What Was Frida Vigdorova Like?
I liked the articles of hers published in Pravda the year before the war. I was then in the tenth and final grade at school.
There was already something special about these early articles. They were bereft of the usual Soviet phraseological coating. They showed an understanding of the psychology of teenagers and a respect for their individuality, and there was not a whit of edification and treacle in them.
We met on May 1, 1941, at the birthday party of my schoolmate Lena Konyus, a relative of Frida’s.
How sweet she was! Still girlish in appearance, she was short, had a lovely upturned nose, shining brown eyes, and dark hair cut short, a stray lock of it jutting across her forehead. The strand remained in place for the rest of her life, going grayish only towards the end.
It is quite easy to understand Kornei Chukovsky, who when he first met Frida in the hallway at the Pravda offices, took her by the chin and asked, “And what grade are we in?”
“I teach tenth grade,” she replied.
Chukovsky was taken aback and apologized profusely.
According to Frida, this was how they met. The encounter would grow into a passionate friendship. Chukovsky survived Frida by several years.
Frida came to Lena’s birthday party with her first husband Alexander Kulakovsky. We were students and they were teachers, but they did not hold themselves aloof. It was easy and fun to spend time with them.
Several days later I was dismayed to learn that Frida and her husband had separated. Their marriage, which had lasted eight years and seemed so solid at first glance, had collapsed.
The war came. Frida did not hesitate: her place was at the front. She enrolled in a nursing course offered at Pravda. At the end of the summer she married an old friend, the writer Alexander Raskin. Frida had nearly completed the course when she realized she was going to have a baby. There were doubts about how to proceed. She decided to keep the child. In late autumn, with her four-year-old daughter Galya Kulakovskaya, her husband, and new mother-in-law, she left for Tashkent as Pravda’s number two correspondent.
The paper’s number one correspondent was not pleased at her arrival. He dumped difficult assignments on her, involving trips to distant mountain villages on the terrifying wartime trains. Once, for example, while trying to get on a train in Fergana, the pregnant Frida was thrown from the train by a mob of traders hurrying to a market. Frida and her unborn child miraculously survived.
I was evacuated to Tashkent and studied philology at the university. In the early autumn of 1942, seeing Frida carrying her newborn daughter Sasha, I decided to approach her and remind her of our acquaintance. I told her I was living with relatives, had come down with tuberculosis, and felt uncomfortable in a house where the conversation constantly revolved around my illness.
We strolled and chatted, and suddenly Frida handed me Sasha.
“Hold her, Kena, I need to find my key,” she said.
I still remember the awe with which I held the baby in my arms. It was very important to me.
We lived nearly right next door to each other. We saw a lot of each other. Life was hard for her family. She had a tiny room, a husband, two children, and a mother-in-law who was a complete stranger. Frida cooked in the yard on a grill (a pail filled with bricks). We would talk for hours while the meager dinner was cooking.
Then I would help her bring the food into their little room, and Frida would proclaim, “Eat something, Kena, I poured the water with a generous hand!”
That family, whatever the weather, tried to feed anyone who stopped by their house. In Moscow, Sasha, who was then three, seeing that the postal carrier was leaving, asked, “What about feeding the woman?”
And then in Tashkent I remember Galya wistfully recounting a good dream she had had.
“I walked into a bakery, and the clerk says, ‘Here you are, girl, four hundred grams of white bread with butter.’”
Frida talked a lot about herself and faraway friends.
I remember she once said, “The fate of the country is being decided in Russia, and we are sitting here in the shit.”
Alexander Kulakovsky was at the front. Letters from him had stopped coming. Frida was quite worried for him and often cried.
“He is not an ex-husband, but a person who is near and dear to me,” she would say.
“As long as he is alive! He can take it: he is strong. Even if he is a prisoner of war, he will return,” she would also say.
She later found out that Alexander had perished in the first months of the war from a direct hit by a mine.
Finally, the family of four moved to a large room in the writers’ house. Frida made new acquaintances, including Yevgenia Pasternak (the poet’s first wife). She became especially close to Lydia Korneyevna Chukovskaya. She was involved in the movement to save orphaned children. They collected food and clothing, inspected orphanages, and found families to adopt the orphans.
Frida helped the campaigners. She told me many stories about the lives of the children.
It was Lydia Chukovskaya who introduced Frida to Akhmatova. Frida managed to get Akhmatova’s poem “Courage” printed on the front page of Pravda. This facilitated the publication of a collection of poems by Akhmatova in Tashkent and made her life somewhat easier during those difficult years.
Frida had a liberal, generous soul. She wanted to share not only food with friends but also books, poems, and wonderful people.
