Olga Andreyev Carlisle
Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky
Under a new sky: a reunion with Russia / Ticknor&Fields, 1993
As I stood before the green gate of Kornei Ivanovich’s dacha I thought of my last visit to him, in 1967. It was hard to believe that he would not step forward to greet us with outstretched arms and thunderous exclamations of welcome. That morning everything surrounding the two-storied cottage was bursting with life. Inside the garden a small group of tourists, looking like students on a holiday, was waiting to be taken through the house. One young woman held a small girl in a bright blue pinafore by the hand. Another, in walking shorts with a rucksack slung across her back, presented Anya with a bunch of daisies «for Lydia Korneevna.» An elderly woman who might have been a schoolteacher as leaning on a cane. «For fifty years I’ve wanted to come here,» she said to no one in particular.
As Anya ushered the visitors in, pausing in the vestibule to provide everyone with canvas overshoes designed to protect the old parquet floors, I noticed that the wooden house had aged. The distinctive ultramarine wallpaper in the dining room was full of cracks, the rugs were threadbare, the doors no longer closed tightly. Yet the house was still standing, still alive with people. Staying in the background I followed Anya’s tour. With illuminating derail, but in few words, she led the group from room to room describing Chukovsky’s role in the survival of Russian culture.
Chukovsky had been a representative of that segment of society which had weathered the Soviet years without emigrating, never betraying the humanistic traditions that had been the ideal of the Russian intelligentsia. His erudition, his love of children, his relationships with other writers — Andreyev, Corky, Pasternak, and later Solzhenitsyn, whom he received in his house while Solzhenicsyn was hounded by the KGB in the early seventies — these were the aspects of his life that fascinated Anya’s audience.
Chukovsky was a self-made man. Born out of wedlock to a woman who worked as a servant, he supported his mother at a young age. He became a superb journalist and traveled to England to study the English language. In the teens and twenties he was regarded as one of Russia’s most authoritative literary critics. Victorian English literature was one of his great loves; later on, another of his loves, that of children, saw him through the Stalinist years, although his career as a critic had come to a standstill. His books of poems for young people, which every Russian child knows by heart to this day, were so popular that to have arrested him would have caused a sensation through¬out the USSR.
Thus for many years Chukovsky lived in seclusion in Peredelkino, as did Pasternak, whom Stalin also left alone, most probably because of his reputation in European literary circles in the thirties. In 1958 Chukovsky was the first to congratulate Pasternak when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. There are photographs of him at the Pasternaks’ table raising his glass to the poet, celebrating the event with champagne. After Chukovsky’s death in 1969, his daughter, Lydia Korneevna, carried on her father’s legacy, going further than he to become one of Russia’s most determined and celebrated literary dissenters. Now in her eighties, a scholar who is also an elegant novelist (her novella Sofya Petrovna was recently made into a film in Russia), she is recognized as an incarnation of intellectual probity, a link between the world of Pasternak and Chukovsky and today’s world, Anya’s world — and in fact, despite their differences in age, Anya and Lydia Korneevna are close friends.
The tour moved on, but I stayed back in Chukovsky’s study. Sunlight was streaming into a room where nothing had been changed since I was there two decades before — such was Lydia Korneevna’s decision. The red and green plaid blanket on the daybed, the books on the shelves, Kornei Ivanovith’s portrait by Mayakovsky, the photographs on the desk — every object had been left in its exact place after Chukovsky’s death, including pictures of my parents and me, and a copy of Henry’s novel The Contract. In Chukovsky’s study on that spring day I knew Aliosha had been right: returning to Peredelkino would make it easier for me to come to terms with the past — with the death of a whole generation and with what had happened to me as a result of my involvement with Solzhenitsyn.
As he gazed at me now with a mischievous smile, the very young man drawn by Mayakovsky, I settled on the daybed covered with his plaid blanket, recalling the evenings spent here. Visiting with Chukovsky in his study had been like having an all-knowing teacher.
