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Whispers Through the Curtain

By (December 1, 2007) No Comment

From Newbury with Love: Letters of Friendship Across the Iron Curtain
Edited by Anna Horsbrugh-Porter and Marina Aidova
Melville House Publishing, 2007

At dawn they came and took you away.
You were my dead: I walked behind.
In the dark room children cried,
The holy candle gasped for air.
Your lips were chill from the ikon’s kiss,
Sweat bloomed on your brow – those deathly flowers!
Like the wives of Peter’s troopers in Red Square
I’ll stand and howl under the Kremlin towers

—excerpt from “Requiem” (1935) by Anna Akhmatova

It was the summer of 1984. Konstantin “Boom-Boom” Chernenko was the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Following in the time-honored tradition of Soviet dissidents, we American students studying in Leningrad that summer had nicknamed Chernenko “Boom-Boom” because of the vast nuclear arsenal at his disposal, and we used this nickname to voice our displeasure, frustration, or amusement over the absurdities of Soviet life. “‘Boom-Boom’ needs to give people more than one kind of cheese to choose from in the supermarkets.” “Boom-Boom needs to do something about those munitions explosions on Leningrad’s doorstep.” “Does Boom-Boom really need guards to watch people ride the subway escalators?” Calling Chernenko Boom-Boom was our way to “howl under the Kremlin towers.”

Soviet history is thick with incidents of suppression and punishment of dissidents. While open protest existed, by far the most pervasive and successful form of Soviet dissent was the spread of ideas via samizdat, the written word copied and passed secretly between dissenters. From the poetry of Akhmatova to Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago to Aleksandr Ginzburg’s literary journal Syntax, samizdat placed censored writings into the hands of Soviet citizens. Numerous Russians were sent to gulags because of their affiliation with samizdat. Ironically, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which exposed the life of the gulag and would normally have been consigned to samizdat literature, was supported by Khrushchev and published openly. Khrushchev subsequently used this book to disclose Stalin’s Cult of Personality and usher in a political era of openness. However, that era was short-lived, and Soviet censors resumed their stranglehold on the printed word, giving rise to a generation of dissenters such as Slava Aidova, a young engineer from Kishinev and the man at the heart of From Newbury with Love: Letters of Friendship Across the Iron Curtain. Slava left his wife and young daughter and journeyed to Moscow to start his own samizdat publication to encourage people to question government propaganda. Unfortunately, Slava was arrested in August of 1966 and shipped to a gulag to serve a five-year sentence before the group he had formed could even publish their first issue.

In 1961, Amnesty International was founded to publicize and fight human rights abuses on both sides of the Iron Curtain and beyond. In 1971 they instituted a letter writing campaign to boost the morale of children of Soviet political prisoners. Harold Edwards, a 71-year-old antiquarian bookseller of Newbury, England, with a lifetime commitment to promoting human rights, saw the Amnesty International list of children and spotted a girl named Marina Aidova with a birthdate of June 13, 1963. Harold decided to write Marina because her birthday was one day before his own. Soviet censors intercepted his first two letters to the Aidova family, but his third attempt at correspondence, a brief color postcard with a “picture of a small town with a tower in the middle of square surrounded by houses,” finally made it through. All it said was:

With love from Newbury

Harold and Olive.

Slava Aidova’s wife Lera found this postcard addressed to her daughter in June, 1971. Lera was in the midst of a hunger strike in sympathy with Slava who was protesting the shooting death of a fellow inmate. Harold’s postcard floated like a feather of hope over the curtain, past Soviet censors, and into the lives of the Aidova family just as they were losing their will to howl.

The correspondence of the Edwards and Aidova families has now been gathered together in From Newbury with Love. Marina Aidova, an English translator, is one of the book’s editors and letter writers, and with Anna Horsbrugh-Porter, a BBC radio producer, she has compiled fifteen years of letters from both families. In addition, Marina has added invaluable footnotes, narratives, and photos that construct a portrait of the relationship between the two families, a portrait whose fine strokes illuminate the lives of a British and a Soviet middle class family on the eve of Communism’s fall. This volume will disappoint if read with the expectation of learning intimate biographical details about Harold or his wife Olive, or even about Marina and her parents, Lera and Slava. While we learn that Harold and Olive consume a bottle of red wine with dinner each night, or that Slava has become a vegetarian, we learn little about how Harold’s life changed after Olive’s death, or how Lera dealt with Slava’s depression after his return from the gulag. However, what From Newbury with Love lacks in satisfying biographical details, it more than compensates for with its poignant portrayal of an East-West relationship which achieved the close bond of friendship that eluded Cold War diplomats.

