From the shadows of Stalin's Russia
I Want to Live: The Diary of a Young Girl in Stalin’s Russia
By Nina Lugovskaya
309pp | Doubleday | ISBN: 0385608713 | 2006 | £16.99
(US Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, June 18, 2007)
The Lost: A search for six of six million
By Daniel Mendelsohn
HC528pp | HarperCollins | ISBN-10:0060542977 | 2006 | $27. 95
Nina Lugovskaya was born in 1918. She began her diary in October 1932 when she was a schoolgirl, living with her parents and two older sisters in a flat in Moscow. Written in three notebooks, the diary abruptly ended on 3 January 1937, the day before the NKVD (the Stalinist secret police) raided the flat and confiscated it along with other incriminating papers. It was only discovered in the archives of the KGB after Nina’s death in 1993, by a researcher, Irina Osipova. The NKVD had underlined many passages which they regarded as suspect: frank commentary about Stalin and the Bolsheviks and places when Nina had made melodramatic references to suicide (“If only I could get hold of some poison!”) which was considered unpatriotic by the Soviet authorities. These passages are in a darker type.
Although there is much adult autobiographical material available from the Stalinist years, little has survived from the perspective of an observant and articulate adolescent. For this reason alone, Nina’s diary is worth reading. Her father, Sergei Rybin, was a socialist but not a hard-line Bolshevik; thus he was branded a "counter-revolutionary" and often exiled. Her mother, who worked as a teacher, struggled to keep the family together during those harsh years when food was scarce – the family’s diet mainly consisted of bread, tea and potatoes – and everyone dreaded a knock on the door.
Like Anne Frank, to whom she has been compared, Nina Lugovskaya dreamed of being a writer: “I want to be great and extraordinary,” she wrote aged 14. Again, like Anne Frank, her diary records the painfully intense emotions of youth: “All these years I’ve been floundering about in a vicious circle, caught between serious life, study, learning, female dreams and desires, and boys”, she noted aged 16. Of course, the serious difference between the two documents lies in the reader’s foreknowledge that Anne’s was written in desperate circumstances: a cramped hiding place where she was immured with her family for over two years, until betrayal, deportation and an early death in a concentration camp before she was able to realise her gifts. This gives it a tragic intensity absent from the Russian girl’s story.
By comparison, and despite the ever-present menace of Stalinist repression, Nina was able to lead a normal life during these five years, socialising with friends, holidaying in a dacha and going to school. She was fortunate to survive the harsh punishment the family received that January of 1937 at the hands of the secret police: five years’ hard labour in Siberia, followed by a further five years of exile in a remote province. Instead of becoming a writer, she married a fellow exile and became a painter, and her criminal record was later expunged. Although talented at expressing herself, well conveying the extremes of elation and despair that youth is always prone to, I do not think that Nina’s diary shows a writer in embryo. In this respect it is a modest document, that of a typical teenager of her era, largely concerned with her own feelings, friendships and appearance (she worried about a squint) than with the world at large.
Yet she is very politically aware. With unthinking recklessness she denounces Stalin: “That vile Georgian who is crippling Russia”, she comments with lofty scorn, and “the sooner I can grow up and leave this land of barbarians and savages the better” (written aged 15). In statements such as these it seems likely that she was somewhat influenced by her father, a humourless, self-taught man whose letters to his daughters showed contempt for the “proletariat”, even as he hoped for ‘the progress of humanity”.
Through Nina’s eyes the reader glimpses something of the dour nature of the Communist ideology: “The teacher set us a story to write using the words ‘imperialists’, ‘capitalism’, ‘opportunists’, ‘shock workers’, ‘new society’”, she notes; it must have made exciting reading. On 24 December 1933, she is bored at home and thinking of going for a walk; on 24 December 1935 she is “bored, depressed and ashamed for being such a failure in life.” Christian feasts such as Christmas are never mentioned; only Party rallies and parades, which evoke no enthusiasm in the diarist. Perhaps this is what gives this book its ultimate significance: its implicit suggestion that growing up in an atheist system can subtly blight the spirit, such that Nina, aged 15, can quote Lermontov with approval: “Life, if you glance around with a dispassionate eye, is such an empty and stupid thing.”
'A search for six of six million'
The subtitle to Daniel Mendelsohn’s book is “A search for six of six million.” The “six” are his great-uncle Shmiel and his family: his wife, Ester and their four daughters, Lorka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia, who all perished in Bolechow (now Bolekhiv, in the Ukraine) during the Holocaust. Mendelsohn, born into the Long Island Jewish community in 1960, has written a rich and complex narrative, part autobiography, part detective story and part meditation on the significance of memory; in so doing he has produced a memorable addition to the literature of the Holocaust.
