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My Brother’s End

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

My brother was a student of law and engineering. In his late teens and all through his twenties he was slim and handsome. His movements were rhythmic. He wrote poetry, but it was distinguished by its humor more than by its depth.

But we lived in Russia, and his inherent humor was outweighed by his constant fear of officials and their orders. However, Russia and her officials could not really be blamed for his weak bones and frightened soul. They dated back to his infancy when he had been left too much to his nurse, who only too late was discovered to be a cruel, sadistic woman. Mother felt at fault. (But could she help it when as a business man Father wasn’t much, and she had to spend most of her time managing his store?) She tried to mend my brother’s wrong. As a boy and youth my brother had been petted by Mother. He had had doctors, and special food, and holidays at the seashore. So that in 1916, when my brother was eighteen, the Czar’s government decided that he was strong enough to be cannon fodder.

We were aghast at the very thought of our brother as a soldier. Mother proceeded to spend the last of her money trying to bribe the Czar’s officials and examining doctors into giving her son a discharge. The money was readily accepted, yet the law was strict and his health had to be poor. And now the family watched on, trembling and weeping, as he smoked innumerable cigarettes of strong tobacco to weaken his none too robust lungs; as he stayed awake night after night to lose weight and make his face haggard-looking —and his was such a lovely face of such delicate swarthiness; as he kept his feet in icy water hours at a stretch to catch pneumonia.

After months of this he won his discharge. But so ill was he that Mother had to send him to the Crimea to recuperate. When he came back the Revolution was on, and our city in the hands of the Whites. Again, for months, he evaded the White drafts, hiding in a back room, afraid to flee to a” foreign land, as I urged him to. When the searching parties of the Whites drew too near his place of hiding, he came out to surrender. Mother bribed the proper officers. My brother was not only spared punishment for his evasion—he was not even sent to the front to fight the Reds. He was made a soldier in a special Students’ Hundred stationed in our city on garrison duty.

When, between my own evasions of the White drafts, I came home to see the folks I was pierced by pity for my brother. How badly he smelled with a soldier’s sweat and cheap tobacco; how tragic his fine forehead, the chiseled nose, and sensitive lips looked under his greasy cap and over his shoddy khaki! I wanted to argue him into going away with me to foreign shores. But I knew it would be useless. There was something doomed about him, it seemed.

I did not like Russia. Especially, this Cossack province where I was born and reared. Too much filth, too much sickness, too much uncertainty, cruelty, and stupidity. I wanted to go abroad and study in some quiet, clean city, amid polite, cultured people, away from drunken White officers, from typhus, from ill-smelling peasants in crowded trains. I could not see why my family stuck so doggedly to this life where clearly they did not belong. My brother could not understand my desire to step into the neat and bright wonders of a foreign picture-book, to cut loose from the Russian stench and chaos of whatever hue.

“Don’t you love the family?” he would ask, nervously.

“Of course I do,” I would answer, uncertainly.

“And your country?” “Not very much.”

“Well, it is your family, your country. You should stay in Russia, whether she is White or Red—even if you don’t quite like her either way. You should stay with us. We must stick together in times like these. It is dangerous to travel in times like these. All sorts of things may happen to you, and we won’t be able to help you. Why, we won’t even know that you are in danger and need us. And we here may need your help while you are away. No, you must not go, do you hear me?”

I heard him too well. After my third evasion of the White draft I headed not for America, as I had planned before, but back for my home city. I was sad. I knew I was a fool to do it.

And thus it came about that in the last winter of the civil war the Whites insisted that both my brother and I go to the front. No more evasions, said they. Then both of us deserted, and lay low while the front came to us, and the city changed hands. But the Whites came back once more; it was death for the two of us if we remained home. So we retreated with the Reds, and on a February night there was a battle, and at dawn we were taken prisoners and led to be shot. There were sixty of us, Red soldiers and students, and of these but seven made a break for freedom as we were marched to the cemetery. The seven made good their escape, the rest were executed. Among the seven were my brother and I.

