Dissident Russian mother and daughter discuss art, imprisonment and escapism in new memoir

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When Joseph Stalin’s regime offered Felix Lambersky riches to paint sunny Soviet propaganda, the Ukrainian Jewish artist refused. Instead, he painted scenes from the Holocaust in Ukraine and images of exhausted Russian coal workers.

After his death in 1970, Lambersky’s wife Lucia fled the Soviet Union for the United States, bringing 500 of his paintings and the hope that her daughter Galina and granddaughter Yelena would soon join her. In their new memoirs”Like a drop of ink in a downpour“, mother and daughter tell the story of the art that traveled with them to the United States.

Felix Lembersky, “Babyn Yar” series, oil on canvas, circa 1944-52. (Courtesy)

Prior to this trip out of Soviet territory, Galina Lembersky moved her mother, daughter, and all the paintings to a small apartment away from Galina’s husband, who had become a Soviet informant.

On the outskirts of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, the apartment looked like any other housing built in Russia and Ukraine at the time, says Yelena Lembersky. She remembers finding beauty in the little things: the resin and the sap on the bark of the pines; the sun breaking the gray sky with blue streaks; flowering poplars.

“Every time I see these bombed buildings in Ukraine, I feel like my old neighborhood is collapsing,” says Yelena Lembersky. “The buildings weren’t very nice, but we spent a lot of time outside in the forest.”

At the time, people who asked to leave the Soviet Union were considered enemies. Yelena Lembersky recalls an elementary school teacher telling her class that people who want to leave the homeland are traitors.

Felix Lembersky, "Stairs," gouache on paper, Nizhny Tagil, 1958, gouache on paper.  (Courtesy)
Felix Lembersky, “Staircase”, gouache on paper, Nizhny Tagil, 1958, gouache on paper. (Courtesy)

One day, Yelena Lembersky came home from school to find KGB agents ransacking their apartment. Shortly after her mother left the Soviet Union with the paintings, Galina Lembersky was sent to prison and then to a labor camp on a false charge.

Galina Lembersky writes that women in the camp fashioned sticky bread into small toys in the shape of foxes and bears while their children survived without them. At first, she couldn’t stand going out in the cold to use the toilet or eating the gray, smelly camp porridge.

“I didn’t think of [the] future at that time,” says Galina Lembersky. “My goal was to survive, to fight, to get back to my daughter.”

From the camp, Galina Lembersky wrote her daughter letters criticizing her spelling and storytelling abilities.

“My love, encourage self-criticism towards everything you do,” wrote Galina Lembersky, “or you will never improve.”

The letters helped Yelena Lembersky to feel her mother’s strength from afar.

“We were together, but I never felt alone,” says Yelena Lembersky. “Even now that I’m in my 50s, I realize that I’m living my life with the advice she gave me in those letters.”

When Yelena Lembersky tried to read the chapter of “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour” about the loss of her mother at camp at a conference, she found no strength even 40 years after the incident. Revisiting her childhood memories for the book gave Yelena Lembersky a sense of gratitude she couldn’t feel as a child who only wanted her mother.

“When our plane took off from Leningrad, my mother and I made the decision not to talk about our past. We didn’t want to bring Russia — the repression, its ugliness — into our new life,” she says. “When we started writing, all those memories felt like it all happened yesterday.”

Felix Lembersky, "working town," Nizhny Tagil, the Urals, 1958, gouache on paper.  (Courtesy)
Felix Lembersky, “Working City”, Nizhny Tagil, the Urals, 1958, gouache on paper. (Courtesy)

Robin Young produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.


Extract from the book: “Like a drop of ink in a downpour”

By Galina and Yelena Lembersky

In the woods

A KNOCK AT THE DOOR, a dull, timid sound. Not mom’s.

All that morning of September 15, 1981, I had walked with my thumbs crossed in my fists – a Russian superstition: hold your thumbs and think of someone for good luck. . . .

She wouldn’t let me come with her to the trial. “You don’t need to see this circus.”

Some had advised him to “take the child – for the leniency and compassion of the jury”.

“Like hell, they’ll have compassion,” she said.

I watched her from my window as she walked down the muddy path, walking over islets of broken concrete. She walked to the metro station on Leninsky Avenue and did not detour to Schastlivaya (Lucky) Street, even though I asked her. Too bad, I thought. She turned to face me and continued to back away. “Good luck! Good luck!” I screamed so she could hear me. And then, quietly, so that luck would fly to her like a swarm of bees, I gave her a big wave, only to feel pain in her wrists. In case.

