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Through the long years of Stalinism, Anastasia Emelianovna Egorova tramped across the Soviet Union on one leg. In telling Egorova’s story as a counterpoint to the idea of totalitarianism, which has never actually been total, historian Sheila Fitzgerald explains that it sounds like an anekdot, the darkly humorous jokes “people loved to tell in Soviet times about things that were impossible or nonsensical in terms of official Soviet cliches, but nevertheless regularly happened.”

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Egorova saw a lot more of the USSR than the typical Soviet citizen constrained by a residence permit and “the Soviet commandment ‘Thou shalt work,’” writes Fitzpatrick. She tramped thousands of miles through Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia—making it to and from Vladivostok. She even made it beyond the USSR’s borders. In 1945, she crossed into Poland during a population exchange, though she was definitely not Polish. From Poland she journeyed to Allied-occupied Austria, where she was briefly detained in a Displaced Persons (refugee) camp, then into Yugoslavia, and finally Italy.

In 1950, Soviet authorities found Egorova in an Italian psychiatric hospital in Naples, where she had been living for four years after some kind of breakdown.

“The whole thrust of Soviet policy vis-à-vis migration was to get its former citizens back,” writes Fitzpatrick. This included “psychiatric patients, the chronically ill, and convicted criminals.”

A skilled raconteur, Egorova told Soviet officials what they wanted to hear: that she “been taken by the Germans” out of the motherland. Egorova was repatriated, evidently willingly, and “delivered to the care of her mother and her brother, now chairman of a collective farm, […] whom she had scarcely seen for nearly thirty years.” (Fitzgerald is skeptical that it was a happy family reunion.)

Fitzpatrick describes Egorova’s life as “one long anomaly.” But it was an anomaly that illustrates that the “boundaries of the possible in that regime may have been much broader than is usually thought.” Fitzpatrick, one of the founders of Soviet social history, highlights Egorova’s admittedly marginal story as an exemplar, noting that

In every society there are people who, whether by accident or design, innocence or cunning, manage to live outside or manoeuver around the society’s rules. Sometimes they get punished, but not always. They are interesting because they subvert not only the rules of their own society but also the retrospective generalizations about that society that we, as historians, necessarily make.

Egorova was born in 1912. Her father died in 1921. Her mother dumped her in an orphanage in 1925, the first of several such institutions Egorova would be in and out for the next few years. Away from the orphanages, Egorova lived by begging, petty theft, and, possibly, prostitution—which may be how she lost her leg in 1927. It had to be amputated after a fall from an automobile in Yalta. As Fitzpatrick notes, private cars were a rarity, and “it seems unlikely that Anastasia was a normal passenger in an automobile, unless as a child prostitute with a rich customer.”

Prostheses were “out of the question” for ordinary Soviet citizens until well after World War II, so Egorova used a stick or crutches. She was unable to utilize the very limited support available for the disabled and unwilling to be tied down to a collective farm. So she moved to and fro, mostly on her own.

The key points of Soviet history—the Revolution/Civil War, the Great Purges, the Great Patriotic War (WWII)—hardly figure in Egorova’s life-telling. Her story is lost from the record after her repatriation and entry interview by authorities. But as Fitzpatrick notes, she was still under 40, “not too old to go back on the road, regardless of continuing Soviet efforts to prevent tramping and keep kolkhozniks [collective farm workers] on their farms by not giving them passports.”

Egorova’s epic wanderings bring to mind the Welsh poet William Henry Davies’s Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908), about his years wandering around the United Kingdom, Canada, and the US. He gave a name to continental-scale tramping or hoboing (and a British rock band of the 1970s). Anastasia Emelianovna Egorova deserves that “super-tramp” title, too.

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Past & Present, No. 241 (NOVEMBER 2018), pp. 259–290
Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society