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Monday, Nov. 26, 2001


Looking back on life in Stalinist Russia

NEW YORK -- My friend Lenore Parker threw a party for Mary M. Leder, who has just published her first book, at age 86. The book is an autobiography, "My Life in Stalinist Russia: An American Woman Looks Back" (Indiana University Press).

Lenore, who once headed the American Council for Emigres in the Professions and had Mary Mackler (as Leder is known among her friends) on her staff, was "on call" for editorial advice while Mackler was writing the book.

On the face of it, or rather as the publisher would have it, Mackler's is a story of an American woman's life horribly twisted and maligned by fate -- specifically by Stalinist Russia.

Her father, a Russian Jewish immigrant like her mother, can't find adequate work in the United States with the onset of the Great Depression. Because of that and his belief in social justice, he chooses to believe in "a Jewish homeland" that his old country, now advocating a new idealism, proposes to create within its borders, so he moves back. But it doesn't take long for him, along with his family, to find the planned Jewish utopia, Birobidzhan, near Khabarovsk, wretched and unworkable. He decides to return to the U.S. He and his wife do so, but their daughter, Mary, cannot because her passport is mysteriously lost. As a result, she, then 17, is forced to remain in the Soviet Union for 35 years.

Mackler tells it somewhat differently.

Yes, she was unwilling to leave sunny California for the Soviet Union; she did not have any interest in "a Jewish homeland." Yes, when her parents decided to return to the U.S., she wanted to also. And yes, after her Russian husband's death, in 1959, her wish to go back to the U.S. intensified.

But Mackler, when young, also was a typically idealistic American woman of her day. A supporter of the Soviet Union, she joined the Communist youth group at her high school and, before leaving the U.S., applied for a membership transfer to the Komsomol. She was turned down as unworthy of The Real Thing.

I do not know the extent of anti-Communist sentiments in the U.S. around 1930, but the existence of a "Red Squad" in the Los Angeles Police Department, ready to use extreme violence, suggests it was considerable. Just as police violence in the U.S. increased in response to growing sentiment against the Vietnam War, such a squad no doubt formed as sympathy for communism strengthened.

Mackler eagerly got out of Birobidzhan, but that was because she wanted to go to Moscow. Upon reaching Moscow, she immediately became involved in the excitement and worries of daily life. Arriving in the capital the week before Nov. 7, 1931, "the 14th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the country's most important holiday," she gets to know Anya Atlas, a girl her age:

"Full of merriment, with black eyes, black hair worn in a Dutch-boy cut, ivory-white skin, and dimples, she was always surrounded by beaux, whom she ordered about mercilessly. She dressed in the fashion of the day -- a knee-length narrow black skirt, short black bolero jacket, and a black beret set rakishly over one eye. When we went out, she'd laughingly point to other girls dressed in exactly the same way."

This is only the beginning of her memoirs; the life in Stalinist Russia she recollects in such admirable detail (one assumes she did a great deal of checking to relive the days, the months, the years) is, of course, not exactly full of sparkles. The search for adequate living space is perennial and usually fails.

Like many Stalinist citizens, Mackler is pressed into service as an informer. Policy shifts; someone is accused of incorrect behavior; and colleagues and friends readily, gladly, line up to see the public humiliation and punishment of the accused.

There is the Great Terror, the midnight banging on the door, friends and acquaintances arrested, jailed and shot. The calamitous war comes. Mackler is evacuated, and her child dies for lack of medical attention. Then comes the anti-Semitic campaign that wrecks many a life. (During that period, Mackler's husband, Abram, excluded from employment for being a Jew, takes to pretending to have a job by leaving their apartment in the morning and returning in the evening. This episode reminds me of the condescending article in The New York Times Magazine not long ago about laid-off Japanese salarymen doing something similar. Yet another example of shame-oriented Japanese culture!)

In this scrupulously honest account, however, the life in Stalinist Russia is not a relentless series of miseries and horrors. Mackler has affairs. She meets honorable and helpful people. To name just one, there is Capt. Averkhin, the head of a school to "train military intelligence personnel for work in foreign countries," where Mackler is trained, yes, to be a spy. And she marries a capable, caring man.

The account of a vacation she takes with her friend Ahsia on the Black Sea coast in July 1950 shows, if I may say a silly thing, how you could have a great time even during one of the worst periods of Stalin's reign.

Does Mackler's description of her life in Stalinist Russia come out as it does because she was, almost to the very end, "a true believer"? Probably not. One can imagine a Japanese woman who immigrated to California about the time Mackler emigrated to Birobidzhan -- for that's what her family did -- could have written something comparable to "My Life in Stalinist Russia." Perhaps some have.

What gives strength to this autobiography is the author's grasp of what used to be called the human condition. There is no question that Joseph Stalin, along with "the masses" willfully dancing under his choreography, wreaked horrendous havoc. How that came about is said to be brilliantly analyzed, most recently, in two books: "Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Republic Culture From Revolution to Cold War" by Jeffrey Brooks (Princeton University Press) and "Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents" by Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov (Yale University Press).

But neither of these scholarly postmortems, which I haven't read, is likely to approach Mackler's memoirs in mundane truthfulness. A focused beam may spotlight what one seeks. But a lamp that isn't particularly focused gives the overall contour of what there is to see.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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