Sunday, June 14, 2015

Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968

Heda Margolius Kovaly's Under A Cruel Star is not a work of crime fiction, although it is full of terrible acts perpetrated by individuals against others.  Unfortunately, the Holocaust, and the repressive regimes supported by the Soviet Union in post-World War Two Eastern Europe are all too real, and they happened to millions and millions of innocent victims.  This is the true story of Heda Kovaly's Innocence.

The Holocaust only gets about a chapter here, and Kovaly's time in Auschwitz is completely left out.  She is sent to the ghetto at Lodz, Poland, in 1941, and from there to various concentration camps.  She manages to escape from a forced march at the end of the war, and returns to Prague while it is still occupied by the Germans.  She survives this hell - barely, the book is as much about the anguish of survival as it is about the hell of the camps - only to find herself and her young family immersed in the stranger-than-fiction world of Soviet-style communism.  Her husband, a true believer, became a government functionary.  Kovaly herself never bought into the ideology, although she wanted to believe in a better future for her beloved Czechoslovakia.
  "That I myself did not succumb to the lure of ideology was certainly not because I was smarter than Rudolf but because I was a woman, a being much closer to the reality and the basic things of life than he was.  I was more interested in what was happening around me in the present, among the people I loved, than in the foggy spheres of ideology.  Rudolf could decide on the basis of statistics - mostly falsified of course - that under communism people lived a better and happier life.  I saw from close-up and with my own eyes that this was not true."  (65)
For his belief in science, and search for a better way, Rudolf is caught up in a web of denunciations related to someone else, imprisoned, tried, found guilty, and executed.  Barely a decade later, he and others who were killed as part of this show trial were exonerated, reluctantly, by the government.  This is the story of his wife's survival.  It is truly a memoir, much in her head, an outpouring of memories that need to be on paper to be preserved.  It is harrowing, depressing, unbelievable, and all too real.

When you read this account, you will realize how much of Innocence is drawn from Kovaly's life, and how the isolation of the survivor and the pariah are so similar.  Shortly after her initial return to Prague, Kovaly wanders the city, desperately searching for a place to stay that will not betray a friend to the occupying authorities.  Near the end of her rope she goes to the last person she can think of.
  "I walked up and down in front of the house for a while.  I had decided that I would not try to see anyone else.  Ruda would not be home anyway.  He might not eve live here anymore. Some Germans might have requisitioned his apartment.  It was dangerous and hopeless.  Still, I wanted to do something:  to walk, to think, to see, to postpone death for just a little bit longer.  To have someone talk to me.  To feel for one more moment that I still belonged to humanity."  (36)

Kovaly's survival instinct is her need for connection with other humans, but not just face time, she needs actual engagement, grounded in honesty and respect.  Is that so much to ask?, is really the theme here.  She does find it, and goes on to lead a long life in the US, even living here in Our Fair City for a time.  But her Soviet Prague, even if less violent, is darker and more frightening than William Ryan's Soviet Union - because of course it is real.  Under A Cruel Star is not crime fiction, but true crime.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Darkening Field

Oops I did it again.  It turns out that William Ryan's The Darkening Field (Minotaur Books, 2011, The Bloody Meadow in the UK) is the second, not the third, in his engaging series set in Stalinist Russia.  (Those are two words you don't expect to find in the same sentence - Stalinist and engaging - but it's true, this is the kind of book I really look forward to reading at the end of the day.)  Regular readers will recall that I liked The Holy Field enough to read The Twelfth Department pretty quickly afterwards, and while I had some quibbles with the latter, I couldn't and still can't argue with Ryan's vivid depiction of the era or his likable hero, Capt. Alexey Dimitrieyvich Korolev.

But reading out of order?  The wheels are coming off!

But I digress.  In The Darkening Field, Our Hero is assigned to investigate the suicide of a young woman on a film set near Odessa.  Why is this Moscow detective assigned to a case so very far away?  Because the victim had a cozy relationship with a very highly placed individual in the feared State security apparatus NKVD, and Korolev, having proved himself trustworthy in that case about the icons, is the only man capable of ferreting out the truth and handling it discreetly.*  Of course, Korolev also knows that if he gets it wrong, he is likely to end up in a cell at the Lubyanka or worse. Trust, in 1930s USSR, is a close-run thing.  

