The author of this book was twelve years old in 1924, when his mother took him from Moscow to Riga, Latvia. He had fond memories of Moscow—of its splendid architecture, of the beautiful melodic sounds of the hundreds of church bells, and of the golden domes of churches. The years of hardship and hunger were in the past. Since the government had allowed private economic activity in 1921, the country had developed at an unprecedented pace. The people were full of hope for the future. Avant-garde magazines were published. New trends in painting, poetry, theater, and architecture had emerged.
Riga had a northern lack of empathy that he didn’t like, and his relationship with his stepfather was difficult. After graduating from the Riga City Russian Gymnasium, he decided to become an agronomist. It had always been his dream to return to his motherland, Russia, and an agronomy degree would allow him to contribute to the fight against hunger there. After receiving an agronomist diploma from the Institut Agronomique in Toulouse, France, in 1934, he reluctantly returned to Latvia for one year of mandatory military service. This was just after Kārlis Ulmanis had established a totalitarian regime in Latvia after a bloodless coup d’etat on May 15, 1934. All political parties were banned, the Latvian parliament was dissolved, and many prominent politicians, including members of parliament, were arrested. Enthusiastic crowds greeted Ulmanis wherever he appeared, and his portraits hung everywhere. The press fell completely under the spell and praised Ulmanis as ardently as it could, calling him the savior of our Latvian Latvia. Seeing all this, the author decided that he could no longer postpone his return to his motherland, and after finishing his military service, he filed a repatriation petition at the Soviet Consulate in Riga.
It was common for a consulate to provide a list of topics to be addressed in an autobiography, so the author did not attach any importance to the questions the consulate gave him nor to the resulting lengthy autobiography. The consulate staff were probably concerned by his family history and ideological background.
His paternal grandfather had owned a large textile factory before the revolution of 1917. His maternal grandfather was a first-guild merchant and owned several buildings in Moscow. (There were three merchant guilds in Russia at the time; the first guild was the most privileged.) Having these origins was a big drawback at that time. His father, a railroad engineer, had died in 1920 from a perforated peptic ulcer, but it was possible that he had been killed by his own workers. His stepfather, Eduard Maksovich Yakobson, was a successful doctor in Riga and thus a bourgeois by Soviet standards. This information about his family and an honest description of his ideological fallacies likely would have been used by the authorities to send the author to the Gulag on his return to Russia. He also didn’t think about the fact that he was endangering his relatives who were living in Russia, whom, I am sure, he was asked to list in his autobiography.
The fate of his relatives in Riga is an indication of what would have happened to him upon his return to the USSR. On June 14, 1941, a year after the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet troops, the author’s brother Nikolay, his stepfather Yakobson, and Yakobson’s daughter Ludmila, the author’s half-sister, were declared enemies of the people, along with thousands of others, and deported. Nikolay died in 1942 either in a Gulag camp or in exile. Yakobson altered Ludmila’s birth year on her birth certificate, changing it from 1925 to 1926, and this saved her life. Ludmila spent two long years in Kargasoksky District of Tomsk Oblast in Siberia, before being able to join her aunt in Moscow. She eventually settled in the town of Klin because she was forbidden to live closer than 100 km to Moscow or any other major city. Yakobson died in 1956 in exile in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia. The sad irony is that deportation saved Yakobson and Ludmila from certain death at the hands of the German Nazis. Of those Jews who remained in Latvia at the time of the German occupation, only a few miraculously survived.
The author did not waste time waiting for a response from the consulate and went to Paris to continue his studies at the Institut National Agronomique in Paris, focusing on plant pathology. He conducted research at the laboratory of renowned biochemist Gabriel Bertrand. He joined the Communist Youth Section of the Latin Quarter and the Youth Circle at the Union for Repatriation. At the Union for Repatriation, he met Sergei Yakovlevich Efron and his daughter Ariadna, Vladimir Konstantinovich Glinoyedsky, and many other would-be repatriates. The author grew particularly close to Boris Ilarionovich Zhuravlev.
After about six months, the consulate replied that his petition for entry to the USSR and for Soviet citizenship had been denied. No explanation was given. The author could not believe it. Didn’t they tell him in the consulate that the country needed specialists? Zhuravlev, who had already received three denials, convinced him not to be upset and to submit a new petition. He said, “If they turn you down, it means that it cannot be done differently. So we are more useful here.” There was most likely a great deal of truth in what he said.
