The first place I remember was a big room, divided by a partition, in a rather spacious communal apartment in Moscow. I lived there in the late 30’s with my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandfather, Leon Trotsky (born Lev Bronstein), was in exile in Mexico, where he would be murdered in 1940 on orders of Stalin. His elder son, Lev Sedov, who had gone into exile at the same time as his father, would die under mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1938. As for my own father, Trotsky’s younger son, Sergei Sedov, when last seen he had been in a prison in Krasnoyarsk, sent there after being arrested in 1935 and sentenced on charges of conspiracy against the state. My mother, finally, was serving a ten-year term in the vast labor-camp complex of Kolyma, in northeastern Siberia.
I knew my mother was in Kolyma, since Grandma was always sending her food parcels, but I never really knew why she was there. I had never asked either of my grandparents about it, and of course I never asked any questions at all about my father. As a kind of safety measure, my grandparents never told me anything, and I never pressed them—partly, I suppose, because I got all the love and care I needed (maybe even more) and partly because I didn’t want to put my beloved grandmother on the spot.
Our life together in Moscow came to a sad end in 1951. One of the rooms in our communal apartment—a dingy room that had once been a bathroom—was occupied by a handsome, gray-haired old lady who turned out to be an informer for the secret police. Because of her, or maybe for some other reason, they came to get us on the night of May 10, 1951. They searched our apartment and Grandma kept asking Grandpa, “Misha, what did you do? Tell me what you did, Misha.” “I didn’t do anything,” Grandpa kept saying over and over. They took him away first, then Grandma, and me they took to an orphanage. Grandpa was seventy-two, Grandma was sixty-seven, and I was fifteen.
I stayed in the vigilantly guarded orphanage for three months, living with girls from all sorts of backgrounds (the boys lived separately), until the day I was taken from the orphanage and brought to a freight train standing some distance from the railway station—right into the arms of my grandparents. They had been sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia as “socially dangerous elements” and I was to go with them into exile. The train brought us to Novosibirsk, where we were put into a pre-transit jail while we waited for the convoy to start out.
The heat in Novosibirsk was unbearable. They fed us rotten fish which smelled awful and a lot of people got diarrhea. The wooden bucket that served as a toilet stood right on the floor of our cell and we slept in cramped double-decker bunks lined up against the walls. I had a spot on the upper level, and Grandma was down on the floor.
Among the women in our cell was a niece of Julius Martov, the leader of the Social Democratic faction opposed to the Bolsheviks (she had met her uncle once in her whole life—at the age of fourteen) and also the wife and daughter of Lenin’s old comrade, Serge Eismont. I also remember many girls in their twenties from Estonia and Latvia, who had already served five-year terms in labor camps and were now going into exile like us. It was in Novosibirsk that I first met common (i.e., nonpolitical) criminals and came to know those black vans used for transporting prisoners that have been described so often in Soviet prison-camp literature.
In 1952, when I was going on sixteen, I left my grandparents and went to live with my mother in a village called Yagodny, about 350 miles north of Magadan, high up in the Kolyma mountain range. Mother had completed her ten-year term but was still serving five years of compulsory residence in Siberia. The two of us didn’t hit it off too well. For one thing, I couldn’t bring myself to address her as “Mom,” for this term just wasn’t part of my vocabulary. Even when I had a child myself, ten years later, I felt funny when he called me “Mom,” and to this day it’s hard for me to sign my letters to him that way.
I was not alone in my problems. At the school I attended—I was in ninth grade—there were some kids with normal families, most often people who had come to Kolyma voluntarily to work under contract to the government. But the rest were children of political prisoners whose lives had been disrupted in one way or another. Some had lived with their mothers while their fathers were doing time and had then come to Kolyma after their fathers’ release. Others—the majority—had been stuck in orphanages while both parents were serving time.
Kolyma had its own traditions. One of them was that the “contractors” did not socialize with the ex-“convicts,” and intermarriage between the two groups was extremely rare. Despite this, everyone knew everyone else’s business and nothing could be kept hidden for long. Once, to give a trivial example, I was having a typical schoolgirl romance with a boy from a higher grade. One day, without a word of explanation, he stopped talking to me, and refused even to look at me when we passed in the corridor. I was hurt and mystified until a neighbor of his family dropped in one day and told us that the boy’s parents (“contractors” and party members, I suppose) had forbidden him to go out with me because of our family connection.
