In the late 1930s, at the height of the Great Terror, Soviet cultural life was frenziedly intense; sex, art and power seemed more closely intertwined than ever. Artists needed political patrons in order to obtain the privileges to which they were growing accustomed; politicians needed contact with important artists in order to appear educated and cultured. There were a number of cultural salons in 1930s Moscow, and the most glamorous salon of all was presided over by Yevgenia Solomonovna Yezhova, the wife of the head of the NKVD. Yezhova was the deputy editor of a prestigious journal founded by Maksim Gorky, The USSR under Construction. Her husband, Nikolay Yezhov, was responsible for about half of the Soviet political, military and intellectual elite being imprisoned or shot between late September 1936 and April 1938; approximately 700,000 people were shot and 800,000 sent to the Gulag. Among the members of the Soviet elite who visited Yezhova’s salon were the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels; the jazz-band leader Leonid Utyosov; the film director Sergey Eisenstein; the important journalist and editor Mikhail Koltsov; the poet and translator Samuel Marshak; the Arctic explorer Otto Shmidt; and the writers Isaak Babel and Mikhail Sholokhov, with both of whom Yezhova had affairs. Isaac Babel, whose affair with Yevgenia began in Berlin in 1927, is reported to have said of her, ‘Just think, our girl from Odessa has become the first lady of the kingdom!’ Yezhova seems to have been impressively bold in many ways; Otto Shmidt’s son remembers her as being the only person who came up to speak to his father after Stalin had publicly criticized him at a Kremlin reception.MAMA
That Mikhail Sholokhov should have visited Yezhova’s salon is not surprising. Sholokhov moved in powerful circles; he was a member of the Supreme Soviet from 1937, and he was admired by Stalin. He appears to have been fearless; both in 1933, during the Terror Famine, and in 1938, towards the end of the Great Terror, he sent Stalin letters in which he directly attacked his murderous policies. Babel’s presence in Yevgenia Yezhova’s salon may seem more surprising. It is, however, clear both from his own work and from the accounts of other that Babel was deeply fascinated by violence and power. Dmitry Furmanov, the author of an important novel about the Civil War, recorded in his diary that Babel was considering writing a novel about the Cheka. And Nadezhda Mandelstam records her husband as asking Babel why he was drawn to such people as the Yezhovs: ‘Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he just want to touch it with his fingers?’ “No,” Babel replied. “I don’t want to touch it with my fingers – I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like.”’
Whether Vasily Grossman ever visited this salon we cannot be absolutely certain. All we can be sure of is that he knew a number of people who did regularly visit the salon, including both Isaak Babel and Solomon Mikhoels, and that he had the courage, in early June 1938, to write to Nikolay Yezhov asking him to release his wife, Olga Mikhailovna Guber, who had been arrested. We also know that twenty years later, in 1960, Grossman wrote ‘Mama’, a short story about the life of the Yezhovs’ adopted daughter.
Grossman’s evocation of Isaak Babel’s ambivalence, his uncertainty as to what world he belongs to, is one of the most moving aspects of the story. Little Nadya usually has no difficulty in distinguishing between the important political figures who have come to see her father and the artists who have come to see her mother. Babel, however, confuses her; on the face of it, he has come to see her mother, but he looks more like her father’s guests and she perhaps senses that it is indeed her father who interests Babel more deeply.
Grossman wrote ‘Mama’ nearly twenty-five years after Babel had been shot. Grossman admired Babel, and he would probably have considered it wrong to make any overt criticism of such a tragic figure. In conversation, however, Grossman was evidently more forthright. His friend Semyon Lipkin remembers telling Grossman how, in 1930, he had heard Babel say, ‘Believe me […] I’ve now learned to watch calmly as people are shot.’ Lipkin quotes Grossman’s response at length: ‘How I pity him, not because he died so young, not because they killed him, but because he – an intelligent, talented man, a lofty soul, pronounced those insane words. What had happened to his soul? Why did he celebrate the New Year with the Yezhovs? Why do such unusual people – him, Mayakovsky, your friend Bagritsky – feel so drawn to the OGPU? What is it – the lure of strength, of power? […] This is something we really need to think about. It is not something to laugh about, it’s a terrible phenomenon.’ Though there is nothing of these criticisms in the final text of ‘Mama’, there is a delicate mention of Babels’s curiosity in a sentence that Grossman deleted from the manuscript: ‘[Marfa Domityevna’s] calm, just and straightforward mind noticed many things that the perceptive and sensitive Isaak Babel, who she thought was the kindest of Nikolay Ivanovich’s guests, would have been avid to know.’
In an earlier story, ‘In the Town of Berdichev’ Grossman both emulates and criticises Isaak Babel; in ‘Mama’ he describes Babel with respect and affection. Nevertheless, the two stories have much in common. In ‘Mama’, as in the earlier story, Grossman juxtaposes the world of male violence with the world of motherhood. Grossman’s daughter, Yekaterina Korotkova, has written about this aspect of ‘Mama’ with particular sensitivity: ‘There are so many mothers in the story that one begins to feel that, if one were to look more closely, one would find more, maybe even in the orphanage. The theme of “Mother” washes through the whole story – sweet faces, kind eyes, seagulls and the splash of waves that might be from a film or might be from the unknown depths known as the subconscious. It is very strange. A terrifying, hopeless story about loneliness, about talent that is crushed and people who are destroyed, gives off not only a breath of deathly cold but also the warming breath of motherly love.’
Isaak Babel was ten years older than Grossman, and he came to fame not long after Grossman began his studies at Moscow University. Like Grossman, Babel was an intellectual Jew from the Ukraine. Like Grossman, he had a good knowledge of French literature and such writers as Maupassant. It is not surprising that Grossman, as an aspiring writer, should have measured himself against Babel. What is more important, however, is the extent to which Grossman seems to have defined himself by opposition to Babel. Like Babel, Grossman wrote a great deal about violence. Unlike Babel, however, he was not in any way fascinated by it; he wrote about violence simply because he was repeatedly thrown up against the most terrible acts of violence of the last century. The theme that fascinated Grossman, the theme he returned to again and again, is that of maternal love.
Grossman changed the girl’s name – he calls her Nadya, a name that means ‘hope’ – and he has the Yezhovs adopt Nadya in 1936-37, although they probably adopted the real Natalya in 1933. At the end of the story, Grossman has his heroine working in a radio factory, although both in reality and in his own first draft she worked in a watch factory – which seems less prestigious. In accord with the name he has given her, he ends the story on a relatively hopeful note, with Nadya dreaming of having a child; Natalya’s true story, in contrast, is almost unrelievedly bleak. In most respects, however, Grossman is factually accurate and he clearly knew a great deal both about Natalya’ life and about the life of her adoptive parents.