One day she grabbed me and took me to see Lydia Korneyevna. She lived in a small room with a floor almost on the ground. At a table covered with books sat a tall woman with gray hair and a very pale, thin face. (Good God! She was only thirty-five then). There was something regal in her expression and bearing. Before her lay an ordinary black stocking, which she had been darning before we arrived, with yellow thread for some reason.
Chukovskaya had just returned from Moscow.
“They say that state-sponsored anti-Semitism has begun. The head of TASS, a Jew, has just been dismissed.”
This was probably in the spring of 1943. We did not believe her.
Frida often visited the so-called laureates’ yard. Around a dozen famous writers lived with their families in the two-storey houses surrounding the yard, including Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov’s widow Elena Sergeyevna, whom Frida befriended, and Vladimir Lugovskoy.
Bulgakov’s literary oeuvre was then unknown to Soviet readers and viewers (with the exception of the Moscow Art Theater’s production of Days of the Turbins). Elena Sergeyevna religiously preserved her husband’s archive, hoping to fulfill the promise she had made to Bulgakov on his death bed: to have his books published, especially The Master and Margarita. She let Frida read everything she had, including rare editions from the 1920s, both Russian and foreign: Diaboliad, The Fatal Eggs, and The White Guard, published by Paris émigré publishers. (The last book, by the way, featured a humorous and somewhat intimate inscription from the author to Elena Sergeyevna.) I held this book in my hands, and read it with awe and delight. I remember typewritten copies of the plays Zoyka’s Apartment and Pushkin. Finally, Elena Sergeyevna gave Frida The Master and Margarita. (She had deposited the second copy in the Lenin Library in Moscow.) This was in the summer of 1943. The novel was an epoch in our lives.
We did not read A Theatrical Novel, about whose existence I had no clue until it was published. Neither did we read Heart of a Dog. I cherish the memory of the brave women Elena Sergeyevna Bulgakova and Frida Abramovna Vigdorova, who at great risk to themselves familiarized their friends with the seditious works of the great Mikhail Bulgakov.
In Tashkent, Frida gave me Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in Ivan Kashkin’s wonderful translation to read. The novel was bitterly attacked by the official critics. It was also printed decades later in a four-volume set in а more complete version, but in someone else’s translation.
Frida preserved the desire to share everything she knew to the end. In the summer of 1965, after learning that Frida was seriously ill, I came from Leningrad to see her. I arrived at her flat on Airport Street. Galya let me see her mother for a short time, asking me not to tire her. Frida was quite weak. When I inquired about her health, she only waved her hand.
And then she said, with visible embarrassment, “What a pity, Kena, that you did not come earlier. Yesterday Anna Andreyevna was here and took back the poems by young poets she had given me to read.”
But that terrible day was still far off back then.
Frida and her family returned to Moscow at the very end of 1943. I had arrived a month earlier and was trying in vain to re-enroll in my third year in the philology faculty at Moscow State University. I was a Muscovite and an excellent student. Everyone was being re-enrolled, but for some reason I was not. I had run into a brick wall.
I was at Frida’s place and telling her about my ordeal.
“I can help you,” she said suddenly.
Her father, Abram Grigoryevich Vigdorov, was then dean of the history faculty at the pedagogical institute. He had been an employee of the People’s Commissariat for Education for many years and a close associate of Lunacharsky’s. Abram Grigoryevich meticulously examined my grades and all my documents. While I was still at their flat, he phoned someone at the university and asked what the matter was. The next day I was sitting in class. I swear I had not had the slightest thought of asking Frida for help. But that was just the way she was: she always tried to help people who were in trouble.
* * *
Frida and Alexander “Shura” Raskin had a fine library. The books were not lost during the war. Among them were books I had never encountered before, for example, Mikhail Gershenzon’s From the Herzen-Ogarev Archives. (Unfortunately, it was never republished.) Or Gershenzon and Vyacheslav Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners, and many others. I also read books that Alexander Raskin, Konstantin Simonov, and their friends had brought back from prewar Riga. They had gone there with a team of young writers and could not resist bringing back books published by Russian émigré publishers. The most interesting of them was Attila, an unfinished novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin (who had died in Paris in 1937). The book also included short stories written while Zamyatin still lived in Soviet Russia. It had been printed in Paris right before the war, and had a foreword by the diplomat and defector Grigory Bessedovsky. I particularly remember this phrase from the foreword: “In Soviet Russia, Zamyatin was sentenced to what amounts to a death sentence for a writer—to silence.” Frida really loved Teffi’s memoirs. The library also contained Shura’s favorite books by writers from New Satyricon magazine, his colleagues. The best of them was Don Aminado’s The New Kozma Prutkov. (I still quote his aphorisms to this day.)
