Inside Story

My mother’s story

In this extract from her new book, Maria Tumarkin recounts the events that unfolded after news of war reached the Ukrainian village of Dubovyazovka

Maria Tumarkin 7 May 2010 5567 words

Above: Maria Tumarkin’s grandparents, Faina and Iosif, in Kiev in 1935.

In October 2008, nineteen years after my family immigrated to Australia, I travelled back to Russia and Ukraine with my twelve-year-old Australian-born daughter. Otherland is the story of this trip and of our attempts to understand and connect to our family history. In that history, just like in the countless family histories across the region, the second world war stands apart, to this day, as the defining experience of the twentieth-century.

EARLY in the summer of 1941 my great-aunt Tamara, a young doctor recently graduated from Kharkov Medical Institute, was sent to work in the Ukrainian village of Dubovyazovka, not far from Kiev. She went with a child in tow. Tamara’s husband (the first of several) had died in the Finnish War of 1939–40, and so it was just the two of them now – the self-assured, outgoing, remarkably well-dressed young “specialist” and her two-year-old daughter, Vera. My grandmother, Faina, joined her sister in the country soon after. Faina was pregnant with the child who would turn out to be my mother, and tailed by her own toddler, three-year-old Lina. Summer at Dubovyazovka meant fresh air, sun, coveted cow’s milk, and fruit and veg on tap – and as everyone knew, these things, so wanting in the city, made for much healthier kids.

Faina was older than Tamara by four years, and not like her at all. My grandmother was much less inclined to hold court than her sister; she dressed modestly and was skilled at deflecting the spotlight. She was attentive and kind, and took care of things when no one was looking. There was not one showy bone in her body. Both Faina’s daughters would inherit her attentiveness to others, and her distaste for publicising their own good deeds, even though they would belong to a much more emancipated generation of young women. (The drama queens only started appearing in my family when my sister and I came along.)

While Faina and Tamara, with two and a half kids between them, were in Dubovyazovka, my grandfather Iosif, who was senior assistant to Kiev’s public prosecutor, remained at work. Between my grandmother and grandfather existed an unspoken but unambiguous marital contract. Just as there were criminals and prosecutors, whose worlds only overlapped when the former were caught and prosecuted by the latter, so the clearly defined domains of men’s and women’s work were only meant to intersect in extraordinary circumstances. Ninety-nine per cent of the time child-rearing fell under women’s jurisdiction, together with cooking, cleaning and laundry (all the good stuff!). Men’s work was, as you would expect, to ensure the wellbeing and security of the family. The irony was that, just like most of the young women around her, my grandmother did all the women’s work as well as “work” work – she was an economist by training – which meant that most of the time she was preoccupied and exhausted.

It was in sun-filled Dubovyazovka that Tamara and Faina learned about the start of the war, from the round mouth of a radio perched in the middle of the square near the office of the obligatory village council:

“Today at 4 am… without a declaration of war, German troops attacked our country, attacked our borders at many points and their aeroplanes bombed our cities – Zhitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol, Kaunas and some others – killing and wounding over two hundred persons… This unprecedented attack upon our country is treachery unparalleled in the history of civilised nations.”

The announcement, made at noon on 22 June by the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, came as a total shock, not only to the two women but to the entire community. Today it may be hard to understand why, especially if you are looking at history from the other side. By that stage the war had been raging in Europe for close to two years. But the Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill would famously draw attention to in 1946 had in fact already descended, blocking or distorting most of the news from the western front. All most Soviet citizens knew was that in August 1939 Molotov had signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany, and the fact of this pact, coupled with people’s belief in the all-seeing and all-knowing Stalin, meant that most of them were utterly unprepared for Molotov’s announcement of Germany’s treacherous attack on our “sleeping nation.”

As to the secret protocol within the Non-Aggression Pact, the Soviet Union only officially admitted its existence in December 1989 (just as we were leaving). The West learned about it during the Nuremberg Trials, but my grandmother and others of her generation died without the slightest idea of all the political machinations that helped produce the defining experience of their lives. No one but a handful of people at the very top knew about the secret agreement, which gave the Soviet Union control over parts of Poland as well as Romania, Finland and the Baltic States, while allowing Germany to have a free hand in the rest of Europe. Certainly, the war in which the Soviet Union invaded neighbouring Finland (and in which Tamara’s husband died) was completely dissociated from the larger European conflict. It was widely believed – in the public mind, anyway – to be a conflict between two parties, provoked by Finnish reactionaries in turn backed by British and French imperialists, and in no way a reflection of the larger forces at play. The ordinary Soviet population did not have a clue what was going on, not in 1941, and not for decades to come.