While studying in Leningrad in 1984, my friends and I met some college-age Soviets who invited us to their apartment for dinner. Even with the advantage of understanding each other’s languages and having many bottles of barrier-breaking vodka at our disposal, there were moments when we just couldn’t understand each other. For example, when the Soviets started to discuss their dusha – their soul – we thought they meant a soul to be saved or damned by God. When we mentioned God, they laughed and, said no, not God, we mean what makes a Russian a Russian, and an American an American. It would take more than vodka shots and a dictionary to help me understand a Russian.

The Edwards and the Aidovas could not see each other’s faces, hear each other’s laughs, or even understand much of each other’s languages. According to one of Harold’s early letters,

Languages are not very easy for English people. We always think every one should understand English, and make little attempt to learn other tongues. The thing is that wherever one goes there is always someone who understands English.

Lera responds:

You write my English is very good. But it is not right. I feel that I am not able to reproduce everything what I think. I think that I look very primitive in your eyes. I can speak English only a little part of what I want.

Like diplomats establishing their country’s respective positions, Harold and Lera established their communication limits. To complicate matters even further, thanks to Slava’s imprisonment, the KGB monitored all the communications between the families. Many letters were sent but never received. Many questions were asked and asked again; answers were given, not received, and given again in a frustrating dance confined completely to words on a page. Rather than seeing these obstacles as insurmountable, Harold and Lera persisted and discovered their common love of literature.

Harold was an antiquarian bookseller by trade and a literature lover by nature. Books flew between Newbury and Kishinev as frequently as letters. A vegetarian cookbook never reached Lera, but Alice in Wonderland did. Harold received Fortress Architecture of Early Russia but confessed he preferred fiction books by minor Russian writers in translation and a Russian-English dictionary. Discussions of favorite writers ensued. Harold admitted enjoying the works of Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov. Remarkably, the censors let his admissions slip through. Lera confessed she did not know Nabokov’s work, but cryptically admitted she enjoyed Solzhenitsyn:

The Russian writer which you like, I also like very much. However, I am not agree with you that he writes in the old tradition of Russian writing. But we thought, English men can not understand him, or rather feel deeply. I do not stop wonder at your knowledge of Russian literature. It is very-very pleasant for me.

Time and again they each expressed frustration that they could not get together and discuss books in person. For example, in April of 1973, Harold writes,

From your list of books that you offer me I should like the one, Alexin My Brother Plays Clarinet, because I like the title…. I cannot get on with the Sholokhov. I find most of the books that have been translated into English and published in Russia are too unsophisticated for my taste. I suppose it is because I have been brought up on the classical writers. These fortunately I find I can read many times. How nice it would be if we could meet and talk about books.

Lera responds in May,

In case you meet the stories by Yuri Trifonov read them obligatory. How I wish you could read The White Ship by Tchingiz Aitmatov, which was printed in Novy Mir a couple of years ago. This novel touched me to tears. It would be wonderful in fact to meet and speak not I the letters but at the table with cups of tea in our hands. But alas, we live too far from one another! And what is more, our poor English would never cover conversation. When we write letters vocabularies and different books are handy for us and as for speaking it is an apple off another tree.

And even letters that spoke of summer vacations and what they enjoyed eating concluded with a literary reference. In July of 1973, Harold writes,

I am now awaiting the arrival from Holland of a book that deals with Kozma Prutkov. Does this name mean anything to you? It is the pseudonym of Count Aleksei Tolstoy and the brothers Zhemchuzhinikov. I have read a little in English. It is very very funny indeed. The date is the middle of the 19th century.

Lera writes back in August,

Of course we know Kozma Prutkov. And that was just another astonishment to us to find out you are aware of him. Are there any more Englishmen possessing the same profound knowledge on Russian literature and deep love of it?

Even in the very last letter that Harold writes to Lera before his death in 1986, he responds to Lera’s comments about her son reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. He says that it’s a great book and asks if he’s reading it in Russian. After Harold’s death, Lera wrote to Harold’s daughter Sally and told her that Harold had wanted his granddaughter Daisy to receive his collection of Russian books. The bond of literature between Harold and the Aidova family prevailed over censorship, time, and even death.

