’s house to celebrate his fifty-fifth birthday in 1970. Proposing a toast to the assembled guests, the writer Aleksandr Krivitsky passed around a photograph of Simonov in 1946 and said that they should drink to the words of a well-known song, ‘As he was then, so he is now’. Lazarev took exception to the implication – that Simonov remained a Stalinist – and, proposing the next toast, he said they should drink to the courage of their host, who was ‘not afraid to change and break with the past’. A heated argument began about whether Simonov had changed and whether that was a good thing or not. The next day Lazarev called Simonov to apologize. But Simonov saw nothing wrong. ‘On the contrary,’ recalls Lazarev, ‘he said that the discussion had been highly educational, because it had helped him make up his mind about himself: of course it was better when a person changed, if he changed for the better.’39

Many of Simonov’s activities in the 1970s were driven by his need to make up for his past actions. Haunted by memories of the Stalinist attacks on Jewish writers, he led a brave campaign in defence of Lilia Brik, the muse of much of Maiakovsky’s later poetry. Brik was the subject of a violent and openly anti-Semitic attack by literary critics working for Suslov, who demanded that she should be expunged from accounts of Maiakovsky’s life to purge the memory of the great Soviet poet of all Jewish elements. Filled with regret for his attacks on Ehren-burg in 1954, Simonov organized the publication of the writer’s war journalism. The collection included an article by Simonov, written in 1944, in which he had described Ehrenburg as the best of all the war-time journalists. The book was published in 1979, not long before Simonov’s death. Simonov was in hospital when he received a copy from the publishers. He called Lazarev, who had edited the book, and told him that he was extremely happy and relieved that he had ‘made his peace’ with Ehrenburg.40

Many people in the reformist circles of the literary intelligentsia were sceptical of Simonov’s late repentant liberalism. To them it seemed unlikely that a veteran Stalinist could reconstruct himself so radically. There was always the suspicion of hypocrisy when Simonov came out for some liberal cause. ‘Simonov the man of many faces,’ Solzhenitsyn wrote, ‘Simonov simultaneously the noble literary martyr and the esteemed conservative with access to all official quarters.’41

There were indeed times when Simonov behaved with anything but liberal inclinations. He took part, for example, in the Kremlin’s persecution of Metropol, a literary almanac compiled and edited by Viktor Erofeev, Yevgeny Popov and Vasily Aksyonov, which was published (with ‘Moscow, 1979’ as the given place and date) by Ardis in the USA. Metropol was not a dissident publication but, as Erofeev later described it, ‘an attempt to struggle with stagnation in conditions of stagnation’. Furious at this attempt to undermine their control of the printed word, the ailing leaders of the Brezhnevite regime took revenge on the editors of Metropol. Erofeev and Popov were expelled from the Writers’ Union, while several other writers in the almanac resigned in protest from the Union or emigrated from the Soviet Union. Simonov was drawn into the campaign against Metropolby Suslov, who put pressure on him to denounce the publication as ‘anti-Soviet’. Simonov had a vested interest. His daughter Aleksandra, then aged twenty-two, was in love with the brother of Viktor Erofeev, a young art historian called Andrei, to whom she had become recently engaged. Aleksandra and Andrei had been mixing with a group of bohemian friends, all of them children of the Soviet elite (Andrei’s father was a high-ranking diplomat), who dressed like hippies and listened to rock music, then a form of dissidence. Once the literary scandal broke, Simonov resolved to end their love affair, determined to distance himself and his family from the Erofeevs, whose association with the dissidents, or circles close to them, was potentially dangerous to him. Perhaps, as Andrei thinks, he wanted Aleksandra to marry someone from a family that conformed more closely to the Soviet establishment. Perhaps he was afraid that the Metropol Affair might become more problematic (it had raised a storm of protest in the West) and that Aleksandra might suffer from the consequences of her close involvement with the Erofeevs. Fear was never absent from Simonov’s relations with the Soviet regime – even in these final years when he enjoyed the status of a major figure in the Soviet establishment and, it would seem, should have had no fears. In Suslov’s office Simonov compiled a literary report on Metropol in which he denounced not just Viktor but Andrei Erofeev as ‘anti-Soviet dissidents’. When Aleksandra was told this by Andrei, she refused to believe him, accused him of slandering her father and broke off their engagement. But later she found out that he had told the truth.42

Simonov in 1979

Simonov’s death from chronic bronchitis was slow and painful. The Kremlin doctors were afraid to take responsibility for his treatment (a common problem in the Soviet Union in the decades following the Doctors’ Plot) and failed to give him the right drugs. During his last months, when he was in and out of hospital, Simonov continued to reflect on his past, to ask himself why he had not done more to help the people who had turned to him during the Stalinist terror. In some of his final notes, drafted for a play (The Four ‘I’s) which was meant to take the form of a conversation between his present self and three ‘other selves’ at various moments in the past, he put himself on trial:

‘So, how did you act, when someone whom you knew appeared before you and needed you to help?’

‘It depended. Sometimes they would call, sometimes they would write, and sometimes they would ask me directly.’

‘What would they ask?’

‘It depended. Sometimes they would ask me to intervene to help someone, they would say how good that person was. Sometimes they would write to me to say that they could not believe that somebody they knew could be guilty, that they could not believe that he had done what he was accused of – they knew him too well to believe that.’

‘Did people actually write that?’

‘Yes, sometimes. But more often they wrote that they knew it wasn’t their business, that they could not judge, that perhaps it was right, but… And then they would try to write down all the good things they knew about that person to try and help him.’

‘And you tried to help?’

‘Well, there were times when I did not reply to the letters. Twice. Once because I had never liked the person and I thought I was correct not to help a person I did not like and about whom I did not know anything. The other time I knew the person well, I had even been at the front with him and had liked him very much, but when they imprisoned him during the war, I believed that he was guilty, that he might be involved in some conspiracy, although no one spoke about such things – it was impossible to talk. He wrote to me. I didn’t reply, I didn’t help. I didn’t know what to say to him, and so I delayed. Then, when he was released, I was ashamed. All the more so, because it turned out that one of our comrades, a man I considered even weaker and more of a coward than myself, had replied to him, and had helped as many people as he could – he had sent them parcels and money.’43

It was during one of these last spells in hospital that Simonov dictated his memoirs, Through the Eyes of a Person of My Generation, which remained unfinished at his death.44 Simonov constructed his memoirs as another conversation with his former selves, recognizing that it was impossible to know what he had really thought at any moment in the past, but searching for the truth about his life through this dialogue with his own memory. Struggling to explain his long preoccupation with Stalin, his collaboration with the regime and the nature of the Stalinism that had taken possession of him, he interrogated himself without flinching – and judged himself harshly.