I recognized Mom’s footsteps – rap-ta-tap with the echo of the stairs, the sound of her plum purse against the door, her keys laughing inside, playing hide and seek with her hands. The door opened and she sailed away in a strong wind with plans and ideas, new missions for me and a review of everything I had done in her absence.

This blow is not his. I open the door. It’s Zenia. One of Mom’s many work friends. Zhenia stands on our landing, leafing through her crumpled handbag, crossing and uncrossing her feet in short slippers trimmed with a thin strip of fur. She can rock upright like that, I think. Zhenia, once a teacher, now a hairdresser. Standing in front of me, she rustles in her mind through pages of tween psychology textbooks, bracing herself for a difficult heart-to-heart conversation.

I cut it. “Should I get my things back?

On the way to Zhenia’s house, she keeps watching me sideways, waiting to see my eyes turn red and swollen. They won’t. Not when you descend into the pit of the subway station with the stench of burnt rubber. Not when we’re standing on the platform strewn with dirt and sawdust that a janitor is mopping around our feet. Not when a train jolts and thrashes and we clutch the handrails and passengers’ coats to stay upright. Not after we ate dinner of hot dogs and mashed potatoes, and Zhenia made my bed, moving her son into a rollaway aluminum bed. She said to him: “Alëna’s mother is gone. Alëna will stay with us until she returns. I am not happy with his hospitality. It’s not his fault.

Felix Lembersky, "lying woman" 1964, oil on canvas.  (Courtesy)
Felix Lembersky, “Recumbent Woman” 1964, oil on canvas. (Courtesy)

Zhenia tells me that school officials will come to her house to inspect my new accommodation. She lowers her voice. “He is very important. They will decide if you can stay with us or be sent to an orphanage.

I imagine an orphanage, a house of dark red brick, where children with blue veins on their temples look out of the windows and greet passers-by. I feel a sudden affinity for them. I imagine living among these children, all of us without parents, bound by our misfortune.

Zhenia continues to speak: “A children’s asylum is worse than a prison. Have you ever read Dickens?

My homeroom teacher comes the next day. She is young and new to my school. Zhenia looks deep into her eyes, with seriousness and understanding, teacher to teacher. My young teacher looks at his feet. “Please excuse me. I need to see where Alëna will live.

She also doesn’t want a heart-to-heart conversation.

Zhenia slips down the hallway. “Here is our living room and the library. We have the multi-volume set of the children’s encyclopedia. And the classics: Jules Verne, James Fenimore Cooper, Thomas Mayne Reid, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“HM hm.” My teacher nods and stands on tiptoes behind her.

Zhenia points to her son’s bedroom, his bed where I will sleep and his office where I will do my homework. She offers tea to my teacher.

“No no No! Don’t worry, I saw what I needed.

She and the principal of my school, Rimma Pavlovna, recommended to RONO, the district education department, that I should live with Zhenia and stay at my school until my mother returns. It is approved.

Then everything is calm.

Rimma Pavlovna sees me in the hallway and says: “Hello, Alëna, how is life?

“It’s good.”

“Good.” The principal walks away.

No bleeding-heart conversations.

No one talks to me about mom. I don’t mention it either. I live in a capsule. There was an earthquake. A meteor collided with my life. Some time ago, I had a house and big plans. Now my mother is gone and I live with a family I barely know. But everything else is business as usual. Unusual, ordinary, banal. All of this is incongruous with what is real to me.

As usual, the mouth of my geography teacher speaks of the mines and forges of the Urals. As usual, a girl named Tanya styles her pretty red hair during class. Vlas throws a ball of paper at Vorona. At the back of the class, Díma and Korol cut their fingers with a razor blade, suck the blood, and look around to see if the girls notice the middle school vampires. Our Russian teacher explains the interjections. Anya quietly echoes, “Ooochhh!” Ahhh!”

I laughed.

“Get up now,” the teacher shouts at me. “What’s so funny?”

“Not a lot.”

“You’ll be standing at your desk until class is over!”

Everything is as usual. Ordinary. Absurd and unnecessary. I am there, but not really there. I am elsewhere in a pit of ashes.

Excerpt from “Like a drop of ink in a downpour” by Galina and Yelena Lembersky. Copyright © 2022. Retrieved with permission from Cherry Orchard Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

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