Why is this period of history so endlessly fascinating for writers and readers alike? Is it because it is so grotesquely horrible and so compelling at one and the same time? I am not sure, all I know is that I am gripped. Oh yes, you may say – but you are gripped by so many things; true. But Russia and the Baltic are so different. The Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Turgenev – so romantic and also bloody but so, so different from Jane Austen say, or Thackeray. Then from the 19th century we jump to the 20th century and suddenly the whole thing has changed.
Obviously the politics changed, you would have to be a Martian not to know that (though maybe they do, who knows?). But the writing changed too. Think Pasternak – still romantic but also extremely bloody, think Solzhenitsyn? Not romantic AND very bloody, very harsh and horrible but wonderful writing. Lots of people have read The Gulag Archipelago, but have you also read August 1914 and November 1916? Solzhenitsyn said of this series of interlinked novels that they represented the growing pains of modern Russia and he knew what he was talking about; but oh, how the story changed. Jump several decades and you come to Vasily Grossman Life and Fate. This is War and Peace for the 20th century, it has the same sweep of home-life and camp-life; the same huge canvas and the same tension between private grief and triumph and public conquest and failure. Vasily Grossman was a reporter for the army newspaper ‘Red Star’. He saw fighting in the Second World War at first hand, as a private and as a reporter and was intimately involved in the battle for Stalingrad all graphically covered in an edition of A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945. Life and Death is almost by way of being a remorseful letter to his mother; it would have been possible for him to have had her move to safety and he didn’t. As a result she died at the hands of the Germans, along with about 30,000 other Jews in the Berdichev province. He never quite forgave himself.
I have just finished reading The Holy Thief by William Ryan. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to get my hands on the next two. Why read this sort of novel having read all of the above? There is something about good thriller writing that gets under the skin. The Holy Thief is set around the time of The Five Year Plan, Stalin is the new Leader and things are beginning to shape up at last; but as Captain Korolev of the Militia finds, everything is not quite as it seems. This is a great thriller, but it also gives the reader a taste of life at that time: the multi-occupancy, the starvation, the disappearances and the secrets. No-one is exactly what he seems and the intricacies, the complications and accidents that arise from not ever knowing the full picture can have fatal consequences. Electrifying (in a bad sense as well as a good sense) and tense to the bitter end. W.R recommends several other books that might expand on this period, of which I have two – both equally sustaining (and difficult to read, by the way). Anne Applebaum’s Gulag – a history of the Soviet Camps and Orlando Figes The Whisperers – private lives in Stalin’s Russia. I would add Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.
Read all of the above and you will grasp some of what I am talking about.