I distinctly remember Frida in the first postwar years. For example, she quickly enters my room. She is wearing a new, well-tailored dress (the wartime castoffs had been thrown away), and a slightly frivolous hat on her head. She rushes to the bookshelf and pulls down a few of her books that have overstayed their welcome.
“Not enough books for an intelligent girl,” she says to me reproachfully.
Then she goes to the mirror, looks herself over, and says with satisfaction, “She is cute, the fetching rascal!”
But things were not always so serene. One day she ran in looking pale and scared. I had been a complete fool. I had gone to Frida’s place and, not finding anyone home, had taken Zamyatin without permission. (By the way, it was not her copy, but Simonov’s.) Frida grabbed the book, pressed it to her chest, and then scolded me for all she was worth. However, she quickly forgave me, considering the absence of malice, my stupidity, and my profound, sincere repentance.
Frida not only enriched my life with great books but also with wonderful people. I have remembered some of her stories forever. One of them, concerning the poet Vladimir Lugovksoy, I will reproduce here. This tiny episode, told to Frida, of course, by her second husband the writer Alexander Raskin, seems important to me.
In the prewar years, as a student at the Literary Institute, Raskin had attended Lugovskoy’s poetry seminar.
The father of the poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, a member of the same seminar, had been arrested. This happened in January 1938. I remember the date exactly, because the hero of my essay “I Am a Simple Soviet Prisoner,” the lawyer Alexander Markovich Vinaver, was arrested at the same time as Yevgeny’s father, Aron Dolmatovsky, who was also a well-known lawyer, and Vinaver’s co-defendant in the case.
Yevgeny was out of town and did not know about the misfortune that had befallen his family. Of course, the NKVD immediately “signaled” the Literary Institute about the incident, confident in a swift, appropriate response on their part.
Lugovskoy did react instantly, but in a slightly different way than was then customary. He told his students about what had happened, and they trooped off to the train station along with their older friend. They warmly met their comrade at the station and accompanied him right to the door of his flat.
Was that it? Yes, that was it! But when he learned of his father’s arrest at home, the young poet did not feel like an outcast. He felt that his friends were at his side and that he was not alone.
Lugovskoy’s deed was evidence of true courage, and I am glad to tell it because although he went down in the history of Soviet poetry as a romantic champion of Bolshevik heroism during the Russian Civil War, he was not involved in the Second World War or the Great Patriotic War as our people call it. I heard a lot of snide comments on this score.
During the war years I often saw Lugovskoy on the streets of Tashkent striding (that is the right word) through the colorful Tashkent crowd. It was impossible not to notice his tall figure, medallion-like profile, and bushy eyebrows. (He was nicknamed the “browclad battleship.”). And yet the poet seemed lonely and somehow lost. I had heard then that Lugovskoy had been caught in a bombing raid at the very outset of the war and had suffered a concussion, but only recently did I learn the concussion had resulted in mental illness.
A few words about the poet Dolmatovsky’s father: he perished in the camps.
* * *
When the young Frida unexpectedly became a famous correspondent for the country’s leading newspaper, several of her classmates finished graduate school and were offered teaching jobs at colleges in the hinterlands.
But the girls wanted to do scholarship in the capital. So everyone rushed for help to their mother-intercessor, to Frida. Frida’s first husband, Shura Kulakovsky, maliciously parodied her “petitions,” claiming each one opened with the phrase, “My friend is crazy, but she doesn’t know it.”
Kulakovsky and Vigdorova, by the way, had met in Magnitogorsk, where the young woman had rushed off, dropping out of college in the capital, and answering the call of her heart and the Young Communists League, to study and teach children in the wilderness, to bring light to the masses.
I will always remember what Frida said to me when I, happy and in love, left to be with my husband in Petersburg.
“Thanks, Kena, for never tormenting me.”
* * *
Frida constantly made efforts on behalf of acquaintances and, for the most part, strangers, who were without the means to withstand cruel circumstances.
“I don’t like it when people are persecuted,” I heard her say on more than one occasion.
When we first became friends, Frida told me about her favorite schoolteacher, Anna Ivanovna Tikhomirova, who had inspired her with a lifelong love and respect for the labor of teaching. She showed me a tiny photograph of her that she kept and cherished. Much later Sasha Raskina told me that Frida had visited Anna Ivanovna in exile before the war. While I was working on this memoir, I read Ruth Zernova’s essay “Portrait of an Absolutely Wonderful Person” (in the anthology Eto bilo pri nas [That Happened in Our Time], Jerusalem, 1988). Zernova writes that Frida “loved happy endings in books and was good at arranging them in real life.” She recounts that Anna Ivanovna had been exiled as an “alien element” along with her brother and sister because someone had taken a liking to their little private house. So Frida, then a rookie journalist, succeeded in getting them returned to Moscow.
