The Day already wrote in issue 42 that the famous human rights activist presented Bulgakov Museum with rarities in possession of his family: a copy of the periodical Krasnaya Nov, issue 3, 1937, and an autograph of Mikhail Bulgakov.
Leonid Stonov currently lives abroad. He was born in Moscow in 1931, and graduated from the Biology Department of Moscow State University. He left the former USSR in 1990. He now lives in Chicago, where he heads the American human rights organization United Committees, which works in the post-Soviet countries.
Leonid was reared in a family of a writer: his father, Dmitrii Stonov (1898-1962), was a prose writer and a participant of Moscow’s literary scene in the 1920s-1940s. He authored many popular books, such as Esterka, Semya Raskinykh (The Raskiny Family), Povesti ob Altaye (Stories about Altay) and many others. He was a correspondent for Izvestiya, Gudok and Trud, fought in the Stalingrad and the 4th Ukrainian fronts, and taught in the Literary Institute. In March 1949 Dmitrii Stonov was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment under Article 58. Having survived Stalin’s prisons and camps, in 1954 he was rehabilitated and wrote a series of camp stories Proshedshey Nochyu (Last Night), which were first published only in 1989.
Before the war Dmitrii Stonov and Mikhail Bulgakov were close friends. In Bulgakov’s diary there is a record about how Stonov captivated him from the very beginning. Having learned from Nataliya Gromova, a researcher of the 20th century literary life, that in Kyiv, in Andriivsky Uzviz, there is a “House of the Bulgakovs-Turbins,” Leonid soon became acquainted with the exhibit and called the museum “unique in thought and boldness of realization.”
Mr. Stonov, in the foreword to your father’s book Izbrannoye (Selected Works) you write that almost all the events of the 20th century ran as a tank over his fate. Is this why you became a human rights activist?
“I very much disliked the Soviet government, and it disliked me, it was a reciprocal feeling. And I didn’t need any time to understand it: I was prepared by my father. Father did need the time. When he was sent to the North in the middle of the 1920s and saw endless echelons of deportees, he finally realized the true nature of the government. I think Bulgakov grasped it earlier – during the civil war, judging by his works. But the writer Yurii Sliozkin, the closest friend of Bulgakov and my father, was irreconcilable with this government from the very beginning, since the very revolution. He helped Mikhail very much. I heard Yurii and father talking: ‘Perhaps we don’t understand something, we are as if beside what is going on, people are going one way, but we’re not their fellow travelers.’ The writers had an inkling they were not in demand. A writer, of course, can write ‘to the table,’ but only for so long. And it’s dangerous. Father’s camp stories — when Stalin was already dead — were hidden under a dacha in a three-liter jar. They sealed it, dug a hole under the house, and kept it there. People pass judgments on those times, but few people pay attention to what that bodily fear meant. Fear is the most humiliating thing in life. It can ruin everything, but it can’t create anything. The Soviet government treated everybody bulldozer-style, with some rare exceptions.
“Stalin was a ‘director of genius,’ if one can apply the word ‘genius’ to the devil. He read a lot, and watched plays, for which authors were given Stalin awards. I’m interested in this figure, and I collect literature about Stalin. I want to understand what kind of beast he was. I studied in the same grade with Sasha Alliluyev who died in a strange way in 1937, after his return from Berlin, where he fulfilled some Stalin’s assignments. A brother of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, it was he who had brought her the gun she shot herself with. In our classroom there hung a portrait of Stalin over the blackboard and we told Sasha: ‘That’s your uncle.’ He used to answer: ‘I swear I’ve never seen him.’ Now I decided to find Sasha: he went to England and consulted for a movie about Stalin (it was a good one). When we met, I asked: ‘Tell me the truth, did you see him? I’m eager to know.’ He answers: ‘Of course, I lied to you. I saw him, but just two or three times, we were taken to his dacha.’ And he added that Stalin was emotional twice in his lifetime: first when his wife committed suicide, he took it as a betrayal. And second – when the war started, he was really scared, and for a few days he was in Kuntsev dacha, didn’t leave it and spoke to nobody.”
In your father’s book there is a photo of the writers’ house in Lavrushyn street, where you resided with your family for many years.
