Friday, March 12, 2010

The Year When Stalin Died

This Russian-made leather wallet is in a good shape, considering its age. The embossed image is easily recognizable: it is a fragment of Moscow’s iconic Red Square with the Mausoleum, better known here as Lenin’s Tomb, in the foreground. A closer inspection of the picture (and knowledge of Cyrillic alphabet) would reveal a strange detail. Not one but two names are inscribed on the monumental building: the word LENIN is closely followed by STALIN.

In March 1953, Stalin’s death was mourned by millions of Russian people. Within weeks, his embalmed body was placed next to Lenin’s in an identical glass sarcophagus. They lied there together, like strange evil twins, for less than three years. In February 1956, Stalin’s personality cult was denounced; overnight he was removed and re-buried, and his name forever disappeared from the pristine marble façade.  Thus, I can date my wallet fairly precisely: it could only be made between 1953 and 1956.

My mother and my father met in Moscow in the fall of ‘53.  She was a popular student at a prestigious Institute of Civil Aviation. He, coming from the provinces after military service, worked at a factory and lived in a shared dorm. It was not love from a first sight. My mother was unsure about the attention of a provincial guy; probably there were other suitors as well. Little by little, my dad’s quiet persistence – and his good looks– started to win her over. On my father’s birthday, she invited him for dinner at a Moscow restaurant, and prepared a nice present – this leather wallet.

They had to share the table with another man (a common practice in those years), who was dressed in well-worn military fatigues without any shoulder straps. (I keep thinking it must have been one of the first returning Stalin’s victims, who were just starting to trickle back from the labor camps of Gulag.) At one point, when my father had to excuse himself, the man leaned to look at the gift lying on the table.  He scrutinized the embossed picture for a while. “Things are going to get better now”, he finally said to my surprised mom. “You two will be married in no time.” My parents tied the knot in September 1954; I was duly born nine months later.

I am not sure if my father ever used his present. After Stalin’s demise, the wallet became “politically incorrect”; carrying it around could result in unnecessary discussions. The empty wallet ended up on the bottom of my father’s drawer, where I discovered it by chance, almost fifty years later. Who knows if I would even be around, without the help of this awkward, barely used object.