Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova: Soviet Engineer and Soviet Dissident

I first came across Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova while doing some research for a book proposal that never quite got off the ground. Her story is of the type that the Soviet Union produced in bulk – a path-breaking career working within in a system that promised better lives for everyone, and a tragic loss inflicted by the very same system.

A.N. Pirozhkova was one of millions of women who found that the creation of the Soviet Union opened up opportunities for careers in engineering and the sciences. Born in 1909 in the Siberian village of Krasny Yar, Pirozhkova lived her early years in a world where opportunities were few. When her father died in 1925, the fourteen-year-old Pirozhkova supported her family by teaching math classes. Seven years later, she graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the Siberian Institute for Transport Engineers. Soon she was working in Moscow as one of the designers of the huge new Moscow subway system: the Soviet Union’s only female subway engineer.

By then, she was living with the author Isaac Babel, one of the Soviet Union’s literary heroes. Babel was a man with a playful sense of humor. At their first meeting, he insisted that Pirozhkova join him in a vodka-drinking contest because “all engineers drink vodka.” She and Babel traveled together around the Soviet Union. Their daughter Lida was born in 1937. But two years later there was a sudden and sinister knock on the door. At 5 o’clock one morning, four Soviet political policemen took Babel and all his papers to the headquarters of the dreaded secret police, the Lubyanka prison.

Babel’s arrest came towards the end of the “Great Terror,” during which millions of Soviet citizens were arrested as supposed spies, traitors, or saboteurs, so Pirozhkova was no stranger to the horrors of the situation. When she began working on the Moscow subway, all three of the Soviet Union’s tunneling experts were in prison as “economic saboteurs.” Pirozhkova and Babel had seen friends and colleagues convicted on ridiculous charges, and they had known the state could turn on them at any moment. Despite Babel’s imprisonment, Pirozhkova kept working on the subway project and taking care of Lida. Now that there was only one adult in the apartment, she was assigned housemates too. In one of the Great Terror’s many ironies, a Communist Party committee asked her to become a party activist in the subway project. In 1941, with the subway mostly complete, she was sent south to work on the Sukhumi-Sochi railway in the Caucasus. While Pirozhkova planned a series of tunnels through the mountains, Lida learned to feed hens and herd cows. The railway Pirozhkova worked on became an important Soviet supply route during the German drive south towards the Caucasus’ oil fields in the summer of 1942.

After the war, Pirozhkova became a professor of civil engineering at the Moscow Institute of Transportation Engineers. She also worked to find out what happened to Babel, and to restore his reputation. She had been told that Babel had been sentenced to “ten years [imprisonment] without the right to correspond,” which was a euphemism for being executed, but the secret police sent released prisoners to tell her that they had seen Babel alive and well in the prison camps. Only when Pirozhkova was able to get his conviction overturned in 1954 did they admit that he was dead, of a heart attack in March 1940. It took until 1988, almost the last years of the Soviet Union, for her to get the full truth: Babel was executed the day after his 20-minute trial in 1939. Having restored Babel’s reputation, discovered the truth of his death, and outlasted the Soviet Union, A.N. Pirozhkova emigrated to the USA in 1996 to join her daughter Lida in Maryland. She died, at the age of 102, in 2010.

What I know about Pirozhkova’s life comes from her memoir, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel, published in 2006, and from the many obituaries published after her death – most repeating the same core facts. A second volume of memoirs edited by her grandson Andrei A. Malaev-Babel, a professor of theatre at Florida State University, was published in Moscow last year – hopefully it will be translated into English soon.

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