Simonov died on 28 August 1979. His ashes were scattered on a former battlefield near Mogilyov, the resting place of several thousand men who had fallen in the battles of June 1941. The press around the world announced the death of a great Soviet writer, ‘Stalin’s favourite’. During the 1980s, Simonov’s works continued to be read as classics in Soviet schools and universities. They were translated into many languages. But after the collapse of the Soviet regime, his literary reputation fell and his sales declined dramatically. To younger Russian readers, who wanted something new, his prose seemed dated and too ‘Soviet’.


After 1956, millions of people who had collaborated in some way in Stalin’s crimes, some directly as NKVD men or prison guards, others indirectly as bureaucrats, went on living ‘normal’ lives. Most of them were able to avoid any sense of guilt by contriving, consciously or not, to forget their actions in the past, by rationalizing and defending their behaviour through ideology or some other justifying myth, or by pleading innocence on the basis that they ‘did not know’ or were ‘only carrying out orders’.45 Few had the courage to confront their guilt with the honesty displayed by Simonov.

By most estimates, there were something in the region of a million former camp guards living in the Soviet Union after 1956. Few of those who talked about their past showed much sign of contrition or remorse. Lev Razgon recalls meeting a Siberian Tatar named Niiazov in a Moscow hospital in the 1970s. Niiazov turned out to be a former guard at the Bikin transit camp near Khabarovsk, where he had overseen the execution of thousands of prisoners. His story was simple. The son of a janitor, Niiazov had been the bully at his school and had become a petty thief and gangster by the time he was a teenager. Picked up by the police, he was first employed as a prison guard in Omsk and then transferred to the Gulag as a guard. The Bikin transit camp between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok was one of many ‘special installations’ (spetsob’ekty) in the Gulag system where prisoners were held for a few days before being shot. Niiazov was involved in a large proportion of the estimated 15,000 to 18,000 shootings carried out in the Bikin camp during its brief existence from 1937 to 1940. He was given vodka before and after the shootings. He felt no regret, according to Razgon, nor any guilt when he was told many years later that his victims had been innocent.

Niiazov told Razgon that he slept well. During the war, Niiazov was mobilized by the Red Army. He fought in Germany, where he took part in the looting of a bank. After 1945, Niiazov was put in charge of security at a military warehouse; he grew rich from thefts and scams. Sacked from his job by a new Party boss, he had a heart attack and was brought to the hospital where he met Razgon.46

Ivan Korchagin was a guard at the ALZhIR Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. The son of a poor peasant, he had only four years of rural schooling and could not read or write when he joined the army at the age of sixteen in 1941. After the war he was part of a military unit mobilized for various tasks in the Gulag. Korchagin was employed as a camp guard at ALZhIR from 1946 to 1954. Interviewed in 1988, he was aware that the mass arrests which filled the labour camps had been unjust, but he felt no contrition for his actions. He rationalized and justified his participation in the system of repression through his own brand of half-baked ideology, moral lessons drawn from life and class hatred for his prisoners:

What is Soviet power, I ask you? It is an organ of coercion! Understand? Say, for example, we are sitting here and talking, and two policemen knock at the door: ‘Come with us!’ they say. And that’s that! That’s Soviet power! They can take you away and put you in prison – for nothing. And whether you’re an enemy or not, you won’t persuade anybody of your innocence. That’s how it is. I get orders to guard prisoners. Should I believe these orders or should I believe you? Maybe I feel sorry for you, maybe I don’t, but what can I do? When you kill a pig you don’t feel sorry for it when it squeals. And even if I did feel sorry for somebody, how could I help them? When we were retreating from the front in the war, we had to abandon wounded soldiers, knowing they would die. We felt sorry, but what could we do? In the camp I guarded mothers with sick children. They cried and cried. But what could I do? They were being punished for their husbands. But that was not my business. I had my work to do. They say that a son does not answer for his father, but a mother answers for her husband. And if that husband is an enemy of the people, then what sort of son could the mother be raising? There were lots of children in the camp. But what could I do? It was bad for them. But maybe they were better off without mothers like that. Those enemies were really parasites. They had trips abroad. They were always showing off, with their music and their dachas and their finery. And the poor people were hungry, they had no fat, they lived worse than animals. So who’s the enemy of the people? Why should I cry for anyone? Besides, my job did no one any harm. I did a service for the government.47

Ivan Korchagin, Karaganda, 1988

During the period of glasnost in the late 1980s, when the role of the Gulag administrators began to be debated in the public media, many former guards wrote letters to ex-prisoners asking them to confirm for the historical record that they had been kind and decent to them in the camp. One such guard was Mikhail Iusipenko. Iusipenko was born in 1905 to the family of a landless labourer in Akmolinsk. He had only three years of rural schooling before the outbreak of the First World War and the departure of his father for the army forced him to go out to work. His father never returned from the war. During the 1920s, Iusipenko worked as a farm hand to support his mother and his younger brothers and sisters. He lost his wife and their two children in the famine of 1931. From 1934, Iusipenko was a Party worker in Karaganda, the administrative centre of the Gulag camps in Kazakhstan. He was soon recruited by the NKVD, which appointed him the Deputy Commandant of the ALZhIR labour camp near Akmolinsk. During his five years at the camp, from 1939 to 1944, Iusipenko allegedly raped a large number of the female prisoners, but there was no criminal investigation of his activities, only lots of rumours, which, it seems, began to trouble Iusipenko in the years of the Khrushchev thaw. Between 1961 and 1988, Iusipenko wrote to several hundred former prisoners, including many children of the women who had died since their release from ALZhIR, asking them to write a testimonial about his good conduct. He received testimonials from twenty-two of these women, who wrote to say that

Mikhail Iusipenko, Karaganda, 1988

they remembered him as a kind and decent man, certainly compared to many of the other guards at the ALZhIR labour camp (several of these testimonials were written by women who were said to be among his rape victims). In 1988, after an article about the ALZhIR camp in the newspaper Leninskaia smena implied that he was guilty of sexually assaulting prisoners, Iusipenko forwarded these testimonials to the editors of various national and local newspapers, as well as to the Party offices of Kazakhstan, with a long commentary intended to ‘put the historical record straight’. Iusipenko claimed that he had ‘always known’ that the prisoners were innocent and that ‘from the start’ he had ‘shown them profound sympathy’, had ‘never talked to them in a commanding tone’, and had done ‘everything possible to ease their burden’, allowing them to write and receive more letters and parcels than officially allowed, and filing reports to get them released early, at ‘great risk’ to his position and even to his life. ‘I could easily have been accused of sympathizing with the enemies of the people,’ Iusipenko wrote, ‘and then it would have been the end for me. But I was convinced, as I am now, that I was doing the right thing.’ By getting the newspapers to publish the testimonials with his commentary, Iusipenko aimed not just to demonstrate that he had a clear conscience. He intended to show that he had even been opposed to the ‘Stalinist repressions’ (a phrase coined in the era of glasnost) and, indeed, that he had been a victim of them too.48