Natalya – who is still alive as I write – has tried to trace her true parents, but to no avail; other researchers have had no more success. The first page of Grossman’s story, set in London, hints at the possibility that Natalya was Yevgenia Yezhova’s daughter by her previous husband, the journalist and diplomat Aleksandr Gladun. In late 1926 and early 1927 Yevgenia and Aleksandr lived in London; she herself was employed in the Soviet Embassy as a typist. In May 1927, as a result of Britain breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, they were both expelled. Aleksandr returned to Moscow, but Yevgenia went first to work in the Soviet Embassy in Berlin; it was during the several months that she spent there that she began her relationship with Babel. Soon after her return to the Soviet Union, she and Yezhov met in Sukhumi, a resort on the Black Sea. Yezhov fell in love with her; Yevgenia and Gladun divorced; and, in the summer of 1930, Yevgenia and Nikolay Yezhov were married.
Towards the end of the first section of ‘Mama’, however, Yezhova says to her husband that the baby girl they are about to adopt has the same eyes as he does. This hints at a very different possibility: that the girl was Yezhov’s illegitimate daughter – a claim made by Yezhov’s sister. Grossman, however, merely hints at these two possibilities; he does not insist on either.
The Great Terror is often referred to by Russians as the Yezhovshchina. Five feet tall, Yezhov was known as ‘the bloody dwarf’. A well-known pun on his name was yezhovye rukavitsy – ‘rod of iron’ or, more literally, ‘hedgehog skin gauntlets’. Stalin, however, used to call him by the affectionate name of Yezhevichka or ‘Little Blackberry’, and Lavrenty Beria, taking his cue from Stalin, sometimes referred to him as Yozhik or ‘Little Hedgehog’. Grossman’s irony with regard to Yezhov is subtle and penetrating; his suggestion that this terrifying figure was himself terrified of his little daughter’s nanny – the only person in the apartment with eyes that are free of madness, anxiety and tension – is as convincing as it is unexpected.
The real Natalya, however, remembers Yezhov with love. She has said in an interview, ‘He spent a lot of time with me, more even than my mother did. He made tennis rackets for me. He made skates and skis. He made everything for me himself.’ And the authors of the first English-language biography of Yezhov write, ‘At the dacha, Yezhov taught her to play tennis, skate, and ride a bicycle. He is remembered as a gentle, loving father, showering her with presents and playing with her in the evenings after returning from the Lubyanka.’
Grossman’s portrayal is in keeping with Natalya’s. Even the ‘plastic piglet’ to which father and daughter give a drink of tea is evidently based on a real prototype. Only once, as Yezhov is already beginning to fall from power, does Grossman puncture this idyll. Nadya looks into Yezhov’s eyes and suddenly, for no apparent reason, screams. Yezhov asks if she is ill, and the nanny replies, ‘Something frightened her.’ Yezhov asks, ‘What?’, and the nanny replies, ‘Lord knows – she’s only a little child.’ Here, as elsewhere in the story, Grossman has chosen to hint at something rather than to state it explicitly. In his first version this hint was more heavy-handed; Yezhov’s ‘What?’ was followed by the sentence, ‘She wanted to reply but, instead of replying as she wanted, she said, ‘Lord knows – she’s only a little child.’
Neither version offers any serious explanation for the girl’s sudden terror. This leaves open at least two possibilities: that she has glimpsed Yezhov’s own terror, or that she has somehow, uncomprehendingly, glimpsed the terror to which he has subjected the country. It is possible that this moment in the story is Grossman’s distillation of an incident that he may heard about from one of his colleagues and that Natalya herself recounted in an interview over sixty years later. During a game of hide-and-seek Natalya apparently once slipped into her father’s study and hid on the windowsill, behind the blinds. There she opened a photograph album and found it to be full of neatly arranged photographs of dead children. In her horror, she was barely able to sleep for several days. Eventually she told her mother what had happened – and from then on Yezhov took care to lock his study securely. Natalya, however, remained frightened even to go past the door; to her it seemed that the dead children were not in a photograph album but there behind the door.
Natalya’s account has the quality of a nightmare. It is possible that it was, in fact, a nightmare – perhaps a nightmare that she had some years later and that she remembered as real. There is, however, no doubt as to the reality of Yezhov’s macabre ways. The NKVD captain who searched Yezhov’s Kremlin apartment shortly after his arrest in April 1939 found four used revolver bullets in a drawer of his desk. In his report the captain wrote, ‘Each bullet was wrapped in paper with the words Zinoviev, Kamenev and Smirnov written on each in pencil, with the paper saying Smirnov wrapped around two bullets. Apparently, these bullets were sent to Yezhov after the executions of Zinoviev, Kamenev and the other. I have taken possession of this package.’ Whatever she saw in reality, and whatever she saw with her inner eye, Natalya clearly understood something very dark. A number of interviews with her have been published during the last ten years, and she mentions this story about the dead children only in one of them. For the main part, she is unremittingly positive in her portrayal of Yezhov; this story seems to have slipped out almost in spite of herself.
The apparent peak of Yezhov’s career was on 20 December 1937, when the Party held a huge gala at the Bolshoy Theater to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the NKVD; Stalin, however, pointedly failed to toast or congratulate Yezhov. From early 1938, Stalin made it increasingly obvious that Yezhov had fallen into disfavour. Yezhov, who had always drunk a great deal and had many affairs with both men and women. turned to both sex and alcohol with greater desperation than ever. As for Yevgenia, she became more and more emotionally disturbed. In May 1938 she resigned from USSR Under Construction and moved to the family dacha. In mid-September 1938 Yezhov told her that he wanted a divorce. He may have wanted to disown her because he was afraid that, having lived in both London and Berlin, she was vulnerable to accusations of espionage, or he may simply have been jealous with regard to her recent affair with Mikhail Sholokhov. As Head of the NKVD, Yezhov had been monitoring Sholokhov, and he had recently received an all too graphic report of a visit by Yevgenia to Sholokhov’s hotel room. Not only was Yevgenia being unfaithful; not only was Yezhov being forced to notice an infidelity he might have preferred to overlook; worst of all, Yevgenia was being unfaithful with one of her husband’s most fearless critics. During a recent audience with both Stalin and Yezhov, Sholokhov had criticized Yezhov and begged Stalin to put an end to the Purges.
