I WAS ELEVEN years old in 1945 when the war ended, and my mother and I both gradually came to terms with the fact that my father would never return from the front line. In public we continued to wait, but inside ourselves we had said goodbye. A new chapter in my life started: my mother allowed me to take Father's books from the shelf.
I neglected the works of philosophers like Vladimir Solovyov, novelists such as Tolstoy and all the books with no pictures in them. Instead, I was captivated by four nineteenth-century tomes on Russian history, which had illustrated capitals, heroic battles and portraits with haloes round the heads of the saints. The author was Nyechvolodov. (Many years later, when reading Solzhenitsyn, I found a lukewarm compliment to him.) The tomes had been stamped by some pre-revolutionary people's college. Eventually I found out how my father came to have them: in the 1920s they had been condemned by the Soviets to be destroyed and my father, a young Komsomol (member of the Communist youth movement), stole them for himself.
A thick dark blue book was also to be found in my father's cupboard, published in the 1930s. This was a textbook history of the USSR, for primary school use. It was a collection of standard texts which corresponded exactly to what I had been taught in lessons, and so I found it not at all interesting. It told of the oppression of the people under the autocracy and the anger of the masses, the storming of the Winter Palace, and so on. On the title page there was a respectful dedicatory inscription to my father from the author. The author was called Shestakov; and many years later I stumbled across a couple of lines about him in the history journal Rodina: and so far as I can see, he disappeared thereafter. The book was given to my father while he was working at the leading cinema institute Mosfilm, with special responsibility for interpreting the Party line. On one occasion, early in 1941, on the eve of war, he invited a few specialists to give lectures to the film students; apparently Shestakov had also been invited.
There was also a pre-war series of historical novels on Father's shelves, and I started devouring them--from the German Egyptologist and historical novelist Georg Ebers to Robert Louis Stevenson--until my soul flowed across the time and space of history, from ancient Rome to medieval England. I have to admit that I found parts of world history so captivating that in some ways they were to take the place of my adolescence, even though Rome of course 'declined and fell' and English history was a tale 'written by an executioner'.
As far as the history of our own country was concerned, it was fossilised within the Procrustean bed of the school curriculum, and I failed it ignominiously until my school-leaving certificate. And having obtained a place in the philological faculty of the university, I heaved a great sigh of relief and forgot all about the history of Russia. During seminars I would sometimes remember the odd subject: the agrarian populists of the late nineteenth century ... the legal Marxists ... the only true doctrine ... But the history of the Party itself was lying in wait for me in my oral State Exam.
Here again my dead father extended the arm of assistance to me. In his bookcase, I found, solidly bound and standing upright, verbatim transcripts of the Party Congresses. I opened them and--have you ever experienced the magic of a film at the moment when figures held still in a freeze frame suddenly start to move? The history of the Party contained in these transcripts came alive for me just like that. The endless proceedings and resolutions suddenly boiled with the foam of real anger, and out of this froth heroes were born, committed to history only in their remarks. 'Comrade Chairman! Stop your endless wandering to and fro in the hall! It is impossible to get anything done in the Congress!' And then there was …