Many former Gulag officials invented similar myths about their past. Pavel Drozdov, Chief Accountant of the Planning Section and Inspector of the Dalstroi Gulag complex, was arrested in 1938 and later sentenced to fifteen years in the labour camps of Magadan. After his release in 1951, he remained in Magadan as a voluntary worker, and was soon joined by his wife and son. According to the story Pavel told his son, the former Gulag chief had been nothing but a humble specialist with no real authority in the Dalstroi Trust, which managed the camps. The tale had an element of truth in so far as, after the arrest of his patron Eduard Berzin, the head of the Dalstroi Trust, in 1937, Pavel had been demoted to the rank of simple accountant – his own arrest following shortly thereafter. Towards the end of the Khrushchev era, Pavel began to carry out research for his memoirs of the Dalstroi Trust. His aim was to honour Berzin’s memory by presenting him as a visionary economic reformer and as a humane and enlightened man. But some of Pavel’s correspondence with former Dalstroi prisoners disturbed him deeply. He had not realized, or had somehow banished from his mind, the full extent of the human suffering over which he had presided in the Planning Section of the Dalstroi Trust. Pavel had a series of heart attacks. On medical advice, he gave up writing his memoirs. The truth about his past was too upsetting to confront. Pavel died in 1967. His son continues to believe that his father was a blameless bureaucrat, a mere accountant in the Dalstroi Gulag complex at a time when Berzin ran it ‘in a relatively humane and progressive way’, who fell victim to the Stalinist regime.49

The intermingling of myth and memory sustains every family, but it played a special role in the Soviet Union, where millions of lives were torn apart. Psychoanalysis suggests that trauma victims can benefit from placing their experiences in the context of a broader narrative, which gives them meaning and purpose. Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

The Gulag memoirs published in the decades after Khrushchev’s thaw have had a powerful impact on the way that ordinary people remember their own family history in the Stalin period. Their influence has rested partly on the way that trauma victims deal with their own memories. As psychoanalysts have shown, people with traumatic memories tend to block out parts of their own past. Their memory becomes fragmentary, organized by a series of disjointed episodes (such as the arrest of a parent or the moment of eviction from their home) rather than by a linear chronology. When they try to reconstruct the story of their life, particularly when their powers of recall are weakened by old age, such people tend to make up for the gaps in their own memory by drawing on what they have read, or what they have heard from others with experiences similar to theirs.50 In the opening pages of his memoirs, written in the 1970s, Alexander Dolgun, a US consul clerk arrested for ‘espionage’ in 1948 and imprisoned in a labour camp in Kazakhstan, explained these lapses in his memory:

Most of my story is what I actually remember, but some is what must have been. There are episodes and faces and words and sensations burned so deeply into my memory that no amount of time will wear them away. There are other times when I was so exhausted because they never let me sleep or so starved or beaten or burning with fever or drugged with cold that everything was blurred, and now I can only put together what must have happened by setting out to build a connection across these periods.

Although he claimed to have an ‘extremely good memory’, Dolgun had ‘absolutely no recall’ of a two-week period between leaving Moscow on a convict train and starting work in a stone quarry in the camp in Kazakhstan.51

To fill these gaps people borrowed from each other’s memories. Many of the scenes described by amateur memorists of the Stalin period bear a striking resemblance to scenes in well-known books about the Terror such as Yevgeniia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind (1967) or Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). Though both of these books, originally published in the West, did not officially come out in Russia until the late 1980s, they circulated widely through samizdat long before, helping to give rise to a boom in amateur memoir-writing from that time.* It is not clear if the scenes that figure in these memoirs represent a direct memory, as opposed to what the writer surmises took place or imagines ‘must have happened’, because others wrote about such episodes. Irina Sherbakova, who interviewed many Gulag survivors in the 1980s, suggests how this borrowing of memories occurred:

Over many decades, life in the Gulag gave birth to endless rumours, legends, and myths, the most common being about famous people – long believed to have been executed in Moscow – who were said to have been seen by someone in some far distant camp somewhere. There were constantly recurring themes and details in such stories. For example, at least four women described to me exactly the same scene: how, many years later, when they were able to look in a mirror again and see themselves, the first image they saw was the face of their own mother. As early as the 1970s, I recognized incidents recounted to me orally that exactly matched scenes described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago or in other printed recollections. By now [in 1992] story-telling about the camps has become so general that recording oral memory has become much more difficult. The vast amount of information pouring out of people often seems to happen through an immolation of their own memories to the point where it begins to seem as if everything they know happened to them personally.52

Many Gulag survivors insist that they witnessed scenes described in books by Ginzburg, Solzhenitsyn or Shalamov, that they recognize the guards or NKVD interrogators mentioned in these works, or even that they knew the writers in the camps, when documentation clearly shows that this could not be so.53

There are a number of reasons why Gulag survivors borrowed published recollections in this way. In the 1970s and 1980s, when books like The Gulag Archipelago circulated in samizdat, many victims of Stalinist repression identified so strongly with their ideological position, which they took to be the key to understanding the truth about the camps, that they suspended their own independent memories and allowed these books to speak for them. The victims of repression frequently lacked a clear conceptual grasp of their own experience, having no structural framework or understanding of the political context in which to make sense of their memories. This gap reinforced their inclination to substitute these writers’ coherent and clear memories for their own confused and fragmentary recollections. As one historian has observed from the experience of interviewing survivors of the Great Terror:

Should you ask the seemingly straightforward question ‘How many people did you know who were arrested in 1937?’, the response would probably be one of wide-eyed amazement, ‘Haven’t you read Solzhenitsyn? Don’t you know that everyone was arrested?’ If you continue with: ‘But were any members of your family arrested?’, there may well be a pause… ‘Well, no, not in my family, but everybody else was.’ Then you ask: ‘How many people were arrested in the communal apartment you lived in?’ There’s a very long pause, followed by, ‘Well, hmm, I don’t really remember, but yes, yes there was one, Ivanov, who lived in the room down at the end, yes, now I remember.’54

This example shows why oral testimonies, on the whole, are more reliable than literary memoirs, which have usually been seen as a more authentic record of the past. Like all memory, the testimony given in an interview is unreliable, but, unlike a book, it can be cross-examined and tested against other evidence to disentangle true memories from received or imagined ones.