Yezhov abandoned divorce proceedings, but, in late October, Yevgenia was hospitalized for depression. On 19 November, at the age of 34, she died from an overdose of sleeping tablets; it was Yezhov who had supplied her with these tablets, and it is probable that the couple had agreed that she should commit suicide rather than allow herself to be arrested. Yezhov’s rival, Lavrenty Beria, had already arrested nearly everyone close to her. According to Yezhov’s friend and lover, Vladimir Konstantinov, Yezhov later said, ‘I had to sacrifice her to save myself.’ On 25 November 1938, long after he had lost all effective power, Yezhov was formally succeeded by Beria. In April 1939 Yezhov was arrested. Accused of plotting against Stalin’s life, he was shot during the night of 3/4 February 1940.
After Yevgenia’s death, Natalya was taken care of by her nanny, Marfa Grigoryevna. After Yezhov’s arrest, however, when Natalya was six years old, she was taken to an orphanage in Penza, a city about 700 kilometres southeast of Moscow. The woman who accompanied her during the journey tried to teach her that her surname was now ‘Khayutina’ [the authorities, unsure what to do with this girl and generally embarrassed by her existence, had given her the surname of her adoptive mother’s first husband, Lazar Khayutin – Gladun was Yevgenia’s second husband, and Yezhov was her third]. When Natalya, unable even to pronounce this name, insisted that she was not ‘Khayutina’ but ‘Yezhova’, her companion hit her on the mouth till her lips bled. In the orphanage, as during the whole of her adult life, Natalya refused to disown her father. She has described the price she paid for her loyalty: ‘They called me a traitor and an enemy of the people. There was nothing they didn’t call me.’
After seven years of schooling, Natalya attended a trade school, to which she gained admittance only with difficulty. On one occasion she tried to hang herself form a tree, but the branch broke. Then she worked for several years in a watch factory. Finally she was able to go to a music school and study the accordion. In 1958 she voluntarily settled in Kolyma, a notorious region in the far east of the Soviet Union that had contained hundreds of labour camps and that had, in effect, been a mini-State run by the NKVD. There she worked as a music teacher, in schools and local ‘Houses of Culture’. Though never married, she had à daughter and several grandchildren.
As a child, at a time when it was standard practice to obliterate all images of ‘enemies of the people’ and to tear out their photographs from books, Natalya doggedly tried to save photographs of Yezhov, to hide them from the ever watchful eye of the orphanage director. As an adult, she petitioned several times, both in the 1960s and more recently, for the official rehabilitation of Yezhov, arguing that his guilt is no greater than that of any of the other prominent figures around Stalin and that she and Yezhov alike are victims of the ‘repressions’ of Stalin’s day. The awareness that Yezhov is one of the last century’s most terrible mass murderers seems – not surprisingly – to be more than she can live with. She herself makes out that she went to Kolyma in order to get away from KGB supervision, to escape to a world where she could be free from being labelled as ‘the daughter of the Iron Commissar’. This, however, makes little sense; nowhere in the Soviet Union would she have been more likely to encounter people who had suffered because of her father. Her decision can perhaps be understood as a way of identifying with the victims, as an unconscious attempt to atone for her father’s guilt.
Natalya never herself – except, possibly, as a small child – had any contact with Vasily Grossman and she has no idea what sources he used; she herself has written to Grossman’s daughter, Yekaterina Korotkova, asking if Grossman’s papers contain any more information about her life story. As we have seen, Grossman knew a considerable amount about her life in the orphanage. The passage in ‘Mama’ about Nadya’s disappointment at being denied the chance to study at music school accords precisely with Natalya’s real story. The authorities, afraid that Natalya might become well known and thus attract attention not only to herself but also to a ‘father’ who had been erased from the history books, initially denied her the opportunity to study either at a music school or at a sports academy. Eventually, however, Zinaida Ordzhonikidze, the widow of a prominent Soviet politician and a close friend of Yevgenia Yezhova, intervened on Natalya’s behalf – and Natalya was allowed to enter a music school and study the accordion.
Grossman evidently had an accurate source of information not only about Natalya’s life with the Yezhovs but also about her life in Penza. It seems likely that this was her former nanny, Marfa Grigoryevna. Even though the authorities repeatedly refused to give her any information, Marfa Grigoryevna managed to find out Natalya’s whereabouts, and she visited her in her orphanage soon after World War II, when Natalya was fourteen. Her intention was to adopt Natalya, but Natalya treated her with extreme aggression, and Marfa Grigoryevna abandoned the idea. Natalya and Marfa Grigoryevna do, however, seem to have met at least once more, in Moscow, around 1949. We also know that Natalya met Zinaida Ordzhonikidze in Moscow in 1957. It is possible that Grossman could have heard about this meeting, and he could have met Marfa Grigoryevna any time between 1946 and 1960, when he wrote ‘Mama’.
Grossman, however, was not simply observing the world of the Yezhovs from a distance; he was more personally involved than is immediately apparent. When Boris Guber, Ivan Kataev and Nikolay Zarudin (all of them former members of the literary group known as Pereval and all of them friends of Grossman) were arrested in 1937, two main accusations were levelled at them. They were accused not only of a failed plot against Stalin’s life in 1933 but also of attempting, in late 1934, to organize a plot against Yezhov’s life. They intended – according to a scenario constructed by the NKVD with their characteristic blend of wild fantasy and careful attention to detail – to take part in one of the literary evenings presided over by Yevgenia Yezhova and then attack Yezhov when he came home late at night. Among the other writers expected – according to this scenario – to be taking part in the literary evening, though not in the ‘conspiracy’, were Isaak Babel, Vasily Grossman and Boris Pilnyak. A woman by the name of Faina Shkol’nikova – a friend of Yevgenia Yezhova, and also of Grossman, Guber and Kataev – was supposed to have provided the conspirators with information about the layout of the apartment and the running of the household.
Guber, Kataev and Zarudin were shot in 1937, Pilnyak and Babel in 1938. As on several other occasions in his life, Grossman seems to have been extraordinarily – even miraculously – fortunate to survive.
The only other survivor among those implicated, however peripherally, in this ‘conspiracy’, was Faina Shkol’nikova. She too was arrested but, rather than being shot, she was sent to the Gulag. After returning to Moscow in 1954, she became one of the large number of camp survivors who paid regular visits to Grossman. It is very likely that the first inspiration for ‘Mama’ arose during conversations – about the life of the Yezhov family, about the conspiracy in which Grossman could so easily have been fatally implicated – between Grossman and Shkol’nikova.
