Simonov with his mother, 1939
These chapters form the first part of a book called Stalin Through the Eyes of My Generation which Simonov put together in the last months of his life. The later chapters, which are being translated now, include his direct personal experience of Stalin after the War.
The death of Lenin made a very great impression on my family. Perhaps the impression was all the greater because we were in Moscow that year - my stepfather was on a retraining course. As a cadet of a military educational institution, he stood guard during Lenin's funeral. I remember there were tears in our family. But neither I, a boy at that time, nor our family as a whole, gained the impression that Lenin had been replaced by Stalin.
Obviously, I was not stupid in my youth, but I can't recall any noteworthy thoughts about Stalin in those years. I don't remember much of the political conversations that took place in my family in my presence. I remember dimly, during the period when my stepfather was a teacher of tactics in the Ryazan infantry school, a tinge of discontent with Trotsky's activities as People's Commissar. I remember that our family didn't like him. I assume that this was due to his attitude to the former Tsarist officers who served in the Red Army, including my stepfather.
I remember when Frunze replaced Trotsky, he was well received, and I remember how upset we were afterwards to hear of Frunze's death. His replacement by Voroshilov was received with some surprise and discontent. I think that among men like my stepfather, there was an opinion that a man with more military experience than Voroshilov might have been appointed to the post of Defence Minister, which had become vacant after Frunze's death. I don't know whom they had in mind, but the thought was there in family conversations.
On the other hand, we didn't like Trotsky and we knew about the struggle with his Trotskyist supporters The struggle took place in the Army, and its echoes reached my stepfather direct. The Trotskyists were unpopular and the fight against them was taken for granted. But the idea of Stalin as the leader of the fight against Trotskyism, as far as I remember, did not occur to us then. Until 1928 or maybe even 1929, the names of Rykov, Stalin, Bukharin, Kalinin, Chicherin and Lunacharsky apeared to us of roughly equal importance. In earlier years, the names of Zinoviev and Kamenev had also been included, but later they disappeared from the list. The perception of Stalin as the leader of events was formed at some time between the beginning of collectivization, the first five-year plan, and tte sixteenth party Congress,when I was in Year 7 at school.
I came into contact with some of the brutal reality of what many years later we called "the years of unjustified mass repression" very early, at the age of twelve. It was 1927, when those mass repressions hadn't yet started. My mother, my cousin, and I were staying near Kremenchug in the village of Potok, with a cousin of my stepfather who lived there. Her surname was Kamenskaya, and I called her Aunt Zhenya; I don't remember her middle name. Aunt Zhenya was a kind and busy person, very practical and at the same time, as her subsequent life showed, with great strength of character. She lived there in Potok, in her small house with her invalid husband, Yevgeny Nikolaevich Lebedev. He was a retired Lieutenant-General of the Tsarist army who had been discharged before the First World War and had been lying motionless with paralyzed legs for many years, while aunt Zhenya looked after him.
She was no longer young, although many years younger than he was, and it was obvious that there had once been practical reasons why she agreed to stay with a paralyzed man, as a nurse rather than as a wife. But when everything changed, turned upside down, she did not leave the poor old man; she continued to carry her cross. The old man, it seems, was one of the officers of the liberal persuasion; he endured his immobility with courage and dignity, did not complain about his fate and did not grumble about the Soviet government. He was well educated, and I, a twelve-year-old boy, was interested in what he had to say, no matter what he talked about. I remember it well, though I can't remember what he said. And then one day, as usual, my mother, my cousin and I went to the forest to pick mushrooms. After a quarter of an hour it turned out that something had been left behind at home - my mother's scarf or cardigan or something - and being the youngest, I was sent back for it.
I knocked on my aunt's door. It it was opened, not by her, but by a stranger. He let me in and shut the door behind me. There was another man in the room. He had lifted up the mattress, on which the old man's paralyzed legs lay motionless, and was looking somewhere underneath it - either looking for something, or trying to fix or straighten out something there. I couldn't make out what was going on; but I realized that something had happened, and it was something out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, I still asked aunt Zhenya, who was standing just beside the bed, about whatever it was that my mother had forgotten. I asked her where it was, and said I would get it and run back. But before she could answer, the man who let me into the house pointed to a chair and said: "You sit down, boy, sit down and wait." I said that my mother would be wondering what had happened to me. "If your mother wonders where you are, she will come back here for you. He motioned me to a chair, not rudely, but firmly, so that I knew I must sit down; and I obeyed him.
A few minutes later, I understood just what was happening, because old Lebedev, who had stopped in mid-sentence when I entered (I had heard his loud voice through the door), now, realizing that I was going to stay there, continued to say what he had been saying, without paying any attention to me, .
The two men, who were in civilian clothes had come to perform a search. They had shown him their documents, but they hadn't shown him a search warrant; and he was angrily accusing them of arbitrary action and threatening to make a complaint, Aunt Zhenya was not so much concerned about the search as worried that the excitement would make him have a heart attack; she was soothing him as best she could, but without effect.. The people who had come to do the search continued to do their work, going through, one after another, page by page, the books that stood on the bookcase or were lying on the table, looking under the oilcloth and, under the embroidery that lay on the shelves. The old man, leaning against the wall, half lying on the bed, continued to scold them, and I sat in a chair and watched it all.
An hour later, I was joined by my cousin, sent by my mother, who was worried that I hadn't come back. They put her in another chair. Then my mother appeared, and they put her on a third chair. The search was finally over, and the men who had done it left, without taking anything with them. They behaved with restraint and did not make any additional difficulties, perhaps because they were dealing with an old and paralyzed man. The whole thing remained in the memory as a tedious and painful experience. Who knows, maybe it was someone's local independent initiative. The old man, as he had promised, wrote with a complaint, but whether it had any effect, I did not hear. However, in the following years, no one bothered him any more, and he died there at Potok a few years later - as we learned from a letter, because we ourselves were no longer there. I have described what happened as it remained in my childish memory. I think, without any exaggeration, it remained in my memory not as an encounter with something terrible, or tragic, or shocking. It was not a shock, it was just a complete surprise: I was suddenly faced with something that seemed to be completely at odds with the life that our family lived…
A year later, in Saratov, where by this time my stepfather was serving at the reserve commanders ' retraining school, we received news that one of my stepfather's distant relatives, the husband of his brother-in-law's sister, or something like that, had been exiled to Solovki. My stepfather had disliked and perhaps even despised this distant relative of his, ever since the First World War. Being a combat officer himself, wounded five times, gassed and decorated for personal gallantry, my stepfather could not forgive this man — also an officer - for managing to avoid the front and serve the entire war somewhere in the catering department. He called him the "flour cuirassier" because of this. The "Flour cuirassier" had the reputation in our family, of being an inveterate anti-Soviet, but, as far as I remember the conversations of that time, he was exiled not only or not so much because of that, as for participating in some illegal financial dealings, along with other, more prominent people, who were tried at the same time as he was. My stepfather was unequivocal and uncompromising about what had happened. He sympathized with the exiled man's wife on a personal level, but spoke of the sufferer himself as somebody who had got what was coming to him. He didn't put it quite like that, but that was what he meant.
We were in the middle of the first Five-year Plan, and we had clubs at school to study both the basic plan and the Optimal Five-year Plan: I was much more interested in the Plan than I was in school subjects. Near Saratov, on the Volga, the Stalingrad tractor plant was being built. In Saratov itself, a combine harvester plant was being built; and simultaneously, a small factory was being built to make components for the Stalingrad tractor plant. All this, taken together, influenced me when, contrary to the judgement of my stepfather, whose opinion I didn't find it easy to disregard (my mother remained neutral) after completing year seven at school, I went to the FZU to learn a trade. About half my classmates did the same. We were enrolled according to the then system of CITA - the Central Institute of Labour. We did some tests, and the results of these tests determined our future trade. It fell to me to become a turner, and in the autumnl of 1930, I began to train in the 2nd mechanical FZU as a turner. A few months later I began practical experience as an apprentice turner at a small factory located right next to the FZU which produced American cartridges for lathes. Some of my classmates worked with me, others at other factories, such as the tractor parts factory, or the "Engine of the Revolution" - a boiler plant.
I found my work as a turner difficult - I wasn't very good with my hands. An additional problem for me was that most of our FZU course was made up of boys from orphanages, and there were relatively few of us living at home. To do better than them in theoretical work was not respected; but to lag behind them in production, for me as a "home boy" meant to be despised as a pen-pusher. I did not want to get that reputation, so I tried as hard as I could..
The FZU course was then a two-year one, and by the spring of 1931, I was already expecting to start soon on the second year of training, on a second grade wage, which was almost twice as much. This was a significant addition to the family budget, which was very tight, without a single penny to spare. The desire not to make mistakes in my industrial work and so to move up to the second grade was also connected in my mind with my continuing estrangement from my stepfather. He felt — I believe, although I never discussed the subject with him - that by marrying my mother, he had made a commitment to complete my education, so that I would finish my ninth year, graduate from high school, and become an engineer. He wanted this for me and only this, partly, perhaps, because he himself, after leaving high school, had hoped to go on to higher technical education; it had not happened that way; he hadn't previously thought about a military career, but lack of money for further education made him go into the officer training school. Right through almost the whole year that I was training at the FZU, I did not hear anything from him except "Hello" and "Goodbye". He couldn't endure my disobedience or my decision. Even though he was very fond of me undeneath, as I, underneath, was very fond of him.
We lived in a government military building, in two adjoining rooms, in an apartment with a shared kitchen, where two neighbours, also soldiers, lived in two more rooms with their wives.
We had all gone to bed early for as long as I can remember, I slept behind the wardrobes in the first room, the passageway. One evening, about ten o'clock - not very late, but we had already turned the light off and gone to bed - there was a knock at our door. My mother was ill, with a slight temperature. My stepfather opened the door and as I woke up, I heard voices.
The unbelievable was happening. In our flat, there was a search going on. I turned on the light, jumped out of bed barefoot, and saw three men I didn't know, and my stepfather, hastily dressed. My mother told me later thay he had refused to open the door until he was dressed, And he got dressed — boots, breeches, tunic and belt — just as he always did. My mother said later that they kept on knocking at the door, not wanting to wait for my stepfather to get dressed. I suppose that, sleeping the deep sleep of childhood, I hadn't immediately woken up. When I got up, I saw that my stepfather, wearing glasses and using a magnifying glass — ever since he was gassed, he had had poor eyesight and often added a magnifying glass to the glasses — was standing reading a piece of paper — a search warrant. He read it and gave it back. He was calm. My mother, too. She stood in her dressing gown in the doorway to the next room.
"You go back to bed," my stepfather said firmly, as he usually did to my mother.There's nothing for you to do here. You are ill - go back to bed. But my mother didn't go back to bed, She just sat down on a chair. She sat there for several hours.
The search took a very long time. It was conducted carefully, so carefully that they looked at everything in both rooms, even my FZU notebooks on metal technology, school notebooks left over from the seventh year, and endless letters to my mother - she loved to write a lot and loved to have all her family and friends write to her a lot.
I think - but I can't be sure of my memory - that it was some time in April, so it still wasn't getting light very early, but when the search was over it was quite light, so it must have taken at least six hours, if not more.
