After the October Revolution of 1917, people in Russia could no longer travel freely. This did not mean, however, that people lived peaceful, settled lives. On the contrary, tumultuous currents of humanity began crisscrossing the Eurasian plains. Movements of various army troops, paramilitary formations of peasants cut off from their land, foreign legions, workers and skilled craftsmen, and roving bands of every political persuasion merged and intertwined with countless refugees fleeing chaos and death. The death throes of the old empire lasted from 1918 to 1922, in a civil war costing Russia tens of millions of lives. Two million people, with or without family jewels, managed to make their way to Europe.
Even after the country had more or less set itself to rights again, traveling was not easy. The Soviet rulers were suspicious of the unregulated movement of citizens. A person who moved about freely could pick up free ideas, threatening state security. Moreover, the new empire had two grand aims: industrialization at the fastest possible rate, and the re-education of class enemies – which potentially included all citizens. These two goals coincided in remarkable ways, generating new flows of people. Thus, one segment of the population transported another one: prisoners destined for corrective labor camps and forced to work on large-scale socialist construction projects. In maps of the north-east, the Gulag and construction project sites were indistinguishable.
The Second World War intensified the massive movements of people. Many more were arrested and deported, others were mobilized. Millions of civilians were evacuated or fled to the east or to the west. From a bird’s-eye view, the currents of humanity resembled long, turbid rivers that cut across the face of the Earth, which had grown old and disfigured before its time.
Sometime around 1943, in the middle of this human maelstrom, a young girl, along with her mother, her sister and two brothers, set out westward, fleeing from the war. At about the same time, the Germans were transporting a young Soviet prisoner of war, destined, probably, to help build the Atlantic ramparts. It was not the first time their lives were hanging by a thread. Nor were they even close to meeting. Because the current my father was caught up in was more or less continuous with my mother’s trajectory, though the distance that separated them was at least 1,200 kilometers, they could not have intersected. They would have to wait three years to learn of one another’s existence, and another nine before they finally met face-to-face.
In one of his interviews, Joseph Brodsky said that after the death of our parents we become consequences without an initial cause. We find ourselves in an existential void from which we have been shielded by the simple fact of their existence. How is one to cast a charm over this void, or fill it up, in order to recover one’s connection with the world and move forward in it? How does one rediscover the cause? Most likely by learning to know one’s parents again, this time as children of their own parents, and children of their time.
I first tried to understand my parents’ life and fate after my father’s death. This was a professional, somewhat mercenary, interest, as I was preparing to write a novel about them. I intended to weave a narrative from facts, filling the gaps with my own imaginative efforts. Since the events in the novel take place before my birth, when my parents were not yet my parents, I could unleash my imagination.
Writing about my father means writing about my mother – and vice versa. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for a letter that she wrote to him in 1946 while he was in the Gulag, before she had ever laid eyes on him, I would not have existed. After the camps, my father was banned from living in Moscow – his birthplace – as well as from other large cities in the Soviet Union. Their first meeting took place in 1955 in Moscow and turned out to be a great disappointment to my mother. My father didn’t look like the romantic hero she had created in her imagination. But they married, and he went to live with her in Tallinn, where she had fled to from Leningrad in 1943 after having lost her parents. Their fates were still tightly bound up with history itself – its ‘iron will’, as Marxist-Leninists might have put it.
I am writing about my father, but I don’t want to lose sight of my mother. She will be my guide and my guardian angel, as she was in life; as she was to my father during their nine-year-long correspondence. ‘While faithful eyes cry with you, this life is worth the suffering,’ he wrote to his ‘faraway and close friend’, citing Schiller in one of his few letters from the Gulag that have been preserved.
The trajectory along which my father moved from 1941 to 1955 – or, rather, the current that swept him up – begins in Moscow and veers off toward the south-east, to the city of Engels on the Volga, where he was taught to shoot and parachute-jump. As part of the paratroopers division, my father flew from Moscow to the Smolensk region, toward the strategic rear of the German army. The paratroopers drank away their fear before skydiving into the enemy’s den. They jumped, machine guns at the ready, engaging in battle alongside the partisans.