It is not difficult to imagine the important such conversations could have had for Grossman. In the first place, the ‘conspiracy’ could have led to his own execution; in the second place, most of those implicated in the ‘conspiracy’ were people of crucial importance in Grossman’s personal and professional life. Babel was one of the writers Grossman most admired; Guber, Kataev and Zarudin were among his most important sponsors at the beginning of his literary career, and Guber was the first husband of Grossman’s second wife and the father of two boys he brought up as his own sons.
Part of the great power of ‘Mama’ derives from a tangible sense that there is a great deal that Grossman is not telling us. He writes laconically and he observes great tact and decorum. This is evident in his decision not to incorporate the personal material discussed above – which could easily have overloaded the story. It is still more evident in his matter-of-fact and non-judgmental portrayal of Yezhov. As if considering it dangerous to look too long, and too directly, at Yezhov and his world, Grossman shows them to us, for the main part, through a protective prism of innocence – through the eyes of a small child and the eyes of a peasant nanny with something of a child’s wisdom.
Both Grossman’s ‘Mama’ and Natalya Yezhova’s true story encapsulate a great deal of the lasting suffering inflicted on Russia by Stalin. Grossman’s version, however, is gentler. Perhaps thinking it wrong to expose to the world the suffering of someone still living, Grossman describes only the general physical misery of the orphanage in Penza; he says nothing about the emotional torment Natalya underwent there. Perhaps afraid of destroying the reader’s sympathy for his heroine, he says nothing about her fierce loyalty to the disgraced Yezhov. And as if wanting to find a way out for her, to give her at least the possibility of a better future, he ends the story on a note of quiet hope.
Grossman assigns a greater place to Natalya’s birth parents, whereas she herself assigns the determining role in her life to Yezhov. Grossman’s Nadya remembers seagulls and the splashing of waves; the real Natalya remembers nothing further back than her kind, loving adoptive father. Central to both stories, however, is a sense of rupture, and a sense of the power of that from which we have been cut off, of recollections of still more distant recollections, of ‘echoes that had been repeated many times and were now dying away in the mist’.
One of these ‘recollections of recollections’, no doubt, was Grossman’s memory of his own mother. By the time he wrote ‘Mama’, it was nearly twenty years since her death.
There had been a sense of agitation in the orphanage all morning. The director had quarrelled with the doctor and shouted at the supply manager. The floors had to be polished, and new sheets and swaddling clothes had to be issued without delay to the ward for infants-in-arms. The nurses had to put on starched gowns like doctors. Then the director had called the doctor and the senior sister to his office, and they had all had set off together to inspect the children.
Soon after the infants’ midday feed, a stout middle-aged man in military uniform was driven up to the orphanage; he was accompanied by two young officers. The middle-aged man glanced casually at the senior members of staff who came out to meet him and walked through to the director’s office. He sat down, got his breath back and asked the doctor if she would allow him to smoke. She nodded and rushed off in search of an ashtray.
He smoked, flicked the ash into the little saucer the doctor had given him, and listened to stories about the orphanage babies – babies whose parents had been arrested as enemies of the people. He heard about babies who couldn’t stop scratching, about babies who were always crying and babies who were always sleeping, about baby gluttons and babies who showed no interest in their bottles at all, about who preferred to adopt little boys and who preferred to adopt little girls. Meanwhile, the young officers, now also wearing doctors’ gowns, were striding up and down the orphanage corridors, looking into duty rooms and storerooms. The gowns were too short and their blue cavalry twill trousers poked out underneath. The look in their eyes and their persistent questioning sent a chill through the nurses’ hearts. And there was no end to their questions. ‘Where does this door lead?’ they would ask. Or ‘Where’s the key to the attic?’
Taking off their gowns, the young men entered the director’s office. ‘Permission to report, comrade Commissar?’ said one of them, addressing the stout middle-aged man.
The middle-aged NKVD officer – an Army Commissar, Second Grade – nodded.
A few minutes later the commissar flung a white gown over his shoulders and, accompanied by both the doctor and the director, made his way to the infants’ ward.
‘Here she is,’ said the director, pointing to a cot standing between two windows.
‘Yes, yes, I’m entirely confident about this girl,’ said the doctor, quick and anxious, just as when she had been looking for an ashtray. ‘She’s entirely normal, she’s developing absolutely correctly. She’s normal, correct and normal, normal in every respect.’
Soon after this, the sisters and nurses were pressing their faces to the windows as they watched the stout NKVD commissar drive off in his car. The two young officers, however, stayed in the orphanage and began reading the newspapers.
And out on the little street – a little sidestreet beyond the Moscow river – that led to the orphanage, some other young men in winter coats and high boots began saying to the passers-by, ‘Come on now, let’s be clearing the pavement!’ And the passers-by hurriedly stepped down into the roadway.
At six o’clock, when the November dark had set in, a car pulled up outside the orphanage. Two figures – a woman and a very short man in a light autumn coat – walked up to the main entrance. The director himself opened the door to them.
The short man breathed in the slightly sour, milky smell, gave a little cough and said to the woman, ‘It’s probably best not to smoke in here.’ Then he rubbed his cold hands together.
The woman smiled apologetically and returned her cigarette to her handbag. She had a sweet face, with quite a large nose. She looked tired, and a little pale.
The director led the visitors to the cot between the two windows, then stood back a little. It was quiet; the infants were all asleep after their evening feed. The director gestured to the nurse to leave the room.
The woman and her companion, who was wearing a badly fitting jacket from the Moscow Tailoring Combine, looked into the face of the sleeping baby girl. Appearing to sense their gaze, the child smiled, with her eyes still closed, then frowned, as if remembering something sad.
Her five-month-old memory had been unable to hold onto the way cars had kept hooting in the fog or how her mother had held her in her arms on the platform of a London railway station while a woman in a hat said mournfully, ‘And now what are we going to do at the embassy? Who’s going to sing for us when we have our staff family evenings?’ And yet, without the girl knowing it, all these sounds and images – the railway station, the London fog, the plash of waves in the English Channel, the cry of gulls, the sleeping car compartment, the faces of her mother and father bending down over her as the express approached Negoreloye station – had managed to hide themselves away somewhere in her little head. And decades later, when she was a grey-haired old woman, certain images would, for no apparent reason, suddenly appear to her: autumn aspen trees, her mother’s warm hands, slender rosy fingers with unmanicured nails, and two grey eyes gazing at the broad spaces of the Russian motherland.
