WASHINGTON — On March 5, 1953, before dawn, I was awakened by the sounds of the allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Josef Stalin was dead.
It wasn't my love for Stalin that made me cry. It was fear. I thought of the faceless functionaries who stood with him on the mausoleum during parades, people I couldn't distinguish from one another.
Now one of them would become the Great Leader.
God help us all.
On March 7, my friend Mira Samoylovna Malkina and I went to say farewell to Comrade Stalin, whose body lay in state. I had to be out there, in the streets. I wanted to see it, to be able to tell my children and grandchildren about it. But I was four months pregnant with my second child, and I should have recognized the danger of being in a crowd that size.
As we came closer to Pushkin Square, the crowd grew bigger. The space around me was getting tighter. Now the crowd was carrying me toward a wrought-iron fence on Tverskoy Boulevard. I felt pressed against the fence. Then I heard Samoylovna's voice: "Help her! She is pregnant!" She was screaming to a mounted militiaman.
The next thing I felt was a militiaman lifting me out of the crowd.
"So why are you here, you fool?" he said, setting me down on the other side of the fence. . . .
Five decades ago, future Soviet leaders and future Soviet dissidents sat in the same schoolrooms, listening to the same teachers impart the same, standard wisdom. Even the photograph in those classrooms was the same: Comrade Stalin holding a little girl and an enormous bouquet. The little, round-faced girl, wearing a sailor suit, looked like one of the flowers; and Comrade Stalin looked, well, fatherly.
I was born in 1927, three years after he came to power. In 1937, when I was 10, people began to vanish from our Moscow apartment building. I saw nothing wrong with the disappearances and asked no questions. I knew no other life.
Landmark events that defined stages in my generation's development can be pinpointed to the day, sometimes even to the minute. The first occurred on June 22, 1941, at exactly 4 a.m., the start of the German invasion. At school, we had been told that our armed forces were invincible. Now the army was retreating toward Moscow, losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The retreat gave us an inkling of doubt about our teachers. Could they have been lying to us?
The end of the war did not put our doubts to rest. And it did nothing to ease the nebulous sense that something was missing. I was not happy, and I didn't know anyone who was. If the Revolution of 1917 was made in the name of our happy future, then where was that future? Could there have been some defect in the system, or in our leaders, or in me personally? Why was I having such thoughts, which could not be shared with others?
On March 5, 1953, when the radio broadcast the news of Stalin's death, most of us broke into tears because we were helpless; we cried because we had no rational way of predicting what would happen to us now; we cried because we sensed that, for better or for worse, an era had passed.
Since we knew no other life, we were not prepared to picture what came next: a period of liberalization that was subsequently named "the thaw," after a second-rate novella by Ilya Ehrenburg.
On Feb. 25, 1956, when I was nearing 30, Nikita Khrushchev shocked the entire nation with the revelation that the deceased Great Leader was actually a criminal. That put an end to our lonely questioning of the Soviet system. Young men and women began to lose their fear of sharing views, knowledge, beliefs, questions. Every night, we gathered in cramped apartments to recite poetry, read "unofficial" prose, and swap stories that, taken together, yielded a realistic picture of what was going on in our country.
That was the time of our awakening.
We had no leaders and no teachers. All we could do was learn from each other. Eager to shed the Stalinist doctrine of collectivism, we realized that each of us had a right to privacy. There is no word for "privacy" in the Russian language, but we stumbled upon the concept the word defines: we ceased to be cogs in the machine of state; we ceased to be faceless members of the "collective"; each of us was unique, and all of us had a right to uniqueness. Without asking permission from the party or the government, we asserted that writers had a right to write what they wanted; that readers had a right to choose what they read, and that each of us had a right to say what he thought.
We did not invent this pursuit of liberty; we reinvented it for ourselves and our country. Thanks to the efforts of our Father and Genius, we were ignorant about the West, where such ideas had been around for centuries. We also knew little about any political philosophy other than the Bolshevik brand of communism.