Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Great Purge -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 6)

Growing up, I remember reading George Orwell's 1984That year seemed so impossibly distant and improbable.  But the 1980s did come, and we all lived through and beyond that year of somber expectations.  That distant future now belongs to the past.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, does anyone still read Orwell's 1984?

For me the 1980s were the decade not just of my own personal purge but also of my all-consuming passion to understand one small corner of the Great Purges, the Terror, that overwhelmed the Stalinist Soviet Union in the mid to late 1930s.

It all began with a return to academia.  In the fall of 1982, shortly after my marriage, I entered graduate school again, this time Georgetown University's  Russian Area Studies Program (RASP).  Over the coming three years of evening study and many weekend and vacation hours, I earned an MA degree while continuing my day job at CSC.

Doesn't sound like much to write about, does it?  In fact, this was the beginning of one of most important phases of my life, one that carried me well into the 1990s.

Leningrad, Winter 1987-88
In 1984 I had one of those most valued of Library of Congress possessions:  a stack pass.  I don't remember why I had the pass or what I was working on, but I do remember that near the end of a long weekend, I found myself in the QB section, which anyone in astronomy knows is where the astronomy publications are to be found.  Having already read a great deal about the Great Purges, I walked over to the publications of Pulkovo Observatory, the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences, and started to pull down one volume after another.  In 1933 the director was listed as Boris Petrovich Gerasimovich.  The same was true for 1934, 1935, and 1936.  In 1937 no director was listed, and in 1938 an entirely different director had appeared.  As the public address system announced closing time, I wondered to myself if there was a story here.  That was beginning.

In the end I wrote a 400 page MA thesis on the 1936-37 purge of Soviet astronomers.  (Warning to others:  do not do this!  Save such topics for a Ph.D. dissertation!)   It led to a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board, which allowed me to spend six months in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1987-88, and to major publications in the Slavic Review and other journals.  For a number of years I was invited to astronomy conferences as the historian, and I was invited to history conferences as the astronomer.

It turns out that before I had that chance stroll past the QB shelves in 1984, almost nothing had been written about the fate of astronomers during the Great Purges.  As I dug deeper through literature and, more importantly, through the personal papers of astronomers from that period, I discovered that astronomy was devastated more than almost any other science during this period, arguably more so than the well-known case of Soviet genetics.  Over thirty astronomers were arrested, and all but two or three of them died in the prisons or camps.  Some were executed outright.  Only two or three survived to the end of their sentences.
I won't write here about the purge itself.  Anyone who cares to can find my publications in the library, or I'll be happy to send copies to anyone who can't find them there.

What I want to say here is how all-consumed I was by this research topic.  For over five years I re-lived the lives of these doomed astronomers, reading their correspondence -- sometimes their final letters -- and meeting with their surviving family members.  I was insufferable to family, friends, and co-workers, all of whom were forced to live through the purges with me.

Grigoriy Shain, 1892-1956
In retrospect, I see some part of my work as a historian to have been a way to learn from others about how they faced repression, some bravely facing down the NKVD (secret police) and Stalin to defend colleagues who had been arrested for no reason.  Grigoriy Shain, the director of the observatory in Simeis, Crimea, became my personal hero for his role.  He risked his own career and life itself by writing letters and speaking out.  More than that, he gathered the children and spouses of arrested astronomers in Crimea, giving them homes and jobs.  When one of the few astronomers to survive was released in 1945, Shain immediately brought him to Crimea.  Shain faced down the entire Soviet system of terror and repression and was not harmed.  He wasn't even touched.  Soviet astrophysicist Iosif Shklovskiy later wrote eloquently about Shain's role in those dark days.

As my research was going on, I was also very busy at work and at home.  With my spouse we cared for a sick nephew who was ill with leukemia, and we took in other distant relatives and friends who needed help.  We started on home renovations that lasted decades.  A city apartment dweller, I taught myself plumbing and everything I never thought I would learn about home maintenance.

It's easy to look back now and assign cause and effect that I certainly did not recognize at the time, but I am struck by how deeply I immersed myself into understanding the mechanics of repression and how individuals can resist it if they choose.  (Anecdote:  In 1986 the welcoming sign for a conference I attended at the University of Texas said, "Welcome, Repression Workshop.")  It became obvious to me even then that Shain succeeded because he was vocal.  He was "out" when others were hiding in corners, afraid for their own skins should they speak out.  I was not ready to deal with the repressions of a different sort in my own life, my own fears and self-imposed "purge," but I was learning a lesson even if I was not yet ready to apply it.

Boris Gerasimovich, 1889 - 1937
I also learned a lesson about the fragility of life and sudden mortality.  In the archives of Harvard University I held in my hands the last message that Boris Gerasimovich ever sent to a colleague in the U.S..  Harlow Shapley knew his Russian friend was in trouble and had arranged a plan to get him to the U.S. and out of harm's way.  Gerasimovich's March 1937 telegram read:

Regretting thanking cannot go.

Six months later Gerasimovich was dead, executed in an NKVD cellar.  For years I kept a copy of that telegram on my wall at work.  Had Gerasimovich heeded Shapley's advice earlier, had he not dismissed the warning signs, would he have been safe in a new life in the U.S.?

The brave success of Shain's being "out" and the consequences of not taking action even when one knows one must.  These were the personal lessons I learned in those years of research.  It just took more decades for me to acknowledge them.

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