Charles King: Lost in the Bargain

Roundup: Talking About History

[Charles King is professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and author of “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams,” to be published in February.]

“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said, almost at the door of the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. “It will be as if you’ve gone to Odessa ... only there won’t be any letters.” Those were among the last words of Antonina Pirozhkova to Isaac Babel, her common-law husband and the father of her child.

It was the summer of 1939. Babel had just been taken into custody by Stalin’s henchmen for his alleged involvement with Trotskyists and spying for France and Austria. He was executed less than a year later.

Pirozhkova, who died this month at the age of 101, worked tirelessly to keep Babel’s memory alive and to discover the true history of his incarceration and murder. She was also the last living link to a different Russia: A place that once prized the odd and the unusual; a place with a skepticism about grand narratives of national greatness. Pirozhkova was witness to a different kind of Russian identity: multinational, modest and secure in its own sense of self....

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