Grossman is a master of capturing tiny details that show something touchingly ordinary in an extraordinary setting. Here, modelled on a real and ruthless individual who caused the deaths of countless innocents in Stalin’s purge-fest, he describes a domestic world at odds with the widespread terror instigated by the father.
‘Nadya’ was adopted by the couple at the height of their power, leading the cossetted life of a child of the Soviet elite. Here, as their power ebbs, we see first the mother die (whether of natural or other causes isn’t clear), before the father comes home unexpectedly early to play innocent games with the little girl. This seems an indication that he knew what was coming, and indeed, soon after, he himself disappears, just as he has made others disappear.
The moment a major is sent to the house, now devoid of parents, and instructs the nanny to pack the girl’s things, Grossman creates a striking contrast between the apparent security of the now twice orphaned girl, calmly eating her porridge in her sweet little apron, and the imminent end to the safety and privilege she has enjoyed. She is returned to an orphanage and is now, in political terms, tainted goods, for having been adopted by a couple who have plummeted from favour.
What was her life like thereafter? Unrelentingly hard, it would seem.
Like many of Grossman’s short stories, ‘Mama’ is fiction grounded in his observations of searingly real events on the front line of Soviet life and war.
First, Nadyusha’s mother, the wife of Nikolay Ivanovich, died in the hospital. She was not bad or unkind, and she cared about the little girl; nevertheless, she was a strange person. That day Nikolay Ivanovich came home very early. He asked Marfa Domityevna to bring Nadya to his study. Father and daughter gave some tea to her plastic piglet and put her little doll and the bear to bed. Then Nikolay Ivanovich paced about his study until morning.
And then came a day when this short man with gray-green eyes, Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov, did not come home at all …
In the morning a man with a red face arrived. He was stout, like a child’s top, and the cook called him “Major.” He went through to the nursery. Wearing a starched apron embroidered with a red cockerel, Nadya was slowly and seriously eating her oatmeal porridge. “Put some warm clothes on the girl,” he ordered, “and pack her things.”
Source: Vasily Grossman, ‘Mama’, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova, afterword Fyodor Guber (New York: New York Review Books, 2010), pp. 213- 214
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