Remembering Nikolai Ostrovsky


The balcony door stood open, and the curtain stirred in the wind, filling out, rising reluctantly, and shrinking like a dipped sail. A crumpled towel left by someone on the radio made a white blur in the dusk. It looked like a white rabbit who had laid down its long ears preparing to jump.

I remembered that bright September morning in Sochi two years ago, the small house in Orekhovaya Street, the ripe, orange persimmons in the sunlit garden, the pleasant whitewashed room, and the dear face on the piled-up pillows.

The white rabbit nestled happily in the folds of the blanket as Nikolai’s nervous fingers caressed its long, silky ears. Nikolai was laughing softly, and his gleaming teeth were as white as sugar. On the bedside table lay several big red apples, and their lovely smell filled the whole house. The white rabbit, comically twitching its soft ears, licked the gentle human hand with its small pink tongue.

I wanted to shut my eyes tight and see that hot September morning again, and the house filled with sunlight and apple fragrance. My thoughts refused to take a melancholy course, and my mind was still unable to grasp what had happened and tell itself that this was the irrevocable….

But reality asserted itself, and my eyes saw with ruthless clarity the face that had forever grown still. The last struggle for survival had sapped all his life juices, and dried him as a leaf is dried in a hot wind. It only spared his tall, handsome forehead, and his soft dark chestnut hair. This clear, domelike brow rose above a small wizened face. And one fancied that his creative imagination, infused with revolutionary ardor and an irrepressible interest in and love of life, was still working busily…. I placed my hand on his forehead. It was still warm and even moist, as though Nikolai was simply resting after his exciting exertion. The Order of Lenin twinkled uncannily on his sunken chest as if life were stirring in it, and one would see it rise in a soft sigh.

For three days, from morning till night, an endless stream of people of all ages filed past the bier which was literally submerged in flowers and wreaths.

Nikolai Ostrovsky continues to live not only in his books: he himself is a heroic image, and one of the strongest and most striking personalities of his epoch.

Fate treated him cruelly, depriving him of the power of sight and the use of his legs and arms. But he overpowered his physical infirmities, his incurable disease, weakness, grief and torpor, and victoriously asserted life, creative endeavor, and struggle. As an ardent singer of the Bolshevik youth, he sang his militant, joyous song of struggle and victory of socialism, and his voice, ringing with a beautiful, lyrical strength, resounded throughout the Soviet land and the whole world.

Away with melancholy recollections! Let us part with them, for death is the tax we must pay for the frailty of our physical being, and let us turn to the inexhaustible, powerful fount of life….

I went to see him on a cold, windy day in 1932, a typical day for early Moscow spring. He lived in Mertyy Pereulok (since renamed Nikolai Ostrovsky Pereulok-Ed.)

The large flat was packed with tenants. It was noisy and crowded. People jostled you in the corridor babies were howling, and someone was typing inexpertly in a far room, pecking at the keys with a woodpecker’s persistence.

What a setup for a writer! Imagine working in that din! I knocked, and opened the door into Nikolai Ostrovsky’s room.

A man, muffled up to his chin in blankets and shawls, was lying on the bed. The pillows were piled high, and I saw a mop of dark chestnut hair, a large, prominent forehead, and a thin, wan face that did not have a drop or color in it.

The thin eyelids trembled slightly. The thick eyelashes cast bluish shadows on the hollow cheeks. Hands of a waxen transparency lay on top of the blankets.

I knew that Nikolai Ostrovsky was an invalid, but still I did not picture him quite like this.

He looked so terribly weak and helpless that I decided not to bother him and come back another time.

Just then a slight old lady walked briskly into the room. She had lively dark brown eyes, and her face was wreathed in smiles.

“Mother, who’s there?” Nikolai suddenly asked in a voice that was somewhat hollow, but very young and not weak at all.

His mother told him my name.

“Oh! How nice,” he said. “Come nearer, come here.”