When the Reds regained our city, no more to retreat, we were regarded as heroes. Our Communist acquaintances came to wring our hands.

“Now you are going to join the Party,” said they happily.

“No, not at all,” I answered.

“But didn’t the Whites lead you to be shot?”

“So they did.”

“Well then, you will join the Party.” “Never.” “Now, wait a moment. Weren’t you led to be shot by the Whites?”

“Yes, but what has it to do with the Communist Party?” My brother nodded approvingly. Yet he would not join me when, in the summer of 1920, I finally left Russia.


While on my way to the States, and for some time after I arrived here, I had no word from the family. It was not until late summer in 1921 that the first exchange of letters took place. One of my sisters wrote to me that all members of the family were alive and well, but that my brother was in jail.

He had been arrested by the Cheka in March, 1921, at the time of the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors who demanded “Soviets Without Communists.” Lenin’s government held the moderate Socialists morally responsible. The uprising quelled, hordes of meek Mensheviks and pugnacious Essers were rounded up throughout the republic.

Now, if there ever was a meek Menshevik, it was my brother. He had belonged to the Social Democratic party in the last two years of the Czardom, but he had drifted into the ranks and stayed there in a sort of philosophic humor, without much desire of actual plotting against the Czar. When the Revolution came, even less was he inclined to plot and revolt against the Soviets—no matter how much, at first, he frowned upon the wholehearted enthusiasm with which our young sisters accepted the Soviets.

On the whole, he did not approve of the Bolsheviks. A conservative Marxist, he believed that a social revolution must first take place not in a backward peasant country like Russia, but in a highly developed state of machines and capitalism like England or America. Oh yes, he despised the capitalists, but he regarded them as an inevitable evil, an invincible force against which the Bolsheviks were mad to raise arms. He also could not see why the Bolsheviks should want to exterminate the peasant kulaks and the city middle class.

“Strike at the capitalists if you feel you must,” he said to his Communist acquaintances, “but why bother the peasants and the small merchants?”

Before his arrest he worked for the Soviets in the labor exchange of our city, and was recognized by the Communists as a valuable specialist in the field. His quiet irony at the expense of Soviet bureaucracy was excused by his Communist superiors because he was so valuable a specialist, and also because it was generally known that he had been in battle on the Red side and had escaped from the White firing squad.

His chief failing, as I see it now, was that despite his youth he held old-fashioned ideas of sticking to one’s principles and comrades even when one begins to see how mistaken these are. He was unduly shocked by the arrests and exile of some of his more militant comrades of the Menshevik faction, and even more so by the defection of a few of the Men-sheviks to the Communist ranks. Yet I often think that, given time, he also would have gone radical. Were he left alone at his beloved job in the labor exchange, were he to come to the Five-Year Plan days undisturbed and unperse-cuted, were he to witness the depression and fascism of the Western world, the stagnation and collapse of moderate Socialist parties abroad—

But during a major upheaval you are never left alone. There is no place for philosophic weighing of pros and cons, no place for quiet irony, no time for peaceful waiting. The news of the Kronstadt uprising found my brother neither a member of the underground version of the Mensheviks nor among the ruling Bolsheviks. As a Menshevik he had long been inactive, but his name was dug up from the old records. In those days the Soviets took no chances. Their oft-repeated slogan was: “Those who are not with us are against us.”

The family was horrified by the arrest. The thought of this gentle, sickly young man being confined in the dank, vermin-ridden jail! All through the whirl of the War and the Revolution our family had had a fierce sense of a body whole and sacred. Until 1921 it had fought off all the threats successfully; it proclaimed that the body of this family was not to be touched, and despite the many dangers the body did stay inviolate. Now, my brother’s arrest was a blasphemy of us all. Even I, a year and seven thousand miles away, felt the outrage of it. Something had to be done, and immediately, energetically, with a sly, heroic, tearful, and bold force.