When the search was done and the men who had done it had taken a bundle of papers and letters and, I think— though I'm not sure — made a list of them, and were apparently ready to leave, I thought it was all over. But then, one of them took a paper out of his pocket and showed it to my stepfather. It wasn't a search warrant this time - it was an arrest warrant. I didn't realise at the time, but I realised later that they had intended to arrest him from the start, regardless of the results of the search. My mother was was painful to see. She was a strong character; but the fact that she was ill and had sat all that night on a chair with a temperature must had its effect on her - she was shaking all over. My stepfather was calm. He took his magnifying glass out of his jacket pocket and read the paper again to make sure that it really was an arrest warrant. Then he briefly kissed my mother, telling her that he would be back as soon as they had found out that there had been a mistake. He squeezed my hand in silence, but firmly, and left with the men who had arrested him.
My mother and I were on our own. She was still shaking. She disliked the expression of weakness in herself or in others, and was ashamed of her shaking, but she couldn't help herself. Then she got into bed and looked at the clock: "You do your own breakfast and tea. You'll have to go soon, or you'll be late for the FZU." I said I wouldn't go, I'd stay with her. She said I should go, she would get over it quicker if she was by herself, I must go, and I must tell them straight away what had happened at my home, It would be cowardly not to tell them.
The misunderstanding was not cleared up - not that day, not that week, not that month. I told them at the FZU what happened at my home and I carried on studying and working. They went on treating me as if nothing had happened, except that they told me to wait until my stepfather was released before submitting my application to join the Komsomol, as I had previously intended. They said it, I now realise, quite tactfully. At the time, it seemed to me the only way they could have said it. I did not doubt for a moment that there was a mistake and that my stepfather would come back, although I knew that after an industrial Party purge in Saratov, a number of people from the old intelligentsia and from the so-called "old regime" in general had been arrested, including, as far as I can remember, another former officer of the same military school where my stepfather served. But for me, there was no conceivable connection between the two events. Someone could be arrested, someone could be guilty in some way, like those people from the industrial Party, but as far as my stepfather was concerned, that could not possibly be so; in his case, there could only be a mistake.
If the FZU, where I studied, treated what had happened in our family calmly and kindly, then in the military school, where my stepfather taught and was in the highest esteem, the opposite happened. I think that in all the severity and even cruelty of that and subsequent occasions, in this case, as in many others, a lot, or at least part of it, was the fault of the people who were in responsible positions locally.
The commander and political commissar of the school ordered the immediate eviction of the family of the arrested Colonel A. G. Ivanishev from the government accomodation they occupied. On the second day, when I came back from the FZU, my mother said that she had been shown a paper signed by them saying that she must vacate the flat by the next day. She wanted to complain about it, she tried to, but the neighbours dissuaded her. Maybe she would have made a complaint, but she was still ill, so I expect that had an effect on her.
The next morning appeared an officer or NCO (I can't remember which) with some soldiers. We hadn't removed our belongings, but we were told that if we didn't remove them, they would be removed anyway, and the rooms would be locked. The neighbours helped: they took what they had space for; some of what remained was put against the walls in the hallway. The remainder, which would have obstructed the hallway, just had to be taken outside. Fortunately, we didn't have many things: a dining table, several dining chairs, two bookcases, two wardrobes, a bed, and a so-called Ginter on which I slept - an officer's folding chest from the First World War, which combined a small chest with a narrow folding bed. The wardrobes and the dining table were pulled out into the yard. The rest was in the hall or at the neighbours'; and the neighbours sheltered us until we found somewhere to live.
My mother stayed with the neighbours, and I went to look for a room. Following some kind advice from the neighbours, I went through the Glebychev ravine to the so-called Saratov hills in the upper outskirts of the city, It was like a village climbing up a mountain. There, according to neighbours, the widows who owned these houses sometimes rented rooms. I knew this myself already, because when I was at school and we had a team system in which we helped each other with homework, I went there, to the mountains, to help prepare lessons for someone from our team - a girl whose parents rented a room in just such a private house.
I was lucky: after an hour or two of walking up the street there, I found an owner who was willing to let us one of two rooms in her house. Luckily it wasa fairly big room that would have enough space for all our few belongings. We spent the night with our neighbours, and in the morning, the neighbour got hold of a truck and helped us load our things on it - he couldn't do any more, he had to go to work. My mother still had a temperature, and I begged her to stay with the neighbours until the next day, promising that I would do it all myself.
I did. But I was unlucky, because that day it rained and the road was very slippery. It was a steep climb up the hill and after a certain point, the road was no longer made up. The truck got stuck and wouldn't go any further. The driver helped me unload my belongings and drove away. He was sorry for me, but he had gone over the official time he had available for this trip, and there was nothing he could do beyond what he had done. So I gradually dragged all our belongings, one block's distance up the hill. I even managed to drag the empty wardrobes up on my back. It was the spring of 1931 and I was fifteen and a half, I was thin and not very muscular; but to my surprise, I turned out to be quite tough and I moved everything - although I remembered that day for a long time - perhaps I shall remember it for the rest of my life. I remembered it without anger, even with a certain satisfaction, because I had managed something that I had not previously had to cope with, and in a way that I had not expected from myself. I was angry, but more for my mother's sake.
As for her, for as long as she lived, she could never forgive those who had made the decision to evict us. Perhaps it's because of her resentment that I have remembered the names of both of those men whilst, at the same time, forgetting hundreds of other names. . But I don't want to name them here. One of them came to a tragic end six years later, in 1937, as I learned twenty years later. I do not know the fate of the other and do not want to take a sin on my soul.
If I remember correctly, I worked most of that summer. The FZU continued both classes and practice at the factory, there were no holidays as there had been at school; there was only a short break. I remember that after this break, I was promoted to the second grade and I began to receive not seventeen rubles, as at first, but thirty-two or thirty-four rubles, which was very useful to my mother and me at the time.
The prison where my stepfather was held was on a street somewhere near the middle of the town, and they didn't allow visits, because he was under investigation, but they did allow parcels twice a week. My mother usually took them, but sometimes I did. How it was organised, I do not remember at all, probably because everything was straightforward and without any delays. If there had been any problems, I would probably have remembered them.
Once my mother felt better, she immediately took things in hand and arranged to start a teaching job from the first of September, to teach either French or German — she knew both. Before that, she had not worked for several years, on the insistence of my stepfather. He had his own views on domestic roles. Even though we didn't have much to live on with just his earnings, he preferred it: he considered it entirely his responsibility to earn a living, my mother's responsibility to cook, keep the house in order and look after her son, and mine to study.
My mother had got herself a job, but that didn't mean she had ceased to believe that my stepfather would soon be coming back. At any rate, she didn't voice any doubts about it. On the contrary, she said confidently that if he came back before she started working, she would still start. And if he didn't come back till after she'd started working, she would carry on working, no matter how angry he was with her over it. In short, she did not express any doubt about his return. Perhaps her tone of complete confidence and lack of any doubt was put on for my benefit, but I really think she had no doubt in her heart that sooner or later the misunderstanding, as she continued to call it, would be cleared up.
I remember one evening, I think it was at the very end of August. The summer was coming to an end, but it was very hot and close. After I came home from work and we had had dinner, my mother told me to take the rug out to the yard under the tree near our house and we would sit there, because the room was too stuffy.
I did as she asked, and we were sitting in the yard talking about something or other, when suddenly the gate opened and my stepfather came in - just the same as usual — in his cap, in his uniform, his badges of rank on his lapels, his revolver by his side. He hugged and kissed my mother, who jumped up to meet him, and he kissed me, which was very unusual. I didn't immediately notice anything unusual in his appearance - he seemed absolutely the same as usual. Then I realized: his face was as pale as it had been in winter, not brown as it normally was in summer after constant field exercises in the sun.
I don't remember what we discussed that night, immediately after his return, or what we discussed afterwards. I only remember two conversations - or rather two topics, because of course I don't remember the details. When my stepfather heard that we had been thrown out of the flat in a hurry, he was outraged for my mother's sake and declared that the Commanding Officer and the Polical Commissar had acted swinishly. This phrase was for him an expression of his most extreme indignation - words which he never took back or regretted. If for some reason he later recalled someone's wrongful action, even after many years, he always harshly repeated his opinion in the same terms. That was what he was like, all his life.
He said nothing in detail about what had happened during his four months in prison, at least not in front of me, He may have talked about it in my absence, in answer to my mother's questions, but he didn't say anything to me. But he did tell me about the interrogations, saying that all the absurd charges against him, as he put it, were completely dropped, one after another. He said that when they called him in for questioning, they obviously hadn't realised what kind of a man they were dealing with. They seemed to think that if they kept him awake for ten hours at a stretch with a very bright light which was starting to hurt his eyes., they would eventually extract from him the stupid lie about himself and others, which for some unknown reason, they wanted to hear from him. Well, of course, they failed, he said,
I think that he deliberately told me this about the interrogations, without telllng me anything else, for educational reasons, as part of the responsibility for my upbringing which he had taken on when I was four. When I was a child, I occasionally told a lie to my mother or to him. He never forgave a lie and always remembered every lie I had ever told. So even now, when he himself had been through so much, he did not neglect the opportunity to teach me a lesson - you should never tell a lie, under any circumstances, no matter under what pressure you find yourself. The next day, the day after his return, he went to see the head of the school, I don't know what was said on that occasion, but I'm quite sure that he expressed, in no uncertain terms, his feelings about the way my mother had been treated. He didn't say any more to me about it; the only thing I heard him say about the head of the school was that he was not prepared to serve any longer with this man or under this man's authority. I don't know any other details. There was probably, I now realize, a medical commission, followed by his discharge from the army. There were enough medical reasons for that anyway - his war wounds and the state of his eyesight. Maybe there were other reasons - perhaps the clash with the head of the school was an issue.
In any case, he had made a decision - and his decisions were always final - to leave Saratov and move to Moscow. He would stay for the time being with his sister on Petrovka - she promised to temporarily partition her room to accomodate him - and get a teaching job in the military department in one of the Moscow colleges. My stepfather spoke about this with absolute confidence, so his final report before demobilization must have made him fully qualified for such work, and what had happened in the previous months of this spring and summer cannot have been taken into consideration..
About a month after that, we moved to Moscow, I went to finish my second year at the Mandelstam Institute of Precision Engineering, and my stepfather started work as a teacher in the Military Department of the Karl Liebknecht Industrial Institute on Razgulyai — for some reason, I always remember this when I go to the Literary Publishing House, which is now two blocks away.
What effect did the events of that summer in SaratovI have on the state of mind of a fifteen-or sixteen-year-old teenager? Most importantly, for my stepfather, everything finally turned out right. He had been the standard of truth and honesty for me from the first years of my childhood and he remained that standard, and everybody who had any dealings with him regarded him in the same way. And during those difficult months, almost all the people we encountered and had dealings with had treated us well — and that was good too, it was what you would expect to happen. The story of my stepfather's interrogations had ended well for him, because he was a very strong, single-minded man. But it left in my mind an unpleasant sense that with another man, things might have ended differently, another man might not have stood up to what he endured. This disturbing note remained in my memory, perhaps more clearly and significantly than the ugly action of the authorities, which my stepfather briefly called "swinish behaviour".