Much later, during the Khrushchev period, it was Frida who succeeded in securing a residence permit in Moscow for Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam, who had no right to live in Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities.
Among Frida’s numerous good deeds I would like to recount two cases when she managed to rescue two complete strangers from the camps.
The first case involves the story of a letter from convict Boris Doroshenko. The teenager was fond of designing radios, and he once removed several electronic parts from a destroyed airplane. He was sentenced to fifteen years! Frida familiarized herself with the young radio amateur’s court case. After reading his letters, she realized the boy was worth her time and trouble and she had to help him. She managed to secure his release, although not immediately. Boris would later recall that his final months in the camp were especially tough for him, and only Frida’s letters had kept him from falling apart. When Boris returned to Moscow, one of Frida’s friends got him a job and took care of him as he got back on his feet. I heard that the journalist Ilya Agranovsky gave him one of the two suits he owned.
Frida learned about the plight of the other young man, Viktor Sidorov, also a convict, from his schoolteacher, who came to her to ask her help her pupil. Frida traveled across the entire country to get to the camp where Sidorov was serving his sentence. She flew on a plane (for the first time in her life), and then traveled by train, and then she even traveled on a handcar. Soon after she published an article entitled “Who Are You to Him?” (This was the question the stunned camp warden had asked her.)
Frida secured Viktor Sidorov’s release.
She came back from the trip full of impressions. A little later, at my place on Spiridonyevka, in the company of my close friends, Frida read aloud a “Letter from the Country’s Major Thieves” (they had written it, apparently, as a “socialist obligation”), which she had copied from the camp newspaper. Recently, I found and copied the letter from Frida’s “A Journalist’s Notebook,” which Sasha Raskina has kept. Here it is.
“We commit ourselves to combating such deeds as theft, card playing, parasitic living, and squandering of the clothing allowance, as well as acts of sodomy, which are degrading to Soviet men[.]”
We laughed at Frida’s account of a speech given to her by a major at the camp, a eulogy of sorts to Article 58 of the Criminal Code, under which most political prisoners had been sentenced. The major firmly learned his guest’s patronymic, but for some reason mixed up her name.
“Article 58 prisoners were hardworking, Serafima Abramovna, they were polite and cultured . . . Then they were all released, and things without them are awful. And these prisoners? They are bandits and punks. Well, how can we work with such a contingent?! I am being straight with you, Anfisa Abramovna.”
* * *
Upon returning to Moscow, Frida began a very active and successful career at the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. During the first postwar elections, the newspaper sent her to the district where the Leader of Peoples was running. When she got back, she recounted how, after the votes had been counted, the chair of the electoral commission, having set aside the pile of ballots on which the only name on the ballot had been crossed out, cheerfully declared that Comrade Stalin had been elected unanimously. I would not say that Frida was badly shaken (she had left naiveté behind in her youth, when she had dashed off to Magnitogorsk to work as a teacher). If anything, she was slightly shocked. She was almost bereft of political illusions, but she still had a ways to go to completely rejecting the regime.
Soon the campaign against so-called cosmopolitanism kicked off. One after another, the newspapers published articles vilifying, for some reason, theater critics who were not crazy about the plays of Soviet playwrights Sofronov and Surov. The critics were always Jews who wrote under pen names, but their real surnames were helpfully supplied in parentheses.
At first, when she read such nastiness, Frida only shook her head reproachfully and said, “Ah, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities . . .”
But when the anti-Semitic campaign rapidly gathered momentum, Frida once said, “If such filth has taken root, it will not go away by itself. It will all end in fascism.”
Jewish employees were “eliminated” (as they now say) from ideological institutions: radio, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses. Frida and others were fired from Komsomolskaya Pravda.
She did not throw in the towel. She recalled her experiences as a teacher and sat down and wrote a story about a school (“My Class,” 1949). The story was published and was a hit with readers. Thus began Frida Vigdorova’s career as a writer.
Meanwhile, as was expected, the arrests of intellectuals began.
Once Frida asked me to hide the archive of Lydia Chukovskaya, whose friend the writer Ekaterina Boronina had been arrested in Leningrad. Lydia Korneyevna was afraid she would be arrested, too. It was also not safe at Frida and Shura Raskin’s place. They lived in a communal flat. They had a vigilant neighbor lady who signaled the relevant authorities about suspicious visitors with packages showing up at the flat (i.e., couriers from editorial offices).