A beautiful white-toothed smile lighted up his face. Its every line seemed to glow with youthful eagerness and the joy of living. At first I fancied that his big, brown eyes also sparkled with animation. But in the next moment I realized that the sparkle came from the deep and rich coloring of the irises. Still, during our conversation I kept forgetting that he was blind, for there was so much concentration, attention and joviality in his radiant face.

We were talking about the first part of his novel How the Steel Was Tempered which had just been signed for publication in the magazine Molodaya Gvardia, where I worked as editor at the time. Nikolai was curious to hear how his characters had impressed us.

“Pavel, I think, is not a bad kid at all,” he said with sly humour, and flashed me a smile. “I’m not making a secret of it, of course, that Nikolai Ostrovsky and Pavel Korchagin are the closest of friends. He’s made from my brain and my blood too, this Pavel person…. What I want to know is this: does my novel read simply as an autobiography, the story of just one life?”

His smile suddenly waned, and with his lips compressed, his face looked cold and stern.

“I’ve purposely put the question so bluntly because I want to know whether the thing I’m doing is good, right, and useful for people or not? There are lots of single cases that are interesting in themselves, but a reader will pause before one for a moment, as before a shop window, even in admiration perhaps, and then walk on his way, never again remembering what he had seen there. That is what every writer should fear most, and myself, a beginner, the more so.”

I told him that he had nothing to fear on this score.

He interrupted me gently and said: “Only please, let’s agree on one thing: don’t comfort me from the kindness of your heart. You don’t have to sugar the pill for me. I’m a soldier, after all, I could sit a horse when I was a mere kid, and I won’t be thrown off now.”

Although his lips twitched and his smile was shy and gentle, the strength of his unbreakable will was suddenly revealed to me with the utmost clarity. At the same time I felt terribly happy that what I had to say to him would, in fact, comfort him.

I told him that as I read his book I involuntarily recalled the heroes from the Russian and western classics. Many of these heroes, created by writers of genius, shaped the will and the mentality of whole generations. For background they had the history of social relations, social and personal tragedies, and the glory of the peaks attained by human culture.

Pavel Korchagin could take a proud and confident stand among the great and the gloried. This young newcomer, emerging from the fires of the Civil War, should not feel self-conscious finding himself in such illustrious company. Nor did he have to go cap in hand begging for a place, even if only the smallest, in the literati gardens. He had something which the others had not: his young heart was possessed of an inexhaustible strength and throbbed with an unquenchable passion of struggle, and his mind was fired by the most progressive and noble thoughts of people’s freedom and happiness.

Needless to say, Pavel Korchagin was irreconcilably hostile to someone like Balzac’s Rastignac, but all the freedom-loving characters in literature, whether in the works of Pushkin, Byron or Stendhal, were close to him in spirit. But, of course, he would find the greatest number of kindred souls among Gorky’s heroes.

We were already talking like old friends, we touched upon different themes but invariably came back to the novel. Nikolai wanted to hear how the editing went and what changes were made by Mark Kolosov, the assistant editor of Molodaya Gvardia, and myself. When I told him how we threw out all sorts of ornamental cliches, he gave a roar of laughter and then chuckled with good humor as I cited his unfortunate turns of speech and some words he had used.

“D’you know the reason for all these slips?” he asked, abruptly changing to a serious, thoughtful tone. “I suppose you’ll say it’s my lack of culture? That too, but there’s another thing you must take into account my creative isolation, if you know what I mean. I began writing as a lone beginner, on my own responsibility. It’s wonderful that I’ll have literary friends now!”

He asked me what I thought of the composition of the novel as a whole, his handling of separate scenes, dialogues, descriptions of scenery, how well he had succeeded in bringing out the typical traits of his characters, and where he had made blunders in language, comparisons, metaphors, descriptive names, and so on.

Each one of his questions showed that he had done a lot of reading and thinking on the subject, and his approach to many of the problems involved in literary work testified to his maturity.

Time simply flew. I was afraid I was tiring Nikolai, but every time I rose to leave a word or a remark would start us off again, and I’d stay “for another minute”. Our conversation skipped from one topic to another, the way it does with two people who have only just met and want to know each other better. Still, we went back to the novel all the time, and spoke of the second part on which Nikolai was working. I had completely forgotten that I was in a sickroom, visiting a hopelessly handicapped person.

