How my mother visited my grandmother

This journey, long and cold and endless. First, from Moscow on a packed train, with no air, or food, except what she had hidden in
her rucksack for her mother. Then alone in the back of a truck, clutching at air each time the truck rode over a rut. All around her the snow- covered plains, and the cold, so cold that she could no longer sense her legs; compared to this, the cold train had been heaven. How much it had cost her to make this journey. How many lines to stand in, how many papers to sign, how many scornful faces to look at humbly: never to confront, only beseech. “I, Maya S., the daughter of the Enemy of the People B. S. and of his wife E. S., am asking to make a single overnight visit to...”

Mother didn’t know Maya was coming. That was the best way to think about it: her mother didn’t know, her mother would be surprised. It was better than wondering why there had been no letters from her mother in the last four months, was her mother sick, was her mother alive.
The camp was by a tiny, emptied-out village, more than twenty miles from R., the nearest town. They had already passed R.; now the village would come into view. Then there would be the barracks; but she couldn’t go there, couldn’t go look for her mother. She had to stay by the truck, waiting for instructions. Instead of the barracks, she saw a dark mass coming out of the white distance, and as it got nearer, she could see a column of women moving slowly towards the truck, where Maya was obediently waiting for her instructions. They didn’t see her because they didn’t look up. They didn’t look right or left either. As they got closer, Maya could see that the column was flanked by guards, that each guard was holding a leash, at the end of each leash was a dog, and with his free hand each guard was clasping to himself a rifle. The women moved in uneven spurts; they were closer now, and Maya could see the rags they had on. She could see their ashen faces, and their eyes cast down, down, all these wives of scientists and artists, the whole female Soviet elite being led to another twenty-hour day of hard labour.

One of the women raised her eyes and saw her. The woman uttered a little scream. Then another one looked up, and another, and soon they were all looking at her and she at them, her eyes flitting from one to another: Mother? But Mother wasn’t there. And then one of them called out her name—and fell down. There was a commotion where that first voice came from. “Maya! Mayaechka!” the women shouted. “Go to twenty-five eleven Prospect Mira! Tell my son, Mitya Botkin, I’m still alive! Tell my brother, fifty one Gorkii Street, that you saw me! Tell my daughter...Tell my... Mayaechka!” Maya wanted to run towards the women, but she heard the dogs beginning to bark and she saw two guards rushing into the column, and then she couldn’t see anymore because her eyes welled up, and the tears flowed out and down her face. She ran, stumbling and falling into the snow and rising again. She ran towards the column of women to hear them, to catch every word: “Petrovka thirty-three...Tell him that I’m still...” And then she stumbled into the snow and couldn’t get up again. And as she half-lay in a deep snowdrift, crying, she heard them say to each other: “She fell...” And these two words went from woman to woman, like an echo, doubling up, tripling, and all she could hear now was “She fell... she fell...” When she could see again through her tears, the column was gone; it was turning into a dark cloud in the distance like before. Was mother there? Was that mother, the woman who first called out her name? The woman who fell? Slowly, Maya walked back to the truck.

A guard took her into a tiny black hut. He told her to go in, and left.
Nothing inside: no bed, no chairs, just an empty room. A woman was standing against a side wall. She said: “Mayaechka...” It was not quite her mother’s voice; more like the voice of that woman who had fallen. It was her mother, but changed into the woman who had fallen, who had cried out her name and fallen while the dogs barked and the guards took aim with their rifles. It was her beautiful mother, changed into a living skeleton. Maya put her arms around that skeleton and the two of them cried, standing there in the middle of an empty hut, in the middle of the terrible decade, two Moscow women, one forty years of age, the other seventeen, one a former microbiologist, the other a former best-math- student-in-her-class.
Maya took the treasured food out of the rucksack. She wanted Mother to take it with her into the barracks, but Mother insisted that they eat it right there in the hut, as a celebration of their brief time together. And so they had a little feast on the floor. Mother had difficulty chewing because many of her teeth were gone; she had to spit time and again, and she spat blood.
“You cried. The women told me that you cried and fell.”
“No, Mama, I didn’t cry. I fell, but I got up right away.” “But the women told me. They said you cried.” “No, Mama, they were so far away, how could they have seen me cry? Really, Mama...”
“You shouldn’t have cried, Mayaechka,” her mother said, and held Maya in her bone-thin arms and so they warmed each other all night on the dirt floor. Maya told Mother about their Moscow relatives, but she didn’t tell everything. She didn’t mention to her mother that Ella and Kim, Father’s sister and her husband, would cross over to the other side of the street every time they saw Maya, that they didn’t want anyone to suspect they were part of this accursed family. Soon after Father’s arrest, Ella had taken her husband’s surname, something she had refused to do for years.
None of this mattered now. The two of them had eight hours together, unexpected generosity on the part of the camp officials. In these eight hours Maya had to give her mother enough hope and optimism for Mother to last, to have her survive three more years here. A year so far, and look what it had done to her. To sound hopeful was to sound false; and because Maya couldn’t talk falsely, she was silent. The two of them were used to being silent together. They had been silent when the men came to take Father away; only then it had been the silence of shock. They were silent, standing every day in the long lines at the Lefortovo, waiting to pass a food parcel to Father. And the day that food parcel was no longer accepted, and they knew why, they walked home in silence. They knew the reason the food wasn’t accepted, but they didn’t know why Father was being taken away at night, falsely accused, and shot without a trial. At home, they wept in silence. And when Mother was taken away as the wife of the man who was shot, they parted, in silence. Now in silence they sat side by side in the barren hut.

