Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Understanding of Russia – Born In Siberia

Living in the UK, I realised how many people outside Russia are interested in the modern Russian history, GULAG, Stalin’s rule and the life of Soviet people. The immense worldwide popularity of novels like Doctor Zhivago and Life and Fate is undeniable.

Here I would like to introduce a work of non-fiction, a memoir of Tamara Astafieva, a woman who grew up in the Soviet Union. Tamara’s story is a  unique document of hard and fascinating life of common Russians in the USSR.

Below is a guest post by Michael Darlow who edited Tamara’s story, which was translated to English by Luba Ioffe.

borninsiberia

Born in Siberia is the story of a remarkable Russian woman and her family from just after the 1917 revolution until the present. Told in her own words, with the help of some explanatory notes and occasional commentary by Michael Darlow and her friend Luba Ioffe, Tamara Astafieva’s story reads in places as if it were one of the traditional fables from the beautiful but fearsome land in which she was born.

Tamara Astafieva was born in 1937 in the depth of winter in a remote Siberian village on the Trans-Siberia Railway line where her father was the station master. Her story includes the death and starvation of members of her family during the great famines of the 1930s caused by Stalin’s programme of mass collectivisation of agriculture and the deaths other of family members in Stalin’s Gulag because they worked for the church, of hardship and the loss of beloved family members during the Second World War and hopes for a better life after it was won. She recounts her schooling in different cities around the post-war Soviet Union as her father moved from one post to another. Finally, in 1950, the family settle in Moscow. Tamara, a true romantic, describes her passionate love affairs, her marriage to the son of a general, the birth of her son and how she came to work for APN Novosti – the USSR’s official international press and information agency. At Novosti she rises to become a senior editor in the TV department, meets foreigners for the first time and mixes with members of the Soviet elite.

03

Michael Darlow with Tamara and Natasha (an interpreter) outside the Kremlin in Moscow in 1967 during the production of “Ten Days That Shook The World”

It was while she was at Novosti that I first met Tamara. In the autumn of 1966 I was sent to Moscow by Granada Television to work on a major co-production to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. I went with a very experienced, award winning documentary and current affairs producer called Norman Swallow. The programme was to be based on John Reed’s classic first-hand account of the revolution “Ten Days That Shook The World”. The production was significant not only because of the story it told but because this was the first major television co-production between a British television company and an official Soviet organisation. It was a somewhat daunting assignment.  As we set off for Moscow we felt rather as if we were two atheists who had been assigned to work on a co-production with the Vatican about the Virgin Birth!

Our first few days in Moscow were marked by a series of scheduled meetings with Novosti officials to which they failed to show up and repeated warnings from British Embassy officials that wherever we went in the USSR our hotel rooms would be bugged and our every move monitored by the KGB. After almost a week in Moscow, during which we accomplished nothing, we had begun to fear that we would have to abandon the production. Things changed, however, when we met Georgi Bolshakov, the editor in chief of Novosti’s TV news division, and Grigori Alexandrov, the co-director with Sergei Eisenstein of the classic Soviet film “October”, and Alexandrov’s wife Lyuba Orlova, the star of many of the great Soviet musical films of the 1930s, who was adored by millions of Russians and reputed to have been Stalin’s favourite movie star. Bolshakov had been Novosti’s man in Washington during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and had acted as the main back-door go-between between Khrushchev, Robert Kennedy and the White House. These three were powerful figures in the 1960s Soviet Union. After some drunken evenings in which we won our new friends trust, Bolshakov introduced us to a very attractive, dark haired young woman member of his staff who, he told us, knew all about the old newsreel film and other material we needed for our film and would be our researcher, guide and helper throughout the production. The young woman was Tamara.

Tamara, Michael Darlow, Georgi Bolshakov, Ludmila Borozdina (Bolshakov’s
first assistant who was married to Boris Zhutovsky one of the so-called
‘Non-Conformist’ Group of painters who exhibited works which Khrushchev
denounced because they did not conform to the prescribed norms for Soviet
art), Lyuba Orlova and Norman Swallow

During the next two years I made frequent visits to Russia and got to know Tamara well. I met her young son and her husband and learned a little about her life. I witnessed at first-hand how, even though she was acting for an official Soviet government organisation, Tamara had to battle repeatedly through the bureaucratic mine-field, controlled by often deliberately obstructive petty officials, which was the Soviet Union of the mid-1960s. “Ten Days That Shook The World” was completed in the autumn of 1967 and shown, with a narration spoken by Orson Welles, on network television in the Britain and other countries around the world, but not in the USSR.

