SLAVA UKRAINI! GLORY TO UKRAINE! - MAY 5, 2022
May 5, 2022
When Alliluyeva Returned
I came home a bit earlier than usual that afternoon, I wanted to hear Oksana, our maid, humming her favorite songs. Oksana not only had the sweetest of voices, but also the endearing habit of humming as she went along in her work, tune after tune, gently, no words. Oksana was a mother-earth personality of Ukrainian peasant stock, with large bones and hair tied up in a bun, already in her fifties. The woman had a palpable affection for me: she talked about my delicate hands, something no one had ever noticed; and, greatest of gifts, she was able to find in Moscow anything I might need. Moreover, Oksana always addressed me as madame—she pronounced the word with a French accent—and that made me feel like the Queen of Sheba.
Oksana was busy seeing the table for a luncheon I was hosting the following day. I had pleased her a few weeks earlier by finally going to Passage in Petrovka Street to buy a white tablecloth with matching napkins. Oksana had wanted a plain, white tablecloth for a long time: "Tolko byeluyu madame, tolko byeluyu," she had suggested many times, "Only white, madame, only white." She despised my habit of using colorful tablecloths and covering resistant stains with bread baskets and hot plates. Oksana insisted that stains on white cloth could always be removed with the powerful local bleach.
Oksana was impeccable at her job. The Soviet government had trained her at a professional school; like all maids, she was given to us by UPDK, the Soviet Foreign Ministry office in charge of all services for the diplomatic corps. My long-lasting method of setting tables lacked, obviously, the distinguished style she envisioned for her mistress.
These were Oksana's happiest moments at our house, the eve before a luncheon or a dinner party. In more than one way, a party at our house was a party, mainly, for Oksana. The harder the work, the more delighted she was. Oksana was in the living room—queen in her beehive—polishing the table's dark wood as if preparing for a military operation. The white tablecloth required, for her, an impeccably clean table, one that shone like a mirror. By the sideboard she had already placed an array of dishes, plus all the silverware and glasses I owned. Such a large display was unnecessary—six people had been invited for lunch—but, without doubt, Oksana enjoyed touching my finest possessions. There were glasses for water, red and white wine, even champagne, the last ones certainly unnecessary for this event. Oksana also had arranged in another cupboard the white napkins to be placed on the plates. She had elaborately folded them vertically, pointing up, as if they were doves, doves whose wings reached for the sky.
When Oksana heard my compliments on the beautiful napkins, she lowered her eyes and explained in her coy manner that only in white would the doves look so graceful. A statement that I could only corroborate. After all her preparations, how could I possibly explain that the luncheon the following day did not require such effort? I wanted Oksana to know that her work was appreciated.
Oksana's demeanor was something I had never experienced with anybody else, anywhere. First, she had peculiar, dark-green eyes, a green that sometimes turned gray; I had never seen eyes of that color before. But it was the color of her eyes combined with the movement of her eyelids that made her face so special. If she wanted to talk, she would keep her eyelids open; if she wanted to change the course of a conversation or even end a subject, she would either semi-close or fully close them. Her eyelids functioned like the shutters of village houses in Portugal: communication with the outside world depended on the dweller's decision to open or close them.
As Oksana and I chatted away, the phone rang. I hoped the call would end quickly for I wanted to enjoy Oksana's company. As I left the living room, Oksana started to hum gently the familiar folk song "Ochi chornye," "Dark Eyes." Picking up the receiver, I recalled the words: "Dark eyes, passionate eyes, fiery eyes ...!"
Vera, a dear Russian friend, was on the other end of the line, her voice as tense as always. Immediately I was transported to another world. Vera and her family were otkazniki, people who were refused an exit visa each time they applied to leave the Soviet Union; the Americans called them refuseniks. Vera and her husband Dmitri were frequently invited to embassy receptions, therefore I knew they were "good." In Moscow, a "good contact" meant something unequivocal. These people accepted embassy invitations because they were starved for open discussion of current events; in most cases they were not spies. Members of the intelligentsia, Vera and her husband had lost their jobs after applying for visas to leave the country.