AND SO it was on that June afternoon in the middle of Dubovyazovka square, surrounded by others in a similar state of shock (adults mainly; many kids were said to be initially excited by the news of the war), that Tamara and Faina had to take in all this indigestible news in one massive gulp. Their country was at war. Their hometown was bombed. All connection with it was lost. There was no way back to Kiev, and that meant they would have to join the massive exodus of war refugees across the European part of the Soviet Union, all moving east to parts of Russia around the River Ural (the traditional border between Europe and Asia), or to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. It also meant that my grandmother and grandfather would be separated for years.

In those first few months of the war everything happened very quickly. The Luftwaffe’s bombs exploded in Kiev in the opening hours of the conflict. (Residents at first took them to be Soviet military exercises.) Within months the defence of Kiev ended in one of the most disastrous defeats the Soviet Army would experience. In military textbooks – not the Soviet ones, of course – the campaign would be immortalised as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, encirclements of troops in the whole of history, leading to the capture of more than half a million Soviet troops. The Soviet Army was in total disarray. In his memoirs, We Are from 1941, Dmitry Levinsky, a twenty-year-old soldier at the start of the war, recounted the bloody chaos of the retreating Soviet Army – no food, no bullets, no medical aid, no connection to the headquarters, no clearly defined frontline and no common strategy. Add to that the three million Soviet soldiers who became POWs at the very start of the conflict. It is simply not legitimate to apply the word “army” to the Soviet troops of 1941, Levinsky says. While he himself did not take part in the Battle of Kiev, what he remembers of the first few months of the war – how soldiers were given two-metre puttees instead of boots, how machine-gun operators had to carry weapons in excess of thirty kilos, and how news of the war was delivered to various army regiments by messengers on foot – helps us understand why the first stages of the war resulted in such catastrophic losses for the Soviet Union.

Lest we forget, the military was under Stalin’s absolute control; by the start of the war the majority of the most experienced and talented high-ranking officers were part of a different army altogether – the army of the repressed. The catastrophic conclusion to the Battle of Kiev had as much to do with politics as with the sorry state of the military. The implications of surrendering a major capital were dire (What next? Moscow?), so the troops were given orders to hold on to the city at any cost. My grandfather, in his memoirs written in Australia in the final years of his life, remembered the heightened rhetoric around Kiev’s defence. He recalled an article in Pravda, the nation’s central newspaper, declaring on 13 September 1941 that “Kiev was, is and will be Soviet.” But Kiev was about to stop being Soviet – in less than a week’s time – and would not be liberated until two years and two months had passed. The price paid for not surrendering Kiev until the last possible moment was enormous military losses and the severe weakening of other parts of the front, but it was symptomatic of Stalin’s “die but do not retreat” approach to war. In the chronic confrontation between political and military considerations, politics usually triumphed. Human life never counted for much in the Soviet Union, but during the war soldiers and civilians alike were sacrificed by the million with determined and heartbreaking ease.

As the recipients of tragically mixed messages, many of Kiev’s civilians did not use the tiny but nonetheless real window of opportunity they had to flee. By the time they were ready to go, it was in most cases too late. For his part, my grandfather was under orders to remain in Kiev until the last possible moment. Together with the military prosecutor N.D. Vinogradov and Vinogradov’s senior secretary, they managed to cross the frontline on 18 September, when German troops were already on the outskirts of town. The three of them headed for the forests of the Chernigov region in northern Ukraine, where they went underground and joined the large partisan regiment active in the area.

My grandmother, of course, had no way of knowing whether her husband had managed to escape Kiev before it was occupied. But many residents who remained there as Nazi troops marched into the city believed in their heart of hearts that Germany was a civilised and cultured nation, and that nothing too terrible was going to happen to them. Some remembered the “reasonable” conduct of Germans during World War I and had no way of realising that they were about to contend with something altogether different. Their wishful thinking was not entirely delusional. After all, the worst had not yet occurred: it would be on the eastern front that the German army, specifically the SS, would demonstrate how far it was prepared to go. It is also not entirely unfathomable why a significant minority of Kiev’s 160,000 Jews did not run for their lives while they still could. In September of 1941, the extermination camps were not yet built, and Himmler’s policy of the “Final Solution” was still some months off. The fate of Kiev’s Jews, along with the mass extermination of Lithuanian Jewry at roughly the same time, was the awakening, the moment when it became apparent how “the Jewish question” was going to be solved from then on.

