SEPTEMBER 9, 2021
IT WAS STRANGE having to read Sasha Filipenko’s Red Crosses, translated by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner, in the middle of a London summer. Newspapers were lazily reporting about shadowy Russian oligarchs suing journalists in London courts, and on the bus back from the school run I was listening to John le Carré. I love le Carré: The Russia House (1989). A Russian idealist drinks lots of vodka, and along with another Russian idealist, a sensuous female one, plots to save the world, while decadent MI6 agents observe, awestruck, the manifestations of the purity of the Soviet soul. Which is when Filipenko, a Belarusian born in 1984 and living in St. Petersburg, suddenly reminds me of the mundane evil of Soviet Russia.
It is 2001, and we are in Minsk, Belarus. Tatyana Alexeyevna is 90, has Alzheimer’s disease, and is losing her short-term memory. That’s why she marks doors with red crosses — as in the title — so she can remember her way back home. Among them is the door of her young new neighbor Sasha. Tatyana still has all her long-term memory untouched, and wants to make use of it before it’s too late. Her neighbor is just the candidate she wants.
Sasha has just moved to Minsk from Russia with his three-month-old daughter and bought the flat underneath Tatyana’s. He has no desire to talk to his old neighbor. His own life has enough trauma to keep his heart broken. But she won’t give up easily, and after a few attempts to steal away, Sasha finds himself hooked. And so do we.
Tatyana’s life has spanned almost all of the Russian 20th century. It wasn’t, perhaps, the most typical of Russian lives. To start with, she was born in London, to a Russian family, and her father didn’t bring her to Moscow, “the epicenter of history,” until 1919, when she was eight or so. We look on, aghast, at this colossal misjudgment, one he never lives long enough to appreciate. Until the end of his life, he will be a prominent figure traveling Europe on mysterious errands for the Soviet government. Meanwhile, his daughter will lead an international life, fall in love in Italy, and have other adventures, only to commit the same error of judgment as her father: instead of never setting foot in Moscow again, she will return just as the sky is darkening with Joseph Stalin’s relentless Great Terror. This is where history will finally seize hold of her and never let go.
Because of her many foreign languages, Tatyana gets a job in the NKID, the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, where she translates official letters. I suppose here lies the reason why Filipenko gave Tatyana such a singular international past. He wanted her to become not only a victim, but an informed witness of Soviet atrocities, with some very precise inside knowledge. “When you chop wood, chips fly,” says Tatyana. And indeed, a lot of chips fly, in the form of people executed or sent to the Gulag, all blandly tapped into the carbon impress of her typewriter.
Tatyana’s story sometimes sounds like a lecture on the history of the Soviet Union, and it has crossed my mind that education might be the main goal: conveying truths which are conveniently muffled by contemporary propaganda, be it in Russia or in Belarus.
Here Tatyana responds to Sasha’s questions:
“You knew there’d be a war, didn’t you?”
“Before September of 1939, there was a possibility, but after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, we became almost friends. When Hitler wished Stalin a happy birthday, Stalin referred to their ‘friendship cemented in blood.’ I was positive there’d be no war.”
Another benefit of Tatyana’s job is to allow Filipenko to quote lots of official letters. When Germany attacks the Soviet Union in 1941, we see her handle increasingly desperate letters from the Red Cross — presumably another source of the novel’s title. Here is one of them:
To Prince Karl informing him of the agreement with the USSR to exchange POWs and of the fact that Russia did not send us any lists and did not respond to our offer of sending our representative. Asks Prince Karl for his suggestions and recommendations. (Not answered).
Indeed, none of the letters from the Red Cross were answered, and through Tatyana’s, we feel Filipenko’s rage. Russia couldn’t care less for its POWs. Or rather, it cares about them, but only to persecute their families, regarding them as traitors. A true Russian patriot would kill himself rather than surrender to the enemy, and, in line with Soviet policy of group responsibility, a wife and children of a traitor are traitors too.
And one day, in a tragic twist, Tatyana finds her husband’s name on a Romanian list of prisoners of war, and sees her life become subject to the political decisions she herself had abetted as translator and typist.
