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Context (Moscow Times)
November 5-11, 2004
book review
The Breaking Point
Masha Gessen takes a hard look at life under Stalin to determine where compromise ends and guilt begins.

By Rebecca Reich

How are we to judge honorable human beings who are forced by the pressures of survival to compromise their principles and ideals? This is the dilemma at the heart of Masha Gessen's memoir of her two babushkas, "Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace," and, by extension, of the entire Soviet intelligentsia of their generation.

Born to a Jewish family in Moscow in the late 1960s, Gessen was, by her own admission, a "difficult child," "sickly" and "withdrawn" in her teens, angry at her parents "for sins real and imagined." After she left the Soviet Union with her parents and brother in 1981, she retained only vague memories of her tight-knit family -- in particular, of her grandmothers, Ester, the headstrong Zionist, and Ruzya, the cautious Soviet censor, who had brought her up summers and evenings with stories of their war-torn youth.

For Gessen, these stories became mythic, unassailable. She never doubted, for instance, the heroic portrayal of her father's mother, Ester, who had recklessly refused to inform on friends and neighbors when approached by a secret police agent during World War II. That the idealization of Ester diminished, by comparison, her other grandmother, Ruzya -- whom Gessen knew only to have been a member of the Communist Party and to have had something to do with the writing establishment -- was part and parcel of the myth. And the fact that the two grandmothers had been best friends for 17 years before Gessen was born put the seal on the family legend. "To me," Gessen writes, "the family as a combination of their two clans seemed to go back unimaginable decades: Their relationship, since it preceded my parents' union, was eternal."

Still, the details of family relationships were "often a mystery" to Gessen. So it wasn't until she returned to Moscow in 1991 that the difficult child took a deeper look at her history. A rookie reporter, Gessen moved in with her grandmothers, and continued to stay with them on subsequent trips until she moved back to Russia permanently as a foreign correspondent in 1994. (These days, she is the deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod and a frequent contributor to discussions on Russian politics and culture.) As it turned out, her grandmother Ruzya had been more than a minor player in Stalin's regime. In fact, as Gessen narrates in a fascinating expos of the labyrinth of obstacles meant to cut off the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, Ruzya had spent a decade censoring the dispatches of foreign journalists like Masha Gessen herself. Similarly, though Ester had stood up to the secret police during World War II, six years later she had been ready to join their forces.

Torn between the journalist's urge to morally question the actions of these two women and the granddaughter's need to justify them to the world, there's a lot at stake for Gessen in this book. The product of a decade of interviews and background research, "Ester and Ruzya" succeeds in painting a thoughtful, detailed portrait of a generation of Moscow's Jewish intelligentsia through the experiences of these two more or less typical members. But it's also a highly personal work for Gessen, not least, of course, because the ultimate meeting of her two grandmothers in 1950 would lead to her own existence. Her natural inclination, then, is to become an apologist of sorts for her grandmothers (and for the Moscow intelligentsia they represent) on the grounds that individuals in those dangerous times had no choice but to compromise a part of their soul in the hope of not having to compromise more.

One of the areas in which Ester and Ruzya were given least room to maneuver was their Judaism, as the two young women were to be repeatedly reminded of their origins by the anti-Semitic policies of Germany and the Soviet Union. For Ruzya, who grew up in Soviet Moscow, Judaism meant nothing more than a mark on her passport; indeed, she saw little need to develop even an ethnic Jewish identification and found the idea of a Jewish national homeland distinctly distasteful. Ester grew up in Poland, receiving a secular Jewish education and adopting her father's Zionist ideology. In 1940, just one year before the Nazis broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact and occupied her hometown, Ester left for university in Moscow.

The story is her grandmothers', but it is Gessen who puts it into context, juxtaposing events in the lives of the two women by theme and time, and fleshing them out with rich physical detail. Prewar Moscow comes alive through Ruzya's dreamy walks as she and her fiance linger on bridges and granite embankments to steal some privacy from their parents' communal apartments. The city takes on a more menacing pulse as the pregnant Ester loses her footing in a slow-motion stampede during Stalin's funeral. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the book, several contradictory versions are offered as to what could have happened to Ester's father after his family was scattered by the war, and the reader is invited to judge the evidence.

Ester's father was a member of the Judenrat, or Jewish council, of the Bialystok ghetto, responsible for overseeing food and fuel distribution with the approval of the Nazi authorities. He also, it seems, had a hand in drawing up lists of Jews to be deported to the extermination camps, and was accused of standing in the way of resistance efforts by local Jewish fighters. Faced with contradictory facts, Gessen speculates on what might have happened and then concludes that her great-grandfather made a strategic decision to work with the Nazis in order to prolong the lives of those who had the greatest chances of survival, only to end up being shot himself in the Majdanek death camp in 1943.

The same theme of compromise runs through Gessen's grandmothers' lives, as the two women struggle to protect their families against a repressive Soviet regime made worse for them by official anti-Semitism. The well-connected Ruzya finds employment quickly, though the work is distasteful to both her and her family, involving, as it does, editing foreign literature and journalism according to the Soviet line -- in short, censoring. Ester learns the meaning of compromise several years later, when she applies for a job only to find all doors closed to so-called cosmopolitans in the run-up to Stalin's anti-Jewish campaigns. Having only six years earlier refused to become an informant for the secret police, she relents upon being approached a second time, agreeing to translate news reports from the newly created State of Israel. Only a fluke of paperwork saves her from spying on the country whose existence had long been her dream.

It's easy to wax sentimental with stories like these, as with all war stories where actions and consequences take on historical weight. Gessen isn't immune to dramatic effect, and at times she uses it too liberally to play up her grandmothers' metahistorical status. Chapters end on ominous notes or march their way to emotionally manipulative conclusions. At moments like these, the myth interferes, weighing down the narrative with the consciousness of its own historical importance.

Still, no Soviet tale can be totally separated from history, as the state had its way of steering even people's most secret moments. Ester and Ruzya, who "struggled not to march in lockstep with the country," were nevertheless tied to Stalin's policies as long as he was alive. It was only later, when society relaxed upon Stalin's death, that they found new satisfaction in work and family. Gessen's personal take on her grandmothers' history can only be a continuation of that trend, as privacy and privatization become realities in Russia today.