Within days of the occupation, the city’s remaining Jewish residents, mainly women, children and the elderly, were ordered to assemble in one spot with their belongings:

“All kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity must appear by 8.00 a.m. on Monday, September 29 1941, at the corner of Melnikovskaya and Dohturovskaya Streets (near the cemeteries).

“You must bring with you documents, money, valuables as well as warm clothing, underwear, etc. Those kikes who do not comply with the order and are found elsewhere will be shot on the spot.”

These notices, printed in Russian, Ukrainian and German (with the street names misspelt), appeared across the city. The same sort of orders had been given at other European cities, big and small, before Kiev. But this time those assembled were not taken to ghettos or put into cattle trains bound for concentration camps. Instead, they were all indiscriminately executed at a local ravine named Babi Yar. The massacre was the first terrible milestone in what has subsequently been called “industrialised mass slaughter of Jews.” It is a true miracle that no member of our family ended up there.

Anti-semitism was not brought to Ukraine by the Nazi SS units and death squads. The republic had a tradition of Jewish oppression dating back to the seventeenth century. Ukrainian pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were notorious for their barbarity, even though at the time persecution of European Jewry was commonplace. The truth is that the relationship between Ukrainian Jews and ethnic Ukrainians, especially during World War II, is as painful and complex a human story as you are likely to find. Ukraine’s anti-semitism, never quite dormant, was reignited by events of the first half of the twentieth century – the Russian Revolution, the Soviet oppression of the Ukrainian people, and the fall of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Hitler’s poisonous vision of Jewish Bolshevism (in Nazi propaganda the two phenomena were inseparably fused) fell on fertile ground among ethnic Ukrainians who, within a decade of their country’s becoming part of the Soviet Union in 1922, were forced to endure not only famine but also large-scale dekulakisation and waves of repressions against the republic’s leaders and intelligentsia.

When the war came, a sizable minority of ethnic Ukrainians welcomed the arrival of the German troops – at least initially. In parts of western Ukraine annexed by the Soviet Union shortly before the start of the war (in line with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) the Germans were seen as liberators. There is no question that the Ukrainian nationalist movement collaborated with the German invaders, and large numbers of those who did not actively collaborate were still deeply ambivalent about Ukraine’s position. In the words of historian Vladislav Grinevich, the war was seen by many as “the sacrificial struggle of the Ukrainian people against two imperial powers – Soviet and German – for the independent Ukrainian nation.”

In Nazi propaganda campaigns, the invading German army was presented as the powerful ally of ethnic Ukrainians and their fight for independence, and as the mortal enemy of both Jews and Bolsheviks. Ukrainian collaborators, of which the Polizei, the dreaded “Auxiliary Police,” were the worst, persecuted and harassed Ukraine’s Jewish population with impunity.

My great-grandmother on my dad’s side was shot by the Polizei in a small Ukrainian town called Lubni. Sometimes collaborators were coerced, but others volunteered their services. They were there at Babi Yar too. But there were countless Ukrainians who would not collaborate. And though the actions of those who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbours, friends and total strangers could not undo the crimes of the Polizei, to remember the war is to remember these Ukrainians alongside the collaborators. Rudolf Boretsky, now a professor of journalism at Moscow State University, was eleven when Kiev was occupied. When the Jews of his city were ordered to assemble with their belongings and no one quite knew what awaited them, his mother, together with young Rudolf, visited the families of all her Jewish friends, pleading with them not to follow the German orders but to hide instead. For the most part, her pleas fell on deaf ears. Rudolf remembers that she did not think twice about hiding a Jewish acquaintance in the corner of their room behind the wardrobe, keeping this hiding place secret even from the neighbours. His mother was a woman of admirable inner strength, but she was hardly an exception. This too is part of our history.