I enjoyed Vera's music, her messy apartment, her two young boys. Vera and I visited each other often, she wanted everybody to know that she did not fear associating with a member of the American Embassy community.
"Hi Laura. How are you?" Vera said in her usual hurried voice as soon as I picked up the phone. She did not wait for my reply, "Listen to the big news. Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, was allowed to return to our country. A friend of a journalist called, she's already given a couple of press conferences in Moscow."
Vera might be a refusenik―fallen from grace with the Soviet government―but she kept her former high contacts.
"Are you sure?" I asked uneasily.
"Of course I'm sure. One doesn't joke about such matters in this country. The government just reinstated her Soviet citizenship. Turn on your TV, Vremya will probably announce the news later on."
"I'll check it, don't worry, you know how much I love that program!" And I exclaimed, "This is incredible."
"She's brought Olga, her daughter from an American father, someone called Peters. The girl's about thirteen. The Soviets have given her Soviet citizenship; the girl doesn't even speak a word of Russian."
"Olga has an American father and the Soviets gave her citizenship?"
"It seems they did." Vera sighed. "Can you imagine how I feel? Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter―the man responsible for sending about twenty million people to their grave―is allowed back in this country. The woman was a defector, the vilest of crimes for the Soviets. But we, who have done nothing wrong, aren't allowed to leave this place."
"Depressing news," I paused. "It must be difficult to be locked up in a jail that happens to be your own country."
"But this isn't all. I have more news. Sit down before I tell you," Vera continued.
"Did you sit down yet?"I put aside Dostoevsky's Demons lying on the chair. "Yes, I did. Tell me."
"She's going to be your neighbor, she's moving to Bolshaya Polyanka Street."
"That's not possible!"
"I'm telling you. Make sure you watch Vremya this evening. I have to go now, the boys are hungry. I'll talk to you later."
After we hung up, I ran to the living room and turned on the television. Oksana looked at me, sensing my mood change; I told her that a friend had mentioned important news. Oksana lowered her eyelids, closing the shutters. She did not ask what the news was, or who had called.
Because I had gotten Oksana through UPDK, part of her job was to report my activities to the Soviet government, who visited me, who called, what I had in the apartment, and so on. But Oksana never asked any questions, I had the impression she preferred not to know. Oksana's eyelids spoke more than her silences. The appropriate attitude, she had figured out, was to close the shutters.
I moved to the next room, picked up Demons and read for a while with the television volume low. The Soviet propaganda film on peasant collectivization did not interest me.
When Keith arrived home a couple of hours later, we discussed the events of the day while he changed in the bedroom. Someone had called the embassy with the news, Keith was informed. A bit later, Oksana helped me place the dinner on a small table in the living room and returned to the kitchen; it crossed my mind that she had left the kitchen door open on purpose. Soon Vremya would be on, Keith and I were glued to the television screen.
The program seemed even slower than usual. We thought Alliluyeva's return might be the first news item but it was not, we were wrong. We watched impatiently, expecting after each item that the next one would break the story; after all, the woman had given press conferences upon her return. But there was no news of Stalin's daughter.
Just as Keith and I were speculating that, after all, Svetlana's return was not going to be revealed to the public, the announcement came on close to the end of the program, just before the sports news.
The anchorman read his statement with the usual wooden voice and posture. He referred to Stalin's daughter merely as Svetlana Alliluyeva, her father was not mentioned. No picture was shown. The report said only that Svetlana Alliluyeva—she had used for many years her mother's maiden name—had returned to Moscow after many years abroad. And that she had returned at her own request.
At a press conference for a handful of journalists, the report went on, Svetlana Alliluyeva stated that she had not had a single moment of freedom in the West. The West had only been interested in commercializing her books and her persona. She had returned to Moscow because of her disillusionment with the West. She added that in Russia, her motherland, her daughter Olga would have the best chance for a good upbringing.
That was all. A few minutes after the announcement ended, the phone rang. It was Vera again.