Tall, athletic, with a booming voice and warm heart, Chukovsky had had an all-embracing personality. Pasternak’s «Lieutenant Schmidt,» written while the poet was still possessed by revolutionary fervor; the Brownings’ poetry; Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; my uncle Daniel’s visionary poems, which were then considered seditious in the USSR — there was no literary subject that left Chukovsky indifferent. He considered it his responsibility to share his knowledge and his convictions with the younger generation, and he did this in a forceful way, making no allowances for ignorance or sloppy thinking. Like Pasternak, like my grandfather before him, he belonged to that strand in Russian culture which balanced love for Russia with reverence for the splendors of Western culture. Andreyev’s passion for Goya, Pasternak’s admiration for Goethe and Shakespeare, Chukovsky’s for the Brownings — these were the European loves that had formed these writers.
Chukovsky, who had helped bring Solzhenitsyn into my life, had long before that made it possible for me to meet Pasternak. In both cases he had not fully condoned meetings, which could have been dangerous for these writers, yet he deliberately created situations that made meetings inevitable. His prudence made some Muscovites say that Chukovsky was afraid. He was, with good reason, and this made his countless brave efforts in helping the persecuted all the more admirable. I had recorded my last visits to him in the fall of 1967 in Solzzenitsyn and the Secret Circle:
Not without regrets I decided to limit my encounters to people who were sufficiently well established not to have too much to fear from their association with me should my connection with Solzhenitsyn ever come to light. I would spend most of my time with my favorite older friends, Nadezhda Mandelstam and, especially, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky. They were the people whom I might indeed not see again in this world, those from whom I had most to learn both about the past and my own place in the present.
Tall, snowy-haired, vigorous, his face ruddy and full after a «good summer’s work,» as he put it, Chukovsky received me that September with particular warmth, as if he too sensed that this autumn’s encounters might be our last. As on my earlier visits, he soon turned the conversation to Andreyev, whom he had loved and had admired for his talent, considering himself his protege. This time too he played the game he had played with me ever since my first visit. Each time he would try to pay me back a hundred rubles he said Andreyev had lent him in his impecunious youth. I would refuse. Chukovsky would persist, distracting me with wonderful anecdotes about my grandfather — how he had once lain down between railroad tracks and let a train pass over him, how he had received guests in his wooden mansion in Finland, where my father had grown up, how after my grandmother’s death the elegant ladies of Petersburg had literally lined up to meet him and try to marry him — while all the time trying to tuck a hundred-ruble banknote into my pocket.
Over tea with black bread and butter he told me about Andreyev’s and Gorky’s stand against anti-Semitism in an era of government-promoted pogroms. And about Andreyev’s love for my grandmother, known as Lady Shura, a delicate woman of great inner strength who had helped my grandfather overcome his addictive drinking: «She died in childbirth — when your uncle Daniel was born,» Chukovsky said. «Her death so young was a tragedy for Russian literature.»
After his afternoon nap, a ritual he regarded as essential to his continued literary proficiency, Chukovsky took me for a walk along the narrow lanes of Peredelkino, still summerlike and fragrant in the late September sun. He told me about the dissident movement, lowering his booming voice as we strolled under the firs along the lanes. Ardently he talked about the dissenters he knew and admired most — Andrey Sakharov, the Litvinov family. To one who had kept silent, at least in public, all through the Stalin years, the boldness of these independent voices was a revelation and an inspiration. I gathered from what he said that now he was helping others besides Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
When he mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s name there was nothing in his voice to tell me whether he knew of my meetings with the writer the previous spring. All I could be certain of was that his own assistance to Solznenitsyn and other dissenters, while secret, had given him a new taste for life. He held his handsome head high and his movements, always energetic, had a new dramatic assertiveness. Once the soul of prudence, he now voiced loudly his disgust with the KGB and the turn Soviet politics was taking, giving emphasis to his feelings by waving his arms as we walked and sometimes clapping his fist loudly into the wide open palm of his hand.