AT THE TIME, my family did not share the terrible knowledge of what was happening to their people in Kiev. As the city’s Jewish population was rounded up, my grandfather was fighting in the forests of Ukraine and my grandmother, together with her sister and the kids, was on her way to Uzbekistan. There was, it seems, no clear and systematic plan of evacuation: the bulk of it was carried out through people’s places of employment. As a doctor, Tamara was assigned to Uzbekistan, and this is where my grandmother and all the kids, born and unborn, headed in the summer of 1941. Most of those evacuated were women and children. The majority of men stayed on to fight (although not just men; around a million Soviet women also became combatants in the course of the war).

From Dubovyazovka, Tamara, Faina and the kids got to the train station by horse-drawn cart. My grandmother had almost no belongings, just one small suitcase containing the light clothing she had brought on her summer vacation. At the station, train after train was leaving, taking a continuous stream of people away from the front. The evacuees faced round-the-clock bombardments of both the trains and the railway tracks. If the rails were damaged and needed to be repaired, people simply waited at the side of the tracks until they could reboard. Thank God it was summer. Sometimes German planes flew low to the ground and a machine gun would methodically hunt down those who had escaped the larger artillery. Writer Evgenia Frolova was a schoolgirl evacuated from Leningrad. She remembers being inside a train that was bombed: “Everything drowns in the hissing sound, in roar and smoke… The whole train is shaking and rocking. Clothing, blankets, bags and bodies are thrown off the plank beds, from all sides something whizzes by over our heads and plunges into walls and the floor. There is a scorched smell as if from milk burnt on the stove.” It was not only the bombardments the evacuees had to endure, but hunger and disease as well. To eat and to feed their children, people sold whatever they had so they could buy the produce that peasants from nearby villages brought to the stations along the way. This was how Tamara, Faina and the kids just made it to Uzbekistan. By the time they reached Samarkand, the largest city in Uzbekistan after Tashkent, my grandmother, great-aunt and the two little girls were barely alive. Not only were they on the brink of starvation; their heads were overrun by lice, even Tamara’s formerly well-coiffed one.

Samarkand is an ancient and famed city, part of the Silk Road and once one of the main centres of Persian civilisation, yet nothing in its history could have prepared its residents for the arrival of hordes of refugees from Russia, Ukraine and other “European” republics of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan was sunny, abundant, harvest-rich, a world away from the death, destruction and hunger of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Among the endless stream of wartime refugees it sheltered was the cream of the nation’s creative elites, from major cinema studios, which continued to make films during the war, to the Moscow State Jewish Theatre under the direction of the legendary Solomon Mikhoels. Tashkent became a refuge for some of the country’s most famous writers, including Anna Akhmatova, who was evacuated there from Leningrad. Despite the major culture shock Akhmatova experienced on arriving in Central Asia, she also discovered true human kindness.

“In those cruel years in Uzbekistan,” she wrote, “you could meet people of just about every nationality of our country. Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Poles and Uzbeks, Lithuanians and Greeks, Kurds and Bulgarians worked side by side at factories and on film sets. And how many orphaned children from the occupied territories of the Soviet Union found new families in Central Asia.”

Uzbekistan had not been incorporated in the Soviet Union until 1924, after considerable local resistance; the European components of the USSR were alien and unimaginable to Uzbeks as their own country must have been for the majority of refugees. Still, large Uzbek families with many children of their own took in kids and refugees of all nationalities, sharing with them last pieces of bread. There were all kinds of Uzbeks of course, just like there were all kinds of Ukrainians, but there were a great many good, decent people. The inevitable clash of cultures with all its resulting misunderstandings and friction did not kill off the human impulse to take care of others in dire and obvious need.

My grandmother and great-aunt arrived in Samarkand to find an Asian city caught up in the vortex of the vast and distant war. Writer Dina Rubina, who was born in Tashkent, reconstructs the wartime scene there in a way that honours the mythical proportions of the refugees’ arrival – something much more akin to a plague than the orderly relocation of people and organisations that the word “evacuation” might imply. “Imagine that on some Asian city descends a million lice-ridden, ragged fugitives… Echelon after echelon come to the station but the city cannot take any more… And still the hapless crowds fall out of trains and set themselves up at the square near the station. [In that square, under the direct sun, whole families spread their blankets in the dust on the ground.] There is nowhere to set your foot, you have to look very attentively not to step on anyone. But the new ragamuffins continue arriving.”

