Iwas born in 1958 and grew up in Moscow as the daughter of a single mother, who was a pharmacist. In my childhood, my maternal grandmother and grandfather lived with us. He was Lithuanian, and she was Jewish. My mother was their only child, as I was hers—we were two generations of single daughters.
We never lived with him—my parents were not married. My father was from a German aristocratic family in Gatchina. His parents had emigrated during the Revolution, and as the son of a baron he had a very difficult life. He organized amateur concerts, which were very common at the time, but because of his background he could never get a permanent job in Moscow.
When they met, my father was married. His wife was very ill, and he couldn’t leave her. When she died, he wanted to live with us, but my mother would not accept this. Her own situation was very difficult: she was living with me and her two parents in a single room in a communal flat. My grandparents hated him. He was twenty-nine years older than her—the same age as my grandfather—so one would expect them to be prejudiced against him. The neighbours, of course, gossiped about the whole story. So my parents never really had a satisfactory place to meet, or live together. My mother could more or less cope with this before I was born, but by the time I arrived I think she was just very tired, and decided she could not keep up the relationship amid so much uncertainty and hostility, but must devote all her energies to me.
This is a sad story. He was very much alone, and had no other children. He had two elder sisters who were both blind, whom he went to look after in Gorky. There he died in 1970, when I was twelve. Later, when I went to look for his grave, I couldn’t find it. I never knew my father when I was a child, and still know very little about his life, which is a great loss for me. I realized this when I was eighteen, and friends of his came to me and told me that before he died he had asked them to give me his letters to my mother. He wanted me to see what their love had been for seven years before I was born. When I read these letters, I was very moved—I not only felt close to him, but also that many aspects of my own character come from him.
After my grandfather died, I discovered a notebook in which he had written a short auto-biography. You can imagine how excited I was when I came upon it. But when I read it I was very disappointed—worse than that, really depressed. Because it was clear that this was not something written from the heart, but as a precaution in case he was arrested. It was a terrible document. It just detailed all the activities that would show him to be an obedient and dedicated member of the Party—his record in the Red Army, his role in the mobilization for this or that official campaign, and so on. Not one personal word. My mother told me that he had been expelled from the Party at one time, but was reinstated. He had many books at home, a lot of them from the thirties. But if their authors had later been prosecuted and condemned as enemies of the people, he would cross out their names. For example, we had the third edition of Lenin’s Collected Works at home, of 1927–29. That is where I for the first time came across criticisms of Lenin, because it contained comments from Axelrod and others on his ideas about imperialism, for instance; also objections to
Not quite, because by chance a family photograph from his childhood survived—I don’t know how, because all other traces of his pre-revolutionary past disappeared. When I saw this photograph, it was absolutely clear that this was a rich family. His mother and grandmother—who was Polish—are in long, elegant dresses and his own baby clothes are very fetching, including pretty shoes on his feet—this at a time when peasants wore straw sandals, at best. But in his auto-biography my grandfather described himself as a boy from a poor peasant family, who were still virtually serfs.
Yes, although she too was afraid. The fear of the knock on the door at night made people adopt a psychological strategy of forgetting the past. It was like a kind of amnesia: they genuinely forgot the past. I believe that my grandmother truly no longer remembered the names of all her brothers, for example. When she was very old, I would insist to her: ‘Grandmother, after you go I will have no-one else from whom I can learn about the family who brought you up. They do not deserve this. Please try to recall at least some of their names.’ In the end, in the last year of her life, when she was too weak to resist and fight me off any longer, something did open up in her head, though many things were still lost. She told me that her grandfather had been a bookish man in a small town in Byelorussia, held in honour by its inhabitants, who had devoted his life to learning. But her mother had been a disobedient daughter in the family, disavowed by her father, because she had rejected her religious upbringing and married unwisely. Many of her relatives had emigrated to America. Now, about a year ago the Moscow press started to give a lot of coverage to a big Hassidic campaign from the United States to recover the collection of a famous rabbi from Lyubavichi in Byelorussia called Ber-Schneerson which was confiscated during the Revolution and ended up in the Lenin Library. They want the books back for the Hassidic community in America. Well, my grandmother told me her grandfather was called Boris Schneerson, which I suppose might be a Russian transformation of the Jewish name. I have no idea whether they were the same person, although obviously I’m curious. This kind of mystery about origins is very common in Russia today.