Р.Лурье, беседы с БЯ

Richard Lourie

Russia Speaks

An Oral History from the Revolution to the Present

New York, NY: E. Burlingame Books, 1991.

В 1989 Борис Ямпольский дал несколько больших интервью Ричарду Лурье для его работы, посвященной устной истории России ХХ века. Ниже приведено четыре отрывка из книги Ричарда, написанных по материалам этих интервью (стр. 170-174, 179-183, 188-191, 193-195), в формате TXT, в конце страницы те же отрывки приведены в PDF.

(1) История ареста (стр. 170-174)


<…> The wrong marginalia could cost a person ten years.

That’s what they cost Boris Yampolsky, and maybe the best ten a that – his twenties. Boris had grown up in Saratov and Astrakhan, old cities on the lower Volga where in his youth the patriarchal ways of old Russia were still observed. The men had beards down to their chests, they wore their shirts outside their pants and their pants stuffed in high boots. Turbaned Asiatics still rode camels to market. What Boris loved most in the world was reading; he was one of those readers who cannot help but respond


to what they read by grabbing a pencil and scribbling a comment in the margins. And though heretical marginalia may have cost him his youth, it never cost him his youthfulness, for all his youth and freshness in the home of Boris Yampolsky.

“Look at Paika!” cries his five-year-old daughter, Sanya, squealing with glee as she stands back to admire her handiwork – she has covered Paika, the family’s long, lean-faced borzoi, with a blanket and put a pillow under its head. After a moment of looking around, Paika has settled its head into the pillow.

As Sanya laughs, her mother, a Slavic Rubens, looks from her daughter to her husband, her glance uniting them into a family – a five-year-old girl, a woman in her early forties, and a veteran of the Gulag, a Zek, now pushing seventy.

His eyes still flashing with amusement, Boris slips out yet another cigarette. He would never smoke anything but the old-fashioned Russian cigarettes – a hollow cardboard mouthpiece, an inch of potent, brown-black tobacco. Boris pinches the cardboard tube twice in the same place but at opposite angles to give it the properly raffish shape. One Mephistophelian puff of smoke and Boris is a Zek again, light-hearted, dashing, infinitely sarcastic.

Perhaps it was his daughter calling out the dog’s name that had reminded him of the camps. In camp slang, paika means the daily ration, the daily bread of the Lord’s Prayer. Boris has granted the dog a high Zek honor in bestowing it with that name, for no word was ever pronounced with more reverence. But whether it was the mention of Paika or not, the camps are always close to mind. The stories come easily. Every Zek is a Dante.

Now Sanya moves to her mother’s side, rests her head against her warm, firm arm and looks up at her father’s face, the bushy, grey sideburns and moustache, the flashing glasses, the lips speaking smoke. Though nothing has been said yet, she is already listening. In a minute, Daddy is going to tell how he was arrested.

It was around one o’clock in the morning. I was reading in bed, afraid that my mother might come out of her room. She’d see I was reading and make me turn off my light. She was always worried I’d strain my eyes.


When the doorbell rang, I hopped right out of bed to answer it before it woke Mama up.

I asked who was there and I heard the building manager stammer, “Boris, it’s me, open up.”

I opened the door and in came two men, followed by the building manager. They walked right past me and into the front room. I had no idea what was going on.

The first question they asked was, “Are your parents home?”

“They are.”

“Where are they?”


They showed me some piece of paper but I didn’t even look at it. I went straight into my parent’s room. They were already up. They’d heard the bell and of course knew what was happening. But they thought they’d come for my father, not me. My mother was combing her hair in a rush and father was nervously tying his shoelaces.

But he didn’t show the slightest sign of being nervous when he went out into the front room. They handed him the paper. He read it and then he knew.

Then the two men asked my parents, and quite politely too, to take a seat off to one side, so that they could make their search. The building manager stood in the doorway, probably there as the official witness.

They spent most of their time searching through my books. I wasn’t afraid. O found it all terribly interesting, even flattering. I thought it was just a search.

It lasted until four in the morning. Then they packed up a whole huge suitcase full of books and took it and me away. As they were leading the way, my father followed me with his eyes, his gaze imploring me not to play any games with them. But for me it was all still a game.

Twelve people were arrested with me on the same charges: Article 58, point 10, anti-Soviet agitation, and point 11, belonging to an anti-Soviet organization. Needless to say there was never any such organization. And had never even


laid eyes on half of the twelve other people arrested in the case. And when I said that to my investigator, he replied, “Come on now, that’s typical of any conspiracy, people not knowing the identity of the others.”

They didn’t have any real peg to hang anything on. I had a lot of friends and since we had a large apartment the used to come to my house. That must have brought me to the attention of the police. Later on, when they need to pick someone up, they think of you.

