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Феликс Рахлин Владимир Малеев Виталий Пустовалов Нина Никипелова Виктор Конторович Вадим Левин Татьяна Лифшиц Элла Слуцкая Сурен Готенов Галина Заходер Вадим Ткаченко Ольга Андреева Нина Маслова David Allott R. and C. Thornton Александр Адамский Игорь Ильин Татьяна Никитина Лилия Левитина Наталья Раппопорт Аркадий Коган Дина Рубина Марк Галесник Феликс Кривин
You must have wondered if you would ever hear from me. I have been very slow and not very communicative. The truth is that I have been doing a lot of thinking since Rena died and since you rang with your request. It stirred a lot of memories for me and some of these are complex, to say the least, which are connected with my time in Kharkov all those years ago.
I hope that you will not mind my writing to you in English. My Russian is not what it was, and typing in Russian is tortuous and slow, and lags way behind my thought process. Anyway, here goes.
As you know, I came to Kharkov in October 1975. I think I was probably the only Englishman in the town, although I was only the second one working in the department. Those were strange times. The Soviet Union was opening up quite quickly, and foreigners from the West were becoming more common, but the mind-cast, the suspicion was still very much in the shadow of Stalin who had only been dead some 22 years. For some, I was, therefore, a rather exotic species, but for me, a very ordinary English man not blessed with great intellectual powers, very confused and naïve, you were all very exotic and, looking back, I was privileged to have met probably the most intelligent and thinking people ever in my life. I have never moved in such circles since. My contacts with things Russian have changed too, partly as a result of getting married again and partly through all the changes we have lived through. What I read about that part of the world fills me mostly with despair and disappointment, and I sometimes cannot help thinking that the world over there back then in ’75 was a less complex one with some definite pluses amidst all the glaring minuses.
I quickly met all my colleagues, now working under one of the most unusually decent people I ever met, namely Yuriy Markovich Tkachenko, a man I came to respect enormously. Whatever his limitations were, he did have a moral centre, and he looked after me in his own strange way very well. I think my antics may have cost him his job in the end. He was moved as soon as I left Kharkov in 1977.
Whilst I was one day sitting in the Kafedra a very individual lady wearing an amazing hat walked over to me. The first thing that struck me was her open manner and smiling face. She was genuinely pleased to meet me and was not afraid to show it. I also was struck by her phenomenally natural English. I soon found myself accompanying her on her homeward journey as far as "Отакара Яроша" Street, usually walking the length of the main road to "Павлово Поле" district (part of the town) chatting about this and that, and then seeing her onto the trolley bus. And it was through her that my slightly rose-tinted view of the Soviet Union was challenged. I also met through her and got to know more closely Fima Beider, who was to become probably my closest friend.
Over that first term I had some wonderful meetings with Fima and Rena, and then was eventually introduced to Rena’s husband, who I was told later had written his Doctor’s Thesis in the loo and taught himself English by picking up a copy of "The Forsyte Saga" and a dictionary, and then just reading it. I found out the complex story of Rena’s background: how her mother had died when she was relatively young, that her father had worked in SMERSH and was a ‘terrible man’, how she met Professor Shulga and had a child by him, and the aftermath of that.
Nobody could tell a story like Rena; an unusually large time in her company was spent laughing, as I listened to her. She also had the ability to make people talk to her and accept her, even if they were cautious. I remember her sweet-talking the Dean for Foreign students, Dr Piotr Yakovlevich Korzh, whose wife taught Latin at the university.
Rena's students adored her, and she made English come alive for them in the classroom. She also introduced me to some of her children’s verse, and to this day I still can recite ‘The Hedghog’. By that stage, she had already come to the notice of Marshak, although the problem of publication was going to be complex for a while.
I will not regurgitate all my times spent with Rena and my other friends in Kharkov, but I will just call to remembrance one or two incidents to give a flavour of what it was like to know her. I cannot match the style or content of Felix Rakhlin’s article, and so will not try to do so.
