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Masha Gessen On The Hidden Family Histories Of Totalitarian Russia

A Russian psychoanalyst uncovers the truth of family legends in this exclusive excerpt from journalist Masha Gessen's new book, The Future Is History.

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Throughout the 1990s, Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist known for his work on trauma and on the traumatic effects of totalitarian ideologies, convened a group of Eastern European psychotherapists to try to understand the particular problems they and their patients faced. The essential story revolved around people discovering their histories in family secrets. “Often, parents hide facts because they don’t want to endanger their children,” wrote Fyodor Konkov, the Russian contributor to the resulting collection. “But what I understand happens in such situations from the child’s point of view is that an empty space, a void develops in their identity.”

“Dr. Konkov describes a specific affective state, one of inner emptiness, which children experience during arrested grief, when they feel they have been lied to about the life and death of their parents or grandparents,” Lifton and his coeditor, psychoanalyst Jacob D. Lindy, added in their comments, noting a particular problem these therapists faced, one that they had seen in other psychologists working with traumatized populations: a certain kind of countertransference. “In each case, this intense reaction was a clue to ways in which the patient’s wound—a legacy of the Communist era—connected with the therapist’s wound of the same traumatic history.”

Russian psychoanalyst Marina Arutyunyan was certain that wounds formed when something was missing, willfully unremembered. Her own family had made the unusual choice to maintain its story, and this gave her an advantage. She had learned the story in stages. It must have been in fourth or fifth grade when she asked her mother why the family album contained no photographs of Arutyunyan’s grandfather. The absence was conspicuous: the life of the family was otherwise solidly visually documented, or so it seemed to Arutyunyan. There was a photograph of her mother, Maya, as a baby, in 1925. There were numerous photographs of Maya’s mother, Anna Mikhailovna, as she made her way up to the very top of the Soviet ladder, becoming a member of the Academy of Sciences and the Central Committee, collecting honors and awards along the way, looking stern yet inspired every time. And not a single photograph of Anna Mikhailovna’s husband, Maya’s father, Grigory Yakovlevich Yakovin. Arutyunyan knew that he had died long ago, before the war, and even that he had been executed. But surely there had to be pictures?

“They feared for me,” said Maya. “So they destroyed the photographs.”

“They” were Maya’s mother and grandmother, but what did this mean?

“You see, there was a time when innocent people could be condemned. And if their families did not reject them, then children could be in danger.” Maya got out a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, a tome in blue-black cloth. This was volume five, which began and ended with perfectly incomprehensible words: “Berezna” and “Botokudy.” Maya opened the book to a full-page portrait of a middle-aged, mostly bald man with around face, perfectly thin lips, and a pince-nez with round rimless lenses. This was Lavrentiy Beria, whom the accompanying four-page article described as “one of the most outstanding leaders of the All-Soviet Communist Party of Bolsheviks and of the Soviet state, a loyal student and comrade of J. V. Stalin,” and so forth. This was not Arutyunyan’s grandfather — this was Stalin’s chief executioner. After he himself was executed, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia received a letter that Maya was now showing her:

The state scholarly publishing house of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia recommends that pages 21, 22, 23, and 24, as well as the portrait bound in between pages 22 and 23, be removed and replaced with new pages, enclosed with this letter.

Use scissors or a razor blade to remove the abovementioned pages, taking care to retain inner margins to which new pages are to be glued.

The replacement pages contained an article on the Bering Strait.

“You see, this is the sort of thing that would happen,” explained Maya. “And if it was a close relative, you had to be really careful.”

This was a fascinating answer. It had a tinge of adventure to it. The physical and figurative disappearance of Grigory Yakovlevich Yakovin registered as mystery rather than tragedy.Then, in high school, Arutyunyan read A Steep Road (usually translated into English as Into the Whirlwind) a memoir by a woman, a historian and a loyal Party member, who was falsely accused of being a Trotskyist and spent a decade in the Gulag, followed by another in internal exile. The book was a clear-eyed catalog of human suffering:

When I was young, I liked to repeat the phrase, "I think, therefore I am." Now I could say, "I hurt, therefore I am.". .

Back in 1937, when I first admitted my share of responsibility for all that had happened, I dreamed of redemption through pain. By 1949, I knew that pain works only for a time. When it stretches for decades and becomes a part of the everyday, it is not longer redemptive. It is simply something that turns you into a block of wood.

Physical suffering drowns out the pain of inner torment.

This is a horror theater in which some of the actors have been assigned to play victims and others, the executioners. The latter have it worse.

The book was published in the West and smuggled into the Soviet Union, and Arutyunyan had simply found it sitting on the desk of one of her parents. Now she could not put it down. She could not sleep. She could not stop crying. She summoned her closest friends from school. They spent the night — the book could not be taken out of the apartment — reading and crying.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Arutyunyan demanded of her parents.

“But we did,” they said.

