Thursday, December 20, 2012

`And For Each Small, Individual Life'

“Somewhere over the hill and far away in a Moscow that had become unreal to us, the blood-stained graven idol of our century had breathed his last. That was an event of overwhelming importance for millions whose suffering had not yet reached its term, for those nearest and dearest to them, and for each small, individual life. 

“I must confess that I was sobbing not for the monumental historical tragedy alone, but most of all for myself. What this man had done to me, to my children, to my mother…” 

The unnamed idol is Joseph Stalin, dead on March 5, 1953. His non-mourner is Yevgenia Solomonovna Ginzburg, a one-time Communist Party official and survivor of the Gulag. Ginzburg was arrested in February 1937 on charges of counter-revolutionary activity. In August she received a ten-year sentence and was transported to a labor camp in Kolyma, in northeastern Russia. Released from the Gulag in February 1949, she was forced to remain in exile for another five years in Magadan, a camp near Kolyma visited in 1944 by then-Vice President Henry Wallace (one of Lenin's "useful idiots"), who likened it to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Ginzburg was arrested again in October 1949 and returned to Kolyma. She worked secretly on her memoirs and was released from the Gulag in June 1955. 

The English translation of Journey into the Whirlwind was published in 1967, and Within the Whirlwind in 1981. Her memoirs were not published in the Soviet Union until 1989. In Russian, the volumes are titled Krutoi marshrut I and Krutoi marshrut II, meaning Harsh Route or Steep Route. She was the mother of novelist Vasilii Aksyonov, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980. During her eighteen years in the Gulag, her older son Alyosha died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. The passage quoted above is from the end of Chapter 14 of Within the Whirlwind. The next chapter begins like this: 

“Both up to and after March 5, in the harrowing days of the funeral rites of the Great and Wise One, Bach ruled supreme on the air. Music occupied an unprecedented, colossal place in the radio broadcasts of that brief period. Majestic musical phrases, slow and luminous, rolled forth from all the loudspeakers in our building, drowning out the clatter of children’s feet in the corridor and the hysterical sobbing of the women.” 

A remarkable coincidence: In My Century, another former Communist and prisoner of Stalin, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat, recounts hearing the St. Matthew Passion on the radio during a twenty-minute, supervised walk he’s permitted on the roof of the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. It’s Easter Sunday 1941: 

“If the human voice, manmade instruments, and the human soul can create, even once in all of history, such harmony, beauty, truth, and power in such unity of inspiration—if this exists, then how ephemeral, what a nonentity, all the might of the empire must be, that might that a beautiful Polish carol says `quakes in fear.’ It’s a commonplace line, but I’m an old man and I stopped being afraid of the commonplace a long time ago—what the critics call a commonplace. That wasn’t a thought I had while listening to Bach because I simply wasn’t a `thinking being’ at that moment. I was listening. But that thought did come to me as the last chords were fading. With desperate nostalgia I tried to summon them back from memory, but to no avail. The only sound was the wind howling over the roof of Lubyanka.”

Ginzburg was born on this date, Dec. 20, in 1904, and died May 25, 1977.

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

"I’m an old man and I stopped being afraid of the commonplace a long time ago." Hear, hear.

Merry Christmas, Patrick.