He told me about his writing plans and worries, set himself the deadline for the coming chapters, and his words were charged with such truly exuberant energy that it never occurred to me to offer any uncalled-for sympathy or encouragement.

I was terribly glad that Molodaya Gvardia had acquired this new author–a fresh and powerful talent, a Bolshevik, veteran of the Civil War, a man with such remarkably clear-cut ideological and moral values.

This was a strong character, tempered in battle, and so, rather than restrain him, I wanted to help him to develop his plans.

I can still hear his deep voice, mellow with happiness and pride, as he said:

“And so I’m back in the ranks. That’s the main thing, you know. I’m back in the ranks! Isn’t life wonderful! What a life is starting for me!”

All the way home I kept hearing these words: “What a life is starting for me!” and they sounded like a song.

I visited him a few more times before he was taken to Sochi, and gained a still deeper insight into the mentality and character of this amazingly courageous man.

Living in that overcrowded Moscow flat was a trial. Apart from the suffering which he did not immediately learn to hide so skillfully, there were troubles and cares which he was not spared. The family budget was more than modest. Olga Osipovna pinched and scraped as best she could, trying hard to hide their constant want from her son, always keeping her chin up and fussing round him with a smile and a ready joke on her lips, but still Nikolai with his sharpened sensitivity guessed the truth.

“You can’t fool me, Mother darling: the wolf is at the door again,” he would say to her, and his mother would reply: “Mind your own business and leave the wolf to me.” She always tried to turn their cares into a joke and Nikolai readily played the game, but there were some things that simply could not be laughed off.

Their room in that communal flat was cold and damp, and it was impossible for a bedridden person to remain there any longer.

The editors of Molodaya Gvardia approached the Central Committee of the YCL with a request to send Nikolai Ostrovsky to Sochi, and in the summer of 1932 his mother took him south. The day before they left, he sent me the following note:

“Dear Comrade Anna,

We’re starting south at 10 a.m. tomorrow. Everything has been done to let me build up a bit of strength to develop my offensive further. I want to stay in Sochi till late autumn. I’ll hang on as long as I can take it.”

By “my offensive” he meant his work on the second part of the novel How the Steel Was Tempered. The difficult and at moments agonizing process which Nikolai called “my work” was in truth an offensive….

I often remember his thin, yellowish hands which always lay on top of the blanket. They were the nervous, acutely sensitive hands of a blind man. He had the power of movement left only in his hands, as arthritis, that dread disease of the joints which was to be one of the causes of his death, had already seized the whole of his poor body.

Once, shortly before he left for Sochi, Nikolai said to me in the mocking tone he usually adopted when speaking of his condition:

“My shoulders and elbows don’t feel as if they belonged to me at all. It’s the craziest feeling! This is all I have left to me, all I possess!” Smiling with puckish sadness, he raised his hands a little and moved his fingers. “Try and manage with these!”

Although he disliked discussing his illness, he told me on one of my earlier visits that for a time he had been able to write with the help of a cardboard stencil.

“It wasn’t too convenient, but still it had its uses,” he said.

At the beginning of August 1932 I received a letter from him from Sochi. He had written it in pencil with the help of his stencil. The too-straight lines and the unnaturally curved letters compelled the imagination to picture the physical strain and the effort of will that went into the writing of that short letter.

18 Primorskaya,
August 5

“Dear Comrade Anna,

“I am living with my mother very close to the seashore. I spend the whole day out in the garden, lying under an oak tree and writing, making the best of the lovely weather (the next words were undecipherable) … my head is clear. I am in a hurry to live, Comrade Anna, I do not want to be sorry afterwards that I wasted these days. The offensive, brought to a deadlock by my stupid illness, is developing again, and so wish me victory.”

The force and tension of this “offensive” could be felt just from the words “I am in a hurry to live”.