“Not like this!”

She came back to them after this conversation, asking for details about her grandfather. After a few queries, Maya handed her a copy of a poem typed, in the samizdat fashion, on what was called “cigarette paper” — it was thin as rolling papers, and this allowed as many as four copies to be produced through the use of carbon paper and a manual typewriter.

“Here, read this,” Maya said. “The facts don’t match, but this is your grandmother’s story.”

It was a long piece by the émigré poet Naum Korzhavin. It was written in the second person, addressed to a woman who, if the poem was to be believed, was wholeheartedly, slavishly devoted to the Party.

You lied in the name of ideals,
but the tradition of lying
Was continued by those
better suited for purposeful lies.
We are all mortal beings.
Our passions express who we are. . . .
You rejected your love
in the name of a higher desire.
But was there love,
was there love even once in your life?

No, said the poem, the woman had never loved. Yes, it contradicted itself, once she did fall in love, with a fellow Party intellectual, a skinny bespectacled Jew. His views were to the right of the protagonist’s — which meant that they were to the right of the Party line — and they argued the issues, until he got arrested. She was asked to testify, and she did not hesitate.

The work of the Party is sacred,
no room for emotions.
Stick to the substance.
Discard everything else.

She “told them everything.” It was the right thing to do, but when she found out that he had died, she spent all night crying. By this time, according to the poem, she was in the Gulag herself. By the end of the poem it becomes clear that the heroine survived — and, in spite of all that happened to her, remained a true believer. The author despairs of reasoning with her.

You gave it all to the fight,
including that which cannot be given.
All of it:
the ability to love,
to think, and to feel.
All of you, nothing spared—
But how
do you live without your self?

If this was the story of her grandmother — a claim Arutyunyan instinctively doubted — then her grandfather had once again been elided. The poem described the betrayal, but not the man who was betrayed. Maya finally told her daughter what she knew. Both of her parents had been revolutionaries, underground organizers in czarist Russia, fighters during the Civil War, and scholars after. They had met as students at the Institute for Red Professors, which had been formed to create a cadre of university instructors to replace those who were being exiled or arrested. This was around the time of Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power. When Maya was a newborn, her parents were dispatched to Germany for a year to further their studies. When they returned, the Party assigned them to teach history in Leningrad. Soon after, Maya’s mother, Anna Mikhailovna, denounced her husband publicly for his Trotskyist views — Arutyunyan had no idea what that meant, and Maya explained that he was opposed to Stalin, who he feared would establish the rule of terror. Then Anna Mikhailovna left for Moscow, taking little Maya with her. Maya never saw her father again, though he lived for another dozen years. He was arrested, exiled, arrested again, and finally executed, and in all that time he never named a name, never signed a false confession, and never wavered in his beliefs.

All of this sounded, suspiciously, like the sort of story Arutyunyan would have learned in school when they studied the lives of the Bolshevik quasi-saints: all heroism and no human. Maya spoke about her mother in similarly epic terms. She was pure. She loved the Party and she loved her husband, and later, when she was a powerful woman, she always stood up for people who fell out of favor, always defended their Leninist credentials. Back in the 1920s, Maya said, her mother had been granted a visit with her jailed husband. Maya was unclear about whether the initiative had been her mother’s or the Party’s, but she knew that the goal of the visit was to tear Grigory Yakovlevich from his mistaken beliefs and return him to the fold of the Party of Stalin. He had been elated to see his wife, but the moment he realized what her true objective was, he asked her to leave.

Thus had Anna Mikhailovna lost her one true love among men. From that point on, she belonged to the Party only, body and soul. But in the mid-1930s, when Maya was about ten, Anna Mikhailovna was herself expelled from the Party, for mentoring a student whose dissertation was perceived to contain nationalist notes inconsistent with the then current post-anti-imperial line. She made a suicide pact with her best friend, who had also fallen into disfavor. She left a note: “The Party can live without me, but I cannot live without the Party.” The maid walked in on her, spoiling the suicide attempt; the best friend was already dead. After that, a senior scholar stepped in, arranging for Anna Mikhailovna to teach history at a provincial secondary school. For years after that, it was Maya’s grandmother who took care of her. After the war, however, Stalin decided that he needed a woman in the Central Committee, and Anna Mikhailovna was not only reinstated in the Party but flown right up the career ladder to the top.

Arutyunyan found this narrative unsatisfying. It sounded to her like not one but two bad plays: one about star-crossed lovers, the other about a man so heroic he could not be imagined. She had read enough by now to know that the system of torture, humiliation, and threats broke the best of the best and that the current generation was in no position to judge them.