Apart from the gossip, the main thing I remember about Kolyma was the cold. Temperatures in winter were 45-50 degrees below zero centigrade, and there were plenty of stray cats wandering around with their ears frozen off to prove it. We lived in a wooden shed (with an outhouse in the yard) that was barely warmed by a wood-burning stove and two electric heaters which were never turned off. There was no plumbing, of course, so water was brought in every day and kept in a tub by the door. In winter the water froze solid, and we had to chop up the ice into small pieces and then melt it. The cold was especially hard on the two dogs and innumerable cats we had hanging around the place (my mother was an animal lover); the dogs particularly would often singe their fur trying to get warm on the electric heaters.
In January 1953 Stalin died—“So he’s croaked at last,” was my mother’s reaction upon hearing the news. My grandparents were now free to leave Siberia, though they were denied permission to live in Moscow. I for some reason was exempt from this prohibition, probably because of my age. Back in Moscow I enrolled in a two-year technical school to study chemistry, not because I loved the subject but because I had common sense. My calculations proved correct: with a chemistry degree I never had much of a problem finding a job either in the Soviet Union or, later, in the United States.
Soon after our return, Grandpa died and Grandma moved closer to Moscow. We began living together once more, renting dismal rooms in dismal apartments while waiting for a permanent room of our “own.” In 1957 or ’58 we managed to get one in a three-room communal apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, which we shared with two other families. I graduated from the technical school, got myself a job, and started taking college courses at night to qualify for a regular degree.
Thinking back on it now, I realize that the families of both my maternal grandparents were not very Jewish. (About my father’s side of the family I naturally know a lot less, to this day.) Grandma’s grandfather had been a cantonist—a young Jewish boy conscripted at a very early age into Czar Nicholas I’s army, and required to serve for twenty-five years. The families of cantonists were allowed to live in areas generally barred to Jews, but in the course of things they often lost their Jewish identity (some of the young conscripts had to undergo forced baptism). Grandma’s family seems to have been thoroughly assimilated even before the Revolution; so far as I could tell, there was nothing the least bit Jewish about them. There were twelve children in the family, of whom Grandma was the eldest, and all of them, boys and girls alike, got a good education and went on to more advanced studies. Grandma’s brothers, a jolly crew, drank a lot and I was very fond of them.
Grandpa’s family was just as assimilated. He was the eldest of eight children, followed by my Uncle Ilyusha and six others. According to family lore (which I learned only as an adult), Uncle Ilyusha had urged the whole family to leave right after the Revolution, and never forgave them for not doing so, but Grandpa and the sisters refused, the latter screaming that they could never leave a country that had produced Tolstoy and Chekhov. In the years ahead these sisters at least never had any children to worry about, but the brother’s daughter served time in Soviet prisons, just as my mother did.
As for my own generation—that of the grandchildren—many of us wanted to emigrate, but I turned out to be the fastest.
I met my future husband, a fellow chemistry student and a fellow Jew, at a party given at the college we both attended. Three months later we went on vacation together in the south, and decided to marry as soon as we got back. I had told him about my family connections but he let me know right away that he had no intention of informing his parents.
As it turned out, however, his mother had already heard the dread news, and when we got back to Moscow, with me a little bit pregnant, there was an uproar. His father instructed him to forget about marriage and to come home immediately—and this, mind you, was already 1960!
My future father-in-law was not just a party member, but had actually worked for the secret police in the 1930’s. Though he had tasted all the hardships of being a Jew in the Soviet Union—first at college, then in graduate school, then later on at his various jobs—his devotion to the Communist party never wavered. I don’t know which impulse was stronger, loyalty to the party or love of his son, though in the end I would have to say that the latter prevailed.
My fiancé begged me to let him live at home for a while, till his parents got used to the idea of our marriage, but that was exactly what I didn’t want. I had never met people like them before—Jewish party members who had worked for the Cheka—and we fought about it day and night. Once I remember shouting, “People like your father used to kill people like my father!” and he shouted back that rice gets cleaner when you throw away the bad grains. (I think he was quoting Beria.) Generally, my husband was very “right-wing” in his views but then he would suddenly reverse himself, and I always got nervous when he started expressing his political opinions in public.
We fought for about five months, until his father finally resigned himself to the situation. To mark the reconciliation, we went to visit his parents, and I remember having great difficulty kissing my father-in-law—he had a huge potbelly and I was very pregnant by that time. About a month after this visit my father-in-law died and my husband and I began fighting even more, since he blamed his father’s death on me. When our son was born, we fought more than ever, this time because my husband insisted on naming the boy David after his father, despite my furious objections. I had nothing against the name itself but it seemed to me that for parents in the Soviet Union to give their baby a Jewish name was like stamping a six-pointed yellow star on its forehead with their own hands. In the end I won, and got my husband’s permission to change the boy’s name from David to Vadim. The result of it all was that we hardly ever called our son by his first name. Instead we referred to him as “the Boy,” as in “Where’s the Boy?” or “Has the Boy eaten yet?”