About a year before they arrested me, a girl – I won’t mention any names, old habits die hard – a girl who was my age and still in school herself came to me and said she was being called in and asked questions about me. I didn’t attach any importance to this even though two of my uncles had been arrested. They were grown-ups and I was just a kid of nineteen who still lived at home.

I may also have been denounced by a false witness. There was a man named Prozorovsky, he worked for a newspaper. He’d been to see me about two years before to borrow a collection of poems by Lebedev-Kumach.

I couldn’t bear Lebedev-Kumach. To me he was a Soviet hack of the worst sort. And had said so on the margins. When I was interrogated, I caught a glimpse of some photocopies of those pages with my marginalia.

My remarks really were scathing, but they weren’t about the poems’ content. I just questioned whether the man was even a poet.

I told my investigator that I knew nearly all of Mayakovsky’s long, revolutionary, avant-garde poems by heart. That he found no proof that I was pro-Soviet. But rejecting Lebedev-Kumach proved I was anti-Soviet. That was really all they had on me.

There was a joke in those years. A new man arrives in the cell. “How long did you get?” everyone asks.

“Fifteen years,” he says.

“For what?”


“For nothing.”

“Couldn’t be. For nothing they give ten.”

Boris got ten. He also got a lesson on literature; it was a matter of vital significance, if only because the police subscribed to the theory: Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are.

(2) Богословлаг, новый начальник, Пастернак, Звездочка (стр. 179-183)



“Yes, yes,” says Boris, pausing to light another cigarette and squinting from the match’s acrid smoke. “Today’s investigator was tomorrow’s prisoner. It was a phantasmagoria, a danse macabre.”

Boris watches as his wife, Alla, takes his daughter Sanya off to bed. But sleepy as she is, Sanya doesn’t want to go – one more kiss, one more story. A kiss alright, but no story. Enough of these Russian bedtime stories.

After arrest and interrogation, Boris had been sent to Bogoslovlag, which means God’s Word Camp, no doubt named for a nearby town. The irony was not lost on the Zeks, on whom no irony was ever lost.

God’s Word was a feared camp because its business was logging. After weeks of felling trees, prisoners would just fall dead, their emaciated bodies hardly making any sound as they hit the snow. “Of the twelve arrested in my case, five did not make it through the first winter,” says Boris, pausing to hear the silence of the dead, the background hum to every Gulag story.

Two things kept a person from death in the camps. One was


luck and other the ability to extract maximal sustenance from any scrap pf bread or beauty. Boris had that ability, but his luck didn’t seem to be clicking in. He was transferred from felling trees but only to breaking stone in a quarry, which was “not one fucking bit easier,” he said. “My legs were swollen, creaking with pus. One day I looked in a barrack window and saw a Zek with a puffy face and teeth dangling from his blue gums. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was me reflection.”

It was in those critical weeks, when Boris being inexorably nudged towards a mass grave, that his luck finally changed. His parents learned his whereabouts and began sending him three or four food packages a month. That kept him alive and allowed for chance to come into play. As usual, it came in the form of orders from above. An aluminum plant was under construction near the camp and the prisoners were to supply the labor. The new director needed more productive labor force and accordingly doubled the bread ration, the paika, from one pound to two. Groats appeared in the watery gruel. And there was even an occasional omelet of American powdered eggs, siphoned off from Lend-Lease.

But the survival dream of every Zek was a cushy job in a warm place. That dream came true for Boris when he was made a medic in the camp infirmary, which had a wood-burning stove. Instead of being worked to death, he was alone in a warm place where he could read to his heart’s content. In the evening other prisoners would gather by the wood stove, drink tea, smoke, and speculate endlessly in Russia’s past and future, or tell their own stories, savoring the shapes fate could assume. It was, in a very Russian sort of way, heaven.

But then all of a sudden this “patriarchal idyll” of ours was in danger. Word went around that the camp was getting a new security chief. You get used to one chief, you know his ways. How to act with him. When to show your face, and when not to.

But what the hell can you know about a new one? There were also reports of what he looked like – a short guy


who wore an American-style jacket and had a little moustache.

One fine day I’m in the infirmary and there’s a knock at the door. None of the guards ever knocked. I open the door and there he is, the new security chief. He says hello like anyone else, apologizes for the intrusion, and asks if he could warm himself a little by our stove.

Meanwhile, there’s a woman from the women’s labor camp in the room. She’d brought over some women prisoners who were sick and, while waiting for their X rays, had stopped by to see me. All and any contact between men and women prisoners was forbidden. And for the chief of security to find a woman with a man – at the very least, she wouldn’t be allowed to escort patients there anymore and it might even land her in an isolation cell. But all he said was, “I’ll sit in here a little while, otherwise I’ll get too warm to go back out in the cold.”

Then he noticed a book of poems by Pasternak on the table and he struck up a conversation about Pasternak. We talked for fifteen or twenty minutes, feeling each other out. It was clear to me that Pasternak really meant something to him.

