On a warm day in the summer of 1936, Lilia Vladimirovna Litvyak sat in the cockpit of a Polykarpov PO-2 biplane, staring down the runway alone. The tips of her blonde hair showed under the edges of her flight cap, her blue grey eyes covered in goggles.
“Are you ready, Lilia?” said the flight instructor, ready to crank the propeller.
“I’m ready,” she replied.
“You’ll have only yourself to rely on,” he followed.
“Start it up!” she answered back.
The flight instructor leaned in hard, cranking over the wooden propeller, and with a thump and a sputter the wood and canvas machine came to life. The propeller spun into a blur and the engine sent rumbles through the airframe. The flight instructor stepped aside as she pushed the throttle forward. The biplane rolled down the runway, quickly gaining speed. The nose dipped as the back wheel lifted up. A little more speed and the biplane lifted off the runway, climbing into the sky. People on the ground grew smaller and smaller. Soon the buildings of Moscow would come into view. She flew above roads and houses and onion domed churches. A farmer stood in a field below, beside his horse and cart, waving to her. For the first time in her life, she was alone amongst the clouds.
As a child, she had been fascinated for as long as she could remember that it was possible for people to fly. Pointing to the sky at each rare sighting of an airplane, it became the singular goal of her young life to know how it felt to be up in the clouds looking down on the world. By age fifteen, Lilia had joined the Kalinin Air Club outside of Moscow. She had completed her ground school training, learning in a classroom the mechanics of how an airplane interacted with the air around it, and how to control it with throttle, pedals, and stick, and how to read the cockpit gauges and why they were each important. After passing her tests in the classroom, she flew with an instructor who would take off and land the plane but gave her the controls once in the air. She learned quickly how to pull the airplane through turns, and to climb and descend.
For Lilia, the summer of 1936 passed idyllically. She filled her days with frequent flights from the Kalinin airfield and bus rides home to her family’s apartment in Moscow. She would return in the evenings to find her mother cooking supper, while her father read the paper, and her younger brother Yuri, just six years old, colored in books or played with toys. Her father Vladimir and mother Anna had moved to Moscow from the country after the revolution, trading a life of farming for a life in the city. Vladimir had found training as a railroad engineer and worked hard to make his way up the ranks to become a Minister in the Department of Transportation. Lilia’s mother Anna worked by day as a seamstress.
While flying, Lilia focused her thoughts on the airplane, getting to know its feel a little more with each flight, giving little thought to any problems on the ground. But with each passing day, the people she encountered seemed to change. Their eyes were cast down as they walked the streets of Moscow, ever more distrustful of one another. In August of that year, Lilia’s father would read in the newspaper the details of Stalin’s show trials. His political opponents had been put on trial, accused of treason against the Soviet state. On every street corner one could sense a darkening mood amongst the people, and in hushed voices passed the stories of people disappearing in the night. There were even whispered rumors that the security apparatus was always listening with hidden microphones, desperate to know what the people said to each other when they believed they were alone.
Lilia’s father, Vladimir, didn’t share this darkened mood. She had always known him to be an optimist, encouraging her at every chance to believe in herself and never to give up when facing a difficult task. He had gotten himself from a rural life on a farm to a job in Moscow with hard work and optimism and the firmly held belief that life for the average Russian was improving. The conveniences of the modern world; radio, telephones, electricity, and mass transportation were just coming into reach for all. A new era of modern life was about to be born. Lilia followed his attitude on the world and by the age of fifteen it had earned her a pilot’s license.
The summer passed and the fall arrived. Lilia returned to school and took flights from the airfield on weekends. The leaves turned from green to red and gold, then fell from the trees. The nights grew colder and the streets became quieter. The rumors that passed in hushed voices persisted, and a vague sense of fear was never far. On a cold night in October, three shiny black sedans came to a stop outside the Litvyaks’ apartment building. Four officers of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD, stepped out in green uniforms with blue caps, holding black nightsticks, pistols holstered on their belts. The black sedans would be heard driving the streets of Moscow late at night when everyone was asleep, or lying awake in fear that tonight the Black Ravens, as they were called, might come for them.
Lilia, her mother Anna, father Vladimir, and her brother Yuri were all asleep, even at the thumping of boots climbing the stairs to their apartment. Lilia woke to the sound of a hard clacking on the front door, and a shout to “Open up!”
Lilia jumped quickly out of bed and looked at the clock. It was just after 4 AM. What could this be? She stepped out of her bedroom to find her mother Anna staring at the front door, frozen in fear. Her father followed behind her wrapping himself in a robe as the clacking of the nightstick repeated.
“Open up!” the voice shouted again.
“Who is it?” Vladimir replied. If he was afraid, it didn’t show.
Anna pleaded to her husband in a hushed voice, “Don’t open the door.”
“Vladimir Litvyak, we must speak with you. Open this door.”