“Perhaps, there really was an idea to accommodate all writers together so that it was easier to watch them. And this building had a specific atmosphere – informers were everywhere, people feared each other. The building was built based on an individual project, and after the war an additional building was attached, a ‘laureate house,’ as we called it. Classics lived there – Kostantin Fedin, Vsevolod Ivanov, Margarita Aliger, Vera Inber, and Lev Oshanin. There also were middle-ranking writers, for example, in our section poets Iosif Utkin and Semion Kirsanov lived. And also Viktor Gusev, whose script was used for the movie At 6 pm after the War. Boris Pasternak lived in the 4th section, on the top floor, and when the war started, on the roof near his dwelling they put a concrete pedestal, and placed an antiaircraft missile on it. David Bergelson lived there, a classic of Jewish literature in Yiddish. He was executed in 1952 by the Jewish anti-fascist committee. Lidiya Ruslanova lived with us, and then my father saw her in Kuybyshev transit prison. And she was surprised: ‘How did you get here?’ He answered: ‘The same way you did!’”
And where did Bulgakov live?
“In another building for writers, in Nashchokinsky lane – he didn’t stand high. Bulgakov and my father came to Moscow almost at the same time. Father first got a room where Yurii Sliozkin lived – in Triokhprudny lane, in front of the building where Tsvetaeva was born. He communicated with Bulgakov very intensely – from 1924 till the 1930s. Once during the New Year celebration at the end of 1930s Bulgakov called on us with a noisy company. I remember there were a lot of talks about this visit. There was a special attitude to him, as to Pasternak: respect and piety. Though, in my opinion, even now Bulgakov is underestimated – as a writer and a thinker. Everyone knows the novel The Master and Margarita, but the point is not only in this. It is amazing how much Mikhail could predict and foretell! He was lucky to have Yelena as his wife. She performed a heroic act – saved his creative work.”
Were you personally acquainted with Yelena?
“Yes, we spent a lot of time together, especially in the summer, in the mansion of the writer Aleksandr Ertel, the author of the wonderful book Gardeniny, ikh dvornia, priverzhentsy i vragi (The Gardenins, Their Servants, Adherents and Enemies). He had a mansion near Voronezh at Grafska station, and nearby there was a mansion of Stanislavsky’s father. They arranged performances for people together there. Then the writer died, children moved away. It was in this building that, at the end of the 1940s, Yelena rested with two sons. We went there too, and I remember her very well. She made a very vivid impression. I guess she was treated with honor not only because she was the wife of Mikhail. She was just attractive and very educated. In the mansion after the breakfast all stayed at the table and someone told something interesting. They especially liked listening to Paustovsky – he was a unique storyteller. For example, he could talk about plants – he knew all the plants’ names from the middle strip of Russia in Latin, and liked the forest very much. Yelena spoke about Bulgakov, understanding very well his grandeur and strong moral difference from other writers. There were no acute talks, everyone knew the limits. I remember 1946, the resolution of the Central Committee about periodicals Zvezda and Leningrad, perhaps someone brought the newspaper and everyone realized what would the end of the story be.”
And what is Boris Pasternak like in your memory?
“In the evacuation we lived in Chistopol, there was a campaign for firewood stocking. Difficult conditions – you had to catch these logs in water, drag them out to dry land, dry them and cut them up. Pasternak participated in this. And then he came to the canteen for dinner (his wife Zinayida was at a time a head cook there). He stood with a plate and said: ‘Give some soup to the classic of Russian literature.’ Generally, Pasternak was an extremely modest person. And fey – perhaps that’s what saved him. In Chistopol he rarely recited poems, and nobody asked after all. Mainly children lived there, there were very few adults. At that time Pasternak was translating Shakespeare, strove to join the front at least as a correspondent. And one day he was at the front as a correspondent of Krasnaya Zvezda, he left and returned just after. He was a conscientious person and supposed that during the war it was not good to stay at the rear. But it was impossible to move the bureaucratic system, especially since he was considered as a treasure of the state. We have recently remembered the famous conversation of Pasternak with Stalin, and if I hadn’t known Boris personally, I would have been surprised – a person tells Stalin he wants to talk about religion to him. But knowing Pasternak, it’s absolutely understandable.”
Looking back at the life you lived, what had the biggest impact on you?
“The war, Chistopol boarding school, father’s arrest. For us it was important to wait till father finished his 10 years in prison somewhere in Krasnoyarsk and stay there, and we would come to him and live together. Mother was an optimist and a good person, though she endured a lot of grief. She survived the famine of 1921, and treated this issue painfully: whoever came to us, first of all they were fed. ‘Mother, let them get undressed, why are you hurrying?’ – No, the main thing was to feed a person. Mother knew how to choose values in life. Of course, father influenced her very much. When she married him, two or three years before that she told Sliozkin, ‘I’ve never thought I’d marry an anti-Soviet person.’ Mother believed in all ideals, and was later disappointed. She never blamed circumstances. You know, I always supposed that the Soviet government distorted people, but in fact, as a rule, people distorted themselves. For example, in youth one wants to make a career and for this one can do some nasty things, that’s how this path begins.
