In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova

When my dad passed away in 2019, my sister, my mother, and I spent hours going through family photographs. We scanned a lot of them to share online with relatives. Others—the best ones, the ones that really captured who my dad was—were put on a memory board for the memorial service. The year before, in 2018, when my last surviving grandparent died, my mother and I traveled to Wisconsin to do something similar with the Latsch family photos. Both times, I quizzed my mother endlessly about who all these people were, what they were doing, what else she remembered about them. Sometimes she could answer and I got great stories about how my uncle annoyed my mother by playing “Cat Scratch Fever” on a loop or about driving the family Cadillac out onto the frozen lake or how my parents managed to meet each other in Rome, of all places. I’m still saddened by the loss of all the stories that went with my dad and my grandmother that we never managed to record. Maria Stepanova has some of the same feelings and questions as she goes through her sprawling family’s archive and belongings, recounted in In Memory of Memory (solidly translated by Sasha Dugdale), but Stepanova is far more intellectual than I’ve been in my thinking about family memories and trying to recreate lost pasts.

I think I would have appreciated In Memory of Memory a lot more if I had been better able to follow Stepanova’s jumble of thoughts. Like her aunt’s apartment in Moscow, everything reminds Stepanova of something else. Thinking about a family meal sends her off to think about Proust, which sends her to thinking about her male forbears’ experiences during World War II. Thinking about faded photographs leads Stepanova to think about high photographic art, which turns into a Salvador Dalí anecdote. There are many chapters that I just skimmed because I couldn’t make myself interested in meandering streams of consciousness about how we memorialize the dead or who owns the past.

The parts of this book that I enjoyed best are the parts where Stepanova actually talks about her family and when she shares what she’s learned about the past to recreate their milieux. Although she claims that her family is very uninteresting, I would rebut that my Latsch relatives are far more boring because they weren’t at least adjacent to big events in history the way the Stepanova’s ancestors were. Her family might not have experienced the lowest lows or highest highs of twentieth century Russian and Soviet history, but at least she had a great-grandmother who was arrested for distributing socialist leaflets in the first Bolshevik rebellions and a great-great-grandfather who lost his factory to the Communists only to have his name later given to a de-Soviet-ified street in Odessa. My ancestors from Germany sat out the Civil War in Canada, then came down to Wisconsin to farm. The episodes Stepanova relates and the letters she shares in In Memory of Memory are among the most detailed, most real expressions of actual life in the Soviet Union that I’ve ever read, even if they are fragmentary.

Readers who can appreciate Stepanova’s references to and musings about literature and art are probably the mostly likely to enjoy all of this book. Readers who want a big family history should look elsewhere for a less frustrating, more focused read. I was definitely in the latter group and, although I hate to fault a book for not being what I wanted it to be, I really wish that Stepanova would have realized that her prose would have been more effective by letting her actual journey through the family archive and her family tell their story. By intellectualizing so much, any subtext that I might have worked out for myself was obliterated by all the thousands of things Stepanova wanted to think about instead.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear, by Maria Reva

Technically, the apartment block at 1933 Ivansk Street, in Kirovka, Ukraine, does not exist. The building was made of leftover material from its neighbors. It doesn’t appear on the official rolls. Consequently, its residents have a hell of a time getting heat, electricity, and other utilities. This lack of documentation also serves as a metaphor for the characters in Maria Riva’s brilliant collection of connected stories, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, who tend to fall into the cracks of Soviet and post-Soviet life.

The first half of the collection, which contains stories set before the fall of the USSR, was my favorite. For all the terrible absurdity and brutality, there was always the hope that the fall of the regime would make life better for the characters. I hoped that Daniil would be able to move out of assigned housing that he shares with far too many relatives (“Novostroïka”), that Konstantyn the Poet would no longer be persecuted for a joke, and that Smena would be able to openly listen to music from the west instead of secretively creating “Bone Music” (named for the historical recordings made on X-rays).

The stories in the second half—set in an independent but far from settled Ukraine—were harder for me to get through. I knew enough of history to realize that these characters with already marginal lives wouldn’t have much to look forward to unless that managed to ride the coattails of a rising oligarch. In “Lucky Toss” and “Roach Brooch,” characters scramble to keep themselves fed by cannibalizing anything of value. “The Ermine Coat” is particularly unsettling because of its subtext. It’s never stated directly, but there are hints that the narrator of this story is being prepared to support her family by going overseas and engaging in some kind of sex work.

