We walked in the burning cold across Red Square towards St Basil's, then over a bridge of the Moskva to Lavrushinsky, the distinguished writers' house where both Pasternak and Ehrenburg had lived in their time, and where Aliger now had a spacious apartment.
She was a small, brown-eyed woman in her sixties with sadness in her face. Her sitting room was crammed with heavy furniture, her sideboard covered with ornaments. The table was spread with a Madeira tablecloth and on that cloth she had set out black bread with olives, slices of onion, smoked fish and salt fish, marrow and aubergines with slivers of garlic. Sour cucumbers were pickled in garlic and brine rather than sweet dill, and their very smell evoked my childhood home. Polish Jews favour a sour-sweet cucumber; indeed that sweetness marks off Polish-Jewish from Russian-Jewish cuisine.
Aliger herself had led a dramatic life, though her early years began happily enough. Her Jewish family in Odessa supported the Revolution; her mother read Russian poetry to her. Her father played the violin and composed a little music. The new regime offered Aliger the chance to study chemistry and then literature in Moscow, and her first poems were published when she was little more than a schoolgirl.
Her face in young photographs is alert and eager, a little like that of Anne Frank, with large eyes and a rather pointed nose; the face the celebrated novelist Alexander Fadeev must have known when they were lovers during the Second World War. He was a powerful man, then General Secretary of the Writers Union. He had a tough-boned face, with a cleft chin. A guerrilla fighter in two wars, his courage showed in merciless eyes. In contrast, Aliger's expression was tremulous. They never married (Fadeev already had a wife) but Aliger's only surviving child is his.
By the time I met her in her sixties, her shoulders had begun to stoop. The loss of those she loved had marked her whole life. Her first husband, Konstantin Mazakov-Rakitin, was a composer. Their first child died of meningitis at eight months. At the outbreak of the Second World War, while her husband went to the Front, she travelled to the frozen wastes of Christopol in the Tatar republic, sharing a carriage with Akhmatova and Pasternak, and observing their composure with reverence. Perhaps she learned from their preternatural calm how to bear the loss of her own husband early in the war.
Small-boned and delicate, she flew into Leningrad at the height of the siege and joined Olga Berggolts and Vera Inber in broadcasts to encourage the trapped citizens there. The guns were never silent. She saw the emaciated bodies of those who dropped and froze to death in the snow. She saw old people dragged away on sledges, and others left where they fell.
During the last years of Fadeev's life, they were estranged. He began to drink heavily, and in 1956 he killed himself. For many years people attributed his death to a moment of drunken depression, but the date of his death is significant. In 1956, Khrushchev exposed the murderous extent of Stalin's madness, and Fadeev was in despair at his own complicity. Masha told me stories of writers saved by him, but there can be no doubt about the role he played in the terrible fate of others. Many of Aliger's best lyrics turn on the unhappiness of being a survivor.
And Fadeev was not her last loss. Her elder daughter died of tuberculosis a few years before my visit to Moscow. Masha was now her only child. And I could see there was some tension between them. She often felt guilt mixed with anger and a poignant sense of the irreparable. And these emotions found their way into one of her best short lyrics:
Once again they've quarrelled on a tram,
shamelessly indifferent to strangers.
I can't hide how much I envy them.
I can't take my eyes off their behaviour.
They don't even know their good fortune,
and not knowing is part of their luck.
Think of it. They are together. Alive.
And have the time to sort things out and make up.
Aliger had arranged for me to meet a number of Tsvetaeva's friends.
Among them was Viktoria Schweitzer, who had long been writing her own biography of Tsvetaeva, and Pavel Antokolsky, whom Marina had been in love with during the Civil War years.