Setting and historical detail are Ryan's strong suit, and you can learn a little bit about why he chose the Soviet film industry as the backdrop for this tale from his Author's Note and more on his website.  The film crew - Ukrainfilm, the whole thing modeled loosely on Eisenstadt and his crowd - is working in a small village near Odessa, and is housed at a local agricultural college.  But this is no University of Wisconsin-Stout, rather this college has taken over a former great estate that used to belong to an elite family, vanished, of course, in the Revolution.  The fading pre-Revolutionary glamour of the grounds adds enormously to the atmosphere, but it also makes you feel a little guilty like when you read about the antebellum South, and think, that sounds like a lovely house, but right, slavery.  So go the elite everywhere, although the Russian aristocracy arguably had it a lot worse than Southern slaveholders.  In any case, no one is too concerned about their loss.

Ryan chooses instead to concentrate on the ugly side of collectivization in the Ukraine - the famine and destruction and death in the name of wiping out the bourgeoisie, then the peasants' retaliation against the State forces, and their subsequent crackdown and reprisal.  It was a terrible cycle that relatively few locals survived, and that left parts of the region scorched and empty and nursing their grievances until an opportunity for revenge presented itself.

"Korolev had heard rumors of what had happened in the Urkraine in 'thirty-two and 'thirty-three - dangerous words heard late at night from sodleirs who'd had too much to drink in the Arbat Cellar.  How the Red Army and the NKVD hard forced the peasant to give up ever scrap of food and ho, faced with starvation, they had resisted, futilely, and the shoulders of the Chekists had shot them down.  The car passed more than one smoke-blackened church, their domes charred black skeletons, and each village was dotted with roofless ruined buildings.  Korolev couldn't help but notice that the few hunched peasant he saw seemed older than their probable years, with barely the energy to lift their feet from the ground." (41)

Now we are all too familiar with the brutal excesses of the Stalinist era, but in 1937 you only knew about it if you'd lived it, and that is the key to this story.  And if you know your European history, you also know that there are some folks in Germany around then who were happy to exploit any fissures in the Communist monolith, to serve their own ends.  Odessa being a port town, there are plenty of opportunities for illegitimate transfer of information and material (read:  espionage and sabotage), so that factors in here as well.  It would give away the story to say more, but I'll just note that allegiances - of all kinds - are not always what they appear.

But here is the thing about Revolutionary excess.  As we've seen in so many of these detectives-in-repressive-regime stories, such behavior allows Our Hero to maintain his Revolutionary ideals while decrying the horrific acts perpetrated in its name.  Communism is awesome except when Stalin does it, and then you'd better be careful that you aren't distantly related to a counterrevolutionary or you may find yourself in Siberia at best, or with a bullet in your back.  Ryan adds a twist to the trope, by including a recurring role in his books for the Thieves, the famed precursor to the current Russian Mafia.  Their colorful leader, Count Kolya, also trusts Korolev, and lends a hand in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of way.  Of course, the Thieves hate any government, so this isn't so much anti-totalitarianism as it is self-preservation on their part.  Korolev gets a sidekick here, too, a plucky Odessa cop named Slivka who just happens to be related to the Thieves.  She's tough, wears a leather jacket, and looks the other way when he inadvertently references the Holy Mother.  Ryan deploys an array of characters who have private reservations about the regime, but do what they need to do to survive.  It makes it easy to like a story, but you might wonder how long this theme can be sustained?  When will Korolev's private humanity be denounced?  Or will it just wear away, unable to withstand the constant tension of living in a world where simply "asking the question seemed to risk turning the suspicion into fact," and the fact could get you killed.  (244)  Today's New York Times has a review of Rosemary Sullivan's Stalin's Daughter.  Having lived in the belly of one of the most repressive regimes in modern history, it is no wonder that Svetlana Alliluyeva has some issues. Granted, her relationship with Stalin was rather different from Korolev's but it makes you wonder about the emotional toll from walking that tightrope.

*Because as everyone knows, a suicide of a character connected to another prominent character in any story is never a suicide!  But as