"You see how well informed I am? Svetlana was a public embarrassment in Moscow. But now she's giving the government good propaganda. An opportunity to show that life abroad is not as fulfilling as some people here might think—or wish."
"The Soviets even take advantage of the words of a traitor!"
"I hear that the poor woman is practically insane," Vera added.
"I wonder what Svetlana means when she said that she had no freedom in the West," I asked.
"What she means is that she didn't have a free moment from the shopping mall! She made a fortune with her books, lived in mansions, had servants," Vera was sarcastic.
"Why're the Soviets allowing her back in?"
"She's Stalin's daughter and she wants to return here. This means a lot for the Soviet government. The government is praising Stalin as a strategic genius now."
"The misinformation in this country is appalling," Vera continued, bleak. She mimicked the TV announcer's voice, "Svetlana thinks this country is beer than the West; Svetlana thinks her daughter will have the best education here; Svetlana wanted to return on her own free will."
The long wait for emigration was taking a heavy toll on Vera. But the rest of the family had been affected as well. Dmitri had lost his university job; in order to make a living, he was ghostwriting academic articles for a former colleague. The family was rotting: financially, emotionally, and physically.
"Vera, I feel badly for you. The closed borders of this country apply only to some families."
"As difficult as it might be, try to cope with your chains. You are locked up here, but you still have a little room to maneuver."
Vera started to cry softly.
"I have people for lunch tomorrow and Oksana, my maid, is still here. But instead of the madame she pictures me as, I feel as curious as a French concierge."
"Why?" Vera stopped crying, my remark interested her.
"Haven't you heard how French concierges are always interested in everyone else's life?" I asked. "Well, since your first call, I've developed a huge fantasy."
"This is going to sound utterly stupid. But I've been imagining that I'm going to meet Svetlana in the street one of these days."
"How do you know? It could happen. I'm sure she wants to stroll in the old neighborhood, walk around. Even buy bread in the nice shop at the corner of Bolshaya Polyanka, the only one around here that has fresh bread every day. I'm sure a Politburo member lives in the vicinity."
"Who knows what the woman wants?! Svetlana lived with her father in the Kremlin, your neighborhood is the neighborhood of her youth. Stalin was very fond of her, he even called her his little sparrow. At that time, his poor wife had already committed suicide."
"I'm going to spot the woman one day, you can be sure of that. I've seen pictures of her: she is in her mid-fifties, plump, and has a vulgar face. Her eyes are like small almonds, they seem almost Asian."
"I'm sure her foreign clothes will give her away. Do you know what her daughter looks like? Could you get a recent picture of them?"
"They lived in England for several years, maybe you could find a picture in the British newspapers."
"What's your interest in Alliluyeva, anyway? It seems so morbid!"
"I'm seeing history in the making. It's not every day that I might spot Stalin's daughter around the corner, the real thing, flesh and blood. In my own neighborhood. It's haunting."
"I grant you, it is." Vera continued, "I've got to go. But before I hang up: what did Oksana say when she heard the news?"
"I haven't gone to the kitchen yet. "
"Ask her, will you? I'm interested."
"Good-bye. When I stop by next week, I'll show you where Svetlana lives."
I made my way to the kitchen and pretended to see what Oksana was doing. She did not need supervision, I only wanted to find out if she had heard the news.
Oksana was very flushed. She was finishing an elaborate dish of crabmeat with mayonnaise and sour cream which could have explained the sweat on her forehead. I praised her work and then remarked on her red face. Oksana did not look at me directly, and her eyelids were half-closed. I took this as a sign that she had overheard the news. "Mmm, big news in your country today, Oksana. Stalin's daughter has returned to Moscow. The little sparrow is back in the nest." Deliberately I kept silent, and then continued, "What do you make of that?"
"Da, madame, da," Oksana replied unhurriedly as she nodded with her head, "yes, madame, yes." She kept her eyelids low, the shutters might close entirely, I was not sure yet. I might be out of luck, she might not say anything else.
"Oksana, be frank. What do you think brought Stalin's daughter back to this country?"
"Rodina eto rodina," Oksana said as she opened her shutters. "The motherland is the motherland." And she proceeded, "We all know there is nothing like it."