When Tsvetaeva knew him, Antokolsky was a small, curly-haired boy wearing a student's jacket; a talented poet of seventeen, learning to be a playwright. His twinkly charm, enormous eyes and huge voice when he spoke his poetry out loud, earned him the nickname of Pushkin. At the time he was closest to Tsvetaeva, he was also in the middle of a homosexual love affair with Yuri Zavadsky, an actor at the same theatre. Tsvetaeva fell in love with both men, and both remained her friends.
I could see Antokolsky had once been handsome, though the lids of his eyes were maroon and there were heavy pouches under them. Now in his seventies, he resembled a New Yorker cartoon of a fashionable roue. His hair and long moustache were carefully combed, and he wore a velvet jacket. He said very little, however, and when he spoke his voice seemed to come through some impediment in the throat.
I sensed something evasive in him. Perhaps he felt guilty because he had failed to help Tsvetaeva when she came to Moscow in 1941, desperate for friendship. He wanted to explain to me how it was then, how she seemed to be an altogether different woman, alienated from the people around her.
'Elle est autre,' he said several times.
In contrast, Viktoria Schweitzer was a large, forthright woman, who would have been suspicious of me if she had not been assured I was a poet. I already knew a great deal about Tsvetaeva herself, but all that I knew of her husband Sergei Efron's story had been told to me by Vera Traill. One of Vera's wildest tales - as I thought - had Efron recruiting her as a member of an NKVD cell. She spoke of his involvement in the murder of Ignace Reiss, the Soviet defector.
I was hesitant to repeat the story, because Efron, in everyone's account, was a gentle, indecisive figure and an unlikely hitman. But there were many anomalies in his allegiance. He had been a half-Jew fighting in the White Army even though his parents were revolutionaries. I knew that he had been brought back to the Soviet Union soon after the murder, that Tsvetaeva had been interrogated by the French police.
Viktoria Schweitzer leaned across the table to pick up a pickled tomato before she replied vehemently:
'It is all true.'
'But why?' I wanted to know stupidly.
'In those terrible years,' she shrugged. 'He wanted to return to Russia; he was told he must show his obedience. I suppose he did what he was told. And when the French police moved in on him, he was taken off back to Russia. They rewarded him with a house in Bolshevo.'
Aliger, I remember, added quietly: 'Let's not talk about taking the wrong road. What was the right road? You think back along the way for signs - was it this way, that decision, this thin tree, this signpost? He wanted to return to Russia. It was the price.'
When I knew her better, she told me, 'People do not forgive me my mistakes.' She was thinking of her unquestioning Communist allegiance, I suppose, but her domestic behaviour had also been damaging. I was very sympathetic to Aliger, who had lost a daughter and a first husband, and had probably never been as important a presence in Fadeev's life as he was in hers. But Masha, I knew, found her bossy and unjust, someone who did not recognise her daughter's successes, and belittled her even without intending to do so. She refused to be defined as Aliger's daughter, even though her own privileged life came entirely from Aliger's importance in the nomenklatura.
This I grasped for the first time when Aliger took me for lunch at the Writers Club. Dom Literaterov was once the magnificent house Tolstoy describes as belonging to the Rostov family in 'War and Peace'. Though there were no gracious ladies now to be seen, and no Natasha to lean elegantly out of a window into the moonlight, the privileges to which the card of a writer gave access when the Soviet Union was still a great power were immense. It was an exclusive club where writers could arrange their holidays, their dachas, their publication. And Aliger, who seemed so unassuming and whose work had not yet reached the West, caused space to clear around us as we approached. We were given the table of her choice.
There were enormous chandeliers. Oak walls. Alcoves. White cloths on the tables. Pewter dishes shaped like little saucepans in which chicken livers were served with mushrooms and walnuts. There was a long table of sturgeon, radishes, fresh cucumbers, red salmon eggs, black and gleaming caviar. The Moscow Writers Club had the best chef in Moscow.