He had a relapse soon after his arrival in Sochi, and this illness was to him a “stupid” waste of time and a really intolerable hindrance. And though his general health was so badly undermined, it was mainly with his unquailing willpower that he was able to overcome his new illness.

As soon as he was a little better he wrote me that letter “in his own hand” to test his endurance. I could picture him lying there, in the shade of the oak tree, dictating to his volunteer secretaries for hours at a stretch, refusing to take a rest…. His forehead is studded with drops of sweat, his thick eyebrows twitch up and down nervously his eyelids tremble, and his thin fingers pluck at the edge of the blanket. He often clears his throat, dictating has already tired him, but his imagination has been starved in those “wasted days of illness”, and he wants to make up for lost time. His forehead is hot and his heart literally misses a beat: he pictures the field of battle, he feels the earth quaking under the wrathful thudding of the cavalry, he sees the fearless horsemen coming on at a breakneck pace and cutting down the enemies of the working people. And now he pictures Moscow in those first years of peacetime construction, he recalls the YCL congress in the Bolshoi Theatre, and meeting his comrades- in-arms.

“Hurry… hurry … I must hurry to live….”

Molodaya Gvardia began publication of the second part of Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered in its January 1933 issue.

The letters I received from Nikolai in that period told me how great a price he was paying in lifeblood and nerves for his “offensive”.

Running ahead of my story I want to say that he stayed in Sochi for three and a half years, and not the few months as originally planned.

In one of his letters he said:

“I have started studying in earnest. It’s pretty hard when you’re on your own. I’ve no literature, and no qualified teachers, but all the same I can feel the narrow horizons of my tiny personal experience widening, and my cultural baggage growing heavier…. You asked me what I’d been doing these last three months. I devoted a lot of the time intended for my literary studies to the local young people. From a lone wolf I’ve turned into a ‘cheer leader’. The committee bureau now holds its meetings in my house. I’m in charge of the Party activist circle, and chairman of the district culture-promoting council. In short, I’ve shifted closer to the Party’s practical activity, and have become quite a useful fellow. True, I use up a lot of strength, but then living’s become more fun. I’m in the Komsomol midst.

“I’ve set up a literary circle, and I run it as best I can. The Party and Komsomol committees take a lively interest in my work. The Party activists often meet in my house. I can feel the pulse of life. I wanted this local practice, consciously sacrificing three whole months, so as to get the feel of what is most vital and topical today.”

And then he wrote:

“Still, I do a lot of reading. I’ve read Balzac’s La peau de chagrin, Figner’s Recollections, The Last of the Udeghei, Anna Karenina, Literary Heritage, all the back numbers of Literaturnaya Kritika, Turgenev’s A Nest of the Gentry and many more books.”

I gave this letter to one of my office friends to read, and he was quite shaken.

“I say, what a heroic character!” he exclaimed. “If I didn’t know who had written this letter I’d picture the writer as a big, strong chap in the pink of health reporting on his activities.”

We did not learn till after the danger had blown over how terribly ill Nikolai had been. He wrote me in the beginning of 1934:

“I nearly died. The desperate struggle went on for a whole month. The worst is over, and I feel stronger with every day….”

The popularity of his novel was growing rapidly, and Ostrovsky was receiving more and more letters from people complaining that the book was unobtainable in their local libraries or bookstores.

He told me about a great variety of people and their work–miners, metalworkers, steel smelters, electricians, locomotive drivers, stokers, accountants, teachers, actors, artists. He had met some remarkable collective farm chairmen and team leaders. “What characters!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “Their experience and knowledge of life are truly wonderful!”

Ostrovsky prided and delighted in his countrymen’s integrity, noting each excellent trait, while shabbiness, stupidity and smugness outraged him so painfully as though he himself had been personally insulted. In this respect his vision was keener than that of many whose eyesight was unimpaired.

