This is my first memory of my mother and our home in Leningrad: I am sitting comfortably in my mom’s lap; she is at the dinner table in our spacious, not yet divided kitchen, reading a newspaper and smoking. On the right there is a big window sending shafts of sunlight onto the tiled floor and the oilcloth covering the table. Dust motes play and sparkle in the light. There is somebody else in the kitchen who is moving about and talking, but who? I don’t remember: Mom’s presence is much more important and immediate than anyone else’s. This was happiness as I imagined it from the time that I was three years old, the time my mom was first absent from my life. For a long time I yearned for this happy dream of home. Then, one day, I ceased to long for it. My mom, who in my memory had been warm and kind, and who smelled so good, became the woman in a photograph who was wearing a fine dark polka-dot dress. She gradually faded from my memory as a living person. The only thing that stuck in my thoughts was her voice—low, soothing, and very beautiful. My dad, I was told, was also in the photograph on the wall, but I could hardly remember him at all. In the picture he was young, with plenty of very black hair, wearing a nice suit. Years later, when he met us at the Leningrad railroad station after my mother’s release from the camps, I didn’t recognize the aged, ruddy-faced, gray-haired man who was wearing a dark blue raincoat that smelled strongly of rubber. And if my mother’s voice and speech bore some resemblance to the way my Odessa grandmother and grandfather spoke, my dad’s manner of speaking was altogether alien to me; some of what he said I simply couldn’t understand.
In general, my memories of my mother form a lacework of departures, arrivals, and moments of expectation. The first period of anticipation lasted for a long time—five years—during which I lived with my mother’s parents in Odessa. My first memories of arriving in my new Odessa home center on an abrupt change from a diminished interest in the new place to an absolutely unbearable alienation and the desire to escape and hide from the crowd of noisy neighbors with their rough southern voices, from the strong smells of fried fish and garlic, the awful courtyard with its garbage dump in the middle, and, beyond all this, the hated remarks: “He talks like a Muscovite!” They should hear themselves! But they didn’t hear themselves, although they certainly weren’t quiet: their voices and smells were everywhere. And that’s when I revolted and just stopped talking—for a month. Even now it seems to me that all that happened to me then was no less cruel and unexpected than my fall into a well a year later. It was a deep pit, actually, with ten steep steps leading down to the water pump that broke my nose as well as my fall. But the bleeding was stopped, my broken nose healed quickly, and I forgot the fear that I felt then. But even now, after so many years and explanations, it still isn’t clear to me why I was taken away from my home in Leningrad, from my sister, Ninochka, and my nanny, Simonovna. I assumed that this decision had been made by my grandfather Ivan Ivanovich—the husband of my Leningrad grandmother, who openly disliked me. As for my Leningrad grandmother Genrietta, she explained away my exile by saying that it would have been too hard for her to raise two children. This explanation itself requires some explanation.
My grandmother Genrietta, a professional revolutionary in her youth who shared the movement’s cavalier attitudes toward family and marriage, had made a similar disposition in the case of her own son, my father, who had been sent to a government orphanage while both of his parents were alive and perfectly well. Looking back on her decision in my case, I can imagine that dispatching me to Odessa struck her as perfectly normal, almost like sending a child to summer camp. After all, they weren’t leaving the child with some strangers but with his mother’s parents in the South, where it was warm and where fruit was in abundance. One might even envy this child. I don’t know what Mom felt when she found out that I had been shipped off to her parents in Odessa, but I imagine that it didn’t make her happy. I know that she told my paternal grandparents explicitly that under no circumstances, even in case of her arrest or incarceration or worse, should I be sent to Odessa. Despite all this, in later years Mom would often say that prison had brought her the first full night’s sleep she had enjoyed since I was born. She slept much better when I was no longer with her. Before that, my constant nightmares had deprived the whole family of sleep. These nightmares may have been triggered by my parents’ growing fear as their arrest appeared to them more and more inevitable.
As for my father, he insisted, and not without grounds, that the five years of hard labor in a camp had served to keep him in good health for a long time afterward. Indeed, it did seem that the camps had been beneficial to his health, but what about the rest of his family and his wife?
Early on, as a kid, I liked my parents’ sense of bravado when they talked about their camp experience. I even felt proud to think that he was such a superman and she a wonderwoman. But later on such sunny descriptions of our family catastrophe exasperated me with their unthinking egocentricity and their complete dismissal of the roles of Nina and of me in this dark drama. Only later still did it occur to me that their offhand way of telling their story must have been a means for them to overcome and make sense of their own horrors, to imagine these experiences as having a positive effect in their lives, despite the real sufferings that they and their children and relatives had endured.
Slowly, a step at a time, growing used to the people and environment of Odessa, I ceased to resist this new and unfamiliar reality. It couldn’t be helped—at the age of three it is very difficult to act: everything and everybody around you are much stronger than you are. All my protests were postponed till I became a teenager. At that point I began to drink, and I saw to it that my actions went far beyond my parents’ control (which wasn’t hard) as well beyond my own control (which turned out to be even easier).
But in my early childhood I came to recognize that life in Odessa was now the only life that I still had, and I started talking again. I was placed in a kindergarten, and shortly after that transferred to a private Froebel group(1)—such groups still existed in Odessa—where they treated you nicely. For good behavior and learning achievements they glued gold stars to a little silver-framed blackboard that had our names listed on it. We—my Grandpa Sanya and Grandma Tanya—lived in anticipation of news from my parents and, of course, their letters. The mail was delivered by Genrich Fyodorovich, the postman. He had a big wheaten moustache and gold-rimmed glasses. My grandma used to say that he was “one of those exiled Germans—but a very decent person, nonetheless!” Having climbed up the stairs to our high second-floor apartment, he would rest sitting on the last step, and then I could peek into the bag in which he carried the day’s letters and parcels.
“Genrich Fyodorovich, is there a letter from my mom and dad?” More often than not, there was no letter, and then he would say: “They’re still working on them!” I could understand that very well, because I knew how difficult writing was, how much time it took, especially if you could only print your letters, the way I did, and not write in script.
