In Those Years She Was Feral: Midcentury Life in the Soviet Union
Alex Halberstadt on the Life and Times of His Grandmother Tamara
My grandmother Tamara was a month shy of 80. She lounged on the velvet sofa in a frayed velvet robe, a pair of bifocals perched on the tip of her nose. I hadn’t seen her in seven years, and to my dismay the imperious, impeccably dressed woman I remembered looked disheveled and old, her speech vague, her eyes watery and unfocused. I tried on a smile. “Please try to remember,” I pleaded.
She held a photo close to her face and squinted. All afternoon we’d been looking at photos from the 1940s and 50s, most taken with Vassily’s Leica. Most were portraits of Tamara posing in feathered hats and fur collars like someone out of a Fitzgerald novel: exotic, slim and utterly at odds with the bleakness of the wartime city.
By the 1970s, she’d grown plump and began dyeing her hair a lustrous blond, but she retained the bearing of a beautiful woman, someone accustomed to flattery, attention and getting what she wanted. She was impressive in a way some men call “handsome,” her gravity reinforced by her actual, considerable status. She worked near the Danilovsky Market at the House of Fashion, one of Moscow’s most desirable ateliers, where she designed bespoke dresses, suits and gowns for several dozen of the city’s most prominent women.
They paid her mostly in gifts from abroad; in Moscow, these mattered more than cash. During televised party speeches and holiday telecasts, she delighted in spotting her clients wearing her creations. She pointed at the screen with a blood-colored nail and announced, “Nadezhda Ivanovna, in the blue organdy, is mine.” Tamara maintained an appearance in line with her reputation. Even when heading out for a loaf of bread, she never left home in anything plainer than a navy silk wrap dusted with polka dots, patent-leather pumps, soaring sapphire eye shadow and a mink turban. On her left hand she wore an amethyst the size of a hazelnut that hypnotized me as a toddler.
The winter before my visit, Tamara’s third husband, a cantankerous Jewish engineer named Isaac Zinovitch, died of stomach cancer, leaving behind a handful of suits and a drawerful of empty jars of shark-fin cartilage that his son mailed him from Canada. After the funeral, Mikhail Mikhailovich—Tamara’s second, and favorite, husband—paid a visit to console her and ended up moving in. He, too, died five months later, and ever since Tamara had been occupying the three-room apartment alone. She misplaced her keys daily. She forgot the names of friends and complained to my father of burglars who entered her bedroom in the night or of a long-dead aunt who called on the telephone. These delusions came imperceptibly, leaving her good spirits unruffled.
As I sat beside her, Tamara flipped over the photos carefully, hoping for an inscription on the back to remind her of the faces in the picture. I asked why she hadn’t kept photos of Vassily. She peered at me sharply over the top of her glasses and pulled her tatty robe tighter around her. “He needed no one but himself,” she said with a spark of her old vehemence. “That’s why I stopped loving him.”
They met in 1943, in a loud, smoky dance hall where a band played Benny Goodman tunes and jazzed-up Soviet marches. Tamara was unusually self-reliant for a 19-year-old: she had a well-paying job designing women’s wear for the city’s dress shops and came to the dances in pleated skirts and wool crepe hats that she made herself. That she was strikingly attractive was not in itself an advantage at the dance hall. It was packed with enlisted men and junior officers on leave from the front; they smoked and drank too much and brawled in the alley behind the building. “It was wartime, and no one knew whether they would be alive a month later,” Tamara said. “So if you danced with the same boy twice, he expected you to go to bed with him.”“Please try to remember,” I pleaded.
She told me that in those years she was “feral.” Maria Nikolaevna, her compact, severe mother, doled out her affection stingily. She told Tamara that her own brother was taken by Gypsies when she was four. Maria Nikolaevna had been beautiful, too, with chestnut hair that fell to the waist and slate-colored eyes, beautiful enough to marry a son of a Moscow University history professor, an educated man from an aristocratic family, in the years following the revolution. By the time he vanished, in 1924, a few months before Tamara was born, he’d suffered a series of breakdowns and, haunted by paranoid delusions, refused to leave their apartment. Shortly before his death, he turned up in a psychiatric hospital (the same hospital where my mother would work decades later). This is all Tamara managed to learn about her father besides his fine-sounding Polish surname: Vysokovsky.
As a young woman, Tamara liked to say that she had no use for the past. She lived in a 25-square-meter room with Maria Nikolaevna and her second husband, a taciturn, disapproving man who dressed cadavers at a morgue. Their daughter, a cheerful brown-eyed girl named Lyusia, shared Tamara’s bed. At 15, Tamara began working 70-hour weeks as a seamstress and pattern maker. The long hours suited her, and the job provided a supply of good fabric and kept her away from home, where she usually ended up arguing with her stepfather.