And also there was also perhaps a perhaps not fully conscious sense of having grown up a bit. I had shown myself capable of doing something in an emergency, at least in moving our belongings, which I carried for part of the way on my own back. My stepfather did not praise me for this; he did not often praise me at all, but although he was still not happy about the fact that I was training and was going to continue to train at the FZU, I felt that he was less upset about it than he had been. It seemed that having spent four months with my mother but without him , my stepfather recognized my right to make decisions of my own. This softened his dissatisfaction with my choice of a career path - although the dissatisfaction still remained - it remained for a long time.
All in all, what had happened was valuable experience of life; it was cruel, but useful, in the part it played in the psychological development of a young man starting on his life.
Two years later, I had another such cruel blessing. I spent six weeks or so in a Moscow hospital on Sobacha Square that had been turned into an isolation unit for patients with typhoid. This typhoid epidemic was brought to Moscow as one of the consequences of the 1933 famine in the Ukraine. People who were fleeing from starvation came to Moscow, where they hung around at the railway stations. I was in a ward for the critically ill - five of us died, three survived. When I first came, one of those who was later to die told me about the famine. He was semi-delirious, but what he said was understandable. He was one of those who had been picked up at the station. Of course, we had food problems in Saratov too; we ran out of this, that and the other there and I had got used to rationing for several years. The food in the canteen where we had lunch at the school, was unusual. I remember that in the year when there was not much else, soya bean produced good crops on the lower Volga, and they suddenly began to grow it. Every day, we ate soya, in the form of soups and rissoles and puddings. But I only heard a direct account of what real hunger is like, and a clear picture of its results, when I was in the hospital in 1933, and it hit me. And I remembered it and that too was a painful part of growing up.
Going back in my memories to the Saratov years - to 1930 and 1931 - I remember some little things now that tell me now that there was something in the air. I remember some rebellious popular ditties. I didn't sing them, but I heard them, so someone must have sung them and so they were obviously going around. Another thing I remember was when someone, I think at the FZU, or maybe it was earlier, at school, showed me some sort of leaflet - I can't really be sure whether it was simply drawn by hand, or copied or printed somehow, but I somehow seem to remember that it had been produced in quantity. On this sheet was drawn something like a river with high banks. On one bank stood three Jewish figures - Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev - on the other, Stalin, Yenukidze and someone else from the Caucasus - Mikoyan or Ordzhonikidze. And underneath, it said: "and the Slavs disputed as to who should govern Russia." But I remember it as a joke, not as something that made an impression on me or made me think.
Others may have responded to these ideas, but in my case, I was shielded from negative thoughts by my image of the Red Army, which in coming battles would be "unconquerable", by a passionate love for the Army, ingrained from childhood, and by my belief in the Five-year Plan, which offered an essential future without which we could not survive. We had to fully implement the Five-year Plan. The Red Army and the Five-year Plan were inseparably associated, as our response to capitalist encirclement: if we did not build everything that we had planned, then we would be defenceless, we would be conquered, we would not be able to fight if we were attacked — this was absolutely certain.
So I supported the fight with the right deviationists, when Molotov replaced Rykov, because the right were against rapid industrialization; and if we didn't industrialize, then they would crush us, we would have no way of defending ourselves. That was the most important thing. I did hear in conversation occasional notes of sympathy with Rykov and Bukharin, in particular, as men who wanted people to have an easier life, but they were only notes, echoes of the opinions of others. The rightness of Stalin, who stood for the rapid industrialization of the country and achieved it, who argued with others and proved them wrong - his correctness was beyond doubt for me at the age of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen.
I don't know about others of my age, but for me 1934 remained in my memory almost to the very end as the year of the brightest hopes of my youth. I felt that the country had passed through some difficulties, and and we had worked very hard and life had become easier, both psychologically and in material things.
I felt that I had played my part in the Plan, because I had worked for almost the entire five - year period. In the FZU, it was both classes and four hours of daily work. Then, after graduating from the FZU, I worked for a time at an aircraft factory, and after that as a turner in the workshop of the film studio "Mezhrabpomfilm". It was a small workshop, only eight people, with one lathe at my disposal. It was varied and therefore interesting work.
I had also, a year earlier begun to write poetry in earnest. It was very bad poetry, but I already took it very seriously in relation to my future life. Among other poems, under the influence of the essays, books and plays of the writers who had visited the White Sea-Baltic canal, I wrote an inept poem "Belomorkanal" about the reforming influence of work on the canal, for criminals who had been sent there. Several excerpts from this poem were included in a collection of verse by young people published by Goslitizdat. Then I had a small grant from Goslitizdat as a young working-class writer (which I was) to make a trip, during my annual holiday, to see the Belomorcanal for myself, and perhaps re-write my poem, some bits of which, I could see for myself, were better than others.
Both the construction of the White Sea Canal and the construction of the Moscow - Volga canal, which began immediately after the first canal was completed, were publicised (and perceived by me) not only for their own sake, but also as a humane system of reformation, changing people from criminals into builders of five-year plans. Both the newspaper articles and the book that writers produced after a large-scale joint vist to the newly built canal in 1933 were mainly devoted to this topic - the reform of criminals. Much less was written about people who were imprisoned for all sorts of other reasons; there were a lot ot them but journalists and writers left them out. Relatively little was written about the former kulaks, transported from various parts of the country to work on the canall, although there were a lot of them, no fewer than the criminals, and probably more. The whole thing was presented in a very positive light, as a shift in people's minds, as an opportunity for those who worked there to put the past behind them and turn over a new leaf. Old sins were forgiven and sentences were shortened, with early release, in return for good work. In some cases, former prisoners were even given medals.. This was the general impression of what was happening, this was how it was being portrayed, and I went to the White Sea Canal not to see people imprisoned in camps, but to see how they were being reformed by the work they were doing. It sounds naive, but that's how it was.
The construction of the canal was already completed, at least its first stage, and various additional facilities were being completed; tens of thousands more people were working on them. Roads were being completed, services were being expanded, the debris of construction were being removed, and the site was being landscaped. I spent most of the month that I was there, in a place where the workers were mainly people who had been somehow involved in criminal activity in the past. I was put on an extra bed in a small room separated from the general barracks, by the head of the KVCH — the cultural and educational department. He was a Muscovite, a prisoner, just like all the others there. I don't know what he was there for, probably a political offence under the 58th article, anti-Soviet agitation. That article was bringing to the camps people who were involved or considered to be involved in the Trotskyist and left-wing opposition in general. I didn't ask him about the it, in fact I didn't immediately understand that he was a prisoner, because he behaved like an experienced party agitator. He was a nice thirty-year-old man who seemed to have a great and beneficial influence on the criminal and semi-criminal workers in this part of the camp.
No one was particularly interested in me, I was nearly nineteen and I didn't look much different from the other people there, except that I was one of the youngest. If they happened to find out that I was a young working-class writer and wrote poetry, they were sympathetic and interested - they said, go on, write about us. Their sentences there were short and they worked conscientiously, wanting to make them shorter still, hoping for early release.
I admit that I was preoccupied with my own concerns, with my poem and with poetry in general, and I was still young and innocent, but I returned from this unusual, as it now seems, camp visit without any negative feelings. On the contrary, I came back eager to re-write my poem about the reform of people by labour, with the feeling that I had seen it happen with my own eyes, even if only for a short time, and with the belief that it was probably the right policy. In a society like ours what other policy could there be but a policy which enabled a man to atone for his past sins by hard work?
I knew nothing about saboteurs among from the engineering elite from my own experience, but I knew from one of our family's acquaintances that the man she married a few years ago was a former military engineer and, as it happened, almost the last commandant of the Winter Palace under the Provisional government. He had been arrested under Article 58 and received eight or ten years for it. But he worked for two or three years on the White Sea Canal as the chief engineer of one of the sections of the Canal. He completed his engineering task brilliantly, he was released and was now working as a free man, employed as chief engineer on an even bigger construction site on the Moscow - Volga canal. This kind of background information was now supplemented by my own personal impressions of the visit. The events of the XVII party Congress seemed to indicate that my rosy youthful ideas were correct. Former oppositionists repented and were given the opportunity to admit their mistakes and to publish their statements. They were forgiven and accepted back into the party People were trusted, and it made for an atmosphere of unity, common purpose, and faith in the future of the country and the completion of all the plans.
The murder of Kirov in December 1934 had a devastating impact , of a kind which is probably difficult for those with no memory of December 1934 to imagine. The whole atmosphere of life was disturbed, broken, and something sinister took its place. And this was felt immediately, though people like me had no idea what might follow and in fact did follow..
There was profoundly disturbing about the murder itself, taking place in Smolny, in his office, and in the way that Stalin came rushing from Moscow, and in the way all this was written about, and in the way Kirov was buried. It all seemed in some way significant.
At that time I had no idea of Kirov's real place in the party; I knew that he was a member of the Politburo, that was all. For me, he was not to be ranked alongside such names as Kalinin, Voroshilov, or Molotov. But when he was killed, his name - Kirov - suddenly became for me, and for others, a sort of turning-point between two eras. It was as if there was a tension in the air that was going to lead to an explosion. People of my generation, because of our age and experience, could not not foresee the future, nevertheless, with the murder of Kirov, an element of something tragic entered the consciousness of our generation. This tragic event not only happened, but it also had implications for the future. I don't think I'm making this up; I don't think it was just me.
And two or three months later suddenly something began began which was completely incomprehensible for me then and is not fully understandable even now, the expulsion from Leningrad of all sorts of people "associated with the former regime", including people who, in fact, were not associated in any way, but simply had aristocratic and noble surnames.
The expulson of these people affected our family: almost all my relatives on my mother's side lived there - three of her sisters, two of my cousins and a cousin. By 1935, neither my grandmother, who had died in 1922, nor my grandfather, who had died even earlier, in 1911, were still alive . But my mother's three sisters still lived in Leningrad.
My mother was the youngest in the family. Her eldest sister, who was fifteen years older than her, Lyudmila Leonidovna, was married to an artillery colonel who came from a family of Russified Germans. His name was Maximilian Henrikhovich Tidemann. I remember when I was a child, how this aunt, who had a humurous disposition, would laugh, in the post-revolutionary years, at her German surname. She would change it from Tiedemann to Ty-deman or to Ty-demon, and talk about her family: "We are you-demons", or simply: "we are demons". Lyudmila Leonidovna had trained as a teacher, and she later lived and worked at a boarding school for handicapped children.
She never lost her sense of humour for the rest of her life (she lived later, in Moscow, until she was over 80) but her life was not easy: her husband, who had commanded an artillery regiment, suffered from chronic tuberculosis at the front, and he died in the 1916, in the middle of the war. The regiment with which he went to the front had been stationed before, either in Ryazan or near Ryazan, and my aunt and their three children remained there, in Ryazan. And this probably determined my own life in many ways, because my mother, left alone after my own father went missing at the front, immediately moved from Petrograd to Ryazan, where my aunt lived. My aunt and her children subsequently returned to Leningrad, where the other sisters lived, and my mother remained in Ryazan after she married my stepfather.