During our work Tamara had taken me to Leningrad to meet veterans of the 1917 Revolution. While we were in the city she had taken me to the Piskariovskoye Cemetery and Memorial to the almost one million Leningraders who died during the terrible 900 day siege by the Nazis during World War Two. That visit had so moved me that on my return to Britain I persuaded Granada TV to let me make a film about the siege and the terrible suffering and heroism of the city’s people – about which far too little was known in Britain. The resulting film, “The Hero City: Leningrad”, won numerous awards around the world and transformed my career.

Towards the end of our work together on “The Hero City”, Tamara was suddenly replaced by another woman, a stern-faced party apparatchik. No reason was given. But, in the spring of 1969, on account of the awards “The Hero City” had won, I was invited back to the Soviet Union. As an honoured guest I was able to persuade Tamara’s bosses to bring Tamara to the offices of Novosti so that I could thank her for all her hard work on our two films. In order to reduce the possibility of our conversation being monitored by the authorities I invited Tamara to go for a walk with me around Moscow. During the next hour, as we walked through the crowded city streets, Tamara told me a little about what had caused her fall from favour – how she had fallen in love with a Swiss film maker and tried to leave the country. After that one final, short meeting I did not see Tamara again. Although I had ideas for making more films in Russia the Soviet authorities refused to grant me a visa. I learned later, from an official who I had got to know in the Soviet Embassy in London, that my visa applications had been blocked by the Soviet Minister of Culture herself. It seemed I had offended the Soviet authorities by speaking out in public about the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovkia – where I had many friends in the movement for reform. As a result I did not return to Russia for many years and, although over the years I did have very occasional contact with two other Russians with whom I had worked in the 1960s, I lost touch with Tamara completely.

Then, almost forty years later, after the fall of the Soviet regime, my wife and I received a letter from Tamara. In it she told us something about her life since our last meeting. With the letter she included a short book of poems which she had written and three impressionistic essays describing important events in her life and the lives of members of her family. A correspondence began and Tamara sent more poems and descriptions of important emotional and imaginative moments in her life. Over time a deeply personal and moving picture emerged of the life of one typical, but also exceptional, Russian woman and her family from shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution until the present day.  I began to suspect that here, in the life of this one woman, Tamara, and her family, was a distillation, an archetype, for the lives and experiences of millions of other ordinary Russians across the decades since 1917.

I told my long-time friend and publisher Naim Attallah, the proprietor of Quartet Books, about Tamara’s writing and my thoughts about it. He too read Tamara’s material and came to the same conclusion as me. The result is this short book. In it Tamara tells her story through a series of highly evocative, deeply felt impressionistic essays describing key places and events in her life, interspersed with short poems in which she distils her deepest thoughts and feelings. She describes her passionate but doomed love affair with the Swiss film maker, her daily struggles with unbending and unfeeling state and municipal officials, the birth of her son in a Soviet maternity unit and a horrific spell in one of the USSR’s notorious psychiatric hospitals. She describes return visits to her beloved Siberia – to her not the land of dread and hardship we have learned to picture but her beloved homeland full of human warmth and untrammelled natural beauty.  Today Tamara is an old lady in poor health. She lives alone, surrounded by her memories, in a small flat in a high-rise block in a distant suburb of Moscow.

To help readers who do not know Russia I have inserted some sections of explanatory commentary and footnotes. There is also a short postscript, describing Tamara’s life now, written by her friend and translator Luba Ioffe.

Reading Tamara’s work has deepened my knowledge and understanding of Russia and of the Russians of my own, my parents and my children’s generation, the generation that lived through the Second World War, the Cold War and the years since the collapse of Soviet Bloc. I hope that reading this book may deepen the understanding of others as well.

 

update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.

