Word for Word: A Memoir

Word for Word: A Memoir

by Lilianna Lungina, Oleg Dorman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781468307320
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Publication date: 11/12/2014
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lilianna Lungina was a leading literary translator in the Soviet Union. She translated, among many authors, the works of Astrid Lindgren, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Heinrich Boll, Knut Hamsun, and Boris Vian.

The acclaimed director Oleg Dorman interviewed Lungina for a documentary film based on her life, which was released in 2009 and became one of the most popular television programs in Russia’s history.

Read an Excerpt

Dear reader,

No one can argue that there aren’t strong cultural differences between the United States and Russia, but even so, I was rather surprised when I learned that television viewers in Russia had recently become transfixed by a fifteen-part documentary about the life of Lillianna Lungina, a literary translator. That a nation would turn off the cop shows, game shows, and variety shows and tune into a seventy-seven-year-old woman’s eight-hour-long narration of her life during the Soviet years seemed difficult to believe.

And yet as soon as I read Word for Word, I understood exactly why Russia’s TV viewers responded the way they did. Word for Word is an extraordinary book in part due to its conception—it is an expanded transcript of the documentary, but when I read it, I could have sworn that I was reading prose. Lungina—surely one of the most erudite and well-spoken intellectuals of the twentieth century—gives us an extraordinarily moving story of the cultural and political upheavals that defined the long Soviet epoch. And with brilliant clarity, she tells her own story.

Lungina spent her youth in Germany, France, and Palestine, and her lively description of Europe in the interwar years provides a stark contrast to the gloomy, brutal scenes she observed when she returned to the Soviet Union in 1934. Stalin’s Moscow is a city of perpetual unease, and as Lungina loses friend after friend to the camps and is interrogated by the KGB, she experiences the most damning kind of political education.

But even in the worst of times, there is literature. After World War II, Lungina becomes the most acclaimed translator of her generation, rendering into Russian books by Astrid Lindgren, Heinrich Böll, Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, and many others. And as she finds herself at the center of cultural life, she meets some of the towering figures of Soviet literature, including Joseph Brodsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Yevgeny Yevtushekno.

I was deeply moved by Word for Word—not merely by Lungina’s story, but by the beautiful, unsentimental way she brings to life a lost world. This book is more than a memoir: it is a reckoning with a repressive regime whose intellectual life is surely its greatest legacy. I hope you find this book as revelatory as I did.

Peter Mayer




THIS BOOK IS THE TRANSCRIPT OF AN ORAL ACCOUNT BY LILIANNA Zinovievna Lungina of her own life, which was presented in a documentary series called Word for Word. I’ve added the most minor corrections, which are standard in the publication of any transcript, and have added those parts of the stories that could not, for various reasons, make it into the film, so the book is about a third longer than the series.

Lilianna Lungina (1920–1998) was a celebrated literary translator—it was through her translations that Russian readers discovered Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson on the Roof and the novels of Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, Max Frisch, Heinrich Böll, Michael Ende, Colette, Alexandre Dumas, Georges Simenon, Boris Vian, and Romain Gary. She translated the plays of Friedrich Schiller, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Henrik Ibsen, and stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen.

At the very beginning of the 1990s, a memoir by Lilianna Lungina, Les saisons de Moscou (The Seasons of Moscow), was published in France; it became a bestseller, and in an annual poll conducted by Elle, it was named by French readers as the best nonfiction book of the year. But Lungina was determined not to publish the book in Russia. She believed that her compatriots needed a completely different book, entirely rewritten from cover to cover. With one’s own people, she explained, one can and must discuss the things that outsiders cannot understand.

And at a certain point, she agreed to take on this challenge in front of a television camera. I think that the French book was something like a first draft for her story, which stretched over many days. In February of 1997, over the span of a week, I came to Lungina’s apartment on Novinsky Boulevard with the cinematographer Vadim Yusov and a small camera crew to listen to and film an oral novel, which would become the film Word for Word.

In her long life, Lilianna Lungina lived in many countries and captured the twentieth century with an extraordinary depth and clarity. This was a century that confirmed that there is no such thing as a collective life—only the lives of individuals. A century that confirmed that one is the only soldier on the field—that, indeed, that one is, himself, that field. That a person isn’t the plaything of circumstances, nor life’s victim, but a boundless and impregnable source of good.

Few people in the world get the chance to meet people like Lungina and her husband, the famous screenwriter Simon Lvovich Lungin. And yet it’s possible that other people—the people one meets—are the most important thing in our lives. It is through other people that we can take stock of life, of what human capability, of what love can be, of whether loyalty, bravery, and truth truly resemble what is written about them in books.

I was lucky enough to know and love such people. It is an honor for me to present this book to you.


MY NAME IS LILYA LUNGINA. FROM AGE FIVE TO TEN, WHEN I LIVED in Germany, I was called Lili Markovich, stress on the first syllable. Then, from age ten to fourteen, in France, they called me Lily Markovich—stress on the last syllable. And when I performed in my mother’s puppet theater, I was called Lily Imali. Imali is my mother’s pseudonym. It is an ancient Hebrew word that means “my mama.” That’s how many different names I’ve had. I studied in as many schools as I had names. I was enrolled in twelve schools, all told. After such a long life—on the 16th of June, 1997, I will be 77 years old; even thinking about it sends shivers down my spine! I never thought I would live to such a venerable age—after such a long life, I have still never learned to refer to myself by my name and patronymic. Maybe this is a mark of our generation. We have always thought of ourselves as young, and so avoided formal forms of address.