He came in to warm up the next day and we picked up where we’d left off.

In the end we became friends, and it was Pasternak who brought us together. I would recite one poem by heart and he would recite another. He’d come by after lights-out, I slept right there in the office. Or sometimes I’d go to see him.

He told me his story. He had graduated from a university with a degree in literature. Than he was drafted and sent to the front, where he was wounded. After being released from the hospital, he was declared physically unfit for combat and transferred to Security. When he came to our camp and saw what went on there, his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

Once he said to me, and this I remember word for word, “You’re a prisoner in a camp jacket and I’m a prisoner in a KGB coat.”

The new security chief had proved he was a decent human being that first day when he hadn’t said anything about


the woman there. Men weren’t allowed to go into the women’s camp and the women weren’t allowed into the men’s camp. But that didn’t stop anyone. There were checkpoints between the camps but they didn’t count for much because they were usually run by prisoners. But if a guard caught a man in a women’s camp or vice versa, it’d mean a punishment cell – an ice-cold box, no bed, a stone floor.

The presence of a woman’s camp had a positive effect on the male prisoners’ manners. If the women were moved away, the men would go right to pot. They’d take a leak wherever the happened to be, which they would never do of there were even one or two women around.

Life didn’t stop in the camps. On the contrary, life was more intense in the camps than anywhere else. And sex was too.

One of the professional criminals once told me about another camp where he had worked in the stables. It was a closed camp with no women for miles around. The stables where he worked weren’t guarded and, to make a long story short, he became romantically involved with one of the mares. Her name was Little Star, and he even came to prefer her to women. He’d get up on the wagon shaft and grasp Little Star by the tail. After a while, she’d get into the swing of it and give as good as she got.

One day he was caught in the act. The mare was taken away and replaced with a gelding. After a few days he started up with the gelding. But it was nowhere near as good as Little Star.

A girl of fourteen or fifteen would sleep with someone for his bread ration, his paika. But it had to be done fairly quick – around the corner, behind the barracks, inside the barracks at night.

We had a special word, zanachka, which meant a secret place where a man and woman could be alone together. The toolmaker had a huge chest where he kept shovels and crowbars. He had made a false bottom for the chest, which had just enough room for a couple to crawl into during the lunch break. There were some grimy prison jackets for them to lie on. The toolmaker charged half a bread ration for that.

But there were also romances on a very high level, that sometimes even led to suicide. Bit it would be disgusting to speak of them in the same breath, says Boris with a grin of a sarcastic nostalgia at having fled again into that vast, grimy cloud of quilted jackets, mud, death, and snow, Pasternak, tea by the wood stove, the Mystery Play of the Gulag.

(3) Чтиво (стр. 188-191)



That’s just what makes the camps so interesting, says Boris. A person reveals himself more quickly there because there’s danger at every step and nowhere to hide.

In our cell we had a man from Moscow who had once been very high up, on the ministerial level. His jacket still had traces of all the medals he’d once had. I won’t mention his name.

One day, everyone had gone out for latrine call, everyone but him. And me. I was still on my bunk, a top bunk. I watched as he turned his back to the peephole in the door and began slipping the other prisoners’ bread rations inside his shirt. His fellow prisoners’ paika! Exclaims Boris with a snort of contempt.

Paika the borzoi hears her name called and raises her head but them, seeing she is not wanted, lowers it back. She is used to hearing her name called when she isn’t wanted because the word paika is inevitably used so often in that home.

But there were other sorts of surprises too, continues Boris. One evening I was out for a walk by the camp garbage


dump. And in a Gulag garbage dump there is absolutely nothing a person would eat, no matter how hungry he was. All of a sudden I hear poetry being recited. I go closer and I see – two stubbly faced guys sitting on top of the garbage, the both of them hungry as dogs, their jackets belted with a piece pf wire. And they’re sitting there reciting the poetry of Igor Severyanin:

It was by the sea and the surf filigree,

Where town carriages are but rarely seen;

In the castle tower, the Queen played Chopin

and with each note her page fell deeper in love.

You hold things dearer in there. Hearing music in there is not like hearing music out here. I would not have missed it for the world.


Boris was still just a young man in his early twenties, and he had a young man’s taste in poetry. He was especially fond of the nineteenth-century Romantic, Mikhail Lermontov, killed in a duel at twenty-seven, but not before writing poems that were so vivid and rhythmic that to read them twice was to know them by heart.


I was in a quarantine with a high temperature. I had gotten hold of a volume of Lermontov on the labor camp. Half the pages had already been used to roll cigarettes of course.

I was lying there in the bunk reading when all of a sudden from the row above comes a woman’s voice, a cultured voice, saying, “Good morning.”