The published Gulag memoirs influenced not only the recollection of scenes and people, but the very understanding of the experience. All the memoirs of the Stalin Terror are reconstructed narratives by survivors.55 The story they tell is usually one of purgatory and redemption – a journey through the ‘hell’ of the Gulag and back again to ‘normal life’ – in which the narrator transcends death and suffering. This uplifting moral helps to account for the compelling influence of these literary memoirs on the way that other Gulag survivors recalled their own stories. Ginzburg’s memoirs, in particular, became a model of the survivor narrative and her literary structure was copied by countless amateur memoirists with life-stories not unlike her own. The unifying theme of Ginzburg’s memoirs is regeneration through love – a theme which gives her writing powerful effect as a work of literature. Ginzburg explains her survival in the camps as a matter of her faith in human beings; the flashes of humanity she evokes in others, and which help her to survive, are a response to her faith in people. In the first part of her memoirs, Into the Whirlwind, Ginzburg highlights her work in a nursery at Kolyma where caring for the children reminds her of her son and gives her the strength to go on. In the second part, Within the Whirlwind (1981), Ginzburg is transferred from the nursery to a hospital, where she falls in love with a fellow prisoner serving as a doctor in the camp. Despite the anguish of repeated separations, they both survive and somehow keep in touch until Stalin’s death; freed but still in exile from the major Russian cities, they get married and adopt a child.56 This narrative trajectory is endlessly repeated in the memoir literature. The uniformity of such ‘family chronicles’ and ‘documentary tales’, which are virtually identical in their basic structure, in their form and moral tone, is remarkable and cannot be explained by literary fashion on its own. Perhaps these memoirists, who all lived such extraordinary lives, felt some need to link their destiny to that of others like themselves by recalling their life-story according to a literary prototype.

The Soviet narrative offered a different type of consolation, assuring the victims that their sacrifices had been in the service of collective goals and achievements. The idea of a common Soviet purpose was not just a propaganda myth. It helped people to come to terms with their suffering by giving them a sense that their lives were validated by the part they had played in the struggle for the Soviet ideal.

The collective memory of the Great Patriotic War was very potent in this respect. It enabled veterans to think of their pain and losses as having a larger purpose and meaning, represented by the victory of 1945, from which they took pride. The historian Catherine Merridale, who conducted interviews with veterans in Kursk for her book on the Soviet army in the war, found that they did not speak about their experiences with bitterness or self-pity, but accepted all their losses stoically, and that ‘rather than trying to relive the grimmest scenes of war, they tended to adopt the language of the vanished Soviet state, talking about honour and pride, of justified revenge, of motherland, Stalin, and the absolute necessity of faith’. As Merridale explains, this identification with the Soviet war myth was a coping mechanism for these veterans, enabling them to live with their painful memories:

Back then, during the war, it would have been easy enough to break down, to feel the depth of every horror, but it would also have been fatal. The path to survival lay in stoical acceptance, a focus on the job at hand. The men’s vocabulary was businesslike and optimistic, for anything else might have induced despair. Sixty years later, it would have been easy again to play for sympathy or simply to command attention by telling bloodcurdling tales. But that, for these people, would have amounted to a betrayal of the values that have been their collective pride, their way of life.57

People who returned from the labour camps similarly found consolation in the Stalinist idea that, as Gulag labourers, they too had made a contribution to the Soviet economy. Many of these people later looked back with enormous pride at the factories, dams and cities they had built. This pride stemmed in part from their continued belief in the Soviet system and its ideology, despite the injustices they had been dealt, and in part, perhaps, from their need to find a larger meaning for their suffering. In Within the Whirlwind Ginzburg recalls her impression on her return to Magadan, a city which was built by her fellow prisoners in the Kolyma camps:

How strange is the heart of man! My whole soul cursed those who had thought up the idea of building a town in this permafrost, thawing out the ground with the blood and tears of innocent people. Yet at the same time I was aware of a sort of ridiculous pride… How it had grown, and how handsome it had become during my seven years of absence, our Magadan! Quite unrecognizable. I admired each street lamp, each section of asphalt, and even the poster announcing that the House of Culture was presenting the operetta The Dollar Princess. We treasure each fragment of our life, even the bitterest.58

Norilsk, July 2004

In Norilsk this pride continues to be strongly felt among the older segments of the city’s population (approximately 130,000 people), which consists largely of former Gulag prisoners and their descendants, with a small minority of former labour camp administrators and voluntary workers, whose families remained in this Arctic settlement after the Gulag was dismantled. Many people stayed on because they had nowhere else to go. After 1953, when the administration of the industrial complex was transferred from the Gulag to the Ministry of Heavy Industry, the people of Norilsk were fully integrated into all the usual institutions of Soviet rule (schools, Pioneer and Komsomol organizations, Party cells and so on), which helped to create a Soviet consciousness – and to some extent a local Soviet patriotism based on their pride in Norilsk – that overlaid the memory of the Gulag. To this day, the town is celebrated in song and story. People still sing:

Here is a town which is called Norilsk,

We dig for nickel and copper.

Here the people have a strong spirit,

In Russia everybody knows about Norilsk.

Books and films commemorate the men and women who braved the elements to build Norilsk, often glossing over the fact that most of them were prisoners (in this haunted city, where survival is forgetting, the memory of the Gulag is kept just beneath the surface of public consciousness). Pride in the town is connected with the romantic and pioneering spirit of Arctic exploration, which continues to find expression in the popular idea that a special strength of spirit is required to survive the harsh conditions of Norilsk:

People here are made of special stuff.

The weak at once will run away.

There is no place for them in this harsh land,

Where the winds blow, And snowstorms rage,

And there is no summer.59

There is also a popular belief that the people in the town have a special warmth and sense of comradeship born from the shared experience of the Gulag and the common struggle to survive in these conditions. But above all this civic pride is rooted in the labour of the people of Norilsk, like Vasily Romashkin, a town hero, who in 2004, was still living there with his children and grandchildren.

Vasily Romashkin, 2004

Vasily was born in 1914 to a peasant family in the Moscow region, arrested as a ‘kulak’in 1937, and imprisoned in Norilsk from 1939, where he remained in the mining complex –first as a prisoner and then as a ‘voluntary worker’ – until his retirement in 1981. Vasily has been decorated many times for his labour in Norilsk. Even as a prisoner, he was known as a real Stakhanovite. He is particularly proud of his contribution to the Soviet war effort, as he explains in an interview:

These medals are all for winners [of Socialist Competitions] – Winner of Metallurgy, Winner of the Ninth Five Year Plan [1971–5]… I forget what that one is… And these ones are ‘Veteran of the [Norilsk] Complex’and ‘Veteran of the USSR’ – for valiant and dedicated labour. And this one is a jubilee medal for veterans of the Great Patriotic War, when the complex was militarized… I am proud of the part I played in the war –I carried out my patriotic duty as a citizen.60

Vasily speaks for the older generation which celebrates the labour camp’s contribution to the Soviet economy, especially in the war, when the precious metals which they dug in freezing temperatures were essential for the Soviet victory. This sense of achievement is partly what they mean when they declare their love for the ‘beauty’ of Norilsk, as they often do, a city which they built with their own hands (no one seems to notice that its atmosphere is permanently poisoned with toxic yellow fumes in which no trees can grow). ‘It is a beautiful city,’ declares Olga Iaskina, who was imprisoned in the Norilsk labour camp in the early 1950s and never left the town. ‘It is our little Leningrad.’61 Many of the buildings in the centre are indeed built in the neo-classical style of St Petersburg (another city constructed by slaves). Norilsk represents a startling paradox: a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime.

