Fliers on the Metro

Alex Abramovich

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?
— 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.


  • 9 March 2022 at 7:56am
    Camus says:
    Here is a story from an earlier conflict, but I have changed the name to bring it up to date.

    Putin is a lonely man. His staff tell him daily how popular he is, but he sometimes has Doubts about their loyalty. So he opened up the cupboard marked "secret " and took out his old disguise and went out to ask incognito what Russians think. of their leader. The first results were quite positive. "He is our great leader," "The best president ever" "He is our Saviour" and so on and Putin began to believe his close advisers after all.
    He asked another man, "How do you rate President Putin's leadership ?" The man beckoned him closer. "You want my opinion? Follow me please." And he took Putin out of the city and into a dark silent forest. Not a soul anywhere.
    "What do I think of Putin? Closer please.... some people don't like him but I think he is doing a good job".

    • 9 March 2022 at 1:50pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Camus
      I know this is going to sound very autistic, but what exactly is the point of this joke? Is it that people are so terrified that they are unable even to think dangerous thoughts, as Orwell foresaw in 1984? Or is it that Putin's obvious paranoia is based on delusional thinking? If either of these interpretations reflects reality, the idea is not reassuring.

    • 9 March 2022 at 3:00pm
      Camus says: @ Rory Allen
      This story began life in the GDR , for Putin read Honnecker. Tellers of the tale landed in jail and I thought that it had a chilling relevance to the political censorship imposed by the Russian government.

    • 9 March 2022 at 3:17pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Camus
      Thanks for your patience. There is nothing worse than having to explain a joke but I get it now. I think. The GDR joke I remember best is the one told in 'The lives of others'. I expect you know it. Honecker gets up in the morning and says 'hello Sun', and it replies with a cheery greeting to the great comrade. Similar pleasantries are exchanged at noon. At 6 pm Honecker repeats the greeting and the Sun replies 'screw you, I'm in the West now'.

    • 9 March 2022 at 5:48pm
      R v Buckland says: @ Rory Allen
      Richard Buckland @ Rory Allen says.
      Hello there Rory, perhaps you need an imagination boost pill, because the story is deeply full of meaning. Inadvertently you did answer your own question however, it is the man who is the subject of the story who is terrified of revealing the truth to his fellow citizens, mthat he thinks Putin is doing a good job.
      I think we might categorise this humour as sardonic, which motivated poor old persecuted Shostovich in much of his compositions which had to pass Stalin’s approval.
      As to Putin’s delusional thinking and paranoia, this is a more subtle question. Putin like all dictators surrounds himself with sycophantic heads of various agencies who are dependent on him for their position. In the famous picture when he asks them individually to state their view about the invasion, in his terms “the special military operation”, he is clearly enjoying their terror of giving the wrong answer because they are not quite certain what the correct one is.
      I would suggest that our problem in the west is that we are fairly delusional ourselves. I mean that we are totally complacent about our moral and ethical superiority, while actually having caused at least as much destruction in the Middle East recently, as Putin is now wreaking on Ukraine. We also blindly support Israel in its terrorism towards Palestine, and questioning of this would result in any serious western leader being sent to a symbolic Siberia. While it is perfectly true that being sent to a symbolic Siberia is much better than being sent to a real one, the effect on our capacity to think in a complex way is just as serious.
      Obviously there’s a huge amount more to say about all this but I probably outstayed my welcome by now.

    • 10 March 2022 at 11:13am
      Rory Allen says: @ R v Buckland
      No Buckland, I am on the autism spectrum, and your insulting suggestion is exactly what I have come to expect from 'normal' people. But actually your suggestion that this joke is in fact one in favour of Putin, is one that had crossed my mind. That was why I asked for clarification. Now you can go back to feeling pleased with yourself.

    • 10 March 2022 at 1:13pm
      R v Buckland says: @ Rory Allen
      Oh dear, my sincere apologies to Rory. From the way you spoke about autism, I had assumed that you were using it figuratively. Not that you were formally on the spectrum.
      Neither did I intend to give the impression that I thought I was wishing to be clever.
      The reference to Shostakovich and Stalin I put in simply because I love Shostakovich, and was brought up to listen to his music, and know a lot about his struggles in that regard.So I thought it was a very apt comparison in the circumstances of a new Russian dictator.
      My comments about western political leadership were very sincerely meant because I feel seriously upset about it.
      I do hope Rory will accept my apology as genuinely meant.

    • 10 March 2022 at 2:51pm
      Rory Allen says: @ R v Buckland
      Your apology was generous and handsomely made, and I accept it with gratitude. I reacted as strongly as I did not because of the political content of your posting but for one reason only: your suggestion that I needed an 'imagination boost pill'. You have no way of knowing this, but autistic people are always being told that they have no imagination. Every time I see this suggestion - for which there is precisely zero evidence - it makes me angry, perhaps excessively so. Therefore, it was not your fault, but you inadvertently happened to touch my red button in making a harmless passing remark. I feel the need to explain my strong reaction in such detail because I am now convinced you did not mean it.

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