My father, Igor Abramovich, once told me that when he was nineteen, in 1956, he went down into Moscow’s Metro with fliers protesting against the invasion of Hungary. Seeing that Muscovites now are doing similar things, I gave him a call.
— Dad, I wanted to ask about Hungary. The history of demonstrations in USSR.
— I can tell you a bit about this. Let me find some materials for you.
When we spoke again the next day he talked about Novocherkassk.
— This was extremely bloody. 1962. Over low wages, quotas. There was some sort of factory – I don’t remember what kind, this is off the top of my head – and the workers basically went out on strike. They marched in a column. It’s a southern city, you know, full of trees, and children climbed into the trees on either side of the avenue. The Politburo sent – who did they send? Mikoyan? – with troops. And the troops started shooting. Many of the children sitting in those trees were killed. And not only did they shoot demonstrators, they arrested them, too. There were many, many proscessy. Trials. The so-called ‘ringleaders’ were sentenced to death, and those sentences were carried out. As you understand, all this was in done in secret. No one wrote about it.
— How, then, did you know about it?
— Everyone knew about it. How? Well, the more secretiveness there is, the easier it is to obtain secret information. You know this.
— Concretely, how?
— Everyone knew. I don’t remember how. We all knew.
— And the first dissident demonstration?
— That was in ’68. The 25th of August. Eight people. This is well known: Pavel Litvinov, Valeria Novodvorskaya, who was very gifted. Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a poetess. A dissident named [Vadim] Delaunay. Several others. On Red Square, there’s a stone platform called Lobnoye Mesto. It’s the place where, five, six hundred years ago, during Ivan the Terrible’s reign, executions took place.
— How long before the protest was broken up?
— The KGB grabbed them almost immediately, beat them, arrested them, but no one was imprisoned! I don’t think. Somebody got sent to psychushka, the psych ward. Someone was exiled to Siberia. Look, Sasha, I don’t remember. This was fifty-some years ago.
— After that, were there demonstrations in the USSR?
— Only Jewish ones. Refuseniks. Those who had applied for, and been denied the right to, emigrate.
— When we were in refusal. 1974? 1975? There were a few Jewish demonstrations. I went to one by the Lenin State Library. Nobody touched us. We stood in a huddle for twenty minutes with our little placards before parting ways.
— How many were you?
— Ten, fifteen people, probably.
— Was mom there?
— No, just me. I went alone. After your birth, no one expected your mother to live. She was in no shape to go. That she survived was a miracle.
— Were you prepared for the possibility you’d be arrested?
— Somehow, I didn’t think about it.
— Why? Because you were young?
— I don’t know why. Because … well … I don’t know. I didn’t think about it. I wasn’t scared any more by that point. The scariest times were at the beginning.
I was born at the tail end of 1972. My parents applied to emigrate some months after that. The KGB came to our apartment. The Chekists stuck pencils through the spines of our hardcover books while ignoring real samizdat lying out in the open. Later on, my father, who had left a high-clearance job at the semi-secret Institute of Biophysics, was arrested for parasitism. My parents had to make contingency plans: who would raise me when both of them were arrested?
— I was called in by the KGB two or three times. Then I told them to go fuck themselves. I said: ‘I’m not going in any more, if you want me to come in, arrest me.’ After that, I wasn’t afraid of them any more. But another frightening thing happened, literally a day or two before we left the country in ’76. In our apartment tower, there were raz, dva, tri … six apartments on every floor. Three to the left, three to the right, with two lifts in the middle. We lived on the tenth floor. When you walked out of the lift you saw doors to your left and your right – those doors swung open freely and then you got to the apartments. I had some errand to run, the elevator door opened, and there, in the lift, was a ment – a policeman. He said: ‘Do you know where Abramovich lives?’ ‘I’m Abramovich.’ ‘You have been summoned by the deputy director of OVIR.’
— What’s that?
— ОВИР. Oтдел Bиз и Pегистрации. Visa processing. ‘You have been summoned, come immediately.’ This was very frightening because, not long before then, a family had been snatched off an airplane. Well, I thought about it for a minute and realised, it’s best that I go right away. Not going would only make it worse. I decided not to tell your mother, not to worry her. But one of our friends was there and I told her. ‘If I don’t come home within three hours, tell Lydia [my mother]. Tell Lucy [Elena] Bonner.’
— You were afraid of being arrested?
— Any number of things could have happened. But I went and instead of the deputy director, a muzhik is sitting there. A pretty young guy, 35, 38 years of age. Shows me his papers. Says: ‘I’m from Criminal Investigations.’ You understand what that means? He’s a criminal investigator like I’m a Nobel Prize-winner.
— He’s a Chekist.
— Of course. I said: ‘You’re from the Criminal Committee.’ I was insulting him, you see? But here’s the thing: back then, we were all ‘going to Israel’. And the USSR did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. We used proxy embassies – Holland’s embassy in our case, in Moscow – to transport secret papers and documents. But this window was also the time that we had to get materials out of the country for others.
My father had taken some stuff from other refuseniks and dissidents and brought it to the embassy. He hadn’t been stopped, though the menty were standing outside. He managed to drop the materials off. Now, he was in a tough spot.
— The Chekist says: ‘What materials did you pass along?’ I said: ‘You know, I’ll tell you the truth if you promise not to tell my wife.’ He said: ‘All right.’ I said: ‘Letters to my lover. I have a woman I love very much. This was our correspondence.’ Obviously, in this situation we both understood: it’s all bullshit, khuynya. But to come out and say so would not have been simple. That was that. He let me go, thank God, and we left, calmly.
But not so calmly. There was one last scare a day or two after that, at the airport. My parents and my father’s mother were searched, rather brutally, by customs officers. My mother was taken to another room and strip-searched. My father remembers my grandmother shouting ‘Take your greasy hands off my grandson!’ Afterwards, on the tarmac, an armed guard appeared at the top of the stairs and the plane was made to wait an additional half hour before taking off. It must have been harrowing in ways that are now repeating themselves. But the plane did take off. We landed safely in Vienna. Annika Bäckström, a Swedish academic who had befriended my parents in Moscow, was there to greet us with an avocado.
Annika, in her nineties, lives in Sweden now. The last time she and I talked, not too long ago, she was working on a translation of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies. My mother died when I was seven. My father’s 85, living outside Hartford, Connecticut. As soon as I hung the phone up I realised I’d forgotten to ask him about Hungary.
— Dad, I’m sorry. We forgot to talk about the Metro. The fliers you made in 1956.
— They were five, ten sentences long. Written out in letters like a child would write, a first grader, so the handwriting couldn’t be traced. What did I write? That in Hungary there’s a revolution. That they’re being covered in blood. Something along those lines. Two classmates of mine were there. I didn’t see them after that. I know that one was wounded, pretty seriously. And the other, I don’t remember. Either he was killed or nothing at all happened to him. Zhukov, I remember what he looked like, and the second, Arkasha, my pal. Arkasha was wounded.
— Where did you get the idea? There was no co-ordinating with anyone else? You just did it?
— Well, I didn’t know anyone! Who would I have co-ordinated with? I didn’t even have anyone I could talk about this with.
— Did you plaster them up or just leave them?
— I left them, of course, on the benches, the stone benches they had in the stations. I’d wait for a train to leave, make sure no one was there. I was scared, naturally. I was terrified. For this, I would have gotten five years, minimum. If not ten.
— How many stations?
— I don’t know, Sasha. Fifteen. Twenty. Now, in Moscow, you probably have two hundred stations. It’s incredible what they’ve accomplished.