White Nights

Penelope Fitzgerald

Irina Ratushinskaya was 28 when she was arrested on her way to work on an apple farm and sent to the Small Zone section of a Mordavian labour camp. She was imprisoned on account of her poetry (or rather, the ‘creation and dissemination of anti-Soviet materials in poetic form’), and was released on account of it. No, I’m not afraid and Pencil Letter were translated and circulated in the West, and when the concern and pressure on her behalf reached a certain point she was allowed to emigrate with her husband to England. This was in December 1986. ‘I have been free for two years now,’ she writes, ‘and people keep asking me whether I am happy.’ But to be happy she would need to forget those left behind in the supposedly emptying camps, those who died, and, worse still, the hatred of those who gave in and collaborated for those who did not.

Grey is the colour of hope (1988) was her story of four years in the camps. In the beginning goes back to life before her arrest, when she was growing up in Odessa and Ivor Geraschenko, the childhood friend who became her husband, was with his family in Kiev. It is not a political book: it’s something much more like natural history. By her own account, Irina was born a nonconformist – even sympathising with the Russian equivalent of Peter Rabbit. As soon as she was old enough to count the change, she went out with the other children to stand in the bread queues. At school they had sums to work out, showing how much the State spent on each of them: why was the State so stingy? It was a self-education through high spirits, courage, indignation and pity. In class (she was 14) they were studying Gogol’s story of two landowners, an elderly couple, condemned by the teacher as contributing nothing to society. But ‘they both die, and Gogol weeps. So do I.’ She defied hospital rules to get into the ward and nurse her grandfather, and in her Atheist Instruction class she began to feel compassion for God himself, ‘alone and friendless when all the believers die’. It was another ten years before she first saw a New Testament. A Jewish friend, just about to emigrate, gave her a Bible, and ‘all the revelations I had either guessed or read about elsewhere fell into place.’ At the same time, he lent her books of which she had never heard.

I was buried under an avalanche ... Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’, Tsvetayeva’s poems, and a blue-bound volume of Mandelstam, published in a tiny print-run ... Our apartment had central heating by that time, but the old fuel stove still remained. I flung all my manuscripts into it ... I would start afresh, even if I must pay the penalty of the camps and solitary death.

In one of her Pencil Letters she says that Pasternak sends the rain, Tsvetayava the wind, and Tyutchev the spring itself. Tyutchev was Russia’s great 19th-century romantic, and Ratushinskaya is in no way ashamed to be a Romantic, to whom the written word is hero.

Dissidence, however, is hard work, particularly if it means ‘facing the end when young’. As soon as she began to be published in samizdat, Irina had to memorise her exact rights, under clause and paragraph, in the Russian and Ukrainian legal codes. She had to get the better of her claustrophobia (by visiting the Kiev catacombs), and learn how to bear pain. (Her husband, who had been born with deformed feet which had to be corrected by surgery, taught her this.) She doesn’t emphasise these matters, they have to take their turn in the maze-like narrative of search, pursuit and endurance, where even to put on the kettle in a 16th-floor flat is happiness.

We turned all the locks,
We brought in bread.
On the table the manuscripts
Piled like snow.

Irina is not much of a hand at dialogue, or perhaps she has not been well served by her translator. I can’t believe that anyone – certainly anyone under stress – would say: ‘Yet can you imagine how many people, having blurred the lines of demarcation, have found justification for themselves, and live happily, without a care?’ Or, when offered coffee: ‘I’m dying to have a sip of the forbidden beverage.’ But this doesn’t weaken the authenticity of In the beginning. The story runs on, and sometimes back and forth, like one of those long talks, soul to soul, between friends and ‘people of varying destinies coming in from the rain or snow, and leaving much later than they’d intended, back into the wet darkness’.

Time falls in creases
And flows down the shoulder.

Irina and Igor Geraschenko belong to the fourth generation of protesters, or perhaps true heirs of the Revolution, since 1917, and the second since Stalin. To place her more accurately, as in the end she comes to place herself: Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 and sentenced to ‘perpetual exile’ in 1953, Ratushinskaya was born in 1954, Pasternak died in 1960, Tvardovsky printed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Novy Mir in December 1962. In 1966 Sinyavsky and Daniel were tried and sentenced. Ratushinskaya was playing truant from junior school on the beaches of Odessa and neither heard nor cared about these things. Twelve years later, together with Igor and those they trusted, she was photographing Solzhenitsyn page by page and sending the copies out (bound up as the works of Brezhnev) into the hands of countless night-time readers. Solzhenitsyn is recognised as having done ‘the duty of the older generation’ by calling on the unsubmissive to live without lies. They would have liked to argue with him on a number of points, never on that one.