In 1934 he wrote to me:

“To tell you the truth, even now I live a far happier life than do many of my callers, most of them calling from plain curiosity. I wouldn’t wonder. They have healthy bodies, but they lead a dull, colurless existence. They can see with both eyes, but I imagine that they have a bored, indifferent look. They probably pity me and think: ‘Heaven preserve me from ever finding myself in his shoes!’ To me they seem such sorry creatures, that I swear I’d never agree to change places with them.”

Can anything more be added to these lines which speak for themselves so clearly?

Ostrovsky was always full of plans, irrepressible energy and good cheer, and this was the frame of mind in which he began each new day, his only complaint being that the day was over too soon.

Nothing could weaken, let alone shatter, the strength of his spirit. If he had troubles his friends would only hear about them in passing, and then always in the past tense.

No matter how his friends remonstrated with him, Nikolai refused to listen to reason and worked for fifteen hours a day, he received multitudes of callers, slept little, and squandered the little physical strength he had. The last time I came to see him in Sochi, I scolded him for this. He listened with a comically meek and contrite expression on his face, then he began to sigh and mumble some extraordinary excuses. I kept a straight face as long as I could, and then I burst out laughing. My lecture had been a complete waste of breath!

“I’m a hopeless case, can’t you see?” Nikolai said, laughing with me.

What we all feared did happen. In August 1935, his condition took a sudden and sharp turn for the worse.

“For my stubbornness life restored to me this boundless, wonderful, beautiful happiness, and I forgot the warnings and threats of my doctors. I forgot that I had so little physical strength. The fast-moving stream of people–Komsomol youth, esteemed factory workers and miners, all those heroic builders of our happiness–attracted to me by my novel fanned in me what seemed to be a dying fire. I was once again a passionate agitator and propagandist. I often forgot my place in the ranks where my orders were to use my pen rather and not my tongue.

“This traitorous health of mine played me false once again. All at once I rolled down to the dread boundary line.

“But, for all the danger there is, I won’t die this time either, of course. I simply must write my Born of the Storm. What is more, I must infuse it with all the ardor of my heart. I’ve got to make a screenplay of How the Steel Was Tempered. I’ve got to write a book for children about Pavel Korchagin’s childhood, and this is a must a book about Pavel’s happiness. This will take me five years of strenuous work. Five years of life is the minimum I must figure on. Are you smiling? But it can’t be different. My doctors also smile in embarrassment and dismay. Duty comes first with me, and so I take this five-year plan as a minimum. Tell me, Anna, is there a madman who’d depart this life at a time as wonderful as ours?”

It never occurred to me to “smile”. His vitality and resistance were so fantastic, and his optimism was always so infectious, that I instantly believed in his “minimum” without a shadow of doubt. He should have his minimum. It could not be otherwise.

He was anxious to return to Moscow so as to be closer to his writer friends, and to avail himself of the material and counsel he needed for getting down to work on his new novel Born of the Storm.

Towards the end of the year 1935, we succeeded in getting a flat for Ostrovsky in 40 Gorky Street.

In November I received a letter from him in which he said:

“A member of the Government is coming here in a day or two to present me with a decoration. I can’t leave until then. I must also get my doctor’s permission for the journey, as I am unwell again. When all these things have been cleared up, I’ll write and tell you the day of departure.”

We were busy fixing up the flat in 40 Gorky Street, anxious to have everything just the way he’d like it…. I was called to the phone in the middle of the haste and bustle of our editorial day. It was a long-distance call from Sochi. There was a snowstorm outside. I picked up the phone and heard the blizzardly howling of the wind, snatches of music, whistling, crackling–a cacophony of indistinct sounds and voices.

And suddenly, Nikolai’s deep, hollowish voice rang in my ear as clearly as if he were speaking from Arbat Street and not all the way from Sochi.

“I’ll be in Moscow on the eleventh! We’ll hold a meeting of the ‘general staff’ in my train compartment, the minute we steam in! You’ll tell me all your news, and I’ll tell you mine. I work like mad!”

On December llth, a cold wintry day, a small group of us went to Serpukhov to meet Nikolai Ostrovsky. There was a heavy snowfall. The tall, loud-mouthed locomotive tore into the haze of fluffy snow with startling suddenness. When the train came to a stop, we ran to the green service car. A young, round-faced woman emerged from the door.

