Friday, 21 September 2012

Averbakh 14: What was home life like in the former Soviet Union?

The Western reader used to a comparatively secure existence might look for the trappings of life similar to his own. He might observe that in Averbakh's childhood his family possessed a piano (page 20), which sounds very middle class and indicative of a capacious dwelling. This was far from the case, rather more a matter of parents doing what they could for their children in trying circumstances. The grandmaster relates (page 24) that he lived in a communal apartment: his family had two rooms. There was no hot water, no gas, nor electric light. Everyone cooked in a communal kitchen … And sanitation? … there was a cesspool outside the windows … in the summer we were pestered with flies. Therefore, I expect this piano wasn't a concert or baby grand, say a Blüthner, but more probably an upright, which could be pushed against a wall (one hopes the neighbours liked the sound of children practising, maybe they were out at such times!). Before the Khrushchev era in the 1950s, there was a desperate shortage of housing.

It's time to adapt an uncommon transliteration of a name in connection with the piano, it's on page 20; not practise the works of Gedik, instead more usual would be: then I started to learn the works of the composer Goedicke. The entire sentence (which I've not translated) in Russian is:

Сначала я добросовестно играл гаммы, затем стал разучивать произведения композитора Гедике.

Goedicke is almost certainly not a name familiar to Western chess players (I'm not sure whether the typical listener to classical music in the West will be able to pinpoint him either. It may be inattentiveness on my part, for I can't recall hearing any score of his on BBC Radio Three, a British radio station devoted to classical music. My copy of The Oxford Companion to Music has: Gedike: see Goedicke and no entry for Goedicke). Alexander Fyodorovich Goedicke (1877-1957) won the Anton Rubinstein Prize in 1900 and was a professor of music at the Moscow Conservatory. One can listen to his music by googling composer Goedicke, it throws up several videos on YouTube. The composer Reingol'd Moritzevich Gliere (1875-1956), also mentioned on that page by Averbakh, is a little better known, he actually has an entry in my Oxford Companion. Perhaps mention of his life span would have sufficed for a footnote, given that Averbakh refers to the best known of Gliere's works.

Reverting to the theme of home-life in the Soviet Union, quite a few Western readers won't understand the background to the following (page 17):

This decision was necessary, because life in the capital had deteriorated noticeably. There were problems getting foodstuffs, and a ration system was introduced. My father's pay started to become inadequate to support a family with two children, and my mother had to seek work.
In 1928, the year under discussion, the New Economic Policy came under heavy attack. In his book The Whisperers (ISBN 978-0-713-99702-6), Professor Orlando Figes of London University's Birkbeck College wrote (page 7):

The New Economic Policy which Lenin introduced … in March 1921, replaced food requisitioning with a relatively lenient tax in kind and legalised the return of small scale private trade and manufacturing … As Lenin saw it, the NEP was a temporary but necessary concession to the smallholding peasantry … to get the country on its feet again… Private trade responded quickly … private cafés, shops and restaurants, night clubs and brothels, hospitals and clinics, credit and savings associations, even small scale manufacturers sprang up like mushrooms after the rain.
On pages 71-5, Professor Figes added of one Nepman (the term used to describe small traders and the like):

In 1928, the Moscow Soviet again imposed a special business tax on small traders … arrested, imprisoned briefly in Moscow and then sent into exile into Nizhni Novgorod. The arrest was part of a nationwide assault on private trade, which began in 1927 …
The Bolsheviks had always been ambivalent about the NEP, but many of their proletarian supporters, who could not afford the prices charged by private shops, were firmly opposed to it. … a second major breakdown took place in 1927-8, when a poor harvest coincided with a shortage of consumer goods… Denouncing the grain crisis as a "kulak strike", Stalin called for a return to the requisitionings of the Civil War…
Thousands of Nepmen were imprisoned or driven from their homes. By the end of 1928, more than half the 400,000 private businesses registered in 1926 had been taxed out of existence or closed down by the police; by the end of 1929, only one in ten remained. New restrictions … made life even harder for the families of Nepmen. Rationing cards (introduced in 1928) were denied … More frequently than before, their families were expelled from state housing, and their children barred from Soviet schools and universities.
As an aside, American readers might be aware that Dr Armand Hammer, who later in life ran the oil giant Occidental Petroleum, made a lot of money in the 1920s through his dealings with the Soviets.