But Harold and Lera, the primary letter-writers of the families, shared another common bond – parenthood. Harold sent photos of his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, and he commonly shared snippets of their lives. Lera was more open when it came to matters of her daughter Marina. She confided her worries over Marina going to Moscow to study ballet, requested fluoride pills for Marina’s teeth or a dress for her graduation, then talked of her hopes for Marina’s future. Harold, who called Marina Princess Marinka, responded with earnest interest to Lera’s concerns and sometimes even offered advice. In a particularly poignant moment in February of 1973, Lera muses on the possibilities of her daughter’s future:

Lately our Marina invents fairy tales and write them down. We must say she succeeds in it. She has a large word stock and she operates it successfully. Now she is dreaming of becoming a writer. But her dreams of future are changed every year. So it is dark now what really will become of her.

In April, Harold replies to her concerns by telling Lera of the difficulty of the decision to let his and Olive’s daughter, Sally, pursue her studies far from home at a young age and shares his philosophy with Lera:

…it is a sign of a good home if a child is happy to leave it. It shows that the child is independent and I believe that is good.

This exchange speaks in a profound way to the great disparity between the Russian and English dusha: one is lyrical in its musings of future dreams, the other grounded in the practical.

Nearly every correspondence mentions packages sent and received (or not received), questions about what was needed, and what was the correct size or style. These references to merchandise frequently overpowered the rest of the letters’ contents. Harold and his wife Olive sent such a trove of sweets, books, magazines, sweaters, coats, dresses, shoes, and pattern books to the Aidova family that, at times, it sometimes feels as though the Edwards were buying their way into the Aidovas’ hearts. However, it was truly a case of the haves helping the have-nots. While thanking Olive for a dress she sent, Lera expresses the simple sentiment that, “…you must know that thanks to you I feel myself a little bit happier every day.” These gifts lightened the burden of a family whose days and nights were interrupted by KGB raids and who had to choose between spending the last of the week’s kopeks on bread or milk.

Slava’s imprisonment and subsequent encounters with KGB due to his dissident status is never mentioned in these letters because it would have brought additional unwanted KGB scrutiny. In October 1971 Lera makes a coded reference to the possibility of having more time for reading and sports and her hopes that Slava would be able to help her with her English; thanks to Marina’s explanatory footnotes, we learn these were tip-offs of the news of Slava’s release. When Slava returned to the family, Lera and Marina’s silence about him continued. Finally, the Edwards express concern and Lera responds that she can’t explain Slava’s emotional state, but that he would write them eventually himself. The KGB intercepted many of Slava’s early letters to the Edwards, but finally Slava’s letter of March, 1973 arrived, and it sets the tone in From Newbury with Love for his subsequent infrequent but equally heartfelt letters:

Your first congratulations card sent to Marina reached me as well (not in original of course). That time I accepted it as perhaps single evidence of the fact the earth being a big beautiful ball. Those days my sensation of the world suffered with primitively geometric concepts as for the world’s arrangement. Many thanks for you marvelous present!

While the gaps in letters leave biographical holes to fill, the essence of Slava, his peaceful, philosophical engagement with the world around him, emerges from this volume. According to Marina, he remained active in the Kishinev dissident movement after his release and was subjected to further KGB interrogations in the late 1980’s when he associated with a local rock group that was described by a Kishinev newspaper as “advocates of a destructive foreign culture.” Luckily, this occurred on the eve of perestroika and Slava was spared further KGB harassment. Beyond the fact that Slava and Lera live in Kishinev (now called Chisinau), Slava’s current circumstances are not mentioned. But his story remains the heart that beats at the center of this volume, a heart that’s impossible to forget as one reads even the most mundane of the letters that pass between the two families.

Life took its natural bends and dips for both families, but even after the deaths of Olive and Harold, friendship flourished between their children and grandchildren and the Aidova’s. Had Harold lived but a few years more, he would have seen the Berlin Wall tumble and been able to finally meet the family for whom he had become such a source of hope and goodwill. I can’t help but compose a letter that Harold might write to Slava today:

Dear Slava,
We have the same sweaters in our closets and you can now order the same books as I can from Amazon.com.uk – but is this the Russia you were hoping for when you formed your first dissident group in Moscow all those years ago? Do you see President Putin in the Kremlin and see only a reminder of your years in the gulag and all the subsequent years that you and your family suffered KGB harassment? Have you found peace through your studies of Eastern philosophy? Do you still howl at the Kremlin Walls?
Yours ever,

Thanks to David Bonavia, The Times Correspondent in Moscow who attended Slava’s release party in Moscow in 1971 and recorded the event in his book Fat Sasha and the Urban Guerrilla (1973), we at least know what Slava’s answer to the last question would be:

When asked what his [Slava’s] daughter was going to do when she grew up, he looked at her affectionately, and said with the utmost simplicity: “She will destroy the KGB.”

Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She is at work on a novel entitled Window to the West and lives in Half Moon Bay, CA.