The little girl opened her eyes, clicked her tongue and went back to sleep.
The short man, who seemed rather timid, looked at the woman. The woman wiped a tear away with her handkerchief and said, ‘Yes, yes, I’ve made up my mind. It’s strange, it’s quite extraordinary. Look – she’s got your eyes.’
Soon they were walking out of the main entrance. A nurse was walking behind them, carrying a baby girl wrapped up in a blanket. The short man sat down next to the driver and said in a quiet voice, ‘Back home!’
The woman clumsily took the little girl in her arms and said to the nurse, ‘Thank you, comrade!’ Then she said sadly, ‘I’m not just afraid of holding her. I’m even afraid of looking at her. I keep thinking I’ll do something wrong.’
And within only a minute the huge black car had moved off, the junior officers reading newspapers had disappeared from the lobby and the young men in winter coats and high boots keeping guard out on the street seemed to have vanished into thin air.
At the Spassky Gate there was a ringing of bells and a flashing of lights – and the black car, the huge black car of Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov, General Commissar for State Security and loyal comrade-in-arms to the great Stalin, sped like a whirlwind past the guards and into the Kremlin.
And in the little streets beyond the Moscow River everyone was talking about how this ‘closed’ orphanage had been declared a quarantine zone. In this high-security orphanage there had been a sudden outbreak – so the rumour went – of either anthrax or plague.
She lived in a bright and spacious room. If she had a stomachache or a sore throat, her nanny, Marfa Domityevna, would be joined by a special nurse from the Kremlin hospital. And a doctor would visit twice a day.
And when she caught a serious cold, an old doctor with warm, kind, trembling hands came to listen to her chest with his stethoscope. Two women doctors accompanied him.
She saw Mama every day, but Mama never stayed with her for long. When Nadya sat down to her breakfast porridge, Mama would say, ‘Eat, my little one, eat. Eat up your porridge – but I must be off to the office now.’
In the evening Mama’s friends would come round. Father’s guests came a little less often. Nanny – Nyanya – would put on a starched kerchief, and from the dining room would come the sound of voices and the clatter of forks. Father would slowly pronounce the words, ‘Well then, we should drink to that!’
Now and again one of father’s guests would come to have a look at little Nadya. Sometimes she would lie still in her cot and pretend she was asleep. Knowing that little Nadyusha was only pretending, Mama would laugh and say, ‘Shush!’ The man would bend down over her and she would smell wine. Mama would say, ‘Sleep, my little girl, sleep!’ Then she would kiss Nadya on the forehead and Nadya would once again smell wine, this time more faintly.
Marfa Domityevna was taller than all of Father’s guests. Father himself looked tiny beside her. Everyone was afraid of her. The guests were afraid of her; Mama was afraid of her; and Father – more than anyone – was afraid of her. Father was so afraid of her that he tried to spend less time at home.
Nadya was not afraid of Nyanya. Sometimes Nyanya would pick her up in her arms and say in a singsong voice, ‘My darling, my poor unhappy little darling.’
Even if Nadya had understood what these words meant, she would still have had no idea why Nyanya might think she was poor or unfortunate. After all, she had lots of toys; she lived in a sun-filled room; Mama sometimes took her out for a drive, and men in handsome red and blue caps leaped out of sentry booths to fling open the dacha gates as their car approached.
Nevertheless, Nyanya’s quiet, caressing voice troubled the little girl’s heart. She wanted to shed sweet, sweet tears; she wanted to hide away like a little mouse in the embrace of Nyanya’s large arms.
She knew who were Mama’s best friends and who were Father’s most important guests. She knew that if Father’s guests were visiting, there were never any of Mama’s friends.
There was a redheaded woman; she was called ‘a friend from childhood’. Mama used to sit with her beside Nadya’s cot and say, ‘Madness, madness.’ There was a bald man in glasses, with a smile that used to make Nadya smile too, and Nadya did not know who he was – whether he was a friend or a guest. He looked like a guest, but it was Mama and her women friends whom he came to see. When he came in, Mama used to answer his smile with a smile of her own and say, ‘Babel’s come to see us!’
Once Nadya put the palm of her little hand to his high, bald forehead. His forehead was warm and kind; touching it was like touching Mama or Nyanya on the cheek.
There were Father’s guests. There was one who kept giving a little laugh; he had a guttural voice and a nose that was always trying to sniff something. There was a man who smelt of wine, with a loud voice and broad shoulders. There was a thin little man with dark eyes; he usually came early, with a briefcase, and left before they’d sat down to supper. There was a dark-skinned man with a pot belly and moist red lips; one evening he took Nadya in his arms and sang her a little song.
Once she saw a guest with a pink face and grey hair, in military uniform. He drank some wine, then sang. Once she saw a guest who appeared to make Mama feel timid; he had small glasses and a large forehead and he stuttered. Unlike the others, who wore military jackets of one kind or another, he wore an ordinary jacket and a tie. He told Nadya in an affectionate voice that he had a little daughter too.
Marfa Domityevna couldn’t remember which was Beria and which was Betal Kalmykov, and she kept forgetting that the thin man with a brief case was Malenkov. Kaganovich, Molotov and Voroshilov, on the other hand, she recognized from the portraits she saw of them on placards and banners.
Nadya did not know any of the guests by name. But she knew the words: Mama, Nyanya, Papa.
One day there was a new guest. What made him seem special to Nadya was not the way everyone seemed so agitated while they were waiting for him to arrive. Nor was it the way Nyanya made the sign of the cross when Father himself went to open the front door to him; nor was it anything to do with his clever pockmarked face and his dark grey-streaked moustache and his soft fluid movements; nor was it that this guest walked more silently than anyone could walk – anyone except the black cat with green eyes that lived at their dacha.
Everyone Nadya knew had the same look in their eyes. There was the same look in Mama’s brown eyes, and in Father’s grey-green eyes, and in the yellow eyes of the cook, and in the eyes of every one of Father’s guests, and in the eyes of the guards who opened the dacha gates, and in the eyes of the old doctor.
But these new eyes, these new eyes that looked at Nadya for several seconds, slowly and without curiosity, were entirely calm. There was no madness in them, no anxiety or tension, nothing except slow calm.
In the home of Nikolay Yezhov there was no one with calm eyes except Marfa Domityevna.
