to Chapter 1
Chapter 1 (in Russian)
My father, Vyacheslav Karlovich Korzun, was born on September 15, 1879, in the city of Lankaran in Azerbaijan where his parents lived for a while. He was orphaned at the age of seven; his father, Karl Fomich Korzun, died of tuberculosis in 1886 at the age of 35 (see link to a short official biography and death certificate), followed in 1887 by his mother, Elizaveta Fedorovna (nee Kinert). The boy was placed in an orphanage but was soon taken in by his mother’s brother, Aleksandr Fedorovich Kinert, who lived in St. Petersburg (see certificate of orphan status and a birth and baptismal certificate). He and his wife, Avgustina Kinert (nee Tiedemann), raised my father as their own son. I do not know how old my father was when he first came into the Kinert family, but I do know that they treated him with the same parental affection as they did their own two children: a son, Vladimir (Volodya), and his younger sister, Valeria (Valya). The boys, who were about 10 years apart, were close, and both adored their sister. I do not know where Volodya went to university but my father graduated in 1901 from the Kronstadt School of Naval Engineering with a degree in mechanical engineering. That same year, he enlisted aboard the battleship Tsesarevich where he served as chief mechanic during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and until the year 1906. As for his sister Valya, she must have been a remarkable person; she certainly was a beauty. I can still see a picture of her, taken perhaps in a garden, braiding her thick hair and smiling slightly into the camera.
I know a bit more about my mother’s family. Her father, General (I think) Vassily Gubkin, served at the imperial residence of Tsarskoye Selo as provincial governor (“gubernator”) or some sort of top military official, and the whole family lived there. My grandmother, Olga Gubkina, was the mother of a large family: five children, of whom my mother was the eldest. The first three turned out smart, handsome and healthy, but the good genes failed in the two younger kids. Number four, a daughter, Marina, was born almost deaf; the youngest son Vassily (Vasya), was slow-witted, lazy, and given to petty thievery. Soon after the birth of the last child my grandfather died, leaving Olga Vladimirovna alone with five children. The family lived in poverty, and my mother, as the eldest – who had by then finished high school (“gymnazia”) with a gold medal and was fluent in French – went out to work. She secured a job as a teacher at the “nanny school” of Tsarskoe Selo. The school trained young ladies to be nannies to children of rich and noble families, a position that required a nanny to possess a good education and fluency in French. The school had a good reputation, and my mother was well-regarded there. At one point she was even invited to tutor the Russian imperial princesses, the two youngest I believe, although I do not know how long this lasted. I know virtually no details because by the time I was growing up these things were too dangerous to share with children, who might inadvertently talk about our “counter-revolutionary” connections around the wrong people.
Nor do I know where and how my parents first met. The Gubkins and Kinerts may have already known each other, because the two brothers married the two sisters: Vyacheslav (my father) chose the eldest, Sophia (my mother) while Vladimir married her sister Maria. We kids called them Uncle Volodya and Aunt Manya.
Number three, Mikhail (Misha) Gubkin, fought in WWI and was captured. Nothing was known about him for a long time. Later they learned that he had married a French woman and settled in France; I do not think they had any children. I remember that in the late 1920’s, Uncle Misha’s sister-in-law, an actress, came to Moscow. My mother went somewhere to meet her and then told my father things about their lives that were also not meant for kids’ ears. I only know that Uncle Misha did well in France. I knew so little about him that I was able, with a clear conscience, to say “none” to the ominous questions on all sorts of official government forms asking about relatives abroad.
Sister Marina was younger than my mother and about 6 years older than Vasya. She was not able to take care of herself and was looked after by her mother, my grandmother Olga. Grandmother and Marina lived with us throughout our time in St. Petersburg. I know nothing about her schooling; most likely, she was educated at home. She was highly literate, read a lot, loved poetry. Unlike my brother and I, she was fairly decent in French. Her speech was slurred, as is common in deaf people, and it was difficult to talk to her, but she longed for human interaction with someone other than grandmother. I remember visiting her regularly, though not frequently, during our time in Leningrad (1926-1930), and she tried to interest me in poetry. She told me to read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I honestly tried but found it then to be quite beyond me.
