Veterans of the Soviet regime, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking survivors of 70 years of state socialism, tend to refer to the entire era as a giant experiment. They agree that it was something to do with idealism - a utopian dream of justice, equality and abundance for all - but no one would want to repeat the adventure. Instead of happiness, it brought hunger and fear, mass murder and corruption. But in the early years, the first five decades of the 20th century, the darkness was still lit with optimism and faith. When Gillian Slovo wanted to explore the effects of a large-scale political experiment - or, as she puts it, "the tragedy of idealism gone wrong" - the story of these surreal, painful years provided an unrivalled background. Well known for her writing on South Africa, she turned north and immersed herself in Soviet Leningrad.
Her novel follows the interlocking stories of two main characters: Irina, a cleaner, who is the only person to speak in her own voice throughout the book; and Natasha, the daughter of a solid, well-intentioned Communist Party man. It is this man, Boris Alexandrovich, who will bring the two together, for his good deeds include sponsoring the poor cleaner for a place on the seafaring Chelyuskin expedition of 1933. The point was to circumnavigate the Arctic, thus chalking up another pioneering achievement for Soviet power. But the ice, as ever, won. The Chelyuskin itself was destroyed between slabs of pack ice, and the crew (including their fictitious cleaner) were saved only after many almost suicidal air lifts across the Siberian snow.
As ever, Soviet propaganda would turn the catastrophe into a triumph. The crew, and the airmen who rescued them, were fêted as heroes. In Slovo's book, the event is a turning-point in Irina's life. For one thing, she has used her time at sea to learn to read. And for another, alive with new confidence, she comes home and divorces her abusive husband. Thereafter, she continues to enjoy the patronage of Boris Alexandrovich, who finds her a string of comfortable cleaning jobs. Irina, then, is a beneficiary of the experiment, although she maintains an ironic, detached view as she observes the fortunes both of her government and her friends. But Natasha, the privileged young girl, is set to lose and lose. Her proletarian husband Kolya, a clean-living type straight off a 1920s poster of Soviet labour, is arrested and shot in Stalin's purges. To save herself from the stain of criminality by association, and to provide for her infant daughter, Natasha accepts the help of Dmitrii Fedorovich, a puny weasel of a man whose office job clearly involves conniving in state terror. The loveless marriage, beautifully caught in the book, might have been misery enough, but next Natasha has to face the war that engulfs Leningrad in 1941. Irina, clearly a survivor, eventually saves her life as they all face starvation in the city's murderous siege.
The book, then, covers everything from progressive ideas to purging and the catastrophe of war. And there is more, for other characters include the historian, Anton Antonevich, hounded to death as a result of Stalin's policy on intellectuals, and Jack Brandon, the foreigner through whom the reader gets to glimpse the madness of the five-year plans. This comprehensiveness can jar at times. In the early chapters especially - and above all where Slovo tries to draw and integrate the character of Nikolaev, the murderer of Kirov, Leningrad's party boss - the tale feels forced, as if the weight of historical detail were breaking through the fabric of the story. Some characters, including Kolya the factory worker, are more like archetypes than people. But as the story moves towards the war, this seems to matter less and less. Ironically, since political tragedy was Slovo's goal, she is at her best when all that matters is survival.
The war, and the starvation in Leningrad, are sensitively drawn. Slovo's acknowledgements include thanks to the person who conducted interviews on her behalf with Leningrad blockade survivors, and their living voices do indeed sing through her prose. Her observation of Dmitrii Fedorovich's short career at the front also rings absolutely true. I wondered, as I finished the book, if Slovo might have achieved all her aims by focusing on the first 18 months of the war, drawing all the threads of pain and irony together in a single transformatory moment. But the book is none the less a moving and perceptive epic of utopia in darkness.
Catherine Merridale's 'Night of Stone' is published by Penguin
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