‘Hungarian! Who invented it? My brain couldn’t retain a single word—not “thank you”, not “hello”, not “one”, “two” or “three”. I’ve never felt so much like a foreigner.’

I am complaining. I have just come to Moscow after reporting a story in the Balkans. It is 1993. I am an American journalist, but for the previous couple of years I have been spending more and more time in Moscow, the city of my birth. I am getting to know my two grandmothers, who were left behind when my family left for the United States in 1981, when I was fourteen.

‘Ah, Hungarian,’ says my grandmother as we step off the bus into the sleeting greyness of a Moscow spring. ‘Never could wrap my mind around it either. Italian, Czech, Romanian, Polish—none of those were a problem. German, French and English, of course, I knew. But Hungarian—no matter how much I struggled, I could not get past the dictionary.’

I stare down at my grandmother in surprise. I know she translates books from English and German, and that she also knows French. But Czech, Romanian, Polish? ‘What’s with all the languages?’ I ask. ‘I never knew you translated from those.’

Or did I? Let me recall what I knew before we stepped off the bus.

I knew that my grandmother Rozalia, Baba Ruzya to me, was a member of the Communist Party. When I was about ten and torn between the nauseating (but appealing) aesthetic fed to me at school and the compelling dissident sympathies of my parents, my mother told me that Baba Ruzya belonged to the Party. Reared in a closed circle of Jewish intellectual types I was not aware of anyone else I knew being a member.

‘Baba,’ I asked one day, ‘why did you join the Party?’

‘Because I believed in the goals and ideals of the Party,’ my grandmother said slowly and carefully.

I didn’t pay much attention to the past tense or the care in her reply and walked away feeling frustrated with an answer that sounded as if it came out of a school book. What I really wanted to know had nothing to do with this story. I wanted to know why the day I got my red Young Pioneer kerchief was the happiest day of my life. Why, if I had already been reading Solzhenitsyn? But that was a question about belonging, and my grandmothers’ stories are about anything but that.

I also knew something else. Sometime in the late 1970s my mother got her hands on a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. She quoted it endlessly; she told stories from it as though they were real-life anecdotes. At the kitchen table one day, she talked, with a high-pitched laugh, about the Ministry of Truth—imagine that! Imagine a place where news is routinely rewritten to fit the ideological line!

‘And what do you think I did at Glavlit?’ Baba Ruzya asked, slowly and carefully again.

Glavlit. Glav, as in glavny, or head, the chief. Lit, as in literature. Meaning the Head Directorate of Literature. Baba Ruzya tells me what she did there as we walk from the bus. At first, for three years, she worked in a department known as the Department of Control over Foreign Media. The control was exercised as soon as the foreign media—books, magazines, anything in print—crossed the border. The post office forwarded all such parcels to Glavlit, where an army of readers, known then as ‘political editors’, but, later, in their retirement documents, simply called ‘censors’, examined printed matter for signs of anti-Soviet prejudice.

‘Sometimes we stamped them “permitted”, and then they were allowed into libraries or shops,’ my grandmother says. ‘But this hardly ever happened. For the most part, we stamped things “for internal use”. I mean, sometimes you could rip a few pages out and clear it, but mostly you just had to ban it. Because there was hardly a magazine or a book where the Soviet Union was not somehow maligned. It’s not like people were sending Shakespeare and Dickens across the border. They were sending contemporary literature. All it had to contain was a phrase like, “even such an undemocratic society as the Soviet Union… “—and it would be condemned to a classified library.’

There was one man in Paris who kept sending large quantities of books and magazines to another man in some tiny village in the far north of Russia. Soon after she came to work there, one of the more experienced staff explained that the man in the far north was a member of the pre-revolutionary nobility, a scholar, perhaps a biologist, who had long ago decided not to emigrate. His brother, an artist, had moved to Paris. The scholar was arrested and exiled to the far north. On learning of his brother’s fate, the artist decided to try to improve the quality of his life by sending him reading materials. Most of these ended up in classified libraries in Moscow. ‘This biologist got tiny crumbs out of those parcels.’ Neither, of course, would ever know that more was sent or that less was received: no one was meant to know about the existence of the Department of Control over Foreign Media.