Brother Vasya was mostly passed over in silence in our family. Evidently, he had gotten involved with a criminal gang and spent much of his life in jail. I also remember him coming to visit in the late 1920’s. My parents and grandmother Olga received him warmly and held several family councils on ways of finding him a job. He took part in these discussions and stayed for about ten days, disappearing as abruptly as he had appeared, along with all of my mother’s family jewels and other valuables. Now they held a family council on whether to report him to the police. Family feeling prevailed; the jewels, after all, were just things. He would most likely end up in jail again but let this happen without our help.
My mother had other relatives: the Khudyakovs and the Kavelins. The Khudyakovs were wealthy, owned landed estates, but during the revolution they were destined to live out in reverse that line in the Communist anthem The Internationale that says that "we have been nought, we shall be all": they became "nought." The only one of them whom I knew well was my mother's cousin, or nephew perhaps, Sergey Kavelin.
He was much younger than my mother, graduated with some sort of technical degree and in 1932 lived in Moscow and often came to our house. When I was applying to the Moscow Power Engineering Institute (MPEI), he helped me prepare for the entrance examination in math. I saw him often during that time, and we became quite friendly. I called him informally by his first name, Serezha. Serezha was married to a lady journalist and had a son. They soon left Moscow and divorced fairly quickly. Then Serezha disappeared from my life for a long time and surfaced again right before my mother's death in 1971, but more on that later.
I seem to remember that Serezha was close to the Khudyakovs and maybe even related to them, but back then, in the 1930's, I never tried to find out. That is my personality; I have always been reluctant to pry into people's affairs unless they volunteered information that seemed to open the door to questions. I also never gossiped; school friends called me a "drain" (water flows in but never out). And in general, all my life I have disliked asking questions, however trivial. Even when I am looking for a street or a house, I would rather spend more time searching by trial and error than ask people for directions. Lately, I have mellowed a bit in this regard, but now it is too late; I have no one left to ask about the things in my past that I would like to know.
I know even less about my father's side of the family. As I have mentioned, the two Kinert boys, Vyacheslav and Vladimir, married the two Gubkin girls, Sophia and Maria. The two families were very close. Each had two children: my parents had me and brother Oleg, eighteen months apart; Uncle Volodya and Aunt Manya had a daughter, Astea, who was older than Oleg, and a son, Alik, who was younger than me.
Astea is an unusual name. The story behind it, as my mother told Oleg and me, is that Aunt Manya desperately wanted a girl and was eagerly looking forward to her birth. When her dream finally came true and she had a beautiful baby girl, Aunt Manya started looking for a name worthy of her long-awaited little princess. I do not remember where she finally found it (I doubt that she had consulted the Orthodox calendar of saints), but she convinced everyone that there was indeed a St. Astea, and the baby was christened accordingly. Later it transpired that there was a male "St. Astee", whose name in the Russian genitive case reads "[of] Astea" -- Aunt Manya, in her haste, did not notice that.
The families seemed destined to remain close for many years to come, but the revolution decreed otherwise. Right before the revolution, my family lived in Kolpino (30 km from St. Petersburg) while Uncle Volodya's family lived in St. Petersburg. My father was chief engineer at the Izhorsky heavy equipment manufacturing plant. We lived on the Semi-Circular Canal, and my mother later remembered this as a happy time. Oleg and I were born there. I was born on June 27, 1914 (according to the modern calendar). The delivery was difficult, and I was born with a large, bluish-purple mark covering half my face that the doctors said was probably a birth mark. Everyone was aghast – poor little girl, she will have a tough time going through life looking like this. My mother, desperate to "save" her child, made a vow to make the pilgrimage from Kolpino to St. Petersburg on foot as soon as she had recovered from giving birth. She fulfilled her vow, and the ugly stain disappeared from my face some time later.