Still, seventy-seven is a ripe age, and it’s time to start drawing conclusions about what has happened during my time. And not just provisional conclusions, as my husband Sima called the last chapter of his book Seen and Believed, but final ones. On the other hand, though, what kinds of conclusions can you draw about an activity, about a vocation? What kinds of conclusions are there to be drawn about life? The results of life are life itself, I think. The entire sum of happy, trying, unhappy, bright, and bland moments you live through is the essence of life. That is the conclusion, the only one that matters. That’s why I now want to look back and reminisce. That’s why I feel drawn to old photographs.

I remember very clearly the moment I realized that I was “myself,” separate from the rest of the world.

I have a photograph in which I’m sitting on my father’s lap—that was the very moment I’m talking about. I loved my father dearly and was terribly spoiled by him. Up to that very second, I had felt I was fused with him and the whole world. Suddenly I had the sensation that I stood apart from him and from everything around me. I think it was the consciousness of being a person in my own right. Until that moment I grew willy-nilly, programmed by my genes, by what was already innate in me from birth. But once I realized that I was separate from the world, it began to influence me, to act upon me. And what was innate in me began to undergo changes, to be refashioned and refined, to be subjected to the larger life that surrounded me. In other words, my experiences, the situations I found myself in, the choices I made, the relationships I formed with others—in all of this, the world that raged around me became ever more palpable. This is why I thought that when telling about my life I would be talking not so much about myself, but … It seemed rather presumptuous at first—why should I start talking about myself? I don’t consider myself to be smarter or wiser than the next person. It just didn’t make sense to talk about myself. But to talk about myself as some sort of organism that absorbed elements of the external world, the complex, very contradictory life of the world outside—maybe it’s worth a try. Then you would end up with the experience of that larger life filtered through one person, something more objective within the personal. And that may turn out to be worthwhile.

It seems to me that now, at the end of the century, when our country is in the midst of such confusion and so rudderless—it feels like it’s headed toward an abyss at an ever-increasing pace—that it may truly be important and valuable to salvage as many of the pieces of what we have lived through as possible. The whole twentieth century, and even, through our parents, the nineteenth. Perhaps the more people there are who bear witness to their own experience, the easier it will be to preserve it. Ultimately, it will be possible to piece together a more or less coherent picture of a humane life, of life with a human face, as they like to say nowadays. And perhaps this may have something to offer to the twenty-first century. I’m speaking about a composite of voices, of course, in which mine is but a drop, even a fraction of a drop. Keeping this in mind, I can attempt to talk about myself, about what and how I have lived.

If we accept the premise (this is what I believe, anyway) that a work of art, a book or film, must bear some “message,” some appeal to mankind, I would like to formulate this right off. What I wish to convey most strongly is that one must hope and believe that even the worst of situations can unexpectedly turn into something quite different and lead to something good. I will show how many misfortunes in my own life, and then in my life together with Sima, led to surprising and improbable happiness and richness. I’ll stress this in order to show that one must not despair. Because I know that despair has taken root in the lives of many, many people. So one has to believe, to keep hoping, and then little by little things will take on a different meaning.


IT HAS BEEN MY EXPERIENCE—AND I OBSERVE THAT IT IS TRUE FOR others, as well—that interest in one’s parents awakens later in life. At first you resist them and push them away, trying to affirm your own personality out of a desire to lead your own independent existence. You’re so wrapped up in your own life that you have no use for your parents. You love them, of course, but they don’t take part in the life of your heart. But with time, you become increasingly interested in where you came from, and you want to understand what the sources of your own life are, to learn what your parents did, who your grandmother and grandfather really were, and so forth, as far back as it goes. This happens later on in life. I see this in my own children, who at a mature age are beginning to take an interest in their mother and father—a father who is no longer with them … I went through the same thing, with the difference that I had already begun asking my mother these serious questions when I was still young. So almost everything that I will say about my grandfather and grandmother is not from my own recollection, but from recollections about what others have said.

My mother and father were both from Poltava, Ukraine. I always wanted to go there. Many times I asked my aunt, my mother’s cousin who was married to Alexander Frumkin, a well-known academic, to take me to Poltava. I wanted her to show me their house. This never happened. Finally, after Sima and I had been married some thirty-five years, Fate itself arranged for us to visit there. Sima had been recovering from several serious bouts of pneumonia, and the doctors told him that he needed to convalesce in a mild, temperate climate. My friend Flora Litvinova, mother of the famous dissident Pavlik Litvinov, advised us to go to Shishaki, forty-four miles down from Poltava. The beautiful Psel River flows through the region, there are pine woods, and it’s a lovely place. Without a lot of deliberation—I make decisions like that very quickly—I asked Flora to rent a cottage for us, and we set out. Strangely enough, and completely by chance, we ended up in Poltava.

It was a very sweet provincial town with a few elegant stone buildings in the center. The outskirts, however, looked as though they were suspended in time. The houses and cottages were an unusual style of daubed clay structure. Unlike the ordinary rural dwellings—wattle and mud huts—these had visible wooden beams and supports, which made them seem more solid. Still, they were squat, one-story dwellings with little windows, and they looked more like barns than houses where people lived. I think that in the years that Mama and Papa lived there, the whole of Poltava, except for the very center, looked like that. And I imagine that in just such a small white cottage—they are all white, daubed and whitewashed twice a year, in spring and in autumn, so that everything gleamed and sparkled—lived my mother, Maria Danilovna Liberson. Her family called her Manya.

I know they had a two-story house. The first story was wooden, and the second was wattle and daub. The first floor was occupied by a drugstore. This was not an ordinary drugstore, because for some reason my grandfather sold toys there, as well. The drugstore had a large toy department.