Why was my Baba Ruzya working at Glavlit? She had wanted to be a history teacher. She attended a remarkable school in the centre of Moscow, the enclave of the educated if not always the privileged. They adored their teachers there. But one was especially inspirational. She punctuated her history course with a particular expression: ‘And this is no mere coincidence.’ Ruzya saw a career in which she could also tell her pupils: ‘And this is no mere coincidence.’

‘The first, the biggest, mistake I ever made was attending the history department at the university. I knew I could never teach school. I couldn’t lie to the children.’ And there was another thing. Teachers got paid very little, and Ruzya needed money.

By 1943 she was a twenty-three-year-old war widow with a one-year-old daughter. She had a bed in one of the two rooms that belonged to her parents-in-law in a communal flat in Moscow. She had no milk; it vanished on the day she got the news that her husband had been killed. But she had a friend who said she could get her a job.

The problem with that job was Ruzya’s father. ‘He was a man who was honest beyond reproach. He never tried to convince me to quit; he just expressed his surprise tenderly.’ When he first found out about Glavlit, he said, ‘But you are doing a policeman’s work.’ Otherwise, it was better than school: ‘Here I was lying only to myself. As a teacher, I would have had to lie to forty children. Here I lied with a clear conscience, so to speak, because if I hadn’t been doing that job, someone else would have. But to lie while looking children in the eye—that would have been terrible.’

In 1946 she had been working at Glavlit for three years. She had passed the annual exams, and she was known to have an aptitude for languages. So when the Soviet government, in a fit of post-war politesse, divorced censorship from diplomacy—transferring the responsibility for censoring foreign correspondents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Glavlit—my grandmother was chosen to work in the new department. It comprised three people who came from Foreign Affairs, three people from the Ministry of State Security (which would later become part of the KGB), and my grandmother.

There were advantages. Unlike the department that controlled foreign media—words coming into the Soviet Union—the department that controlled foreign journalists—words going out—did not lead a secret existence. Its staff had a separate entrance at the Central Telegraph office, where they worked, but that was to prevent the censors from meeting the people they were censoring. The foreign journalists knew they were there: the conditions of accreditation for foreign correspondents were that all dispatches be filed from the Central Telegraph building, where they would be cleared by the censor.

I have loved the Central Telegraph building since I was a child—for its rotating multicoloured globe, its digital clock, and its catholic architectural aspirations. My grandmother’s office had a door through which the clerk brought the dispatches, an electric bell she rang when she was done with a piece, and two telephones. She used one for routine calls, and the other when in doubt, to telephone her translation of a text directly to Stalin’s secretariat.

Every time a correspondent from a new country was accredited, she was crash-taught his language. German, French and English she knew already. Italian, Czech, Romanian, Polish—none of these were a problem. But Hungarian—no matter how much she struggled, she could not get past the dictionary.

There are two things I ought to make clear. First, almost as soon as she starts telling me about her career (as we wade through the sleet from the bus stop to the market), my grandmother declares that the head of the department, Alexei Lukich Zorin, was a good, decent man.

Second, as I listen to the story, as we wade through the sleet from the bus stop to the market place, I am surprised but not horrified, even though my Baba Ruzya has told me that for eleven key post-war years she censored what the rest of the world could learn about the Soviet Union.

There are certain things she remembers very well. Certain journalists. Walter Cronkite from UPI—he filed a lot of stories, but it was your regular wire copy stuff, dry and dull, ‘amazingly boring’. But Max Frankel from the New York Times. There was a writer to be savoured. ‘He had his own point of view, you see, and he just expressed it how he wanted, so bravely.’ She translated his articles in their entirety and sent them by messenger to Stalin’s secretary. Hours later, Frankel’s ‘corrected’ copy would go over the wire to New York. Every day at the end of her shift—generally it ended in the morning, since most dispatches went out overnight—she prepared a summary of the day’s news for Stalin’s office, mainly a circular exercise of translating back into Russian what foreign correspondents had culled from Soviet newspapers—a re-spinning of Soviet stories was pretty much all that was allowed out. ‘Altogether I worked at Glavlit for fifteen years, and never in that time did I make a mistake in translation.’ I believe her. And anyway, she would have known if she had. Mistakes were lethal.