She first noticed Vassily because he was square-jawed and trim, with a major’s boards on his shoulders and, at 32, older than the other men at the dance hall. He seemed, Tamara said, masculine yet self-effacing, one of the few men she’d met who was entirely without bluster. He had a soft, unhurried way of speaking, but what impressed her most were his manners; he didn’t kiss her until their third date. They married three months later. After she moved in, Vassily sent for his daughter from a previous marriage, a timid, brooding girl named Inna who never warmed to her stepmother. My father was born two years later, during the first winter following the war.
Tamara looked forward to going out walking with Vassily on Sunday mornings. Both were particular and vain about clothes. He wore his parade uniform and she her couture, and when they strolled arm in arm along the boulevards in the city center, they reveled in the surprised glances of Moscow’s plainer, grayer residents. Though he was often gone, Vassily sent plenty of money and arrived home with a suitcase of presents for her and the children. He was fastidious, rarely drank and never complained about taking a turn sweeping or washing dishes. Vassily didn’t speak about his job and Tamara knew not to ask. When he was away, after the children were asleep, she spent the last hours of the night reading books she bought or borrowed, by Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Strindberg, Shakespeare, Balzac. Though she never enrolled in a university course, on those nights she discovered a fondness for books that never left her.
Her devotion to Vassily began to waver only after the family relocated to Vinnitsa. There, Tamara said, she began to see him clearly. For the first time she noticed his near-total absence of curiosity about the world and his habit of sitting in a chair and staring into space, sometimes for hours, as though watching something unfold in the middle distance. In all the years she knew him, she saw Vassily read only one book, Pot-Bouille by Émile Zola, a satirical novel about bourgeois strivers set in a Second Empire Paris tenement. He kept it at his bedside like an icon or a lucky coin. Before falling asleep he’d skim a page or two and set it back on the nightstand. Tamara never found out whether he ever finished it.
When they were alone, Vassily seemed distracted and listless; their conversations petered out. He took little interest in the children, and Tamara knew never to discuss politics, which prompted Vassily to lapse into icy silences. When my teenage father began to volunteer his anti-Communist views at the supper table, Tamara glared at him until he was quiet.
About a year before they left Moscow, Tamara found out that her design for a women’s gabardine trench had won an international competition and would be shown on a runway in Milan. Of course she wasn’t allowed to attend, but the prize brought her plenty of attention at work and even a raise. It also convinced her that designing clothes could be not just a job but a career. Yet after all that, she found herself in Vinnitsa, sewing dresses from second-rate fabric for women who couldn’t distinguish rayon from silk and who’d never seen Western clothes, not even in a magazine. She hated Vinnitsa, and the bond that kept her there was the marriage to her increasingly remote husband.
The first affair began almost by accident. Vassily was gone for a few days, and she felt resentful and bored. “My pride was the culprit,” Tamara told me. It was her pride, too, that kept her from doing a better job of concealing the affair. When she passed neighbors on the staircase, she could hear them whispering. Even after Vassily heard the rumors, he said nothing, and his moods remained constant. He refused to confront her even after she began seeing her lover openly, and his indifference infuriated her. His emptiness, Tamara said, occupied the apartment like an odor.
She was spending more time visiting her mother in Moscow, and on one spring night aboard the northbound train she met a short, bald manager of a fruit-and-vegetable warehouse. He was too talkative and homely but had an appealing grin and an easy laugh. Like her, he was married. Mikhail Mikhailovich proposed to her just before the train pulled into Moscow’s Kievskaya station; afterward, he sent a dozen carnations every day to her mother’s apartment until she agreed to marry him. It was 1960. When Tamara returned to Vinnitsa she asked Vassily for a divorce, packed two suitcases, kissed her son goodbye, and took a taxi back to the train station. She said when she told Vassily, he didn’t argue or ask her to reconsider; he merely walked into the kitchen and began boiling water for tea.
“I never think about him anymore,” she said, clutching the armrest of the sofa, fatigued by the effort of shaking the stories loose from the sieve of her memory. “He had an empty place where his heart should be.” It was cold outside, and a draft bothered the curtains, so I shut the window, banging at the rusty latch until it slid into place. Back on the sofa, I pointed out a greenish color photo of me at six or seven, my hair still curly, squeezing a child’s plastic accordion. My grandmother held it in front of her and lowered her chin slightly to peer at it over her reading glasses. A look of confusion passed over her face like a sudden gust passing across a field.
“Look, Grandma, it’s me,” I said.
“No,” she chided me, as though I’d made an obvious mistake. “That’s my grandson. He moved to New York. I like you, but he was my favorite.”
Excerpted from Young Heroes of the Soviet Union by Alex Halberstadt. Copyrighted © 2020 by Alex Halberstadt. Reprinted with permission by Random House.