Aliger, Margarita Iosifovna (1915–1992)

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Aliger, Margarita Iosifovna (1915–1992)

Soviet Russian journalist and lyrical poet who depicted Soviet life in universal terms and took great risks in speaking out against Stalinism. Born in Odessa, Russia, on October 7, 1915; died in 1992; married Konstantin Makarov-Rakitin, in 1936; children: one son (who did not survive infancy), and two daughters.

Margarita Iosifovna Aliger was born into a poor Jewish family in Odessa on October 7, 1915. Although her parents had little in the way of material possessions, their lives were culturally rich. The Aligers had assimilated Russian culture, retaining an unquenchable thirst for the arts. Aliger's father was an excellent amateur violinist, while her mother, who had a deep love for Russian literature, often read the poetry of Pushkin and other classic works to her young daughter. Margarita's poetic impulse emerged early, and, at age 16, she went to Moscow to seek literary recognition. Two years later, in 1933, her first poems appeared in print.

Working as a librarian, Aliger constantly strove to improve her poetic skills. Her life in Moscow became more settled in 1936 when she married Konstantin Makarov-Rakitin. Determined to find her personal literary voice, she enrolled in a program of night classes for aspiring writers (which later became the Gorky Literary Institute). Soon, she published her first book-length works. Among these early publications were God rozhdeniya (Year of Birth), a verse collection, which appeared in 1938, praising Socialist construction and the triumphs of Stalinist industrialization. These early, relentlessly optimistic works pleased Joseph Stalin who personally saw to it that Aliger was awarded a Soviet decoration in 1939, the first of many she would receive in her long literary career. The same year, she published Zima etogo goda (The Winter of that Year), based on a personal tragedy, the death of her infant son as a result of meningitis at the age of 18 months.

As was true for countless millions of Soviet citizens, the war years were marked by tragedy for Margarita Aliger. After her husband died in combat in 1941, she had the responsibility of raising two daughters by herself. Aliger's life became a never ending struggle of privations and loss of family and friends to war, starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Not long after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, it became clear that Hitler's policy of genocide would result in the death of all Jews in German-occupied territory. Aliger became increasingly active in Soviet organizations, including the internationally known Jewish Antifascist Committee. These groups actively assisted the threatened Jewish population, bringing their plight to the attention of the Soviet Union's Western wartime allies. Her most important activity was editing a Black Book of eyewitness accounts of Nazi mass murder on Soviet territory for later publication.

As both a Russian and a Jew, Aliger hated German Fascism. She wrote a number of patriotic works, including To the Memory of the Brave and Zoya (both published in 1942). Zoya was a long narrative poem honoring Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya , the young woman executed by the Nazi invaders in 1941 for her guerrilla exploits. Aliger's play Tale about Truth also dealt with patriotic wartime themes. These works, which reflected the intense patriotism of the struggle against the invaders of the Soviet Union, earned Aliger a State Prize of the USSR; later, she also received the Stalin Prize. Though she was aware at the time of the terrors perpetrated by the Stalin regime, her work reflected the shared privations and suffering, as well as hope for a better future, which characterized the Soviet Union during the war. Decades later, Aliger would describe the war years as a "time when all our people were together, and knew they were fighting an enemy outside that was evil." Full of such optimism, Aliger joined the Soviet Communist Party in 1942.

After victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945, the latent anti-Semitism of Joseph Stalin and his inner circle began to reassert itself. The Black Book project was shelved and the volume never published. Now, Soviet Jews began to be accused of shirking their wartime duties and enriching themselves behind the front lines while others fought and died. From the outset, Aliger became acutely aware of the radically changed attitudes that now made anti-Semitism acceptable in the Soviet Union, despite the fact that it was officially banned. In her narrative poem, Your Victory, published in 1946, she boldly fought this campaign of vilification, speaking of the Jewish people not as loafers or deserters but as "doctors and musicians/ Workers small and big/ Descendants of the brave Maccabees/ Sons of their fathers/ Thousands of fighting Jews—Russian commanders and soldiers." Banned by Stalin's censors, these lines were not printed in Your Victory but circulated widely in manuscript form. Aliger vigorously fought anti-Semitic slander, asking in her poetry: "Answer my question/ Haven't we shared everything/ With which we were rich?/ Why do millions think we're guilty?"

As the attack on Jews continued, escalating in the late 1940s with the systematic murder of a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals, Aliger continued to write and publish. Her works were cautious and deliberately nonpolitical, for she recognized the new reign of terror taking hold in her country. Her defiance of Stalinist hatred was poetically subtle: a glorification of the renewal of human life and love after years of war and destruction. Often in poor health in the postwar years, she was deeply concerned about the safety and survival of her two daughters. On several occasions, she was denounced in public for alleged "pessimism" and other ideological transgressions, although it was obvious that some of the criticism was thinly veiled anti-Semitism. When the paranoid Stalin demanded that Jewish intellectuals sign a letter justifying a bloody purge of Soviet Jews in the last months of his regime, a fragile and sickly Aliger felt that she had no alternative but to comply. Years later she explained, "It was very terrifying, and not everyone is capable of being a suicidal hero." Massive purges were planned for 1952–53, but these were averted with the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953.

Stalin's death brought a political and cultural "thaw" that lightened the burden of millions of people. Margarita Aliger also began to feel a sense of rebirth and hope. She began writing in a new burst of energy and won a number of medals and awards, including the Order of the Red Banner of Labor in 1965 and the Order of Friendship of the Peoples in 1975. Increasingly, her fellow poets regarded her as a venerable figure of Russian literature. In 1962, following the publication of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar—which for the first time brought up the issue of the Holocaust and Jewish deaths in World War II in the Soviet Union—Aliger wrote and privately circulated a poem bitterly condemning the continuation of anti-Semitism in the post-Stalinist USSR. Yevtushenko reciprocated by publishing a poem about Aliger, Poet na rynke (A Poet at the Market). He movingly describes her as buying honey for her extremely ill older daughter (who later died), a frail figure unrecognized by other shoppers standing among the "cabbages and the pork/ That, nearing sixty, forgotten by all/ The poet was writing as never before."

In the final decades of her life, Aliger wrote of the powerful moral struggles she and her generation faced during the years of bloody Stalinist dictatorship and terrible suffering during World War II. One of her finest poems, "House in Meudon," is dedicated to the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941), who committed suicide. Tsvetaeva's works were not printed in the Soviet Union until years after the death of Stalin, when Aliger determined to rehabilitate Tsvetaeva's reputation.

To the end of her life, Margarita Aliger struggled with the great moral problems of her country and century. She resigned from the Communist Party in 1990 and died in 1992. Aliger kept alive a great literary tradition, maintaining a spirit of lyrical simplicity in a harsh world bent on destroying itself. She summed up her artistic credo in her own words, "Lyrics are my soul, myself as I am."


Feinstein, Elaine. "Poetry and Conscience: Russian Women Poets of the Twentieth Century," in Women Writing and Writing about Women. Edited by Mary Jacobus. London: Croom Helm/Oxford University Women's Studies Committee; NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979, pp. 133–158.

Vaksberg, Arkady. Stalin Against the Jews. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia