Ruben Gonzalez Gallego is a peculiar person. His manner of speech somewhat resembles his style of writing – categorical and fragmented, yet also enigmatic and serpentine. His sense of humor, in his words, is “orphanage humor.” He was born with cerebral palsy, can move only his head, shoulders and two fingers, and uses a specially designed wheelchair. From time to time he presses a button on the chair that makes it recline. Lying down, his legs tremble. Polina Tal Meltzer, 30, his personal assistant and literary agent, calms the shaking.
Gallego, 50, is a well-known Russian novelist whose books have been translated into most European languages and who in 2003 won the Russian Booker Prize, the country’s most important literary award. His extraordinary life story is reflected in his writing. Talking about his friends who perished in homes for the aged and the disabled in the Soviet Union, he describes himself as a survivor of the systematic isolation to which such people were subjected. (In the Soviet Union, and in present-day Russia, too, the same institutions accommodate both elderly and disabled people, and residents can often be quite young.)
“They are gone, and I have to live with that,” he says. “It’s the problem of the survivor – when everyone dies on you in a concentration camp and you remain. After all, you are not guilty for having survived.” He explains the guidelines he followed when describing his experiences in his first two autobiographical works, memoirs written as novels: “In reality everything was a lot more frightening than in the books. In the books there’s 6-7 percent, which is as much as people who didn’t experience it are capable of comprehending.”
Gallego lives with his family in an apartment building in Ashkelon, in southern Israel. Their home is rather chaotic, and shrouded in cigarette smoke. In addition to the writer and his assistant, who has taken an active part in his recent interviews and appearances, others are present in the apartment as well: Polina’s husband, for one, but also a mysterious woman who emerges from a back room for a few minutes. Gallego’s Moscow-born wife, Rina, and their daughter, Sofia, are not at home. Rina, formerly a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice and then in the Department of Homeland Security, now works as a welder. Nine-year-old Sofia, who suffers from low-functioning autism, is at school.
Gallego begins his first and best-known book, “White on Black,” with two assertions: “I’m a hero. It’s easy to be a hero.” And immediately adds, “If you don’t have hands or feet, you’re either a hero or dead.”
Lies and deceit
Gallego was born in 1968 in the Kremlin hospital in Moscow with severe disabilities caused by cerebral palsy. His mother, Aurora Gallego, was the daughter of Ignacio Gallego – a senior figure in the Communist Party of Spain, who lived in exile in Paris before the fall of the Franco regime. After Franco’s death he became deputy chairman of the lower house of parliament and secretary general of the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain (PCPE). In the late 1960s, Aurora was sent to university in the USSR, where she met a Venezuelan student, became pregnant by him and gave birth to twins. Ruben’s brother died 10 days after he was born, and the crippled Ruben spent the first year of his life in a hospital, with his mother by his side.
At one point the infant’s condition worsened, and a few days later Aurora got a call from the clinic informing her that her son had died. Gallego’s harsh journey had begun.
How was your mother deceived if she was by your side in the clinic?
Gallego: “They kept waiting for her to break down and give up on me, because Ignacio [the grandfather] demanded a mercy killing – but was told that there was no such practice in the Soviet Union. I was always being taken for all kinds of tests, and one time they took me but forgot to bring me back. Aurora [who wasn’t there at the time] arrived and asked, ‘Where is my son?’ She was shown a child who had needles and tubes all over his body and was on a ventilator, and was told, ‘Take him [home].’ She asked, ‘How can someone who’s not an expert disconnect a person who is on a ventilator?’ They replied, ‘Then why did you come?’ She said, ‘But only yesterday I was told that everything was all right.’ Afterward they called her and said, ‘You weren’t lucky, the child is dead.’”
What did she do? Did she ask to see the body? The story recalls the testimonies about the Yemenite children here in Israel.
“Both Yemen and Israel of that time were progressive and humane countries. The Soviet Union was a structured state from top to bottom – it’s indescribable.”
Polina Tal Meltzer adds, “You couldn’t ask to see the body, you didn’t have that right.”
Did she try?
“Yes, certainly,” Gallego replies, adding that when his twin died and she asked to see the body, the staff pointed to the smokestack of the adjacent crematorium. “They told her that if she wanted, she could look for him there.”
What did they tell her in your case?