A similar paradox underlies the popular nostalgia for Stalin, which more than half a century after the dictator’s death continues to be felt by millions of people, including many of his victims. According to a survey carried out by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion in January 2005, 42 per cent of the Russian people wanted the return of a ‘leader like Stalin’ (60 per cent of the respondents over sixty years of age were in favour of a ‘new Stalin’).62 This nostalgia is only loosely linked with politics and ideology. For older people, who recall the Stalin years, it has more to do with the emotions invested in the remembrance of the past – the legendary period of their youth when the shops were full of goods, when there was social order and security, when their lives were organized and given meaning by the simple goals of the Five Year Plans, and everything was clear, in black and white, because Stalin did the thinking for them and told them what to do. For these people, nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ of Stalin reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991: the rising prices that put many goods beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.

The people who succumbed to this nostalgia included not just those who had held a certain status – the vast army of Soviet officials and petty functionaries, camp guards, policemen, chauffeurs, railways clerks, factory and kolkhoz bosses, house elders and janitors, who looked back to the days when they had been connected, as ‘little Stalins’ in their own sphere of power, to the Great Leader in one continuous chain of command. But ordinary citizens were nostalgic as well, people who had no special place in the Stalinist regime, but whose lives had become entangled in its destiny. Mikhail Baitalsky recalls meeting one old Stalinist in the 1970s, a comrade from the Komsomol in the 1920s, who had risen to become a middle-level engineer in one of Stalin’s factories. The engineer remained a fanatical supporter of Stalin. He did not try to defend the dictator (he knew the facts), although there were many Stalinist assumptions, like the guilt of Tukhachevsky and other ‘enemies of the people’, which he still believed and refused to question. Baitalsky came to the conclusion that his old friend was clinging not to any Stalinist ideology, but rather to his ‘pride in the qualities which he himself had had in those young and ardent years’. He did not want to renounce the beliefs which he had held in the 1920s and 1930s, beliefs that had become a part of his own personality, and refused to admit that precisely those qualities had fostered ‘his internal readiness to accept everything, positively everything, up to and including the execution of his closest comrades’.63

Leonid Saltykov, 1985

This nostalgia was also not unknown to Stalin’s victims and their descendants. Leonid Saltykov was the son a priest who was shot in 1938. Leonid concealed the arrest of his father when he became a factory worker and then an engineer. In 1965, he joined the Party, ending up as the secretary of the Party Committee in the factory where he worked. Leonid was a fanatical supporter of Stalin all his life. He mourned Stalin’s death and kept a picture of him on his desk until his retirement from the factory in 1993. During interviews Leonid denied that Stalin was responsible for the mass arrests of the 1930s, including the arrest of his father:

Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man, even if the people around him were not… Don’t forget, thanks to him we won the war, and that is a great achievement. If today someone tried to fight a war like that, there would be no guarantee that Russia would win it, no guarantee. Stalin built our factories and our railways. He brought down the price of bread. He spurred us all to work because we knew that if we studied hard and went to an institute we were guaranteed a good job, and could even choose a factory. Everything depended on how hard you worked.64

Vera Minusova was seventeen years old when her father, a railway engineer in Perm, was arrested and shot in 1937, and since then, as she herself admits, she has lived in almost constant fear, despite the fact that she was married in 1947 to a senior Party official in Perm. During interviews in 2004, she was still afraid to talk about many subjects connected to the Terror, and at several points she insisted that the tape-recorders be turned off. In these interviews Vera looked back with nostalgia to the years of Stalin’s reign as a time when ‘the basic necessities of life were affordable to all’ and there was ‘more discipline and order than we have today’. Vera worked for over fifty years as a bookkeeper in the offices of the Soviet railway. She complained that people ‘do not

Vera Minusova at the Memorial Complex for Victims of Repression near Yekaterinburg, May 2003. The candle she has lit is by the name of her father (which is incorrectly spelt)

want to work today’ and claimed that it was better during Stalin’s time, when ‘everyone was made to work’.

Discipline is fundamental. You have to keep the people under control, and use the whip if necessary. Today they should go back to the methods Stalin used. You can’t have people coming late for work, or leaving when they want. If they want the job they should be made to work according to the rules.65

Iraida Faivisovich was four years old when both her parents, the hairdressers from Osa, were arrested and sent to the Gulag in 1939. During interviews in 2003, she too argued that life was better under Stalin. ‘People did not kill each other in the streets! It was safe then to go out at night.’ According to Iraida, political leaders were honest during Stalin’s day: ‘Of course, there were sometimes shortages of food or clothes, but on the whole they delivered on their promises.’ Like many older people who grew up in a communal apartment, Iraida misses the collectivism of those years, which she remembers as a happier existence compared to her lonely life as a pensioner:

Life under Stalin was spiritually richer – we lived more peacefully and happily. Because we were all equally poor, we didn’t place much emphasis on material values but had a lot of fun – everything was open, everything was shared, between friends and families. People helped each other. We lived in each other’s rooms and celebrated holidays with everyone together on the street. Today every family lives only for itself.

People then had greater hope and meaning in their lives, Iraida says:

We believed that the future would be good. We were convinced that life would get better, if we worked well and honestly… We didn’t imagine that we were creating heaven on earth but we did think that we were building a society where there would be enough for everyone, where there would be peace and no more wars… That belief was genuine, and it helped us to live, because it meant that we concentrated on our education and our work for the future instead of on our material problems. We took more pride in our work then than we do today. It is hard to live without beliefs. What do we believe in today? We have no ideals.66


Nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next.67*

From her parents, both executed in 1937, Elizaveta Delibash inherited a life-long fear of the Soviet authorities, which she passed down to her children. Brought up by her grandparents in Tbilisi and then by her aunt, an ardent Stalinist, in Leningrad, Elizaveta had overcome that fear in her teenage years by joining the Komsomol and becoming a student activist. She studied hard and got high grades at school, enabling her to enrol as a language student at Leningrad University in 1947. But her fear never went away. ‘I always felt inferior and unsure of myself because of what had happened to my parents,’ she recalls. ‘All my life I had this inner fear, a sense of loss and vulnerability, a feeling that I was not fully worthy as a human being, and that at any moment I could be insulted or humiliated by people in authority.’ Fearing her arrest in Leningrad, Elizaveta abandoned her ambitions of graduate research and fled to Krasnodar, a quiet town in the Kuban, where she worked as a schoolteacher until 1954, when she returned to Leningrad with her husband, a physics student called Iosif Liberman, and got a job as a librarian.

