Grand (Always Beside, 2015) compiles his Russian grandfather’s World War II journal.
Vladimir Mikhailovich Sychev was born in Melenki, Russia, in 1923 and raised by his father and stepmother. His diary, written mostly in the present tense, opens in June 1941 with his secondary school leaving party. The teenager’s sense of foreboding (“I feel a strange uneasiness, as if something were coming”) was apt; the very next morning, he reported to the army’s recruiting office. The following day, the bombing of Kiev provoked Josef Stalin’s declaration of war. Sychev became a platoon commander and then a second lieutenant in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. His journal entries range between a paragraph and several pages; most are dated, so it’s easy for readers to track the passage of time until the 22-two-year-old Sychev finally returned home four-and-a-half years later, having survived a hand injury and time as a prisoner of war in Lithuania and Germany. At the German mining camp, he and his comrades escaped through a lavatory, but were caught the next day. At the last minute, they were spared death by firing squad, and this sequence provides the book’s dramatic highlight. The translation uses slang phrases (“Attaboy!”; “he will face the music!”) to good effect, and preserves the loveliness of Sychev’s spare observations, such as “a wonderful pine forest. Strawberries,” and “Snow, cold, endless digging of trenches, sleeping on the move, sleeping in the snow, burnt quilted jackets, charred boots.” On the way home after the war’s end in 1945, Sychev passed a concentration camp in Berlin’s suburbs—a harrowing experience that prompted one of two poems here. Three black-and-white photographs, plus two contemporary color photos of concentration camp crematoria, help to root the book in history. Unfortunately, there are numerous places where typos produce awkward or nonsensical lines, such as “Death mows people!” and “They organized us high diet.” The occasional choice of obscure vocabulary (“spaddle”; “hebetate”) likewise draws unwanted attention.
An uncommon first-person account of wartime Russia that deserves a clearer translation.