I was helpless on this side of the ocean, and chided myself for this helplessness as well as for the lateness of the news as it reached me. But in Russia, the adult members of the family flew hither and thither, trying pull, cajolery, appeals to the rulers’ humaneness. But my brother was not the only Menshevik in jail in those March and April days of tumult and blood. No exceptions were granted.

My brother was not horrified. Not at first. He found himself in a cell, uncomfortable with too many inmates for the small space, but the crowd was to his liking. The fellow-inmates were moderate Socialists of an ironic turn of mind much the same as his. Almost all were his friends; many had been in the same party local before the legal organization was disbanded. They remembered him, too, as the young man who had once published for them a humorous political sheet. So now, in response to his own mood as well as their approbation, he proceeded to write funny verse about the jailers. Somehow the verse came to the jailers’ attention. The jailers were angry. My brother was threatened with severe punishment. But before any action could be taken by the local authorities, orders came from Moscow to disperse this particular batch of prisoners to various jails of Central Russia.

Thus, my brother found himself in the jail of Vladimir, a small town not far from Moscow. Conditions there were worse. No parcels of food or messages of courage from the family could reach him there. Cells were dark and wet. Fewer Socialists of previous acquaintance were fellow-prisoners there. As weeks lengthened into months, and months became an endless chain, there was less and less of gentle irony in my brother’s talk and writing. Now came doubt. Then followed dread. In the first few weeks of the confinement at Vladimir my brother was editing the prison paper, but it was a sober affair of neither humor nor verse. At length he had to give up the editorship. For he was too sick. His lungs were in a bad way.

The family knew little or nothing of this until a smuggled note advised them of his condition. It was at about this time that Lenin proclaimed the New Economic Policy, admitting in effect the errors of militant Communism and promising a respite from the rigors.

All at once, private trade was being re-established; being a non-Communist was no longer a sin; terror was lessening its blunt hammering into Russia’s flesh. Lenin had seen the danger signal of the Kronstadt uprising. For this had been an uprising of sailors, workers, peasants—the very masses on whose good will and welfare the Bolsheviks were banking.

Our family was shrewd enough to take advantage of this temporary retreat. Two of the adults went posthaste to Moscow and laid siege to the right offices. Many of the Mensheviks and Essers of a variety more militant than our brother were then being released, why not he as well?

“We will,” answered the officials, “release your brother if he signs a public recantation of his Menshevik errors.”

Such recantations were in those days required from the moderate Socialists in prisons and at large, and were printed in the government press by the score. But though crushed and ill, my brother raised his head petulantly enough to reject this stooping door to freedom. It was the Bolsheviks, he said, who were in fact going back on their ideas and who should in these days of the NEP publicly and humbly recant.

Besides, some Socialists he knew were not offered their freedom even on this condition of moral surrender. No, he wouldn’t sign.


Of these negotiations I knew nothing. All I knew was that my brother was in a Soviet jail. Every Sunday I journeyed with the peanut-eating, funny-paper-reading, baby-burdened crowds to the Bronx zoo, there to torture myself by looking at the restless animals behind the bars and thinking that thus, in a distant Russian town, crouched and suffered my brother.

Once, at the end of that summer of 1921, a letter from home contained the enclosure of a note written by my brother. He wrote he was ill and could not leave his room, and through my wild tears I knew that this was his attempt to camouflage the word “cell.” He further wrote that he often thought of me and of my solution of the problem, and that now he wished he had had my far-sighted courage at the time I had turned my back upon the scenes of our childhood and youth. This shook me more than anything else that had ever passed between us.

Finally, a month or two later, the news came that my brother had been freed and had returned home. To this day I do not know whether or not he signed a recantation.