Marfa Domityevna saw, and understood, a great deal.
No longer was the voice of jovial, broad-shouldered Betal Kalmykov to be heard in their home. The mistress of the house took to wandering about from room to room in the night. She stood over Nadya as she lay asleep, whispered, clinked phials of medicine in the dark, turned on all the chandeliers and went back to Nadya again, still whispering and whispering – either praying or repeating lines of poetry to herself. In the morning Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov would come home looking thin and pinched. He would take off his coat, light a cigarette while he was still in the hall and say irritably, ‘I don’t want anything to eat, and I don’t want any tea.’ Once his wife asked him something, then gave a frightened cry – and never again did her childhood friend with the red hair come to see her, nor did the two women ever speak again on the telephone.
Once Nikolay Ivanovich went up to Nadya and smiled. She looked into his eyes and screamed.
‘Is she ill?’ he asked.
‘Something frightened her,’ said Marfa Domityevna.
‘Lord knows – she’s only a child.’
When Marfa Domityevna and Nadya came back from their walks, the guard now looked straight at the little girl, straight into her little face, and Marfa Domityevna would try to prevent her from seeing his stare, which was as sharp as the filthy, bloodstained talon of a bird of prey.
It is possible that Marfa Domityevna was the only person in the entire world who felt pity for Nikolay Ivanovich; even his wife now feared him. Marfa Domityevna noticed the fear she showed at the sound of his car – and when the pale, grey-faced Nikolay Ivanovich, together with two or three other pale, grey-faced men, came in and walked through to his study.
Marfa Domityevna, however, remembered the master of all and everyone ?? – calm, pockmarked comrade Stalin – and felt pity for Nikolay Ivanovich. She thought his eyes looked confused, pathetic, lost.
It was as if she did not know that the country lay frozen in horror, that Yezhov’s gaze had frozen all of vast Russia.
Day and night the interrogations went on in the Lubyanka, in Lefortovo and in the Butyrka. Day and night trains transported prisoners to Komi, to Kolyma, to Norilsk, to Magadan and the Bay of Nogaevo. Every dawn the bodies of those shot during the night in prison basements were taken away in lorries.
Did Marfa Domityevna realize that the fate of a young adviser at the Soviet Embassy in London, that the fate of his pretty wife, who was arrested before she had finished breast-feeding her little daughter, before she had even completed her singing course at the Conservatoire – did Marfa Domityevna realize that these fates had been determined by the signature, at the foot of a long column of names, of a former Petersburg factory worker by the name of Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov? He was still signing list after list, dozens and dozens of these enormous lists of enemies of the people, and the black smoke was still pushing its way up from the crematoria of Moscow.
One day, as the cook was lighting a cigarette, Marfa Domityevna heard her muttering behind their mistress’s back, ‘And that’s the end of your days as Tsaritsa!’4
Evidently, the cook knew something that the nanny did not know.
What Marfa Domityevna would remember from these last days was the silence that entered the house. The telephone no longer rang. There were no guests. In the mornings, Nikolay Ivanovich did not summon his deputies, secretaries, assistants, adjutants and messengers. His wife no longer went out to work; she lay on a sofa in her dressing gown, yawning, thinking, reading a book and sometimes smiling a little, walking from room to room in silent night-time slippers.
The only person to make a noise in their home was little Nadyusha. She cried, laughed and clattered her toys about.
One morning an old woman visited the mistress of the house. Not a sound came from the room where the two women sat together; it was as if neither was saying a word. The cook walked up to the door and put her ear to the keyhole.
Then the two women went to see Nadya. The visitor’s clothes were all patched and worn – and she seemed too frightened even to look around her, let alone to open her mouth.
‘Marfa Domityevna,’ said the mistress of the house, let me introduce you. This is my Mama.’
Three days after this, Nadya’s mother told Marfa Domityevna that she was going to the Kremlin hospital for an operation. She spoke quickly, in a loud, somehow false voice. She said goodbye to little Nadyusha, looking at her distractedly and giving her a perfunctory kiss. Standing in the doorway, she glanced quickly towards the kitchen, put her arms round Marfa Domityevna and whispered in her ear, ‘Remember – if anything happens to me, dearest Nyanya, you’re the only family she has. She has no one else in the whole wide world.’
As if she knew they were talking about her, the little girl sat quietly on her little chair, looking at them with her grey eyes.
Nikolay Ivanovich did not take his wife to the hospital himself. Instead, she was taken by one of his adjutants, a stout general carrying a bouquet of red roses. They were accompanied by Nikolay Ivanovich’s personal bodyguard.
Not until the following morning did Nikolay Ivanovich come home. Without even looking in on Nadya, he sat in his study for a while, writing and smoking. Then he called for his car and left.
After this came a great number of events that shook, and eventually shattered, the life of the household, and in Marfa Domityevna’s memory these events all got muddled together.
First, Nadyusha’s mother, the wife of Nikolay Ivanovich, died in hospital. She was not bad or unkind, and she cared about the little girl; nevertheless, she was a strange person. That day Nikolay Ivanovich came home very early. He asked Marfa Domityevna to bring Nadya to his study. Father and daughter gave some tea to her plastic piglet and put her little doll and the bear to bed. Then Nikolay Ivanovich paced about his study until morning.
And then came a day when this short man with grey-green eyes, Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov, did not come home at all.
The cook sat on her late mistress’s bed, then went to Nikolay Ivanovich’s study and made a long telephone call, smoking her former master’s cigarettes.
Men came, some in uniform and some in plain clothes. They walked about in their coats, treading their dirty boots and galoshes all over the rugs and the bright-coloured runner that led to the room of little orphaned Nadyusha.
That night Marfa Domityevna sat beside the little girl and did not take her eyes off her. She had decided to take Nadya back home with her and she kept thinking about how, after getting off the train at Yelets, they would find a cart going to her home village. Then her brother would come out to greet them and Nadya would cry out in delight at the sight of the geese, the calf and the cockerel.
‘I’ll see to it she gets enough food, I’ll see she has proper lessons,’ thought Marfa Domityevna, and a sense of motherliness filled and brightened her virgin’s soul. ??
The NKVD men were busy all night long, noisily searching the apartment, sending books, linen and cutlery flying onto the floor. ??
These new people had the same tense, crazed eyes that had by then begun to seem normal to Marfa Domityevna.