Better than anyone else in Russia, Chukovsky knew how to create a sense of life’s continuity for one brought up in the limbo of emigration. One afternoon he had had a surprise for me, one that joined past and present in a way I would never forget. He had called me out into the garden, where a drab gray truck, like a closed delivery van, was parked under the trees. Two young men stood by the truck. With the authority of a theatrical director, Chukovsky set them in motion. One opened the back of the truck and I saw that it was filled with electronic recording equipment. It was a sound truck from a Moscow TV station, which was making a filmed interview with my host. Chukovsky climbed inside. Both young men disappeared after him. Soon Chukovsky summoned me into the crowded interior and handed me a pair of earphones. I put them on and heard a lot of crackling, some coughing and wheezing noises, then a male voice, strangely enthusiastic, slightly breathless. It resembled my brother’s voice. It was youthful, aware of its own effect, a bit tentative because of this. I realized that the man speaking was my grandfather. He was addressing an anti-Tzarist political rally more than half a century ago; he would have been about my age then, or younger. When the recording ended I took off the earphones with wonder. Chukovsky was nodding in delight.
«This is the live Andreyev — Andreyev’s live voice,» he said.
Now, in Peredelkino again in 1989, I thought back to that day in 1967 when I heard Andreyev’s live voice for the first time. What would the «live Andreyev,» who loved Russia passionately, have thought of my participation in Solzhenitsyn’s mission? Of its outcome? Might the fact that it had to be covert cause him to disapprove? Would he have felt it worthy to fight Bolshevism through literature? Despite Chukovsky’s friendship and the sound of Andreyev’s voice, I remember feeling very lonely that day.
Several years before that, in 1960, Chukovsky had deliberately made it easy for me to meet Boris Pasternak by showing me how to find his house while ostensibly discouraging me with vigorous waving of arms and stamping of feet from ever trying to call on him. In 1967, he had praised Alexander Solzhenitsyn while at the same time cautioning me about «this man who is possessed» (oderzhimiy), for all his restrained, even affable exterior. He was the first to suggest to me that Solzhenitsyn’s years in camp had made him into a very complex, steely human being. A hard-working writer himself, Chukovsky appreciated Solzhenitsyn’s ability to concentrate, the speed with which he wrote. The speed especially he found phenomenal.
Once during my last visit to him, in 1967, Chukovsky had said, out of the blue, «You, with your literary friendships in the West, you ought to alert international opinion to Alexander Isaevich’s situation. Russia’s most promising writer hounded by riffraff in Ryazan where he lives, and even here whenever he visits me! It’s dreadful! Do you realize that the man is nearly destitute? And fiercely proud — won’t accept a thing from anyone.» Then with hardly a pause he added, «Funds must be raised. Money to help him. Why don’t you do something about it when you get back to the United States?»
When I had inquired how funds could reach Solzhenitsyn if he refused all material aid, Chukovsky had waved this question away. Somehow funds had to be raised and a way found to make them acceptable to Solzhenitsyn. He would take it upon himself to induce him. But then he had seemed to change his mind. «Now that I think of it, Olenka, it’s not at all a good idea for you to concern yourself with Solzhenitsyn’s affairs,» he told me. «You shouldn’t compromise yourself and your family. The more I think about it, the more I think you should remain a free observer. Let those of us who live here take this sort of responsibility.»
I had been perplexed. Was Chukovsky retracting his suggestion about aiding Solzhenitsyn, or was he referring to my secret engagement with him and warning me to abandon it? I couldn’t tell. Then, like a prestidigitator, he drew living pictures of my grandfather’s house in Finland, the guests coming in the immense entrance hall, the fireplaces, the white bearskin rugs, Andreyev appearing on the stairs in a black velvet jacket, lost in sorrow, grieving for Lady Shura and, Chukovsky told me, for Russia, whose future he saw as dark and frightening. Chukovsky’s own words of warning worked deeper than these images. In a low voice he had quoted Alexander Blok:
Children, if you could only know
Of the cold and fear of future days.
Now, sitting alone in Chukovsky’s study, the fresh smell of the woods coming in through the open window, the pine trees outside rustling, I wanted to think that the days of «cold and fear» were over.