New novel reveals the bygone Stalinist Moscow

Natalia Gromova's work "Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the Archives," recently released by Glagoslav Publications, reveals Moscow as it was in a bygone age. This city of old is now only found on maps, but it is an era that continues to haunt us today. RBTH is publishing an exclusive extract from the book.

Chapter 6. The House That Flew Away
A story
Whenever I had a fight with my parents, I would always imagine that I had been a foundling child. This started when I was around ten years old. Any reproach from my father was all it took for me to think: I probably wasn’t their own child, they were concealing the truth from me, and somewhere out there my real parents were walking around, they would never raise their voices at me, and they certainly wouldn’t cuff me on the nape. My tears would flow as I felt sorry for myself.
I would turn over these tragic, and, at the same time, sweet thoughts on our balcony. The balcony was small, with thick bars, and it hung over an enormous yard. The building consisted of communal apartments, though for some reason it was called “The Generals’”, and it featured a silver-painted Lenin in the flower bed, a skating rink with gypsum figures of Pioneers at the entrance, and a green gazebo built from wooden boards, from which one would hear the squealing of girls or the twang of a guitar in the evenings.
The balcony became my place of solitude for a long time, and there I would meditate on the vanity of all things. I would look out from the heights of the ninth floor at the little shapes of people below: perhaps my real mother and father were there among them, and they couldn’t even guess that I was watching them? The history I bore inside my head got increasingly intricate, someone turned out to be someone else, someone learned from someone else about my family’s past, and, a miracle!, finally everything would be cleared up. My current parents would get down on their knees before me and beg me not to leave them. At the end of the play that was acted out before my inner gaze, I forgave everyone. Everyone would embrace.
When the first warm days came, the balcony served as my bed. I placed an old mattress on its concrete floor, covered it with my father’s military cloak, and, when evening fell over the city, I would crawl into a sleeping bag. There, freezing, I would look through the bars at the endless space of the city lying under me. In the distance the Moscow River flowed on with little flames. Over it hung a metro bridge where shining metro carriages would run. I felt that I wasn’t lying there, I was flying over the City, and my balcony was the basket of a hot-air balloon setting off straight into the sky.
We ended up in this building in a completely miraculous way: our family received the right to move from a communal apartment on the outskirts to a 12-floor building on Prospekt Kalinina [now Novy Arbat street - RBTH], which furthermore stood right on the bank of the Moscow River. Back then my father had taken me, a nine-year old girl with braids down to my shoulders, to look at the new apartment. It was on the ninth floor. We spent a long time going up in the elevator with its varnished wood and mirrors gleaming on both sides. It took our breath away.
On a light-colored door a nameplate shown, where “Colonel Malyshev” was written in cursive. I looked at my father with surprise.
“Those are the neighbors we’ll have. Imagine, there is only one family living there now, and not ten like before.”
A door was opened to us by a gray-haired military man, but this turned out to be not Colonel Malyshev but Major Kuzhelkov; he was frantically tying books and clothes up into bundles, and his movements had a strange haste to them, as if he was trying to escape from there as quickly as possible. It was precisely in these two rooms that Kuzelkov was now emptying, that we were going to live.
My father leaned over him and cheerfully asked:
“Well, how’s life, comrade major, how are the neighbors?”
Kuzelkov shuddered. For a movement he froze over the boxes and, without lifting his gaze, he said:
Ah, yes… People are different. It didn’t work out for us. Maybe things will be different for you…
My father only answered by nodding cheerfully. It was obvious how much he liked the two large and well-lit rooms after the one room where the four of us had been living, how he was joyously looking down on Prospekt Kalinina with people swarming like ants, on the old lanes of the Arbat that were being demolished ahead, and how he was happy to see a new Moscow being built. He grabbed me under my arms and set me before the enormous window, so that I would feel the same surge of happiness that he did.
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