That summer, she says, went by in a ‘frenzy of samizdat’ – Nadezhda Mandelstam, Fedoseyev, the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Artorkhanov’s The Riddle of Stalin’s Death – but she never mentions the Adam Tertz novels of Andrei Sinavsky. In Goodnight Sinyavsky, still in Paris, to which he was allowed to emigrate in 1973, gives what is perhaps the last of his judgments on himself. This is said to be an autobiographical novel, and Richard Lourie, in his introduction, calls it ‘the culmination of everything he has so far written’, but it strikes me more as an elegy, a jazz elegy in five movements, of which three are very much more important than the others. Like Ratushinskaya, Sinyavsky does not give too much space to the prison-camp years which he has treated already, in diary form, in A Voice From the Chorus. Even Stalin is treated only as a nightmare. All Sinyavsky’s tenderness, and all his amazement as to how it is possible for people to behave as they do, are concentrated on three episodes from his past: his attempt to understand his father, his betrayal to the KGB by his old classmate ‘S’, and his friendship with a French girl, Hélène Peltier-Zamoyska.

Hélène was the daughter of the French naval attaché in Moscow. Sinyavsky met her at the university course on Marxist-Leninism, when he was still a ‘believing member’ of the Komsomol. The secret police assigned him the job of seducing her and compromising her father. But Hélène was a Frenchwoman, the first he had seen in the flesh, elegant, deliberately threadbare, ‘a luminous emanation’, the possessor of splendid art books – ‘and then, all of a sudden, “Here, for you,” and I’m holding a book on Cezanne.’ At the end of the course she admitted she was still an idealist and a Catholic. Sinyavsky could not bring himself to deceive her. One day in Solniki Park he told her the truth, and worked out a way to conceal it.

The KGB made him follow her to Vienna, where the story faded out in the smoky air of a restaurant. ‘S’, on the other hand, Sinyavsky thought he knew very well, and, in a sense, so do most of us. ‘That same winter I had the good fortune to lure my elegant friend to my house after school. Nudging him from behind, I led him carefully through our stinking, scandalous hallway. You have not forgotten of course, what having your first guest at home means?’ Even after the final treachery Sinyavsky continues, as though under a compulsion, to defend him and almost to admire him. ‘S’, it seems, defeats fiction. ‘How am I supposed to create characters, paint portraits, after that?’ Sinyavsky devotes a long section of his book to his father, remarking that ‘thinking of fathers, beginning to feel for them, that comes when you’re a father yourself.’ Donat Evgenevich Sinyavsky was a generous, cranky, obstinate nobleman who enthusiastically supported the Revolution, but not the Party. As an out-moded Socialist Revolutionary he was never left in peace, and in 1952 he was exiled to what was left of his family home in Rameno, on the Upper Volga. Here, in the quiet of the forest, his son almost but never quite got to know him. This was partly because he held back, afraid of compromising Sinyavsky, who in turn could never tell him about his own activities. ‘I did not have the right to burden him with that. But this does not make me any the less guilty towards him.’

The complication of his life, and its false trails, are reflected in the way Sinyavsky chooses to write. Realism, he has said, is too simplistic to convey the experience of living. ‘I put my hope in a phantasmagoric art, in which the grotesque will replace realistic description of ordinary life. Such an art would correspond best with the spirit of our time.’ Goodnight proceeds backwards, from Sinyavsky’s arrest in 1965 on his way to lecture at the Moscow Art Theatre to his entanglement in 1948 with Hélène; there are dream sequences, sitcom dialogues and, in the middle of the prison-camp scenes, ‘A Treatise on Mice and Our Incomprehensible Fear of Mice’. All this puts him on the side of the angels, or at least of Hoffman, Gogol, Bely and Post-Modernism.

Ekaterina Meshcherskaya, at 85, is said to be the only surviving Russian princess living in Russia. In 1917 her family lost three vast estates, two palaces, their Botticelli Madonna, everything but a handful of jewels. Her mother was lucky to get a job as cook to the canteen of the Rublevo waterworks. Ekaterina, aged 13 and passionately musical, did the piano accompaniment at the local cinema. Until that point both of them had accepted, with bewildered courage, the ‘baptism of labour’, but in ‘1919, when they were allowed to go back to Moscow, they had to live as suspects, in and out of hiding. Ekaterina spent three months in detention in the Lubianka, and made four fictitious marriages to keep her residence permit.

In Comrade Princess we hear surprisingly little about these. What interests her passionately is the long-faded romance of her parents’ courtship. Her mother was a penniless strong-willed Polish girl, who trained as an opera singer. Instant success, jewels, wild ovations, white nights when ‘it would have been impossible – if not downright dangerous – to go to sleep because of the overwhelming perfume of the countless bouquets which filled every room’. This was in Milan, where she apparently sang Tosca in 1893 or 1894, some years before it was written. But she gave up everything for bewhiskered, bemedalled Prince Meshchersky, 48 years her senior, and took a vow never to set foot on the stage again. These, maybe, are consoling fictions, but Ekaterina has certainly earned the right to consolation. Her record was finally cleared after Stalin’s death, but only because the KGB muddled her files with someone else’s. In 1988 passages from the present book were published in Novy Mir as the now-permitted memoirs of a ‘former person’. She is a curiosity of history, come to rest in a tiny caretaker’s flat, where, however, she must have been able to get news of the great jail-break of Eastern Europe, and perhaps see the President of the USSR greeted on May Day with the words ‘Christ is risen, Mikhail Sergeyevich.’