“The book,” Mother said. “You still have the book?”

Maya wasn’t sure what book she was talking about. Was it the book her mother had started working on a few months before the men came and took Father away, her book on malaria? Of course, Mother never finished the manuscript, because after they came, neither she nor Maya could think of anything but Father. Microbiology and writing belonged to other, leisurely times, before each day narrowed down to one thing: get there early, pretend not to hear the jokes the guards spat out at the women in the line, and when it was finally your turn at the little barred window, just hand the parcel of food to the man inside. Never look him in the eye; just state the name of your prisoner father and go. State the name and go. And hope that the package eventually gets delivered to Father. Outside the building, some of the braver women from the line whispered to Maya that the prisoners never got to see their packages. But even if they didn’t—and who knew for sure?—Mother and Maya took turns standing in the cold, foul-smelling hallway, where the women never took off their coats and mittens and hats. Taking turns, daily and nightly; and there was nothing else in their days and nights but this: a package, an edible, sodden piece of hope stuffed into a paper bag—two pieces of bread with a cutlet between them, sometimes two cutlets, and an apple. Hope that it had a chance, no matter how slight, of getting into Father’s hands.

The hut seemed almost warm. They talked and they dozed in between talking, and talked again, and now Mother asked again about the book. The book? What book? But Mother’s eyes were closing again, Mother’s head was sliding off Maya’s shoulder. Was Mother asking about the set of books Maya took before the men sealed off Father’s room? After about an hour of rummaging through Father’s papers and turning his scant furniture upside down, they came out, beckoned to Mother and Maya humbly waiting at the door, and said, with a sweeping gesture at the ravaged room: “You’re allowed to take one item from the prisoner’s belongings. Provided the item is cleared with us.” One item? Maya looked at Mother, but Mother was beyond choosing. Mother stared at the entrails of the room, and her eyes were half her face, and her face was without a trace of colour, full of too much fear for her to speak, let alone move to secure an item. So it was left for Maya to choose. She looked around the room. Papers, books, family photographs—Father with Mother, both young; older Father with Mother and Maya; Mother with baby Maya on her lap; Father speaking in front of workers; a larger group of workers, clustered around Father; Father with ten-year-old Maya. Solid, cardboard-backed sepia photographs, they used to stand on Father’s desk, five-inch-tall guardians of their family, now strewn all over the floor.

But it wasn’t from these that Maya chose. She stepped over the papers and photos to the window where some of Father’s big books were stacked up. All ten volumes of Lenin’s collected works were there. Either the NKVD men hadn’t separated them or they’d put them back neatly after searching them. Maya said: “I want the Collected Works of Lenin.” The men looked at each other; one of them shrugged his shoulders, another smiled, almost kindly, at the naiveté of this arrested man’s daughter. “If you’re sure that’s what you want?” he said, “You can think about it until we finish here.”

“That’s what I want,” Maya said. She wanted to keep what she thought her father would have kept. She was thinking, these men made a mistake which would soon be put right, and Father would be cleared of all the charges of anti-Soviet activity. Yes, cleared and freed, because he was no less a Communist than these men were, maybe more so. His heart was at one with Communism, and of all his things, this is what he would have wanted Maya to take: Lenin’s collected works.