In previous years, when I came to Leningrad, I often visited Lyudmila Leonidovna. She had three children: my cousin Andrey was three years older than me, my cousin Marusya was eight years older, and my older cousin Leonid ten years older. By 1935, they were all independent adults: Marusya worked as a teacher. Andrey had commenced his career as an architect. He worked at the Leningrad Giprogor-the State Institute of urban design. His elder brother Leonid, a brilliant chemist, was the head of one of the main departments at the Red Triangle factory.
There were two other aunts of mine who lived in Leningrad — Sophia Leonidovna and Darya Leonidovna, who were twelve and thirteen years older than my mother. Aunt Dolly (in contrast to her mother and other democratic-minded aunts, she liked to be called not Darya, but, as was customary in such families before the revolution, Dolly) was an old maid and a cripple. At some time in her childhood, she had lost the feeling in one side of her body, her shoulder was crooked, she wore an orthopedic shoe and limped badly.
All this was supposed in the family to have been the fault of my grandfather, a man with a strong temper who had somehow injured the girl when she made him angry. I don't know quite how it happened; my mother told me about it, without excusing my grandfather, whom she herself loved very much - perhaps because he treated her, the youngest, twelve years younger than the others, differently from her older sisters. She loved him, but she didn't excuse him. She told me about it in explanation of aunt Dolly's condition.
Aunt Dolly didn't like the Soviet government; didn't hide it and argued about it with her sisters. She was dogmatically religious, I personally think not so much from a personal faith in God as out of spite towards her relatives and other people in general. She stayed with us in Ryazan when I was about twelve years old, and theological disputes with her finally knocked my faith in God out of me. The main result of her religious teaching was that I stopped going to Church. The process of losing my faith in God took place in the family at the same time for all three of us - my mother, my stepfather, and me.
Dolly was an unhappy, embittered, and (despite her religious faith)skeptical woman. I seem to remember that, in the last years of her life in Leningrad, she became a nun. There were no monasteries any longer, but there were secret religious associations of lonely nuns, who kept in touch with each other.
When I came to Leningrad as a child, whether with my mother or (as sometimes happened) by myself, I was always expected to visit my aunt Dolly at least once. I went there reluctantly, but I had to, because it was Aunt Dolly who had lived with my dying grandmother until the end of her life. She still lived in the same room. I went to Aunt Dolly's once or twice, after my arrival and before my departure, as a matter of duty.
By contrast, it was fun to visit the friendly and jolly Tidemann famiy, but I spent most of my time and usually stayed with my third aunt, Sofya Leonidovna, on Suvorovsky Prospekt. She had a large bright room there and lots of books. I slept on a couch behind her bookcases, which separated it from her narrow old-fashioned bed.
Sofia Leonidovna was quite different from any of the other Obolenskys. Lyudmila Leonidovna and my mother had been very beautiful in their youth and retained much of their beauty as they got older; aunt Dolly's face was the face of a cripple, but still retained traces of an aristocratic beauty; But Sofia Leonidovna, who in 1935 was fifty-eight, was a, snub-nosed, round-faced, cheerful and tremendously cuddly Russian woman with strong arms and legs, broad shoulders, a kind smile, a merry laugh and an open and friendly nature. She should surely have been the mother of many children and the grandmother of many grandchildren, but for some unknown reason, she had never married. Why she didn't, was never discussed with her or in the family. Her appearance must have been unfashionable in the milieu in which she grew up in her youth, and my grandfather, a man with a princely title who followed the conventions, would not have been able to afford to give her a dowry. So it seemed to me when I thought about the fate of this beloved aunt of mine.
But in the years that I remember her — and I remember her well, from when she was approaching fifty - she was not unhappy at all. On the contrary, she was the most cheerful of the sisters, with the most positive attitude to life. She had trained as a teacher but had became a librarian and for many years she managed a library on Suvorovsky Prospekt, not far from where she lived. She was interested in everything new and generally lived and breathed her library work. She answered readers' queries, gave advice, set up a reading circle, enthusiastically talked about it - she loved people who read and appreciated books. Partly for this reason, she was fond of me. In the last few years before her expulsion from Leningrad, she changed jobs and went, I don't know why, to work in the library of the Institute of Arable Farming, at Vavilov on Nevsky. She told me interesting things about that too, although I don't remember the details.
When she had vacations, she usually came to stay with us. If we didn't have enough money for me to go to Leningrad, she paid half my fare so that I could still come and stay with her. She must have been satisfying her unfulfilled maternal feelings with her niece and nephews, especially, as time went on, with me. Maybe it was because she was closer to her mother than to any of her other sisters, or maybe it was because I was the youngest of all her nephews and was a child for longer.
In 1934, I didn't see her. I last saw her in 1933, when I went to stay in Leningrad and there, in her room, wrote what I considered my first serious poems. They were sonnets about Leningrad, written under the influence of a book of sonnets by José Maria Heredia, translated by Glushkov-Oleron - which somehow made a strong impression on me.
And then in the winter of 1935, we learned from letters that came not from Leningrad, but from Orenburg, that, with one exception, all our relatives who lived in Leningrad had been exiled to the Orenburg region. Aunt Dolly, the secret ant-Soviet nun had gone; and Aunt Sofia, who had supported the Soviet power since 1917 and had faithfully done her bit with her modest library work; and strong and fearless Aunt Lulu, who had faithfully worked with handicapped children; and the young Soviet teacher, my cousin Marusya, and the gifted young architect, Andrey.
The only one left in Leningrad was Lyudmila Leonidovna's son Leonid Maximilianovich. The eldest son of the eldest of the sisters, he was traditionally named Leonid in honor of his grandfather. His exile had been prevented by the Red Triangle factory: someone at the factory, and perhaps someone higher up, had protested that the factory could not afford to lose a brilliant specialist like him. So my oldest cousin Leonid, with his princely origin on his mother's side and his German surname and patronymic on his father's side, remained to work at his "Red Triangle" in Leningrad.
When the War began, Leonid joined the Leningrad militia and became a company commander. He died in battle from a fatal wound to the stomach. His younger brother Andrey worked in the Orenburg region, where he was sent, following his profession, although I don't remember whether he was allowed to work as an architect immediately, I know that in 1941, he joined the Army and went through the entire war as a soldier without a scratch. Their mother, Lyudmila Leonidovna, along with my older cousin Marusya and her daughter Natasha, went into exile with her as a child. Later during the War, when I become quite well-known as a writer and war corresponent, I managed to bring to Moscow war; and in 1955 Lyudmila Leonidovna celebrated her eightieth birthday in Moscow with her surviving relatives.
But my other two aunts died where they were sent, although not immediately. In late 1937 or early 1938, when they were living there in exile, someone found it necessary to put them in prison, where they both died. I don't know, I can only guess what happened - maybe the one sister, who had no fondness for the Soviet government, said something to someone, and the other was taken away because she was her sister. It may have been so, or it may not.
But that was later. In 1935, my mother learned from her letters that my sisters had been sent away, as had many other old people whom she had known from childhood in St Petersburg. As she sat sadly with my stepfather and me that evening, she suddenly said; "If I had gone back from Ryazan to Petrograd like Lulu, I should have been with them now."
I remember being struck by the way she said it at the time. She said it with a sense of guilt that she was not with them, that she had escaped the blow that her sisters had not escaped. Then she asked my stepfather: "Do you think we shall be expelled from here, as well?" It was as if she meant not " us " as a family, but just herself, with her origin and her maiden name Obolenskaya.
- Well, if they send you away, we'll all go!" said my stepfather, dismissing my mother's thought.
When my mother returned to the subject, he was angry and spoke quite sharply, as he sometimes did. He said something to the effect that there was no point in talking idly about things that might not happen. If there was one thing we should be thinking about, it was how we could help them. Lyudmila Leonidovna would get help from her son, but Sofia and Darya Leonidovna would need help from us, they had no one else, and we needed to think about how we could help, how much money we could spare, and how and when we could do something about it.
I remember that conversation, but I can't remember my own feelings. It must have had an impact on me: I was very fond indeed one of those three aunts.
When I heard that she had been imprisoned there, and then news stopped coming from her, and somehow we heard that she had died, without any details, I remember that I had a very strong sense of the injustice done to her, most of all to her. It remained permanently in my memory as the main injustice committed by the state power, the Soviet power in relation to me personally, an injustice all the more bitter because of it was irreparable. If Aunt Sofia had been alive, the first person in the world I would have helped, when I had the power to help, would have been her. I would not have thought of helping anyone else before I helped her.
That's how it was. YetI can't remember what I thought then - how I reasoned, how I explained what had happened to myself. "When you chop wood, splnters will fly!".Perhaps there was something similar to this kind of self-reassurance, which now seems much more cynical than it seemed then, when the revolution, the upheaval of the entire life of society was still not so far away in memory, and when this expression was used all the time in conversations on various such dramatic topics.
My stepfather was consistent. He didn't want to talk about it; he just considered it our common duty to help. I remember that in 1935 and 1936 we sent parcels and money to Orenburg itself or to one of the cities of the Orenburg region.
1935 was the last year when I made a good income at that time. I started an evening course at the Gorky evening literary university and worked in the day that year at the Techfilm film studio.The work was piecework, we equipped the studio. The income I earned allowed me not only to contribute to the family budget, but also to set aside some money to send to my aunts, along with whatever money my father and mother could scrape together. This continued until the following year, when I became a full-time student and left my job. I hadn't really started publishing yet, I became much less well off, and I mainly contributed to helping my aunts when I suddenly published something and was paid for it.
I can't say for sure, I think my mother went to visit her aunts twice, 1936 and 1937 - but maybe my memory is wrong, and it was only once. If so, it was probably 1937. In any case, the trip which I remember occurred after several trials had taken place in Moscow, after what was later called "the unjustified mass repression" had begun. My stepfather and I were very concerned about this trip; so was my mother in her heart, but she was determined to go, to see her sisters. My stepfather was worried about her and said that it would be better to continue doing what we were doing — writing, helping as much as we could financially — rather than to go and perhaps no longer be able to help in the future. But she insisted on going, she felt that she simply had to go. .
I remember my mother returning from that trip in 1937 exhausted, sad, worn out by the journey and what had happened there, but still hopeful for the future. It may perhaps have seemed to her that her sisters were having such a bad time that nothing worse than what had happened to them could happen. But the future showed that worse could happen. And it happened, as I have said, later, in the midst of the events that started in 1936 and reached such a terrible climax in 1937. I only remember my feelings about what happened to my aunts; I don't remember having done anything; there was nothing we could do. What more can I say about the atmosphere of those years and my perception of it? I can only write about the my own personal experience. Among the young, aspiring writers in the Literary Institute, there were arrests, several of which I clearly remember, especially the arrest of Smelyakov, whom I knew a little, more through Dolmatovsky than directly. Several other students at our Literary Institute were also arrested. In the senior year, Alexander Shevtsov, who was considered a little strange and a little crazy, but one of the most talented, also Podelkov. There was someone else I can remember nothing about, except that his life didn't turn out so badly, though he ceased to write. A poet from our course, Valentin Portugalov, an admirer of Bagritsky, who had visited him when he was still living in Kuntsevo, was also arrested. He was just a boy - a graceful, thin, good-looking young man who wrote rather pretentious poems that I didn't like. I didn't meet him again until more than twenty years later, when he came to Moscow from Kolyma, where he first served time and then stayed to work, collecting folklore there, translating, writing, and came to Moscow with a book of poems — a very strong-looking, square, experienced man with a brick-red northern tan. He published his book of poems — masculine poems, about life in the North - and then he worked on higher literary courses. Although he looked very strong, he died early, in his fifties. I suppose there must have been something wrong with him,, after all, although he never complained about anything in conversation.