Shortly before the revolution our family moved to Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd). From 1913 through 1918 my father was the technical director of the Tsaritsyn gun foundry. After the revolution, life went on as usual for a short while and the foundry continued operations, but tensions increased with the start of the civil war. Rumors flew that a large White force under General Krasnov was approaching Tsaritsyn; that the Red Army was retreating on all fronts; that the Whites were about to take the city; that they dealt brutally with Red sympathizers. The foundry was thrown into chaos. Most of the workers supported the Reds while the loyalties of most of the management lay with the Whites. This was the time to make a choice: those who were on the side of the Red revolution should flee at once; those who were prepared to serve under the Whites might perhaps risk staying in town. Most of my father's management colleagues took that risk and stayed – some believing that the White Guard would win and the days of the Bolsheviks were numbered, and some, out of the traditional Russian belief that "it'll be all right somehow" and they could escape the notice of either the Reds or the Whites.
My father chose flight. Well in advance of the approach of the Whites he left for Moscow, having first made arrangements for the evacuation of the family. Our most valuable possessions were entrusted for safekeeping to our closest friends that were staying in the city, and even more importantly, my father arranged for my mother and the children to travel with the family of a worker that he knew well. The worker's family would take us to a pre-arranged port on the Volga river where my father would meet us and make further travel arrangements. Evidently, in the autumn of 1918 the fall of Tsaritsyn was expected from one day to the next, because our departure was abrupt. Incidentally, that is perhaps my first independent childhood memory. The night is dark; a boat, perhaps a barge, is docked at the river, and the crew is literally shoving all the passengers in (down into the hold?), helter-skelter, adults on top of children, and lots of baggage. Then: my mother, in pitch darkness, is putting Oleg and me down to sleep in that hold on top of some bags. That is all I remember of our trip from Tsaritsyn to Moscow.
I have always assumed that we had steamed down the Volga to a port that was still free of the Whites and met my father there. Now, while writing these words, something in these early memories began to puzzle me. If we were fleeing toward Moscow we would have had to travel up the Volga, but I clearly remember approaching a small town and moving downstream. I picked up The Road to Calvary, a classic novel by Aleksey Tolstoy, since I remembered a scene where two characters (Telegin and Dasha) meet in 1918 in one of the cities on the lower Volga occupied by the Whites. I learned that, when the Whites were preparing their attack on Tsaritsyn, they already held the downstream city of Saratov and a few smaller towns (detachments of the Czechoslovak Legion were stationed in Saratov).
Turning to a geography atlas, I studied the Volga and its cities and towns on the map and saw a town named Akhtubinsk located 60 km south (downstream) of Tsaritsyn, although it stood not on Volga but on another river, Akhtuba, which flows parallel to the Volga and joins it 15 km above Tsaritsyn. Now, Akhtuba was a word imprinted on my memory from childhood, when I heard my parents tell the story of our escape to friends and relatives. Although I retained nothing except that name, I always had the feeling that Oleg and I had been to Akhtuba. Now I understand that in late summer or perhaps early autumn of 1918, my mother, carrying us children and a bare minimum of baggage, with the help of kind strangers was able to travel first up the Volga and then down the Akhtuba river to the port of Akhtuba where my father was waiting. The rest of our journey must have been uneventful because I do not remember any more stories about it. As far as I know, the Whites tried several times to take Tsaritsyn but ultimately failed.
The last episode in the saga of our escape from Tsaritsyn took place much later, although I do not remember when. I think this was during our time in Moscow, a relatively peaceful period. The people who had taken our valuables for safekeeping before our flight from Tsaritsyn sent word (probably with someone who traveled to Russia on business) that they had settled in some foreign country and were anxious to return my parents' property to them – at least its monetary value if not the actual things. We had only a few days to respond. I clearly remember my parents discussing this – they may even have included us children in the discussion – looking for ways to receive this money, quite a large sum for us then, without getting in trouble with the authorities. They came to a unanimous decision not to tempt fate. It was only money; safety was more important. That was the end of that story.
