Antonina Pirozhkova, 101, preserved memory of husband, writer Isaac Babel

Antonina Pirozhkova, common-law widow of Russian literary giant Isaac Babel, was an accomplished engineer and, later, a writer.
Antonina Pirozhkova, common-law widow of Russian literary giant Isaac Babel, was an accomplished engineer and, later, a writer.
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 8:04 PM

Antonina Pirozhkova, who wrote an affecting memoir of her life with her common-law husband, Russian writer Isaac Babel, and devoted years to keeping his memory alive after he vanished in the Soviet prison system, died Sept. 12 in Sarasota, Fla., at age 101. The cause of death was not reported.

Ms. Pirozhkova (pronounced peer-uzh-KOH-va), an engineer who helped design the Moscow subway system, met Babel in 1932, when she was 23 and he was 38. As the author of "Red Cavalry" (1926) and "Odessa Tales" (1931), Babel was hailed as perhaps the finest master of the Russian short story of the 20th century.

Babel and Ms. Pirozhkova shared an apartment from 1934 until May 1939, when he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. He was married to another woman at the time, with whom he had a daughter.

When Ms. Pirozhkova's daughter with Babel was born in 1937, she wrote in her 1996 memoir, "At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel," he arrived at the hospital "carrying so many boxes of chocolate that he [had] to steady the top of the stack with his chin."

But two years later, during in one of the purges of intellectuals under the regime of Joseph Stalin, police agents accused Babel of being a member of a subversive anti-Soviet group and of being a spy for Austria and France.

When the NKVD entered his apartment, Babel made a comment that has since become sadly famous: "They didn't let me finish."

Ms. Pirozhkova rode with him to the Lubyanka prison, she recounted in her book. They parted at the gate, with Babel telling her, "Someday we'll see each other."

"For some reason," Ms. Pirozhkova wrote, "I kept thinking, 'Will they at least give him a glass of hot tea? He can't start the day without it."

It would be the last time she would see him. She was told he was sentenced to "10 years without right of correspondence," which was widely understood as code for execution.

Nevertheless, Ms. Pirozhkova held out hope until 1954, when she received a death certificate indicating that her husband had died March 17, 1941 - supposedly during the early stages of World War II.

She carried on with her work as an engineer until she retired in 1965. She then dedicated her life to keeping Babel's reputation alive and to finding out what happened to him after his arrest in 1939.

She edited a two-volume collection of his works and in 1972 published a book of reminiscences by his contemporaries. She also began writing an account of her life with Babel, which would not appear in complete form in Russia until 2001.

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