One day, when I was sitting talking to him about the publication of his book, he suddenly mentioned to me a man, then still around, who had made an allegation about him that had helped to get him sent to Kolyma. He talked about this man somewhat contemptuously, but also suggesting that perhaps the man had really imagined something inappropriate in what he, Portugalov, had said during their private conversations. He had not said anything very much but it struck me that this man may even have thought he was doing the right thing, doing his duty.
And in the midst of the war, when I was already a seasoned and experienced man compared with the time I am now describing, I listened with amazement to the confession of a former student of the Literary Institute (he came out with it for no obvious reason) whose father, unknown to me at that time, had been imprisoned. He said he had been forced to agree to report on our moods and conversations. He had become unbearably ashamed of this episode in his life. I'm certain he was telling the truth when he said it - there was need for him to have said it.. He said that he would probably have done himself an injury if anyone had suffered because of a report from him, but fortunately no one did suffer, maybe because he never had anything to report and didn't report anything; but the simple fact that he agreed to do it was something he couldn't bear to think about.
But this conversation was during the war, and my conversation with Portugalov was later, after the death of Stalin. In 1935 and 1936, it had not occurred to me that any of us could be persuaded to write about our conversation. It just hadn't occurred to me. But In the summer of 1937,for the first time in my life, I was faced with something similar and had to think about it. Vladimir Petrovich Stavsky was at that time Secretary of the Writers' Union. He paid a lot of attention to our Literary Institute and floated the idea that several prose writers - our students Lev Shapiro, Vsevolod Sablin and Zinovy Fazin - should go to the battlegrounds of the Civil War in the North Caucasus and write a collective documentary book about Sergo Ordzhonikidze. My friends got me involved me in this idea too - I don't remember whether it was because I wanted to try my hand at prose, or because they thought that poems about Ordzhonikidze might be appropriate in the book, and they thought I could write them - anyway, I became the fourth one to be suggested.
Stavsky not only approved of the idea, but also helped us, even taking us to the Moscow apartment of Evdokimov, who was the Secretary of the North Caucasus (or was it the Rostov?) Regional Party Committee, a man with whom he had once fought in the Civil War. We sat for several hours with this gloomy, dismal man, who seemed to me to be thinking of something else, far away. He was either naturally sullen or just depressed about something, but at the same time he responded to Stavsky's memories, some of which were interesting details of that time for us too.
Everything was decided, and we were about to leave, when suddenly I was called to Stavsky's office after college, and told to go immediately to see him at the Writers' Union. I was not a member of the Union at that time, I was just a student, the author of several cycles of poems in magazines and one longer poem.
"Well, tell me, what's all this about anti-Soviet conversations in the Literary Institute? You are supposing to be writing about Ordzhonikidze, and in conversations you praise the White Guard, " Stavsky began, and I was literally speechless with surprise, because I hadn't had any anti-Soviet conversations with anyone, hadn't praised the White Guard, and couldn't understand what he was talking about. "I have heard something about you," Stavsky said, " so tell me the truth — it's the only thing I want to hear."
I was completely taken aback by this, but the only way to tell the truth was to deny what someone - I had no idea who - had told him about me.
The conversation went on for ten minutes, maybe fifteen, and ended with me not admitting what I couldn't admit, not telling what I couldn't tell because it didn't happen, and Stavsky became angry and said that if that was the case, those three would go, but I wouldn't go. I couldn't write about Ordzhonikidze if I wouldn't even talk frankly to him.. "You propagandize counter-revolutionary poems and then you want to follow in the footsteps of Ordzhonikidze! " , he said to me as I was going..
I left him, depressed by all this, to see him again in Mongolia, on Khalkhin Gol, two years later, in the role of the man who for the first time in my life took me out under fire, or at least in the zone of fire, and for a few days there, on the front line, treated me like a rough but caring nurse.
But that was later, and that day it was just as I have related it, although maybe I don't remember exactly what he said - perhaps the words were actually a bit different, softer or rougher. My state of mind is much easier to remember. I was extremely upset, and Stavsky's last sentence was going round and round in my head, ringing a bell somehow with the phrase about praising counter-revolutionary poets. Suddenly it dawned on me. I remembered two or three conversations, quite recently, in the evenings, with our new seminar leader, who had recently come in and was having private discussions with each of us, one at a time, apparently getting to know us - or so we thought. I was interested in Kipling at the time, and I published several of my translations of Kipling, which were considered successful, in the Young Guard magazine. And suddenly I remembered that at the most recent - I think the second conversation with this seminar leader - sitting on a bench, in the square in front of Herzen's house, we began by talking about Kipling's poems, and why I liked them. I liked them for their masculine style, their military precision and clearly expressed masculinity. When I told him why I liked Kipling, he started asking me: how did I feel about Gumilev? I was rather indifferent to Gumilev; I liked Mandelstam better, from among the Acmeists. I liked several of Gumilev's poems, but in general his poems seemed to me more aestheticist, less masculine, compared with Kipling. I preferred Kipling to Gumilev, although I might have been expected, I to like Gumilev's work. Then, after this conversation about Gumilev, he said
"Well, it's a pity that you don't like Gumilev. Although he was a counter-revolutionary, as a poet one can't help liking him." - and he started reciting Gumilev, whose poems he knew off by heart. Some poems I knew, some poems I didn't know, some poems I liked, some poems I remembered having liked previously -The Tram that lost its way, The Leopard and something else, I don't remember what - and I said that, of course, I liked these poems of Gumilev, but I still liked Kipling better.
That's the only conversation that could have inspired those last words Stavsky called after me, as I went away. There was no other conversation with anyone else. There simply wasn't. So it must mean that this man, the new head of the seminar, had behaved contemptibly, had made something up which didn't happen. After all, he himself had introduced the subject of Gumilev, he had told me that although he was a counter-revolutionary, he was a good poet, he had recited his poems, and he had made me agree that Gumilev wrote some good poems, but I preferred Kipling.
Why did he give Stavsky such a different account of our conversation? He had drawn me into conversation, but he gave such an account of it that Stavsky called me, demanded that I confess to some non-Soviet conversations, and as a result did not believe me and excluded me from a trip with my comrades to the North Caucasus, where I so much wanted to go. Why would he do that? Was he trying to curry favour, to show how vigilant he was? Or was there some other reason why he needed to say something about me? But why? I hadn't done him any harm. He was normally nice to me.
Fortunately, we had only one seminar session after that, because I couldn't bring myself to look at this man, I avoided his gaze and hurried off before he could speak to me. Later, when I thought of this business, which I remembered well and for a long time, I saw it as a provocation, by means of which I suppose he was strengthening or trying to strengthen his own position. The man was obviously unhappy or confused in some way, but he was also seriously ill and could barely walk. I never saw him again. When we returned to school in the Autumn, he had disappeared. He had been arrested, and probably died somewhere. I never heard his name mentioned again.
It's strange how from year to year, life teaches us lessons - and sometimes also plays tricks on us that we don't understand.
For a long time, our family had been moving about between different rented rooms, often renting them temporarily from people who were working away somewhere. For the first winter after we moved to Moscow, we lived in a flat belonging to my stepfather's sister and some relatives of hers., While we were living, her husband's brother was arrested.
It was the second time he had been arrested. The first time he was arrested was in 1930, before my stepfather. Like my stepfather, he had been released after a few months. But he was a more senior officer than my stepfather. He had the rank of Lieutenant-General.. He had been the first Soviet military attache in Turkey, a professor at the military Academy and I beieve he was an old classmate of Tukhachevsky. In the twenties, when we sometimes went to Moscow for a week or ten days, we had stayed with my aunt — there was nowhere else to stay — and I had seen the tall, good-looking Tukhachevsky when he came to see my uncle.
When he was released, my uncle didn't go back to the Army. He was teaching, as a civilian, a course in economic geography at some higher educational institution. He was a highly educated man. Then suddenly, he was arrested again. I can't remember exactly when it happened, but it was about the same time as the trial of Tukhachevsky, Uborevich and others. My mother was upset. She said that she couldn't believe that my uncle had done anything wrong. My stepfather looked upset but said nothing. He would never talk about such things.
I personally, like most people, at least most young people of my generation, thought at the time that the trial of Tukhachevsky and other military leaders must be on the level. Who would want to condemn and shoot people like them, marshals like Yegorov and Tukhachevsky, the Deputy Defence Minister, the Chief of the General Staff ? I knew less about the others than about them, but I thought of them as the outstanding men of our army, its great leaders. But how could they have been arrested and sentenced to death if they were not guilty? There simply must have been some terrible plot against the Soviet government. It just didn't occur to me doubt it at that time because there seemed no possible alternative. They must have been to blame, anything else was incomprehensible - they simply must be guilty. Uncle Ivan was not guilty before and he was released. This time, he had not been released, so he must be guilty. My stepfather had been released before, because he was not guilty. Now when he was working in his military Department at the Institute, nothing has happened to him. Still, it was a bit frightening to think about it, it was a thought that was best avoided, because the same thing that had happened to Ivan my uncle was now happening to more and more other people, more and more often. On the other hand, these were only other people, people I did not know, people I knew nothing about.
This is the confused memory I had of that time. Some details I remember, some of it of it I remember incompletely or not at all - events for which, to be honest, I find it impossible to forgive not just Stalin, but all of us, including me myself. I say to myself "Perhaps you did nothing wrong yourself, or at least you probably did nothing, but it was bad enough just have accepted it and got used to it. For you, a man in his early twenties, the events of 1937 and 1938, things which now seem incredible and monstrous, gradually assumed the character of a norm, became almost familiar. You lived in the midst of it all as if you were deaf, as if you were unaware that people all around you were being shot, being killed, disappearing. As if there must be a reason for it, when there could be no reason for it. "
Perhaps, in understanding the attitudes of mind of people of my generation at that time, or rather, trying to understand them, and above all, of course, trying to understand myself, I must make a distinction between some cases, where I had complete faith in the correctness of what was happening, and others, where I half accepted it and half didn't.
I was convinced by the trials, I could not imagine any alternative to accepting that this was the truth. Yet there was something strangely disturbing about this willingness to tell the whole story and confess to everything, which was heard in one testimony after another. It was difficult to doubt what people said about themselves. And it all seemed to fit together into what seemed at that time a coherent picture. At the same time, why did they all confess? Why did they all plead guilty? No one denied their guilt, no oner even insisted that they considered themselves entitled to act as they did.