My grandfather not only owned the drugstore, he was the chemist. He spent time making experiments and discoveries in a little lab. And he adored toys. He ordered the latest toys from Europe and the US. They say people came all the way from Kiev to buy his toys. The latest top-of-the-line toys. He loved mechanical toys. Many years later, when the first Toy Exhibit opened in Moscow, our then six-year-old son Pavlik said, “I’m not interested in mechanical toys.” But my grandfather was fascinated by them.

My grandfather also had a medal for rescuing someone from drowning. He had thrown himself into the water and then plucked someone out. In addition, he had been chief of the Jewish self-defense militia during the Pogroms.

My father was called Zyama—Zinovy Yakovlevich Markovich. He came from a poor Jewish family with eight or nine kids. He was the only one who received an education. Grandfather and Grandmother had nothing to do with it. His brother, a petty official, played a minor role in my life. We used to visit him in Moscow, and I remember endless dinners from those times. Later his son was arrested as a Trotskyite, and perished in prison. Those are the only things I know about my father’s side of the family.

My mother and father had a high-school romance. Mother graduated from Poltava Gymnasium, and Father from the technical high school, with an engineering major. I have in my possession one of Mama’s diaries, in which she describes how on the 6th of June 1907, they celebrated her graduation on the terrace of her home. There were three boys and three girls, and there is a record of the wonderful, romantic plans they had for the rest of their lives.

I’ll tell more about Papa and Mama, and about Mama’s friend Rebecca, a true beauty, as well, but first I want to mention three of their friends.

Milya Ulman moved to Moscow, went to university, and became a history teacher in a Soviet Worker’s College.

Papa’s friend Sunya left for Palestine, where he became a professor of chemistry and head of the department at the University of Jerusalem.

Papa’s friend Misha became a socialist, and when World War I started he wrote to Plekhanov, asking whether a social-democrat should enlist to fight or not. Plekhanov, who, unlike Lenin, was convinced that Russia should be defended, answered: absolutely. Misha volunteered, and died in the war.

Mama and Papa were separated. After the Pogroms of 1907, Mama’s family fled from Poltava to Germany. They spent two or three years there, then moved to Palestine. But Mother couldn’t bear the separation from Father. She left her parents in Jaffa and returned to Russia to look for my father. He, in the meantime, had managed to graduate from the St. Petersburg Mining Institute.


IN 1907 OR 1908, SOON AFTER THE FAILURE OF THE FIRST RUSSIAN revolution of 1905, the youth—primarily urban young people, and especially in St. Petersburg—were overwhelmed by a sense of bitter disappointment. There was a spate of suicides, almost an epidemic. Mass suicides. Young people didn’t know what to do with their lives. It seemed that all prospects for the future, all hope for change, for movement forward in this country, was lost. And it was just at this moment that Mama, who was a student in the Higher Women’s Courses, published an open letter simultaneously in two or three newspapers: “Young men and women who feel lonely and alone, come to a gathering at my place. Every Thursday at five o’clock, I will hold an open house. Let us have tea and coffee together, discuss things, make friends. Maybe it will become easier for us to live a life in common than it is for each of us individually.”

According to the customs of the time this was quite a daring and unusual venture, and it did not go unnoticed. In those days a little book called The Society of the Solitary came out. Recently, when I was reading Blok’s correspondence, I discovered completely by chance a reference to the “strong and courageous act of the student Maria Liberson.” I was fascinated. Reading this I realized that Mama had begun very early to take an active part in the life around her. She didn’t confine herself to her small circle of acquaintances, but opened herself up to other people in the larger world. I was very happy to learn this.

From the letter of Maria Liberson to Alexander Blok:

Yesterday’s presentation revealed to me yet again how profound the problem of loneliness is in our society.

Alexander Alexandrovich, perhaps the fateful boundary between the intelligentsia and the people is so insurmountable precisely because an even higher barrier exists among people of the intelligentsia themselves? Perhaps someone from the intelligentsia can’t find a path to the people because each person is so alone? Perhaps the only path to the soul of the people is the struggle against the solitude and alienation, the disconnectedness, of the intelligentsia?

Yesterday you yourself brought up the subject of suicide, which confirms your assumption that living this way is difficult, almost impossible.

No matter what the reasons for which someone takes his own life, at the moment that person does it he is undoubtedly profoundly lonely and alone.

My mother and father were by this time already deeply in love. Then World War I broke out, and my father went to fight as a “volunteer”—but in fact recruitment was mandatory. He was drafted. He was captured by the Germans and remained a prisoner of war in Germany for nearly four years, which is why he spoke German so well. I have postcards that he wrote from prison.

During the war Mama organized a kindergarten for Jewish children whose fathers had been mobilized. The first Jewish kindergarten was a “five-day”—in other words, children lived and slept there, and went home only on weekends. In her diaries she describes these little boys and girls with unusual tenderness and love. She talks about how hard it was to get hold of the children, how their mothers, hungry and poor, nevertheless feared giving them up for daycare, and how she tried to talk them into it. She describes the story of the kindergarten day after day and writes something about each child. It was so touching, I could hardly read it without crying, because Mama wrote with such love about those—abstract for me—little Moishes and Judiths, who then became so real in the pages of the diary. She talked about how he said such-and-such a word today for the first time, and how she made a little donkey out of clay. Mama recorded all of this, nothing was insignificant to her. This made her job in the kindergarten (she also found two helpers) appear as an exceptionally poetic undertaking. It was as though she were raising rare flowers. Each of them was a precious specimen. Each of them was watered with a special formula and on a particular schedule. Gradually, as I read the diary, these children bloomed for me: one of them soon learned to sing, another to dance, yet another could sculpt in clay or recite poetry. Absolutely crushed and broken at first, they were transformed into lovingly cultivated little plants.