The last story, “Homecoming,” features two recurring characters returning to 1933 Ivansk to witness the final collapse of a building that wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place. I had already noticed a theme building around the idea of foundations and systems, but this last story really brought home the idea that structures are only as good as their foundations. Communism was rotten. It was so riddled with inconsistencies, human error, human spite, and logical contradictions that it couldn’t last. Post-Soviet capitalism is so rapacious and unfair that it is equally doomed. Just like 1933 Ivansk, the only way forward is to tear everything down to rubble and start over.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear is an excellent collection of stories that I enjoyed for Riva’s deadpan humor and the way characters would walk in and out of the stories. I love a good collection of linked stories. The fact that they’re set in the Soviet Union/Ukraine meant they were just that much more interesting to me. Unlike a lot of Russian writing, this collection is not unrelentingly grim. There are disturbing moments and Kafka-esque scenarios, but things never got downright miserable or dreary. I enjoyed this collection quite a lot.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina

There are certain periods of history that, when I read fiction or primary source accounts of them, I marvel at anyone’s ability to survive them. The Soviet Union during the 1930s (and the late 1910s and World War II) is one of those times. Guzel Yakhina’s hypnotic novel, Zuleikha, captures part of the upheaval and deadly politics of the1930s in the Soviet Union. The eponymous character, a Tatar woman, is deported to Siberia during “dekulakization“—a practice in which the Soviet government rounded people up because of their social class, ethnicity, or other reasons and sent them far from their homes to labor until they died or had their status as a kulak revised and they could regain their freedom. As I read Zuleikha’s story and the stories of other characters who, mostly because of bad luck, ended up creating their own prison-settlement along the Angara river, miles from any kind of civilization. This novel is one of the best, most accessible, books I’ve ever read set in this time and this place. Lisa Hayden did outstanding work translating it.

When we meet her, Zuleikha lives a life that wouldn’t look very much different if it had been set in 1830 or 1730. She does her best to faithfully keep house for her brute of a husband and his mother (who is always called the Vampire Hag, a very appropriate nickname) in spite of frequent verbal and less frequent physical abuse. She’s been raised up in this culture and doesn’t expect any different. Zuleikha mourns the loss of her four daughters, who died in infancy, more than she laments her own situation. Life might have gone on like this forever if Zuleikha’s husband hadn’t snapped after yet one more demand from the Soviets for the family’s food. On their way back from hiding their grain stores, Zuleikha’s husband is shot. In short order, the family home is confiscated by the local soviet and Zuleikha is deported to Siberia as a kulak. The rest of the book shows us how Zuleikha adapts and finds herself in the cold, famine-ridden land of Siberia.

Zuleikha isn’t the only one who has to adapt. We spend a lot of time with two other characters who have to remake themselves to survive in a settlement that becomes known as Semruk (named for seven of its prisoner-founders). Volf Karlovich is a surgeon and gynaecologist who rode out the upheavals of the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed by retreating into his mind, behaving and talking as though he was still a star member of the Imperial Kazan University. Being the only person with medical training for miles around forces him to come back to reality. More time is spent with Ivan Ignatov, a Soviet official who is ordered to shepherd hundreds of Tatars, suspected kulaks, and other members of ethnic minorities to Siberia and then oversee the building and running of their prison-settlement. He asks over and over to be returned to regular duties, only to be told to stay put indefinitely.

Zuleikha spans 1930 to 1946 as Semruk and its inhabitants survive hungry, freezing winters; voracious insects; and the vagaries of Soviet dictates. It’s a miracle that anyone lives to create the thriving little town that Semruk becomes. But while the book details an eventful plot, there are many chapters in which we are privy to Zuleikha and other characters’ thoughts about what they left behind and the environment we live in now. In so many novels, I’ve only seen Soviet life from the perspective of characters who managed to hang on in the big cities of the Russian Wes—St. Petersburg/Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv—while being threatened with deportation, imprisonment, or execution. Characters would disappear and maybe return, years later. It’s only rarely that I get to see what life might have been like for the people who were put on the trains.

Because Yakhina spends so much time developing her characters, I had sympathy for nearly all of them. (The character who set himself up as a lackey for the regime was an asshole, though.) I felt particularly badly for Ivan. Ivan just wanted to serve his country. He just wasn’t enough of a wheeler-dealer to keep himself out of Siberia. I also pitied Zuleikha…at first. I hate to say it but being sent thousands of miles from Tatarstan was the making of Zuleikha. This is not to say that being deported was forgivable. It absolutely wasn’t. But being separated from her in-laws and pushed to drop much of her religion and culture meant that Zuleikha was free to reinvent herself, to a certain extent. She kept what worked for her: her belief in the wild sentience of the taiga, her devotion to her sole living child, her insistence that no man would take advantage of her body ever again. The impractical gender segregation and the subservience to a husband could all be jettisoned. I daresay that the Zuleihka of 1930 would never imagine the woman she would become by 1946.