I had a longstanding bias against some people, such as (for example)Zinoviev. Perhaps it came from my Leningrad connections, because in Leningrad he had left a particularly bad memory of himself. By contrast I was biased in favour of Bukharin and to some extent Rykov. There were some favourable memories - especially of Bukharin. I remembered his final words after the discussion of the report on poetry at the First Writers Congress.. We future students of the Literary Institute were given entrance tickets to the public gallery, each of us for one session and I got a ticket for that session. At first our poets attacked Bukharin and I approved; they spoke in a emphatic, bold, aggressive way, which I liked. But when Bukharin replied, he also spoke fiecely, boldly and aggressively, which I also liked, on a human level. I liked the way he concluded the debate after the report. He was editor of Izvestia when I was in College and he published some poems by poets in the Literary Institute. On two occasions, he even published poems of mine. I didn't meet him. I was in the Department ofl Literature and Art. Once I was meant to see him. Bukharin read some new poems that I had sent to Izvestia, found them interesting and wanted to talk to me, I was given an appointment with him,, which, of course, mattered a lot to me. But I had previously arranged with my mother that I should come to see her at the same time, so I ran home before the meeting and left her a note. But the meeting didn't take place, Bukharin was busy with something or went away, and I never saw him again. And then I saw this note of mine at my mother's in 1944, when she came back from somewhere. She had taken with her to on her journey part of my youthful literary work and everything that I had ever written to her. I went to see her one day, and she was going through my old letters, and she suddenly said: "Here's a note I wanted to ask you about. I've been keeping it, but maybe I shouldn't."
The note was nothing very much in itself - a note from an aspiring poet, a student, who had an appointment to see the editor of a big newspaper who was interested in his poems. But in the light of what happened to Bukharin later, the note looked dangerous. Then, at my mother's in 1944, I shuddered when I read it and thought that it had been lying in her room since 1935 or early 1936, and had gone away with her. I remember the note by heart: "Dear Mum, I shan't be coming, I've got to go to see Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin at five o'cock. I can't tell you why yet, it's a secret, I'll tell you later. Your son». That's all there was in the note. The secret was that I hadn't yet told my mother that I had sent the new poems to Izvestia and that they were going to be published, as they had been twice before. I wanted to surprise her. Of course, I tore up the note. It was then 1944. I had been under fire, I had been in two wars - first in a small war, then in a big one. I was a Colonel, I had been awarded the Order of the Red Banner, I was a war correspondent, the writer of "Wait for me", "Russian people" and "Days and Nights", I had been awarded two Stalin prizes. Yet, looking back I was horrified to think that in 1937, 38 or 39, someone might have looked into my mother's papers and seen that note.
"I think you'd better tell us all about your secret and Bukharin. "
At that time, this could have ended badly not only for the student of the Literary Institute who published his poems in Izvestia, but also for his parents. And not only then, but in 1944 too, when I had a conversation with my mother and I tore up this note, if the note had fallen into the wrong hands, it might have been bad. I didn't say anything to my mother, I just shook my head. She didn't say anything either, she just shrugged her shoulders, as much as to say that she shouldn't have kept it, but the habit of keeping everything I wrote, just as it was, was stronger for her than any other thoughts or fears.
Although there were differing attitudes to the trials of Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Rykov individually, the main doubts began to arise simply from the sheer scale of what was happening. What we now call "mass illegal repressions" started when, increasingly, everything happened not in the courts, but simply as a result of decisions made by only a few people, decisions which somehow became known when people disappeared. Of course, from where I was, and knowing what knew and whom I knew, I was only aware of the disappearance of one person out of many hundreds and I knew nothing about the others, just as the others didn't know about each other. But even so, there was a sense of the scale of what was happening, there was a feeling that all this could not be right, some mistakes must be happening. This was sometimes discussed among ourselves. Then, when Ezhov was demoted from Interior Minister to Minister for Water Transport, and then disappeared altogether, the validity of these doubts was confirmed at the national level.
The popular description "Ezhovshchina" came into use not after the twentieth Party Congress, as people of younger generations may tend to assume; it originated somewhere between the disappearance of Ezhov and the beginning of the War, during the period when some of those who had disappeared hd started to return. The word seemed to arise spontaneously and as far as I can remember, people were not afraid to use it in conversation. I think now that Stalin, with the information that he had at his disposal, knew about the widespread use of this word, and didn't order any attention to be paid to it. I suppose that at some point, Stalin realised the advantage of the events of earlier years being linked first with Yagoda, and then mainly with his successor. He was satisfied that they should be blamed on Ezhov. Ezhov was replaced by Beria. The appointment of Beria looked at the time as if Stalin had called upon a man from Georgia, whom he knew, whom he obviously trusted, to perform the demanding task of putting right what Ezhov had done wrong - where it was not too late. We must remember that those who were released between the end of 1938 and the beginning of the War were released under Beria. There were a lot of such people. I don't know what other estimates may exist, but according to the official history of the War, more than a quarter of the military arrested under Ezhov were released during these years, under Beria. So there was some basis for the popular belief that Beria, restoring justice, sought to correct what Ezhov had done. Most people, including me, would not have dreamed of Beria's future activities at that time. I certainly had no idea of what he had been doing, and on what scale, in Georgia during the Ezhovshchina period, before he came to Moscow.
So, in our eyes, it seemed that Stalin had corrected the mistakes made before by Ezhov and others, by all those who had been responsible for crimes. Beria, it appeared, had been appointed to put these things right.. When later, in 1939, under Beria, Meyerhold and Babel were arrested and disappeared, I can honestly say, despite their importance in literature and in the theatre, and despite the shock that these sudden (no longer expected) arrests produced, it seemed possible that they were guilty in some way. They were isolated cases and this had been done under Beria, who was believed to be correcting mistakes made under Ezhov. Many of those who for some unknown reason had been arrested earler under Ezhov had probably been innocent; but these were people who had not been touched before, yet they were being arrested now, when the mistakes of the past were being corrected. So perhaps there were good reasons.
I don't know about others, These were the thoughts that I had at the time.and I don't see any reason not to mention what I thought.. To omit it would be to over-simplify what was happening at that time.
At the end of the summer of 1938, I became a member of the Writers ' Union. That year, my first two or three books were published and I started to feel like a professional writer. So of course I now knew more than about what was going on in literary circles. And there were some dramatic events.
The most dramatic of these events for me personally was the arrest and disappearance of Mikhail Koltsov, It was completely unexpected and impossible to explain. He was arrested at the very end of 1938, at a time when writers were no longer being arrested, after a speech to a big audience of writers, which had been received with great enthusiasm. I later learned that he had gone straight from the meeting to the Pravda offices - he was a member of the editorial Board - and there he had been arrested — almost in Mehlis's office.
We had all read Koltsov's Spanish diary. It had been read with much greater interest than anything else written about Spain, including the correspondence of Ehrenburg. Fadeev and Alexey Tolstoy had praised the Spanish Diary. The second volume was being prepared for publication in Novy Mir; it was eagerly awaited. Koltsov had become something of a symbol of everything that Soviet people did in Spain. Many of our soldiers who had been in Spain were later arrested — some were released, and some died. I found this out later; but eveybody found out about Koltsov immediately. The rumours about his disappearance spread like wildfire. It was impossible, or almost impossible, to understand, or to believe that he was guilty. I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that Koltsov's guilt was not accepted, just as I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that the guilt of others was accepted and accepted easily..
An illustration of this is that later,from the very beginning of the War, there were rumours that Koltsov had been seen on one front and on another, including on the Karelian front - that he had been released, had returned from the camps and was fighting in the army. There were witnesses to this, or rather alleged witnesses, who told someone about it, and someone told someone else about it; the rumors appeared again and again, and were heard by by many, including me.
These rumours had some basis in reality: many soldiers were known to have disappeared in the pre-war years, returned to the army and subsequently distinguished themselves at the front; it had often not been realised before the War that they had returned to the Army. Then during the War, their names were first mentioned as the recipients of medals, then later in Orders. The rumours about Koltsov's re-appearance at the front were particularly persistent, because of a special sympathy for him, for his personality, the part had played in Spain, his Spanish Diary, and to a general inability to believe that this man had done something wrong. After the War, In 1949, I went with the first delegation of Soviet cultural delegates to China. Fadeev was the head of the delegation, and I was his deputy. Late one night in Beijing at the hotel - I can't remember in what context - I mentioned Koltsov's name to him and told him that I had never beeen able to understand how things could have happened the way they did with him. Fadeev hardly ever discussed this sort of thing with me - maybe three times in all - but in a moment of frankness , he told me that he, Fadeev, a week or two after Koltsov's arrest, had written a short note to Stalin saying that many writers, both Party members and others, could not believe that Koltsov was guilty; that he, Fadeev, also could not believe it, and he thought it necessary to report this widespread impression in literary circles to Stalin; and he asked Stalin to see him.
After a while, Stalin received Fadeev.
- So you don't believe Koltsov is guilty?" Stalin asked him.
Fadeev said that he didn't believe it, didn't want to believe it.
- Do you think I believed it, do you think I wanted to believe it? I didn't want to, but I had to believe it.
Stalin called Poskrebyshev and told him to show Fadeev the papers that had been set aside for him.
"Go and read them, then come back and tell me what you think," Stalin said to him. (This is what I remember from my conversation with Fadeev).
Fadeev went to another room with Poskrebyshev, sat down at a table, and two folders of Koltsov's testimony were placed in front of him.
The testimony, according to Fadeev, was appalling, with confessions of links with the Trotskyites,
- In fact, just about everything was in there.
Fadeev bitterly waved his hand, apparently, as I understood, not wanting to go into personal details.
- I read it and couldn't believe my eyes. When I had read it all, I was called see Stalin again, and he asked me:
- Do you have to believe it now?"
"I have to," said Fadeev.
- If people ask you about it and you need to give them an answer, you can tell them what you know yourself, concluded Stalin. And he dismissed Fadeev.
This conversation I had with Fadeev took place in 1949, more than three years before Stalin died. Fadeev did not comment on what he had told me. He had related it with a bitterness that I could have explained in a number of ways. It could be simply that he had been upset to have realised the guilt of a man like Koltsov. Or it might have been a reaction to the impossible position in which he found himself, when he realised that he couldn't believe in the guilt of Koltsov or fully trust - perhaps even trust at all - the accuracy of what he had read in the folder. There was something about his manner when he said "just about everything was there" which suggested precisely this latter - that he still deep down did not believe in Koltsov's guilt. He couldn't say so, or at least not directly, even after eleven years...Because Koltsov could not have been a victim of the "Ezhovshchina." Ezhov had already been removed without trace. It couldn't have been Ezhov. It had to be Stalin...
Why do I write at such length about all this, the hardest bit to explain - the hardest bit to bear, even in memory - when I write about the years of my youth? There was a great deal more to be remembered, events that had nothing in common with all this. But that, of course, is precisely why I have brought the attention of the reader to those painful memories.
Much of what I've written so far may seem nothing to do with my declared intention at the beginning of this book, of analysing or attempting to analyze the attitudes of a man, or of people of my generation, to Stalin. I cannot do without these pages, because they represent the point at which the contradictions in my own inner assessment of Stalin began. Contradictions, smothered and repressed even then, as a result sometimes of cowardice, sometimes of stubborn self-persuasion, even a self-destructive tendency and a desire not to touch what I didn't want to touch even in my thoughts.