Iosif came from a Jewish family in Leningrad that quietly dissented from the Soviet regime. The contrast with the orthodox opinions of her aunt was a revelation for Elizaveta, who, encouraged by the revelations of the Twentieth Party Congress, began to think more critically about the events surrounding her parents’ disappearance. In 1958, she finally discovered that they had both been shot. It was a shock because she had hoped that her mother might still be alive and had always looked to the Great Bear in the night sky, as her mother had advised her in her final letter from the Solovetsky labour camp, as a symbol of that hope. The discovery intensified Elizaveta’s sense of alienation from the Soviet system. She and Iosif fell in with the opposition student group started up by Mikhail Molostvov, arrested and exiled from Leningrad in 1958. They were part of Iosif Brodsky’s circle, the Leningrad poet who was put on trial for ‘parasitism’ in 1964 and sentenced to five years of exile in the North (a sentence commuted in 1965 after protests from around the world). In the later 1960s they had close connections to the refuseniks, Soviet Jews denied an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union, whose protests became an important part of the human rights movement.

All this time, Elizaveta lived in fear. She was afraid for Iosif, who was not awarded his doctoral degree (qualifying him for an academic salary) for many years after the completion of his dissertation – a relatively small punishment for his involvement in opposition circles but one that retained the threat of worse to come. Elizaveta became increasingly withdrawn. She was afraid for her children, Aleksandr (born in 1955) and Anna (1960). Elizaveta lived a ‘secret life’, terrified that her dissident convictions would lead to her arrest and deprive her children of a mother, as she herself had been when she was a child. ‘The loss of my mother was the strongest feeling in my life,’ she recalls. ‘It made me frightened for my own children.’

As a mother, Elizaveta was excessively protective, according to Anna.* She did not tell her daughter about her family’s history. ‘It was a taboo subject throughout my childhood,’ Anna remembers. When she was fourteen, Anna found out from her brother that their grandparents had been shot in the Terror. But when she asked her mother about it, she was told that they had been killed during the war. Elizaveta kept the truth about her parents from her daughter until the glasnost period. As a child Anna was completely unaware that her parents were involved in opposition circles: ‘They protected me and kept me at a distance from their activities.’ She did not realize until the 1980s that many of her parents’ friends were dissidents, that Brodsky visited their apartment, or that the manuscripts her parents read were illegal samizdat.

The one thing on which her mother always insisted was that she should study hard. ‘She drummed it into us that we had to try much harder than the other children at our school,’ recalls Anna, ‘because with our Jewish names we would be marked down.’ Anna felt this pressure as a burden, as if she was expected to make up for her mother’s interrupted studies after university: ‘God forbid, if I had ever failed to come in the top group at school. I was forced to be clever – I was not allowed to be anything else.’ Anna was forbidden to mix with children from proletarian backgrounds because her mother feared that they might pose a danger if her family’s history was revealed. ‘Looking back,’ reflects Anna, ‘I realize now that my mother wanted me to become friends with children from educated families that, like ours, had been repressed.’ Anna was brought up to be modest, not to put herself above the crowd, to be conformist, politically loyal, to join the Pioneers and the Komsomol, although instinctively she sensed that this obedience to the authorities was ‘purely for appearances’.

Anna recognizes in herself a deep-seated fear, a lack of confidence and social inhibition, which she thinks are the inheritance of her mother’s upbringing:

It is hard to say what the fear is, because I have felt it since I was a child. I am afraid of any sort of contact with bureaucracy… It is a fear of being humiliated… This was something I was taught when I was young, to retreat from any situation where my conduct could be criticized by the authorities… From my teenage years I was open among friends, but withdrawn socially… I was afraid to be with strangers and always tried not to stand out.

Anna’s fear was menacing, but vague and ill-defined, because as a child she was never really told about her family’s repression. It hit her with full force only when she first became aware of the consequences of her spoilt biography. Anna recalls the moment well: she had said to one of her teachers that she would like to go to university, and he had questioned if she could, not because of her abilities, but because, as he explained, ‘they don’t give the highest marks to people with [Jewish] names like yours’. Anna became ‘hysterical’. This was the humiliation she had feared.

To make it possible to go to university, where she studied tourism, Anna took her mother’s Georgian nationality rather than her father’s Jewish one when she registered for her Soviet passport. She joined the Komsomol, and then, when she became disillusioned by its ideology, stayed in, afraid that leaving it might get her into trouble with the university authorities. She took no interest in politics, never got involved with the dissidents, and though she claims she always knew that the Soviet system was unjust, she censored her own thoughts and interests, and never let herself behave in any way to raise suspicions about her loyalty.68

This ‘genetic fear’, as Anna herself calls it, affected the children of Stalin’s victims in many different ways, from the friends they made at school to their choices of career. Vladimir Korsakov, for example, was born into an old intelligentsia family in Leningrad which suffered in the purges of the 1930s and 1940s. Deeply traumatized by his childhood memories of the siege of Leningrad, he turned down the chance of a career as a dancer in the Kirov Ballet in the late 1950s and went to work instead in the Baltic Factory, a huge shipbuilding and engineering plant, because even then, as he recalls, he was afraid of being stigmatized as the son of an ‘enemy of the people’, and he wanted to protect himself by ‘merging with the proletarian mass’.69

Aleksei Iurasovsky grew up in the communal apartment of the Khaneyevsky family in Moscow in the 1950s and early 1960s. His mother was the daughter of the military doctor Aleksei Khaneyevsky, who had been given noble status in the First World War, and his father the descendant of a noble Russian-Georgian clan. Aleksei’s paternal grandfather and several great-uncles had fought in the White Army in the Civil War. Because his parents and grandmother were extremely wary of their proletarian neighbours, Aleksei learned to hold his tongue and mistrust everyone. ‘I was taught to fear the regime,’ he recalls.

My grandmother added a lot of irrationality to the issue, because her warnings were rather fantastic, though convincing to a child. For example, she told me the story of a boy who put one foot on the front steps of the Finnish Embassy and was immediately arrested – never to be seen again. This story really frightened me. She had a lot of fairy-tales like that.