Now, twenty-five years later, when I visit my ex-sister-in-law in New York City, I gaze at my father-in-law’s picture on the wall and think how amazed he would be if he had the slightest inkling of where his progeny are today, and where his own picture now hangs!
My married life seems in retrospect one long housing problem. At first my husband came to live with Grandma and me; that made three of us (four, after our son was born) in one room. The other occupants of the three-room apartment were a carpenter and his wife and two children and a woman who had just returned from a ten-year stint in a labor camp. Eventually, Grandma died and the woman from the camp moved out, which made things roomier but brought us into closer contact with the carpenter’s family.
The carpenter was an alcoholic—not of the rowdy sort, but he did sometimes pee in the hallway—and in private I used to call his family “the troglodytes.” One day my son asked me what the word meant, and I made the mistake of telling him it meant “cave people.” The next time I saw the carpenter he growled, “So you think we’re cave people, eh?” and from then on we were in a state of war which ended with my husband beating up the carpenter and our moving.
This was now about 1970, and there was a terrific housing shortage in Moscow. The only way to move was to try and work out some kind of exchange with other people. There were a few spots in the city where people looking for apartments would congregate, walking around in a circle with placards describing what they had to offer and what they were looking for. Eventually, we managed to arrange one of these complicated exchanges but it was far from a total success. Six or seven years later we got involved in still another housing exchange that was so complex it can hardly be explained without diagrams; suffice it to say that my husband and I had to get divorced and remarried in order to put the plan into effect.
By this time, in any case, our days in the Soviet Union were numbered. Anti-Semitism was growing worse, and apart from the problem it posed for someone with my lack of self-control, it was also beginning to take its toll of our son. More than once my husband was called in for talks with school officials (I always went in his place) and I soon gathered from these talks that my son, along with virtually every other Jewish boy in the school, was being required to defend his dignity in constant fistfights. All that the school authorities wanted from me was to explain to my son that he shouldn’t react so badly to the word Jew (the word kike was never mentioned, of course). All I wanted in turn was for the school authorities to stop the practice of listing a student’s nationality in the class roster.
There were no winners in this struggle, but when the Boy in due course finally graduated from high school, he at least could claim victory of a kind: he had managed to get through school without ever joining the Komsomol—no easy feat.
Around that time the Boy got his passport with a photograph of himself and the word “Jew” printed in big letters. His father came home from work, took a close look at the passport, and said: “We’ve got to leave.” For once we were in agreement, though there were all sorts of arrangements to be made and hurdles to be overcome before we could actually emigrate. Among the lesser of these was the resistance of my mother-in-law who was still as devoted as ever to her late husband’s ideals, and kept warning her son that what with the well-known unemployment problem in the U.S., he would never be able to find a job.
My mother was the first person to tell me about my father. She always said that for all the horrors of her years in Kolyma she never once regretted her decision to follow Sergei Sedov into exile, so extraordinary a person had he been.
According to my mother, Sergei left the Trotsky home very early, at the age of sixteen or so—not out of any political motives but out of a youthful passion for adventure. He wandered far and wide, then joined a traveling circus and worked with it until his marriage a few years later. This first marriage was to a woman some years his senior who worked as a librarian (her fate, I believe, was much like my mother’s). It was thanks to her that Sergei went back to school, and eventually became an engineer. In 1934, at the country house of some mutual friends, he met my mother (who was also married to someone else) and they soon began living together, though Mother always felt guilty toward the other woman. A year later Sergei was arrested, and according to my mother both women used to visit him in jail at the same time, both calling themselves “Sergei Sedov’s wife.” This was possible in those days, when rules about marriage and divorce were much looser.
Soon after his arrest Sergei was sent into exile in Krasnoyarsk, and everyone tried to talk Mother out of following him. When she persisted, her closest friends stopped talking to her. My grandparents were bitterly opposed, and in fact they never got over it. I still remember one incident connected to this that was for me the very worst moment of our own later exile. The three of us were sitting by the side of a dusty road in Siberia waiting for a convoy to move us. A local peasant woman had brought us some vegetables, and as we sat there eating them my grandmother started weeping and cursing my mother and saying over and over: “We told her not to go, we told her not to go.”
My parents’ married life together in Krasnoyarsk was very brief. When Mother was in her sixth month of pregnancy with me, Sergei was arrested again and kept in the pre-transit jail in Krasnoyarsk for about a month. The rules were not very strictly observed, and Mother was allowed to talk to him from the prison yard. He could see her from his cell window through a chink in that shutter device they use in prisons to block out the sky, but she couldn’t see him. One day he called down to her, “Go back to Moscow, they’re taking me away tomorrow.” The next day, when she returned to the prison, someone shouted from a window that Sergei had been taken away. Mother went back to Moscow, where she was treated like a leper by all her friends until she was herself arrested two years later and sent to Kolyma.