Yet the first roots of our ambivalence about Stalin were there, in the thirties. Conscious, unconscious, half-conscious, but still growing somewhere in our minds. But if these contradictions didn't grow to their full height, if they didn't bear fruit at that time, it was not because - as is often said now - we only found out all about it all later, after the Twentieth Party Congress. It's true , of course, that much was learned only after the Twentieth Congress. But not everything. There were also things that were known and could and should have been considered before the Twentieth Congress. It wasn't that we didn't know. It was that we didn't want to know.
The point is not that we didn't know what was happening, but that, sensing and to some extent knowing about the negative things that were being done and incompletely or belatedly put right, and sometimes not put right at all, we knew much more about the positive things. What positive things were associated for us, for me specifically, with the name of Stalin in those years? It has to be said that there was a very great deal, almost everything, if only because at that time almost everything of which we were aware came from him and was associated with his name. Everything that happened was explained by the overall policy, which he unwaveringly pursued, of general industrialization. And of course, many amazing things happened. The country was changing before our eyes. When something didn't work out, it had to mean that someone had interfered with it. First, the wreckers interfered, then, as was demonstrated at the trials, the left and right oppositionists interfered.
Sweeping aside everything that got in the way of industrialization, Stalin directed it with an iron hand. He did not talk much, but he did a great deal. He rarely gave interviews, but he had many business meetings; he rarely made speeches, yet the point was reached where his every word was weighed and valued not only in our country, but in the whole world. He clearly, simply, and consistently expressed the thoughts that he wanted to drum into our heads. He drummed firmly and, as it seemed to us, never promised what he did not subsequently achieve.
We were the pre-war generation, we knew that we must expect war. At first, we visualised it as a general war with the capitalist world . Exactly whom we would be fighting, what coalition of forces, we didn't know. Before Hitler came to power, we were threatened by our immediate neighbours Poland, Romania and the Little Entente; in the Far East, we were threatened by Japan. We simply knew in general terms, that we were surrounded by the capitalists. But gradually, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, with the rise to power of Hitler, with the creation of the anti-Comintern Pact, our future became more clearly defined. Obviously, we would have to fight Japan and Germany and possibly Italy, which had joined them. Poland also remained hostile to us, although it was not clear how Poland could be on the side of Germany; yet, contrary to logic, Poland remained hostile to us
The Chinese militarists were repulsed with a firm hand on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We sympathized with this when I was a boy. Later, in Hasan, there was a clash with the Japanese. At the time, there were rumours that things had not at first gone as well there as had been reported; but at any rate, we didn't withdraw. Then there was the Khalkhin-Gol campaign, where I myself went and saw a lot with my own eyes. There were some disappointments; not everything matched my expectations: in particular, the Japanese beat us in the air at first. But then our new planes appeared, and most importantly, our pilots, with experience of fighting in Spain and China. At first, our infantry did not perform very well, there were cases of panic — I did not see them, but I heard about them. But our tanks performed supurbly on Khalkhin-Gol. Our aircraft too, in the end, performed supurbly. There was still a suspicion that our infantry fought no better than the Japanese. But taking the Khalkhin-Gol conflict as a whole, the Japanese were completely defeated.
This was an irrefutable fact, and behind it was much of what Stalin had done for the army. We knew without question that he had given his attention to the army, arming it, supplying it, giving priority and a lot of time and effort, preparing the country for an armed struggle in difficult conditions. So, in the end, despite one or two concerns about unpreparedness, we greatly valued what Stalin had done. As for Mongolia, there we had fulfilled our international duty: the agreement we had signed with Mongolia was followed; we had promised to help them and we did help them, in full measure. This aroused a sense of satisfaction. We felt at that time, that Stalin, as the leader of our country, was doing everything he could, everything that was practically possible.
In Spain, we were convinced that if it had not been for the Non-Intervention Committee, the blockade, the failure to prevent the intervention of the German and Italian military contingents and large-scale imports from Germany and Italy of artillery, tanks and aircraft, the Republic would have coped with fascism. For our part, we had a clear conscience; we had done everything we could. And we felt that Stalin personally did everything he could to save the Spanish Republic, and to evacuate Spanish children and orphans. His name was associated with strict fulfillment of our international duty.
The positive things associated with Stalin included also the Arctic - the rescue of the crew of the Chelyuskin, the landing at the North Pole of Papanin and his comrades, the flights of Chkalov and Gromov. We felt that all these bold enterprises were achieved by people encouraged by and responsible to him. The celebration of these achievements took on a national character, and brought all of us, with rare exceptions, closer to the generally distant, detached figure of Stalin.
We did not imagine the very possibility, of the charges subsequently brought against Stalin of complicity in Kirov's death. I and many other people heard them later, with my own ears from the rostrum as suspicions - almost certain, although later on, as far as I know, no one was able to prove their certainty. At the time, we didn't even imagine their possibility: we just knew that Stalin followed Kirov's coffin. We did not know what really happened in Stalin's family - the tragic development of his relationship with his wife, we did not hear rumours that he might have been responsible for her death. We just knew that he followed her coffin, and we sympathized with his loss.
Stalin's speeches were simple and uncompromising. In his dealings with people - we sometimes saw this in the newsreels - he did not put on airs. He dressed simply, unpretentiously. There was nothing ostentatious about him, no outward pretensions to greatness or distinction. And this corresponded to our sense of how the man should behave who was at the head of the party. In sum, Stalin epitomised all our real or imagined positive features of the leader of the party and the state.
It was very difficult to resist the temptation to pass the responsibility for the negative things on to someone else. In this respect, Stalin was absolutely consistent. The excesses of mass collectivization led to the article "Dizzy with success". "Dizzy with success" broadened the number of the guilty, and transferred everything that happened to a completely different level of causality than could be imagined from the scale of what happened. It encouraged in people like me, who knew nothing of what was happening in the countryside, an unconditional support for the authority of Stalin: The mistakes, it appeared, were being made at the local level. And unless he stopped them and prevented further mistakes, they would continue. He appeared to us in the role of the man who was preventing mistakes, just as he later appeared in the same role when Ezhov was replaced by Beria. Ezhov disappeared, and Stalin, according to rumours - distant, obscure rumours which reached people like me - somewhere, probably at the Central Committee Plenum, very harshly criticized people who were guilty of excesses, for which the word "Ezhovschina"so aptly appeared.
That word was so convenient that it would have been entirely appropriate for Stalin to have put it into circulation. In point of fact, he didn't; most likely this designation for the two or three years of that short but terrible era, occurred spontaneously to many different people. It spread like wildfire, thanks to its simplicity and appropriateness, following a phrase which had already been associated with Ezhov's name "Ezhov gloves" - "hedgehog gloves".These gloves were quite often written about and depicted at that time.. It seems to me now, when I remember that period, that the promotion of Ezhov's image, his "iron fist", his "iron" commissarship, was probably encouraged rather than discouraged by Stalin in anticipation of the future. He knew that the day would inevitably come for the end of these purges, which he - as a totally ruthless politician - had deemed necessary. There would then be an obvious man to take responsibility.
These thoughts occur to me now. But at the time, it would never have occurred to me that I could ever have such thoughts.. The Pact with the Germans, Ribbentrop's visit to Moscow, and everything connected with it, at first did not make any noticeable dent in my image of Stalin, although after the open battle with fascism in Spain, the event itself shook me psychologically as much as others of my generation, many of whom felt it strongly. This was something which was impossible to take in on an emotional level. On an intellectual level, yes, but not emotionally. Something had changed in the world around us, and in ourselves. It was as if there had been a change in one's own personal identity; after this pact, it was as if we would be living with a different perception of ourselves
This change in perception and self-perception would probably have been more acute for me if it hadn't been for the fact that, in the days when all this was happening, I was in Khalkhin Gol, in time to see our offensive and encirclement of the Japanese army. And it wasn't just that my attention and interests were absorbed by what was happening directly there — it was also, for me personally, as a novice war correspondent, a baptism of fire, seeing death, sometimes in terrible forms and experiencing moments of personal danger. But in addition to all this, there was a feeling - I wrote about it later, trying to express it accurately, and I want to repeat it here - that given this Pact, there, somewhere far away, the danger of a stab in the back was removed.
In Moscow in these years, when the sense of a future war with Nazi Germany was growing, we knew that it was we who were facing that danger, it was in front of us. The threat of a stab in the back came from the Japanese, on the Manchurian frontier, where conflicts were constantly occurring, or in Mongolia, which the Japanese invaded in 1939 (not for the first time, there had been several previous attempts). Whereas when we were there in the Far East, involved in the war on Khalkhin Gol, this possibility of a stab in the back was associated with Germany - we were concerned about a possible blow from behind us, in the West. And then suddenly that threat appeared to have been removed and there was a strange, unexpected new era of relative calm: a non-aggression Pact had been concluded. And with whom? - with Nazi Germany.
When the war between the Germans and Poland began, the stronger had attacked the weaker. All my sympathy, as well as the sympathy of my comrades in the editorial office of the military newspaper where I was working, was on the side of the Poles. The non-aggression Pact was a pact, but pact or no pact, none of us wanted a victory for Nazi Germany in the European war that had begun, much less an easy victory. The speed with which the Germans invaded and occupied Poland was startling and disturbing.
On September 17, 1939, the announcement of the entry of our troops into Western Ukraine and Belarus, as Poland collapsed as a state, found me still at Khalkhin Gol. I think of it as the day after the day of the biggest air battle, over the Mongolian steppe. There were several hundred planes in the air. Later, in 1950, when I met Zhukov, I said to him a little nervously, that during the Great Patriotic War, I had never seen so many planes engaged in an air battle above my head as there were in those air battles over Khalkhin Gol. And he grinned and unexpectedly for me replied: "Do you think I had? I hadn't, either."
I mention this because, although we had surrounded, defeated, and generally smashed (it is not an exaggeration to say) the Japanese on Mongolian territory, we didn't know what would happen next and whether a major war with Japan would begin. It seemed to me at the time quite likely . So when there, in Europe, our troops entered Western Ukraine and Belarus, I, certainly, felt a sense of unmixed delight. One needs to remember the atmosphere of the previous years, the Soviet-Polish war of 1920, the subsequent decades of strained relations with Poland, the sense of siege, the relocation of the Polish kulaks to the Far East, the Polish attempts to colonize the Ukrainian and especially the Belarusian populations, the White Guard gangs that operated from the territory of Poland in the twenties, the study of the Polish language among the military as the language of a potential enemy, the trials of the Belarusian Communists. Against this background, it was perhaps not surprising that I was happy that we were going to liberate Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. We were going as far as the line of national division, which once, in 1920, had been considered fair, from the point of view of ethnicity, to even such an enemy of our country as Lord Curzon, and was remembered as the Curzon line. On that occasion, because of our military defeats, caused by a terrible exhaustion of strength during the World War and the Civil War, we had been forced to retreat and agree to the peace that gave Western Ukraine and Belarus to Poland, What was happening now seemed fair to me. I sympathized while still on Khalkhin-Gol. A week later, still in uniform, I went from Khalkhin-Gol to the already liberated Western Belarus.