“When father returned from the camp, we had to create appropriate conditions for him, so that he could write about it. But we didn’t do it, therefore he wrote very little. However, mother couldn’t read about the camp. At that time I just started working, got married, and founded a family.
“Don’t put off communicating with your parents, or it will be too late. Everyone knows it, and that’s all, historical experience doesn’t mean anything. How did father raise us? With his example. In his book there are letters he wrote to me from the camp – about literature. These are amazing letters!”
How did you manage to keep the autograph of Bulgakov you presented to the museum?
“Our apartment was searched. However, it was done, in my opinion, in a very unprofessional manner, and perhaps they knew beforehand what they searched for. Father had a good library, a few thousand volumes. They searched everything looking for autographs, tore these autographs out of the books and took them as discrediting evidence, in order to know whom father socialized with. The note from Mikhail was in the bookcase and they didn’t take it. For them Bulgakov, in 1949, was nobody, they could forget. For example, my father liked Bunin very much. And when someone brought Tiomnyye allei (Dark Lanes) from abroad, father’s friend reprinted some ten pages from the book on a typewriter – self-published literature of that time, and we had those pages entitled as ‘Bunin.’ And when the investigation was over, there was the following procedure: what to do with the confiscated stuff? Two sacks of things – a watch, a passbook and notes, including Bunin. The investigator asked father: ‘Who is Bunin?’ – Father answered: ‘It’s a writer of Pushkin’s time.’ And the investigator told: ‘Burn it.’ Investigators were uneducated like this.”
And where is the library of your father?
“It’s now in America with us. Old books are unique: books by Zhukovsky, Turgenev, and others published during their lifetime. I collected a very good library on Russian philosophy: Berdiayev, Ilyin, Florensky. Currently I read Recollections by Churchill about opening the second front, negotiations with Stalin. It’s written in an interesting way. And as my father, I like Bunin. Recently, re-reading Bunin, I understood what classics liked most of all – they liked the noble nest, their mansion. These were unique oases, reserves of culture, thinking. When I went into biology – and I got to the Biology Department quite accidentally (later I liked it very much and worked with pleasure). I like agriculture. It seems that the prosperity of a country depends on agriculture and people working on land. People communicate with nature more and they live better, if they don’t have to put up with collective farms.”
When you left for America, you probably didn’t think you would ever return?
“On the one hand, I dreamed of leaving the Soviet Union, and on the other hand, though I see many horrible things, I like my homeland. It is not even about the culture, Bunin, Chekhov, or Tchaikovsky – though they count too. But there is something enchanting. Nostalgia. It sounds funny, but Russia is a computer that chooses the worst program. If there is an anti-human program – it will obligatory be there. I disagree with the phrase ‘People get the government they deserve.’”
What is the purpose of the organization you head?
“United Committees’ is an organization recognizing the priorities of human rights over national rights. We suppose that if human rights are observed, then there are no national rights which can be ignored. Since 1990 we have monitored xenophobia, particularly anti-Semitism, in post-Soviet countries. Xenophobia is an explosive mechanism, which can blast anything. And if the government doesn’t react to cases of xenophobia, then it becomes government policy. Once there is an anti-Estonian trend, then anti-Georgian, then anti-Ukrainian – it’s a very dangerous game. The one who plays it knows this game is horrible, but continues doing it – for a number of reasons.”
How do you see the future of Ukraine?
“Hopefully, your country won’t turn away from Europe. Only in a union with Europe can your country really rebuild itself. I was sure this all would happen after the Orange Revolution, but someone wanted to prevent it very much. Today I see everything more or less optimistically: Ukraine went in the direction of freedom, and I want to believe it’s irreversible. In a global sense I’m an optimist, and in a concrete one I used to be a pessimist. With my current age I try to think less about these things. Miracles touched my family several times. Father stayed alive and wasn’t executed. We moved to America – before that we had been denied for 12 years. And lately one more wonder happened. My uncle was a sculptor who resided in Israel, he went there in 1925 and died in 1956. I looked for his works for a long time, and here I found them after 20 years. Children’s art school in Kfar Saba transferred his sculptures on biblical themes to us as a gift.”
And what Bulgakov’s work do you like the best?
“The novel The Master and Margarita, I like wonders, when there is a flight of fancy.”