[amazon 1883642981 full] Some people live so long that their lifespan is a whole historical epoch. The life of Antonina Pirozhkova, who died last month at the age of 101, spanned Russia’s entire tragic dizzying twentieth century—a dozen or more historical epochs. As Albany says in the last lines of King Lear, “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/ Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
Pirozhkova was a remarkable person in her own right. Born in 1909, she was one of the first woman engineers to build the Moscow metro. Later, during the war, while taking refuge from the Nazi invasion with her young daughter in Abkhazia, she designed a network of railway tunnels. But she is best known of course for being the wife of Isaac Babel, the great short-story writer. She was with Babel for seven years until 1939 when he was arrested and then shot. Then she spent decades battling without result to rescue her husband’s entire literary archive, which disappeared with him into the Lubyanka.
I had the good fortune to visit Pirozhkova five years ago, when she was living in Wheaton, MD with her grandson, the theater director Andrei Malaev (they subsequently moved to Sarasota, Florida, where she died in September). I met an elegant old lady with clear blue eyes and beautifully expressed Russian. Her poise held until she spoke about Babel’s death. Her eyes filled with tears as she admitted that every night before sleep she still imagined him being led out to be shot. After seventy years of nights like that, I truly hope she is now at peace.
But my main sensation as I came away from the little house in suburban Maryland was of lightness, of having met what the Russians call a “bright person,” full of funny stories and colorful vignettes. You could not have a more down-to-earth existence than she had in 1930s Moscow, eschewing literary salons to continue working as an engineer on the newly constructed metro. Babel hated the official literary world and turned down invitations to deathly writer’s events on her behalf, saying, “She is a working woman, she has no time.”
That Pirozhkova and her memoir of Babel are not as well known they should be is, I suspect, because the couple did not slot easily into any category. Babel was a lover of paradox, the “Jew on horseback,” who enjoyed mixing with anyone, from Odessa dock-workers to Red Army cavalrymen, from poets to secret policemen. Briefly liberated in the 1920s, when the Soviet Union was perhaps the most philo-Semitic country in the world, he was cut down in the 1930s, when curiosity was a death sentence, not an asset.
He and Pirozhkova, natives of Odessa and Siberia, were not part of the old metropolitan intelligentsia that produced Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. The memoirs of Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda are a brilliant late contribution to that tradition, full of rage against the Soviet era and its savageries—but they are also very acid, full of score settling with countless named individuals.
You get a different perspective from Pirozhkova, the view of someone who accepted the Soviet Union as the brave new world which could still inspire as well as horrify. I suspect this was a more common worldview than that of Nadezhda Mandelstam. It clearly delighted Babel, who quizzed her intensely about her life as a modern Soviet woman—on one of their first dates he shyly asked to be allowed to examine the contents of her purse and offered her a ruble for each letter she received and agreed to show him. Pirozhkova benefited from the great modern surge of the 1920s, when a young woman from the provinces could get a scientific education and rise to become a top engineer. Then when Stalinism began devouring everything, she fought to protect first her husband and then his legacy against the hacks and the censors. Throughout, she was amazingly unjudgmental. Even about the KGB stooge, complicit in her husband’s death and tasked to keep an eye on her afterwards, she said only, “I think he was just earning his salary.”
When I met her, Pirozhkova was finishing a second volume of memoirs about some of the extraordinary artists she met through Babel, people like Sergei Eisenstein or the famous Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels. I hope they will see the light of day and we will get more of the reminiscences of an exceptionally brave person person, who saw and knew things that most of us can barely guess at.
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.