"Is that a good enough reason for the tyrant's daughter to return?"
"It's the best of reasons! Svetlana Alliluyeva discovered her love for the motherland; she wanted to return, the government let her in. What more is there to discuss?"
"The little sparrow was a defector, she didn't just take a trip abroad. You know that in the West she published books against this country―don't you?"
"But she repented. We all deserve a second chance; and she has gotten hers. I know she suffered very much in the West."
"She missed the motherland, the worst of punishments."
"What about all the money she made abroad?"
"Nothing could make up for the emptiness in her heart. Nothing. Believe me, madame, this is why she came back: she was homesick."
Oksana had given me the official view, the little sparrow had many voices now. Before she left, she asked me if she could wear lace gloves and a starched maid's cap to serve lunch the following day. She had also bought new, red, high-heeled shoes, much more appropriate footwear, she informed me, than the white canvas boots worn by maids. The red shoes would better match the dark blue uniform. She would show me the items beforehand, she wanted my approval of her outfit.
A few weeks later Vera called again, her voice distressed as usual. This time she wanted to go for a walk, a sign that she had something confidential to share. We went for a stroll in my neighborhood.
"So, have you seen Svetlana yet?" she asked, a bitter tone to her voice.
"No, I haven't. But I must confess, I'm still hoping. Will you show me where she lives?"
We left Bolshaya Ordynka, heading west to Bolshaya Polyanka Street.
"This is the building," Vera indicated with her eyes. My Soviet friends did not point with their fingers, they feared the consequences if someone in an official capacity happened to be watching. "She is above the publishing house Molodaya Gvardia."
"Unbelievable. I never thought we would have such distinguished company!" I said with sarcasm.
"Your 'distinguished' is debatable," Vera answered.
"You know what I mean, Vera." And I continued, "Alliluyeva's books are an insult to the Soviet system. Why would she return, freely, to her jail?"
"Only God knows. The public view is that she was homesick, that she couldn't stand to live away any longer.
"That's exactly what Oksana said."
"You see!? And there might be another reason. In 1967 she left behind her two older children from two previous marriages. Maybe she wants to see them before she dies."
"Her return here seems like going back to a bad marriage. Only someone insane would do it."
"People say that she has been very depressed recently."
"Do you think she'll be able to travel freely? Come and go as she wants?"
"Of course she will. There're only a handful of us who're stuck here," Vera had a grim tone to her voice.
"The damage that Stalin did to this country is irreparable. Once my mother told me that my grandmother made the best paskha at Easter. But the recipe was lost forever, one day my grandmother destroyed it. Even evidence of how to make a cake to celebrate a religious holiday, if forgotten in some old drawer, was enough for a knock on the door in the middle of the night."
"Laura, it wasn't to discuss Svetlana or her wicked father that I wanted to see you," Vera said after a pause, her eyes turning murky.
"That much I guessed. To discuss Svetlana we could have stayed inside."
"Dmitri and I are tired of waiting for our exit visas, and we've decided to demonstrate in front of the Gogol statue, next to the Ministry of the Interior. We're bringing the children with us."
"That seems dangerous." Suddenly I could hear Misha, Vera's oldest son, playing the piano; I had never heard a child play with such sorrow.
"We know—but how long can we go on waiting? The biggest danger is for the boys. We can lose custody of them if the government decides to bring us to court. The judge might want to prove that we engaged them in anti-Soviet propaganda."
"That would be horrible. You must feel totally hopeless if you are ready to take such a step. Risking the loss of your children!" I turned to Vera and held her in my arms, tears were rolling down her face.
"We are at a loss," she answered, determined. "If things go wrong we need independent witnesses who saw exactly what happened. Will you come to our demonstration?"
"Count on me, I'll be there. Fortunately your government can't hurt us, they can only expel Keith and me—a blessing in disguise, I suppose. I'll be there, I'm safe with my diplomatic passport."
"Our friend Grisha will let you know the exact day and time. I have to rush back home now."
