A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane: An Essay by Herb Randall

Today we’re excited to feature Herb Randall’s essay about his visit, inspired by a volume of collected letters, to #16 Tchaikovsky Lane in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a building with a fascinating history in the field of science. Yet as Olga discovered as we were working on this, it has a much more sinister history, as well. After the revolution of 1917, this building was used by the city’s branch of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, to imprison, torture, and execute those termed enemies of the Bolsheviks. The dead bodies were thrown into a ditch behind the building; unofficial estimates suggest that between 1,500 and 3,000 people were killed here. After the Cheka was dissolved in 1922 (only to be reconstituted under different names, including Stalin’s NKVD), over 200 bodies were discovered on the grounds behind #16. There is no verifiable evidence that the letter writer knew this; in any event, there’s no mention of it in the letters.

Images accompanying this piece are courtesy of Herb Randall.

A QUESTION IN TCHAIKOVSKY LANE

No sugar plum fairies greet us as we turn the corner onto Tchaikovsky Lane. Yet almost immediately, the rush and roar of Pushkin Street dissipates and we escape into this sleepy neighborhood, stepping into another time and another’s story.

A curious old collection of letters written here brings us to this forgotten residential street in Kharkiv. I Married a Russian is the work of an Englishwoman identified only as “Eddie.” She fell in love with a visiting Soviet scientist while both studied at Cambridge and set off on a grand adventure into the wild East of this rapidly modernizing new nation. Eddie’s first letter to her sister in England was in May 1930 while the newlyweds sailed to their new home. She posted the final letter in 1945, after surviving wartime evacuation to Kazakhstan and returning to the ruins of Kharkov (Eddie uses this Russian-based spelling of the city’s name, which is used here when referring to the book). The letters were quickly published by George Allen and Unwin in London, and though the book is barely remembered today, it was discovered and recommended by a friend who shares my affection for Ukraine. I carry my weathered copy with me as we walk.

The couple met through their love of music. “Kira” played piano beautifully, and Eddie could have made a career with her violin. Joyful hours spent around the piano quickly led to romance and marriage. Two marriages, in fact: first at the Soviet consulate and shortly thereafter a proper English wedding. Her parents feared the marriage could be dissolved too easily if only bound by Soviet law.

We are here to find Eddie and Kira’s flat and the physics institute that brought them to the new capital of Soviet Ukraine (Kharkiv was used as the capital from 1919 until 1934). It was a backwater in a building frenzy. Eddie wrote of sledding in winter from a hill in the city center to nearby villages, places that today are incorporated into Ukraine’s second largest city. The Soviet Union granted special privileges to scientists, citizen and foreign, to attract them to the institute. It was a welcome haven for some escaping antisemitism at home, while others were drawn to the Soviet experiment, or the chance to work with some of the most famous scientists in the world. The institute flourished and critical work in cryogenics and nuclear physics was done here by such renowned scientists as Lev Landau, Piotr Kapitsa, Lev Shubnikov, and George Gamow.

Eddie was a sensation among Kira’s family and colleagues. She was charming, witty, intelligent, determined. Flirtatious and pretty, but unwaveringly devoted to Kira. She threw herself into her new life, soon editing a physics journal published in English and German by the institute, establishing the gardens on the grounds, even joining a women’s cavalry regiment for an October Revolution parade. After much difficulty, some dubious medical treatments, but seemingly by her sheer force of will, Eddie gave birth to a daughter. After a few years, a son followed.

Questions abound when reading Eddie’s letters today, in turn fascinating, frustrating, charming, harrowing, maddening. They swirl around us as we walk further into the lane, and we see a small wooded park and playground. Could this have been part of the gardens she tended?

Her dear, endlessly patient sister is unnamed in the letters, and her replies can only be inferred. In the opening pages, the list of characters we will meet is full of pseudonyms and presents today’s reader with the first mystery. Who were these people really? The Soviet Union was a riddle to contemporary readers, and the subjects of Eddie’s missives could be reasonably sure of obscurity.

Not today. With some quick research their real names surface. Rather than clarifying, the mysteries deepen and darken. Eddie’s breezy letters often omit important details. There are gaps in the letters, sometimes for years. These lapses often coincide with particularly turbulent events. One of the starkest gaps is between January 1931 until February 1934, so that nowhere does Eddie mention Stalin’s forced famine that brought starving villagers swarming into the city and that she could not have avoided seeing. People described in her letters disappear with no explanation, as if airbrushed from a photograph. Eddie obliquely references “scandals and intrigues” at Kira’s institute that were actually part of Stalin’s brutal wave of purges and executions in 1937-38. Was this Eddie’s way of getting her letters through the censors, or something else?

“Is this it?” my companion asks, squeezing my hand in front of a small red and sand brick building: 16 Tchaikovsky Lane. It appears to be older than it should be based on Eddie’s letters, predating the revolution. We look up at the second-floor balconies and try to guess which belonged to them.