This captivated me, of course. I began to see Mama in a different light when I read the diary. Not in a mundane light—she wasn’t the mother who asked when I was coming home, or whether I had tied my scarf or eaten my meat patty. Truth be told, Mama wasn’t a very good housekeeper in ordinary circumstances. She only knew how to rise to the occasion on holidays—to prepare an unusual meal, to come up with a menu in verse. There was no end of that sort of thing. She simply wasn’t interested in run-of-the-mill activities, in “dailiness.” She was a person who flourished during holidays.

Papa returned from captivity, like any other POW, at the end of the war in 1919. Evidently, Papa and Mama joined their lives together once and for all at that point. Since Papa had become a member of some Jewish workers’ party—not the Bund, but another one that had merged with the Communist party when they came to power—he was automatically accepted as a member of the party of the Bolsheviks. He received his first appointment: head of the Municipal Public Education Authority in the city of Smolensk. Papa and Mama moved there, and were lodged in a room—a cell in the Smolensk Monastery, converted into a dormitory for business travelers. This was the room I was born in, on 16 June 1920.


PAPA WAS ONE OF THE FEW BOLSHEVIKS WITH A HIGHER EDUCATION, and was also somehow acquainted with Anatoly Lunacharsky. When I was six months old, Papa was summoned to Moscow and appointed as one of Lunacharsky’s deputies in the Commissariat of Public Education. We settled into an enormous building on Sretensky Boulevard. The apartment was divided into fifteen or twenty rooms with a family occupying each room, and a kitchen shared by twenty women. In our room we had a gigantic fireplace, over which, as far as I remember, heads made from black bread were always drying—puppet heads. During the entire Moscow period, and afterward as well, I was surrounded by puppets. Mama loved puppetry with a deep passion and wanted to start her own puppet theater. The black bread was inedible. It was soggy and sticky, and Mama used it as modeling clay.

I must say that Mama had a penchant for theater arts. She started her first puppet theater in Petersburg, in the kindergarten. Later, in Moscow, she got to know Ivan Efimov, the wonderful puppeteer and sculptor. Together with his wife he wrote an excellent book called Petrushka. He was an animal sculptor—his work is exhibited to this day. He was a superb artist, ruined by his student Sergei Obraztsov. In some sense, Obraztsov was also Mama’s student, since she started working with Efimov first. Then Obraztsov ruined everyone. He threatened people by saying, “You either work with me, for me—or I’ll strangle you.” Which he succeeded in doing.

When I was two years old, Mama took me to Berlin, to a German pension, where we met up with my grandmother. I don’t remember much, but judging from my mother’s letters to my father, my grandmother constantly reproached my mother for not dressing me, or combing my hair, properly.

Here are a few excerpts from the letters my mother wrote to my father from Birkenwerder Pension in September 1922:

My relations with Mama remain very cool. Somehow we seem to have a different approach to everything. She doesn’t know how to deal with Lilith, either. Here is an example of her pedagogical method. “Lucy,” (that’s the name she usually calls her) “Lucy, do you want a chocolate?” “Want a tsocolate!” Lilith pipes up. “No, you may not have a chocolate. I don’t have any more now, we’ll buy some tomorrow.” “Want a tsocolate!” Lilith screams. “Why do you offer her some if there isn’t any?” I ask, surprised. “Can’t I just ask? She must be a well-behaved girl and understand what it means when someone says ‘you may not.’” Then follows a two-hour lecture about raising Lilith. Besides that, Lilith is not allowed to raise her voice, which is an absolute necessity for such little creatures. She isn’t even allowed to laugh out loud. She is called to order immediately for it: “Shush, don’t make noise, you will bother other people.” She has to be on her best behavior at all times, like a well-brought-up young lady. In spite of my protests, Deborah Solomonovna engages Lilith in conversations about theology. Today Lilith said to me, “Oh, Mommy, that’s all right, God is with you.” I asked what she meant by the word “God.” “What is this ‘God’? I don’t understand.” “God is … well, I know, but I can’t explain it,” Lilith told me. “Wait a minute.” Then she thought about it. “God is the name of what no one sees. It’s just a name that we can pray to.” I have written her words verbatim. Lilith asks about you every day: “Where’s my daddy?” That’s the first thing she asks as she opens her eyes in the morning. “Do you want me to give you a chocolate?” I said. “Give me Daddy,” she answered. It’s remarkable that such a small child has such a long memory.

One more tidbit:

Zyamochka, my dear friend. Today it is exactly two months since we left Moscow, and it seems it was already long, long ago. Now it is fall, and I’m a bit sad, as I always am in the fall. But the thought that I will soon see my dear one makes my heart beat faster from joy. I am saving up many sweet words for him, and sweet kisses, and, strangely enough, I have to admit that I think about him not so much as my husband, whom I’ve known for an eternity already, but as the sweetheart I am deeply in love with. I only tell him this in secret, though. It’s awkward confessing your love to someone with such a grown-up daughter—in six days she’ll be two years and four months. The little beauty is also in love with her Papa, and every day she asks, “When are we going to see Papa Zyama?”

At the end of 1924, Mama and I left for Palestine from Odessa by steamship to visit Grandmother. I can remember only two amusing incidents, and nothing more.

Egypt is famous for its unusually beautiful and high-quality glazed fruits. Mama bought two huge boxes of these glazed fruits as presents. When we arrived, the boxes turned out to be empty. During the one day we were sailing from Egypt to Jaffa, termites—enormous ants—devoured every last bit of these fruits. This is the first thing I remember. The other thing I remember is that when we arrived in Jaffa, where everyone disembarked, there was no ladder for some reason. They simply grabbed hold of the luggage, then the passengers, and tossed them down. There were large boats that came up to the ship to pick up the passengers and their belongings—there simply wasn’t a proper loading berth. So they grabbed me, then Mama, too, and threw us overboard, and the Arab who stood in the boat caught us in midair. I remember that very vividly.