Significantly, he begins his tale with a quotation from Proust: “When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung come to lavish on us their riches and their spells.” For Mendelsohn, who is less concerned with the spells of fiction than with the potency of facts, the two souls have always been indissoluble; even as a child his unformulated conviction was, “what kind of present you could possibly have without knowing the stories of your past?” As a serious twelve year-old boy -- the family’s “historian” -- he was pestering his maternal grandfather for stories of his youth in the Bolechow shtetl before his emigration to America as well as writing to other relatives for their memories and photographs in order to assemble a family tree. The grandfather, Abraham Jaeger, was an Orthodox Jew; Mendelsohn’s father was a sceptic; he and his four siblings grew up within a vibrant Jewish culture but without any religious belief. There is a sense in this book that his yearning, even obsession, to memorialise every detail of his family’s history is a kind of substitute for that lost belief, a wish to make permanent through story-telling what is tragically transient. The act of remembering becomes a sacred activity in itself because that is all that is possible; as the author states, “I don’t believe in the supernatural.”
Mendelsohn’s quest to recreate the lives of his six lost relatives, now no more than “minor characters in someone else’s tale”, takes him to the Ukraine, Australia, Prague, Vienna, Israel, Denmark and Sweden. One person leads to another, thousands of miles distant; one clue leads to another, which then illuminates an anecdotal fragment which has got blurred in the telling. So urgent is the author’s need to know, “to have facts and dates and details” and to impose order on this chaos of facts, by “assembling them into a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end”, that the reader, too, becomes absorbed in the search. Five years in the making and 500 pages long, Mendelsohn’s passionate tale makes his own family tragedy our tragedy too; indeed, the tragedy of mankind.
Although the book starts with a prosperous, secular Jewish family on the East Coast and its personal link to six murdered family members, it succeeds in recreating the life of the whole Bolechow Jewish community, of whom 48 persons survived out of 6,000; this in turn draws in the surrounding community of Poles and Ukrainians as well as the diaspora of scattered survivors around the globe. At the outset Mendelsohn wanted to rescue his lost relatives “from generalities…to restore to them their particularity and distinctness” – to bring them back to life by the telling. In the event he realises he is thereby being forced to judge people: those who helped the Jews, those who were indifferent or afraid, and those who actively aided their destruction. His grandfather had told him, “The Germans were bad, the Poles were worse but the Ukrainians were worst of all.” Not the least of the merits of this book is the author’s deepening sense of compassion, his growing realisation that others also suffered, in particular that Stalin’s deliberate starvation of 5-7 million Ukrainians (the exact figure will never be known) in the early 1930s was their national tragedy, just as the Holocaust was for the Jews.
Part of Mendelsohn’s narrative method is to include a parallel text in italics; the stories of the Creation and of Cain and Abel, Noah and Abraham from the Torah. Here he contrasts the arguments and interpretations of two Talmudic scholars as a means of introducing his own arguments and conclusions about God, the covenant and Jewish history. At first this seemed an artificial, even pretentious, device but as I read on I began to see it as part of the author’s struggle to understand his distant origins as well as his recent ones. He even taught himself to read Hebrew, something he had avoided as a boy when preparing for his bar mitzvah. In an earlier century, Mendelsohn would have been a Talmudic scholar himself, collecting, organising and interpreting the texts and traditions of his forefathers, a member of the rabbinical teaching authority. As it is, he has the ironical, questioning and sceptical outlook of his age -- but yoked to a passionate wish to rescue and preserve the memories of his tribe before they are lost forever. Somebody, he believes, has to “makes the decision to look back…and to see what there is still to be found.” He does not believe in miracles or “magic coincidences”, stating “there is only looking, and finally seeing, what was always there.”
As a university teacher of Greek and Roman literature, Mendelsohn is as exercised by the pagan belief in fate as he is in the Hebrews’ sense of their chosen destiny. Aeneas’ words when reminded of the fall of Troy, “Sunt lacrimae rerum” (“there are tears in things”) becomes the haunting leitmotif of his book. At the close of his search, confronted by the particular anguish of certain places, he, the man of facts and dates and details, suddenly finds himself weeping. He discovers the cellar where two family members hid and stands under the tree in the yard outside, where they were shot when their hiding place was betrayed. Not being able to pray, he is silent; but he has achieved what he had set out to do: to “hear the stories and to write them down”. His book is a fine testimony to the seriousness of his search.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.
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