Now let me turn again to the Kinert family. I do not know where Uncle Volodya's family spent the years we lived in Tsaritsyn. I assume they lived in St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) and were there when the revolution broke out. I do remember that very soon after our flight from Tsaritsyn my father settled us in an obscure village somewhere in the Kostroma province (although I could be mistaken), where my mother took in Astea, the oldest daughter of Uncle Volodya and Aunt Manya, in addition to the two of us. That was a time of danger and scarcity in Moscow. My father, who had never lived in Moscow before (he had come to Tsaritsyn from Kolpino (near St. Petersburg), faced the difficult task of finding a job and a home for our family. Naturally, it was better that we stay in the village for a while so that we could be safe and he could devote himself to his task. So why did we take in Astea? If, as I think, Uncle Volodya's family was in Petrograd all that time, very likely they were experiencing hardship and persecution from the new regime. Was Uncle Volodya in opposition, was his family in hiding? Was their son Alik too young to travel?
I do not know how long we stayed in the village. I have retained only scattered images of that life, all of them either inside a peasant cottage ("izba") or set in winter time. For instance, I remember my mother learning to light the Russian stove. Some woman, probably a neighbor, brought in some firewood, and soon the fire was crackling merrily while the woman showed my mother how to make bread, sliding several loaves into the hot stove on a great wooden peel. She did everything quickly and cheerfully, and we three kids could not take our eyes off her.
I also remember my mother trying unsuccessfully to light that stove by herself; I see her seated in front of it, bent down low and covering her face with her hands. Afterwards my mother, not without a certain pride, told us that not only did she finally learn to manage the stove, bake excellent bread and cook our meals in it, but she was able in turn to teach the neighbor to make a delicious cake out of the scant minimum of available ingredients.
There is a family story about Astea and the cake. My mother made that cake one day (possibly for Oleg's birthday) so we children could have a party. The three of us ate all we could, put away the rest of the cake for tomorrow, and went to bed. Oleg and I went to sleep but Astea tossed and turned in bed while my mother went around finishing some chores, of which there never was any shortage. Suddenly Astea sat up in bed and asked in a plaintive voice: "Aunt Sonya, are you saving that cake?" It took a moment for my mother to understand that Astea simply wanted more cake! This became a family joke: when one of us wanted some specific food that was not on the table, we would ask my mother: "Are you saving [this]?" It sounded especially funny coming from my father and always elicited a chuckle.
I also remember the constant trying on of clothes which my mother was always sewing for one of the children out of old curtains. She even managed to make a beautiful winter coat for Astea, who must have arrived not dressed for winter. She sewed by hand and was better at pattern-making than at finishing seams, so that her creations looked good but often came apart at the seam and required frequent repairs.
The only thing I remember of our natural surroundings is a pond, frozen solid. We loved to sled down to it on pieces of wood.
My last memory is of a retreating armed force passing through the village. The villagers lined the streets praying to God that the soldiers would pass through without stopping, but the kids were overjoyed to see the beautiful horses, gleaming heavy guns with their gun crews riding behind. The villagers said that these were the remnants of a recently routed uprising from somewhere to the south of us. Most of them indeed passed straight through but one gun crew stayed overnight with a wealthy family almost directly across the street from us. They left early the next morning, and later on there was an explosion: the soldiers had left behind a hand grenade or some sort of makeshift mine. Unfortunately, a child was the first to find it. He was blown to bits, and another member of the family was gravely injured. My mother was horrified; our safe hiding place turned out not to be safe at all, and soon after that, my father took us all to Moscow.
I will write about our life in Moscow in the next chapter but now let me mention Uncle Volodya's visit that may have taken place right around that time. Very likely Uncle Volodya came to get Astea and have a serious talk with my father.
Uncle Volodya had decided to leave Bolshevik Russia. He saw no place for himself in it and devised a plan to take his family out across the Finnish border. I remember this conversation that lasted long into the evening, followed by a sleepless night for my parents. They discussed all possible outcomes for Russia's future, and Uncle Volodya rejected them all. Despite his arguments, my father said that he saw no place for himself outside Russia, would never leave voluntarily and hoped to make a life in his native country whatever the circumstances might be. My mother agreed with him, and Uncle Volodya said good-bye and left – forever, as it turned out. A few days later we received word that they had crossed the border safely and were in Finland. I never heard of them again; at least, my parents never told Oleg and me anything, even if they heard something – perhaps to shield us from problems with official government forms.