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  • Joe KomaGawa

    Thanks so much for this essay. I was supposed to be in bed an hour ago. I came to your blog looking for something to say about Russians to an audience of Japanese in our English public speaking club, Toastmasters. Less than a week ago I spent 13 hours in Moscow’s International Airport on my way to and from Iran. I still don’t have an answer for my speech but I will return to your blog tomorrow.

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      Thank you for stopping by, Joe. This is Michael Darlow’s post, not mine. But you are welcome to ask me many questions about Russia and Russians. Someone who grew up just a straight from Japan and who is very interested in Japanese literature, I have a handful of opinions on the subject. 🙂

      • Joe KomaGawa

        Yes, I noticed there were two options for posting when I clicked on your essay blog link. It was confusing.
        So, my premise is that Russia is a gateway, from the point of view of Japan (though I am sure my Japanese adult students don’t see it that way). Japanese society outside of the big cities, sees Russia as a comparatively scary place. People are not particularly interested in Russia or the people. However did you know there was a lively Russian community of artists and intellectuals just before and after the Russian Revolution? I am still struggling to use my required speech opportunity to say something interesting about President Putin. I came to your blog because you are a Russian writer, and I hoped you would point me to a free Russian short story (I have to make the speech one week from today) on the Internet which you think might give me an insight into President Putin’s character. Of course a lot of people are trying to analyze his motives and intentions! I realize that because we are talking about a world leader, politics is an extension of his character. However I need to create a speech about and within my personal experience. I’m not thinking of meeting the Russian president, but talking to someone like you in the Airport on the way to Iran on some topic touching on President Putin. . I imagine the President is a kind of nationalist romantic. I imagine he has read a lot of history; and he is an ‘organizational man’ because he was in a sort of military organization, KGB.. I would imagine you would point to one of the characters in War and Peace, as being similar to Pres. Putin. With so many characters, there is bound to be someone like him. ‘-) That would be nice if I had recently read War and Peace, and if I had a copy here; but I don’t and I haven’t.
        Can you point me to a short story? I can easily explain my attraction to Iran to my Japanese students, but I can’t do so regarding Russia. I suppose that all those Russian novels I have read over the years has had some cumulative effect in my older years. there are so many Americans who went through the traditional college prep and liberal arts programs, one would think it quite easy to find them on the Internet. However so far that hasn’t been the case for me. You are the first real find;-)
        I have been so discouraged with my lack of progress in reading Japanese that I turned to the Russian alphabet for some feeling of accomplishment in the short time before my trip. I poured my energy in the brief amount of time I had once I finally got approved by the Iranian gov.
        Regarding Japanese literature, I have thrown away almost all of my novels, in preparation for moving out of Japan in 2015, I have kept 3 which I sometimes reread, a) Thousand Cranes, by Kuwabata, b) The Face of Another, by Abe Kobe, and c) an old novel by Murakami Haruki, which I can’t find at the moment. I really love all three of these novelists. I have read others from time to time, but they didn’t stick with me, except one by a woman …Ohhh and esp. Clouds Marking Graves, by Akutagawa, maybe?, a novel about college students drafted into the kamakazi division of the air force in WW2. Maybe if I thought longer I would remember more short stories too, Murakami’s for example. I have a fundamental belief in the value of the novel to give us insights into living characters, like President Putin. For me, he isn’t such a dominating person/adversary, he is just a temporary actor on the same stage I’m on, in one of Tolstoy’s novels perhaps. He has his entry and exit lines already prepared, even though we, as characters in the same novel, don’t know when that will be. for him or for us. Well, I will leave for now, and try to do a little more Googling for things he has said and done.
        Regards from Saitama,

        • GrigoryRyzhakov

          Hi Joe,
          well I don’t know where to start.
          I think it’s impossible to know what Putin thinks, many people would like to get into his mind.

          I think the way Putin acts has little to do with him being Russian or a particular personality trait. Putin has an enormous power in the enormous country, so, in my opinion, he acts like an emperor rather than a nationalist romantic as you suggested.

          To see his motivations you need to follow his public speeches, though he seems to lie a lot as all politicians do.

