As a Button to a Coat

John Lloyd

  • Bitter Waters: Life and Work in Stalin’s Russia by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, translated by Ann Healy
    Westview, 195 pp, US $30.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 8133 2390 8

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov spent eight years, from the late Twenties to the mid-Thirties, on the Solovetsky Islands: part of the time in a monastery fortress where, as we now know, the punishment included lashing prisoners to trees in summer to be eaten to death by mosquitoes, or tying them spreadeagled on heavy logs and letting them be crushed to death as the logs were rolled downhill. Like many survivors of the gulag, he leaves this unrecorded. The Alexander Solzhenitsyns and Primo Levis, who gave their post-camp lives to bearing witness, are the exceptions and, it could be said, paid heavily for that. Instead Andreev-Khomiakov talks about fate: ‘fate was written on the faces of innocent people dying in the camps by the hundreds, marked for sacrifice’; ‘I constantly defied fate, walking the tightrope between life and death’; ‘in 1935, fate suddenly summoned me to the office that issued release papers.’

On his train journey away from the camp he is surprised by the world’s insouciance: ‘in the stations, people were coming and going. I looked at them as though they were wax figures in a museum. Were they really – actual people? There along the sundrenched platform ran two young girls in light dresses, merrily laughing about something ... did they really know nothing, not sense the barbed wire and the man with the rifle at their backs?’ The book which follows is in part an answer to that question: it shows people who did not know, or chose not to find out, what was happening above and about them, but adapted to it as they could, turned away from the malign fates which struck others if they could, tried to keep themselves out of harm by indifference, distance, ingratiation.

The year of his release, 1935, was also the year when the Constitution was promulgated which guaranteed Soviet citizens a panoply of civil rights superior to those in any other civilisation. The next year the Great Purge began, when Communists and officials and officers from every level were sent into the meat-grinders to join the kulaks, the nationalists, the counter-revolutionaries and the reactionaries whom they had sent before them. The prisoner thus emerges into a world of maturing Communism, with a façade of constitutional rights and a totalitarian reality. To us it is a world deprived of detail, however familiar its outline. There are few memoirs of the period written at the base. What survives are victims’ testaments, writers’ samizdats, the autobiographies of senior functionaries. Andreev-Khomiakov was a rarity: a skilled and sensitive writer, condemned by his sentence for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ (which he does not explain) to being shunned and marginalised, even after release, for the rest of his Soviet life. He does not visit the depths holding his nose or reminding the reader that this is not where he belongs. He has survived, and is grateful enough for survival and relative peace; he works, and is interested in the work, tedious as it is; he takes pleasure in companionship, and has some luck in it; he is limited in who he meets, but within these limits he takes and gives pleasure in observation and delineation of character.

Like every Russian until now, he had to accept un-freedom and the arbitrariness of power. We know this: but what does it mean, in practice; how is submission manifest? Andreev-Khomiakov shows us in little scenes, elegantly and sparely described. For example, on his release, he reports to the NKVD officer in the provincial town in which he decides to settle – it’s worth bearing in mind that the encounter takes place during Beria’s reign of terror.

A young man in a crisply pressed military uniform greeted me pleasantly, invited me to take a seat and in a friendly tone asked about my offences against Soviet power.

  ‘What do you intend to do?’ asked the official at the end of this conversation, smiling sympathetically.

  ‘Live, work,’ I answered vaguely.

  ‘You won’t return to your old ways?’ he inquired, smiling even more broadly.

  ‘No, thanks to you. I’ve had it up to here.’ Smiling back at him, I pointed to my release paper.

  ‘I can readily believe that. So, I wish you success in your new work life.’ The official got up from his chair. ‘Did they warn you that it would be better not to spread the word about what life was like there?’

  ‘Oh, I took that for granted!’ I also stood up. ‘Can I ask you one question?’

  ‘Of course, ask away!’

  ‘I fear that I may have difficulty getting hired. If they will not take me because of my past, can I turn to you?’

  ‘Yes, yes, of course!’ the official exclaimed warmly.

