02 Jun Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 6: The Thaw. Kurenevka Tragedy. Sputnik
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In 1960, Polina suffered a heart attack. The prescribed treatment was to remain motionless in bed for a month. The doctor showed up once a week, sent the stethoscope hopping on Polina’s chest, and reminded her of maintaining immobility. Rakhil quit her job to take care of Polina and run the household.
After school, I untangled Polina’s braid, strand by strand, inflicting much pain (she offered to cut her hair to make a wig for me), and read to her. We began with the Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She took to it right away and asked to repeat some chapters; we both memorized large chunks of the novel.
(Rakhil despised housework, particularly cooking. Housework was for women with no profession. The fact that I did not consider it beneath my dignity dismayed her—learning from me how to make mashed potatoes added insult to injury.)
During my last years of school, 1959 to 1963, the Soviet Union experienced the zenith and the waning of Khrushchev’s Thaw. The sclerotized world of blind fear and blind adulation cracked.
The media lionized the exonerated purge victims as fervently as it had originally debased them. Names and photographs of military commanders, writers, scientists who had perished in the Gulag were now pictured prominently in the pages of textbooks.
A cohort of restive young poets and writers openly criticized the regime and did not get arrested. Their books or handwritten copies—making a photocopy required authorization that nobody in the right mind would dream to ask for—were borrowed for a night, committed to memory, copied by hand then lent to others.
To pacify the Western communists who threatened to quit the Party en masse to protest the absence of a Yiddish-language publication in the Soviet Union, in which they saw a manifestation of state anti-Semitism, a magazine Sovietisch Heimland (Soviet Homeland) was founded and readily available in some book kiosks.
The readership circle was minuscule: the few who could read Yiddish hesitated to be seen buying it. Avram purchased one issue and was not surprised to find it was like Pravda or worse.
In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko was allowed to publish his poem Babi Yar—which denounced both Soviet historical revisionism and anti-Semitism—in a major Soviet newspaper. That fact brought the intoxication of the younger generation with freedom to a high likened by some to Renaissance, a Soviet Renaissance.
Polina did not know the word but my euphoria was uncomfortably reminiscent of her older brother Avrum’s euphoria for anarchism fifty-five years earlier. In January 1962, I was sent to Leningrad on the first of many school breaks spent with my great-uncle Leib, Polina’s younger brother, and his wife Musya (Read the story in “Leib Averbukh (1900 – 1976.”)
I shopped and theater-hopped with Musya, read newspapers published before the Bolshevik Revolution, compared entries in the Soviet and pre-Soviet encyclopedias, and waxed ecstatic about the post-Stalin openness.
Leib’s nose twitched at the Renaissance analogy but he did not dispute my preaching. He did produce Lenin’s quote that news was not what the reality was but what the reality should be. Like Polina, Leib liked to wonder out loud; his musings wormed their way into my mind and tore at my enthusiasm.
The word Renaissance tasted ludicrous. But if not Renaissance, what replaced the blind fear and the blind adulation?
In the grand Averbukh tradition, Leib ended his reflections with “and then what?” “Poems will come and arrests will be fewer – then what? We still wait for the Party to tell us how to think.” True: many Gulag victims believed they had suffered for some common good. “Apparently our country favors absurdity,” Leib mused. “And now what?”
As post-Stalin’s version of history was being massaged, we dutifully exchanged our history textbooks time and time again. With no text to compare, we had no interest in finding out what was wrong with the older edition—truth was the opposite of what we read, heard, watched anyway.
Self-censorship had long been a natural reflex. (In three decades, when the Soviet Union was on its last legs, the state of affairs topped our experience: schools did away with the finals in history when the today’s spin became obsolete before tomorrow’s spin could be invented.)
1961: Kurenevka Tragedy, Sputnik, Dentist.
1961 was an eventful year.
On January 31, Polina turned 70. We gave her a glass holder (possibly silver-plated), engraved for the occasion.
It made no sense to celebrate on that date, she insisted, because she was born on a certain day of the Jewish calendar, not on some artificial number in her passport. But she stopped saying that her fingers were immune to boiling temperatures. At every tea time, she lowered the glass into the holder before pouring in the steaming water and stirring it with a few pinches of tea. As she cracked a sugar cube into economical shards to keep between her lips as she sipped the tea serenely I could swear that glass holder made her feel pampered.
On March 13, Monday, almost twenty years after the Babi Yar massacre of World War II, another tragedy hit the area. A mudslide—14 meters (over 40 feet) high—rushed at a speed of 5 meters (15 feet) per second down a steep hill from 40 to 60 meters above a large industrial and residential neighborhood.
It swept away and buried a tram depot, a factory, a kindergarten, dormitories, cars, houses in the ravine and residential buildings below it. It ripped wires and brought down electric poles; fires engulfed streetcars, buses, and people.
The mud swallowed a large detachment of troops sent by the army. Officially, the incident went down in history as the Kurenevka Tragedy. Unofficially, it went down as the Revenge of Babi Yar.
Kiev. Kurenevka tragedy of 1961. (Photo from http://www.photohistory.kiev.ua).
Local schools cancelled classes for the week to shelter the homeless. Soldiers shoveled slush with mixed-in debris and human parts into military dump trucks. The trucks leaked the slush along their routes; shapes of arms and legs stuck out of the gaps, they looked too doll-like to be frightening.
Expectation of official hush-up did not come true. The newspapers conceded that the mudslide did, in fact, take place. Moreover, they acknowledged that it caused casualties. Fewer than one hundred and fifty, to be exact.
To the trained Soviet ear, the disclosure meant that the media vastly understated the number of victims and that the West got wind of the tragedy. Otherwise, a mere one hundred and fifty would not have warranted an admission of imperfection.
On the heels of the mudslide, on April 12, 1961, a sputnik journeyed into space with Yuri Gagarin on board—proof, if any was necessary, that our country was light-years ahead of America—and Polina undid her winter coat and steam-ironed the pieces. There was plenty of material to make me a coat.
The atelier kept it for months and provided vague completion dates. Clearly, to get the coat done before wintertime a bribe would help. Bribes petrified Rakhil but she agreed to pay the tailor assigned to our order five rubles above the official price.
Ancient from my point of view, he had a sunken chest and a bulging belly. His persistent touching as he took my measurements in a tight cubicle turned my stomach. Aware that Rakhil sitting outside the curtain would tear him limb from limb if I raised my voice, I hissed at him to stop. At home, Polina shrugged at my distress: “Was willst du, er iz ein shneider (what do you want, he is a tailor)?”
In the summer, our district dentist marked the start of the dental era of my life by filling my first cavity. The filling fell out within hours. Rakhil took me to a fat, thick-lipped retired dentist who saw patients in his one-room apartment. He took frequent smoke breaks in the kitchen to talk with his wife. To prevent homicide, I did not tell Rakhil that he pressed his chest to mine but, knowing her sensitivity to smells, complained of his smoking.
We switched to Doctor Gorenstein who saw his private patients in the clinic where he worked. Prior to each visit he instructed me what address to provide to the receptionist, it had to belong to his district. He got paid at home. To evade his neighbors’ surveillance I tiptoed through the hallway to his room.
Doctor Gorenstein conscientiously filled and refilled my cavities and performed root canal treatment on more teeth, it seemed, than nature gave me. First, the drill went in as far as the pain permitted. Arsenic went in to “kill the nerve.” It was covered by a temporary filling.
Sleepless nights signaled the nerve’s imminent demise. The drill could now go deeper, more arsenic was enlisted. Finally the doctor pronounced the nerve sufficiently dead to remove it and seal the tooth permanently.
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