These five years (my mother in her stories specifies that it was five years and three months) for me were years of waiting for my parents to return and for all of us, together, to go back home at last to our heavenly, beautiful (as it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now) Leningrad. We didn’t wait idly: my grandma and my grandpa and I kept writing letters and cards to my father and mother. More important, we sent parcels. The regulation allowed one parcel a month, from one address and to one single addressee. We regularly sent two: one to Dad and one to Mom. Sending a parcel was no easy matter. First we had to go to the post office to get a sturdy plywood parcel box. Armed with a box, we then went to the New Market to see Otto the tin man, who was known for the quality of his soldering work—tin cans soldered by Otto never leaked. He would give us a shiny, flat five-liter tin with a small aperture in the middle. We filled this tin with homemade jam or sesame (but never sunflower seed) halvah. I got the pleasure of licking the spoon used for this operation. Then we carried this can back to Otto, who proceeded to solder it, blocking the aperture with a tin patch, dipping a small ax-like soldering iron in flux and acid and gradually extending the bead seam all around the patch. After this process was concluded, we placed the can in the sturdy plywood parcel box we had procured. Some garlic, smoked ham, sweets, and sugar cubes were added, and all the remaining space was filled with sunflower seeds. As my grandmother used to say: “That way nothing is shaking or making noise—otherwise the post office won’t accept it!” Only then was the box sewn into a sort of canvas shroud. We carried it to the post office, where the clerk dropped a large brown blob of sealing wax on it, stamped the wax hard with a heavy seal, and tossed the whole bundle aside with a shout: “Next!”
During the second year of my stay in Odessa our grandfathers and grandmothers gained visitation rights for the camp in Boksitogorsk where my mother was incarcerated. At the time all these words sounded to me like some foreign language: Boksitogorsk, visitation, camp. I had been taught to answer the question “Where are your mom and dad?” with the usual proud answer: “My daddy and mommy are building the Works of Communism!” The way people reacted to my answer surprised me. Their faces would grow long and drawn, and the people themselves would seem anxious, as if they suddenly recalled some urgent business elsewhere. Some crossed themselves, and one even whispered to my grandfather, thinking that I couldn’t hear him: “Poor orphan!”
I was at a loss to understand their uneasiness. After all, I knew very well what was meant by the Works of Communism. In our town, on Cathedral Square, in place of the cathedral “blown up by the Bolsheviks”—as my grandpa would growl—was a Stalin fountain, as it was called: a large, ornate, funnel-shaped object in the midst of a large working mock-up of the Works of Communism. This consisted of a relief map of the Soviet Union with some future factories, canals, dams, and hydroelectric power stations. With the approach of darkness, small bulbs in the windows of the houses and industrial buildings were turned on. One wouldn’t want to miss the moment when the lights were lit for anything. Every day this event caused small battles between adults and children in Cathedral Square: parents were in a hurry to get home, and children cajoled and pleaded with them to stay until the lights came on.
The “building of the Works of Communism” was in all the newspapers that I was already beginning to read. And so was Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. His insistent presence in the paper was comparable only to that of an American comic strip hero—no newspaper could come out without his name or his picture or an article by him or about him. Stalin’s name was everywhere: the day began with him and came to an end with him. Before going to bed, I was taught to pray for the health of my dad and mom, all my grandmothers and grandfathers, and my sister, Ninochka. On my own I added Grandfather Stalin.
The same photo of Mom and Dad that hung on the wall above the bed served as an icon for my nightly prayers, so I was always preparing for the time the visitation would take place. It wasn’t clear what this word meant exactly, but I knew that Grandpa and I would go to Boksitogorsk and see my mom there. I couldn’t see why it was necessary for us to go there; even my grandma declared that it would “cost us!” Surely it would be better if Mom came to see us instead. But it was explained to me that Mom was not “in any condition to travel,” and that the visitation could only happen in Boksitogorsk. Besides, we were to make our way there via Leningrad and we could see Ninochka and my mother’s sister Lialia on the way.
All this eventually convinced me. To tell the truth, though, my psyche simply crumpled under the pressure of circumstances, of innumerable hints and innuendoes and half-truths, and finally I could no longer resist. Besides, as I have said, my memory’s vivid image of my mom alive and warm with a deep voice was already beginning to fade, replaced by the image of a woman in a photograph. My uneasy feeling of indebtedness to Mom, coupled with a vague sense of guilt for failing to remember her very well, gradually made “the visitation” seem essential to a boy whose mother was working on the great project of “building the Works of Communism.”
In a flurry of packing and wordy send-offs, my grandma dispatched me and Grandpa Sanya to the Odessa airport, a place we both knew well because my grandpa frequently took me there for walks. These walks were meant to serve my “general as well as technical development.” The airport was still the kind with grassy runways, and on the field the sense of technology integrated with nature seemed palpable. There were different types of planes that I later learned to recognize: crop-duster U2s, passenger Li2s—as well as fighters; but those stood at the distant end of a field, and civilians were not permitted to go there. The older planes were grayish in color, as though covered with scales—that was how their finish looked—whereas the newer ones were silvery, smooth, and shiny. I was greatly impressed by the pilots’ cockpits that sat high, pointed directly into the sky, as if the planes were ready to take off instantly. My granddad explained how the different parts of a plane worked, and what each part was called. Wheels connected with the chassis, and the taut wires between a cabin and the tail served as a radio antenna. This was the only part of the plane that I had heard of before. We had an old “Rekord” radio at home, and my grandfather kept trying to tune into one of the Western radio stations that transmitted in Russian. The process consisted of switching the set on and waiting for it to warm up; an indicator that looked like a little gray eye would turn bright green when it was ready. Then one had to twist the knob of the tuner adjustment, watching the pupil of the green eye closely, and moving the pointer very carefully on a multicolored dial with names both familiar and unfamiliar: Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Poznan, Berlin, London, Vladivostok. The task was complicated not only by powerful jamming but also by the fact that my grandfather was hard of hearing. In order to hear better, he naturally turned the volume all the way up. Through the banging and din of a radio jammer, the very un-Soviet voice of the announcer sometimes broke through, talking about the doctors’ trial or successes of agriculture in Israel. Then suddenly all of this would be interrupted by a deafening “Hovorit Kyiv, sem hodyn, piatnadtsat’ hvilin”(2) and louder yet the scream of my grandma: “Sanya!” which contained in itself an unclear but indisputably threatening message. Hearing it, he would switch off the receiver with the lament: “If I only had a decent antenna!”