Back in our city he was given his old job at the labor exchange, but now that he was ill and that once more he was a government employee, the Soviets took care of him by sending him to a sanatorium in the Caucasus. Soon he was strong enough to return to the home city and resume his work. He even began to cultivate an elegant beard, and in his spare time again took his place in the promenade on the Street of Friedrich Engels.

Yet the memory of months behind the bars remained too vivid. The fear of a new arrest was ever present. Even when he was called to Moscow to a conference of high specialists of labor exchanges from all over the republic, and many privileges were accorded him during the journey, he was not reassured, but in his thoughts gloomily dwelt on the fate of those of his fellow-Socialists who still dragged their existence in Arctic or mid-Asiatic exile. He paled at the sight of any uniformed man approaching him. Most of his friends gone away or dead, he felt alone and lost.

It was at this time that he conceived the plan, or perhaps was persuaded by some well-meaning adviser, to drop his labor-exchange work and return to college. He had, in his earlier studies, half-heartedly meant to be an engineer. Now he decided to resume those studies, interrupted first by the World War, then the Revolution, the civil war, and his imprisonment.

Looking back, I believe that he would have made an indifferent engineer. Capable, yes, but not brilliant. He was too physically weak, too easily disconcerted, too old-fash-ionedly artistic and temporizing to master the machines. He was far better with human material. He had compassion for the underdog; he knew how to haggle in his behalf with the factory managers, the personnel chiefs, the hiring and firing commissars. He understood the immediate economic trend of the times he lived in; he knew the commercial geography of the vast republic, the ebb and flow of the human mass in search of jobs, the curve of call for men with tools. But he decided to go back to engineering, for there was a glamor about this profession in new Russia, and besides he begrudged the waste of the years already spent in the classroom. He wanted to utilize, to complete, those bygone years by cramping his entire life into an ill-fitting groove. The years of experience in the labor exchange he did not prize, for these were spent in actual work, not in classrooms. Such was the traditional Russian mind, with much respect for the book and the blackboard and less for the learning through experience.

Back to school he went, and soon found how irksome it was for a man to be back at school, sticking out of a lot of raw youngsters like a sore thumb, while his own contemporaries were either dead and buried or busy fighting the grown-ups’ battles. All the time he knew guiltily that he had no business being in school when he could be making a living at a man’s job on the outside.

Now and then, through the middle 1920’s, there were minor waves of terror in Russia. Mornings would come gray with the news of arrests the night before. In a panic, my brother would go into hiding, for he remembered the old membership list of the Mensheviks and his inerasable name therein. He would beg friends and relatives going to America to take him along, knowing all the time that he wouldn’t go even if he had been given a chance to do so. Once I sent him money and a steamship ticket, and he sat down to learn the English language, but after a while said, no, he wouldn’t go, he couldn’t leave Russia, he was afraid of a new life in the New World, and so let go of the precious ticket, turning it over to a brother-in-law.

He couldn’t stand being supported by Mother and the American remittances, and so he would fitfully leave his books to work in an office, in a factory, in the steppes, at whatever job he could find. One blazing summer of apprentice engineering in the Don steppes was particularly upsetting, and he was brought home ill. By the fall, he recovered and went back to his school, but after a few months was again brought home, now seriously ill.

He now had delusions of persecution. The years of trying to escape from the Czar’s army, from the drafting and grafting White Guards, from the stern Communist dogma, instead of steeling and sharpening him, now acted as an accumulated burden, a slowly demolishing force. He saw a Cheka agent in everyone, and desperately clung to his weeping, bewildered mother, begging her:

“Oh hide me, oh don’t let them take me back to prison!”