Zuleikha is the kind of historical fiction that I would recommend to readers who like big books that allow them to immerse themselves in history. This book was an incredible read.

Source of the Angara River in winter, by Boris Levakov (Image via Wikicommons)

The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov

It’s funny that we talk about settling down in a place as putting down roots. Roots go deep and, once established, are hard to tear up. It can be done, but pulling up roots can kill whatever is being transplanted. (I took up gardening this summer. Can you tell?) This metaphor is apt in the case of The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov. In the mid-1930s, Florence Fein pulls up her roots because she can’t stand the hypocrisy the United States and moves to the Soviet Union, to be a part of building the new socialist future—and also to track down her lover. Decades later, her son returns to Moscow to try and uproot his son, who has moved back to the “motherland” to make his fortune. Russia just won’t let the Fein-Brink family go.

When I first started reading Florence’s journey to Moscow, I was strongly reminded of a book I read a long time ago. The Forsaken, by Tim Tzouliadis, remains one of my favorite works of nonfiction that I’ve ever read. It tells the story of the thousands of dissatisfied Americans who moved to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Most of them were dead within a decade, between purges, deprivation, and war. Florence is just such a dissatisfied American. Her hope doesn’t waver when she arrives in the heart of the new Soviet empire, looking for a man who loved her when he visited America on a trade mission. Her hope is a little bit shaken when she is assigned communal housing, wrangles a measly job, and tangles with Soviet bureaucracy. Thankfully(?), her stubbornness and determination not to give anyone an opportunity to say, “I told you so,” keep her in the country until her American passport is taken away and she’s stuck. The Patriots turned out to be a great fictional counterpart to the true story told in The Forsaken.

Florence’s decision results not just in her own downfall (and a trip to the gulag), but also traps her son in an orphanage for almost a decade and a thwarted future due to latent Russian anti-Semitism. Where Yulik (Julian) Brink is determined to get all generations of his family out of the country, his mother and his son, Lenny, are almost equally determined to stay in Moscow. They can see opportunities and obligations that Yulik just can’t. All Yulik can see is the corruption, prejudice, alcoholism, and lack of freedom. America is his land of opportunity.

The Patriots moves back and forth and time from the 1930s to the early 2000s, with brief stops in the 1940s and 1970s. Florence (whose story is sometimes told with a biographical voice from Yulik’s perspective), Yulik, and Lenny all have plenty of time to meditate on their choices and the consequences of those choices. They also have some hard lessons in learning to navigate life in the Soviet Union and the oligarchy that followed. Yulik, the most cynical of the lot, seems to be the only one who knows how to fight fire with fire. Florence and Lenny, weirdly, hold on to an American naïveté. They assume people are operating in good faith and that justice will prevail. Yulik, to his great frustration, cannot convince his mother or his son that the Soviet Union/Russia (from where he’s sitting) will just chew them up and spit them out.

I found The Patriots to be a fascinating portrait of a family caught up in history, looking for a home in all the wrong places, always absolutely convinced that they are doing the right thing. There were times that I thought it was going on a bit too long—mostly because I thought Lenny was a pain in the arse and didn’t particularly enjoy his chapters. I was completely hooked by Florence’s sections and to the parts of Yulik’s story when he was trying to get his family out during the mid-1970s. Florence is an astonishing, complex character. She is well worth the effort of reading about her grandson because she lives through such extraordinary times; she should have died more than once. The Patriots is a challenging but rewarding read, especially for readers who, like me, are a sucker for books set during the early decades of the Soviet Union.

A Moscow street, c. 1920s (Image via Wikicommons)

Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (translated by Philip Boehm) walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction. Every now and then, I come across a book that makes me wonder why an author chose to write a work of fiction rather than writing the long disquisition they clearly want to write. By the time I finished this book, I had figured it out. Koestler’s tale of the arrest, interrogations, and trial of Rubashov has had a more lasting impact than a book-length anti-Communist monologue.

According to the introduction at the beginning of this edition of Darkness at Noon, Koestler was inspired to write this novel by the Soviet show trials during the Great Terror, especially the trial of old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin. In this novel, an Old Bolshevik named Nikolai Rubashov, is arrested for…something. His status as a Civil War hero and Communist agent overseas is clearly no protection, neither is his cleverness and ability to argue Communist philosophy with the best of them.

