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Antonina Pirozhkova, Engineer and Widow of Isaac Babel, Dies at 101

Sep 26 –

Thursday, September 23, 2010
By WILLIAM GRIMES, The New York Times

Antonina Pirozhkova, who as the widow of the renowned short-story writer Isaac Babel campaigned for more than half a century to keep his literary legacy alive after his execution by Stalin's K.G.B., and who wrote a memoir about the last seven years of his life, died on Sept. 12 at her home in Sarasota, Fla. She was 101.

The death was confirmed by her grandson, Andrei Malaev Babel.

Ms. Pirozhkova, a rising young engineer, met her future husband shortly after she began working at the State Institute for Metallurgical Design in Moscow in 1932. She was 23. He was 38 and separated from his first wife, Yevgenia Gronfein.

The two began living together in 1934, and in 1937 she gave birth to a daughter, Lidiya.

After her husband's arrest in 1939, Ms. Pirozhkova (pronounced peer-ush-KOVE-uh) was advised by a K.G.B. interrogator to forget the matter. "Regulate your life," she was told. Instead she spent the next 15 years trying to discover her husband's fate.

In 1954 she received his death certificate. It bore the false date of March 17, 1941, implying that he had died during World War II. Ms. Pirozhkova then successfully lobbied for Babel's official rehabilitation, which was granted later in 1954.

Not until the mid-1990s did accurate information emerge about Babel's date of execution, Jan. 27, 1940, and about the 20-minute trial that took place the day before he was shot. He had been charged with belonging to an anti-Soviet Trotskyite organization and with spying for France and Austria.

During and after her life with Babel, Ms. Porizhkova continued her engineering career. At the Metroproekt Institute, which she joined in 1934 and where she rose to chief designer, she helped plan the crown jewels of the Moscow subway system: the Mayakovsky, Pavelets, Kiev, Arbat and Revolutionary Square stations.

For many years she was the only woman employed as a subway engineer in the Soviet Union.

After retiring in 1965, she devoted her life to reclaiming her husband's legacy, fighting with the authorities for permission to publish his works, organizing public memorials and commemorations of his birth and helping scholars do research in her personal archives, stored in her apartment in Moscow.

She was particularly concerned with securing the return of unpublished manuscripts seized by the K.G.B. Their fate remains unknown. In 1972 she compiled and published, in Russian, "I. Babel Recalled by His Contemporaries," a collection of firsthand biographical material. Babel's "1920 Diary," which she transcribed, presented the raw material that the author drew on for "Red Cavalry," his most celebrated work. The diary was published in the United States by Yale University Press in 1995.

The two-volume collection of Babel's works that Ms. Pirozhkova compiled and edited remains the most complete edition in Russian. It was published in 1990.

Her memoir, "At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel," was published in the United States by Steerforth Press in 1996 and in 2001 appeared in a Russian edition.

Sharply written and full of insights about Babel's character and life under Stalin, the book was well received. "Babel would have enjoyed Ms. Pirozhkova's book, concise and full of bright incident," Richard Lourie wrote in The New York Times Book Review.

Ms. Pirozhkova recalled Babel's dismay at her haphazard reading habits, which he tried to correct by drawing up a list of the "hundred books that every educated person needs to read." It included a volume titled "The Instincts and Morals of Insects." She recounted evenings spent with Soviet cultural giants like the film director Sergei M. Eisenstein and visits by foreign luminaries like André Gide and André Malraux.

But her most telling lines concerned Babel, portrayed as generous, shrewdly observant, subversively witty and, despite the shadow of the executioner's ax, coolly fascinated by the secret police.

She recalled riding to the Lubyanka, the K.G.B. headquarters, in a car with two K.G.B. thugs on the night of Babel's arrest. "I could not say a single word," she wrote. "Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, 'So, I guess you don't get much sleep, do you?' And he even laughed."

Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova was born on July 1, 1909, in Krasny Yar, a village in Siberia. Her father died when she was 14, and she supported the family by tutoring students in math.

Her high school diploma noted her "outstanding abilities" in mathematics, physics and literature, and in 1926 she entered Tomsk Technological Institute, where she studied construction and engineering.

After graduating with an advanced degree in engineering in 1930, she was assigned to one of the Soviet Union's prize industrial projects: Kuznetskstroi, a large metallurgical plant being built near Novokuznetsk.

After working on the Moscow subway, she was assigned to the Moscow Institute of Transportation Engineers, where, as a teacher in the Bridges and Tunnels Department, she trained subway designers and wrote two sections for the standard textbook "Tunnels and Subways." In 1996 she moved with her daughter to the Washington suburbs to be near her grandson and his wife. In addition to her daughter, of Sarasota, she is survived by her grandson and a great-grandson.

When Ms. Porizhkova arrived with Babel at the Lubyanka, she and her husband kissed. He told her, "Someday we'll see each other," and walked into the building without looking back.

"I turned to stone, and I could not even cry," Ms. Porizhkova wrote. "For some reason I kept thinking, 'Will they at least give him a glass of hot tea? He can't start the day without it.' "

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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