This is how we lost our closest and dearest relatives. Many years later, during perestroika, I wondered about the Kinerts and thought about taking a trip to Finland to see what I could find out, but in the end I never went. I did not know where to begin; they could well have moved to another country, and even if they had stayed, only Astea and her brother would still be alive, and Astea could have married and changed her last name, and I was not sure of her brother's name or date of birth. So now I have no relatives on either my father's or my mother's side. All gone.
I have mentioned Uncle Volodya's younger sister, Valya, whose picture I liked to look at in my parents' photo album. She came to stay with us for about three days during our second stay in Moscow (I think) on her way to Petrograd from the Caucases where she had been part of a scientific expedition to Khevsureti – the only woman there. She was brimming with impressions and told us about the fascinating life of the Khevsur people and their mountain stronghold of Shatili, an ancient fortress. Her stories came back to me later when I visited this amazing part of Georgia with my friends. Valya asked me what clothes I wanted most to have, and I said that I wanted a white beret. She took me right away to the torgsin and bought me a beautiful beret and a pair of red shoes.
My brother Oleg lived with Valya for about two years when he was a university student in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad). I do not know how he ended up in Leningrad – I think he must have enrolled somewhere when our family lived in Leningrad before my father's first arrest.
Valya was an interesting person, out of the ordinary, and her family was far from ordinary. She married a well-known and well-respected lawyer, Dmitry Ilminsky – I saw him once or twice. He was a dry, reserved, not very sociable man who reminded me of the husband in Anna Karenina. He seemed a poor match to Valya, who was bright, explosive and used to attracting universal admiration. Dmitry had a younger brother, Nikolay, who lived with them. Nikolay fell hard for Valya. He tried to move away but came backagain, and in the end Valya fell in love with him. This was an odd household: Valya remained officially married to Dmitry but lived as the wife of Nikolay, and this is how things stood before WWII.
After the war I came to Leningrad from Chelyabinsk with my colleague and closest friend, Lusya Pinchuk. We came on an extended business trip and had lots of time. One day I decided to try and find out what happened to Valya, and Lusya and I went to Valya's old address, which I remembered well: 2, Vassilyevsky Island, 1st line. I knew that now, after the war and the blockade, other people were probably there but we had to start somewhere. A strange woman opened the door but as soon as I said that I was looking for Valeria Ilminsky she invited us in. She turned out to be the sister of Dmitry and Nikolay of whom I knew almost nothing while she knew my father and Oleg and had even heard quite a bit about me. We sat in a spacious apartment very typical of Leningrad, filled with massive old furniture. It was a long conversation, rambling and very sad. Maria served us tea and talked and talked. Evidently, she was glad that there still was someone in the world who was interested in the fate that befell her loved ones – a tragic fate, typical of Leningrad. Nikolay died on the battlefront, but not right away: he came to visit a couple of times, bringing food and helping in any way he could. Dmitry died in the blockade. Valya fell ill but was smuggled out of Leningrad, through the blockade, along with Maria, and the two of them lived together in the Ural region until the end of the war, then returned to Leningrad. I do not remember what illness finally claimed her life but it was not related to the starvation of the blockade.
Maria and I lost contact for many years but in the 1970's, when I was already living permanently in Moscow, she suddenly called me on the phone. She was temporarily in Moscow and found me, not without some trouble. When we met she told me that, while packing for a move to another apartment, she found some things that had belonged to my father, remembered my visit and decided to get those things to me. I told her that I traveled to Leningrad often and would come and see her. We gave each other our addresses but even before my first trip to Leningrad I received in the mail the collected works of Aleksandr Herzen, with my father's signature on each volume. I made two trips and came back to Moscow with a painting that had always hung in my father's home (it now hangs in my older son's home), a massive porcelain table lamp, an album with my father's pictures and postcards from the Russo-Japanese war, and some papers and photographs. From then on, I visited Maria every time I went to Leningrad. I learned that Valya and she had grown very close during Valya's last years, and that Valya had told her a lot about her life and childhood. I begged her to remember and tell me everything, and she promised but said that she needed time to get her thoughts and memories together. Then I started coming to St. Petersburg only once a year, and one of those years I found Maria very ill and attended by a woman who told me it was cancer. When I came the next time, she was gone.