That was why a tightly packed briefcase once showed up at my place. Frida allowed me to take a peek inside. It was filled with notebooks written in shorthand. But there were also unencrypted pages and single sheets. There were several poems by Nikolai Zabolotsky, who had recently returned from the camps. I remember his poem “Cranes” by heart. Mainly, there were journal entries about Akhmatova. Not all of them were subsequently incorporated into the book—for example, Anna Andreyevna’s letter to Garshin, sent from Tashkent to Leningrad, her response to news of his wife’s death.
The briefcase lay inside my couch a few months until Dad accidentally looked there.
“This had better not be here tomorrow,” he told me firmly.
Frida and Shura’s close friends Ilya Zakharovich Serman and his wife Ruth Alexandrovna Zevina (pen name Ruth Zernova) were arrested in Leningrad. Frida told me that among the friends of the Sermans were a married couple that worked as police informers, the writer Yevgeny Brandis and his wife Nina Brandis. They had regularly reported to the “security organs” on the casual conversations that went on among a close group of friends.
I am not going to discuss this affair, although I know a lot about it secondhand from Frida. I will say a few words about things that might not be known, for example, that Frida asked Ehrenburg to write a letter in Ruth’s defense. As a twenty-year-old student, Ruth had been involved in the Spanish Civil War as an interpreter. Ehrenburg made detailed inquiries about Ruth’s Spanish past and wrote the letter. True, it had no effect on the case then, but when political prisoners were released under Khrushchev, I think the letter helped speed up the reexamination of the case.
Frida organized assistance to the orphaned Serman children. Along with Nina Zhirmunskaya and several other friends, she transferred a sum of money to Ilya Serman’s mother every month.
Once Frida read me an excerpt from a letter Ilya Serman sent from the camp. He wrote that things were rough in the camp, of course, but the difference between his life and ours was not so considerable. The import was obvious: the whole country was a giant prison camp.
“How do you like that, Kena? It appears he has forgotten what our postal service is like!”
Frida taught me not to turn away from other people’s misery, to be with those who had it bad.
Here is one illustration of this. Eleven-year-old Sasha came home from school.
Frida fed her daughter, then said, “Get dressed and go to Tanya’s place. She feels bad now, spend some time with her. Her dad has died.”
Recently, when I reminded Sasha of this, she told me that after she went outside that evening, she hesitated for a long while, then went to get her best friend Galya and asked her to go with her to see Tanya.
Decades have passed since then. Sasha has grown into a person who is always at her friends’ side when times are rough, while Tanya Urbanovich and Galya Lyudmirskaya-Muravyova are still her closest friends.
* * *
The last years of Stalin’s life were particularly depressing. And then things took a turn towards real medieval obscurantism when the doctors’ plot unfolded.
In Moscow there were rumors of impending deportations, barracks being built somewhere far away in Siberia, and trains ready and waiting. And what of it? It would have not been Stalin’s first time.
I remember how Frida and I would whirl around the alleys near Patriarch’s Ponds (we again lived near each other, on Yermolayevsky and Spiridonyevka), and our endless conversations. We were beset by a heavy sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
Shortly before Stalin’s death Frida told me about an unpleasant incident. In the middle of the night a large group of Jewish cultural figures had been roused from bed and brought to the editorial offices of Pravda. Several Old Bolsheviks, who were also Jews, were waiting for them there. Frida mentioned only one name, David Zaslavsky. A decrepit old woman read to the assembled crowd a letter that had been written in advance. The letter discussed the Russian people’s righteous anger toward the Jews and hinted at the possibility of pogroms. The cultural figures were supposed to appeal to their fellow Jews and call on them to atone for their sins. I do not remember what the sins were, but I do recall that the crucifixion of Christ was not mentioned.
Frida said that Marshak had managed not to sign the appeal under some pretext. Of course, there could be no question of open confrontation. (The members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had already been shot at this time.)
Soon afterwards, Stalin died, and the letter did not appear in print. Oddly enough, along with faint hopes for a better future, there was also a sense of anxiety in the face of the unknown.
I will always remember Frida’s story about Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov.
When he learned of Stalin’s death, he had come to their place shouting, “I have outlived him! I have outlived him! I have outlived him!”
Banished from the remarkable Comedy Theater he had founded, he had knocked about Moscow, working as a stage designer on productions from time to time. He was friends with Frida and Shura Raskin, whose play (co-authored with Moris Slobodskoy) he had produced at his theater before the war. Akimov painted the remarkable half-length portrait of Shura Raskin that hung in their apartment.
The painting featured Shura’s exaggerated Jewish profile, black ink on the golden background of something eastern. Nikolai Pavlovich entitled the portrait A Russian in the East.