We were joined by Yunna Moritz, a distinguished poet of the generation younger than Aliger. She had a long, pale face, sad grey eyes and, on this first meeting at least, a gentle voice. Moritz had been a great favourite of Akhmatova. Later, I discovered she also had something of Akhmatova's pride, the same majesty. She introduced herself to me with the sentence, 'I am a very strange poet.' Then we talked freely, and sadly, of the matchless genius of Russian women poets, their authority, their confidence, and their tragic fate.
Moritz was born in 1937 in Kiev, of Jewish parentage, and as we sat round the white table, with waiters fussing about us, it occurred to me for the first time that we were all Jewish people, and that perhaps this connection - for all its historical dangers - could be a bond in the Soviet Union.
I knew so little then.
Two decades later, in the buzz of a failed military coup, I sat in the same restaurant with Aliger and Moritz, and listened to their stories. For all the street victory, the times were no longer euphoric. A section of the Writers' Union proclaimed the anti-semitic ideals of the Black Hundreds; both women had been sent abusive letters. Neither had much faith in Yeltsin's wish to control the Mafia, and certainly none in his power to do so. Their voices were muted, uneasy.
There was no regret for Gorbachov, however. Glasnost had depleted their incomes, since the Russian people now lusted after pornography from the West. The following day, Yunna was going to Perm to give a reading, and she told me there would only be a small audience. Less than four thousand, she thought. I had to ask her to repeat the figure.
When she came to read at the Cambridge Poetry Festival, I reminded her, we were proud to muster four hundred. But what happened in Great Britain no longer mattered to her. Only the United States could offer her what she needed. She planned to travel to a University there next spring and to supplement her Moscow earnings with a term's teaching. She was a warm, ebullient, powerful woman whose world had collapsed.
I am lucky, she conveyed to me. There are people more trapped than I am.
And Aliger was among those too frail to make such a journey. A sorrowful brown bird, she seemed to me, though I knew she had unexpectedly made a late marriage to a younger man in the last year. Soon after my return to London, a few days after she heard of her daughter's death from an overdose of sleeping pills, she died of a heart attack in the street.
Yunna Moritz, on the other hand, became more and more imperious as her life became difficult. Some time in 1997, while I was writing a life of Pushkin, I visited her at home in Moscow. She sent her husband to collect me from a Metro station and bring me to her flat. He was her third husband, I think; a calm, patient man who must have needed all his gentleness to cope with Yunna.
I was wearing the amber necklace - which looked like a string of yellowing animal teeth - that she had given me on a visit to Cambridge. She said it would protect me. And there was a period in the eighties when I wore it every day, superstitiously, as Tsvetaeva might have done, even to collect the post. I told her as much, but she was not amused by my story.
Indeed, I began to be aware of a banked-up fury underneath the warmth of her welcome. She was angry with me because I knew so little about what was going on in Moscow that year. The anarchy. The brutality. The way murder for a few roubles had become commonplace. Corpses were left for days untended on the subways. The week before, her son had been taken into hospital with a head wound and she had been unable to find him for three days.
Her flat was small and she did not want to talk about Pushkin. Everyone talked about Pushkin, she told me crossly. And his courage. Was it so brave to tell the Tsar he would have been part of the Decembrist revolt if he had been in St Petersburg? It was no more than a clever stratagem. Rather than Pushkin, she honoured Ryleev, who had actually been on Senate Square and was afterwards executed in a horribly bungled hanging. A fine poet and a genuine liberal, she insisted.
She came close to accusing Pushkin of tacit collaboration with Nicholas, though she backed off from calling him a trimmer. I did not argue strenuously. I could not help feeling that she was talking about herself, and the contrast between her own fortune and those of other poets who were now coming into prominence. She shrugged off the names I mentioned, and showed little admiration for any, even her own contemporaries like Bella Akhmadulina. An era had ended, and she was not optimistic about what was likely to come next.
To me, she seemed indomitable. And, for all her pessimism, she continues to write and publish. As I left, she gave me her latest book: children's poems with her own illustrations. I gave her mine, though I doubted she would read it in English.