As for the airplanes, their antennas were probably very good—in fact, the pilots not only listened but could actually talk into the radio: “Ground control, ground control, this is Chkalov(3) the pilot in command!” In general, everything inside the airplanes was both distinct from and better than comparable things on the ground, such as the seats in buses or trolleys. In buses the seats were hard and made from some leather substitute that stuck to you. The seats in trolleys were a little better, but they were covered with a rough carpet-like fabric that was prickly to your naked legs if you wore short pants, as I did all the time. On the plane we flew in, the seats were deep and soft and covered with cool white covers made out of a fabric similar to that of my grandfather’s suit. A carpet runner lay on the aluminum floor, making it safe to move up the aisle despite the steep angle of the plane’s floor from the tail upward to the forward chassis. When we arrived inside, we were met by a stewardess who for some reason found it funny that I was carrying my potty in my hands. It was wrapped up in newspaper and tied with twine—as something indispensable for travel should be. She seated us in the remarkable armchairs, and through a round window I could see the wing stretching over the grass field and the motor, with a black propeller that suddenly started to turn. The red tips of the propeller blades blurred into a transparent red ring, and we started to move, slowly at first. Then the motor roared very loudly, even terrifyingly, and we went faster, then even faster. Something whined and banged, and all of a sudden we were high in the sky. From the window I saw some woods, a small river, the bridge that spanned it, and a small train with the steam engine running quickly on the little rails. The rails and the train looked exactly like the train set in the New Year’s display in the Odessa “Passage” store. I could stand there for hours—which never happened, since we always had to hurry somewhere else—but here nobody was rushing me, and I could look for as long as I pleased. We overtook this train rather quickly and so I learned that a plane must move much faster than a train. At the time I could not have suspected that, because from the plane it seemed that we were moving very slowly, sometimes almost seeming to stand still inside the clouds.
Even before our departure I had come to terms with the fact that we were going to see my mom. From time to time, though, this recognition was lost on me because there was so much going on all around. A lot of time had passed since Mom had disappeared, more than a year; at the age of four and a half, that can seem like almost your whole life.
Our plane did not fly directly to Leningrad but landed in Moscow instead. From there we went on by train to Leningrad. Grandma Genrietta, Ninochka, and Lialia met us at the station. I remembered my Leningrad Grandma at least vaguely, but her appearance surprised me. She had a great mane of white hair that framed her face, clear gray eyes, and very red cheeks. Grandfather Ivan Ivanovich I don’t remember being there at all; it’s possible that he was away at the time.
In Leningrad we left the station in a cab. It seemed to be a ZIM,(4) with the polished wood in the door panels, on the armrests, and even inside the spokes of the steering wheel. There weren’t too many cabs in Odessa, especially ZIMs, and driving cabs in that city was a business for private car owners. They mostly drove BMWs that had been requisitioned during the war, low black sedans with red upholstery. Other cabs were ordinary cars, surplus military jeeps, or even horse-drawn carriages in the summer and sleighs in the winter. We were driving down a wide avenue—“This is the Nevskii Prospekt,” someone whispered into my ear, as we passed tall buildings with sculpted cornices, semi-columns, bas-reliefs, statues, each different from its neighbor, each one more surprising than the next. Suddenly a line of buildings would be interrupted by a canal with a bridge; we plummeted from the crest of the bridge down past some shops, only to see another canal off to the right, then continued along the avenue, arrived at a huge square, drove across another bridge—and then again I saw something that struck me as amazing: two stout, tall terracotta columns surrounded by light gray statues, columns adorned with ships’ bows and figureheads lit by the low sun of the white nights. These were the things in Leningrad that I would dream about later. But we were going farther, over one more bridge, turning left, and finally arriving at our house. I don’t remember whether I recognized it, but I remember that it seemed extraordinarily beautiful to me. The entire ground level was made out of a brilliant reddish brown stone. Somebody was already pushing me indoors, saying: “It’s raining, go on in.” Indeed, unexpected as always, but as if on cue, it began to rain. We took the elevator to the fourth floor and went into the apartment through double doors. There was a large chest on the left in the hallway. The door to my parents’ room was on the right; the other door, to the room that Grandma and Nina shared, was directly in front. The glass in the doors was transparent but textured with little round bumps—pebbled, so that only colors or shadows were visible through it. We sat down at the table in the kitchen, which by then had been partitioned to create a bedroom for Grandfather Ivan Ivanovich’s son—Uncle Volodia—who was living there with his wife, Aunt Dinah. There was no longer a kitchen window; it had become a window in the new bedroom. The big table at which Mom had held me in her lap was gone, but the floor of dark blue and white checkered tile was the same. I was given some sweet tea and a piece of white bread with salmon roe that tasted better than anything I had ever eaten in my life. Ninochka and Lialia sat with us, and everybody kept telling me that they loved me. It felt so good that for a moment it seemed that I had already returned home for good. It felt so warm, so wonderful, that I didn’t want to go to sleep.
The next morning I didn’t want to wake up and go on, even to meet Mom. As we left the house, a streetcar passed along, making a sad grating sound as it rounded a turn. That sound had always figured in my dreams, recalling a moment when my nanny, Simonovna, and I were walking along our street: a red streetcar making this sound ran between the green trees.