Again doctors, consultations, frantic letters, sleepless nights of dejected thought. With something bordering on a snarl I saw in sleek American print Gertrude Stein’s puerile words about a “lost generation.” What did these Hemingways and Cowleys know about the sufferings of a generation truly lost? Why did they, in the comforts of their Paris hangouts, take Stein’s words so flamboyantly as their own self-pitying motto of pseudo-pain? There was a lost generation in Russia—my brother’s generation—killed off in the war, executed by the Whites and the Reds, dying of typhus and all the many varieties of typhoid, slowly perishing in physical or mental exile. Also, there were my own classmates, two or three years younger than my brother and his friends, but dying in the same manner and numbers. These were a lost generation, not Stein’s inflated pets, nor those of us Russians who had come alive, our hides whole, out of the War and the Revolution.


My brother did not perish overnight. He made an obstinate stand. He knew the nature of his illness, and he fought it. In his lucid moments (and until the very end there were surprisingly many of them) he himself consulted doctors and urged them to experiment on him with new methods then proposed by this or that famous specialist in schizophrenia. He wanted to live and be sane.

But, of course, if there was any hope in the early stages of the illness, it was in a complete change of atmosphere. My brother should have gone abroad, to a peaceful West European middle-class existence, away from the Spartan hardships and the tumbril wheels of Russia, away from the crowded, stormy, prescribed, and rationed existence of his land and time. Clearly, the sick do not belong in a vortex around a crucible. He was neither an enemy of the Soviet Union nor of any value to the new state. He should have been allowed to go abroad. That was what I kept repeating to myself at the time.

For a time, in the late 1920’s, my brother felt so much better that he even attempted to resume his studies. But presently I heard no more of his studies, and knew this was the beginning of his end. He was at home, under Mother’s vigilance. He was all right, according to the uncommonly laconic letters of my younger sisters. But I was preparing to hear of his death and to stand the shock.

I tried to tell myself that it would be best for him to die. His sufferings were too great, the outlook was entirely hopeless. The Revolution was a jealous, thirsty entity. It demanded human lives from every family in the land. Our share was long overdue. Now we had to give the life of our weakest man-child into the destroying lap. Every family in the land—why should we be a stubborn exception?

And then, even the brief letters ceased. I knew the meaning of this. In other families death is seldom concealed. The news of a death in the family is telegraphed with blunt immediacy. Not so in our clan. Bad news here is concealed as long as possible, so as to arouse in the absent members a cloud of uneasy thoughts, of gradual suspicions. This is called, “Preparing the poor dears for the bad news.” We seldom stop to think that, in effect, this method is nothing but slow torture.

Finally, in the middle of the summer, the silence was broken. A letter came advising me that my brother had died on April 1. He had thrown himself into the Don River.

For days before his plunge he had looked well, he had been cheerful. One evening—his last one—he had sung folksongs with Mother and jested with his sisters, and there was hope. The next morning he had eluded his kin’s vigilance—or perhaps, because of his cheerfulness, the watch was somewhat lessened—and hastened toward the river.

The ice was as yet on the Don, but here and there an opening could be seen. He placed his hands on his head and jumped in. On the brinks of nearby openings men were fishing. Some of them ran toward my brother and tried to save him as he came up gasping for air and warmth. But he motioned them away.

“Don’t save me,” he said, “I want to die.” And he went down for the last time. He was thirty-one years old.

On the shore, my mother and sisters stumbled in frantic circles, beseeching help of neighbors and strangers. Someone suggested an icebreaker. In a blind hurry, the services of an icebreaker were engaged, but the ship furrowed the dull, graying mirror to no avail. Brother’s body was found a week later when the ice began to move of its own. volition. It was found miles down the river.

Thus there was a suicide in the family—the family that had a fierce wish to live, by far outweighing all others of its characteristics. A voluntary death in a clan stubbornly defying any force that threatened destruction to its members—the mockery of such a death! And yet, the inevitability of it.

I had waited for the news with a fatalistic calmness. I had said to myself that I was ready. But now that the news arrived I bellowed like a stricken, remorseful youngster. There, in my country, lay my brother, a corpse rotting into a skeleton. My country, my brother. And I had been untrue to both, for now, after these many years, my language was not its language, nor my name his name.


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