Certain episodes she remembers very well. The Doctors’ Plot episode. The Stalin death episode. The Fellini episode.

The Doctors’ Plot began in 1952. She heard of it originally from a typist in the office. But first you have to know how frightened Ruzya was by then of losing her job. The Anti-Cosmopolitan Campaign was entering its fifth year, the fifth year of rabid official anti-Semitism, the fifth year that Jews could not find work or hold on to university places. Without her job, Ruzya and her child would have faced a desperate life. And you have to know that she was the only Jew in the department that controlled foreign correspondents, and that she was the only staff member who did not belong to the Party. By this time she was so afraid of losing her job that she would have joined—but she no longer could, because she was Jewish. And the typist said: ‘You know, they are going to exile the Jews to Siberia.’

And then the correspondents began to write stories saying the same thing. It was obvious, really; Stalin had exiled other ethnic groups in their entirety: he had moved the Chechens and the Ingush from the Caucasus to Siberian Kazakhstan; he had moved the Tartars from the Crimea, and the Germans from the Volga; and now that the Jews were the scapegoats of the nation, he would surely move them too. The Anti-Cosmopolitan drama was clearly drawing to a climax, with every Soviet newspaper hot on the heels of the Doctors’ Plot, the chilling story of a conspiracy by Jewish doctors to kill innocent Soviet citizens. They were called the ‘killers in white coats’. As the story went, there would be show trials, executions in Red Square, and pogroms throughout the country. Then, in a show of saving the Jews, the magnanimous Soviet government would exile them to northern Siberia.

The correspondents kept writing about this likely sequence of events, and she kept crossing it out. It was obvious to her that the stories were true, and it was obvious that she could not let them through, because every day that she did her job well enough to keep it was another day when she might not be deported. In effect, these correspondents were writing for her, reminding her of her future several times every night.

In the day, when she slept, she had a recurring nightmare. She is in a cattle car, cradling her ten-year-old daughter, who is asking for a drink of water. But she has no water.

When important events happened on one of Ruzya’s nights off, a messenger would appear at the door. In 1953, she was living with her parents again. In the early hours of 4 March that year, the messenger said, ‘Comrade Stalin has died, and Comrade Solodovnik is summoned to work.’ Her mother started wailing. Ruzya thought: ‘I have a moron for a mother.’

That is how my grandmother remembers it. My own mother had a different memory. She woke up to see her mother dressing for work at four in the morning. ‘Mama, what happened?’ she said.

‘Nothing important, dear. Stalin died. Go back to sleep.’

Here is an episode they both remembered. There would be no classes, the teacher announced on 4 March, because Comrade Stalin had died. The other children wailed. My mother drew a thick black frame, signifying death, around Stalin’s portrait in her textbook, and wrote HOLIDAY, signifying no school. Happening to glance at the page, the teacher ripped the textbook out of the girl’s hands and summoned her mother to the school.

‘Buy your child a new textbook and explain some things to her,’ the teacher said. We were lucky to have happened upon a teacher like that, family legend concludes: a teacher who concealed instead of informing.

After Stalin died, there were the days of carnage and fear. Gorky Street, the avenue that led past the Central Telegraph to Red Square, was closed to all vehicles and people. Parallel streets teemed with human traffic, hundreds of thousands who had walked for days to view the body of the Father of the Nation. Those who worked or lived on Gorky Street were issued special passes that enabled them to pass through the barricades of military trucks. My grandmother was one of those let through. ‘On my way to work I stopped by the stores, and it was delightful. I was able to buy things I could never have had. I bought calf tongue—imagine, calf tongue!—it cost pennies back then, it’s just that you could never get it, but there I was practically the only customer.’ But it was frightening. It was still cold, and the truck drivers kept gunning their engines, and the roar of the crowds on the other streets mixed with the roar of the engines and filled the empty street with dread.

The River Potudan
The Last Eighteen Drops