This time, we traveled on a slow mail train that deposited us toward evening at the station where we had to transfer. At this station we had to find “kipyatok”—hot boiling water that was dispensed at stations—to fill my grandfather’s thermos. He left me with a man wearing a greatcoat without shoulder pads, a man with a knapsack. As soon as my grandfather returned with a full thermos and the man in the greatcoat left, it was time to run and catch our next train. As we ran across a low earthen platform, Grandpa with a suitcase and I with my potty wrapped in the newspaper, our new friend in the greatcoat and knapsack reappeared. A bottle plugged with a rolled newspaper was sticking out of his coat pocket. I asked him about the bottle, because I was very thirsty and my grandfather’s tea was too hot. He told me: “This goes with the tea. I’m going to drink tea with you and your granddad.” I understood that this was some kind of joke, but I could only guess what the joke was about. All of a sudden whistles announced the arrival of a small locomotive and several cars. These cars too were familiar to me—my grandpa and I had seen a lot of trains like this at Razdel’naya station. And I knew that cars like this carried lots of bags, boxes, and sometimes even cows and horses. Once I had seen soldiers in such a car, one of whom was playing a harmonica. These cars had huge doors that were placed high above the ground, almost like those of an airplane. Our new acquaintance easily jumped up into the car, and Grandpa lifted me up and pushed me in. All I managed to think was: “Like a little baby.” Holding on to some metal thing with one hand, with his other Grandpa threw our suitcase into the car. The people who were already inside reached over to give him a hand, but he still barely managed to get in. He was very heavy, my Grandpa Sanya, and he had a big hernia at the lower part of his stomach. When I saw it for the first time in the public bath where we went on Saturdays it looked really scary—like a second small stomach hanging outside the real one. But over time I got used to seeing it, and after a while I couldn’t even imagine him without it. While he was clambering up, a whistle sounded and the train slowly started to move, and I was very much afraid that he wouldn’t be able to get in, that the train would leave him at the station and that I would be left alone on the train without knowing where or how to go to see my mom or to go back home to Odessa. But everything ended well: we all sat on some boards made into wide benches, the train rolled along faster and faster, and I soon fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was dark in the car and a kerosene lamp was burning. It was different from the one we had in Odessa, which was tall and pretty, with a nice glass base-reservoir that allowed you to see how much kerosene was left and also to see the wick, which seemed twice as large as it actually was. This one was short and stubby, with a crude wire brace and a black wooden handle. Something heavy and prickly pressed me down. I pushed it away from my face and saw that adults had covered me with an army blanket, and had all sat down to drink tea. My grandpa, the man with the greatcoat, and a woman with two girls wrapped in shawls sat around a suitcase. The lamp hung on a hook and lit the suitcase, which served as a table for a meal laid out on a newspaper. It seemed a regular feast: a piece of leftover chicken from our travel stocks, some sausage, pieces of black bread, and the cup-cover from our thermos, along with a few tin mugs and an empty bottle. My grandpa gave me a drink from the thermos cover; the tea was tasty and sweet with some unfamiliar but not unpleasant bread odor mixed in. I fell asleep again and woke up in the morning in complete darkness. We had arrived at the last station, and we had to go on by car, which turned out this time to be a dump truck. I rode in the cab between the driver and a woman with a big stomach. I had asked to sit in the cab because I wanted to see the driver at work, and now I watched as his feet, shod in rubber boots, pressed three different pedals. While one hand was shifting gears, the other was turning the steering wheel and holding the tightly rolled Belomor papirosy(5) that the driver smoked incessantly. My grandfather rode in the truck bed, with everyone else. There were about ten people there with suitcases, satchels, and baskets. The truck shuddered and shook, but we went on without stopping until we reached the entrance to the forest. There the road became a slippery strip of wet clay, with the truck wheels sliding and the motor roaring terribly. The driver grumbled, lighting the cigarettes that were constantly going out, and furiously yanking the steering wheel in one direction or another. The gear box groaned as if in pain; finally, we got stuck. The driver got out of the cab and told us to start picking up branches. I went outside into the woods with the others. We all shoved the branches we had gathered under the feverishly spinning wheels, which only tore into them and threw them out the other side. It occurs to me now that some of the branches had been chopped off by my mother, who was then a branch cutter in the Boksitogorsk camp. Little by little the dirt and clay moved from the road onto the driver’s rubber boots and onto my boots, then onto my pants, and of course also onto my face. Gradually the truck and everyone present became the same color as the ruddy earth that produced the woods my mom and her camp mates were required to cut. We moved on, getting stuck now and then.
Presently, the road, which was actually nothing more than a boggy strip, came to a huge clearing in which there were rows of houses surrounded by a barbed wire fence with guard towers manned by soldiers. The biggest house near the great gates was adorned with the slogan “Forward to the Victory of Communism!” And there was a loudspeaker. The gates, however, were locked, with more soldiers and a long line of people in front of them. One of the soldiers shouted something at us. I only managed to catch the word “visitation,” and all of us were sent to the benches in front of the gates. Here my grandfather began wiping the grime off my face and hands. Then he handed me a sandwich with a meat patty from our provisions. I had already eaten half the patty roll when someone shouted out something on the loudspeaker, and my grandfather jumped, pulling me by the hand. This sudden start made me drop my roll with the meat patty down on the patchy lawn. The sandwich had tasted so good, and I wanted it so badly, that I stopped and tried to retrieve it, but Grandfather kept pulling me toward the house with the slogan on it, insisting: “Let’s go, let’s go—they’ve called us . . .” I stopped fighting Grandpa and, with a last look of regret at the sandwich on the ground, scurried with him to the entrance of the house. There we passed through a metal turnstile and were seated at a table. On the other side a woman in a kerchief and a quilted jacket sat, silently looking at us. This was our “visitation”—my mom was sitting at the table.
In the beginning I didn’t understand that it was mom. She didn’t resemble either the photo or the mom in my memory. She was dressed all in gray and black. Her face was thin and her skin dark, like that of the peasant women at the New Market in Odessa. Even now I feel ashamed for that minute when she kept her silence and I did not recognize her—or did not want to recognize her in the woman with a face and hands of a color different from ours, a woman dressed in strange and ugly clothes. But presently she started talking. I don’t remember what she said, but it was probably: “My baby son . . .” The voice was hers, undoubtedly, but all the rest. . . . Then I was placed in her lap. She kissed me, saying something, and I politely answered something that was expected, continuing to study her surreptitiously while she spoke. Then Grandfather assured me, “This is indeed your mom . . . ,” but I still couldn’t believe it and felt the same uneasiness as when a strange person hugs and kisses you, saying something, and all you want to do is to run away. Even now I can remember and feel this same unease, and I can recognize how it had merged with a feeling of guilt at my inability to respond to her kisses, to her tears and the tormented look in her eyes.
Then she gave me a handmade toy—a card with a drawing of a cat talking on the telephone. Attached with a thread to the drawing of the telephone was a cardboard disk, and there was a little window in the disk through which you could see other animals—probably the friends and family the cat would call. I played with the toy while Grandpa and Mom talked. And after a while a uniformed woman approached us and said something that included the word “visitations.” Then she spoke to me, saying that I hadn’t washed my eyes this morning and that they were still black—that was an adult joke that usually offended me but made the grownups laugh. But nobody laughed this time. Quite the opposite: my mom began to cry, embraced me and Grandpa—and then left. Grandpa got a handkerchief from his pocket and for a long time kept wiping his eyes, and then he wiped mine too. But I wasn’t crying. All I wanted was to go back to Leningrad. I don’t remember anything about the trip home; that whole time has dropped out of my memory.
