Kirill, the protagonist of Sergei Lebedev’s erudite The Goose Fritz, has a gift for imagining the past. Symbols on a tombstone or the sounds of thunder will transport him across time so that he can experience a bit of what his ancestors’ felt or saw. It’s a useful trick for a historian, especially as Kirill has decided to write the history of his German-Russian family from the 1830s, through the Russo-Japanese War, the Revolution, the Great Terror, and the Great Patriotic War.
A few years before her own death, Kirill’s grandmother Lina shows him the graves of their German ancestors—ancestors Kirill had no idea existed—at the Vvedenskoye Cemetery in Moscow. They had visited before, but Kirill didn’t know that he was descended from Balthasar Schwerdt. Before that day at the cemetery, Kirill only knew that his great-grandfather had been killed during the Great Terror. Everything else about his heritage was a mystery. Seeing the Schwerdt graves at the cemetery sends Kirill on an academic quest to recover the history of his family.
Very early in this novel (which often reads like a blend of nonfiction and novel), Kirill tells the story of a man who lived near his grandmother’s dacha. This man, known as the Sergeant, suffered from terrible post-traumatic stress disorder. Every year, on the anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, the Sergeant gets drunk. Everyone knows to stay out of his way. But on one of those anniversaries, the Sergeant gets drunk and ends up violently strangling a goose he’d dubbed Fritz. The goose represents all of the German soldiers who had tried to kill the Sergeant during the war. This terrible incident sticks with Kirill—and with me—as a brutal example of the deadly hatred some Russians have for Germans. As Kirill digs into the past, he sees over and over again how Russians turn on his German family in times of crisis. His family, much diminished by 1937, was only able to be “safe” when they dropped the Schwerdt name and reinvent themselves as “pure” Russians in the chaos of World War II.
Kirill uses his grandmother’s papers, histories of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and his fellow historians to create a fuller portrait of his lost family history. He learns about Balthasar the homeopath and his brother, the legendary Marinated Midshipman; Andreas the engineer and industrialist; Arseny (Kirill’s great-grandfather) the doctor and passive socialist; and about all of the multiple great uncles and aunts and his many times removed cousins. As he learns more, Kirill develops a theory about people who unwittingly become victims of history. Kirill does just what I do when I read historical fiction: he urgently wants to tell his ancestors to get out of Russia! as critical dates approach.
The Goose Fritz is, as I’ve said, an erudite book that blends history and fiction together. It’s not a typical novel at all, with hardly any dialog. Instead, The Goose Fritz is an epic. It places a family against the most tumultuous years of Russian and Soviet history. For all that it is a dense read, I enjoyed it very much because of its intelligence and humanity and because it reveals much about what life is like for a family who will always be considered outsiders—even though they were born in Russia, fought for Russia, spoke the language, and followed the Orthodox faith—because one of their ancestors came from an enemy country.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.