At the beginning of December 1975 I was afflicted with a serious bout of ‘Russian tummy’ as a result of constantly feeding myself in the public canteens and cafes of the USSR. Unfortunately, this led not to a quick recovery but to two or three days of terrible pain and discomfort. By the 4th of December I was in a very rough state, and was wondering what I should do. As I lay in bed, the door suddenly burst open and there stood Rena in her ‘amazing’ hat informing me that everything was fine. She had been put ‘on the case’ by my future mother-in-law, Aleksandra Pavlovna, who had learned from her daughter that I was not well, and had chosen to intervene on all fronts, aided and abetted by Rena. I was going to hospital, and Fima would be down soon to join us. I was carted off to hospital to see a well-known Russian surgeon, known to Rena and her friends, Dr Krichevsky. Rena stayed with me all that morning while I was initiated into the mysteries of being admitted to a Soviet hospital. The doctors were great, but things did not work, e.g. wheelchairs, and the operating theatre where I finally found myself was a museum piece in its own class – loose tiles, poor equipment and white-washed ceilings. I was also exposed to the etiquette of the orderlies. ‘Как вас зовут, больной! Больной, щас побреем вас!’, etc...
Meanwhile, Rena and her friends were busy making sure I wouldn't perish. Beatrisa Iosefovna Rogovskaya took matters into her own hands on Rena’s prompting, and went over the head of Korzh and phoned the Rektor, who nearly dropped the phone out of his hands, according to Rena, when he knew that 'the Englishman’ was seriously ill. He immediately phoned Obkom, which gave out an order that no one, but no one, under the rank of professor was to touch me or operate on me. Meanwhile, everyone had gone home for the December 5th holiday. Eventually, with Rena at my side I was brought into the operating theatre to be operated on by Professor Bondarenko. The rest you probably know. I survived. Largely owing to Rena’s timely intervention and her ability to get hold of people and get things done.
With Katya Ellott, England, 1989
Throughout my time in Kharkov I always was used to having Rena turn up either in the department or at Natasha’s house. Always sending everyone into paroxysms of laughter and always able to see the humour in all situations, she had a way of lifting spirits. She was always so enthusiastic about anything new that had turned up and would greet the showing of any new clothes with wild squeals. 'Щас взвизжит!' Aleksandra Pavlovna would say.
After 1980 I did not see so much of Renata, but there was one very memorable occasion when I was in Moscow for a few days with a delegation of teachers. My marriage was breaking, up and I myself was not in good spirits, but I was with my brother-in-law Yura and a friend and we proceeded to get incredibly drunk and basically set the town on fire. Rena was staying with a professor friend from Moscow, and we managed to get him very drunk too. He was a bit melancholic as he was missing his wife who was away. I just remember her saying to me at the end of the time, 'Ну, три безумных дня!! Да.' I think she knew how I was feeling, but was careful not to intrude. Thereafter, I saw her briefly in Ludlow in 1989, when she first came to the West and had been staying with Natasha. She came with Katya to Ludlow. Katya was spending the day at her new school, which she joined formally in September of that year. Renata managed to get herself noticed by all and sundry, and was a well-known figure by the end of the day. The following year she came back with a group of youngsters from Kharkov on the first exchange ever between two schools in Britain and the Ukraine. It was quite a three weeks. Rena charmed her way into the hearts of many people on the trip and, in particular, into that of the grandson of the famous writer Hilaire Belloc. This was the Headmaster of Downside Abbey School, Father Phillip Jebb. Rena was as excited that she had met the grandson of Hilaire Belloc, the writer of the poem Matilda which she knew by heart, as Father Phillip was that this poem of his grandfather was known by someone in as far-flung a corner of the worl as Russia! I still remember Rena on her knees – goodness knows why! – reciting this poem to the joy of Father Phillip. It was a wonderful meeting and an unforgettable moment witnessing the meeting.
With Father Phillip Jebb.
Downside Abbey School, 1990
God bless you,