By this time, Grandfather had died, and my grandmother lived with her sister, Aunt Antka, in what they considered a small (but for me very big) six-bedroom villa. They called it Villa Lili, after their granddaughter. They had six banana trees and twelve orange trees—an orchard.

When Grandfather settled in Jaffa, he earned a living by devising a method for removing salt from seawater. He first built a small laboratory, and then a factory. He was able to buy the house on the money he made.

It was spring. I remember the pungent smell of the oranges and mandarins, of lemon rind—that’s what the trees smell like when they blossom. It was very beautiful, as I recall. I also remember the wooden sidewalks. In those days Tel Aviv was still half-marshland, and to dry it out they planted eucalyptus everywhere. Small wooden gangways, like sidewalks, ran between them. Eucalyptus sucks up water with a furious passion …

That’s really all I remember of the journey. I don’t even remember how we returned to Russia, whether by steamer or not … My memory is just a blank.

When I was three or four years old, Father bought me a goat. We had gone to the market for cabbage. It was a large market by the Belorussky Train Station. I caught a glimpse of a white goat and fell in love with it. I hugged it, I remember putting my small arms around it very clearly, and begged my father to get it for me. He couldn’t resist my entreaties. So we went home to Mother with a white goat.

The first night the goat stayed under Papa’s desk, and I demanded to be able to sleep next to her in a loving embrace right under that very desk. Much to the consternation of the neighbors in our apartment, she wandered through all the rooms for three or four days. Our building was full of enormous, splendid apartments that had obviously belonged to wealthy pre-Revolutionary families, and had been turned into horrible communal apartments for officials of the Public Education Commissariat. So there were fifteen or twenty rooms, with a single bathroom, a single toilet, and a common kitchen. Then, to liven things up even more, a goat appeared. On the fourth night it began to gnaw at books. I remember how I sobbed when Mama and Papa took it away to some kindergarten. I remember that very vividly.

I also remember that in the mornings Papa would sing while he was shaving, and Mama told him, “Please stop! I can’t concentrate.” At that time Mama worked in some preschool program and wrote reports for it in the morning. And Papa answered her—strange, how one remembers such things—he said, “Okay, I’ll stop, but someday you’ll think: how sad that he doesn’t sing anymore. How nice it would be if he would start singing again.” That phrase has stayed in my mind: “How nice it would be if he would start singing again.” I also remember how we rode in a sleigh along Sretensky Boulevard. I remember Moscow under a blanket of snow, because later I didn’t see snow anymore. There was no snow in Berlin.


IN 1925 THE AUTHORITIES ANNOUNCED THE ADVENT of a new policy. Russia had to trade with the West, buy cars, and industrialize the country. Many members of the party with a higher education were sent abroad to work. Papa, with his degree in engineering and fluent German, was instructed to leave his post in the Commissariat of Public Education and go to Berlin. He was the deputy of Nikolay Krestinsky, who was ambassador plenipotentiary at the time, and later deputy minister of foreign affairs. In 1937 Krestinsky was arrested and executed. His wife, Chief Physician of the Filatovsky Hospital, spent many years in the labor camps. Krestinsky’s daughter, who also was later arrested, studied with me in the Russian school organized by the embassy. My mother was appointed headmistress and taught one grade. She also gave drawing lessons and organized a puppet theater.

I have a single vivid memory from the first grade. Once, Maxim Gorky came to visit us. He had emigrated from Russia already in 1921, and was living in Sorrento. He was very tall, hunched over, with bright blue eyes and shaggy brows. We each recited to him one of his poems. Gorky kissed each of us on the forehead, and was so moved (as he often was) that he shed some tears.

In my memory, Germany appears as one long children’s holiday. It was childhood. I played with dolls and longed to have a baby stroller for them. Papa was adamant about not getting it: he had bought a goat, but a baby stroller, he thought, was improper for a little Soviet girl. It was too bourgeois. Still, I longed for it; it was the dream that never came true.

My grandmother visited us twice. She took me to a café and bought me some special candy—chocolate-covered pineapple, which no one ever bought for me after that for some reason.

During our time in Germany, I became a little German girl. I went to the embassy school only for the first year. After that I went to the regular German gymnasium. I learned to write in Gothic letters and eagerly read children’s books printed in the Gothic script. It’s something quite unusual, and I thought I had forgotten it completely. But recently I picked up a book printed in Gothic letters and was surprised to find I could still read it.

We kept albums, and wrote silly poems to each other. I still have one of those albums. Here is a poem (in German, of course): “If you think that I don’t love you and am only toying with you, turn on a flashlight and shine it on my heart.” Or: “If after many, many years you read this album, remember how little and happy we once were, and how we skipped lightly to school.” All that sort of thing.

We had to sit with our hands placed on the desks. It was a strict German school. A girl’s school—back then boys and girls studied separately. We had recess, we played the games girls usually play. I liked school. I experienced no negative emotions there. Everybody liked school. Back then I wanted to be like everyone else there, to fit in. This desire stayed with me, and I’ll talk more about it. But back then it was especially easy to fit in.

Every summer we took a trip somewhere. Twice we went to Salzburg, to Switzerland, to Paris—I visited Paris for the first time when I was seven.

I remember that Papa left for Nice from Paris, while Mama and I went to Biarritz, on the southern coast. Mama wrote Papa a little poem in the post office:

From Moscow to Biarritz

Lilya flew like a little bird,

And when she came to Biarritz,

She fell down from joy and did the splits.

