Makine (Music of a Life, 2002, etc.) offers a ploddingly conventional yet captivating tale of glory eroding into depravity in the USSR between WWII and perestroika.
When a young field nurse named Tatyana finds him among others on a WWII battlefield, Ivan Demidov appears dead—but Tatyana, holding a bit of mirror to his mouth, proves otherwise. For his valor in the earlier battle for St. Petersburg, Ivan has already been declared a Hero of the Soviet Union, impressive indeed to Tatyana. After his recuperation, and war’s end, the two marry—although by then Tatyana has also been wounded: shrapnel lodged near her heart could kill her at any moment, making childbirth, for example, a great risk. Still—after they lose one child to starvation and themselves barely survive the 1946 drought—the young couple move to a town near Moscow, where Ivan drives a truck (and once a year, on May 9, is celebrated as a state hero, invited to address local schoolchildren) and the two raise a daughter named Olya, intelligent, beautiful, and promising as a student. By the time her mother dies, Olya has already studied languages in Moscow and has had the luck to land a job with—well, the KGB, as a “translator” who accompanies and “cares” for foreign “businessmen” when they visit Moscow. Her life as a glorified prostitute brings her a sufficiency of means but little contentedness of heart—and even less when her father learns, from another old war veteran, the truth of what she does. The squalor, meanness, and depravity of daily life in the USSR are made wholly vivid by Makine, as also are the pathos of Ivan’s gradual disillusionment, bitterness, and descent into alcoholism. When the one-time hero dies, Olya alone—in her own poor way—is left to mourn him.
Undistinguished in method, yet a telling chronicle of hypocrisy, cynicism, exploitation, and decline in a once-great power.