We went back to Odessa, to Podbelskogo(6) Street, which all Odessians out of habit called by the old pre-Revolution name Koblevskaya. Where we lived was a part of the circus building. The courtyard adjoined the backyard of the circus, separated from it only by a high wooden clapboard fence. In our house lived a lot of circus performers: some former, some current, and probably some future. On the ground floor there was a family by the name of Savin—dad, mom, and two children. They were acrobats, and the children sometimes performed different numbers with their dad, who was very strong and could hold both of the children as well as his wife on his shoulders or on his head. He invited me to join in, but I was afraid. There was also an old woman with the nickname Plisetskaya(7) because of her unusually long and bony arms and scary-looking hands. When she talked she gestured with them flamboyantly, like the majority of Odessians, to stress the importance of what she was saying. Down in the cellar Kostya the dwarf lived with his wife, Fanya. Kostya was an invalid who worked as a shoemaker—he sewed shoes to order by hand. And inside the courtyard, very close to the communal garbage dumpster and a public lavatory, World War II invalids sat and played cards on the steps of the locked entrance to the circus. Plisetskaya sometimes shooed them out onto the street, waving her famous arms and hands like a windmill and calling them “damned drunks.” At the entrance there always hung a poster for “Kio” or “Irina Bugrimova and her Pack of Wild Tigers,”(8) or a poster for the movie that was shown in the circus during the summer while the circus troupe was on tour.
We lived with the accompaniment of the tiger’s roar or with the slightly muffled calls of Tarzan, which all the boys in the street endlessly imitated during the movie’s protracted run. Our one room in this fantastic communal apartment had a single window that overlooked a typical Odessa neorealist balcony-gallery. From this balcony stairs ran all the way down to the courtyard. In all, five families used our balcony. What family possessions couldn’t be stored within their rooms were deposited outside on the balcony. Next to our solitary window looking into the courtyard there was a shed that our neighbor Afanasievna owned. She kept turkeys in it, fattening them for Christmas. Turkey clucking merged with the hungry tiger’s roar, the shouts of the invalids, and the music of the half-mad Afanasievna’s son Boris. He played the same musical phrase on the piano for hours at a time, vainly trying to reach a state of perfection. From our balustrade it was easy to exchange words with the circus accounting department whose windows were across the courtyard. There, through screened windows, everything looked mysterious and romantic. All one could see clearly were the metal frames of eyeglasses, a gold tooth that sometimes flashed like a glowworm, and the women’s bright red lips, colored by the lipstick in fashion. My grandfather sometimes greeted one of the women accountants, and his politeness, suggesting a touch of behind-the-screen mystery, provoked my grandmother’s jealousy: “He’s flirting with her again!”
And then it was 1952, a year full of extraordinary events. After a great summer at the Tenth Station,(9) with swimming in the sea and games in the “perimeter” where I ran with the older boys around and through other people’s gardens and vineyards, eating fruit that was still green, I entered the first grade, where unusual things started to happen right at the first class. There were forty-six of us in the classroom, and we sat three at a desk. It was hot and stuffy, and suddenly something began to smell suspiciously, and a boy blushed red and with eyes full of tears rushed from the classroom. The biggest boys in the class—I already knew from my grandma, who worked as a teacher at the same school, that they had all been “left back”—called out: “He shat in his pants! I’m gonna die!” Our teacher shouted them down, and slowly the class settled back to study the letters of the Russian alphabet that I had already known for a long time. I was only just beginning to feel bored—this would be far from the last time—when the door opened a crack and a sonorous youthful voice cried out: “Tamara Platonovna”—that was our teacher’s name—“kiss my ass!” I couldn’t believe this was happening! To shout that at the teacher! And for what? She seemed to be nice, and beautiful, too, almost like my mom in the photo, or her sister Lialia.
At this point something totally unprecedented happened. Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin died. Everybody cried, including my grandma and me; only my grandpa did not cry. And every night I had prayed for Grandfather Joseph Vissarionovich. But he died anyway. Now what would happen to all of us?
This is what happened. In place of the poster with tigers they hung a huge portrait of Stalin in the full uniform of the generalissimo, with awards and medals, in a mourning frame of red and black bunting. The solemn and beautiful music that played nonstop on the radio was only interrupted by slow and solemn messages from the announcer Levitan.(10)
During this time we anxiously waited for letters from my parents. All around us—in the courtyard, in the street, and in the barber shop where Grandpa went to get a shave and a haircut on Sundays—people talked about an amnesty. Amnesty, as it was explained to me, was like a vacation at school when everybody, including, maybe, my mom and dad, could come home. Finally, one day our mailman came, holding a telegram in his hand. Running up to him before anyone else, I grabbed the telegram, unfolded it, and read: “Children coming this summer. Stop. Genya.” Genya was my Leningrad grandmother, Genrietta. I brought the telegram into the room to my grandma and grandpa and asked them who the children were that were coming. Grandma didn’t answer me and instead told Grandpa: “Sanya, invite Genrich Fyodorovich—and you, Marin’ka, give me my valerian drops.” I got the little bottle of valerian drops from the cupboard, and she poured herself God knows how many drops. My grandpa came back at that moment with the mailman and they sat down at the table, where a bottle and two shot glasses were already standing. Grandpa poured for himself and for the mailman, who for some reason kept looking at me and said: “Well, you waited long enough!”—and then drank. My grandpa also drank and my grandma drank her drops, and at last I understood that my mom and dad were coming home. Everything was clear to me now. They were indeed children: Mom was a daughter of Grandpa Sanya and Grandma Tanya, and Dad was the son of Grandma Genrietta . . . in a word, children, both of them. And it meant that all of us would return home now and live the same as we did before—I with Mom and Dad and Ninochka in Leningrad, and Grandpa Sanya and Grandma Tanya still here, in Odessa. It was a shame that they had to stay here, but . . . all of a sudden I wanted to return to Leningrad and at the same time not to leave Odessa, but it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. At this point I began to cry, but not loudly, looking away from the adults, off to the side. The adults chased their shots with bites of some pickles and already began talking about the son of the mailman, about whether he would also be eligible for the amnesty, and about whether there was going to be a war with America. To which Grandpa said: “Not now—it won’t happen now!” and then all of them shook hands, and the mailman left.
