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July 13, 2004 by AK

Masha Gessen’s new book (via Languor Management)

It’s titled Two Babushkas: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. The Guardian reviewer, Virginia Rounding, is “captivated” by Gessen’s account. I’m not–this kind of storyline is typical of a generation, and I’m lucky to know a few old ladies with their own to tell.

Warning: I don’t like Gessen’s writings, and the more I read of them, the more intense my distaste. However, I’m dealing with a book review here, a Gessen–Rounding mix.

As the review goes, the book tells a story of two Jewish girls, one from a provincial Polish town, the other from Moscow, who got a decent education at Soviet colleges and, having gone through wartime hardship–like dozens of millions of other Soviet women–and through post-WW2 wave of official anti-Semitism, eventually got white-collar jobs that provided a decent living for them and their kids. There is nothing exceptional about them; in fact, both fared better than the average Soviet woman of their time, age and education. And yes, almost everyone had to compromise, but not everyone did.

Ester grew up in Bialystok (Russ. Belostok), once a half-Jewish backwater town in the Russian empire; then, and now in Poland. When the Red Army occupied Eastern Poland, she went to Moscow, the capital of the new, Soviet empire, where she entered a prestigious humanities college–the famous IFLI, the Institute of Philology, Literature, and History. Those were times of terror indeed, but the quality of education was probably as good as one could hope for in the country. At any rate, the girl’s transition from Bialystok to Moscow propelled her from nowhere to the top ranks of the Soviet intelligentsia.

“She was joining the Soviet Union’s most wretched generation at what may have been its worst moment,” remarks Gessen (as quoted by Rounding). My grandparents’ generation–wretched perhaps, but arguably the greatest of all in Soviet history.

After the war, Ester has trouble finding work because of her Jewishness. Indeed, Stalin’s policies got intensely anti-Semitic in 1948, and the next five years, until his death in 1953, brought no relief to the educated Soviet Jews. However, Ester “at last found work as a staff translator for the International Literature journal, a job she held for more than 40 years.” That’s the illustrious Inostrannaya Literatura, the source of my childhood literary impressions. It was certainly a cushy job with no office hours; my dream job had I lived then.

Gessen’s other grandmother, Rozalia, lost her husband to the War–he was killed at the front. Like millions of Soviet war widows, she had to rear her baby alone. Rozalia was trained in history but, according to the reviewer, “was convinced by the time she received her degree that most of what she had been taught was untrue.” This is probably a tremendous exaggeration, unless she specialized in modern Russian history. No matter how hard Bolshevik ideologues tried, they had to leave ancient, medieval, Renaissance and much of modern history to the real historians. One could choose Peloponneses wars for one’s thesis and get away with lip service to Marxism.

“Back in Moscow as a single mother, Rozalia, who could not bear the idea of teaching Soviet history, took a job at Glavlit, the ‘Head Directorate of Literature,'” where she first was responsible for censoring all “incoming literature” in three languages, and was later promoted to “censoring the work of foreign correspondents in the Soviet Union.” Oh the irony! But weren’t Tyutchev and Vyazemsky censors once?

“The two grandmothers survived, and it is hardly their descendants’ place to judge them for it.” Well, they didn’t just survive. If you see your family history as a long, tortuous journey through the hostile plains of Eastern Europe culminating in a safe passage of the youngest to the promised land–the United States in this case–indeed it is a tale of survival and little else. But these two Jewish women rose from humble beginnings to join the intellectual elite of the Soviet Union–the Evil Empire or whatever you call it–and it is to their achievement that Masha Gessen owes much of her own.


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