“Is Nikolai Ostrovsky in this car?” we asked her.

“That’s right, that’s right,” she replied with a nice smile.

Nikolai’s compartment was dark and hot. The faint light from the passage cast bluish shadows on his face. He had lost weight, but his laugh was as infectious as ever, his white-toothed smile was so radiant and his thin face so animated that, as usual, I forgot how ill he was.

“The old warrior’s back in the ranks,” he said jocularly, but his voice rang with pride and jubilance.

He told us about the meetings which his young readers had arranged for him at the stops. And when we were left alone in the compartment for a minute, he said to me:

“You know … how I wanted . . . how terribly I wanted to see their faces. I felt all those wonderful boys and girls so strongly, they were so dear to me that at moments I fancied I was really seeing them…. Of course, I was the happiest person in the world just then, but if I could see them, I would be able to tell my dear YCL’ers how much I love them more eloquently still.”

I tried to change the topic, but Nikolai’s eyebrows twitched stubbornly, and he continued with a shadow of a patiently ironic smile on his lips:

“There’s no understanding the mentality of doctors at times. Apparently, surgery can restore a person’s eyesight for five or six days, and then he’ll go blind again. I believe this operation is called resection of the pupil. However, that’s not the point. Naturally, I refused to have such kindness done to me. People don’t seem to understand that by giving me sight for five days they’d be thrusting me backward and not helping me forward. I have succeeded in mastering all my desperate emotions connected with my blindness, and now from sheer humaneness the doctors are prepared to grant me even worse torments! All right, I’ll see you all, my dear friends, and then what? No, I have conquered darkness, I have trained myself to live in spite of this physical handicap, despising it, and I don’t want to have a new burden placed upon my soul.”

In order not to tire him, we often left him alone in his compartment, during the journey. As we talked quietly in the passage, however, he’d hear what we were saying with his acute hearing, and call out something gay, witty and very much to the point.

…I called on Nikolai at his flat a few days later.

It was very warm in his large, high-ceilinged room. Two impressive electric heaters maintained the temperature at 25 or 26 degrees Centigrade.

Nikolai was wearing an embroidered Ukrainian shirt, which was very becoming. I had never seen him look so well before. There was a bit of color in his hollow cheeks, and he had a new, earnestly happy smile. He was lying back on his piled-up pillows, and his dark hair made a soft frame round his tall, white forehead. All of us who loved this man dearly exchanged happy glances, delighting in the wonderful, inexhaustible vitality with which his face vibrated.

The talk was gay and noisy. It suddenly occurred to one of the guests that we were tiring our host, and he asked anxiously:

“Aren’t we making too much of a noise?”

“Heavens no,” Nikolai replied with a happy laugh. “Let’s have a real housewarming!”

I once dropped in on him in the evening when his working day was over. Nikolai was in his everyday tunic made from army cloth. He looked tired. I asked him how many hours of dictation he’d had that day.

“Oh, not many, not many at all,” he began, and suddenly admitted the truth: “About ten. I see you don’t approve. But I was so starved, so hungry for work! Honestly, even lovers don’t long for each other as passionately as I longed for work. And you know the mood that comes upon you after work. When my secretary left, I began thinking over the next scene, and I pictured it so vividly that I could have dictated it right there and then. In such moments there’s no happier person than me in the whole world. I am a lucky fellow anyway, aren’t I? Lucky, and how!”

He recalled the interview he once gave in Sochi to an American lady journalist.

“I was virtually in her clutches: she wanted to know this, and she wanted to know that–a terribly noisy lady she was. And then she had to be told how my heart was working, how I felt in general, and so on and so forth. I listened and listened, and finally I asked her what she wanted all that information for about poor me. She began to hem and haw, saying something about compassion, humaneness, pity, and other such considerations. It dawned on me then that she was trying to make a martyr of me, a stoic, and a saint…. My, how I wanted to tell her where to get off! Instead, I simply pointed out to her the correct approach to my life story, and explained why I considered myself a useful member of society.”