Anna shook her head, pleading with him not to open it. Perhaps they would give up and go away. Lilia watched in silence. She turned to see Yuri appear at the door to his room.
“Yuri, go back to sleep,” she said, pushing him back.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Stay in your room, and go back to sleep,” Lilia said again, trying to keep calm. She closed the door to his room softly.
Vladimir stared at the front door, thinking to himself that there must be a mistake. He had worked hard in his job, and kept his political opinions to himself, never speaking ill of the Communist Party or of Stalin. What could they want with him? He nudged his wife Anna aside and undid the latch. Three NKVD Officers stood in the doorway.
“What is the great emergency at this hour?” he asked of them.
“Vladimir Litvyak, we have a warrant for your arrest. You’re coming with us,” said an officer, walking through the doorway with the other two to take Vladimir by the arms.
“No. This must be a mistake. He’s done nothing wrong. He’s committed no crime,” Anna pleaded.
As Lilia watched her father being taken from the apartment, she could hear the rapping of nightsticks on the doors of her neighbors. “Come out!” the voices shouted.
The barking of a neighbor’s small dog down the hall was followed by a gunshot, and the animal’s dying whimper.
Anna followed the officers as they took Vladimir down the stairs by his elbows, urging them to stop. Lilia followed after her mother. By the time they reached the street below, it seemed the entire neighborhood had been woken from sleep and brought outside. Vladimir was quickly shoved into the back seat of a black sedan. He looked out to Anna and Lilia, helpless. Anna, now in tears, was pushed away from the car as more NKVD Officers emerged from the apartment building across the street. Holding another man by his elbows, the officers ushered him into the back seat next to Vladimir and the doors were shut. Lilia felt the salty sting of tears on her face. She looked to the faces of her neighbors, some she had known her whole life. Their eyes were cast down in shame, avoiding her glance.
Three more NKVD Officers emerged from the building across the street carrying armfuls of books and dropped them in a pile in the middle of Novoslobodskaya Street.
Another NKVD Officer stood on the running boards of one of the black sedans. “We have rooted out terrorists, right here in this very neighborhood,” the officer shouted. “They are charged with crimes of subversion and possession of illegal literature. Thankfully, one of you has informed us of these dangerous activities.” He addressed the crowd while another officer poured gasoline on the pile of books. “They are enemies of the people,” he continued. “There is no place in our society for class enemies! Nothing will stop our new Soviet nation from moving forward, to progress!” He roared to his silent audience as a match was thrown on the pile of books, sending up orange flames. He climbed down from the running board and got into the car.
Vladimir Litvyak stared out the back window as the Black Ravens sped away. Anna and her daughter, tears in their eyes, looked to the faces of their neighbors. They avoided her gaze, shuffling back to their apartments by the orange light of books burning in the street. What would come to be known as ‘The Great Terror’ had begun. For the next two years the Black Ravens would make their rounds in the night, arresting more than a million people, many of whose fate was execution, or a long sentence of hard labor only to die in the gulags of Siberia. The people lived in a state of fear, of the late night rapping of a nightstick on a door, and silent relief when the black ravens had not come for them, but their neighbor instead. Someone else would be amongst the disappeared, their name no longer to be spoken.
A week later, on a cold day in autumn, Anna Litvyak huddled against the long grey wall of the Lubyanka prison. She stood in line with hundreds of other women, all waiting to learn the fate of husbands, fathers, and sons, disappeared in the night. Snow flurries blew across the square, past the line of women that wrapped around the building. Most kept silent, but Anna had struck up a conversation with the young woman in front of her. She had grown up on a farm, like Anna, where she met the man she would marry. He was several years her senior and a tailor by trade. He had courted the young woman and won the permission of her parents. He had brought her from a life in the country of hard work, to a life of relative ease in Moscow.
It was at the end of a long day of cutting and sewing that her husband had set aside his needle, and so as not to lose it, stuck it in a newspaper by his side. He hadn’t noticed that the needle was stuck into a photograph of a Communist Party official, squarely in the eye. One of his customers had noticed and informed the NKVD. The rapping at their door came unexpectedly, just after 4 A.M. as well. None of her neighbors had dared to open their doors to see what the commotion was about. They kept silent in their own apartments, relieved it wasn’t happening to them.
The long line moved slowly as the young woman told Anna her story, moving ever closer to an NKVD officer seated at a table set up outside the front door of the prison. As each woman offered a name, he would search through large bound ledgers to find the name of the accused and read the results of their trial and sentencing. None were found innocent. Anna had watched for the better part of the morning as one by one another woman would be told the sentence and walk away in tears. Soon it would be her turn to learn the fate of her husband, Vladimir. The young woman in front of Anna stepped up to the table and spoke the name of her husband, then waited breathlessly as the officer flipped through the ledgers to discover his fate.
