Lina Stern

The Meiosis of Cells and Exile

asimovsI have a new story out!

“The Meiosis of Cells and Exile” is a novelette about the Soviet scientist Lina Stern. It’s just been published in the latest issue of Asimov’s.

I enjoy mixing science history and speculative fiction, and “Meiosis” is an example of this. Lina Stern (1878-1968) was a biochemist and director of the Physiology Unit in the Academy of Sciences. She was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and Stalin was not impressed. Free speech was not something he found to be a priority, and the scientists and writers making up the Committee disagreed – to their very great cost. 15 members of the Committee were arrested and imprisoned for several years before being sentenced to death in a political show trial. Most were executed in 1952 in what came to be known as The Night of the Murdered Poets.

Lina was the only survivor, saved by her scientific talent and sent into exile in Kazakhstan instead. She was in her seventies at the time, and my story tells of her travel into that exile, fuming with what has been done to her and the rest of the Committee.

There’s (kind of) a happy ending to all that horror. Lina, despite her age, survived both Stalin and the miserable torturing bastard who imprisoned her and the rest of the League. She came back out of exile and spent the next 14 years of her very long life working for science, heading up the Physiology Department again at the Biophysics Institute.

It’s an apt story to be out at the moment, I reckon. Have been on Twitter the last few days, watching accounts from the Badlands National Park and NASA go rogue on climate change, tweeting science facts even though they’re under significant pressure not to. Scientists have the responsibility to speak truth to power, and I reckon Lina would have agreed.

(If you’re interested in reading more, Lina Stern also turns up as a supporting character in my short (free!) novel The August Birds.)

The August Birds: 13 August, 1952

august birds cover jpgSo. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.

AUGUST 13, 1952

MOSCOW, RUSSIA

Early on the morning of the thirteenth August was taken from one place of crying to another: from his own room–where he could hear April though the wall, the near-silent tears that told him she must be stifling her face in her pillow–to another where the tears were louder.

The place the ravens brought him to was dark and cold and echoed with sobs–a great, heaving, half-muffled choking that echoed so that August felt the size of the room he was in before he saw it, small and cramped and bound about again with bars. The sound was so alone, so wretched and miserable that August froze, seeing again the ruined city behind his eyes and burning, and if he saw that city in himself when he looked in mirrors and lenses this was the sound he heard at night, echoing in the walls of his room and muffled so that no-one could hear.

August froze, and Muninn was still beside him, her feathers flat against her body and sorrowful, with an expression on her beaked face that August had not yet learned to read. It was Huginn who moved first, who ran-hopped-scrambled across the floor towards the sound. And as August’s eyes adjusted to the dark of what he had come to recognise as a cell–zoo cages and hospital beds had given him an understanding of prisons such that he would know them always–he saw that Huginn had leapt onto a thin, ugly little bed, where a heaving figure was curled in on itself, covered with a ragged blanket and sobbing. He was not only there, the raven who ignored him when he could and looked at August with disdain when forced into acknowledgement, but he was there and… and kind. Huginn was crouched down next to the head, carding through the grey hair, combing it with his beak and crooning, trying to comfort, and the sobbing checked a little.

“Who is that, Muninn?” said August. The ravens had taken him so often now to places that should have been beyond him that he had learned his presence would not disturb, learned that what the quagga had seen so close to its own death, its own cessation of memory, was anachronism and exceptional. He knew that he would not disturb the person crying on the bed, but for the first time he thought he might have liked to be able to, to be able to sit by them and offer comfort instead of always being the one who needed comforting and who could not now be comforted.

“Her name is Lina,” said Muninn, and her harsh raven voice was subdued and sad.

The urge to offer comfort became overwhelming, and August inched closer to the bed, then closer still and sat down upon an edge of it, gingerly, noting how uncomfortable it was and reaching out to put his hand on the person underneath the blanket, reaching out and then pulling back suddenly, for Huginn had looked up from his combing and although he still crooned there was violence in his eyes. So August pulled his hand back and folded it in his lap, wanting to help but not knowing how, and his own body was so little and so thin itself that he barely made the mattress dip but the figure under the cover shifted regardless and the blanket fell away from her face.

She was an old lady, August realised, a very old, very small lady. She reminded him of his great aunt, who was never very tall herself and who sent August postcards and books on birds, hard nougat and salted caramels, who called him every week from her home in Delhi and never forgot his birthday.

“This isn’t right,” he said, and the shock of feeling anger on behalf of someone other than himself was almost a relief. “Muninn, what’s happening? Why is she crying? Why has she been locked up all by herself?”

“There is no-one left for her to be locked up with,” said Muninn. “They are all dead. Yesterday was the Night of the Murdered Poets, and this the first hours of the new day without them. There was a group of people, August, a committee, who came together against fascism, against ovens and pogroms and a boot in the face. Lina was a member. For three years they have been in prison, with torture and interrogation, with false charges and show trials. Once there were fifteen. Today there is only Lina, the only one allowed to live. She is to be sent far away and into exile. That is why she is sad. She is alone, and she has no home.”

“That’s terrible,” said August, who had always had a home, who had always had people around him to care for him even when he didn’t want them and who saw now for the first time what it would be like without them, who felt the sting of it in his eyes and his chest. “The poor lady. But I don’t understand,” he said. “I thought you were bringing me to see science. What’s poetry got to do with it?”

“It is only a name,” said Muninn. “They were not all poets. Some were involved in medicine, or biochemistry. Lina was one. She worked on something called the blood-brain barrier. Do you know what that is, August?”

August shook his head, silent.

