Communal Living in Russia: From Books
From Fiction: Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate
  Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, part I, chapter 23. Translated by Alice Nakhimovsky.
  Translation of the Russian Transcript
  Part 1 chapter 23

Yevgenia Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova settled in Kuybeshev in the room of an old lady, Zhenni Genrikhovna Genrikhson, a German who had long ago been a nanny in the Shaposhnikov household.

It was strange for Yevgenia, after Stalingrad, to find herself in a quiet little room with an old lady who could not get over the fact that the little girl in braids had become a grown-up woman.

Zhenni lived in a room with hardly any light, which had once-upon-a-time served as the servant's quarters in big merchant's apartment. Now every room had a family living in it, and every room was divided by screens, curtains, carpets, and the backs of couches into nooks and corners where people slept, ate, and entertained guests--where a nurse gave shots to a paralyzed old man.

In the evenings, the kitchen hummed with tenants' voices.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna liked this kitchen with its arched ceiling blackened by soot, with the red-black flame of its kerosine stoves.

In and around the laundry drying on lines, bustled tenants in robes, in quilted jackets, in military shirts; knives glinted. Steam curled overhead as women washing clothes bent over tubs and basins. The wide stove was never fired up; its tiled sides shone white as snowdrifts from some volcano that had gone dead in a previous geological epoch.

In the apartment lived the family of a truck loader who had gone to the front; a gynecologist; an engineer from a secret factory; a single mother working as a cashier in a distribution center; the widow of a barber who had been killed at the front; a post-office manager. In the biggest room of all, the former living room, was the director of a medical clinic.

The apartment was as vast as a city. It even had its madman: a quiet old man with gentle puppy-dog's eyes.

People lived at close quarters, but apart from one another. They were not really friends. They fought; they made up; they hid the details of their lives and then suddenly, loudly and openheartedly, would reveal everything.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna wanted to draw this. Not the objects, not the people, but the feeling they stirred in her.

This feeling was complicated and hard to describe; even a great artist could not express it. It united the awesome military power of the state and people with this dark kitchen, this poverty, gossip, and pettiness. It combined the destructive force of military steel with kitchen pots and potato peelings.

The expression of this feeling destroyed lines, blurred edges, dissolved into what seemed from outside to be a meaningless connection of broken images and spots of light.

The old lady was timid and obliging. She wore a dark dress with a white collar. Her cheeks were always rosy, even though she was always on the verge of starvation.

In her head lived the memories of pranks that Lyudmila had played when she was in first grade and funny expressions that Marusya said when she was little. She remembered how two-year old Mitya would burst into the dining room in his bib and waving his hands, would shout "dinder! dinder!" [Mitya—Dmitrii, as he is referred to later in this excerpt—and Marusya have both died, Marusya while trying to leave Stalingrad and Mitya in the Gulag—trans.]

Now Zhenni Genrikhovna worked for a woman who was a dentist. She did housework and took care of the dentist's sick mother. Her employer would often leave for five or six days to work in regional clinics, and then Zhenni Genrikhovna would spend the night in her house looking after the helpless old woman who could barely move her legs after a recent stroke.

She had absolutely no sense of property. She constantly apologized to Yevgenia Nikolaevna, asking her permission to open the transom in connection with the comings and goings of her motley-colored cat. Her greatest interest and anxieties concerned this cat, whom she feared the neighbors would hurt.

One of the neighbors, the engineer Dragin, a factory manager, would look at her wrinkled face, her girlishly slender, dried-up waist, her pince-nez hanging on a black string, and give a nasty sneer. His plebeian nature was offended by the old lady's loyalty to the past, by the ridiculous innocence of her smile when she talked about taking her prerevolutionary charges on a drive in their carriage and accompanying "madame" to Venice, Paris, and Vienna. Many of the "babies" she had pampered ended up with the White Army or were killed by Red troops, but the only thing that mattered to the old lady was the memory of the scarlatina, diphtheria, and colitis they suffered from when they were little.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna would say to Dragin:

"I have never met a sweeter, gentler person than she is. Believe me, she is kinder than anyone who lives in this apartment."

Dragin, looking intoYevgenia Nikolaevna's eyes with a man's frank and impudent gaze, would reply:

"Keep it up, sweetheart. You, comrade Shaposhnikova, have sold yourself to the Germans for living quarters."