Fear made Aleksei exceedingly cautious. As a student at Moscow University, he lived an isolated existence; his only trusted contact with the outside world was through a short-wave radio he had built as a schoolboy to listen to the BBC. Having shunned the Komsomol and all involvement in student politics, which he found repugnant, Aleksei concluded that his most sensible strategy was to avoid friends, who might become suspicious about his political loyalties. He maintained that strategy throughout his twenties and thirties, as he trained to become an archaeologist and Arabist. Looking back on his career, Aleksei reflects that his choices were determined by a ‘desire to escape’ from the political pressures of the Soviet system, which he perceived as a ‘minefield’ of rules and dangers that were always changing unpredictably. The fear he had felt as a child gradually dissolved – to be replaced, in his own words, by ‘gloominess and scepticism’ about Russia and the Soviet regime. His caution also played a role in his choice of a wife; Anna was his third cousin, and her immediate relatives had been repressed by the Stalinist regime. ‘It helped of course that we had come from the same background,’ Aleksei recalls. ‘It drew us closer together and gave our relationship a special understanding and solidarity.’70

The inheritance of fear had a direct impact on many marriages. It was not uncommon for a woman whose own parents had been arrested, for example, to marry someone like a Party official, who she believed would protect her. Vera Minusova, whose father was arrested and then shot in 1937, married the local Party boss, a man nearly twice her age, even though she found him physically repugnant, because she felt, as her mother had advised her, that he would provide for her materially and enable her to bring up her children without fear for their future. ‘I cried when I got married,’ she recalls, ‘but Mother kept on saying, “Marry him! Marry him!” I did not love him, he was repulsive, but I had a daughter, she grew up, and I loved her.’ Marksena Karpitskaia, the teenage girl from Leningrad who lived on her own after the arrest and execution of both her parents in 1937, later married a senior military scientist and Party official in Leningrad. She told her husband everything about her family history, because she wanted to be sure that he knew what their marriage would involve. However, she insisted that they did not register their marriage, because, in her words: ‘Even after the rehabilitation of my parents, I wanted him to have the opportunity to walk away from me, if at any time he felt that it was too much for him to be married to the daughter of former enemies of the people.’71

Many people with a spoilt biography told their future spouses about it only when they were about to marry. Like Marksena, they wanted them to know about their past before they joined their lives together, but to tell their spouses beforehand might have frightened them away. It took Lydia Babushkina nearly three years of courting before, on the eve of her wedding in 1965, she summoned up the courage to tell her fiancé (‘a convinced Stalinist from a military family of convinced Stalinists’) about the arrest and execution of her father as an ‘enemy of the people’. Boris Kashin also waited until just before his wedding to tell his fiancée that his father had been shot as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ in 1938. ‘It was taking a huge risk,’ recalls Boris, ‘but I trusted her, and did not want to ruin her life by marrying her under false pretences. She reacted calmly and told me that her own grandfather had been repressed as a kulak, so she knew about such things.’72

It is striking how many marriages were formed by couples who both came from repressed families. Something seemed to draw these people together. Larisa and Vitalii Garmash fell in love when they were first-year students at the Moscow Institute of Economics and Statistics in 1955. Larisa was the daughter of Zinaida Levina, who had spent eight years in the Kolyma camps (from which she returned in 1946 with a boy fathered, it would seem, by a prison guard) and then three years in the Potma camps, followed by exile in Kazakhstan. Larisa had lived with her mother in exile before going to Moscow. Vitalii had been arrested as a student in 1949 and had only just been rehabilitated when he met Larisa on the first day at the institute. As she recalls, their mutual attraction was linked to the sense, which they both had, that for the first time in their lives they could talk about their past to someone they could trust and who would understand. As Larisa remembers:

He sat next to me in the lecture hall. I knew nothing about him, absolutely nothing, but we began to talk… Of course he talked with his Moscow friends, who knew about his arrest, and his closest friend had himself recently returned from the labour camps, but perhaps he did not feel the same emotional openness with them as with me, because, suddenly, his whole past came pouring out… Our relations developed very quickly after that. The fact that we had shared the same problems, that our family histories were not simple, that played an enormous role.73

When Nikolai Meshalkin met his fiancée, Elfrida Gotman, in 1956, he did not tell her that his family had been driven out of Penza as ‘kulaks’ in 1933 and that they were still living in penal exile in the Komi region.* He knew nothing about Elfrida’s family – Soviet Germans from the Crimea who had also been deported to the Komi region in the war – but he sensed that they too had suffered from the Stalinist regime (the Komi region was full of Soviet Germans in exile), and this drew him to her. Nikolai bombarded her with love letters. For several years Elfrida was reluctant to open her heart to a Russian. ‘I thought that I would settle down with a nice German boy,’ recalls Elfrida. But Nikolai persisted, and Elfrida, who was nearly thirty and worried that she might not find a mate, at last agreed to marry him. Slowly, Nikolai and Elfrida began to tell each other about their families, and their common history and sympathy drew them tightly together. After nearly fifty years of marriage, Nikolai believes that this mutual understanding was the most important element in their relationship:

I call this understanding solidarity. I have always had this feeling, this feeling of solidarity with this woman, because she also suffered, she was also repressed… I think that she’s had the same feeling about me. I think what we had together was not love but solidarity, which was more important for us both. Love goes away, but solidarity has nowhere else to go.74

Nikolai and Elfrida Meshalkin with their daughters, Marina and Irina, Perm, 2003

Nikolai and Elfrida did not tell their daughters about their spoilt biographies until 1992, after they had read about a new decree offering compensation to victims of repression. Before that they had been afraid to tell them the whole history, in case it burdened them or alienated them from the Soviet system. They always steered the conversations about the past to more positive episodes, such as the role which both their fathers played during the Great Patriotic War.75

The Meshalkins were not unusual in this respect. Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of ordinary Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. The influence of glasnost was confined largely to the major cities, and in the provinces, in towns like Perm where the Meshalkins lived, Stalin’s ghost was still alive. In the words of the poet Boris Slutsky, writing just before his death in 1986:

The provinces, the periphery, the rear,

Where it was too frozen for the thaw,

Where to this day Stalin is alive.

No he died! But his body is still warm.76

Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are too afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.77

Antonina Golovina lived virtually her entire life with the secret of her spoilt biography. She only told her daughter about her ‘kulak’ background in the 1990s, more than sixty years after she was exiled to Siberia as a young girl. Antonina concealed the truth about her family’s history from her two husbands, each of whom she lived with for over twenty years. When she met her first husband, Georgii Znamensky, in 1947, in her final year as a medical student at the Leningrad Institute of Pediatrics, Antonina was already living with the assumed name of an old boyfriend to hide her past. Without a legal right of residence in Leningrad, she was frightened of the possibility of her rearrest and exile as an ‘anti-social element’ – a fate that befell many former ‘kulaks’ (including her own father) in the post-war years, when the regime was committed to a comprehensive purge of the cities – if it was discovered that she had concealed her ‘kulak’ origins when she was admitted to the institute. Antonina recalls her situation:

All my documents were false. I was terrified of being stopped by a policeman on the street. My passport was full of stamps and signatures that had been forged, some of them by my sister in Sverdlovsk… My right of residence [in Leningrad] had expired more than six months earlier.

