A journalist’s memoir of her grandmothers also paints an eloquent portrait of two totalitarian powers, the havoc they wrought, and the countless burdens they imposed on ordinary families.
Gessen, who emigrated to America as a teenager but moved back to Moscow in 1994, deftly weaves the story of the two women’s lives with her reactions to their experience. Like all people who survive authoritarian regimes, both made certain compromises: Ruzya served as an official censor for many years under Stalin, and Ester accepted a position as an NKVD lieutenant, only to be turned down when she failed the physical. Gessen doesn’t gloss over these events, but comes to appreciate the realities of her grandmothers’ lives and understand their respective situations. Both were Jewish, which made their already difficult lives even more fraught. Ester, born in Bialystok in what was then Poland, lost most of her family in the Holocaust; she escaped because she was a student in Moscow. It was there, in the late 1940s, that she met native-born Ruzya at a mutual friend’s party. Postwar life was perilous for Jews, accused by Stalin of plotting against the state and frequently denied jobs; they feared strangers and socialized only with trusted friends. Ester and Ruzya formed a bond, affectionately evoked by their granddaughter, that sustained them over the years. Ruyza, widowed during the war, later remarried; Ester was divorced in 1957 and also remarried. Their friendship began when their children were young, and Sasha, Ester’s son, grew up to marry Ruzya’s daughter, Yolochka. Anti-Semitism, which had continued to scar their mothers’ lives, led the couple to leave for the US in 1981. Finally, with perestroika, they were able to return to see their mothers in 1988 and arrange for Ester and Ruzya make visits to America.
A masterful chronicle of dark and dangerous years, and a distinguished addition to the history of totalitarianism.