Stella Krymm's family moved to the Soviet Union from New York in 1933 and was detained there. She eventually received permission to leave the Soviet Union in 1946 and helped her brother get out of there in 1971. She died in 2003. An excerpt from her unfinished memoir Petrovsky Street is published here.
In 1994, Stella Krymm sent me a draft of the first fifty pages of her memoir, Petrovsky Street, which she would never finish writing. I held on to her pages, just as I held on to her tale of a family that moved from New York City to the Soviet Union in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, only to be detained there for many years. Stella was a child of seven when she arrived in Moscow. In 1946, when she finally received permission to leave, she was a young woman of twenty.
Stella and her husband, Rurik, were close friends of my parents, and over the years I learned bits and pieces of her family’s history. Because of Stella’s persistent efforts, her brother, Alexander Dolgun, was finally permitted to leave the Soviet Union in 1971, and on his way back to the United States, he and his family stopped in Vienna, Austria, where we all spent Christmas together. As a child, the fact that he’d emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and into our living room struck me as novelty.
Stella was a force of love, bringing wit, laughter, and warmth to her world. She also brought her Russian accent to English, German, and French, but I didn’t fully understand what had shaped her until I read her account. Her story is only one of several thousand United States’ citizens who moved to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Her brother’s experiences (different from hers) in prison and in various camps are described in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and in his own book, Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag. Stella died in 2003, seventeen years after her brother.
‘The Pig’ is an excerpt lifted directly from Stella Krymm’s account, initially typed on heavyweight paper and scribbled with page numbers twenty-four years ago.
— Sorayya Khan, Novelist & Guest Editor Papercuts Volume 20: Nomad
One fall day my father returned from another job outside Moscow with a two-week old suckling pig. Senka Porosenok, as we called him, was slated to be our Christmas dinner. Christmas, as a religious holiday, was no longer observed, but New Year’s Day was a time of celebration.
My father had acquired the pig in a village outside Moscow where he and two friends were engaged in a major overhaul job. As was the custom, they asked to be paid with a gift in kind rather than rubles. Each man was given a suckling pig, an unheard of luxury in those lean days. The piglets would be ready for butchering during the season of celebration.
Getting them back to Moscow presented a problem, however, since it was illegal to carry animals on trains and peasants were not allowed to give them away. In order to keep the animals quiet during the three-hour ride back to the city, the pigs were treated to several slugs of vodka in lieu of milk and, now dead to the world, were resting in potato sacks. A few small rents in the sacking sufficed as air holes for ventilation.
My father arrived home with his potato sack and the broadest, happiest grin. Since my brother and I had tasted only pork sausage, we were intrigued by Papa’s exuberant description of the succulent delights of roast pig. Our neighbors were impressed by the sweetness and cleanliness of this addition to communal living.
We retired to our room with Senka with whom we would have to share our space for the next three months. The cat good-naturedly withdrew to a far corner while we made a cozy bed for Senka in an old box.
When we were all tucked in after lights out, Senka began to sneeze. The sneezing was loud, persistent, and ominous. We called a family conference and deduced that Senka had been warmed by the vodka but chilled by his transit in a flimsy potato sack on a chilly October eve. Senka had caught cold. Between sneezes, the fastidious Senka would leave his pallet, waddle across the room, and relieve himself next to the cat who would arch his back in indignation and hiss as Senka lurched back to his box.
His continued good health and growth became a matter of some concern to the extent that my mother began spending precious time and money buying milk to keep him plump and healthy. Soon she was making offhand comments such as, ‘We would never kill him for meat’. About the middle of November, my mother announced to my father, ‘Senka needs a home in the country. We are taking him to Stansia Shodnya.’ This was a village 20 kilometers from Moscow where we spent our summer vacations. It was the custom for peasants to rent one room of their two-room cottages to city families during their summer vacations.
My mother’s decision precipitated an argument between my parents which went on for days, my father protesting that he had sacrificed much for this meal. He had worked hard for this meal. He was starved for meat and so were we children. We had to have at least one good meal at Christmas.
My mother was unmoved, so the family undertook an arduous secret journey in the depths of winter to bring Senka to a village where the peasants had nothing. Our peasant friends had no animals, nothing but a tiny garden. They worked all day on the collective farm and then went home to tend their own meager plots. The few peasants who did own a couple of scraggly-looking chickens would return home to find them stolen. Upon seeing plump and promising Senka, our friends were overwhelmed with joy.
However, my mother, a woman whom they loved and admired, said that she was leaving Senka only with the following provisions: he could not be killed for food, and he must sleep in their hut, as he was a city pig and not accustomed to being out in the cruel Russian winter.
Our friends agreed to these insane conditions, God knows why except that we were to them exotic Americans, already acknowledged by the villagers to be crazy. We had visited with them a great deal and they were always eager to hear more and more about life ‘abroad’ as they referred to the US.
I don’t think they believed the information that my parents gave them, but it became a ritual during the chilly summer nights before bedtime to gather around the warm wood stove, the centerpiece of peasant huts, drinking tea and vodka, hearing about how people lived in America. Other villagers were invited to join in listening to these stories.
The conversation always began, ‘Well, Anna Ivanovna and Michael Stepanovich, let’s talk.’ They were entranced by my parents’ description of daily life in New York – simple stories. They would clamor for information about what could be seen on the shelves of the stores, what we ate for dinner, did we have an indoor toilet. This kind of innocent talk might have been dangerous for them as this was the time of the Stalinist purges. The rich peasants known as ‘kulaks’ had been ‘suppressed’ in the ‘30s, but these were poor unimportant people whom no one bothered.
In January, at Mama’s insistence, we journeyed back to the village to check on Senka. He was alive, still in the peasants’ hut, and enormous. Our friend, Maria, begged Mama to let her put Senka into the barn for the good of all concerned. Mama agreed. She was touched by this peasant family’s loyalty and humanity in the face of all the treachery and greed going on around us. She promised to return in the spring.
In June 1941, war broke out. By September, the Germans had encircled Moscow. We were unable to see Maria again until 1945. She told us that Senka, along with all other farm animals, had been confiscated in 1941. She also told us what we had not known, that when the Germans had surrounded Moscow on three sides in September 1941, some had been garrisoned in Stansia Shodnya.