Nikolai could not stand pity, or condescending, gushy kindness. He would ridicule anyone who so much as attempted to moan or lament over him. His sensibilities were extremely acute, and he could instantly discern the slightest change of mood in the people about him. He himself was very good at cheering up others. The words he said were of the simplest, but they had a more powerful effect than many a passionate eruption of sym- pathy. He tried to get at the root of the trouble, and then offered his advice in a businesslike manner, very gently and tactfully showing which of the aspects involved were, in his opinion, not worth a tear. This ability to get to the bottom of everything, doing it with objective and passionate earnestness, was one of his strongest points.

Everyone who was acquainted with Nikolai Ostrovsky knows how hard he worked. To my great sorrow I was not in Moscow during the last week of his life. His secretaries told me how strenuously he worked in those last days. The secretaries took turns, working in two or three shifts, while he dictated without a break, pushing on with the doggedness of a real fighter to finish the first part of his novel Born of the Storm. He had promised the Central Committee of the YCL to have the book finished by mid- December, and he held his word.
His day was strictly scheduled: in the morning, he dictated to his secretary and then had it all read back to him two or three times. After a short break for lunch, he went back to work again. Then came the reading hour–newspapers, new books or the classics. He liked expressive reading, and listened with rapt, childlike attention. The evening ended with music on the radio and the news.

Once, we gathered in his room to hear a program composed of his favorite songs and music; the broadcast was a tribute to Nikolai Ostrovsky from the Radio Committee. When the concert was over, Nikolai said in a low, reflective tone:

“Happiness .. . this is it. Could I have ever thought that one day I’d be listening to a concert dedicated to me?”

We talked about music. He recalled that as a boy he would often stop under people’s windows if he heard someone playing the piano.

“The piano always attracted me, and amazed me extremely. Of course, I could not even dream of ever owning an instrument as expensive as a piano…. Later, I learnt to play the accordion, and I felt so proud that my fingers could produce music. I loved my accordion. We had an accordion at the front too … it’s wonderful going into battle singing a song!”

He then recalled those wretched years when he worked as a kitchen boy at the railway station.

“It was a hard job, to put it mildly–fetch this and carry that, get a move on, look sharp, boy. I saw too much of the bottom of life, if you know what I mean, it was as though I were constantly watching the dirty feet of passersby from a basement window. I witnessed so much degradation, so many people go to pot through drink. But I was sorriest for the women, I feared most for those very young girls who were led astray right before my eyes.”

The conversation turned to the female characters in Born of the Storm and, speaking with even greater heat, Nikolai said that what he wanted to show was true love and friendship, a truly moral and human attitude to a woman friend.

“There can be friendship without love, but it’s a shallow love if it has no friendship in it, no comradeship, no common interests. It’s not real love, it’s just a selfish pleasure, a pretty bauble. I’m not bragging and it’s all past anyway, but in the old days the girls used to give me the glad eye, and I was ridiculously shy and awkward…. A Marusya or an Olessya would glance at me with her blue or brown eyes … it was a wonderful feeling, there’s no gainsaying it.”

He laughed softly in reminiscence.

“Do you know,” he said, “I got a letter the other day from Tonya Tumanova, not Tonya really but the girl who was the prototype of Tonya. Can you imagine it, she hasn’t forgotten me.”

Nikolai fell abruptly silent, and for several minutes he lay still with a concentrated frown on his face. Not a muscle stirred, and only his thick black eyelashes trembled slightly. Then, he sort of gave himself a shake, and started telling me about Tonya Tumanova. The man she fell in love with and married, an engineer he was, turned out to be a weak, bad character. Tonya divorced him, and now lived apart with her two children, teaching for a living.

“She was a good, kind girl, but she was not made for struggle. It was often the case–people who could not fight for the common cause, could not put up a fight for their personal happiness either.”