#14 Tchaikovsky Lane

This building isn’t quite as we had imagined. It is unexpectedly tidy, too purposefully built. Eddie wrote that the flats in her building were still under construction when they arrived in 1930, rapidly renovated to house the physicists working at the institute next door. We walk back to the previous building, number 14. It is certainly more imposing, but as we walk around the side, slightly ramshackle. Here in the courtyard, we discover a plaque near an entrance commemorating one of Kira’s fellow scientists, Lev Shubnikov, who lived in this building. Until 1937, when his career and life were ended. Astoundingly, neither Kira nor his foreigner wife were touched by these repressions.

Plaques for Lev Shubnikov (1901-1937) and Abram Slutskin (1891-1950)

We stand for a moment, reflecting. A gentle piano and sinuous violin intertwine, tendrils of Scriabin and Prokofiev. Laughter, gossip, chatter. Clattering of dishes and clinking glasses. A baby fussing, unsoothed. Sounds we once would have heard here but today there is only silence.

Other sounds we do not hear, and that go untold in Eddie’s letters: boots echoing in these stairwells, sharp knocks on doors, whispers and cries. Fearful reassurances and promises made in vain. Car doors slamming, silence descending.

Kira and Eddie were fervent believers in the socialist future they suffered so long to build. Her accounts of the circle of famous scientists who lived and worked here are among the only contemporary sources available. Today we must read Eddie’s letters with some questions about their accuracy and the motivation for publishing them.  Her letters, while filled with personal stories and valuable historical details of the period, often parrot the Soviet propaganda of the day uncritically and enthusiastically. Even when speaking of shortages, unpaid salaries, or other difficulties, she minimizes and explains them away when possible. Her sister likely found Eddie’s frequent criticisms of English life and government policies tiresome.

How could this young woman from a comfortable English upbringing come to almost revel in the hardships she endured? Especially at the beginning, most of her efforts were devoted to scrounging furnishings for the apartment, ensuring adequate food, and with regular shipments of Keating’s powder from England, warding off the persistent bugs. Despite the hardships, Eddie never wavered in her belief in the Communist project.

Another puzzle is how these letters came to be published, first in London in 1944 and 1946, followed by an American edition in 1947. Edited by Lucie Street, one of Eddie’s friends, possibly another pseudonym. Her introduction and connecting texts are uncomfortable reading today as we now know more of the facts from that era. Lucie certainly echoed the message the Soviet regime hoped to advance among wavering and then erstwhile allies in the chaotic end of the war.

Eddie’s delightful hand-drawn map in the endpapers of I Married a Russian shows the two main buildings of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute (UPTI) on either side of her flat. We don’t see those buildings today. Her map is not to scale, though, and as we walk behind the apartment building, we see a dilapidated brick and concrete wall nearly hidden by trees. A sign on the guard building indicates that we have found the physics institute. Whether abandoned, still in use, or contaminated, it is clear that we are not meant to enter.

It’s getting late and shadows begin to crowd around the narrow lane. A question half-formed, taking shape along with other unseemly notions, now seems urgent and necessary to ask.

Edna Cooper’s and her husband Kirill Sinelnikov’s intriguing, nearly-forgotten lives deserve their chronicler, but it cannot be me. My fragmentary Russian would be no help researching the now-available archives and secret police files. I also sympathize strongly with Eddie, while recoiling from what I’m beginning to understand about her and Kira’s possible accommodations with the regime. Someone more objective should ask the question.

The answer I don’t want to learn is both obvious and eighty years later may be unprovable. And yet, glancing at my companion, I don’t know if this question should be voiced. She looks at me lovingly, having indulged another of my quests to dig into a long-forgotten history. Am I really so different from Eddie, here for a romance that stretches across a continent and a culture that perhaps can never fully be bridged?

We begin walking back, elated with our success. But the truth is, we aren’t sure if we have seen Eddie and Kira’s flat or the institute as they knew them. What remains was heavily reconstructed after the war, and this part of the world is not overly-fond of preserving the past. Perhaps the many flowerbeds and trees clustered around these buildings are Eddie’s true legacy. We are simply pleased to know that we’ve visited the place they once called home, and to have honored the memory of their friends and colleagues unfortunate enough to have sought refuge in their life’s work here, only to be unjustly accused, jailed, or executed.

It’s already dark and we want to enjoy an evening in the city. Suddenly, my question slithers out, darting formless and hideous between us. I am ashamed and I curse myself for what I could not suppress. 

A few steps together in silence. Then another squeeze of the hand and a sad smile. “Of course,” she answers. “Of course they did.” She points to another building. And another. “Just like someone who lived there, and over there.”

“They survived,” she whispers, looking away. Finally reaching the end of the lane, we leave Tchaikovsky’s shades behind us and are whisked along with the bustle of Pushkin’s street.

March 2019

Kharkiv

#16 Tchaikovsky Lane
Sign for the institute

Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of northern New Hampshire. He has travelled extensively in Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Estonia. He enjoys exploring lesser-known places, reading with a special focus on fiction in translation, and writing about forgotten people and places. This is his first published piece. Twitter: @herbrandall 

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