I visited it on the eve of the elections to the People's Assembly, saw with my own eyes the people freed from the rule they hated, heard conversations, and attended the first day of the meeting of the People's Assembly. I was young and inexperienced, but I felt that I could undrrstand how and what people clapped in the audience, and why they stood up, and what their faces were like when they did it. For me, there was no question: in Western Belarus, where I found myself, the Belarussian population - and there was a huge majority of Belarussians - was glad to see us and supported our action.. And, of course, it occurred to me and many other people that if we hadn't made our declaration, if we hadn't somehow or other agreed the demarcation line with the Germans at the time of the Pact and advanced up to that point, then it would have been the Germans who would have come into these towns and villages, and taken all of Western Belarus, bringing them to within sixty miles of Minsk. No, then there were no questions of that kind in my mind, Stalin had done the right thing. And although England and France had declared war on the Germans, in practice neither of them came to the aid of the Poles. This confirmed for me what I had read about their insincerity and the fruitlessness of trying to negotiate with them a treaty to deter Germany. Other events were recent memories: Munich, and our readiness to help Czechoslovakia in cooperation with France, if France had agreed - and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia - all this remained in my memory and all this confirmed that Stalin had been right. But although everything seemed to be right, still something felt wrong, something nagged my conscience. There was a half-conscious feeling - a feeling, not a conscious opinion - that we had gone against our nature because of the non-aggression Pact. From the point of view of the state, one's self - perception as a citizen of this state, everything seemed to be as it should be. From the point of view of self - perception as a citizen of the country that was the hope of the whole world, or rather, not of the whole world, but of all like-minded people in the world, the main hope in the fight against world fascism (not just German fascism) there was something wrong. There was something lost in one's old sense of self. I felt it - and I knew that others felt it.
Going back in my thoughts to that time, to the psychology of a man who in general consciously supported Stalin, but at the same time unconsciously could not self-identify with all this, I think now about Stalin himself. How was he to act in these circumstances, when, on the one hand, France and Britain were not willing to enter into a treaty binding not only us, but both sides of their existing military agreement, and on the other hand, Nazi Germany offered a non-aggression Pact and was ready in case of war with Poland not to cross the Curzon line, not to go as far as our frontier, but on the contrary, to allow us up to this line, which had once been suggested as fair border between us and Poland?
Stalin had to decide. The decision was his. He could consult, ask the opinions of others, request information - I don't know how the decision was reached and I shall not enter into it - but this is certain: by this time he had secured such a position in the party and in the state that if he firmly decided something, he need not concern himself with direct opposition, he had no one he need persuade, once he made a decision, it was the right decision..
Now I wonder, psychologically, whether he had any inner opposition to this decision, whether he had, at least partially, the feeling that somewhere deep down we others felt: with this decision, we become in some way different from what we had been, we had not been true to ourselves?
Thinking about it now, I wonder whether Stalin's may have believed that the final stage of relations with Hitlerite Germany would be a battle of life and death, a battle in which we would be victorious And in some ways, he looked at the non - aggression Pact in the same way as our — "sworn friends" (as we called them) — the German fascists: The Pact was a preliminary move which would lead to that future battle in which there will be no middle way - and we must win. It occurs to me that he would have remembered the fighting which led to the conclusion of the Brest peace, when Lenin had to wage a ferocious struggle within the party to get agreement to the Peace. Stalin didn't have that probem, he had already put himself in a position where he did not have to collect votes in support of his decision - that was the difference. But perhaps that makes the responsibility all the greater. Decisions made without oppositon, with automaticl approval, are far more difficult to make than they might appear at first glance. I think it must be that final decisions made by one person for all are the most difficult and the most frightening. The military knows this best. It is true that in their case this is caused by the direct and objective necessity of the very conditions of war.
In Stalin's case, he had already, in a long and bloody way, put himself in a position where he had to take single-handed decisions.. And yet, as I say all this, I wonder if he did not then, before the conclusion of the Pact, put himself mentally in Lenin's place during the peace of Brest-Litovsk. Whom did Stalin have to oppose him, as Lenin had Bukharin and Trotsky? But he may well have supported his resolve with the thought that this obscene Pact - he could well have called it that in his mind, especially if he remembered Lenin at the same time - was no worse than the obscene Brest peace - that this obscene Pact in the current international situation was no less necessary than the obscene Brest peace. There was an idealogical loss; but that loss provided the respite that was necessary for future tasks. It is naive, of course, to try to think for a man like Stalin, to imagine the course of his thoughts - these conjectures are based on purely on my own thoughts, and yet I cannot help thinking that they have their own logic.
To return to my own life. In Bialystok - on the first or second day of the people's Assembly sessions - I nearly passed out, with a sudden high (over 40 centigrade) temperature. More dead than alive, I was taken to hospital by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky who took touching care of me as long as he could, while he was in Bialystok. The hospital, basically a Polish hospital, which I vaguely remember as half Russian, half foreign. Then, in 1939, I almost died for a second time — I had pneumonia very badly, with a high temperature for three weeks, if not longer.
After a while, my mother came. She had got a travel warrant from Krasnaya Zvezda. Not many people could have done that; but my mother's character was such, that in those circumstances, nothing could stand in her way. When I began to recover - my temperature had finally dropped, but I was still terribly weak - my mother made sure that I was sent to Moscow for treatment. From Bialystok to Minsk, I flew with her on an ambulance plane - I think it was an R-5 - and from Minsk we went on by train. My hand was swollen with puss after injections of camphor and caffeine had probably brought some infection. In Moscow, it was lanced. Then I went home to bed. When I came to myself, still in slippered feet I moved to convalesce in the Dom Tvorchestva (Artists' Home) at Peredelkino - there was a small house there then, which subsequently burned down.
I relate thes personal details to explain the fact that the establishment of Soviet power in the Baltic republics at that time passed me by completely, making no impression on my mind. I didn't find myself in those republics until after the war, in 1947, when I thought about the events of 1939 in retrospect, and met Vilis Tenisovich Latsis, who told me something about the complexities of that time, speaking as he does with strict restraint, combined with directness and innate dislike of softening the sharp corners of history
Psychologically, the start of the Finnish war also passed me by. My comrades from the Dom Tvorchestva where we all lived together -Gorbatov, Dolmatovsky and Khatsrevin - went to it. To tell the truth, I felt some sense of inadequacy compared with them. But I had no personal desire to go to that war. Leaving out of account the strategic need to anticipate the danger of the situation that might arise in the event of war with Germany, there was something that prevented me from morally supporting this war of the Soviet Union with Finland. I had wanted, even desperately wanted to be in the midst of events in Mongolia - events that could have escalated into war with Japan. But this was different. Strategy is strategy - I was fully aware of demands of necessity and the future danger of the situation. I remember I that I tried to impress on myself the correctness of what was happening, or rather, its necessity, but still somewhere in my heart the war with Japan was one thing, and the war with Finland something completely different.
In January 1940, courses commenced at the Frunze Academy for the training of war correspondents. I hadn't quite recovered, but I went on the course. The war with Finland by this time seemed not to be developing in quite the way many people had at first anticipated. I myself, from what my stepfather had taught me, strengthened by my experience of Khalkhin Gol, consistently opposed over-confident states of mind and over-confident talk. Some of what I heard reall disgusted me and I say this without exaggeration. I was still naive in some ways, but not in that way. As the Finnish war dragged on, it was tacitly assumed that after completing a two-month course in mid-March in which we had thoroughly and diligently studied the basics of tactics and topography and learned how to use weapons, we would go as war correspondents to the front. Obviously, it would be to replace those who had gone before, including those who by that time had died there. On Khalkhin-Gol, as they say, God had spared us all, but here, in the Finnish War, three writers working as war correspondents had been killed. I was not attracted to this war, as I have already said, but after Khalkhin Gol I felt myself to be a soldier, or at least a man involved in the army, and if peace had not been signed on the very day in which we completed our course, I would have become involved in this war. But it ended, with agreement to the very terms that had been presented to Finland from the beginning.
In this respect, it might deserve to be considered successful, but inwardly all of us still felt the shame experienced by the country. It wasn't admitted directly in conversations, but it was often implied. It had turned out that we were not capable of achieving much, a great deal had been done extremely badly. People like me heard rumours that the current state of affairs in the army was drawing the closest attention of Stalin, and conclusions were being drawn from what had happened. This was confirmed when Peoples Commissar Voroshilov was removed and replaced by Timoshenko. Very soon after that, we heard rumours of an abrupt change in the training of the army and its preparation for war.
This was followed by the summer of 1940 by the German occupation of Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Holland, Dunkirk and the defeat and capitulation of France — all these events at first were hard to take in. Although the French and British hadn't helped Poland, although the war in Europe had been called "strange", I think the conclusion of this "strange" war was as unexpected for us - perhaps even more unexpected - as there, in the West, where it all happened.
There was no doubt in my mind that we would one day be at war with Nazi Germany. Since 1933, with the Reichstag fire and the Dimitrov trial, people of my generation had lived with a sense of the inevitability of a collision with Nazism. Spain reinforced this feeling and the Pact with the Germans did not remove it. Perhaps it removed it for some. For me and for my comrades, the young writers of that time, it did not remove the threat. We just thought that it would be further in the future. Before that, there would be a long war between Germany, France and England. Some time later, when that was over, we would face Nazism. There was something reassuring about this, at first. The Finnish war, which had revealed our military weaknesses, made us think of the Pact in retrospect as greater benefit to us than I had thought it was at first. It was worrying to imagine what might have happened in 1939, if we had faced Germany one-to-one, instead of Finland. Naturally, what happened in France made us feel this even more strongly. We already knew that war was coming sooner or later. Now we felt that it wouldn't be sooner or later, but very soon.
I was on the war correspondents course at the Frunze Academy, commencing in the Autumn of 1940 and ending in mid-June of 1941, when we were given military ranks after returning from camp, I was firmly convinced that war was coming very soon. As far as I was concerned, none of subsequent ups and downs of of our relations with Germany reassured me The TASS report of June 14, 1941, which, as many have since said, demobilized some people and lulled the vigilance of others, made a strange, disturbing impression on me — it seemed th have a number of different possible meanings, including a very threatening meaning for us. After the German invasion of Yugoslavia, I sensed that war was very close. I didn't know any more than anybody else did, I didn't have any additional information, but I just felt that it probably inevitable now, after what happened to Yugoslavia.
The play A Guy from Our Town, was about Mongolia and the defeat of the Japanese, but I quite deliberately concluded it with its characters going into battle. I didn't end it with the celebration, with which Khalkhin-Gol was actually ended, but at a point when the fiercest fighting was still going on and much was ahead. I spoke about this when I was interviewed about my play a few weeks before the War, saying that for all its shortcomings, this is how the play is written, because any day now, we shall have a war. The morning the war started I felt a sense of shock that it had actually started, as everyone else did, but I wasn't in any way surprised at what had happened. It had started suddenly, but how else could it have been expected to start? The Germans had done the same thing several times before. Why, should they have started it in any other way?
With such thoughts and feelings in my mind, which by no means implied that I expected the tragic turn of events in the first days of the war, which actually occurred, (I did not expect those, any more than the vast majority of other people did) — I went to the Western front as a war correspondent for an army newspaper, two days after the war began.
© 2019-23 Mike Munford