Less than half a year later Father was dead, and of the ten volumes only one was left, a memento not of Father but of Maya’s foolish choice on that day. Was that the book Mother was asking her about? Now, as Mother and Maya sat side by side in the tiny hut, this was all that mattered: that they were alive, they were together. They went over the past, again and again, as if reiterating those events was a matter of survival.

The men sealed off two rooms that time: Father’s study and their living-room. Five months later, when they came for Mother, they sealed off one more. Nine volumes of Lenin’s collected works happened to be in that room. This time they didn’t ask Maya which one of her Mother’s belongings she’d keep. Even though they were not the same men as the first four, they looked the same, they sounded the same, and it was at the same time—twenty past midnight—that they knocked on the door. The dreaded knock of the NKVD in the night, this time not as unexpected, though just as dreaded. Mother and Maya had been told by the women from the Lefortovo line that the NKVD had begun taking away wives of the accused. As though there was only so much pain allotted to one person at any given time of life, Mother and Maya parted quietly, too numb for tears. Before the door shut after the men and Mother, Maya ran out into the landing, screaming:“I’ll visit you soon, Mama!”

The next day, Maya joined the familiar line at Lefortovo, this time with a food parcel for Mother. The women didn’t ask her anything; they understood. A couple of weeks later, the parcel was rejected. “Why?” she asked the man in the barred window. Not taking his eyes off papers posted on the wall, he barked: “Transferred.” Maya went from one government office to another, to find out where Mother had been taken, for how long. In the sixth or seventh office—she’d lost count—she finally learned the sentence: five years of corrective labour camp for her fragile, brilliant, innocent mother. Where’s the camp? she asked. But they wouldn’t tell her. They sent her to another place, and then another, and after countless more offices, clerks, and lines, she was given the location: Mordovia. Pot’ma.

It was not the farthest, not the most impossible place to get to from Moscow. It was not Siberia, and thank God for that. Five years was considered a light sentence, a lenient one, given only to wives, never to the accused themselves, and so Maya could hope it would not be completely impossible to visit Mother in the camp. She was prepared to wait for as long as it would take, and to haunt another thousand offices, in order to get a permission.

It was almost dawn. In a few minutes the guard would come for Mother. They held each other one last time, the dirt floor seemed to radiate heat. Before going, Mother said again: “You shouldn’t have cried, Mayaechka.” And then, hurriedly, she whispered that she was sure that she’d survive, that she was lucky, this camp wasn’t so bad—many women were highly educated, and after long hours of hard labour, they managed to give each other lessons, each in her professional discipline; thus, she was teaching someone microbiology, and somebody else was teaching her Swedish. “You shouldn’t cry, Mayaechka. I’ll come out of here alive.” Maya watched Mother stumble through the snow to the barracks, she saw how deep the snow was, deep enough to muffle even the most silent crying.
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This story, about my mother’s visit to my grandmother in a GULAG camp, is based on true events that took place in the spring of 1941, a few months before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union at the time was in the grip of the Great Purge, aka the Great Terror. The Great Terror was a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938; widespread imprisonment of innocent people continued, in various forms, until 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. On October 17, 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, my maternal grandfather was arrested at his home, in the middle of the night, and accused of masterminding a counter-revolutionary plot. He was held first in the Butyrki jail, then in Lefortovo. He was sentenced to “ten years in distant camps without the right to correspondence”, a euphemism for a death sentence. Every day his wife and his 17-year-old daughter stood at the prison entrance, in long lines of family members of those similarly accused, with parcels of money for him. If jail officials accepted the money (allegedly on behalf of the prisoner), it meant that the prisoner was still alive. On December 20, their parcel was turned down: Boris Shternberg had been executed the day before. A month later, on January 20, 1938, his wife, Yevgeniya Yakovlevna Shternberg, a microbiologist who had nothing whatsoever to do with politics, was arrested as “a member of an enemy’s family” and condemned to five years in a concentration camp (officially called “corrective” hard labour camp, or GULAG). GULAG was a network of forced labour camps in the Soviet Union (under Stalin) in which millions of innocent people died.

Nina Kossman is an artist, writer, poet, and play-wright. Her paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in Moscow and New York. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship, a UNESCO Short Story Award, she is the author of two books of poems in Russian and English as well as the translator of two volumes of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry, In the Inmost Hour of the Soul and Poem of the End. Her other books include Behind the Border (Harper Collins,1994); Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths (Oxford University Press, 2001); Pereboi, a collection of Russian poems published in Moscow; a bilingual edition of her poems, and a novel.