Monday, July 9, 2012


A few months ago my stepmother told my fiancée that Grace Shouba, my mother, was a constant presence at her home.   The statement struck me as odd at first:  Grace died twenty-five years ago, and of course had never even visited my stepmother’s current home, let alone my stepmother’s previous home.  Her pictures were not on any wall.  Her things--what few inherited objects that were left to us--were mostly relegated to the basement.  But of course my father’s “new” wife had helped to raise my brothers and me, and so had lived for the past two decades with hundreds of shared remembrances of our most cherished memory.  

When I thought about my stepmother’s statement, I had to admit that Grace was everywhere in her home.  My father and two brothers talked about Grace a lot; and when we weren’t talking about her, the omission was sometimes glaringly obvious.   After all, Grace was the unifying theme of our shared past—a collective experience, a familiar ghost, and a sometimes all-consuming memory.   In fact, after twenty-five years, Grace had become something bigger than a dead loved one:  in many ways, her name had become a mythological symbol for childhood itself, with all its myriad joys, sorrows, adventures, and tragedies.  

For me at least, the memory of Grace now represented the best and worst parts of life, and her spiritual presence seemed to permeate my every interaction with my parents and their home.  The past is always present, and this certainly is part of the message of Montefiore’s novel about the Russian heroine, Sashenka.  Montefiore, who wrote a brilliantly researched book about Catherine the Great’s favorite, Potemkin, as well as two of the best recent biographies of Joseph Stalin—The Court of the Red Tsar, and Young Stalin, clearly believed that any twentieth century Russian novel must inevitably lead to a dialogue between Russia’s tragic past and uncertain present.  

Sashenka, who grows up in a rich, Jewish St. Petersburg family, throws herself into the revolutionary struggle against the Tsar.  Thus, in the first part of the book, Montefiore takes us back and forth between tsarist excess (Sashenka’s mother is one of Rasputin’s dissolute admirers) and puritanical revolutionary responses.   We come to understand why Russians had become exhausted by economic inequality, bourgeois decadence, autocratic stupidity, military catastrophe, and capitalist exploitation.  Yet we are also introduced to a Marxist-Leninist conspiracy, and its dangerous moral and ideological assumptions about class warfare.   Although we know why Sashenka is attracted to change, we also understand that this attraction is darkened by the Bolsheviks’ antidemocratic and violent approach to politics. 

Montefiore skips over the Civil War, Collectivism, and the Great Terror proper, and introduces us to fully formed Stalinism.  As World War II approaches, Sashenka and her  bigwig NKVD husband have become the model Soviet citizens.  Their attitude toward Stalin and Stalinism are no doubt typical of the time.  In awe of the Great Leader, they somehow managed to both love and fear the man and his political regime.  They understand that many of their close friends and colleagues had disappeared during the past two years, but they hoped against hope that these disappearances were justified according to some greater Party imperative or logic of history.  When they themselves wind up in Stalin’s cross hairs, they perish, victims of the same deadly and often arbitrary game that Sashenka’s NKVD husband had been playing for so long to prop up the Bolshevik regime.  Montefiore’s larger story, however, is about historical memory.  

In the final part of the book, Montefiore shows that Sachenka’s torture and savage death did not erase her memory, or the significance of the millions of other innocent Russians who died at the hands of Stalin and his criminal colleagues.  Indeed, Sashenka’s children and grandchildren miraculously uncover the tragic story of their ancestor’s past.  And somehow Sashenka emerges again, irrepressible, insistent, and all-consuming.  History, and especially Russian history, always demonstrates the simple fact that death doesn’t really end anything.  The living have an urgent need to make contact with the dead, and the level of this urgency is related in some morbid way to the abruptness and unjustness of the death.  And perhaps the dead—like Hamlet’s father who famously said:  oh, horrible tale!--also have an urgent need to make contact with the living.

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