Tatyana’s historically charged story is juxtaposed with Sasha’s, a construction which made me think of Sofi Oksanen’s acclaimed 2008 novel, Purge. Like in the Finnish novel, a young inhabitant of the post-Soviet world comes across an old woman who has lived through most of it, and as the plot evolves, we uncover both their wildly interesting stories. Like in Purge, we are reminded that Soviet Russia didn’t only scar the territory of what is now the Russian Federation, but the wounds go well beyond, across all the republics that broke away as the Soviet Union fell apart in 1988–’91. Filipenko also has something to say to those in the West who even now like to think that communism was a pushback against Nazism and its racist laws. “Foreigners — Poles, Germans, and Jews — were being arrested,” writes Filipenko. Belarusians were shot just because they were Belarusians. Of course, among those shot and arrested were Russians, if only for different reasons.
Unlike in Purge, however, we are at a loss as to what the role of the young character’s life story exactly is. Sasha has moved to Minsk to escape the place which knew the peculiar secret that surrounded the birth of his daughter and his wife’s death. This particular story, however, is so odd and seemingly unrelated to the larger story — that of Tatyana — that it isn’t entirely clear what purpose it serves. Without spoiling it for the reader, I will only say that both stories show people who are capable of great love, and both are centered around a little girl — a daughter. But this is where parallels stop, unless there is a symbolic meaning which eludes me.
There are other oddities in the book, such as Sasha’s job. He’s a football referee, and we receive a brief description of his work. But why a referee? It’s a job so rare and strange (how many novels whose main characters are [football] referees have you read?), that one would think, if it’s there, it ought to have some meaning. A quick Google search tells me that the author is a great football fan, so of course I see the reason football made its way into his novel. But what is the goal?
One can treat these peculiarities as one wants. For me, personally, they are shortcomings. Some could perhaps be better accounted for in different kinds of prose, say in an explicitly surrealistic one, or even the reverse, as in rigidly naturalistic writing. In Red Crosses however, a novel with an extremely strong historical interest, they seem a little bit misplaced.
Sasha’s initial annoyance with his neighbor, which is to the point of impoliteness, also strikes me as a little suspect. Their conversations are sometimes clumsy, as the one quoted above should show. Although I do appreciate the ironic twist at the end, it is obtained in an awkward way. Tatyana had lived with a feeling of guilt for having potentially condemned a soldier’s family to persecution, but the reason for her fear is so unconvincing, you would imagine the author just couldn’t bear the idea of making her really guilty.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, I enjoyed the book. I suppose the most interesting thing about it, for me, was to hear the voice of a young writer, from a generation who barely knew the Soviet times, and to see how he grapples with the subject. There’s a feeling that the author has discovered something about Soviet history, something perhaps not readily brought up today, in the Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko era, and wants to share it. As a Pole, whose family history is full of similar stories as the ones told by Filipenko, including NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) prisons, packing in the middle of the night for a state-sponsored month-long train ride to Siberia, and years of forced labor without much food but lots of snow and ice, it sounded familiar. More than that, it was heartening to hear where Filipenko stands in all this.
Filipenko hasn’t suffered from amnesia, nor has he allowed himself to be brainwashed. He is, however, aware that others around him have. He puts the following views into the mouth of Sasha’s stepfather, as he comments on Tatyana’s heartbreaking story:
She’s lying about everything. Most likely no one harmed her daughter. She should thank the state for taking care of her daughter while she was in prison. They could’ve left the girl on the street. The old lady has probably gone mad. There weren’t any purges — it’s all baloney. I saw a documentary. Stalin tried to save the country, and now these rotten democracy-lovers intentionally falsify documents and put them into the archives in order to smear the party. But it won’t work here, not in our Belorussia. Our leader won’t allow it!
There’s a curious alliance between the generation of grandmothers and their grandchildren, united against the generation of parents in between. Like in Oksanen’s Purge, the young learn the truth from the very old. There is, just perhaps, some hope in that. Red Crosses, published in Russian in 2017, is Sasha Filipenko’s first book to come out in English. His 2014 novel Ex-son, about a young man waking up in Minsk from a 10-year-long coma, has just come out in Germany. I wonder if renewed interest in Belarus, brought about by its recent human rights tragedy, will bring us the English translation of this novel too. As somebody who combines journalism with literature, I find this time and again. Journalism can give you plenty of insight into a problem, paint the social background, give numbers, and voice opinions, but nothing unlocks the human soul as profoundly as a novel can.