This was the early 1970s, years before Arutyunyan became a professional psychologist, but she needed no special training to see through the family myth. It was all compensation. Maya loved her mother, and she needed a story grand enough to make up for her betrayals. Anna Mikhailovna had taken Maya’s father away — twice: first by denouncing him and again by destroying all traces of him. She had also abandoned Maya repeatedly, first as a baby: that beautiful picture from 1925 had been taken in a Berlin children’s home, where the little girl was kept while her parents were off uniting the world’s proletariat in revolt. The calligraphically perfect caption on the back of the photograph said, “Liebe Mutter, liebe Tochter,” [“Dear Mother, dear Daughter”] and this broke Arutyunyan’s heart. When Anna Mikhailovna went off to teach school in a remote city, she did not even say goodbye — she simply disappeared. There were no letters, only an anonymous message that Maya’s mother was “well and living in a different city.” Wounds that large required equally large myths, which was why Maya had had to conjure a father so heroic and a mother so long-suffering that they could exist only in her imagination. This explained why Maya chose to believe, too, that Korzhavin’s tragic, romantic poem had something to do with her mother even though the plot details did not match: if the poet had such compassion for his protagonist, then she must have deserved it. Arutyunyan was a loving daughter too, so she kept her doubts to herself.


Twenty years after that conversation, in a friend’s kitchen in Munich, of all places, Arutyunyan met a historian of the samizdat, the keeper of the largest known collection of self-published Russian writing. She did not even know why she felt compelled to mention the family legend according to which Korzhavin’s poem “Tan’ka” had been written for and about her grandmother. The archivist became curious. A day later he returned to that kitchen to tell Arutyunyan that he had located an early manuscript of the poem and it contained a dedication to A. M. Pankratova, her grandmother. He suggested that the dedication had been omitted from later iterations to avoid endangering Anna Mikhailovna’s family — Arutyunyan and her parents.

Maya was not a sentimental person, but when Arutyunyan told her that she had confirmed the legend of the poem, she teared up — perhaps because her daughter had remembered what she had told her so many years earlier, or perhaps because she had finally believed her.

Maya died in 1999. In her papers, Arutyunyan found Anna Mikhailovna’s journals. Maya had quoted lines from them to her daughter but had never let her see them: she said that they were too intimate. They were.

1 November 1923 (night)

We have just parted, and I have flown back to my room like a bird,
so incredibly, insanely, unconscionably happy.

“Why do I love you so?” he asked. “Why does it make me so happy
to see you?”

“Is that true?” I asked. I could not yet believe it, but I could feel the
fire engulfing me.

We were standing on the stairs and discussing Party business.

Anna Mikhailovna carried this love through the rest of her life, just as Maya had said. Her later notes contained a chronology of nonstarter romances. “Gr. would never do a thing like that,” she would write, damning a potential suitor with this comparison to her late husband. “No, he is no Gr.,” she would write, dismissing another.

Arutyunyan asked a close friend, a historian well-versed in Stalin-era archives, to look up her grandfather’s case files. She gave him power of attorney for the purpose — by this time, access to archives was restricted to family members.

It all checked out. Grigory Yakovlevich was every bit the hero from Maya’s stories. He never named a name, never lost his dignity, never gave an inch to his tormentors. Transcripts of his interrogations were repetitive:

“I consider it inappropriate to name people.”

“I deny that.”

“Prosecutors and investigators may be concerned with actions, not opinions and intentions. . . . I do not see a need to testify with regards to opinions.”

“I don’t recall.”

“I will not name anyone.”

“That’s a falsehood. I am aware of no such group.”

The unbelievable story of Anna Mikhailovna’s failed redemptive visit also proved true. She had been dispatched by the Party to try to lure her estranged, ideologically wayward husband back into the fold. He was released into her custody. They spent three or four nights together at a hotel before irreconcilable ideological differences separated them forever. Arutyunyan’s friend was even able to make copies of photographs — two sets of mug shots, taken at two arrests. Grigory Yakovlevich was handsome, with strong features and a full head of dark wavy hair. He looked tall, if one can look tall in a mug shot. His likeness had nothing in common with the “skinny, bespectacled Jew” from the Korzhavin poem. There had been other scant but more accurate descriptions of him, including this from the memoir of revolutionary expat Victor Serge:

Grigory Yakovlevich Yakovin, aged thirty, had returned from Germany, on which country he had just written an excellent book. A sporting enthusiast with a constantly alert intelligence, good looks, and a spontaneous charm . . .

The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño gave Grigory Yakovlevich a three-line cameo in his epic novel 2666: “Grigory Yakovin, a great expert in contemporary Germany history.” Several years after Maya, the last person to have seen Grigory Yakovlevich alive, had died, Arutyunyan was finally able to see a clear picture of her grandfather — in an academic paper her historian friend wrote after researching the case.

Adapted from THE FUTURE IS HISTORY: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen, to be published on October 3, 2017 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Masha Gessen.

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Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and the author of several books, among them The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Slate, Vanity Fair, and many other publications. A longtime resident of Moscow, Gessen now lives in New York City.

To learn more about The Future Is History, click here.


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