Sometime later our second visitation with Mom took place. This time she arrived to take me home. It happened as if in a fairy tale, even better than in my dreams. I simply cannot describe it. One minute she wasn’t there, and a minute later she stood in the doorway looking exactly the same as I thought she would, just as she was in her photograph. Even her dress seemed the same to me. Only her hair and her darkly tanned skin were different. She started speaking with the voice I loved, and that was enough. No one could tear me away from her. I listened to her voice and watched everything she did, noting her gestures and the way she acted. She spoke much more softly than all the Odessians, including me; she smoked Nord papirosy, leaving beautiful red imprints on the tips of the cigarettes. There was nothing like that on the tips of my grandfather’s papirosy. And he smoked only a little, unlike Mom. Immediately I began to like everything she did, and to dislike or become indifferent to everything that my grandparents did. The next day we collected all my things, my clothes, and toys, and books, and we made our way to the train station. It wasn’t in as bad shape as it had been when they had first brought me here—then there were still smoking ruins all around the tracks. Now there was a cool and beautiful new building, and it even had a fountain with goldfish inside, which I had to show Mom. I wanted to show her everything that I knew, that I was able to do, so that no questions would remain unanswered, so she would know all there was to know about me, as before. The awful time of separation was over, and I wanted very much for us to become happy again, as we had been then, at home, in our kitchen.
On the platform we said goodbye to Grandma Tanya and Grandpa Sanya. Suddenly they both looked so small and insignificant to me. I wanted them to leave so my mom and I could finally go home! To Leningrad!
I looked at them through the window of our coupe; they became smaller and smaller and then disappeared. They vanished from my life for a long time, leaving a void in the space they had occupied in my earlier life. The train carried Mom and me for a long time. From the top bunk I watched her sitting in the lower berth speaking with the people we shared our compartment with. I had the sense that at any moment she could turn and say something to me in her special voice; life seemed complete to me.
We arrived in Leningrad at the Vitebsk station at dusk, and the train came to a stop. The passengers crowded in the aisles, pushing, shoving, and jostling each other as they sought the exits. Suddenly, during a brief lull in the jostling match, a gray-haired man in a dark blue mackintosh that emanated a strong smell of hot rubber rushed into the car, scaring me a little. Then he kissed and embraced both Mom and me, and I understood that it was my dad. But I wasn’t completely sure that it was really him. Mom was the same as she had been before, but he wasn’t. Once again I understood that it was necessary to be polite and pleasing, that the separation had ended, that “the children had returned,” but somehow it all seemed too sudden for me. This is how things like this happen—you wait and wait for something, and then it happens, and you are still not ready, no matter how long you’ve waited.
So our new life had started, or you could say our old life had begun again. However, this new life was not at all similar to the old one as I remembered it, and it was certainly unlike the life we lived in Odessa. It turned out that the way things worked here was more difficult. I had no problems at school, or in the courtyard, or in the street, running around the firewood sheds and backyards where we boys all played, as we also did “on the other side” (a park across the street). At home, though, things could be tough and confusing for me at any given moment. First, it was impossible for us to approach our parents whenever we wanted to; we had to wait for the end of a telephone call (I didn’t know phone etiquette—we had no telephone in Odessa), or the end of the chapter in a book, or the end of a conversation they were having between themselves. You had to wait and wait. Second, you always had to be sure to knock on doors. And third, even if you knocked and asked for permission to come in, that didn’t always mean that you were free to enter.
The only door you had to knock on in Odessa was the door leading to our common bathroom in the hallway, a door with an oval window more or less covered over with paint. But even there you didn’t really have to knock. Since no one had bothered to screw in a light bulb and there was no light inside, some people preferred to keep the door slightly ajar so that a little light from without would make it easier for them to read the cut-up newspaper that we used as toilet paper, so you could tell pretty quickly that the place was occupied. Aunt Raya, who lived across the hall, usually kept the door open almost all the way—not because she needed more light, but because it gave her the ability to see and maintain control over whatever was going on outside. Needless to say, most of the time one could readily see who was inside by noting some thick folds of heavy underwear, or a couple of gold teeth, though after a while one could usually tell without looking at all. My grandparents and I had lived in a single room with a single door leading outside. Here in Leningrad we had many doors, and one had to knock on each one of them before entering. You could be told that you couldn’t come in at the moment, “Not now!” or even told, “Go away!” And yet there were a lot of urgent things I had to ask my parents. I needed to find out where, how, and when, what for, and why. I needed to learn everything that I hadn’t managed to learn from them all this time.
Besides, our parents seemed to have all the most interesting things going on when my sister and I had to be in bed. They had guests over almost every night. We could hear them through the wall—laughing, clinking their glasses, clanging cutlery, talking, and having fun. At one point the entire group of people would burst out laughing; at another a sudden silence would fall and then the sounds of the grand piano and somebody singing would be heard. With the first money they earned they bought a guitar for Mom, and she began to play it and sing songs. I especially liked the songs she knew from the Spanish civil war, in which one repeatedly heard the powerful sound of the rolling R. We listened to all this through the wall; sometimes we opened a door, and then we would be punished. Lately it seemed that we were getting punished very frequently and, unfortunately, mostly by Mom. There were two episodes in particular that especially upset me: The first occurred when nine-year-old Ninochka could not get the correct note on the grand piano. Mom was teaching her to play, and she struck Nina on the fingers with a ruler for each wrong key. Even now I remember Ninochka’s eyes full of tears, her clenched teeth, and our mother’s screaming at her. The second incident occurred when I took a small radio apart and couldn’t put it back together—I obviously needed more technical training to manage the job. Having learned from my sister’s bitter experience, I didn’t admit to the crime. But eventually I was exposed as the one responsible and as a liar as well, and Mom beat me so hard with my new school uniform cap that the hard visor of the cap came off as a result. We—my sister and I—could not understand what had happened to our parents, for whom we had waited so longingly, and with such great hopes. There was another thing about them that was scary and confusing to us. It was how disrespectfully they spoke about the things that were most sacred to us: about Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, about Soviet Power, and even about Lenin. From kindergarten onward, throughout school, we were taught that Lenin’s cause lived, that Grandfather Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the father of all the people, and yet our parents kept saying terrible things about him.
