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Russian dissident mother and daughter discuss art, imprisonment and escape in new memoir

Galina Lembersky (left) in the mid 1960s and Yelena Lembersky (right) in 1974. (Courtesy)
Galina Lembersky (left) in the mid 1960s and Yelena Lembersky (right) in 1974. (Courtesy)

When Joseph Stalin’s regime offered Felix Lambersky riches to paint sunny Soviet propaganda, the Jewish Ukrainian artist declined. Instead, he painted scenes from the Holocaust in Ukraine and images of exhausted Russian coal workers.

Following his death in 1970, Lambersky’s wife, Lucia, fled the Soviet Union for the United States, bringing 500 of his paintings and the hope that her daughter Galina and granddaughter Yelena would soon join her. In their new memoir “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour,” the mother and daughter tell the story of the art that traveled with them to the United States..

Before that journey out of Soviet territory, Galina Lembersky moved her mother, daughter and all the paintings into a tiny apartment away from Galina’s husband, who had become a Soviet informant.

On the outskirts of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, the apartment looked the same as all the other housing built in Russia and Ukraine at the time, Yelena Lembersky says. She remembers finding beauty in the little things: the resin and sap on the bark of the pine trees; the sun breaking up the gray sky with streaks of blue; poplar trees in bloom.

“Every time I see those buildings bombed in Ukraine, I feel that my old neighborhood is coming down,” Yelena Lembersky says. “The buildings were not very beautiful, but we spent a lot of time outdoors in the forest.”

At the time, people who applied to leave the Soviet Union were considered enemies. Yelena Lembersky recalls an elementary school teacher telling her class that people who want to leave the motherland are traitors.

One day, Yelena Lembersky came home from school to find KGB agents tearing up their apartment. Not long after her mother left the Soviet Union with the paintings, Galina Lembersky was sent to prison and then a labor camp on a false charge.

Galina Lembersky writes that women in the camp would shape sticky bread into little toys shaped like foxes and bears while their children survive without them. At first, she couldn’t stand going out in the cold to use the bathroom or eating the camp’s smelly, gray porridge.

“I didn’t think about [the] future at that point,” Galina Lembersky says. “My goal was to survive, to fight, to come back to my daughter.”

From the camp, Galina Lembersky wrote her daughter letters that criticized the girl’s spelling and storytelling abilities.

“My love, foster self-criticism toward everything you do,” Galina Lembersky wrote, “or you will never improve.”

The letters helped Yelena Lembersky feel her mother’s strength from afar.

“We were together apart, but I never felt alone,” Yelena Lembersky says. “Even now that I am in my 50s, I realize that I live my life with the advice that she has given me in these letters.”

When Yelena Lembersky tried to read the chapter of “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour” about losing her mother to the camp at a talk, she couldn’t find the strength even 40 years after the incident. Revisiting her early childhood memories for the book gave Yelena Lembersky a sense of gratitude that she couldn’t feel as a child who only wanted her mother back.

“When our airplane was taking off from Leningrad, my mother and I made the decision not to talk about our past. We did not want to bring Russia — the repressions, the ugliness of it — into our new life,” she says. “When we started writing, all those memories were as if everything happened just yesterday.”

Robin Young produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

Book excerpt: ‘Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour’

By Galina and Yelena Lembersky

In the Woods

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR, a muffled, tentative thud. Not Mama’s.

All that morning, September 15, 1981, I had walked holding my thumbs folded into my fists—a Russian superstition: hold your thumbs and think of someone to bring them good luck. . . .

She did not let me come with her to the trial. “You don’t need to see this circus.”

Some had advised her to “take the child—for leniency and the compassion of the jury.”

“Like hell they will have compassion,” she said.

I watched from my window as she walked down the muddy footpath, stepping on islands of broken concrete. She went toward the Leninsky Avenue metro station and did not detour to Schastlivaya (Lucky) Street, even though I asked her to. That’s too bad, I thought. She turned around to face me and kept walking backward. “Good luck! Good luck!” I yelled out so she could hear me. And then, quietly, so that luck would fly to her like a swarm of bees, I waved to her hard, so I would feel pain in my wrists. Just in case.

