Memories of life behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1997, Lungina (1920-1998), a literary translator, spent a week with director Oleg Dorman, recounting her life for a 15-part documentary. Aired in Russia in 2009, the series was hugely popular, and the script, transcribed, translated and augmented with some additional material, has resulted in this disarmingly candid memoir. Born in Russia to Jewish parents, Lungina spent her childhood in Germany and France, returning to Moscow in 1934. The city in those days, she recalled, “was very poetic,” with milkmaids delivering milk and sledges carrying Muscovites through icy streets. Soon, though, she became aware of endemic political oppression: Friends’ fathers were arrested, some friends were expelled from her school, and when she protested the stupidity of that policy, she was expelled, too. “I think this was the definitive moment in my disenchantment with the system, and my final rejection of it,” she said. Yet despite waging a reign of terror, Stalin was revered. Lungina explains her contemporaries’ psychology as “a kind of religious psychosis” caused partly by the strength of Stalin’s personality and partly by Russia’s cultural isolation. Art and literature needed to conform to socialist realism. After World War II, Lungina imagined that Russians who fought throughout Europe would return with a new desire for freedom, but Stalin quashed that desire. Calling people “cogs in a machine,” he enacted a stringent policy of surveillance and incited betrayal, denouncement and virulent anti-Semitism. Much of Lungina’s memoir focuses on the plight of the intelligentsia, which included herself (she translated, among many other writers, Astrid Lindgren, Heinrich Boll and August Strindberg); her husband, a playwright and director; and their friends, who included poet Joseph Brodsky and novelists Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “Life taught me,” she said, “that intellectual courage is much harder to muster than physical courage.”
This frank and revelatory memoir portrays in rich detail Russia’s recent past and illuminates the consequences of its history for the turbulent present.