gessen (gessen) wrote,
gessen
gessen

by way of commemoration

This is an expert from my book Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace (Dial Press, 2004). The event described took place at Glavlit, the Soviet ceonsorship agency, following the February 19, 1956, Khrushchev speech. Ruzya worked at Glavlit, censoring dispatches by foreign correspondents filing from Moscow. Information about the speech had already appeared abroad, but she had no way of knowing about it because it was not filed from Moscow.


A handwritten notice glued to the wall in their shared office announced an extraordinary meeting of the department’s Party organization. So now the entire department—eight people, including the two typists, all of them Party members—are gathered for the meeting. Ruzya has a hopeful inkling of what this is about. Some of the correspondents’ dispatches in the last few days have contained fishing references to a secret Khrushchev speech at the Party congress now underway—references apparently intended to gauge the censor’s reaction. Rozalia has been using the official text of Khrushchev’s opening report—a mostly dull speech that contained an intriguing mention of Stalin’s and his cohorts’ overreaching while in power, but also praised Stalin for conquering “the enemies of the people.” Rumor of the existence of a second speech seeped out a week or so after this text was released. Ruzya has the idea this meeting is related to the secret speech and will therefore be worth remembering so she can re-tell it to her friends who are not in the Party: she is thinking, of course, of Ester. She clears her throat and prepares to listen. Her colleagues project a uniform look of strained enthusiasm, as though they expected to struggle to stay awake over the next couple of hours.

The secretary of their Party organization, a pudgy bespectacled man Ruzya has rarely seen, removes a thick stack of typing paper from his fat brown briefcase. “The speech of Comrade Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress will be read aloud in its entirety today,” he announces. There is more shifting in the room; a couple of people cough preemptively, as before a performance at the philharmonic.

There will be dead, stunned silence in the next hours as the reader relentlessly, with short breaks only to take drinks of water or turn the page, traces three decades of terror. He reads letters and reports received by Stalin—alternately dry and impassioned accounts of torture and treachery. A spine broken during interrogation. A former ally pleading for intervention from the very man who has ordered him killed. And then there is more. Stalin is blamed for the Soviet Union’s failure to prepare for the Nazi invasion. And he was wrong—a criminal—to deport several ethnic groups to Siberia at the end of the war. And the “Doctors’ Plot” was a lie and a crime engineered by Stalin himself, as was virtually everything that happened in this country between 1924 and 1953. Ruzya feels herself shudder: to hear the truth being broadcast in the colorless voice of a Party functionary to a roomful of people who would have reported you for saying something like this just a few hours ago—this is thrilling and sickening at once. She gives no thought to why the information is finally being released, and why now. She does not care what has moved Khrushchev to break open the past: his conscience or his desire to shore up his own power. That this is happening at all—she feels like the walls of this building should be shaking in outraged disbelief. She wants to get out of this room, with its thick astonished tension, and she wants to stay to soak in every word. Of course, this is not a choice: she cannot break Party discipline and she cannot leave even when the meeting runs on past its announced time, past all sorts of working hours, and the image of Yolochka cooped up in some dusty reading hall again starts to gnaw at Ruzya.

The streets are long empty by the time the reading finishes and the department’s Communists file out of the building in an orderly fashion, a few silent, a couple straining to chat about summer camp for children or tomorrow’s weather. No one dares talk about what they just heard. Elsewhere in Moscow, the readings of Khrushchev’s secret speech to Party members are proceeding differently. Some organizations hold long discussions. The Party members in the Writers Union hold a three-day meeting with confessions and mea culpas, tears and rants, and even suggestions for changing the way things are done—suggestions that, in another couple of years, will sound naively dangerous. No such floodgates have been opened at Glavlit, where everyone will continue to fear everyone else and where Khrushev’s speech, like any other document originating with the authorities, will, in every professionally censorious brain, be processed into a set of guidelines on how best to tread the Party line. Ruzya walks alone, clasping her hands together through the pockets of her coat, as though to hold the joy close, to make sure she transports it whole until it can be shared.

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