The tail of the tomtit can’t compare

with the firebird’s plumage so fair,

And the beauty of Biarritz shines brighter

by far than the sun of your Nice.

Take my advice, I’m speaking my piece.

It’s time to part ways with your second-rate Nice.

Buy your ticket and return

To your loving, longing Lili-Bird.

How can I describe my mother? Mother was full of jokes and pranks, she loved games. In the wink of an eye she could turn a dreary rented room in some hotel into something completely unique and magical: here she would spread out her silk kerchief, there she would place something eye-catching; she would move things around, buy a little vase with flowers, and everything came to life. She had a flair for interior arranging and decorating, a need to surround herself with lovely things—and to joke. From childhood she had loved to compose little ditties and rhymes. Here, for example is an epitaph she came up with:

I will die, and leave behind a notebook of my poems.

You’ll look at them furtively one day

and say, “Yes, that dear old tomcat

(I called Mama “kitty” one day, “tomcat” the next)

was a bit of a poet, wanderlust in the soul,

who meowed lyrically and preferred an ellipsis

to a period. A feline inside out, who loved verse

and sardines, who shunned cant phrases

and devoured whipped cream, and was

partial to a drop of brandy of an evening,

though drunk on dreams betimes, and lofty

in the company of other felines.”

Things like that. She dashed them off without lifting up her pen from the paper.

I also remember how we went to the station to meet Father when he came to Biarritz. We were overjoyed. The sea, cliffs, a splendid, carefree, happy life. It was life as everyone else lived it. Everyone went off on holiday in the summer, then told everyone else about it when they returned home.

Then it ended. We always traveled on holiday either to Switzerland, or to France. Somewhere or other. Suddenly, Papa decided to go Russia for his vacation, to check on how the machinery he bought was operating.

Mama tried to dissuade him. She was fearful somehow. Mama had always feared Soviet Russia, and her fears would eventually prove to have been justified in our lives. One day the telephone rang, and some stranger on the other end asked to meet with Papa. Papa wanted to know who it was, but the person answered, “I must remain anonymous.” Papa refused to meet with him. Two days later he called again and said that “it concerned the life and welfare of our family.” So Papa agreed to meet him in a café. That person, a Russian Papa had never seen before, who wouldn’t give his name, said, “Do not go to Russia. They won’t let you out again.”

When Papa returned home, he recounted the conversation to Mama, as I recall. He believed it was a provocation, that the Communists were testing his reliability and trustworthiness. Then he said, “Now I’m definitely going.” And he did.

When Papa was due to return from his holiday, we went to meet him at the station. He wasn’t on the train. The following day he called and said, “Don’t wait for me.” Two days later we received a letter that he had entrusted to someone to pass on to us. It was a letter that said, “I won’t be coming to Berlin anymore, you must come back here to me.”

They had taken Papa off the train. He had already arranged his luggage and sat down when two people came up to him to check his documents. They led him away. This was the favorite tactic of the secret police (the GPU)—seizing a person at the last minute, and in plain sight. A blow to the psyche of the victim, and at the same time to the witnesses. Papa was certain that he was being arrested. They didn’t arrest him, however. They merely confiscated his travel passport and said that from now on he would be working in Russia.

He had no place to live. He stayed with his brother, whom I’ve already mentioned, in a single small room—eight square meters. He shared it with his brother, his brother’s wife, and their son, until the son was arrested. There was no room for an extra bed, or even for a mattress, so Papa slept on a desk for almost four years. They spread out a blanket on top of it, and Papa slept. There would have been no room for me and Mama there, naturally; but that was only part of the problem. Mama was afraid to return.


WE RENTED AN APARTMENT ON HOHENZOLLERNPLATZ. AT THAT TIME it was a huge park. It was a small two-story house, and our four rooms were on the first floor, with windows overlooking a garden. Once a thief broke in. I woke up and heard Mama talking to someone. I looked up and saw a young fellow with his back to the bed. He had climbed into our room through the balcony door, and Mama engaged him in conversation.

A year and a half ago, when Sima and I were in Berlin, we visited that place. Everything had disappeared—no park, no gardens; there were eight- or nine-story buildings on that spot. I couldn’t find a single trace of my German childhood.

Until the last year of my life there I lived some sort of somnolent childhood existence. My soul was still dormant. Then I found my first soul mate, my first “best friend”—a German-Jewish girl. Her name was Ursula Hoos, and she was from a very wealthy family. When I went over to her house for a visit, I discovered that Ursula had her own suite of rooms—a bedroom, a schoolroom, and a playroom. We were called to dinner, and it was all very grand and imposing, as one might see only in Germany: heavy draperies, chandeliers, a dining table where everyone sat three feet apart. The table itself was about forty feet long. Her father was a Junker of pure Aryan extraction; her mother, and her mother’s parents, were Jewish. (Hoos is a German Junker surname.)

I remember that when she introduced me to her parents, Ursula’s mother said, “Lilya comes from the Soviet Union, but she is Jewish, and a very sweet and smart little girl.” That was the first time I felt that being Jewish was something special, but I didn’t know whether it was bad or good.

I loved Ursula, or Ulya, dearly. This was most likely my first experience of the search for friendship, for a friend, which would later play such an important role in my life.

I also began to read. Until that moment I read little, and not very well. I remember Ulya saying to me, “Why should I give you books? You won’t manage to read them anyway.” But suddenly I had a breakthrough. I remember the very book I was reading—a German translation of a wonderful Danish writer, whom I later translated and edited myself. Her name was Karin Michaëlis. She wrote a two-volume children’s book called Bibi. This was the book that helped me learn to read quickly and eagerly.