That is about all I am able to relate about my father’s life, but a more tangible reminder exists in the form of a group of letters he wrote to my mother from Krasnoyarsk in 1935, while waiting impatiently for her to arrive. After my mother’s arrest, these letters were kept for her—at great peril—by a close friend named Lev Okhimovich, the only non-family member who was brave enough to visit us during my childhood. In 1957 or ’58, when we finally got our own room in Moscow, Uncle Lyovushka, as I used to call him, handed the letters over to me for safekeeping and I returned them to Mother in 1960 when she left Kolyma for good and returned to the mainland. I remember her telling me at the time that Sergei had some stationery from Trotsky’s office in his possession, and sometimes used it, for his own amusement, when writing letters to his friends. A funny prank, but a dangerous one.
As a child in the Soviet Union, I once saw a documentary film about the behavioral scientist Ivan Pavlov. In one episode (the only one I remember) a huge flood engulfs St. Petersburg (or maybe it was already called Leningrad). Pavlov’s dogs lose all their conditioned reflexes and his assistant says to him, “Ivan Petrovich, all the reflexes are gone—as though swept away.” “That’s it exactly,” Pavlov replies, “they’ve been swept away in the flood.”
That is what happened to me after I emigrated—everything from the past seemed to have been swept away and I was thoroughly disoriented. To begin with, my husband and I separated. He had confessed on the eve of our departure that he was in love with another woman, who might soon be coming to join him, and there seemed to be no reason left for us to go on living together. On top of that, shortly after we arrived in the United States in the late 1970’s our son, amazingly enough, became a deeply observant Orthodox Jew. He changed his name back to David and announced his intention of emigrating to Israel as soon as possible.
As though all this were not confusing enough, about five months after we got here I had my first encounter with the American Left. The occasion was a meeting at New York University, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Trotsky’s birth. Somewhere in my wanderings I had seen a poster advertising the event, and I couldn’t contain my curiosity.
I’m not sure what I expected, but the event simply astounded me. Here we were at the very beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, and there was a huge black-and-green banner on the wall shouting, “Long live the revolution in Iran!” Given my lack of English, I could hardly understand the speeches, but it was not hard to guess what they were about—I had heard them before, after all. After the speeches came a documentary film tracing the history of Russia and the Soviet Union from czarist times to the present. First we saw the czar and his family, then the czar’s ministers, then Tolstoy; next we saw the Revolution, and the Civil War; finally, we saw Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin’s funeral, and last but not least Trotsky’s departure from the scene. I felt sure I was the only person in the room who could grasp the true meaning of these images, but there was no way I could communicate that knowledge.
When the meeting was over, I couldn’t resist revealing my identity to the people who had organized it. I had a feeling that they didn’t believe me, but they did introduce me, right then and there, to a man named Harold Robinson, who had been Trotsky’s bodyguard in Mexico. Harold and I soon became good friends, though I sometimes had to suppress the urge to kill the dear fellow.
He was a true believer—a man who had never lost faith in Trotsky’s ideas and his dream of a world revolution—and we never stopped arguing. He kept urging me to read Marx and I kept telling him I had been forced to swallow all that stuff for four years at college and hated it violently (as did all the other students). Most of all I hated the Marxist principle, which had constantly been drummed into us, that “freedom is the conscious recognition of necessity.” I understood the necessity part all too well, since my whole life had been dominated by it—I just couldn’t see any freedom in it. Telling all this to Harold was like talking to the wall. I had nothing but my experience to go on, after all, whereas he had a vision.
My son did finally emigrate to Israel, where he studied in a yeshiva, moved with his Orthodox wife to Hebron on the West Bank, and served in the army during the war in Lebanon. One night, watching the news on TV, I suddenly saw him on the screen driving an Israeli tank, and burst into tears. Up until then I had been quite sure he would sooner or later come back to the U.S.; now I realized that this was not to be.
Soon after, I went to visit my son in Israel and told him that I would rather have seen him in a chemistry institute in Moscow (to which he had been admitted shortly before we left) than driving an Israeli tank. He was deeply offended—and rightly so, as I have since come to understand. It took me a while to figure it out, but I now know that our departure from Russia was worthwhile if it gave a young man like him the chance to choose the road he wants to follow, and to live in a country he cares about so much that he would give his life to defend it. What Leon Trotsky, his atheist Bolshevik great-grandfather, the world revolutionist, would make of this Orthodox Israeli tankist is too dizzying a question even to contemplate. He must be turning in his grave.
Postscript: In November 1988 the Soviet government announced that it had “lifted all charges” against my father.