I will take advantage of the occasion to reproduce one of Akimov’s stories, as retold by Frida.
Soon after Stalin’s death, Akimov was summoned to the Leningrad Regional Party Committee. A high-ranked Party official offered him the job of running the Lensoviet Theater, which had fallen into decay at that time.
“We will give you a totally free hand. If any problems arise, come straight to us with the theater’s manager. By the way, what is the manager’s name?”
There was a pause.
“If you are unhappy with him, you just let us know, and we will dismiss him right away.”
“What are you saying! Kogan is a wonderful worker and a decent man.”
There was another pause.
“Ah . . . Well, you come with the manager.”
* * *
After Stalin’s death, events developed rapidly. The so-called killer doctors were acquitted and released a month later.
Frida conveyed dear Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky’s remark: “From now on I will celebrate my birthday not on the first of April, but the fourth.” (That was the day the doctors were released.)
It was 1954. The real Khrushchev Thaw was still to come, but the atmosphere in the country had changed. In Moscow, delegates were elected to the Second Congress of Writers. There were no lists approved by the Party high command. You could vote for those whom you trusted, for those who were moral paragons to you. Writers who had not appeared at the Writers’ Union for years, all those for whom the free exercise of choice was important, attended the assembly. It was said that some of them nearly got out their deathbeds to attend.
And what was the outcome? Vigdorova came in second in terms of votes cast, right after Pasternak, who took first place. (See Ruth Zernova, ibid.)
The Thaw had arrived. For the first time I felt a blissful sense of unity with the country’s rulers.
Political prisoners came home. At first it was a trickle, then it turned into a flood.
Frida relayed to me the words of the venerable Leonid Leonov.
“Old acquaintances appeared. You would rush up to them and say, ‘How many years has it been?’ And they would say, ‘Seventeen, eighteen . . .’ and they would not offer to shake your hand.”
The Twentieth Party Congress. Frida was worried about listening to the transcript of Khrushchev’s report.
“All round were either non-Party members or people who had been expelled from the Party.”
The report did not shatter everyone’s ideals. We did not faint like Khrushchev’s experienced, hardened comrades.
* * *
By nature Frida was a cheerful, jolly person, especially when provided opportunities for those character traits of hers to manifest themselves. There was nothing the matter with her sense of humor.
I will reproduce a tiny story of Frida’s, as related to her by Alexei Surkov. Right after the end of the war, several Soviet writers went on one of the first trips in the southern part of liberated Europe, to Bulgaria. A crowd stood outside the hotel until late at night chanting, “Viva Ehrenburg! Viva Ehrenburg!” Obviously, Ehrenburg’s brilliant antifascist articles were famous there as well.
In the morning, at breakfast, Surkov said, “Your popularity kept me up all night.”
“You are just jealous of me,” replied Ehrenburg, smiling politely.
We returned to Moscow from Tashkent. A small group of us were sitting in the gloomy room of Frida’s parents in a communal flat on Sretenka. A decree on divorces had recently been issued: now they could be obtained only through the courts! It was meant to strengthen the Soviet family, which had become rickety during the war. Frida and her friends performed a sketch, and did it quite skillfully. A couple seeking a divorce appears before a judge. What things they say about each other! The judge is unmoved. In the finale, the spouses are reconciled on the basis of their shared hatred of the judge.
I moved to Leningrad to live with my husband. We combined two rooms in communal flats into a separate apartment. The district executive committee attempted (completely illegally but quite vigorously, employing denunciations to my husband’s superiors in the armed forces and incursions by housing inspectors) to snatch my room. I consulted with Frida.
“Every white person, even if they are a Soviet person, has the right to a separate apartment! Sue them, Kena!” she proclaimed.
The bastards did not even show up to court.
Then it was time for the housewarming party! On the wall in the entryway of our separate two-room apartment hung a slogan: “Every white person . . .” and so on.
Ehrenburg once phoned Frida. The main character in his forthcoming book was a female schoolteacher. He asked Frida to think it over and tell him over the phone about the specifics of the teaching profession and what female schoolteachers were like, generally speaking.
Frida was flabbergasted.
“Holy cow! What a creative method!”
Or she told me this story. Before the release of her new book, her family was penniless. Frida phoned buddies who could be called friends, people who were quite well off and well heeled. She asked them to loan her money. One of them was a famous writer, good-looking and a wit. He was a superman, nothing less! His wife was a blue-eyed blonde.
“I’ll talk it over with Zoya and phone you back,” the friend told Frida.
But he did not call back. Frida called him again the next day.
“Yes, yes, I will definitely call.”