I took Karin Michaëlis’ Bibi with me to Moscow, and I have never parted with this book, over—what is it?—sixty-five years now, I suppose. It has always been with me. The book is about a young girl’s journey (a beloved form in those days). The girl travels from one province to another. It is a sort of geographical tale about Denmark and at the same time about various customs. Perhaps this book played a role in awakening my love of travel, of change, of seeking out the new and untried. An excellent book, and an excellent writer, Karin Michaëlis.

And so my soul began to live by reading, as well as by friendship. The second book I read, after which there was no going back, was Doctor Dolittle, a translation from the English. The English version is in fact a multi-volume novel. It’s fascinating when you are nine or ten.

These two books expanded my entire world.

There was one other reason that I woke up. I want to talk about it, because it had a great influence on who I eventually became. I said in the beginning that the outside world shaped me in important ways. The year was 1930. There were demonstrations on the streets of Berlin—Communists and Hitler supporters. They were small groups of fifty to a hundred people, marching with flags and banners. The demonstrations often ended in scuffles or brawls. Nothing terribly serious, I remember that well, but they created a sense of alarm. The streets were no longer peaceful, something was always going on there. Mama realized that it was no longer safe for us to stay in Berlin. The Russian émigré community was moving en masse to Paris. Mama decided first to move to my grandmother’s in Palestine. But we didn’t go alone.

The owner of the house in which we rented our apartment had a son named Ludwig. At first he struck up a friendship with me. He was a very handsome young man, younger than Mama by some five years, and he paid a great deal of attention to me. He invited me to children’s cafés, to the puppet theater, to the movies … Every two or three days Ludwig would take me somewhere, and I grew to love him. Suddenly, he was having meals with us, and so on and so forth. Then Mama told me that she was leaving for Hamburg for a few days, and Ludwig disappeared with her. When Mama returned she said that she and Ludwig were getting married, that she had divorced Papa, and that from now on he was my new father. From that moment I did an about-face. I hated him.

Mama was angry that Papa had gone to Moscow in spite of the warning he had received. She felt he had neglected the family, her, and myself. She was afraid to go back to Russia—and, indeed, there was no place to live if we returned. And then a handsome, young journalist, a charming young man, appeared. He turned her head. Later she would pay a heavy price for this.


SO TOGETHER, WE—MAMA, LUDWIG, AND I—LEFT FOR PALESTINE. This was the only period in my life, I think, when I behaved not like a good girl, but a bad boy. I did all I could to spite everyone. I remember that I was possessed with a kind of fury.

On one side there was Ludwig; on the other side Ursula Hoos. I was in despair that we had been separated, that I had lost her. During the entire journey on the steamship I wrote her endless letters in my idiotic Gothic handwriting.

Later, after Mama and I had moved to Paris, I tried to find Ulya; but the entire family had perished when the Nazis came to power. We couldn’t find a single trace of them. This caused me terrible grief.

When we arrived in Palestine, I behaved so abominably toward Ludwig that Mama didn’t want to live with Grandmother and me. She and Ludwig moved into an apartment of their own.

Tel Aviv’s eucalyptus plants had already grown into mature trees that shaded the streets and offered refuge from the heat.

I had only one goal: to get rid of Ludwig. It’s curious, since for the most part I’m a very mild-mannered and unassuming person. But this was a real crisis for me. The only truly pleasant recollection I have of that trip was a sandcastle-building contest. Tel Aviv has a broad and sandy beach that’s remarkable. This was where the contests were held. I suddenly demonstrated outstanding architectural skills and placed third in the contest. It was stupendous. This was my first experience of joy stemming from a creative act. It gave me the sense of being capable of something, of doing something that others considered interesting and good. Against the background of my deep negativity toward Ludwig, this was very valuable.

I vaguely remember going to school. The classes were in Hebrew, a language I didn’t understand. I managed to pick up just a few words. I was enrolled for a month—we arrived in spring, then it was summer vacation. And in the fall Mama decided to leave. Tel Aviv bored her, and there was nothing for her to do. She decided to go to Paris. Ludwig thought that he wouldn’t be able to find work in Paris, and left for the US. Mama promised that we would come to New York after he had settled down there.

My grandmother, Dora Solomonovna, was very displeased with Mama. Certain things she said have remained in my mind since that time. “She always tries to be different from other people. If only she could live here peacefully, in Palestine, if only she could live with Ludwig, such a levelheaded, handsome young man. But, no, he isn’t good enough for her. He has to go to America, and she sends him packing; she doesn’t want to go herself. She has to go to Paris. I know how this is all going to end: she’ll return to her Zyama, back to Russia.”

Our departure was fixed for a Saturday. This was a very serious matter in Palestine, because one isn’t allowed to do anything on the Sabbath, including riding in a cab. Grandmother was not observant, and it wasn’t religious considerations that held her back: she feared the condemnation of the neighbors. She was very agitated, and said, “We’re saying goodbye, who knows when we’ll see each other again? I must see you off.” At the same time, she didn’t dare flout the conventions of this small community and come with us in the cab. She produced some sort of veil out a drawer, thinking maybe they wouldn’t recognize her if she covered herself with it. In the end, she didn’t see us off. This fact—that the opinion of the neighbors influenced her so strongly that she was tormented by it, and that she couldn’t accompany us to say goodbye—made a great impression on me. I was ten—I understood everything. Mama is right, I thought, one can’t live like this, in this place. You can’t live where you don’t dare do what you want to do, what feels right and good to you. This was one of my first lessons about society. And we left.