When I read this, I can imagine the square in Samarkand where Tamara, Faina and the kids disembarked. As I try to picture other families encamped there on that summer night I know that my grandmother and great-aunt were in a better position than most. Tamara was obliged to report her arrival; she was guaranteed a medical assignment and thus stood a decent chance of keeping her pregnant sister and their kids afloat. It was, however, too late to report anywhere when they first arrived, so Tamara, Faina, Vera, Lina and my mum (in my grandmother’s womb) had no choice but to spend the night in the Samarkand square. It was not that bad. Someone gave Lina and Vera a slice of bread. At least they were safe now, away from the bombs.

When they woke in the morning, the bag with all the valuables and documents was gone, and with it Tamara’s degree certificate confirming her medical qualifications. Devastated by this theft but determined to get her assignment nonetheless, Tamara went to register with the authorities. Whatever she said to them, however vigorously she argued her case, it was not enough. They sent her away. There were too many impostors out there claiming to have qualifications. Forgery was rampant. Certificates, degrees – everything was being forged. “No documents,” Tamara was told, “no proof.” As she walked back to the square towards her anxious family, Tamara ran into a professor from the medical institute who had marked her graduation exams not long before. It was common for people from all parts of the country to bump into acquaintances near those central squares in Samarkand and Tashkent, but Tamara’s chance encounter with the examiner, who immediately vouched for her identity with the authorities, was a particularly blessed event.

On this day that had started so ominously, Tamara was assigned to the Station Malyutinskaya, a tiny kishlak deep in Uzbekistan, where the residents had never seen a doctor and where official medicine of the kind my great-aunt practised was as alien as they came. The word kishlak comes from Turkish for “winter hut” or “wintering place,” and describes rural settlements built by the semi-nomadic people of Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan – an idea entirely unfamiliar to urban women like Tamara and my grandma. Tamara’s job was to organise a medical outpost. The family was given a room in the same building where Tamara ran her clinic. While Tamara worked, Faina looked after the two toddlers and, soon enough, the newborn who arrived in these strange and most unexpected circumstances. When the war first descended on them, my grandmother had asked her sister to terminate this pregnancy. Carrying a child at such a time was an act of pure insanity: what chance would they all stand, the infant included? Tamara was a determined pragmatist who would have had no objections in principle to abortion, but she surprised her sister by refusing point-blank to oblige. “No, this child will bring light,” she said, and that was that. When Tamara delivered my mother at Station Malyutinskaya in the early days of January 1942, the baby was named Svetlana; svet means “light” in Russian.

All through the ordeal of the evacuation from Ukraine and their remote posting in Uzbekistan, my grandmother continued to search for Iosif. Though her efforts were unsuccessful, she managed to locate her husband’s birth family. Iosif’s brother was fighting at the front, and the rest of them – Iosif’s mother and sister, Sarah, with her two young boys – had also been evacuated, not to Central Asia but to Chkalov, an industrial city near the River Ural. Eventually, Faina received a notice that Iosif was “missing in action.” She knew all too well what the vague sentence stood for: “missing in action” was code for a combatant whose gravesite could not be identified. In her mind, she buried him.

Who knows how my grandmother managed to get through her time in Uzbekistan with two toddlers and a newborn in her care round the clock. It was the war, says my mother when I ask her this question. Grown-ups routinely did incredible things to keep kids alive. As Tamara worked, Faina cooked for the family on a brazier using bricks of dry dung as fuel. The baby, my fiercely independent mother, refused to be put down on the mattress and had to be carried at all times. Once my grandmother spilt boiling water on herself and had to continue performing all of her chores with only one useful arm. The worst was the abundance of poisonous spiders, malarial mosquitoes and even scorpions. (My auntie, four years old at the time, remembers a huge one on the white wall of their room.) Such pests were notorious for spreading deadly disease. (A cousin of Tamara and Faina who was also evacuated to Uzbekistan died from a blood infection following a spider bite.) In 1943 Tamara, Faina and the kids were all bedridden with epidemic typhus. It was a miracle that they got through it without losing anyone. When malaria came, it looked like the end. Tamara, the family’s doctor, was completely delirious. Everyone else was sick. Despite being terribly ill, Faina had no choice but to continue looking after the kids. It was at this moment that she wrote a letter to her husband’s family in distant Chkalov. “Save us,” it said.