We asked all the usual questions – who are you, where are you from, what’s your sentence. I thought at first she was one of the ex-prisoners who stayed on to work at the camp, but then it turned out she was in for being a “Member of a Traitor’s Family.”

“What are you doing,” she said. “Reading?”

“That’s right, I’m doing a little reading.”

“You won’t get much reading done in here.”

I shrugged my shoulders.

A year and a half later I’m doing heavy work, logging. At midday they bring out a pot of gruel. I was standing by a bonfire trying to warm up a little. I’ve got the book of Lermontov stuck in my belt. Even though I knew all the poems by heart, I still like the feel of the book in my hands.

Someone calls me from behind, I turn around, and it’s her. By then I’m unrecognizable of course.

“Is that you?” she says.

“It’s me.”

“Still reading?”

“Still reading.”

Then she smiles and walks over to me, and says, “Wait till everyone else gets theirs, then grab a mess tin and come over. I’ll tell them to give you a good helping.”

“I’d feel funny about taking it just for myself.”

“So grab a kit for someone else too.”

They really did give us the thick stuff from the bottom of the pot.

I didn’t see her again for what must have been eight years. By then I was working in the infirmary. One day I was on duty and sitting there reading Pasternak when there’s a


knock at the door and in she comes. She’d been released but she’d stayed on in the camp.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” she said.

“Still reading,” I said.

“I can see I was wrong, Boris. You did get a lot of reading done. You’ll be reading as long as you’re alive and you’ll be alive as long as you’re reading.”

And whoever that woman was, so ruined by fate that she chose to remain in the camp even after she was free, she had understood Boris as well as any wife could, and he loves her for that to this day.

(4) Володька (стр. 193-195)



One day I went into the mess hall. There was a stage in the mess hall and up on that stage there’s a guy sitting and copying a black-and-white print of the painting The Battle of Kulikovo Field from an old magazine. But he was copying it in color, even the monks’ robes.

“What are you doing, man?” I said. “Monks’ robes are black.”

He gave me an evil look and told me where to go. O saw who I was dealing with and got out of there fast.

Two or three days later, all of a sudden my door opens and in he comes. He’s embarrassed. He apologizes. “I’m sorry, I flew off the handle. Can you tell me what the monks were doing at the battle?”

After that he started coming around to seeing me. His name was Volodka and he was from a working-class family in Leningrad. A repeat offender, he’d done time before. He’d started by stealing potatoes and worked his way up.

I shared what I knew with Volodka. I gave him dictations, taught him how to write grammatical Russian. He started asking good questions – You say use a comma, so how come Gorky uses a dash?

After the war started, Volodka volunteered for the front. On the way to the front his unit stopped in Sverdlovsk for some training. He wrote me letters from Sverdlovsk. Not only that, he used to go to the library and use a razor to slice


pages from magazines he knew would interest me. Then he wrote that they were being shipped to the front, and that was the last I heard of him.

Until thirty years later, when he tracked me down. As soon as I got his letter, I sent him a telegram, and he telegrammed back to meet him at the airport in ten days.

I was worried I wouldn’t recognize him. I’m standing right at the barrier at the airport staring at everyone that comes out. That’s not him, that’s not him. That’s an Armenian or a Georgian. Finally, out comes this very impressive-looking personage wearing a fancy coat and huge, tinted glasses and carrying a briefcase. He’s looking around too. I look very hard and I can just barely tell that it’s Volodka.

Needless to say, we through our arms around each other. I had a taxi waiting but he said, “No, let’s sit here a while.”

There were lilac bushes and flower beds outside and we sat down there. He pulled a bottle of a cognac and some appetizers from his briefcase. We drank the whole bottle right then and there and it was just as if we were back in the camps swearing a blue streak.

But later on when I introduced Volodka to my wife, she was taken completely by surprise – I’d told her she’d be meeting with a professional criminal, a ringleader, and Volodka was gallant as could be with her. And why not, in the meantime Volodka had become the conductor of a symphony orchestra!

To avoid being sent to fight at the front, Volodka had wangled his way into the army band. It turned out he had an excellent ear and could play nearly every instrument and play well. Some criminals are very gifted people. Later on, he even became the bandleader.

When he was discharged from the army, he started writing popular tunes, became a conductor, and was even invited to join the Composers’ Union. His orchestra was always on tour and he showed me the posters. But now he was quitting conducting, his legs had started giving him trouble. He was married and his daughter was studying at a conservatory.

He stayed with us a week, and one day when my wife


was at work, I said to him, “Volodka, tell me, are you happy?”

“I’ll tell you. I’ve got everything, a television, a piano. It’s a peaceful life. But it’s boring. Boring! No kicks. But I’ve got a plan. As soon as my daughter graduates from the conservatory, I know just the fucking job I’m going to pull!”

Стр. 170-174


Стр. 179-183


Стр. 188-191


Стр. 193-195