We said good-bye and Vera entered the Oktyabrskaya metro station. She had gotten thinner, her back arched more than before. Once in a while extraordinary things appeared for sale near the metro entrance. This time an older man had a huge, nineteenth-century scale. People had lined up and were paying a few kopecks to be weighed.
Weeks passed and early one morning I got word of the day and time of Vera's demonstration.
A friend drove the family and dropped the four of them in Gogol's Square, speeding away soon afterwards. The family walked towards the statue, holding hands, Vera on one side, Dmitri on the other, the two small boys in the middle. In silence, they took their jackets off and exposed the words that Vera had sewed on their T-shirts. They proclaimed their wish to emigrate and stated that they had been waiting for over five years.
I pretended to be a passer-by just a few yards away. Nearby, a foreign journalist was taking notes. A militsioner, a Soviet policeman, rushed up to the journalist and grabbed the pad from his hands. The fellow started to shout that he wanted his pad back, first in Russian, then in French. But to no avail. The militsioner took the pad, put it in his pocket, and walked away slowly, self-confident, looking around at the few pedestrians who, like me, were nearby.
A police van arrived soon afterwards. Several policemen in civilian clothes got out, handcuffed the family, and hustled them into the van. Vova, Vera's youngest son, barely three years old, started to cry hysterically, berserk with fear. I placed my hands over my ears, I could not stand hearing him. The van sped away.
I drove home fast, I wanted to tell a few people what I had seen. Oksana was in the apartment as busy as ever. I told her about the family's demonstration that I, and other foreigners, had witnessed. Oksana listened in silence, keeping her shutters down. As I made calls a few minutes later, my phone went dead. I returned to Oksana and told her the strange coincidence. What kind of country was I living in? I asked her. Oksana assured me that the family would be released soon, the government would not be interested in jailing them since so many foreigners already knew about the incident.
Oksana did not hum a single tune that day. Just before she left, I remembered my request of the week: I had asked her to find a rope, preferably a thick one. I wanted a goodbye gift for a friend who was getting married in the south of France. Someone had organized a party with a theme: "It's fun to get married!" The guests were asked to bring presents that the groom was supposed to open with closed eyes.
Oksana had brought the rope, she took it out of her bag and handed it to me. But she said in a somber voice that a rope was not something to play with.
"I know Oksana," I said absent-mindedly. "But you are good with your hands, can you make a large noose at one end?" I looked at her. "This is for a friend who is getting married. He dated the bride only for a few months. With this gift, he can always hang himself if the marriage breaks up."
Oksana half-closed her shutters, it was clear that she disapproved of my idea. So I added quickly, as an excuse, "I guess only in this country would I have thought of such a souvenir." And I added, "I must have the plot of Demons on my mind."
Oksana had her shutters completely closed now but she was forming the noose I had requested. She did not need to look at her hands. And, suddenly, I had an uncanny feeling that Oksana had a reason to behave this way.
"Did you ever see someone hanged?" I asked as if struck by lightning.
"Da, madame, da," she answered.
"Where on earth, Oksana?"
Oksana opened her eyelids fully now. "In the Ukraine, during Second World War, my village was a battlefield; first there was infighting with the Germans, after that with the Russians. Bodies were left hanging in the main square to rot for days on end. Every villager, child and adult, saw them. I was young, we were all petrified." My own eyelids were wide open now.
"Madame, but those killings only followed Stalin's mass murders during the thirties."
I told Oksana to put the rope in the garbage, that I had had a silly idea.
Spring went by slowly. I often reflected how Oksana had been right: Vera and her family had been freed a few hours after their arrest; too many foreigners had been witnesses. Also, to my chagrin, I never bumped into Svetlana and Olga.
As usual, I left for Portugal during the summer. While I was away, Oksana told Keith with tears in her eyes that she could not work for us any more, that she was not allowed to. When I returned to Moscow I tried to find my pearl, dear Oksana. She did not have a telephone at home, and I did not know her address. I asked the UPDK embassy employees repeatedly why Oksana was not working for us anymore. Finally the reply came, that Oksana had left the job at her own request.
As if that had been possible.