Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

A Piece of Luck

The winter, cold and dark, was terrible. We had to stay at Pavlovsk, living in one room, for it was easier to get firewood there. Life had become such a struggle for existence as perhaps even the cave-dwellers did not know; they were, at any rate, adapted to their surroundings, while we who had to do strenuous intellectual work felt completely helpless in the face of material difficulties.

A man in a torn overcoat tied round the waist with string to keep the warmth in, in boots made of an old carpet, with chapped hands and furtive, hungry eyes, was not a tramp but a professor or an academician. The women looked no better. The children were dreadful. I knew a baby of two, who had been taught by hunger not to finish his portion of bread at once, but to hide the crusts under the cupboard, among his toys or under the carpet. He wept if he could not find them again, but did not confide his secret to anyone until his little brother of four tracked him out and ate his supplies; then the baby angrily complained to the mother.

My baby had enough to eat because his father still received for his lectures a bottle of milk a day, but we were so starved that our health began to give way; I was developing heart trouble and my husband showed signs of tuberculosis.

Towards the spring we had come to the end of everything that could be sold or exchanged in the villages for potatoes, mangels or millet. Our salary was generally kept back two or three months and by the time it was paid we could not always buy with it a pound of butter, for the value of the rouble was falling rapidly. All were anxious to earn some extra money so as to escape death by starvation which was continually threatening everyone,

My only resource was literary work. Fortunately for the intellectuals a section of the Government was keen at that time on implanting a new and quite special sort of culture in the country—though, one would have thought, it was hardly the moment for it when a creeping paralysis was attacking railways, factories and electric power stations. Literature was to perform wonders: it had, in the shortest possible time, to re-educate the readers' tastes, to bring within their reach all the wealth of the world's cultural achievements, to expound the whole history of mankind from a new, Marxist, point of view and thus give the people "a fresh weapon in the class struggle". The Government devoted millions of paper money to these ends, but by the time that these sums had passed through various committees, editorial bureaus, censorship offices and so on, the authors' and translators' fees became a mere shadow. For translating a long novel of Balzac I received just enough paper money to buy two pounds of black bread; and my fee for writing a children's story in a magazine edited by Gorki amounted to the price of three lumps of sugar. Sometimes I felt so sick about the whole thing that I decided to give up literary work, but hunger soon weakened my resolution and I looked out for a fresh job again. This time I thought I would try to get a commission from Grzhebin's, the only publishing concern that paid at once. It was rumored that they did it in their own interests: on paying the authors and translators in advance, Grzhebin and Gorki obtained credits from the Government to cover the publishing expenses; it was said that with that money they bought paper in Finland and re-sold it at enormous profit to the newspapers which were in desperate straits for paper. Only a small proportion of the work they paid for was ever published.

Well, that was no concern of mine; all I wanted was to earn some money to keep us until May when my husband was going on a scientific expedition.

I was commissioned to re-tell, in a form interesting for modern children, Italian fairy tales for the series Fairy Tales of all Nations  on condition that I did the work within a month. I had to read various collections of Venetian, Florentine, Neapolitan and Sicilian folklore, comparing the different versions. It was fascinating work and I enjoyed doing it, though I was weak with hunger and had to sit up till the small hours of the morning to finish the job in time. I felt shy about asking for my fee in advance, though we desperately needed the money. On the day that I went to Petersburg to deliver the manuscript I very nearly fainted in the street, because I had not had anything to eat for the previous twenty-four hours and there was no food at home except a tea-cup of pearl barley for the baby. But the fee that I received on that memorable day was beyond my wildest dreams and I returned to Pavlovsk in triumph.

My husband, with the baby on his shoulder, met me at the station.

"I've brought heaps of money!" I said in answer to his look of interrogation. "You'll never guess how much! 56,000 roubles! I am sure, no writer in a capitalistic country can boast of such a fee!"

"It only means thirty-five pounds of butter," my husband said sadly. But of course he was delighted. That money simply saved us, and it was no use worrying about the real value of the rouble.

We sat up late that evening drinking oats "coffee" with sugar, eating good black bread and butter and talking about the future. Life in the summer was always easier and perhaps things in general would get better. Surely, the Government would see that they could not go on like that.

My book was never published, and the manuscript was lost. Grzhebin was accused of something and his publishing business was closed. It was winter when I called at his former office. A disgruntled-looking intellectual, shivering with the cold, sat by a temporary iron stove sorting out manuscripts and using a good many of them as fuel.

"Your manuscript? How do I know what became of it?" she said bad-temperedly, "There was no record kept. Everything is in a hopeless muddle. Some of the manuscripts are in Berlin, some are here, and there is absolutely nothing to go by. It's enough to drive one crazy. Haven't you got a copy?"


"Well, then you must say good-bye to it. The devil himself couldn't find anything here."

I was not surprised. It was the usual way in U.S.S.R. Everything had always to be done in a desperate hurry, but almost before it was finished it proved to be of no use. Of nearly seven hundred pages that I wrote or translated only some eighty pages have been published, though all my work had been commissioned and paid for.