He went silent, although previously he and Frida had phoned almost daily.
The book came out. It was a success. Frida had money. She met the man at the House of Writers. Frida walked up to him with a big smile.
“You can phone us again. We are not borrowing money anymore. We ourselves are lending money,” said Frida.
Our superman, the inveterate wit, snickered, but was clearly taken aback.
Frida came back from Khrushchev’s meeting with writers.
“Well, how was Khrushchev?” I asked.
“It was quite a good speech, outstanding! There was only one thing wrong with it. It should have never been made.”
So Frida said years ago what is now clear to many: general secretaries should not manage culture.
* * *
Frida was farsighted. The Thaw proved short-lived. A leopard cannot change its spots.
The late fifties saw the persecution of Pasternak, a senseless, causeless campaign that took on disgusting forms (as such things had done earlier, under Stalin).
Later, during his retirement, it is said that Khrushchev complained, “Why didn’t they tell me that Pasternak was a great poet?”
In the final years of his life, I, like many other people, received a copy of the novel Doctor Zhivago from Frida and Yevgeniya Vladimirovna Pasternak and read it. (As in the “good old days” of Stalinism, you could then get a prison sentence for distributing the novel.) I read Pasternak’s late lyric poetry, including such brilliant poems as “August,” “Hamlet,” and “Christmas Eve.”
Frida did not go to the meeting of writers where Pasternak was crucified. This was something that then required courage. We should recall that seemingly decent people, people who were not cowards, wavered and went to the meeting. They included a poet and war veteran who considered himself a disciple of Pasternak. He took part in the persecution and behaved disgracefully.
People often talk about Frida’s fearlessness. I do not think that is quite right. She was able to overcome her fear when she knew her help was needed. But she did not stick her neck out when it was clear it was useless and the situation could not be changed.
In my opinion, there was nothing conformist about Frida. She never glorified the regime, and when there was the slightest opportunity to help its victims, she bravely rushed to the rescue.
For example, when Olga Ivinskaya and her daughter were arrested after Pasternak’s death (in particular, for distributing Doctor Zhivago), it was Frida who set about pleading for them and contributed to the fact both women were released. And yet she did not care for Ivinskaya. Frida helped them in memory of Pasternak.
Shortly after Pasternak died (from the “cancer of persecution” as it was then called), Frida dictated to me a poem dedicated to his memory. She did not tell me who the author was.
Poets, Russia’s misbegotten progeny,
You have always been carried out the back way.
A pitiful handful stood mourning you
In Svyatogorsk Monastery, Volkovo, and Tarkhany . . .
I have felt hungry, I have felt dismal.
Today it is different, today I feel shameful.
I cry, unashamed of my tears, which I do not try to hide,
Though it is from shame for my country I cry.
Poetry is treated honestly only by the pines:
Hugging it with their roots, they yield it to no one.
I learned the poet’s name many years later, when I read the poem in the émigré literary journal Kontinent. The author was the poet German Plisetsky, whom I had never heard of.
* * *
I will tell you about Pages from Tarusa (Kaluga, 1961). Along with Paustovsky and a group of other writers, Frida spearheaded and was involved in the publication of this remarkable anthology. I am certain it will go down in the history of Russian literature. For example, for the first time since Marina Tsvetaeva’s death a large selection of her poems—forty!—was printed in the anthology. That would have been enough for a separate book. It also featured, among other things, poems by Nikolai Zabolotsky, Naum Korzhavin, and Vladimir Kornilov, the prose of Konstantin Paustovsky, Boris Balter, and Bulat Okudzhava, and essays by Frida Vigdorova and Nadezhda Mandelstam (writing as “N. Yakovleva”).
It was no longer possible to publish such an anthology in one of the capital cities. The anthology got noticed, and the planned second volume could not be printed.
There were rumors that the print run would be confiscated. Frida informed her friends about this. I told friends even in the publishing house where I worked about the anthology, and we began receiving weighty book parcels in the mail. The small print run sold out instantly.
A story has been preserved that when Frida graduated from college and went to work at Pravda, she asked for work involving “just causes.” Over the fifty years of her life, she did many good deeds. Many people who were in trouble wrote to her, and she tried to help.
I will not write about the final just cause of Frida Vigdorova, who, according to David Remnick of the New Yorker, did more than anyone to obtain Joseph Brodsky’s release. Her fight to free the young poet was not something unexpected. It was no accident that before Brodsky’s trial several Leningrad writers enlisted her aid.
I was not in the courtroom when Brodsky was tried, and I did not see Frida during her trips to Leningrad. We saw each other later, in the summer of 1964, at the House of the Writers in Komarovo, where I went to visit her.