“Nothing – dead. They said to Ignacio, ‘We told your daughter that he’s dead, and we’ll work with you.’”
According to Gallego, the move to deceive Aurora – to tell her that her son had died and to place him in a children’s home – came from his grandfather. “If Ignacio’s grandson is disabled, then his own political career is finished,” he explains. “How could he go on claiming that there are no disabled people under communism if his own grandson was disabled?”
In fact, Gallego maintains that it was because of an order from his grandfather that he was born with cerebral palsy in the first place.
“There was a party conference, and Ignacio wanted to declare the birth of a grandson there,” he says. Aurora was only in her eighth month of pregnancy, but according to Gallego, the midwives in the Kremlin hospital decided to speed up the birth by means of a strong blow to the upper part of the stomach. “My head was in the upper part – and so I came out like that.”
But your grandfather was in France and your mother was in the Kremlin hospital. Couldn’t she have objected?
“Of course not. No way!” Gallego says, and Meltzer, who grew up in Russia, adds, “You’re lying there tied up, like in prison. No one asks you.”
“For that it was necessary to write these books. So people would read them and know: That’s how it was,” Gallego asserts.
The boy was moved about among homes for disabled children across the Soviet Union. Until a relatively advanced age, he could only get around by crawling, in the absence of a wheelchair. In school he lay on the floor. Older handicapped children were sent to homes for the elderly and the disabled, which is how Gallego found himself in an old-age home in the city of Novocherkassk, in southwest Russia.
In “White on Black” and in his second book, “Chess,” Gallego describes those facilities as places where the death of the residents is only a matter of time – and the sooner the better, because only death rescues them from the torment and humiliation. In “White on Black,” Gallego recounts how friends he’s grown up with in a children’s home died after being moved to an old-age facility because they had reached the age of 16: “Of the eight of them, only Genka had survived. The old folks’ home was made up of separate barracks’-type buildings. The elderly and the handicapped were distributed according to their degree of disability. Our lads lay in a separate barracks, with the goners.”
Gallego was able to leave the old people’s home when the Soviet Union began to implode, following the introduction of the perestroika reform movement by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in the late 1980s. At the same time, he met the woman who would become his first wife and who told the newspaper Russkaya Gazeta in 2003 that she had “smuggled” Gallego out of the institution. She threw his wheelchair over the fence and his friends handed him over to her from the inside. This marked the start of the second chapter in Gallego’s life – more optimistic than the first and no less fascinating.
He studied computer sciences and became a programmer, visited the United States as part of a special program for the disabled (where he had access to an electric wheelchair for the first time in his life), was divorced and then remarried, and today has two healthy daughters from those first two marriages. He managed to locate his mother and lived with her and with his younger sister in Europe after a separation from his second wife. He published two books, met a young Jewish fan from the United States (she too was born in Moscow), married her and moved to America. In 2014, a few years after their daughter was diagnosed with autism, they moved to Israel.
“My daughter is autistic. I did an analysis of where there is the best treatment, and it turned out to be Israel,” Gallego replies when I ask him why he came here.
His third book, “Eternal Guest,” also a fictionalized authobiography, is due to be published in Russia, in Russian, in the next few weeks. Coming 13 years after “Chess,” part of the new work is devoted to Israel, including its politics. “Everyone loves me, but no one wants me on his turf,” says Gallego, who is not Jewish. “And the Jews say, ‘You’re here – welcome,’” he says. Polina Tal Meltzer is co-author of the book.
In his books, Gallego describes the sheer brutality of a system that isolated the disabled from the rest of society, placed them at the mercy of hardened caregivers, without resources or supervision, and doomed them to daily abuse and constant hunger. He was among the first, if not the first, to speak out about the plight of people with disabilities in the Soviet and Russian society, unmasking the hypocrisy that informed the communists’ treatment of the helpless.
In interviews and in the introduction to “White on Black,” he emphasizes that everything he has written is true. The one limitation he imposed on himself was to write only about “victory stories,” even if the victory story is about an elderly woman who hanged herself in the closet of the seniors’ home.
“Yes, she was victorious,” he explains to me. “She didn’t lie in excrement, which is the most awful situation there can be.”
It was after leaving the old-age home that you began to look for your family.
“I sent a video to Spain. Someone was going there, and I said to him, ‘If anyone around you takes an interest, give him this, and that’s all.” The video told Gallego’s life story.
