Occasionally in my reading I come across mentions of people who seem significant beyond the sparse traces they’ve left in the historical record, and when they have a connection with literature I sometimes try to memorialize them here. Such a case is the couple Valentin Osipovich (or Iosifovich) Stenich (a pseudonym—his birth name was Smetanich) and his wife Lyubov Davydovna (née Faynberg or Feinberg). Valentin was born in 1897 and was probably shot in 1938; Lyuba is given the dates 1908-1983 here, but (according to the Russian Wikipedia linked to her husband’s name) the KGB said she was 33 in 1937, which probably is more realistic. They were both translators, as were so many writers not in favor with the Bolsheviks; he (after writing poetry praised by Blok) translated both Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel and parts of Joyce’s Ulysses (according to Geert Lernout’s The Reception of James Joyce in Europe, “There are rumours that he had translated the whole novel, but his archive was confiscated when he was arrested”), and she translated Maeterlinck, Sartre, and Brecht, among others. But more important is their humanity. In her second book of memoirs (translated as Hope Abandoned) Nadezhda Mandelstam writes “I can count on my fingers the people who kept their heads and thought the same as M. The main ones were Stenich, Margolis, and Oleinikov […] All three perished—two in the dungeons, and one in a labor camp.” In the first volume, Hope Against Hope, she devotes most of Chapter 67 to a description of the couple, calling Stenich “a man with a great feeling for language and literature and an acute sense of the modern age” and saying “he might have become a brilliant essayist or critic, but the times were not auspicious”; when the Mandelstams said they needed money, Lyuba “put on a stylish hat and set off,” returning with “a little money and some clothing.” At this time the Steniches were living in terror, waiting for Valentin to be arrested (friends of theirs had been arrested, and they knew it was only a matter of time), but “nothing happened that evening, and Stenich was not arrested until the following winter.” This was his final arrest, after which he was quickly shot; before that he had spent some years in internal exile, and it was during such a period that Cummings visited Moscow and met Lyuba, whom he calls “eyes.” He reports his last encounter with her thus:
(eyes’ eyes open,understanding; she laughs softly)”drôle homme!”(then with a,to myself,completely new part of herself;a secret a luminous — and scarcely which might dare to recognize its own existence — tenderness unadventured,lonely;not with ideas not through ideals nor by comrades by a million or a billion or innumerable or humanity explored)”comme mon mari”
After Stenich’s death she married the screenwriter and director Manuel Vladimirovich Bolshintsov (1902-1954). She was also a friend of Anna Akhmatova, who often stayed with her when visiting Moscow.
It enrages me that good people like this, utterly harmless to any state, were ground casually underfoot by the Soviet regime, simply because it needed an endless supply of enemies and victims and the name Stenich wound up on their list. It’s easy to talk about “millions of victims” and feel an abstract horror, but it’s important as well to remind oneself of the lived reality of that victimization for all those real people, people much like you or me. And this is why I urge you all to read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs if you haven’t already.