We talked about Brodsky. Frida let me read her transcript of the trial. I was aware, of course, of what had been happening. Then Frida saw me off. Along the way she told me she had sent her transcript to the West, and how this had occurred. An acquaintance of a well-known Moscow poet (Frida told me his name) had come to her, said the poet had sent her, and offered to dispatch the transcript abroad if Frida was amenable. Frida thought it over and agreed, since she believed at the time that all the ways of helping Brodsky had been exhausted.
She told me that in some English magazine (the word “observer” figured in the title) they had written that F. Vigdorova herself had sent them the transcript.
“What are they doing? Who forced them to print that?” asked Frida in amazement.
She said that she now faced big trouble. She would probably be expelled from the Writers’ Union.
For many years I kept silent about what I had learned from Frida, since I was certain I was not the only one she had told. I happened to mention it by chance in a conversation with Sasha Raskina, Frida’s daughter, and it transpired she was hearing the story for the first time. Sasha questioned Frida’s other surviving friends: they knew nothing, either. We decided the story had to be told, that it was important.
Back then, expulsion from the Writers’ Union was a very serious, even terrible measure. It entailed a ban on publication in all newspapers and magazines and the inability to publish one’s books.
But the powers that be had no need for any of this. A few months later I got the news that Frida was terribly ill: she had cancer. I have already described our last meeting, above. Frida died in August 1965. She was fifty years old.
Frida Vigdorova had gone all the way in order to help a young poet whose life, she thought, was in danger. And this deed was the logical culmination of her life’s journey.
It was Frida’s transcript of the Brodsky trial and the resonance it had in the West that contributed to the fact that Brodsky was permitted to return to Leningrad from exile (this happened shortly after Frida’s death) and that several years later, instead of arresting him again, the authorities forced him to leave the country. They clearly did not want a fresh scandal and obviously had underestimated the scale of Brodsky’s talent.
I would like to close my memoir by reproducing the inscription Akhmatova wrote in the copy of her book The Flight of Time she presented to Sasha Raskina. Anna Andreyevna wrote the inscription in the hospital two months before her own death.
May this book be at least a feeble and imperfect reminder of the one to whom I had promised to give it, of the one who was your mother and the single supreme example of kindness, generosity, and humanity to all of us.
Anna Akhmatova, January 11, 1966, Moscow
Kena Iosifovna Vidre (1923–2009) was born in Petrograd. She worked as a teacher of Russian language and literature before joining the Academy of Sciences publishing house as an editor in 1960. In the last twenty years of her life she wrote, publishing her work in such journals as Zvezda, Neva, Krasnyi, and Russkaya zhizn. All her writings can be accessed (in Russian) at the website http://kenatext.jimdo.com.
In the summer of 1941 Vidre graduated from high school and enrolled in university, but a couple months later she was evacuated to Tashkent. It was there she met many of the people, including Frida Vigdorova, about whom she would write memoirs in her old age.
Frida Abramovna Vigdorova (1915–1965) was a writer, journalist, and human rights activist. It was Vigdorova who secretly transcribed the trial of poet Joseph Brodsky. The transcript spread through samizdat, was published on numerous occasions in various countries, and sparked broad support for Brodsky among western leftist intellectuals.
Translator’s Note. This memoir was originally published in Russian in Zvezda, no. 5 (2000). My thanks to Katya Vidre for permission to translate the memoir and publish it here, and for contributing brief biographies of her mother and Frida Vigdorova. My thanks to her and Alexandra Raskina for providing me with the photographs of Kena Vidre and Frida Vigdorova reproduced, above. I am also grateful to both of them for carefully reading the translation and making invaluable suggestions for improving it as well as saving me from several needless errors.
5 thoughts on “Kena Vidre: What Was Frida Vigdorova Like?”
Thanks for this! I’m a law student in India, and I recently got hold of Frida’s ‘Diary of a School Teacher’. I got really interested in her, and this helped a lot :)
I’m really glad that I could be of use.
I too was impressed and moved by F. Vigdorova’s humanist personality as reflected in her book “Diary of a school-teacher”. My awareness that I was reading a feature-diary( to a certain extent) did not detract from my impression and emotion. Judging by her article ‘What was Frida Vigdorova like?” your late mother belonged to the same kind of humanist and humane personalities as the late Frida Abramovna Vigdorova.
This circumstance explains, methinks, the bond of friendship that united these two distinguished women.
Thanks for your comment, Dr. Raviv, and I’m glad you enjoyed the memoir. But I should clarify that the late Kena Vidre was not my mother, but someone whom I had the good fortune to know through my friend and teacher her daughter.