Zhuravlev was a communist and trade union activist from 1920s; he organized and participated in strikes. In August 1923 he was arrested in Bulgaria and placed in a concentration camp for eighteen months. Together with other prisoners, he took part in the armed uprising of 19–29 September 1923. In March 1925, he was deported to Turkey, where he was arrested and spent four months in prison. In July 1925, he settled in Lyon, France. In 1929 he was arrested and deported from France. He moved to Brussels, but in 1934 he was expelled from Belgium. In 1935 he was expelled from Paris, but he returned illegally.
The author does not hide his admiration for Zhuravlev, who was fourteen years his senior. When the novel I Am Coming Back to You was considered for publication in 1972, the publisher demanded that the author remove all references to Zhuravlev, who stood accused of stealing part of the money allocated for the underground anti-fascist activities in 1944. The author did not comply, obviously knowing that the charges were unfounded. The publisher also demanded removal of the mention of the fact that after the coup in Spain on July 17, 1936, the staff of the Soviet consulate in Paris told all who wanted to return to Russia that “your way to the motherland is through Spain.” The publisher demanded the removal of many other facts presented in the novel because they supposedly would prevent the establishment of friendly relations between the USSR and France. The author did not change anything, and the novel has not been published.
In the 1930s in France there were many publications in Russian. Among them were deeply philosophical specialized journals and religious, literary, and news publications. They reflected the diversity of views of the Russian emigrants. The author was reading or was aware of many of them. At one time he was interested in publications of the Porevolutionary club, which united those who thought that the revolution in Russia was a positive development but did not recognize the existing regime there. After applying for repatriation, the author switched to left-wing publications, including the propaganda magazine Our Union published by the Union for Repatriation and L’Humanité. These publications and Soviet films displayed at the consulate produced an idealized picture of Soviet reality. Drawing on his childhood memories of Moscow, the author naively believed that, since his departure from Moscow, everything had improved. In fact, the economic reforms of 1921 had been rolled back in the Soviet Union in 1930, and the property of private enterprises was confiscated.
The author dreamed of helping his motherland in the fight against hunger, not knowing that the famine in Ukraine in 1932–1933 had been artificially caused by the authorities and as a result four million people died. This incredible number of casualties was due to the fact that after forcibly taking all the grain, the authorities sent troops to cordon off the starving regions and force those who tried to flee the famine back to die in their villages. At the same time the Soviet Union continued to export millions of tons of grain.
He believed that in the Soviet Union the laws were strictly observed and that he would not be in danger because he had not committed any crime. In fact, there was state sponsored lawlessness. The authorities used the assassination of Kirov on December 1, 1934, in Leningrad, as a pretext to unleash a massive wave of persecutions during which hundreds of thousands of innocent people suffered in 1935 alone. Immediately after the assassination of Kirov, on the same day, Stalin ordered a change in rules for terrorist cases. The investigation stage was limited to ten days, the defense lawyers were banned from the court hearings, sentences were final and not subject to appeal or clemency, and a death sentence was to be carried out immediately after announcement of the sentence.
The author was lucky that there was a lull in persecutions when he was finally able to return home shortly after the end of World War II—to Riga, but not to Moscow, of which he dreamed. Almost all the members of the Union for Repatriation, who returned to the Soviet Union before the war were either executed or sentenced to long terms in the Gulag camps.
The author worked on the novel I Am Coming Back to You for more than ten years, beginning in the second half of the 1950s. Being a freedom-loving man, he did not accept the Soviet system and considered it his duty to tell the truth about the freedom-loving French, about the life of Russian émigré community in Paris in 1936, and about what he had seen in Spain in 1936–1939, in Germany in 1941–1943, and then in France in 1943–1944. Many of those he describes with such warmth in I Am Coming Back to You were killed: Prince Shirinsky-Shikhmatov in Auschwitz, Glinoyedsky in Spain, Ivan Troyan and Vasily Porik in France, as well as many of his comrades in the anti-fascist underground in Berlin; others were slandered: Zhuravlev, Lisitsyn, Eisner...I hope that after reading this novel the reader will think of them with the same warmth.