Margaret Zarudny Freeman SM ’34
Margaret Zarudny Freeman SM ’34 was only eight when rumblings of the Russian Revolution against the Czarist regime shattered the peace of her quiet village in St. Petersburg, Russia.
As members of the intelligentsia, her well-educated, artistic, and professional parents “seldom talked to me about politics, [but] I knew that mother welcomed the news of the Revolution and was full of hope for developing a more just society in Russia,” she wrote in her 2006 memoir, Russia and Beyond: One Family’s Journey, 1908–1935.
“However, neither this heritage nor the liberal politics of her parents could protect the family from the gathering storm of the national revolution, and in 1919, her father, an engineer and steel factory director, went into self-exile in Manchuria,” her son Arthur of London wrote in an e-mail.
When the family — including Margaret, her five siblings, and her mother — set out to follow him, Arthur said, their mother was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in Omsk for having briefly sheltered a political fugitive.
The Bolsheviks executed 37-year-old Elena Pavlovna Zarudnaya, leaving her children in the care of an elderly nurse and young servant to complete the long trans-Siberian trek and rejoin their father in Manchuria in June 1922, Arthur Freeman said.
Mrs. Freeman, who came to the United States in 1931, studied and taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and married an American, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 23 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. She would have been 100 last Tuesday.
In heart-rending detail in her book, Mrs. Freeman wrote: “I tried to imagine how Mother must have felt when she was told that she must face death. How she walked, what she thought. What did she feel standing there, facing the cocked guns? I did not see her dead.”
Mrs. Freeman was looking forward to the birthday bash she usually threw for herself at her Belmont home, which she and her husband had converted from carriage house into a home suitable for the lectures and musicals she often hosted.
There was little that Mrs. Freeman’s mechanical, scientific, and mathematical mind could not figure out. “On Mother’s 45th birthday, we gave her the ultimate gift, a bench saw, to add to her basement full of power tools,” said another son, Edward of Los Angeles.
Mrs. Freeman’s scientific bent made her fit right in at MIT. Magda Tisza of Newton, who taught French at MIT’s language laboratory while Mrs. Freeman taught Russian, recalled Mrs. Freeman’s 40-year connection with MIT.
She entered in 1932 and completed a two-year master’s degree in engineering in 1934. In 1935, she married Harold Freeman, who would become an economics professor at MIT.
Her family said Mrs. Freeman would have continued her education at MIT, but took a job as a designer of steam turbines at General Electric in Lynn to support her four sisters when they arrived in the United States.
Her stay at GE was brief, Tisza said, and she returned to MIT in 1938 and stayed “for the next 40 years.”
“Margaret held various posts at MIT,” she said. “She started out in research as an applied mathematician. About 1960, given her twofold interest in acoustics engineering and in language,” she said, Mrs. Freeman became head of MIT’s language laboratory. She retired in 1978. Mr. Freeman died in 1997.
Mrs. Freeman did not remain idle in retirement and lived independently in her home, opening it up to friends of all persuasions and to emigres.
A book of poetry she had written over the years, described by friends as crafted in a robust Russian manner and written mostly in Russian, was being printed as a gift for her birthday.
Mrs. Freeman loved life and people, her family said. Remembering her own difficult times as a new immigrant in this country, she had opened her heart to new emigres over the many years she has been here, helping them find jobs and homes and to learn the language and even putting them up in her home.
“Margaret helped hundreds of emigres,” said Elena Semeka-Pankratov of Waltham, who arrived in 1974. “Margaret taught us how to make a step and then another step and then how to walk.”
Mrs. Freeman was born in St. Petersburg, the oldest of five girls and one boy. She was named Margarita “after my maternal grandmother,” she wrote in her memoir, and was given the pet name Mulya by her father. Later she became Margaret.
After reuniting with their father in Manchuria, she attended the Polytechnic Institute at Harbin for eight years.
With the help of the U.S. ambassador in China, they said, Mrs. Freeman and her brother Sergey arrived in California in 1931, and she “pursued her youthful dream” of doing graduate work at MIT.
“Margaret had a lot of grit,” said Mary Parkin of Cambridge, with her husband, Drew, a longtime friend of Mrs. Freeman’s. Admired for many reasons, Parkin said, Mrs. Freeman was known for her zest for life.
For all the tragedy she had suffered, friends said, there was a bubbling sense of humor near the surface and her big smile. Once, her son Edward said, “when I borrowed $300 from my mother, she made me take out an insurance policy to cover it.”
For his 16th birthday, he said, she gave him $300 and a round-trip ticket to Europe. “You’re on your own,” she said.
“Mother was not a disciplinarian,” he said. “She told us, ‘Live your lives and report back to us.’”
In the epilogue to her book, Mrs. Freeman thanks Elena Bonner of Brookline, the widow of the Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, and the foundation in his name for obtaining papers in 1994 from the Omsk Cheka, or Bolshevik secret police, with details of her mother’s execution in 1921. The discovery basically exonerated Elena Pavlovna Zarudnaya for the crime for which she was killed.
The years of uncertainty that had tormented her, Margaret Freeman wrote, “fell from my shoulders.”
“I finally realized that mother had not participated in any political conspiracy at all,” she said. “Her only crimes were those of compassion and risk-taking.”
Besides her sons, Mrs. Freeman leaves two sisters, Katerina Singleton of Providence and Zoya Chambers of Belle Harbor in Queens, N.Y.
A memorial service is planned.