How they managed to get through the malaria no one can now say. It must have been sheer luck because you can be as brave and as determined as you like but malaria does not give a toss. Tamara was not allowed to leave her medical post, so at the end of 1943 Faina travelled to the Ural region alone with the three kids. In Chkalov, Iosif’s family lived in one room of a two-room apartment. With my grandmother’s arrival, there were eight members of the family living on top of each other in this small space – three women and five children. At night my mother slept in the hall in a washing tub just big enough for a baby. Faina slept in the hall too, on top of a chest. In the other room lived the family of a former local ballerina Galina Valeryanovna, who before the war had had the apartment completely to itself. Contrary to stereotypes about artistic personalities in general and divas in particular, Galina Valeryanovna seemed neither bitter nor resentful towards her involuntarily acquired neighbours. She fancied herself as a fortune teller, using beans for the purpose as was then the Russian fashion, but when she offered her services to my grandmother, Faina was not interested.

Galina Valeryanovna insisted. “Let me do it,” she said.

“I am sorry, but I do not believe in this kind of stuff,” Faina replied.

“Just let me. I can tell you that your husband is alive.”

“Why are you being so cruel?”

“Listen to me. Your husband is alive and you will see him soon.”

When my grandfather and his colleagues left Kiev in 1941 and joined the partisans in the forests, they were ordered to move into the occupied village of Nosovka, in the guise of ordinary residents, to set up an underground cell. The three of them spent six months in the village running an anti-fascist group responsible for supplying the partisan forces with food and medical provisions. My grandfather’s very first job in life had been as a wood-turner, and he had been a skilled, successful craftsman. Thanks to this, Iosif had been able to move to Kiev from the small Ukrainian shtetl where he lived and, in time, to bring his parents to Kiev as well, taking full responsibility for their wellbeing. Now my grandfather’s woodworking skills came in handy not only because they provided a credible cover, but also because many farmers in nearby villages were in desperate need of a woodworker of his class; and so the trio never went hungry.

When they discovered that their cover had been blown, the trio quickly left Nosovka and headed into the forest. The next day their house and workshop were completely demolished. Before leaving Nosovka, my grandfather accidentally became a witness to a scene that he could not expunge from his mind: two Ukrainian Polizei shooting point-blank a Jewish couple discovered hiding with a local blacksmith. Determined to avenge the couple’s death, one night my grandfather took a platoon of partisans and set the houses of the two Polizei on fire. When the policemen ran out of the burning buildings, both of them were shot. Iosif was, by all accounts, a formidable leader. During his time in the partisans, he went from platoon leader to company commander and then head of the special division; after the war he was made lieutenant-colonel in recognition of his service.

At the end of 1943 Kiev was liberated, and the German forces were driven out of Ukraine. Early the following year, my grandfather started looking for his family. Told that his wife and sister-in-law were evacuated to Uzbekistan, he set out to make his way there. He knew neither their exact location nor the number of train journeys required to reach them nor, in fact, whether Faina, Tamara and the kids would still be in Uzbekistan years later. And, of course, their survival was anything but guaranteed wherever they were. Yet, just like Tamara’s chance encounter with her university lecturer in Samarkand’s central square, fate – or chance, although to me it does smell like fate – made Iosif fall casually into a conversation with a fellow passenger on the very first train he boarded.

It turned out that the man knew Iosif’s brother and his family. What is more, he was pretty certain that Iosif’s oldest nephew, Arkady, was working somewhere in the city of Chkalov, so my grandfather decided to get off the train there and try to locate his nephew before continuing his journey to Uzbekistan. My grandfather’s inexplicable fortune continued in Chkalov. Perhaps this is the kind of stuff that only happens in wartime. At the moment he disembarked, Iosif’s mother was heading home from the market where she had exchanged tobacco and vodka for some bread and lard to eat. Iosif wrote in his memoirs: “Only twenty to thirty metres from the house, I saw my mother who turned around and ran into the house – ‘Fanya, I have a son, you have a husband, your kids have a father.’ No words can describe what happened when we all reunited, how many tears were shed. Even now, when I am writing these words, and more than fifty years have passed since then, I am crying.” Needless to say, Chkalov’s former prima ballerina, Galina Valeryanovna, was vindicated, big-time. •

Maria Tumarkin is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology. This is an extract from her new book Otherland, published by Vintage.