I would recognize Mama’s footsteps—rap-a-tap with the echoing off the stairway, the loud smooch of her plum handbag against the door, her keys giggling inside it, playing hide-and-seek with her hands. The door would swing open and she would sail in on a blustering wind with plans and ideas, new assignments for me and a review of everything I had done in her absence.

This knock is not hers. I open the door. It’s Zhenia. One of Mama’s many work friends. Zhenia stands on our landing, thumbing her wrinkly purse, crossing and uncrossing her feet in short booties trimmed with a thin strip of fur. She can tip over standing like that, I think. Zhenia, once a schoolteacher, now a hairdresser. Standing before me, she is rustling in her mind through pages of textbooks on preteen psychology, readying for a difficult heart-to-heart conversation.

I cut her off. “Should I get my things?”

On our way to Zhenia’s home, she keeps looking at me sideways, waiting to see my eyes turn swollen and red. They won’t. Not when we go down into the pit of the metro station with the stench of burned rubber. Not when we stand at the platform strewn with dirt and sawdust that a janitor mops up around our feet. Not when a train jolts and thrashes and we grip the handrails and the coats of passengers to stay upright. Not after we eat a dinner of hot dogs and mashed potatoes, and Zhenia makes up my bed, moving her son to a folding aluminum cot. She tells him, “Alëna’s mother has gone away. Alëna will stay with us until she comes back.” I am not glad for her hospitality. It is not her fault.

Zhenia tells me that school representatives will come to her home to inspect my new accommodations. She lowers her voice. “It is very important. They will decide if you can stay with us or be shipped off to an orphanage.”

I imagine an orphanage—a house of dark-red brick, where children with blue veins on their temples look out the windows and wave to passersby. I feel a sudden affinity for them. I picture living among those children, all of us without parents, bonded by our misfortune.

Zhenia keeps talking: “A children’s asylum is worse than prison. Have you ever read Dickens?”

My homeroom teacher comes the next day. She is young and new in my school. Zhenia looks deeply into her eyes, with gravity and understanding, teacher to teacher. My young teacher looks down at her feet. “Please excuse me. I have to see where Alëna will live.”

She too does not want a heart-to-heart conversation.

Zhenia slides down the corridor. “Here’s our living room and the library. We have the multivolume set of the children’s encyclopedia. And the classics—Jules Verne, James Fenimore Cooper, Thomas Mayne Reid, Harriet Beecher Stowe.”

“Hm, hm.” My teacher nods and tiptoes behind her.

Zhenia shows her son’s bedroom, his bed where I will sleep and his desk where I will do my homework. She offers my teacher tea.

“No, no, no! Please don’t worry, I have seen what I need.”

She and my school principal, Rimma Pavlovna, their recommendation to RONO, the District Department of Education, that I should live with Zhenia and remain at my school until my mother returns. It gets approved.

Then everything is quiet.

Rimma Pavlovna sees me in the corridor and says, “Hello, Alëna, how’s life?”

“It’s good.”

“Good.” The principal walks away.

No bleeding-heart conversations.

No one talks to me about Mama. I don’t mention her either. I live in a capsule. There was an earthquake. A meteor collided with my life. A while ago, I had a home and big plans. Now my mother is gone and I live with a family I barely know. But everything else goes on as usual. Unremarkable, ordinary, mundane. All incongruous with what is real to me.

As usual, my geography teacher’s mouth talks about mining and ironworks in the Urals. As usual, a girl named Tanya combs her pretty red hair during class. Vlas tosses a paper ball at Vorona. At the back of the classroom, Díma and Korol cut their own fingers with a shaving blade, suck on the blood, and look around to see if girls notice the middle-school vampires. Our Russian language teacher explains interjections. Anya quietly echoes, “Ooochhh! Aaachhh!”

I burst out laughing.

“Get up now,” the teacher yells at me. “What’s so funny?”

“Not much.”

“You will stand at your desk until the end of the class!”

Everything’s as usual. Trite. Absurd and pointless. Here I am, but not really here. I am somewhere else inside a pit of ash.

From “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour” by Galina and Yelena Lembersky. Copyright © 2022. Excerpted by permission of Cherry Orchard Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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