Let us return to Averbakh's family life. On page 35 of his book we are told that his mother worked in the trust called Soyuzkhimontazh. No explanation is provided. This enormous trust was established in 1931. Its purpose was the construction of chemical engineering plants. It was also responsible for the provision of specialists and suitable equipment.
On page 40 there is a sketch of the childhood friend, writer and critic Arkady Belinkov, later to be another victim of the Georgian tyrant (the list is practically boundless), it could be of interest to literary scholars. Towards the end of his account, Averbakh states that Belinkov's mother was repressed, the talk was: How can she be allowed to bring up other people's children, when she couldn't bring up her own son properly? Such was the logic of Stalin's Soviet Union. On this page Averbakh relates that she was the victim of a campaign against Jews in the late 1940s. The best known narrative of this particular repression, certainly, is the murder in 1948 of Solomon Mikhoels. But there were others, for instance the author of the standard Russian-Yiddish dictionary Eli Spivak (1890-1950). He was a leading authority on Yiddish as spoken in the former Soviet Union. He produced some fifty publications. He was arrested in 1949, dying in Moscow's Lefortovo prison more than a year later.

On page 114 the reader is effectively told that the size of accommodation available in the 1950s had not improved from thirty years before. A typo is that there is no squared after qualifying 11.8 metres (the Russian is correct); however, of greater moment, I'd have liked to have seen an indication in imperial units, in the form of a footnote, to assist older readers in the English speaking world. For the record, this is about 130 square feet. Thus a nearly square-shaped flat (to use British English, the translator favoured a mix of flat and the American apartment), assuming that to have been the case, would have been roughly ten by thirteen feet, for an entire family! Note that the kitchen in which Averbakh wrote his famous series of endgame books was probably communal, shared by all those on the same floor in a housing block. He really did have to write at night, to obtain privacy.

A trickier point, which perhaps is unimportant, is that there is no explanation of maid in the clause: which I shared with my wife, child and maid. In English, the noun maid carries connotations of class differences, how could that be in the workers' and peasants' paradise? The problem is that it is not easy to translate words such as domashniye or prisluga. The maid might have been a relative, such as a babushka, or a widow with some connection, close or distant, to the parents. There was a huge disparity in the populations of the two sexes following the catastrophic losses of World War Two.

1 comment:

Bernard Cafferty said...

A better translation of Domashniye is people in the household. Or, if actual relatives, in the family unit. Also to be considered is the domestics. Soviet literature, and cartoons in the satirical magazine Krokodil, have a number of references to the tensions caused by the need to use communal facilities for which, naturally, a queue would form at times.

A jokey Soviet term one comes across is Khruschovka or Khruschoba, a play on the words Khruschov and Truschoby, the latter meaning slums or an area of poor-quality housing erected in the 1950-60s. The name of Khruschov is linked to a massive civil construction effort, which resulted in massive blocks of flats being erected in the 1950s and 1960s.

Averbakh's comments about domestic conditions occur in only the second Russian chess book to give so much detail on this aspect of Soviet life, the first being Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik in Achieving the Aim. Botvinnik was aware that he was dealing with matters that would be of interest to later generations and, moreover, not just to chess players but to social historians. For the second half of the Flohr match, in Leningrad, Botvinnik did not like his assigned hotel room, which was cold, so he called on his mother to ask if she would feed him if he lived with her. He describes the residence at 88 Nevsky Prospect as a large communal flat with seven families sharing it. He describes his mother's allocated space as 10-metres long, but so narrow that when he did his usual morning exercises he had to stand sideways, otherwise his knuckles would scrape the wall. This comes on page 37.