Only little Nadyusha, yawning sleepily as she got up for a wee, seemed quiet and peaceful. And Stalin looked down from the portrait in his usual calm way, without curiosity, keeping his slightly narrowed eyes focussed on what had to be done, on what was indeed being done at that very moment.
In the morning a man with a red face arrived. He was stout, like a child’s top, and the cook called him ‘Major’. He went through to the nursery. Wearing a starched apron embroidered with a red cockerel, Nadya was slowly and seriously eating her oatmeal porridge. ‘Put some warm clothes on the girl,’ he ordered, ‘and pack her things.’
Trying not to show her agitation, Marfa Domityevna asked slowly, ‘Why? Where is she going?’
‘We’re placing the child in an orphanage. And you must get ready to leave too. You will receive the rest of your pay, along with a train ticket, and you will return to your village.’
‘But where’s my Mama?’ Nadya asked suddenly. She stopped eating and pushed away her little bowl with the blue border.
But no one answered her – neither Marfa Domityevna, nor the Major.
Exemplary cleanliness was observed throughout the rooms, corridors and toilets of the hostel for the State radio factory’s female workers. The bed linen was starched, there were covers on all the pillows, and the windows were hung with lace curtains. The girls had clubbed together and bought them with their own money.
On top of many of the bedside lockers stood little vases with beautiful artificial flowers – roses, tulips and poppies.
In the evenings the girls read books and newspapers in the Red Corner, sang in the choir or went to the dance group, or watched films and amateur theatricals in the Palace of Culture. Some girls went to evening classes in dressmaking or did courses to prepare them for entrance to an institute of higher education; others were studying in the evening faculty of the electro-mechanical school.
The girls seldom spent their annual leave in the town. The secretary of the factory Party committee rewarded outstanding workers with a free holiday in one of the trade-union houses of recreation. Other girls went back to their home villages and stayed with their families.
It was said that some girls had been behaving too freely in the houses of recreation, staying out late at night and failing to take due care of their own well-being, and that the young men had been gambling and getting drunk, and getting up to no good during the rest hour after lunch.
Apparently some boys on holiday from the mechanical factory had broken into a kiosk and made off with a crate of beer and six bottles of vodka. They had downed all this in the music room and used foul language when the head doctor hurried in to see what the singing and shouting was about. The boys were expelled from the house of recreation and the factory party committee was informed of their bad conduct. A criminal case was brought against the three ringleaders and they were each sentenced to two months of forced labour in the workplace.
Never did anything like this happen in the radio factory hostel.
Ulyana Petrovna, the hostel commandant, was known for her strictness. There was one occasion when a girl brought a boy into her room and, with the agreement of her roommates, let him stay the night.
Ulyana Petrovna hauled the girl over the coals in public and had her thrown out of the hostel the following day.
But Ulyana Petrovna was not only strict; she could also show kindness. The girls turned to her for advice as if she were a close relative. They knew they could trust her; it was not for nothing that she had been chosen several times as a deputy to the district soviet. With her in charge of the hostel, there was no drunkenness, no debauchery, no late-night singing to the accompaniment of an accordion.
After the rough, harsh ways of the orphanage, radio-fitter Nadya Yezhova was very happy to be living in this exemplary hostel.
Her years in orphanages had been the hardest years of her life. The worst time of all had been during the war, in an orphanage in Penza; even the other children, who had not led the spoiled life that she had led, found it hard to swallow down the soup made from rotten maize flour that they were served day after day for both lunch and supper. They were only seldom issued with clean clothes or bed linen – there was not enough of either, and there was too little soap and too little firewood to do laundering at all regularly. The town soviet had ruled that the orphanage children were to wash twice a month in one of the bathhouses, but this ruling was not always observed. The two main bathhouses were usually occupied by soldiers from reserve units, and there were always silent surly queues, from dawn until late in the evening, outside the old, small bathhouse beyond the railway station. And no one, in any case, much liked washing in this bathhouse; chilly winds blew through cracks in the walls, the damp firewood gave off more smoke than heat and the water was barely warm.
In Penza Nadya had felt cold almost all the time – in the dormitory at night and in the classroom, where they had lessons and where they made shirts for soldiers. She even felt cold in the kitchen, where she sometimes helped the cook to remove worms from the maize flour. And the harshness of the staff, the malice and spite of the other children and the constant thieving that went on in the dormitories were as unbearable as the cold and hunger. A moment’s inattention – and anything from bread rations to pencils, underpants or kerchiefs would vanish into thin air. One girl was sent a parcel; she locked it up in her little bedside cupboard and went off to her lessons. When she returned, the lock looked the same as ever, but her parcel had gone.
Some of the boys went to food shops and bus stops and picked people’s pockets. One of these boys, Zhenya Pankratov, even took part in an armed attack on a cash collector.
Life in the orphanage did, of course, improve after the War. Nevertheless, when Nadya finished her seven years of compulsory schooling and was sent to work in a factory, she felt she had arrived in paradise.
Nadya now found it hard to believe that she could have cried all night long after hearing that the orphanage authorities were going to send her to this factory. It was because of her singing teacher that she had got so upset. Her singing teacher had said to her several times, ‘With a voice like yours you should go to the Conservatoire – you could be a concert singer!’ At first the authorities truly had intended to send Nadya to a music college, but then some kind of clarification had unexpectedly arrived from Moscow – and Nadya had been sent to the radio factory.
She had wept during her last night at the orphanage. No one, she had thought, could be more unhappy than her. Not once had she lived in a Moscow or Leningrad orphanage; she had always been sent to the most out-of-the-way places. Many of the girls received letters and parcels from relatives. But in all her life Nadya had never received a single letter; nor had anyone, even just once, sent her apples or shortbread.
All this had made her grow silent and sullen, and the other children had teased her and said she was mute.
Now, in this exemplary hostel, she began to understand that she was not so unfortunate as she had thought.
She had a good job. It was clean, relatively light work, and it was well paid; and the Komsomol committee had promised to send her on a course to improve her qualifications. She had a good winter coat and several beautiful dresses. She even had a crepe satin dress that had been specially made for her in the fashion atelier; Ulyana Petrovna had herself signed the authorisation form. The girls on the shop floor and in the hostel respected her, seeing her as steady and self-reliant. Along with other girls from the hostel she went to the cinema and to dance nights at the club. There was a boy called Misha whom she liked; she was always glad when he asked her to dance. He was as quiet as she was; when he escorted her back to the hostel, they usually walked all the way in silence. He lived some way off, the far side of the goods station, and he worked as a goods-wagon mechanic in the depot.