I think I matured fairly late. It happened then, when I was nine or ten. Of course, already at the age of five I seemed to see myself in opposition to the world, but the life of the spirit—this involves suffering. The soul awakens with the first experience of suffering, I’m sure of this. When a person is happy, the soul simply floats along, it doesn’t wake up; it isn’t fully aware of itself. But once it has known suffering, it understands happiness as well. Awareness is connected to pain. This is the way it appears to me, this is what I think—this is how I experienced it, in any case. The pain I felt about my father, my indignation about this new person who appeared to take his place, a person who had been wonderful as a friend, but not in the role to which he aspired … He liked to lecture me … He was a rather amusing person, he wrote poetry, he and Mama corresponded in rhyming German. Still and all, this did not comfort me in the least, and I remained hurt and indignant. Everything about him troubled me, from the very moment that he tried to occupy a place he did not belong.

This first taste of misery caused by love, the hurt I felt for my father, the separation from Ursula—this was the turning point. I became conscious of these changes in me when we sailed on the boat to Marseille. The journey was a long one in those days: four, five, or even six days. I felt sharpened by the grief of parting and by hatred toward my companion. I remember undergoing a profound inner struggle, lying in a chaise longue on the deck.

In the midst of this pain, something shifted in me, and I seemed to make a turn toward adult life. I arrived in Paris a grown-up girl.


ON THE BOAT TO MARSEILLE I REMEMBER THAT MAMA ONLY TAUGHT me five French words. I learned madame, I knew pardon, and I knew the phrase that was written on every French coin: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The slogan of the French revolution. With this linguistic baggage of five French words we arrived in Paris.

13 Boulevard Pasteur—I’ve remembered the address my whole life. This was Rebecca’s address, the Rebecca who was my mother’s high-school friend. She married the son of a well-known professor of psychiatry in Russia at the time, Professor Minor. They moved to Paris, and she worked in the Soviet Embassy. In 1930, when Stalin issued a decree stating that everyone who did not return immediately would be deemed “unreturnable” and lose Soviet citizenship, Rebecca stayed on in Paris with her two children.

On our first night in Paris, Mama and Rebecca went out—evidently to enjoy the Paris nightlife—and left us children alone. The boy, Lyalya, was three years older than me, and Zina, the girl, a real beauty, with a head of blonde locks, was five years older than me. They put me to bed in an armchair, since there was no place else to sleep. Lyalya made paper airplanes, which he sent flying out the open window. Then he would run down to the street in his pajamas, down onto Boulevard Pasteur, to fetch them. These are my first Paris memories, and they have stayed with me my whole life.

Soon, Mama found a studio—a one-room apartment with a bath but no standalone kitchen. She wanted to be close to Rebecca, and this was not far from where she lived—at 32-bis, rue du Cotentin, next to the Montparnasse train station. Two new buildings stood side by side. In the neighboring one, the one without the bis, lived Ilya Ehrenburg. Every morning, as I set out for school, I would run into him. He walked two black dogs, small ones, perhaps terriers, on a leash, and under his arm he carried a three-foot-long baguette and some newspapers. It was Mama who told me that this was Ilya Ehrenburg, the famous Russian writer.

At first I went to an ordinary local French school for children from the most unprivileged backgrounds. Now imagine a ten-year-old girl who already knew a thing or two, who had had the experience of parting, and had undergone loss. Suddenly I found myself in a class of thirty-five, knowing only five words in French. I had to sit there for five or six hours a day. No one could talk to me, nor could I talk to anyone else. The first days were awful. The first word in French I added to my supply was allumette—“match.” In the arithmetic class they taught counting with the aid of matches. Each pupil brought a box of matches and arranged them on the desk: five matches plus three matches equals eight matches. They kept repeating the word “match”: allumette, allumette. That was my first new word. I was a stranger to them, they called me l’étrangère. They didn’t even call me by my name, and I felt very uncomfortable there.

Very soon, after two months or so (I was already speaking French by then), Mama enrolled me in a new school. It was very privileged, the Alsatian School. Ehrenburg’s daughter wrote a book about it under the pseudonym Irina Erburg. She was five or six years older than me and was also enrolled there. I finished one year of that school, but Mama couldn’t afford to send me there any more after that. It was very expensive, a school for the children of ministers, the upper bourgeoisie, children of academics.

We had no real means for survival. Grandmother sent us a little bit in the beginning. Then Mama organized a puppet theater. She called it by the Russian name of Petrushka. She made puppets from papier mâché. She no longer made the molds from brown bread, as she had in Russia, where the bread was inedible, but from modeling clay. However much we might have wanted it, there was no brown bread to be had in France. She made fifteen or twenty of these heads and assembled a group of kids, the children of friends. Rebecca had a circle of acquaintances that included Soviet people who had gone into emigration. They spoke French poorly, for the most part; but their children were already fluent in French, naturally. Children learn a language within a few months. Mama invited these people to act in her puppet theater. I was also part of the troupe, which was called, as I’ve already noted, Lili Imali—Mama’s theatrical pseudonym. The puppet theater was very simple: puppets and a backdrop or screen. A backdrop in one hand, a suitcase with puppets in the other, and you can travel the world with it. A few props and decorations, and you’re ready to roll.

Mama rented a space in the Latin Quarter on rue Campagne-Première and put on plays four or five days a week. We needed to advertise it. It was expensive to take out an ad in the newspapers, so we printed flyers instead. One of my jobs was to pass them out on the street. It wasn’t very pleasant work, but all the other children who performed in the theater passed them out, too.

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“This frank and revelatory memoir portrays in rich detail Russia's recent past and illuminates the consequences of its history for the turbulent present.” —Kirkus Reviews

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