Apparently Zhenni Genrikhovna did not care for healthy children. Her favorite subject was the frailest of her charges, the son of a Jewish factory owner. She kept his drawings and notebooks and would start crying every time when she reached the part of her story where she had to describe his quiet death.

Many years had passed since she lived with the Shaposhnikovs, but she remembered all the children's nicknames and she cried when she found out about Marusya's death. She kept writing, in her uncertain hand, a letter to Aleksandra Vladimirovna, but she could never finish it.

She called pike roe "caviare" and liked to tell Zhenya about her children's prerevolutionary breakfasts: a cup of strong bullion and a piece of venison.

Her own rations she fed to her cat, whom she called "my dear, silver child." The cat was a rough, sullen beast, but it adored her and as soon as it caught sight of her, became gentle and happy.

Dragin kept asking her how she felt about Hitler: "I suppose you're glad?" But the crafty old lady declared herself an anti-fascist and called the Fuhrer a cannibal.

She was hopeless at everything. She couldn't wash clothes, couldn't cook, and when she went to the store to buy matches the busy clerk would tear off of her ration card the monthly allotments of sugar or meat.

Contemporary children in no way resembled her charges of that long-ago age that she called "peacetime." Everything had changed, even the games. In "peacetime," little girls played hoops; they spun rubber diabolos on strings attached to lacquered sticks and played with a soft, painted ball that they carried in a white net bag. But today's children played volleyball, swam the crawl, and in the winter, dressed in ski pants, they played hockey, yelling and whistling.

They knew more than Zhenni Genrikhovna about alimony, abortion, illegally obtained certificates of employment. They knew about senior lieutenants and colonels, who brought their mistresses fats and canned food from the front.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna liked it when the old German lady told stories about her own childhood—about her brother Dmitry, whom Zhenni Genrikhovna remembered particularly well on account of his whooping cough and diptheria.

One time Zhenni Genrikhovna said:

"I am thinking about my last family in nineteen seventeen. Monsieur was with the Finance Minister. He would pace the dining room and say, "Everything is ruined, estates are being burned, factories have stopped working, hard currency has lost its value, vaults have been robbed." And then the whole family fell apart, like your family now. Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle left for Switzerland, my little boy volunteered to serve with General Kornilov, and Madame cried "We're spending entire days saying goodbye. This is the end."

Yevgenia Nikolaevna gave a sad smile and said nothing.

One evening the local policeman brought Zhenni Genrikhovna a summons. The old German put on her hat with its white flower and asked Zhenya to feed the cat. She was going to the police, and from there to her job with the dentist lady; she promised to be back a day later.When Yevgenia Nikolaevna returned from work, she found the room in disarray. The neighbors told her that Zhenni Genrikhovna had been taken by the police.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna went to inquire about her. At the police station, she was told that the old woman was exiled to the north with a group of Germans.

A day later, the police officer came with the building superintendent and removed a sealed basket of evidence: old clothes and faded photographs and letters.

Zhenya went to the NKVD to find out how to send the old lady a warm shawl. The man behind the window asked her:

"So who are you, a German?

"No, I'm Russian."

"Go home. Don't bother people with your inquiries."

"I'm talking about winter things."

"Am I making myself clear?" asked the man behind the window in such a soft voice that Yevgenia Nikolaevna lost her nerve.

That very evening she heard voices in the kitchen—the neighbors were discussing her.

One voice said: "All the same, I don't like her behavior."

A second answered: "In my opinion, she pulled it off. First she got one foot in, then she told the right people who the old woman was, and now she's taken over the room."

A man's voice said: "What do you mean room, it's a cubicle."

A fourth voice said: "Someone like that will always come out on top, it's good to have someone like that by your side."

The cat's fate was a sad one. While the neighbors argued over what to do with him, he sat in the kitchen, sleepy and dispirited.

"The hell with this German animal," said the women.

Dragin unexpectedly announced that he would help feed the cat. But the cat didn't live long without Zhenni Genrikhovna. One of the women either by accident or because she was annoyed splashed boiling water on him, and he died.

[From Vasilii Grossman, Zhizn' i sud'ba, Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1980. [Translated for this project by Alice Nakhimovsky with permission from the author's estate. Translation Copyright © 2008 Alice Nakhimovsky. All rights reserved.]

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