The official feels no need for either formal coldness or for guilt; he can be merry about his visitor’s eight years of hell, and jauntily remind him of what lies in store should he deviate once more. Andreev-Khomiakov plays his part in the jokey little scene without a trace of obvious resentment – even seeking the future aid of the organisation which had tortured him for eight years. In that vignette we see how the regime stabilised, and survived – and how it was capable, a few years on, of defeating Nazism. Towards the end of his tale, when he is living in Moscow, Andreev-Khomiakov passes a man in a street who seems familiar – and who is looking at him with the air of one searching his memory for a name to fit the face. The man was a gulag guard, named Bobrov, who had pursued him during an escape attempt; they recognise each other with pleasure, buy a bottle of wine and chat:

I thought about how he would have shot me if he had spotted me back then and been unable to catch up with me. Now he was working with the security forces at another camp, in the Urals, and was away on leave in Moscow. In the new camp he guarded others exactly like me and pursued them when they escaped. Later he might meet up with them too, and share a bottle of wine. He was exactly the same kind of worker and functionary as I, with no free will ... neither of us wished the other evil, as we realised that neither of us had control over any of these matters.

At first, Andreev-Khomiakov can get no work. The managers of the thirty or so enterprises in the town fear him; he shows his papers, which betray his ‘counter-revolutionary’ past – and the plant directors twitch and shy away, like comfortable bourgeois from beggars. Near complete destitution, he applies for a bookkeeping job at a saw mill – and meets its director, whom he names Neposedov (a constructed word which means ‘can’t sit still’); this man, a party member, seated below a portrait of Stalin, has a heart, and guts to go with it. He needs a bookkeeper badly; he takes ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ as a sign of intelligence; be is prepared to live with any flak. With a few breaks, Andreev-Khomiakov remained with Neposedov until he moved to Moscow shortly before the Nazi invasion.

In Neposedov, Andreev-Khomiakov provides one of the best portraits of a real Soviet man I have come across. Small, energetic, impulsive, he was in some ways a complete Homo Sovieticus; he was an orphan and the state had been father and mother to him, had given him what education he had, had put him to work as a fitter in a factory in his teens, had pointed him towards the Komsommol and then the Party, promoting him rapidly so that, by his mid-twenties, he was the director of a lumber plant. He neither believed in the Soviet state nor questioned it; for him, and for many in his generation born a little before the Revolution, it was simply there, to be cursed, circumvented and placated but obeyed. He believed, too, in what it believed in – technology. He spent days and nights on site, mastering the machinery and cajoling and scolding the men and women who worked it into greater output. He loved the plan to which the factory worked, loved the florid style of the official documents, was careless of health, rest and family in his ceaseless efforts to meet the demands of the Soviet state. And he was decent, kind-hearted and honest.

Or up to a point. Some of the characters who are caught in Andreev-Khomiakov’s stationary camera are the other kinds of product of maturing Communism – those who, through bribery and barter, keep the show on the road and themselves enriched. I was surprised at the extent of the underground activity which Andreev-Khomiakov reveals. I had assumed, because I had read, that crime in Stalin’s Russia was low, given everyone’s terror of the consequences. It turns out, however, that in the towns and settlements where most people still lived in the prewar years, corner-cutting, if not much more extensive corruption, was accepted as necessary simply in order to live, and more ambitiously in order to get rich. Andreev-Khomiakov’s wheel-greasers included Yakov Abramovich Ginzburg, who worked (illegally) for half a dozen plants and who supplied the lumber plant with provisions in return for wood. The tragedy of Soviet life, as Andreev-Khomiakov reflects, is that Ginzburg is a criminal for supplying wants:

Arriving at the plant, Ginzburg would remove a parcel from his briefcase, twirl about and kissing the ends of his fingers remark: ‘This is so delicious, tasty! Smoked fish! They go crazy over these in Moscow; tender, rich, melt in your mouth. I can get a ton!’

  Neposedov would frown: ‘You’re forever full of all kinds of rubbish! We need to feed our workers. What the devil do we need a ton of smoked fish for? Give us something a little more substantial!’