Antonina was living in a communal apartment where the house elder was an ardent Stalinist, widely suspected as an informer, who made her suspicions of Antonina clear. On one occasion, when a neighbour showed off a new pair of shoes, Antonina had let her guard down by saying that her father would have made them better because he had been a shoemaker (a trade associated with the ‘kulaks’ in the countryside). Frightened that she would be exposed, it was a huge relief for Antonina when Georgii Znamensky asked her to marry him. Marriage to Znamensky, an engineer and native citizen of Leningrad, would give her a new name and a new set of documents to let her stay in Leningrad.

For the next forty years Antonina kept the secret of her ‘kulak’ origins from Georgii. They rarely spoke to one another about their previous lives. When she talked about her family she was always careful to refer to them as poor peasants. She concealed the truth from all her friends and colleagues at the Institute of Physiology (she only came to realize much later that all her friends had come from repressed families). In 1961, she even became a member of the Party (which she would remain until 1991), not because she believed in its ideology (there were many occasions when she quietly subverted Party rules to help a friend) but because she thought that joining would divert suspicion from herself. She wanted to promote her medical career and gain some protection for her daughter, who was then fourteen and fast approaching the time when she would need to apply to university. ‘I was very worried about my daughter’s future,’ recalls Antonina.

I did not want her ever to find out about my past. I wanted her to feel that she had a normal mother, just like the mother of every other girl at her [elite] school, where all the parents, or at least the fathers, were members of the Party.

Antonina continued to conceal her spoilt biography from Georgii, even after he had divorced her in 1968, and she had married an Estonian called Boris Ioganson. In 1987, Antonina received a visit from an elderly aunt of Georgii who let slip that he was the son of a rear-admiral in the Imperial Navy, a man dedicated to the tsar, who had fought for the White Army in the Civil War. All this time, just like Antonina, she now realized, Georgii had concealed his origins. Having spent his early years in labour camps and ‘special settlements’, Georgii had decided to become an engineer in a conscious effort to forge a proletarian identity for himself. When he had applied for his first factory job he had made up the biographical details he entered on his questionnaire; throughout his life he kept a crib sheet with this invented biography close at hand in order to make sure that there were no discrepancies when he filled out another form. By some strange intuition, Georgii and Antonina had found in each other a mirror image of themselves.

Boris Ioganson had also come from a repressed family – his father and grandfather were both arrested in 1937 – although Antonina did not discover that or tell him of her own spoilt biography until the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet system, when, emboldened by the public revelations and debates about the repressions of the Stalinist regime, they at last began to talk about their past. It was also at this time that Antonina and Georgii opened up their secret histories, which they had concealed from one another for over forty years. However, they agreed to keep this information from their daughter, Olga, who was then established in her own career as a schoolteacher. They thought that ignorance would protect her if the Stalinists returned. Gradually Antonina overcame her life-long fear and summoned up the courage to tell her daughter about her ‘kulak’ origins. Two things happened to bring about this change.

The first took place in 1995, when, at the age of seventy-two, Antonina returned to Obukhovo, the village where her family had lived until they were exiled to Siberia in 1931. The last time she had visited Obukhovo had been in 1956, with her brother and her father, a few weeks before her father’s death. The ground where their house had stood was empty. Weeds had grown around the millstone where they used to sit and talk with the other villagers. As they had stood looking at the space, Antonina heard a voice behind her: ‘The kulaks have returned! The kulaks have returned! They got rid of them and now they have come back wearing nice new clothes.’ As Antonina turned towards the voice, the speaker disappeared. The memory of that last visit had always troubled Antonina. ‘I wanted to return to my birthplace and feel that it was somewhere I could still call home,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted the people to acknowledge me, to talk with me and accept me as one of them.’

Antonina Golovina, 2004

Antonina returned to Obukhovo on 2 August 1995, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the arrest of her father in 1930. There was not much left of the old village. Only nine of the houses were still inhabited. Sixty years of collectivization had sapped Obukhovo of youth and energy, just as it had done to thousands of other villages like it. In 1930, Obukhovo had been a poor but vibrant farming community with a population of 317 people, nearly half of them children. It had its own village church and school, its own cooperative store, and many of the households, like the Golovins’, had their own leather workshops which manufactured shoes and other goods. By 1960, the population of Obukhovo had declined to sixty-eight, most of them old couples or single pensioners, and by the time of Antonina’s visit, in 1995, there were only thirteen people left in the village, all but two of them in their sixties or their seventies. The old religious holiday on 2 August had long been forgotten by the villagers, but the Russian peasant tradition of hospitality had not died out, and on her arrival an evening meal in Antonina’s honour was soon arranged by the village women in the house of Ivan Golovin, the last remaining household of her family in the village. Once the initial tension had passed, the villagers recalled Antonina’s father as a good farmer, whose industry was missed in the collective farm. ‘The Golovins were honest, clean and sober people,’ recalled one old woman. ‘It was wrong to arrest them. Tonya [Antonina], you are one of us, a real peasant woman, we need more like you.’78

The other turning-point in Antonina’s reconciliation with her past came when she made a pilgrimage to the Altai region of Siberia to see Shaltyr, the ‘special settlement’ where she had lived with her family in exile between 1931 and 1934. The settlement had been abandoned many years before, but the ruins of the barracks were still standing behind a high barbed-wire fence and could be seen from the road. Nearby, Antonina came across a local woman of about the same age as herself. She asked her whether it was possible to get inside the settlement, and they began to talk. The woman told her that she had lived there when she was a child. ‘I am a kulak daughter,’ the woman said. ‘I was sent here in 1930, but my real home is in Barnaul.’ Antonina recalls her reaction to these simple words.

I was shaken. I had never heard anybody say that they were the daughter of a kulak, like myself. It had never occurred to me that it was possible to say these words without feeling shame, let alone to say them with the pride this woman evidently felt. All my life I had tried to hide my kulak origins. When the woman spoke, I looked around to see if anybody else had heard. Later, I began to think. Why had I looked around to see if there was anybody listening? What was there to fear? Suddenly, I felt ashamed of my own fear. And then I said aloud: ‘I am a kulak daughter.’ It was the first time I had ever said those words aloud, although in my head I had whispered them a thousand times. There was nobody around to hear me. I was on my own on a deserted road. But even so I was proud that at last I had spoken. I went down to the river bank and washed myself in the river. And then I said a prayer for my parents.79

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