Click on photo to enlarge.
What the hell is this doing here? Well, some of Russia’s greatest artists were persecuted here in the basement or other places. Some, maybe many, were tortured or shot here. This building – figuratively and in fact – ended the careers and/or lives of many of Russia’s greatest, most talented citizens.
The structure was built in 1898 to house the All-Russia Insurance Company. Following the Revolution it was taken over by the state and given to the first of many organizations whose business it has been ever since to spy and meddle in people’s lives at home in Russia and abroad. (Let’s not get too righteous about this stuff – the U.S. has the CIA and the FBI to do similar things in and for the States.) As for the organization that has occupied the building at Lubyanka Square since 1918, the acronyms have been many: the CHeKa, the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD, the KGB and now, in modern times, the FSB. A rose by any other name… All of them have been one version or another of what is often called the secret police.
Those passing through the doors of this establishment not by their own choice make an astonishing list – Vsevolod Meyerhold, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Erdman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Zinovyev, to name just a very few. This is the place where the so-called Night of the Murdered Poets took place August 12, 1952. Thirteen Jews that night were shot in the basement, several of them writers or translators – David Hofstein, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson, Leon Talmy and Chaika Ostrovskaya. The others included a journalist, a historian, a lawyer, and an editor. One, Benjamin Zuskin, a theater director and actor, had been a longtime partner of the great actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Mikhoels was murdered in 1948 by the organization occupying this building, although they did him the favor of killing him on a roadside near Minsk rather than in a grungy basement.
For years it has been the rule to say that Meyerhold was shot here one night then dumped in an unmarked grave. Recently, however, I have seen information suggesting it was even worse than that. There is a version out there now, claiming origin from official archives, that Meyerhold was tortured before death by having all his fingers broken one by one, and then killed by drowning in sewage. Sound far fetched? I wouldn’t discount it. One of the sources publishing that version is a site called So They’ll Remember.
According to Patrick M. O’Neal’s book Great World Writers: Twentieth Century, Solzhenitsyn was beaten here before being sentenced to eight years of hard labor.
I don’t usually quote at length from English-language Wikipedia articles, because you can access them yourself if you’re interested. But this account about Babel’s arrest on May 15, 1939 by Babel’s common-law wife Antonina Pirozhkova is worth a longer look here. It is quoted from Pirozhkova’s memoir, At His Side (1996). Arresting agents arrived at their Moscow apartment and she actually led them to him at their dacha, where the writer was taken into custody. Pirozhkova picks up the story:
“In the car, one of the men sat in back with Babel and me while the other one sat in front with the driver. ‘The worst part of this is that my mother won’t be getting my letters’, and then he was silent for a long time. I could not say a single word. Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, ‘So I guess you don’t get too much sleep, do you?’ And he even laughed. As we approached Moscow, I said to Babel, ‘I’ll be waiting for you, it will be as if you’ve gone to Odessa… only there won’t be any letters….’ He answered, ‘I ask you to see that the child not be made miserable.’ … At this point, the man sitting beside Babel said to me, ‘We have no claims whatsoever against you.’ We drove to the Lubyanka Prison and through the gates. The car stopped before the massive, closed door where two sentries stood guard. Babel kissed me hard and said, ‘Someday we’ll see each other…’ And without looking back, he got out of the car and went through that door.”
It was here during an interrogation that Nikolai Erdman made one of my favorite comments. He and his friend and co-author Vladimir Mass were accused of writing anti-Soviet fables. Said Erdman in his signed “confession,” dated October 15, 1933: “…Finally, I recognized and recognize that I am responsible also for fables of an anti-Soviet character, which I myself (or in tandem with Mass) did not write, but which were an imitation of that genre which Mass and I created together.”
Read that a couple of times and let it sink in. Erdman “admits” he did not write the fables he’s been arrested for – they are merely imitations. However, they are imitations of a genre that he and his friend Vladimir Mass created. So he didn’t write the fables, he just created the genre in which the fables were not written.
Now, Nikolai Erdman was an absolute master of the comic paradox. I don’t care how frightened he was that night – even if he wasn’t laughing inwardly as the ignorant interrogator wrote down that sentence and handed it to Erdman for a signature, he definitely appreciated the nonsense he just helped to turn into an official document. I quote this archival document from the book Give Me Back Freedom!, compiled and edited from holdings in the Lubyanka archive by Vladimir Kolyazin.
Allow me one short personal note. One day I was walking through a rainy Moscow. I began my trek at the Library of Foreign Literature in the Taganka area and I was headed for a downtown theater, I’ve forgotten which one. I had lots of time and so, instead of taking the metro as I would usually do, I walked the entire way. As I say it was raining and at times the rain came down hard, with wind kicking up in strong gusts. This happened again as I neared the center of the city. I put my umbrella in front of me as if it were a shield, put my head down and just plowed on, looking at my feet as they took one step forward at a time – left/right, left/right. I saw nothing around me and I did not know where I was specifically. Suddenly I began to feel uncomfortable. I could swear my right shoulder and the outside surface of my right forearm began burning. They were downright hot. I even rubbed my upper right arm with my left hand to try to relieve the unpleasant sensation. The burning lasted for several long seconds and finally it was enough to make me stop and look around. I could not figure out what was happening. When I pulled the umbrella up and looked, I saw I was standing right next to that grim, gray wall that you see in all but one of the photos posted here today. I was a little over mid-way through (imagining I was walking right to left in these photos) probably just past the high, two-story main entrance. I was stunned when I saw where I was. And I immediately believed I was sensing the residual fear, anger, despair and horror of all those who had ever been tortured and murdered in the basement of this building over decades of time. I am not a great mystic, but to this day I have never doubted that conclusion. This is a building whose walls have seen untold and untellable horrors. That horror is imbedded in the bricks and stones of this former insurance company headquarters. I have felt it on my own skin.