“Your husband was found guilty, and was sentenced to ten years labor,” he said without emotion. She stood before him confused, somehow waiting for more. Tears welled in her eyes as she stared at the officer. “Don’t cry. There is hope you will see him again one day,” he finally offered. The young woman sank, turned and walked away as all of those before her had done.
The officer turned his glance to Anna and waited. Anna stepped forward nervously and spoke only two words “Vladimir Litvyak.” An eternity passed as the officer again flipped through the ledgers, enough time for Anna to notice the snow flurries blowing across the square and look back at the long grey line of women behind her. The officer’s finger stopped on one line in the middle of the thick book.
The NKVD officer looked up to Anna coldly and said “Vladimir Litvyak was convicted of his crime and sentenced to execution. The sentence has been carried out.”
Anna had tried to prepare herself for the worst but couldn’t allow herself to believe this could be it. She stared at the officer in disbelief, who simply waited for Anna to accept the news and walk away like so many others.
“He did nothing wrong,” Anna said, waiting for an answer.
“Our faith in the party and in our Soviet nation must be pure. We must all sacrifice for the purity of our motherland in some way,” the officer replied. “Consider this to have been yours.”
It was hopeless. Anna’s husband was gone, murdered by the state security apparatus. She looked at the long line of women behind her again. There were only cold stares, no offers of kindness. Anna turned and walked away, trying to hide her tears.
Lilia returned to the family’s apartment in the evening to find Anna and her brother Yuri huddled together in the living room. Their eyes were red from several hours of crying. Lilia knew immediately the news would be bad and stared at her mother to wait for it.
“He’s gone,” Anna said.
“Gone?” Lilia replied. “What do you mean, gone?”
“He’s been executed,” Anna said calmly.
Lilia put her hands on her stomach as a rush of pain suddenly burned inside of her with such intensity she could hardly breath. Anna held her daughter in her arms as she cried, but it was the end of childhood innocence. It occurred to Lilia that everything one could ever have would inevitably be lost. Her next thought provoked only a feeling of helplessness - ‘What now?’ How would they continue on with their lives?
Lilia lay in bed that night, trying to sleep, while the uncertainty of the future kept her awake. What would she say when anyone asked of her father? That he had simply disappeared like so many others? Would they come back for Anna, or for her? By morning, a feeling of confusion and maddening frustration had wrapped itself around her, constricting her with each new thought until she could hold only one. She must get back in the air.
At first light, Lilia rushed out of the family apartment. The city was still asleep when she caught a bus to the Kalinin airfield, an hour ride north of Moscow. The Airclub Commander had already fueled a blue biplane and given it a pre-flight check. He noticed the intensity on her face.
“Are you feeling well today, Lilia?” he asked before signing her into the ledger.
“Anxious to get back in the air,” she responded.
With a nod, he signed the form, then unblocked the wheels and pushed the flying machine out of the hangar and positioned it on the runway. Lilia strapped on her flying helmet and goggles and climbed into the cockpit. She strapped herself in tight as the Airclub Commander steadied his grip on the propeller. Lilia stared down the runway once more.
“Are you ready, Lilia?” he asked.
“Start it up,” she declared.
He threw the propeller into motion and stepped away as the airplane came to life. Lilia pushed the throttle forward. The biplane rolled ahead, picking up speed. The nose dipped and the biplane lifted off the runway and climbed into the sky.
Absent were the bright blue sky and the tall white clouds of summer. The sky over Moscow was a cold grey in the distance. Lilia pushed the airplane through a gentle turn, alone in the sky with her thoughts. As the memories of her father entered her mind, she kicked hard on the pedals, throwing the biplane into a barrel roll. The horizon spun into view as she flipped the airplane upside down and back again. She leveled it off then pushed the stick forward full throttle, the airplane picking up speed. She pulled hard on the stick and held it back. The biplane climbed into a full loop, the engine buzzing as hard as it could pull.
Lilia threw the airplane into a series of twists and rolls, thrashing the biplane around in the sky. She pushed the airplane to its limit, a wooden propeller, mounted to a metal engine, mounted to wood and canvas and wire. How much could it take before something snapped? She pulled back on the stick again, at full throttle until the airplane nosed straight up and away from the Earth. The airplane climbed until the pressure of her back against the seat gave way. The biplane hung in the air motionless, and for a moment she was weightless.
The biplane nosed down again. Gaining speed, the ground below came into view in a dizzying spiral, earth fast approaching. If she held down the stick or did nothing it could all be over. The pain, anger, and frustration could be cured in an instant. The airplane of wood and canvas would be smashed to bits and herself along with it. As the ground rushed at her quickly, the biplane spiraling to certain death, she thought again of her father, Vladimir.
Lilia kicked the pedals and pulled back on the stick, correcting the airplane out its spiral, pushed the throttle forward and held the stick back, leveling off two meters from the ground before climbing again. It was not the time to quit. Her life and her destiny were still her own to choose and they would not be taken without a fight. “Be strong.” she told herself. “Never give up on your life. He wouldn’t want it.”