“It separates blood from fluid in the brain, and although some things can pass through the barrier others cannot. It keeps bacteria out of the brain, and makes it difficult to infect.” Muninn shifted beside the bed, her feathers ruffling in upset. “It does not stop all damage, however. You have managed to find other ways to infect yourselves, and Lina could find no antibiotic to counter the infection that killed her friends, no medicine to save herself as her work had saved so many others.”

“And she was sent away,” said August.

“She was too valuable to kill,” said Muninn. “Too valuable to science. Though perhaps the exile in Dzhambul was as cruel, in its way, as execution.”

“What happened to her there?” said August. He was sorry for her, sorrier in that moment than he was for himself. His time with the quagga, short though it was, had reminded him of what it felt like to care for others and the cool place that the quagga had made in the holocaust of his heart was spreading, spreading, and the ground around was wet with tears.

“She went into exile,” Muninn said again and carefully, ignoring the exasperated I-know-that expression on August’s face. “Ten months later, the leader of the country died so Lina’s time away was cut short, and she was allowed to return.”

“That’s what happened after,” said August. “Not what happened while she was alone. You know what happened to her in exile, don’t you? You remember it.”

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“Tell me.”

“No.”

“Why not?” said August, frustrated. “That’s why you’re bringing me to all these places, isn’t it? To learn? And when I want to, you shut up.”

“Some stories are not mine to tell,” said Muninn. “Lina never spoke of her time in Dzhambul, never. She chose to take that time to her grave, August, and I will not make mockery of that choice for you now.”

“Why didn’t she want to talk about it?” said August. He reached out again, reached out to the shaking lump under the thin blanket and again he pulled back under Huginn’s glare. “Was it so very horrible, Muninn?”

“What do you think?” said the raven. “Everything she loved had been taken from her. Her friends, her work, her freedom. Her hope, too, for her hope was buried in shallow graves and shot all through with bullets. Would you be happy so?”

“No,” said August, swallowing. “I guess I wouldn’t.” He let his hand rest on her leg then, braved Huginn and his hard, inhuman eyes but the raven did not attack, though his feathers stood high about him. It was all the comfort that August could give, and it made no difference. “She must be very sad,” he said, and Huginn stilled before him, a dark shape bent over and unwavering.

“Guilty,” the bird croaked. “Guilty.”

“But she wasn’t guilty!” cried August. “She wasn’t! Muninn said so!”

“He means that she felt guilty,” said Muninn. “She survived when the others did not; she got to go back to her science, eventually, and her life, though that life was different than it had been, and thinner. It was not her fault that she lived, but the knowledge of their deaths made living difficult. She heard the gunshots, you see.”

“That’s horrible,” said August, paling. “Horrible.”

“Life is often horrible,” said Muninn, and her voice was very even, almost tranquil. “But it goes on, and it is sometimes harder on those who survive than those who do not. That is why I have brought you here, to the day after rather than the day of. To see that some consequences belong to those who live. Those consequences you will not have to suffer.”

She fixed August with hard eyes, and unblinking. “It’s not all about you, August,” she said. “And there is no mercy in that.”

August could not argue. He had been brought to a place without mercy, a place that had shown Lina none, and if the incandescent place inside him where mercy had once dwelt and been burned away was cooling then the centre of it was molten yet, and fearful in the face of chill.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Oliver Lodge demonstrate radio transmission!

If you’d like a copy for yourself,  The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!

© Octavia Cade

Cranky and silent – Lina Stern

This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.

 

lina sternLina Stern (1878-1968) was a Russian biochemist whose work predominantly centred on the blood-brain barrier. She was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which got onto the bad side of Joseph Stalin and led to her arrest, along with other committee members, on the grounds of treason and espionage.

Lina was the only survivor of the show trial that followed. On August 12, 1952, in what came to be known as “The Night of the Murdered Poets”, thirteen of her fellow committee members were executed by firing squad. Lina was spared solely because of her scientific ability. She was informed by the judge that she was as culpable as the rest, and was to be sent to a labour camp in lieu of execution because her work in physiology was of use to the state.

Lina Stern was 74 years old, and she was the only survivor. She was 74 years old when she was shipped into exile, far from her home and what remained of her friends, and with none of the work that she loved to cheer her. I think Lina must have been unbearably sad, felt unbearably guilty. To be the only one who survived – who would feel no guilt at that? Yet I also think that she must have been unbearably, unquenchably, undeniably angry. Who, again, would not be?

We can only surmise this anger. Ten months into her exile, Joseph Stalin died (and wouldn’t Lina have been pleased to hear that, out in the wastelands, out beyond the black stump in a place that echoed with gunshots). She was brought home, exonerated, restored to standing and to science. It had all been a dreadful misunderstanding, such a shame.

She must have felt the scepticism as a hammer blow. They say the best revenge is living well. Lina came back from exile and back to science, regained prestige and position and respect. She lived well and she lived on.

But Lina Stern never spoke of her time in exile. She took it to her grave. This is something I find terribly interesting. Of course, that ten months would have been an education enough in political realities to stifle any tongue. Stalin might have been dead but he didn’t take politics down with him. Discretion is still the better part, in any age – and yet, and yet. Lina had never been a pushover. She couldn’t afford to be, having had to fight for education and position in a time when women were routinely denied both. She survived prison and interrogation and exile, cruelty and contempt and ingratitude. You can’t fight and survive and learn fear as she learnt it and not know how to be angry, how to channel that anger.

There is power in being a cranky old lady, and power in knowing how and when to hide it. Anger has many faces, and some of them are deceptive. I think Lina learned anger very well indeed. She was practiced in learning, and she was never one to miss an opportunity.