We called a council of war in our room when our Grandma Genya wasn’t there and decided that it wasn’t that our parents had changed so radically, but rather that they had probably been replaced by a couple of foreign spies. At this time there was a big anti-espionage campaign going on. Even in our neighborhood some particularly vigilant citizens had caught a drunken man and turned him over to the militia. The pants that he was wearing were an obvious reason for detaining him—they didn’t look like the pants that anyone else owned. Everybody wore black or dark blue or dark gray; this character had a pair of green pants on. At our war council, my sister and I discussed how we should go on living after the spies were exposed and put back in prison. We considered the possibility that we shouldn’t wait for this to happen but rather act as Pavlik Morozov(11) had done and hasten to inform the authorities ourselves, or maybe just up and run away from everybody. To this Ninochka objected; “And what about Grandma Genya?” she asked, and I couldn’t help but agree, because Grandma Genya always stood up for us, and it was unthinkable to leave her at the mercy of these monsters who had taken the place of our parents. “It would be disreputable,” to use Grandma Tanya’s quaint expression. In the end, we decided against turning our parents in as spies. Life went on, and when our parents really were engaged with us or simply talked with us, we children were in heaven. They were interesting and charming people, both of them. Dad joked with us, and Mom would tell us how much she loved us.
Certainly, looking back now as an adult, after two immigrations and with two children of my own, recognizing the ugliness of my own disposition toward my children at times, I think I have a better understanding of my mother’s psychological state in 1954, that most complicated year for all of us. She was a writer, and she would later write about all these departures and returns, as she did about her own multiple immigrations. “Immigration” was also the magic word that fifty years later explained to me a lot about her and about our own small family tragedy of repeated departures and returns. All of us who experienced an immigration of any kind witnessed, and sometimes became participants in, family dramas—sometimes tragedies, sometimes tragicomedies—that most likely would never have taken place but for the persistent pattern of immigration. And what other name should we give to spending five years in prison, then returning to the uprooted remnants of your life, than that of immigration from the unsettled past into the unsettled future: a life in which you had to repeat all the steps you had once made, and to discover that it wouldn’t hurt to begin by learning how to walk again. Somehow you had to find a way reestablish all your old connections and to make new ones, to tell your friends and family what had really happened to you when your old life was taken away, at the same time as you tried to build an altogether new life. And all the while, you had to avoid tripping over your children, who were always in the way, confused and wanting something every minute, not able to understand the jokes you tried to make or to do a thing by themselves.
“And yet, and yet . . .”—my Mom’s favorite expression, as I recall.
I would have named the next part of our life a period of new expectations. Expectation on our parents’ part of when and how their children would grow up; the children’s anticipation of the moment when their lives as adults would begin. This was a period of major achievements by my parents and modest successes by their children, successes that in my own case were particularly modest. My father became a well-known scholar and was elected to the position of senior research fellow at the Pushkinskii Dom.(12) My mom’s career developed along different lines. She didn’t have a day job, and so after her return home she did odd literary jobs like translations and the editing of other people’s works. Far from being the most important and lucrative jobs, these are the kind that writers often prefer to avoid. But again, a person who had just returned from “over there” might not be inclined to make such a distinction.
Does this sound at all like an immigration thing, dear reader? I well remember hearing the word “index” repeatedly at our place at the end of the 1950s. Sometimes it was pronounced with hope, suggesting a source of future earnings, sometimes with melancholy, indicating endless Sisyphean toil. The job of indexing itself seemed very strange to me. Everything had to be copied from books onto small library cards—thousands of them arranged in long boxes. The whole thing looked so wrong, so “officey,” so alien to the spirit of our home life. I sympathized with Mom: she had to correct and copy things day after day after day. Gradually, however, the quality of her jobs and pay improved, and Mom soon began to write prose. Starting with newspaper work and documentary stories, she imperceptibly began to move on to fiction. Her first publication was a short story entitled “The Scorpion Berries,” something that one can read with interest even now. It had been written along the lines of a real story told to my mother by one Natasha Troshchenko, who later became a director at the Lenfilm Studios. I well remember how often Mom sat and talked to Natasha at our place, and how I was constantly shooed away from them, which was a shame—I still vividly remember Natasha’s black-as-cherries beautiful eyes. Somehow her berry-like eyes merged with the berries in my mom’s story, whose title did not reveal its meaning to me until I read the story itself. Then I understood that it had nothing to do with berries or scorpions, but with people and the things they do to one another.
For all of us, who had come to regard Dad as the main person in our family in terms of status and income, because of the importance of his position and the substantial though highly specialized scholarly articles that he wrote, Mom’s becoming a celebrity was quite unexpected. Her stories were published in Ogonyok(13); she received an important Ogonyok literary prize. Our telephone began to ring off the hook—writers, editors, and readers called endlessly. They wrote her letters and sent her manuscripts to read as well. Mom was accepted into the Writers Union—and a new wave of people rushed in, both well-known and just-beginning poets and writers, artists, and actors. D.Y. Dar, V. Nagibin, Boris Vakhtin, Reed Grachyov, Misha Kulakov, Gleb Semenov, Elena Koompan, Eduard Zelenin, Sergei Volf, Alexander Gorodnitskii, Valerii Popov,(14) and many others frequented our house. Alexander Alfredovich Bek even made friends with me and on my birthday presented me with an officer’s field bag filled with a lot of necessary and unnecessary “boy’s” things. Once, for a New Year’s celebration at our place, Alexander Galich(15) sang his witty and caustic ballads. The actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky(16) replaced a wall light switch in our bathroom, where it stayed until my parents’ emigration. Heinrich Böll(17) drank vodka with my parents and sang “Horst Wessel”(18) with my mom. In Heinrich Böll I liked what my Odessa Grandma called “The Manners!!” Alberto Moravia, visiting from Italy, was followed by the world-famous bull-fighter Dominguin, along with Lucia Bose and many others. The list of friends and acquaintances would include half of Leningrad and half of Moscow, with little additions from other cities and countries. During the summer the dacha we rented was cheerful and crowded with guests. In the fall and winter my sister and I began the not very pleasant everyday lives of students at an awful school on Narva Prospekt. We also moved from our centrally located apartment on Dobrolyubov Prospekt to a flat on Prospekt Gaza. For me, the very name seemed full of ominous meaning. That’s how much I disliked this bigger apartment in a very rough neighborhood of the city. In Nina’s class the teacher, singling out one of the students, would say: “Evgeny Onegin was a typical representative of the superfluous person, and you, Tumina, I will kick out of the classroom!” I myself could hardly bear to stay in school till the end of the eighth grade. After that, I left for night school and started working at a ship-building factory, where I got a job through the help of this same Frida Tumina’s father. After I was gone, they would not remember me as a great worker at the factory, and later on I barely squeaked into the university with the help of major influential figures, such as Professor Efim G. Etkind.(19)
Against the background of what seemed to be the interesting and dynamic life of our parents, Nina’s and my existence was depressing enough, and our achievements (especially mine), by which our family measured a person, were average at best. My relations with my parents also remained at a rather superficial level. I think that at this point we became disappointed in each other, though for different reasons. Some balance was achieved between us only when I married and took up residence in my wife’s apartment in a different part of town. We lost this balance again after my departure from Israel for the United States, and our relations became nonexistent after I had decided to stop drinking. Even now I can’t understand why it was so important for my father and mother—and for some reason especially my mother—that I continue to do something that had been slowly driving me and my wife into the grave, as drinking undoubtedly had. In fact drinking had already killed many of my friends, and not a few of theirs. We ceased to write to one another, ceased to gather at a summer dacha in the Catskills, and our relationship was reduced to short telephone calls on their birthdays, and even those calls didn’t always take place.