In other words, you just sent it from hand to hand.
“Yes. I was told that my mother was a bad person. [In his first book he relates that the nurses in the children’s homes called his mother a ‘black-assed bitch.] But in Spain, a family is more than 15 people. I could believe that one person came out bad, but not all the dozens.”
Gallego’s video fell into the hands of the Lithuanian-Spanish director Algis Arlauskas, who decided to make a film in which Gallego would be reunited with his mother. In the movie Gallego is taken first to Madrid, then to Paris and afterward to Prague, in a supposed search for Aurora.
If I understand correctly, the crew knew all along that she was in Prague.
“Yes. But they told me they didn’t know,” says Gallego, who ridicules the film as a “reality program” and recalls the shoot as being comparable to falling into captivity. “During the making of the film I intended to escape to somewhere in Europe,” he adds, noting that he had planned to do that with a friend who was accompanying him in the capacity of caregiver. In the end, though, he stayed and finally met up with his mother, who was then working for Radio Liberty in Prague.
What did you talk about with your mother in that first meeting?
“About how much we like reality shows. And then we told each other our life stories – she told hers and I told mine.”
At the time that Gallego was reunited with his mother, in 2001, both were very ill. She was in remission from cancer, and he, 33 at the time, suffered from gangrene of internal organs and was spitting blood. He moved in with her and with her younger daughter Anya, from her second marriage. The three stayed together for eight years, initially in Madrid, then in Freiburg, Germany. Aurora, a journalist and translator by profession, died in 2009. She lived long enough to embrace her granddaughter Sofia, who was born in the United States.
Gallego declines to talk about his first two marriages and his decision to leave Russia, leaving his two daughters behind. He makes do with the curt assertion that he “screwed up” both marriages and is not in touch with his older daughters. But of his third wife and their daughter he speaks with pride and love.
Rina Gonzalez Gallego, born in Moscow, met Ruben after serving with American forces in Iraq as a legal officer. After their marriage, they lived together in Washington, D.C., but when Sofia was diagnosed with autism they realized that in the United States they could not give her what she needed.
“What was there for her there?” Gallego says. “She rocked back and forth opposite the wall, her thumb in her mouth. Her kindergarten ended at noon, and after that she was at home with a private caregiver. I would have had to earn a million dollars [to provide for Sofia’s needs].”
Gallego speaks admiringly about the support and aid available for autistic children in Israel. He is deeply grateful to the Ma’ayan Sarah School for children with special needs, which his daughter attends – daily, until 5 P.M. – and which has helped her in a way he could not have dreamed of, he says. He is thankful, too, for the van with the crane that he received from the state along with other benefits – which he would not have been entitled to in the United States as a handicapped man with a family – and for underwriting his personal assistant, Polina, who became a friend, an associate and effectively part of the family.
“I feel like killing them,” Gallego replies assertively but also ironically, when asked about the struggle being waged by disabled people in Israel for the past year and a half. “They look at the disability allowance in isolation from all the other benefits disabled people receive. It’s not enough money to make you a millionaire, but it’s definitely enough money to live on.”
Meltzer: “Ruben gets 18,000 shekels [$4,878] a month. What else would he ask for?”
One of the two chief protagonists of “Chess” is Misha, who suffers from myopathy, a muscle disease, in comparison to whom Ruben describes himself as “almost a superman” in terms of his physical abilities. But inside Misha’s helpless body lived the resilient spirit and brilliant mind of a person capable of playing blind chess on six boards simultaneously. The conversations between the two protagonists, who share a room in an old-age home, are terrifying, yet amusing. One of their key motifs is Misha’s almost desperate efforts to explain simple truths to dumb Ruben – for example, that the state sees no point in feeding them, because they, the handicapped, are of no use to society.
When Misha feels that his disease is gradually eroding his cognitive ability, he finds a way to outwit the system and commit suicide.
I ask Gallego whether even now, after spending almost half his life in freedom, he sees his friend’s suicide as a victory.
“I stayed alive because Misha preserved his intelligence and I preserved my emotions,” he replies. “Emotional intelligence is no less important than analytical intelligence. I corresponded with someone, who wrote me, ‘I pray for Misha as if he were someone who was murdered for no reason.’ Murdered for no reason. It’s subtle, sophisticated murder.”