  ‘And what do you need? Macaroni, cereals, candy? I can give you marmalade, candy, jam, pasta, canned fish. How much?’

The episode also reveals what had become a settled feature of the Soviet economy – the self-sufficiency of most plants. The sheer difficulty of acquiring anything meant that the workers expected, and were encouraged to expect, that the plant – which was in the Plan – would supply the commodities and necessities of life for its workers, who were not in the Plan. Hence the need for groceries; hence the need to build dormitories and flats; hence the need to get clothes and shoes. The irony of the Plan was that, since it produced nothing so efficiently as shortages, it forced plants to become feudal entities, run by an absolute and all-powerful director surrounded by various henchmen who cooked his books and foraged. They stayed that way, and many are like that still.

Ginzburg operated on a small scale. On a trip to Moscow, Neposedov and Andreev-Khomiakov, who had become Neposedov’s right-hand man, were entertained to a 150-rouble meal (half an average monthly salary) by an imposing and congenial Georgian, who later turned up at the plant with a suitcase full of cash. The desperation of his Georgian clients for lumber was so great, he said, that they would pay ten times the Plan price per tonne. Neposedov, aghast at the size of the bribe, stammered that he had no spare lumber. ‘Apparently deciding from our changed tone that he was doing business with hopelessly backward provincials, our guest bowed and departed, still smiling politely and respectfully.’ On future occasions – which became more frequent as war approached and as the military preempted more and more materials – Neposedov either repeated that he had nothing to spare, or threw out the briber. He was honest within limits – or at least he didn’t take bribes. ‘That was our Soviet economic planning in a nutshell,’ Andreev-Khomiakov writes.

In former times, the owner or manager of an enterprise had run a business according to profits, the state of the market and the level of demand. Under socialism, these economic principles were not entirely dropped, they no longer played much of a role either in the economy as a whole or in the management of any particular enterprise. The plan became the only measuring stick for managers – those famous ‘planned results’. Managers had nothing else to go by, except perhaps their own noses. Gradually, especially among young people, the idea emerged that it was impossible to operate in any other way.

The last part of the book, in Moscow in the year before the invasion, is at once the darkest and the most vivid. In the bureaucracy in which Andreev-Khomiakov found work, the officials were scared, or oppressive, or both. A colleague named Pospelov, educated in Moscow and abroad before the Revolution, is arrested with the staff of the Central Statistical Bureau for sabotage – i.e. producing statistics which contradicted the propaganda – but released after a few months.

Pospelov worked conscientiously but without the slightest interest, appearing to be subtly and sadly amused by his work and by Soviet life in general. He referred to himself as ‘doomed’, having found no viable niche for himself in the Soviet system and having decided that the system itself could not be modified ... one summer day in 1949, Pospelov did not show up for work. At noon we learned that he had hanged himself in his little room the evening before. When he arrived home from work that evening, he had discovered a notice in his room containing an order to move from his building. Rather than be subjected to another ordeal, Pospelov had ended his life.

Pospelov is a kind of Bartleby, a man who ‘prefers not to’ live outside of a melancholy, impenetrable isolation.

The invasion, and the speed of the German advance, traumatises Moscow. Andreev-Khomiakov goes to his office the day after the invasion is announced and finds it empty except for some papers blowing in the wind from the open windows. A woman wails her fear down a phone to an apparently indifferent official at the other end. On a stroll with a fellow worker, Andreev-Khomiakov sees a chauffeur fiddling with the engine of a large car: ‘the car was loaded with suitcases and packages. In the back seat behind the glass partition we saw a chubby male face hidden in the corner and next to it that of a young woman with panic-stricken eyes ... Zuyev and I exchanged knowing glances. They were bosses, fleeing.’ They walk on; Zuyev, though a Communist, is prepared to believe that the Germans would be better than Stalin, but their Nazi ideology means they might be as bad, and besides, they are foreign. ‘In the final analysis, we are as firmly bound to Stalin as a button is to a coat; even more firmly – we don’t dare cut the threads.’