Years ago, meeting a friend’s new girlfriend, I was regaled with the story of their secret romance; they both taught at the same middle school and had to keep their relationship hush-hush. I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered if their colleagues knew about their relationship—and of course they eventually did spill the beans—but their flushed excitement made it clear that the very idea of their affair as something clandestine (perhaps even verboten) made it all the more alluring. I was reminded of that long-running musical The Fantastics, in which two next-door-neighbour couples, hoping their respective son and daughter will marry, expressly forbid it, á la Romeo and Juliet. The plan works, of course.
Yes, the idea of forbidden love seems romantic. But what’s the reality—what about truly dangerous liaisons? Researching Stalinist society for my novel Russian Winter, I repeatedly learned of situations in which forbidden relationships invited real danger: arrest, imprisonment, execution. It was impossible not to note how authoritarianism splinters every level of interaction, from friendship and romance to neighbourliness and family life. After all, when a culture encourages its citizens to spy on one another, and even your good friend might be an informant, simply speaking openly and intimately with another person becomes a fraught enterprise. In her memoir Hope Abandoned, Nedezda Mandelstam described how, in Soviet society, true “conversation” came to be replaced by “talk”— banal chit-chat devoid of anything truly inquisitive, opinionated, or personal. After all, anyone might be the “enemy”—or you might be viewed as one, if only for saying the wrong thing, or being friendly with the wrong person. Imagine how such circumstances might affect one’s relationships—and permanently rewire a mindset.
At some point during my research, I realised that even before I began writing Russian Winter—which is set in both postwar Moscow and modern-day Boston—I had been mulling, if subconsciously, this very topic. As the daughter of a Soviet refugee (my father, along with his parents and sister, escaped communist Hungary in 1956), I had seen how the habitual wariness and secrecy that one cultivates in situations of political danger can persist even in the free world.
As a child, I didn’t understand why my grandmother was distrustful of other people, or why my father became nervous in the presence of uniformed authorities, or why my relatives still living in Hungary (and sharing a crowded apartment) were often either squabbling or not speaking to each other at all. It was only later that I began to consider how survival tactics such as secrecy and a deeply ingrained instinct of suspicion could bleed into every other aspect of personal life.
I suppose this is the core of what I was trying to understand: how our human instinct for self-preservation means that in situations of danger we become secretive, wary, and even deceitful. In other words, political insecurity begets personal insecurity. And we all know what insecurity does to a personal relationship…
So what about romance? What about true love? As I read cultural histories and memoirs and diaries by Soviet citizens, I repeatedly came across husbands and wives punished for the suspected crimes of their spouses; merely being the spouse or child of anyone declared an “enemy of the people” meant those relatives were, by extension, suspicious persons, and marked for life. Have a distant cousin in America or some other non-Iron-Curtain country? Then you too would be viewed as a flight risk, or a possible double-agent. Most disturbing to me was the way that such charges made people suddenly doubt what they thought they knew about their loved ones. Had their husband really betrayed their country? Was one’s wife in fact a traitor? After all, how can one human being truly know another under the thumb of a regime where, in order to survive, one must hide one’s very individuality?
As I continued my research, I wondered, What would it feel like to be a staunch Party believer who couldn’t help falling in love with a less loyal citizen? Was such a thing even possible? After all, in matters of the heart, we can’t—unfortunately!—choose whom we love. And so I ended up creating a character named Zoya, a prima ballerina who finds herself drawn to an irreverent composer (who in turn falls in love with another possibly “suspicious” person—the daughter of a couple long ago sent to a Gulag.) When I’d completed the book, I showed it to a Russian woman who had fled the USSR in the 1970s; she said, “I knew people like Zoya.”
The event around which much of my novel hinges involves a betrayal between a husband and wife. The confusion and hurt resulting from this incident extends across decades and affects the lives of multiple characters. These reverberations are part of the message of the book—that the cruelty of oppressive regimes leaves none of us untouched.
As I wrote the key scene in which the betrayal comes to light, I had a moment of insight: if such a discovery happened here, in the free world, it would be followed by a confrontation, leading to some sort of explanation—getting it all out in the open. But there could be no such scene in my novel, for these characters had learned to survive by cultivating silence, by never writing down anything that might be used as evidence against them, by never speaking the truth if it risked putting them in danger. In other words, the betrayal that unfolds and its many consequences are each a result of the dehumanising conditions of a totalitarian regime.
This is not to belittle the power of love. If nothing else, my research taught me what tenacity we must all, deep down, possess, in order to continue to love, no matter the circumstance. Oh, and by the way—my middle-school-teacher friends are happily married now.
Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay is published by Arrow.