January 01, 2021

A Double Life

A Double Life
Konon Molody unmasked and back in Russia, in 1965. Alamy

I’m struggling to fathom what Konon Molody’s life must have been like, but I have trouble wrapping my head around it.

Let me try to tease apart its various oddities. Konon’s father, Trofim Molody, was a physicist. Before the revolution, his politics were obviously leftist, since he was expelled from the university for involvement in student unrest. For some reason he was never conscripted during the First World War, even though he was in the right age range. Apparently, his scientific research was considered valuable. After the revolution, he didn’t fight in the Civil War either. Instead he was given a post that involved making sure scientists had adequate living conditions, suggesting that he accepted the revolution. In addition to continuing his research and holding his government post, he published popular-science articles and scholarly books. All that sounds perfectly reasonable, but soon the Molody family story started taking some puzzling turns.

In 1929, Trofim Molody died of a stroke. Konon’s mother, a doctor, was left alone with two children at a difficult time: the Stalin Era and the first Five Year Plan were just getting underway. What happened next is hard to explain. In 1932 by some accounts or 1934 by others, the Soviet schoolboy Konon, who would have been either 10 or 12 at the time, left to live with his aunt in California. He lived there for several years. How could that be? It was the thirties, the Soviet Union was a closed country, and being let out was virtually impossible. In the case of 1932, the recent collectivization of agriculture had caused a horrific famine and the Gulag was just being established; if it was 1934, Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov had just been killed, an event that triggered what eventually grew into the Great Terror. This was not a time when Soviet children were being let out of the country to visit foreign relatives. This particular relative had left Russia before the revolution, so she was not part of the White emigration, but still. Almost everyone else with relatives abroad had their requests to leave rejected.

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