On one of my visits, I was shocked by Nikolai’s pallor and his strangely haggard look. He refused to tell me what was wrong at first, but finally he yielded to my insistence and said:

“My eyeballs are sore. I suppose there’s an inflammation. The right eye especially, it’s simply killing me. Did you ever get coal dust in your eyes? Well, I sometimes have the feeling that my right eye is stuffed full with this blasted coal dust, and it twists and turns inside like mad, ripping the eyeball apart. I had the specialist in the other day….”

He was silent for a minute, then he cleared his throat, and said in a somewhat constrained voice:

“He suggests removing the eyeballs, to spare me further suffering. I asked him whether he proposed sewing up my eyelids or sticking in a pair of artificial, glass eyes? Disgusting!”

A painful grimace contorted his face. He bit his lip hard, closed his eyes tight, and tensed himself, stubbornly determined to endure and master the pain.

“I said to him that it was not only myself I had to consider but also the people who associated with me,” he spoke at last, breaking the distressing silence. “‘Think how pleasant it will be for my friends,’ I said to him, ‘to look at this effigy with glass eyes. I can’t do it to them.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘No matter how bad it is at times, I’ll keep my own eyes, they may be blind but at least they’re brown.’ Don’t you agree?”

He gripped my hand with his thin, nervous fingers that seemed to speak a language all their own. What I feared most in such minutes was “going all maudlin” which he hated. I cradled his cool, frozen-feeling fingers in my hands and, speaking in an affectionately humorous tone, assured him that even if he had carroty hair or a hooked nose, like the boy in Perrault’s fairy tale, we’d love him just as tenderly.

He smiled, and then said in a matter-of-fact voice: “I need another five years because the second and third parts ‘ of the book will mean a terrific amount of work, you know.”

Sighing softly, he said dreamily: “Yes, another five years would be nice. And then, oh well … if I did fall out of the ranks, at least I’d know that the offensive had been won.”

He loved such words as “ranks”, “offensive”, “victory”, “battle”, and pronounced them with a special sort of elation. I mentioned it to him once. He smiled, and slowly drew his long eyebrows together to the bridge of his nose a thing he was wont to do in moments of profound and pleasant reflection.

“How could I help loving these words when for me they contain the main expression of life?”

I remember how happy he looked when he received his service card from the People’s Commissariat for Defence.

“You see, I’m still in the rank of fighters!” he exclaimed.

One day we were talking about friendship, and suddenly Nikolai asked why Mark Kolosov and I did not come to see him more often. Other friends visited him practically every day. I replied that I saw no need in daily calls. In the first place, we did not want to tire him, knowing what a strain visitors were on him both physically and spiritually. In the second, we did not want to take up his time which might otherwise be given to our young people, for whom it was very good to associate with a person like Nikolai Ostrovsky. And is it the number of visits that actually counts? After all, a writer needed privacy, he had to be left alone to think in peace, to talk tete-a-tete with his heroes. In Ostrovsky’s case, these hours of solitude were particularly important, seeing that his secretaries were necessarily present at the creative process itself. All things considered, we were not going to make a nuisance of ourselves, and would continue visiting him as before. As for any outward manifestations of affection, surely, he had sufficient proof that we loved him and were his truest friends.

“Oh, yes, yes, I do,” he said, deeply moved.

Our conversation drifted to other topics, and apropos of something or other I mentioned his copious correspondence. Nikolai responded eagerly, recalling many extremely interesting letters which “made his heart sing”, and suddenly changing to a sombre key said:

“I want you to know, in case you ever have to sort out my papers, that you’ll find everything quite easily–every scrap of paper is in its right place. I’m a soldier, I like order….”

Everyone who knew him well will, at the memory of him, always feel the bitterness of irreparable loss, the wrench of parting with a bit of his heart. Time will blunt the pain, of course, but the grief will remain as profound.

Nikolai Ostrovsky is impossible to forget. He will never be forgotten by his friends or his readers. His image, personifying fortitude and dedication to the cause of socialism, will never be erased from our memories. He was a singularly charming, touchingly clean and nice person.

Anna Karavaeva
Translated by R. Prokofieva

Remembering Nikolai Ostrovsky