Snow Days & Frida Vigdorova

It’s the first real snowfall of this winter in Boston, which is not unusual: most snow doesn’t start to accumulate/batter us until after New Year’s. The first snowfall is always THE BEST, because it’s new! Wheeee! Look, it’s snowing! When I used to have a job where we got snow days, I would always be pissed as hell when snow would fall on weekends, because UGH, come ON. *wants snow days*

I no longer have a job like that, so I’m basically fine with this being the weekend. It just makes it cosier. (Until we have to go outside and shovel. Bah.)

Anyway, the first snow day of the year always reminds me of my very first snow day, EVER. Growing up in Russia, we did not get snow days. Oh no, is it winter? Is it snowing? Oh, how terrible for you. Now get those snow boots on and get your butt to school. The only times I remember school being canceled was when it was too cold. Imagine how COLD it had to be for that to happen. (Obviously, everyone would wind up at the ice rink, skating.)

So, anyway! First snow day was when we lived in Central New York. It was our first winter and it never even occurred to me that such a thing could happen. I woke up one morning and it was very bright, and I was alone in the bedroom I shared with my sister. Confused, I walked downstairs and was greeted by my mom and sister, huge grins on their faces: ENJOY YOURSELF, SCHOOL IS CLOSED.

Best. Day. EVER.

As it happened, my mom had gotten me two Russian books from the university library that I had wanted to read a few years back, but was deemed too young. At 11, my mom thought I was ready. They were called Liubimaya Uliza (Beloved Street) and Semeinoe Schastie (Family Happiness) and they were written by a writer I already loved, Frida Vigdorova.

That first snow day, I read the first book. Actually, it’s more apt to say I swallowed it whole. I think I barely stopped to eat. I sat in the chair and didn’t get up until I was done.

One snow day turned into a miraculous two, and on the second day, I read the second book. Same deal. I’m pretty sure I barely said two words to my family, who very nicely left me alone because they knew.

Vigodorova was not a household name by the time I was born, but my mom grew up with her books, and passed on that love to me and my sister. Looking back, I think, of all the books I read as a kid (which was a lot; I mean, a LOT) Vigdorova’s writing has influenced my worldview the most. And while you can look back at some childhood heroes and realize that they were fallible and imperfect and maybe even not someone to model yourself after, Frida Vigodorova remains a pretty incredible hero to me.

She started out as a teacher, but later on, she became a journalist. What she became most known for wasn’t actually her fiction, but her quietly political life and, most importantly, her final act of heroism, which was this: she transcribed the entirety of Joseph Brodsky’s trial.

frida5-early-1960s

F. Vigdorova (image courtesy of russianreader.com

Brodsky was a Soviet poet and writer who was tried by the government for his “crimes against the nation.” You can probably guess what that was all about. He was tried and convicted, and the entire time this farce was going on, Vigdorova sat in that courtroom, and she transcribed every single word. Every single piece of bullshit flung at Brodsky, every single insidious charge–we have it all, because of her. I don’t know how she managed to gain access into that room, but it was a pretty incredible act of journalism.

After his conviction, Vigdorova petitioned and petitioned and petitioned for his release, backed up by huge voices of the times, including poets like Anna Akhmatova and Yevgeniy Yevtushenko (even Sartre; weird, eh? This was a huge deal.) Because of that pressure, Brodsky was eventually released and eventually fled to the US.

But by then, Vigdorova had already died of cancer. Instead of resting and getting treatment, she spent her last months fighting for justice, only not to see the result. This might sound overwrought, but in a totalitarian state, that was a really big fucking deal, and it was an enormous act of bravery.

Apparently, after he was released, Brodsky kept a picture of her in his home, both in the USSR and later, in the US.

Everyone remembers the Brodsky trial, but not many remember the woman who was instrumental in bringing it to light. So I wanted to tell you about her, because she was amazing, and one of the best writers I’ve ever read. She wrote about people, and about love, and about childhood and parenthood and everything in between, and with it all, a sense of political awareness, feminism, and justice underlay everything, subtly enough that it got past the censors. If I had the means and the talent, I would translate her works into English, because they remain some of the best glimpses the lives of the Soviet people I’ve ever encountered.

For more on the Trial of Joseph Brodsky, see the New England Review.

For a stunningly detailed write-up of what Frida Vigdorova was like and everything she’s done, go here. It’s long, but so worth a read.

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