Widow of Rus­sian writer Isaac Ba­bel wrote a mem­oir of his fi­nal years

Los Angeles Times - - Obituaries - Va­lerie J. Nel­son va­lerie.nel­son@latimes.com

An­ton­ina Pirozhkova, who was the com­mon-law widow of Rus­sian lit­er­ary gi­ant Isaac Ba­bel and wrote a well-re­ceived mem­oir that pro­vided a rare glimpse of the per­se­cuted writer’s fi­nal years in the 1930s, has died. She was 101.

Pirozhkova died Sept. 12 of nat­u­ral causes at her home in Sara­sota, Fla., said her grand­son, An­drei Malaev-Ba­bel.

Un­til her book, “At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Ba­bel,” was pub­lished in English in 1996, he was per­haps more fa­mous for how he died than how he had lived. Ar­rested by the Rus­sian se­cret po­lice dur­ing one of Josef Stalin’s cam­paigns of ter­ror against in­tel­lec­tu­als, Ba­bel was ex­e­cuted in 1940. He was 45.

Be­fore the Jewish writer was im­pris­oned, he had the good for­tune to spend his last seven years with Pirozhkova, whose “ac­count of Ba­bel’s ar­rest and dis­ap­pear­ance is so mov­ing be­cause she first makes Ba­bel so fan­tas­ti­cally alive,” Richard Lourie wrote in 1996 in the New York Times.

The “ten­der mem­oir” brought him to life “as we could not oth­er­wise have known him: as a jokester, a mimic, a man of bound­less cu­rios­ity,” New York’s Buf­falo News said in 1996.

“The anguish of loss never leaves me,” Pirozhkova wrote near the end of the mem­oir, which re­counts how the cou­ple sat hold­ing hands while of­fi­cers ran­sacked their home search­ing for his pa­pers.

She never re­mar­ried. Barely men­tioned in the book are her ac­com­plish­ments. A civil en­gi­neer, she helped de­sign Moscow’s pala­tial sub­way sys­tem and worked on in­tim­i­dat­ing projects in the moun­tain­ous Cau­ca­sus re­gion.

At 23, she met the 38year-old Ba­bel, al­ready a fa­mous writer of short sto­ries, at a din­ner party. Ba­bel courted her for two years and they lived to­gether as com­mon-law hus­band and wife for five years, un­til his ar­rest in 1939, her grand­son said.

Ba­bel never di­vorced his first wife, who lived in Paris with their daugh­ter. He also had a son from a long-term re­la­tion­ship with an­other woman in Rus­sia. In 1937, Ba­bel and Pirozhkova had a daugh­ter, Lidiya, who be­came an ar­chi­tect.

Born in a Siberian vil­lage on July 1, 1909, Pirozhkova at­tended what is now Tomsk Polytech­nic Uni­ver­sity. In 1930, she earned a civil en­gi­neer­ing de­gree and worked in that field un­til 1965.

For 15 years af­ter Ba­bel’s ar­rest, she tried to find out what had hap­pened to him. She was of­fi­cially in­formed of his death in 1954, the same year he was pro­nounced “re­ha­bil­i­tated” in the eyes of the Soviet regime.

In the 1980s, Pirozhkova over­saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Ba­bel’s “Diary of 1920” and in 1990 fin­ished edit­ing a two­vol­ume de­fin­i­tive col­lec­tion of his works.

When she felt her hus­band’s rep­u­ta­tion had been prop­erly re­stored, she moved with her daugh­ter to Sil­ver Spring, Md., in 1996 to live with her grand­son. The ex­tended fam­ily re­lo­cated to Florida in 2005. Shortly be­fore Pirozhkova died, she com­pleted a mem­oir about her life that her grand­son said he plans to get pub­lished.

In her late 80s, she had once shared her “rules” for a long and happy life. They in­cluded eat­ing less and hav­ing “good char­ac­ter.”

In ad­di­tion to her daugh­ter and grand­son, Pirozhkova is sur­vived by a great­grand­son.


Pirozhkova’s book, “At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Ba­bel,” was pub­lished in English in 1996.

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