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.
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.
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.
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.