          He’s definitely regretting the collapse of the USSR which he called the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the XXth century. So, his actions in Crimea is a move the keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence. Putin wants to unite former USSR republics under the Customs Union, and then maybe create a Eurasian Union. We wants to get into history books as a great Russian tzar. That’s why he throws a lot of money to hosts sport events like Olympics.

          If you ask me, he is Napoleon in the War and Peace. And he will eventually lose like napoleon did, either to his old age or to his younger rivals or both or because of his risky manoeuvres.

          I’ve read the japanese books you’ve mentioned, though my favourite list is different

          http://www.ryzhakov.co.uk/jewels-of-japanese-literature/

          Unfortunately, I don’t know any fiction written about Putin. He’s a secretive man. So, I’d suggest to make a judgement of him based on his actions rather than opinions of others.

          • Joe KomaGawa

            Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World! Yes that has remained with me as a predictor of other writer’s use of the internal/external world interactions gradually merging and separating. And the short story Barn Burning.
            More later,

            Joe

            Sent from Windows Mail

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            Sent: ‎Wednesday‎, ‎March‎ ‎26‎, ‎2014 ‎3‎:‎13‎ ‎AM
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            A new comment was posted on Grigory’s Blog

            GrigoryRyzhakov

            Hi Joe,
            well I don’t know where to start.
            I think it’s impossible to know what Putin thinks, many people would like to get into his mind.
            I think the way Putin acts has little to do with him being Russian or a particular personality trait. Putin has an enormous power in the enormous country, so, in my opinion, he acts like an emperor rather than a nationalist romantic as you suggested.
            To see his motivations you need to follow his public speeches, though he seems to lie a lot as all politicians do.
            He’s definitely regretting the collapse of the USSR which he called the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the XXth century. So, his actions in Crimea is a move the keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence. Putin wants to unite former USSR republics under the Customs Union, and then maybe create a Eurasian Union. We wants to get into history books as a great Russian tzar. That’s why he throws a lot of money to hosts sport events like Olympics.
            If you ask me, he is Napoleon in the War and Peace. And he will eventually lose like napoleon did, either to his old age or to his younger rivals or both or because of his risky manoeuvres.
            I’ve read the japanese books you’ve mentioned, though my favourite list is different
            http://www.ryzhakov.co.uk/jewe

            Unfortunately, I don’t know any fiction written about Putin. He’s a secretive man. So, I’d suggest to make a judgement of him based on his actions rather than opinions of others.
            2:13 p.m., Tuesday March 25

            Reply to GrigoryRyzhakov

            GrigoryRyzhakov’s comment is in reply to Joe KomaGawa:

            Yes, I noticed there were two options for posting when I clicked on your essay blog link. It was confusing. So, my premise is that …

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          • GrigoryRyzhakov

            I loved Murakami’s The End of the World. The concept in the end was beautiful

          • Joe KomaGawa

            So, the setting of my speech is the Moscow International Airport. The tentative title is, “In the dark, all cats are gray”. the time seems to be about the year 2300 and The Airport is also a Space port where inhabitants outside the earth can enter or we can leave for other destinations. this issue of the title expressed in another way is that appearances can be deceiving. Social and moral ambiguity can easily exist in such a situation where one’s previous measurement/comparison system can be made almost useless. So, a moral dilemma occurs in this context with someone a traveler meets.on their way to a vacation holiday. Wheeler/dealer personalities often make use of their Premium business class seating to screen for people who maybe be beneficial for making profitable connections. However there are risks. So I am famous for attempting more than I have the time and resources to accomplish…All of this remains to be seen. I would like to make a more positive upbeat speech for the sake of counteracting Japanese prejudice over the Image of Russian government, etc. It doesn’t help that my credit card info. was hacked by someone entering the Aeroflot ticket information database earlier this year and then using my card on a hotel and expenses in Pebble Beach, CA, USA.. No, I really would like to be positive and optimisti, which I usually am, however my subconscious mind wants to go in a different, underground direction. I’m going to resolve this by sometime tonight, hopefully,

          • GrigoryRyzhakov

            Sorry about your credit card experience, similar thing happened to me in Netherlands. There are enough crooks everywhere