At first, Rubashov believes that the charges against him will be disproved. Then the doubts that have started to niggle at him over the years of seeing comrades denounced and executed grow. Is the system that he fought for most of his adult life a monstrous crime? Is what he did for the party necessary? Or even just? He argues with other prisoners and his first interrogator, an old comrade. At times, the debates touch on religion as Rubashov and his interrogator wonder what good and evil are any more. I wondered if Koestler was going to turn this book into a Christian morality tale for a few paragraphs, but Darkness at Noon—though it has religious allusions—stays firmly in the territory of personal ethics and honor. In the end, Rubashov has to decide what he is willing to do. Will he resist the party? Or will he do one last service for the party that will thank him with a bullet to the head?

This edition of Darkness at Noon is different from the ones that have been published since 1940 when Koestler published an English language version translated by his girlfriend, Daphne Hardy. The original German language version was thought lost until 2015. Philip Boehm’s translation of this recovered text is menacing and moving. Even the parts where characters monologue at each other about the warped logic and obligations of the Soviet version of Communism don’t drag. I was fascinated by the different perspectives we get: Rubashov’s complicated faith in the party, his old comrade’s weary efforts to rub along, the fanaticism of the new Bolsheviks—even the smug cynicism of a White Russian prisoner in the neighboring cell. These speeches and dialogues are damning commentary on the brutal, inhumane practices of the Soviet Communist party.

Like other books I’ve read—Anna Segher’s The Seventh Cross, for example—Darkness at Noon feels like a time capsule. First published in 1940, this novel was written in the months before the Germans invaded France and Koestler had to flee. Koestler was a former member of the Communist Party; he resigned because of the aforementioned brutality. And yet, the novel still has a powerful impact even though it was a direct commentary on what Koestler saw happening. When I read a contemporary novel that has the same kind of commentary, I wonder if they will be read in the future, once the moment has passed. If they have the same highly intelligent moral complexity as Darkness at Noon, they might just be able to find a place in the literary canon the way Koestler’s novel has.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena

38190974Mother’s milk has such a powerful reputation for nutrition and nurturing that it’s sometimes used as a byword for something that feeds our souls. But in Nora Ikstena’s troubling short novel, Soviet Milk (translated by Margita Gailitis), the withholding of one mother’s milk from her child becomes an unsolvable puzzle for that child as well as a metaphor for the stifling false nurturing of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Milk is narrated by two voices. We only know which first-person narrator is who because of their relationships to each other. One of these voices is a daughter, born in Riga in 1969. The other is her mother, born in 1944 in a small village in the Latvian countryside. There were times when I was confused about who was talking, until something happened that I could assign to one character or the other. I’m not sure if the two women are supposed to sound so similar or if that’s because of the translation. Aside from my occasional confusion, I liked Gailitis’ translation. She left some passages of untranslated Latvian and Russian poetry and songs, which I think added to the sense of place. (Personally, I like to try and work out what words mean even in languages I know nothing about.)

As the two talk about their lives in the last decades of the Soviet Union, we also get hints about the mother’s background. We learn about the mother’s lost father and her own mother’s remarriage. We also see the mother attack the abusive husband of one of her patients, which leads to her exile to a rural Latvian town. As for the daughter, we watch her work up through the ranks in school, but also care for her severely depressed mother. There are times when the daughter acts more like a traditional mother than her actual mother.

While most questions about the two women are addressed in the book, the central question remains unanswered, at least definitively. We don’t know enough about her childhood to psychoanalyze her. We can’t test her brain chemistry. The closest we get to an answer are the references to imprisonment and freedom. Latvians are imprisoned by the Soviets. The mother is exiled from her Rigan family by a Soviet doctor. A pet is incarcerated in a cage. Most of the characters are able to carry on, even though they know they are prisoners. The mother just can’t, no matter how much her family and friends try to talk her out of her depression. She can see the bars and can never forget that she’s not free to go where she wishes.

The less I tried to analyze the mother, the more I could see the characters as responses to repression. On the daughter’s side is a striving to live, to buckle down and make the best of things. On the mother’s is an ineffable longing for a different life, in a different place or time, where she could travel and think and speak as she wanted. While the daughter has a happier ending, I hesitate to say that she’s the one we’re supposed to admire in Soviet Milk. After all, the kinds of freedoms the mother wants are the kinds I was raised to enjoy and fight any encroachments toward. (America.) There aren’t any characters who fall between the two who get as much attention as the mother and daughter. Consequently, we readers are left to wonder what that would look like. We have to, because both of these women’s lives lack important nourishment; they are both stunted by their various hungers.