For followers of the émigré writers spawned by the Soviet Union in its waning days — writers like Lara Vapnyar, Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis — the bare outlines of Masha Gessen’s biography should be familiar. Born in 1967 to a computer scientist father and a translator mother, she spent her early years, precocious yet withdrawn, in Brezhnev’s Moscow. Then, in 1981, carrying only what could fit in a handful of cheap cardboard suite cases, Gessen, her parents and her younger brother immigrated to the United States. Overcoming the émigré’s traditional hurdles, linguistic and otherwise, Gessen went to the prestigious Cooper Union and began a career in journalism.
But this is where Gessen’s path diverges from that of her literary kin. In late 1993, after more than a decade in the United States and after a number of trips to the newly post-Communist Russia, she gave up her San Francisco apartment and took up permanent residence in her native Moscow, a move made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was an out lesbian relocating to an environment not known for its receptiveness to gay life.
A respected voice both in Russia and the United States — she is the deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod, Moscow’s largest independent weekly, and a frequent contributor to such American outlets as Slate and The New Republic — Gessen’s career today is in full swing. And with a sprawling, ambitious new book, “Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace,” Gessen has proved herself an able chronicler not only of the Russian present, but the Russian past as well.
Composed at once with a journalist’s skepticism, a scholar’s rigor and a grandchild’s devotion, it’s likely that Gessen’s book never would have been written had she not returned to Moscow. Although the narrative stretches deep into the familial past, the people and places described in it are utterly untainted by nostalgia, and with good reason: Gessen’s grandmothers are still very much alive. (One lives down the stairs from her; the other, just a few blocks away.) Her two grandmothers — “Two Babushkas” is the title of the book’s British edition — are, for the author, not some entryway into a sentimentalized past, but role models for the Russia of today.
With her two children — a boy, Vova, 7, and a girl, Yael, 3 — safely asleep, Gessen was free to answer the Forward’s phone call.
“Nostalgia?” she asked. “My grandmothers had such difficult lives, there’s little for them to feel nostalgic about.”
Ester Goldberg, later Gessen, was born in Bialystok in 1923 to a Zionist father and a Bundist mother. Although Ester was an early bloomer who attracted the attention of suitors when she was as young as 12, her childhood was marred by a burgeoning Polish antisemitism. After the war broke out and Bialystok came under Soviet control, she went to Moscow to study literature. Midway through the war she met up with her mother in the Siberian city of Biysk, where they suffered through terrible food shortages but were at least away from the front. Ester was pressured to become an army informant, but she refused, an act of conscience that made life for her mother and herself that much more difficult. In Biysk she married Boris Gessen, a wounded veteran with whom she was ultimately able to find her way back to Moscow. Being a Jew made finding work quite difficult for Ester after the war, but she ultimately secured a post with a literary journal — a post that she held for more than 40 years.
Ester, according to her granddaughter, is a born storyteller. Her tales have been polished to perfection, “with a beginning, a middle, an end and a punch line.” But for the journalist in Gessen, such perfection rankles. Their very polish makes Ester’s stories suspect. Gessen prefers her other grandmother’s stories, or at least her storytelling technique. “Ruzya’s stories are always a little different,” she said, “which is much more the way that living memory works.” Gessen said that to hear Ruzya retell a story can always yield something unexpected. “She will always remember some new detail or other.”
Although born in the Pale of Settlement, Ruzya and her family, like many Jews at the time, moved to Moscow when Ruzya was still a young girl. She studied history and worked during the war in Turkmenistan, teaching German at a military college. Her husband died at the front, leaving her the 22-year-old single mother of an infant daughter. After the war, she got a job at Glavlit, the Head Directorate on Literature — as a censor. She began censoring foreign novels and, ultimately, correspondents reporting from Moscow for foreign papers, including The New York Times. Gessen’s grandmother might well have been one of the best read, best informed of all Soviet citizens.
Writing and translating runs as a theme throughout the book. It binds the author and her subjects. In one of the book’s great ironies, Gessen points out how, if time were compressed, her grandmother could have served as her censor.
Was it strange to write so Russian a story in English, especially given that Russian is the language in which Gessen speaks not only with her grandmothers, but with her children as well?
“It wasn’t strange at all,” she said. “It was actually kind of wonderful. English offered me the distance that I needed. English is, in some ways, a much easier language in which to write about things that happened in this country. It’s sometimes difficult in Russian to gain access to words. English is more forgiving. It forgives ideology, it forgives sentimentality, it forgives you a lot that sounds off in Russian.”