Mom continued to write and publish, and both my parents traveled a lot together, giving talks, teaching, finding new friends, and continuing to lose old ones. My thoughts about Mom at this time were confined to that part of the soul where we keep our anxieties, and which I experienced as a constant weight on my heart. Judging by the content of my mother’s writing, she was not very happy in the years before her death either. In her stories the expression of personal ideas not attributed to fictional characters and certain rhetorical questions that began to appear struck me as a continuation of an old dispute with me. The arguments she used were very familiar and ones I had long ago addressed. Continuing the old dispute about alcoholism seemed to me unnecessary. In this way, as time went by we continued to fail to communicate—we couldn’t talk to one another.
Once, my sister Nina called to tell me that Mom had experienced several ministrokes and had lost her speech. That is to say, she continued to speak, but no longer in words, only repeating a single syllable: “Yes—da-da-da!” Sometimes she would change the intonation, and by the number of syllables it sometimes became clear what she meant. It appeared that for a long time she complained about her loss of memory, complained that she was tired by the endless trips—they constantly traveled across Europe, and later on had started going back to Russia.
I described my mom’s condition to our friend Paul—one of those “cold and callous Americans” for whom, as we’d always been told, nothing was more important than money. He looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t you understand? This is your mother. You should go to her immediately.” Why did someone have to tell me what I had to do? Why wasn’t it obvious to me? I don’t know, as in general I don’t know almost anything in this life aside from the things that I managed to teach myself while opposing somebody or something.
When I arrived at my parents’ place in Jerusalem, their apartment was unusually silent. But not in the sense of physical silence—the atmosphere was full of sounds. Rather it was psychologically silent for me. My mother’s usual presence was not audible. I had the sensation that the family, depressed by what had happened, had hunkered down and was waiting for what would happen next. Mom saw me with delight, which I did not expect, and even asked, as far as I could understand, where I had been earlier and where my wife, Natasha, was. We took a walk together; she went with me to buy some flowers. On the last day of my stay at my parents’ place, my mom had an intense fight bordering on a fist-fight with Nina, who had been selfless enough to look after Mom from her very first stroke. Mom struggled furiously not to let Nina into the apartment—she didn’t recognize her. In the evening, as always and as if nothing at all had happened, guests came to visit, I don’t even remember who. Everyone sat down at the table and drank, ate, and joked. Mom went into the kitchen—she would suddenly get up and start doing some chores like washing dishes or cleaning. I went after her to tell her something—I myself did not know what I’d say. I only knew that this was not the moment for silence or small talk. It was absolutely clear to me that we didn’t have any time left to squander. On the other side of the wall, as in our childhood, cheerful voices sounded, and plates and wineglasses clinked. The only thing missing was her laughter and singing. She sat down at a small kitchen table. I sat down opposite her, barely keeping my sanity out of fear of the words I was going to tell her. “Mom, farewell . . .” I said. “Mom, there’s been so much bad blood between us. . . .” I didn’t, I couldn’t, finish speaking. She made a dismissive gesture with her hand, and here in the silence I saw in her eyes, through her tears and mine, what I had always wanted so much to see, what I think I had in my own eyes fifty years ago—happiness. Not because I said or did anything at all, but simply because I was there with her.
New York, 2006
—translated from the Russian by the author with the assistance of Samuel C. Ramer
1. Private group-learning kindergarten, a preferred placement for preschoolers at the time in Odessa.
2. “This is Kiev, it is 7:15 p.m. . . .” (in Ukrainian).
3. Valery P. Chkalov was a famous Soviet aviator, a Soviet Charles Lindbergh.
4. Zavod imeni Molotova (Molotov Auto Works), an acronym; ZIMs were more luxurious than regular cars.
5. Long, hollow-stemmed cigarettes widely used in Russia; the character Karkov smoked them in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
6. Vadim Nikolaevich Podbelsky was an early Bolshevik political activist and statesman.
7. Maya Plisetskaya was a brilliant Soviet ballerina.
8. Kio was a famous Russian magician; Irina Bugrimova a well-known circus performer.
9. A small resort settlement on the outskirts of Odessa.
10. Yuri Levitan was the best-known radio announcer in the Soviet Union during the forties and fifties, literally the voice of the era.
11. In 1932, the thirteen-year-old Pavlik Morozov purportedly denounced his own father as a “kulak.” He was subsequently murdered in apparent retribution and became a legendary figure in the pantheon of Bolshevik martyrs.
12. Pushkinskii Dom, “The Pushkin House,” formally the Research Institute on Russian Literature, named after the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin.
13. A popular Soviet magazine.
14. Important figures in the literary and artistic world of Leningrad in the sixties and seventies.
15. Famous poet, bard, and dissident in the Soviet Union of the sixties and seventies.
16. A major Soviet actor best known for his roles as Prince Myshkin in Georgii Tovstonogov’s theatrical production of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and later as Hamlet in Grigory Kozintsev’s 1964 film.
17. A popular liberal (West) German writer of the sixties and seventies.
18. A song that became a Nazi anthem.
19. Efim G. Etkind was a distinguished scholar of Russian literature living in Leningrad.
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