And her life of long ago was now something she could barely remember. It was as if the gleaming black car, the luxuriant flower-beds at the dacha, her walks through the Kremlin with Nyanya, Mama’s affectionate, absent-minded face, the voices and laughter of Father’s guests – it was as if all these things, rather than having a place of their own in her memory, were recollections of some other recollection that was more distant still. It was as if they were echoes that had been repeated many times and were now dying away in the mist.
This current year was going especially well for Nadya Yezhova. She had been accepted as an evening student in the electro-mechanical school, and she had been given a prize of six weeks’ pay for overfulfilling the work plan. Misha’s boss at the depot had promised him a room in a new building being constructed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, and Nadya and Misha had decided to marry. Nadya dearly wanted to have a child and she was happy that she was going to be a mother.
Once, a few days before she was due to go to the house of recreation for her holiday, Nadya had a dream. Some woman – not Mama, someone quite different – was holding in her arms a little child who might have been Nadya but who might not have been Nadya. The woman was trying to protect the child from the wind. There was a lot of noise round about. Waves were splashing; the sun was sparkling on the water, then fading away behind quick, low clouds. White birds were flying in different directions and crying out in piercing, cat-like voices.
All day long, on the shop floor, in the workers’ canteen, and when she was in the factory Party committee office, filling in forms for the house of recreation, Nadya kept seeing this woman’s sweet, sad face as she hugged her little child. Then Nadya realized why she had had this dream.
Once the director of the Penza orphanage had taken the children to see a film about a young mother travelling somewhere by sea. And this half-forgotten image had come back to her in a dream, at a time when she was full of thoughts about her future motherhood.
To be included in THE ROAD, a collection of Grossman’s stories and articles to be published in Fall 2010 by NYRB Classics and The MacLehose Press’.
The Soviet security service was renamed many times; the most important of its names and acronyms, in chronological order, are the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD and the KGB. An army commissar was the commissar responsible for the moral and political education of an entire army, just as a battalion commissar was responsible for the moral and political education of a battalion. Grossman’s middle-aged officer is equivalent in rank to a general; the only higher rank was Army Commissar, First Grade.
Moscow Tailoring. Clothes produced by this factory were notoriously ugly. A sketch by the Soviet satirists, Ilf and Petrov, describes a young man and woman feeling attracted towards each other when they meet on a beach, then putting on their Moscow Tailoring Combine clothes and running away from each other in horror, each shocked at how ugly the other looks. And in a poem from the 1930s that Grossman probably knew, Osip Mandelstam, insisting that he is not an anachronism in Soviet life, declares ironically, ‘I am a man of the epoch of the Moscow Tailoring Combine.’
From 1921 until 1939 the small town of Negoreloye, fifty kilometres west of Minsk, was on the frontier between the Soviet Union and Poland. During the Great Terror there were many instances of Soviet citizens being recalled from foreign capitals, and then being taken off the train at Negoreloye to be shot by the NKVD. Nadya’s parents were bending down over her to say their last goodbyes; they seem to have known what lay in store for them. In the story’s final version, Grossman only hints at all this. His first version of this sentence, however, includes the more explicit, ‘her mother’s pale face with eyes that were wet from tears, and the gloomy face of her father, who already knew his implacable fate.’ [RGALI, 1710, opis’ 3, ed. khr. 23]
As well as their Kremlin apartment, the Yezhovs had a luxurious dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, with a cinema, tennis court and staff.
The man with the guttural voice who kept giving a little laugh is Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars [the equivalent of Prime Minister) 1930-41. The other three men, in order of appearance, are Betal Kalmykov, the local Party boss in Karbardina-Balkaria, an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus; Georgy Malenkov, the Central Committee’s personnel officer; and Lazar Kaganovich (‘Iron Lazar’), People’s Commissar for Transport.
These two ‘guests’ are Kliment Voroshilov, a Marshal of the Soviet Union; and Lavrenty Beria, who in November 1938 replaced Yezhov as head of the NKVD.
Perhaps Stalin’s three most loyal henchmen. During the Great Terror, Molotov signed the greatest number of execution lists – then Stalin, Kaganovich and Voroshilov, in that order.
‘Mummy’, ‘Nanny’, ‘Daddy’ – all three words are stressed on the first syllable.
The childhood friend is almost certainly Zinaida Glikina, who went to school with Yevgenia in Gomel. Glikina was arrested on 15 November 1937. It must have been immediately evident to both Yezhov and Yevgenia Solomonovna that it was Beria who was responsible both for this arrest and for the arrest of another close friend of Yevgenia’s. She herself was clearly next in line. Glikina was executed on 25 January 1938.
The Russian word ‘krasny’ means both ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’. The ‘red corner’ was originally the corner of a room where icons were hung, on the diagonal. During the Soviet period, the same phrase was used to designate an area in factories, hostels and other public buildings that was set aside for quiet reading. Discussions could be held there, and notices posted on the walls.
Sheila Fitzpatrick writes, ‘There probably was no Politburo member without his stable of intelligentsia clients, since without them one could not have the reputation as a cultured man that Politburo members, as well as lesser mortals cherished. In the second place, the system of intelligentsia privileges […] virtually required a patronage network to allocate them. Finally, it must be said that members of the creative intelligentsia, with centuries of practice with imperial and aristocratic patrons behind them, displayed greater assiduousness and flair as clients than almost any other social group.’ [Everyday Stalinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 110]
It is impossible to establish wieth certainty either when Natalya Yezhova was born or when she was adopted. According to her birth certificate, she was born much later, on 1 May 1936. She herself, however, considers this date to be a fiction of Yezhov’s; one of the reasons she gives is that 1 May was Yezhov’s own birthday [Shur, op. cit.]
The most balanced and complete account of the life of the real Natalya Yezhova is by G. Zhavoronkov, in the journal Sintaksis (1992, no. 32)
Natalya grew up believing that the Yezhovs were her real parents. It was only when she met Yezhov’s sister in the 1960s that she learned she had been adopted. She has continued, however, at least intermittently, to cling to the idea that Yezhov was her biological father.
In the manuscript version of the first section, Grossman no less than five times refers to Yezhov as chelovechek (‘a little man’). This use of the diminutive sounds condescending; the very first mention of Yezhov – malen’kii, shchuplyi chelovechek (a small, puny little runt) – is positively contemptuous. In the typescript and in the final version, however, Grossman consistently refers to Yezhov simply as chelovek (a man, a person’).