The adventures of Boris and Natasha. No, not that Boris and Natasha, but a pair equally in thrall to a shadowy leader, and without the laughter.
In this epic tale, sprawling in scope and ambition but with a smallish dramatis personae—a cleaning lady, a few Party functionaries and bureaucrats, an American fellow traveler, a young woman who resembles Pasternak’s sad Lara—Slovo (Red Dust, 2001, etc.) imagines life at the height of Stalin’s terror. Boris Ivanov lives in a time of signs and rumors, and he watches carefully as the promise of the Revolution is betrayed. Other figures here are less inclined to silence—one remarks to Boris, “Remember how we used to boast that ours would be the generation to change history? I always assumed we were talking about the historical future”—and less loyal to the boss, at least outwardly, but Boris falls under suspicion all the same, as everyone in Leningrad eventually does. Irina Davydovna has been out in the cold, a hand on an Arctic vessel that was useless for cutting through ice; just so, her protector, high-ranking official Sergei Kirov, is powerless to stop the death machine. He knows that his own time is coming: “Glorious Stalin,” he tells Irina, “magnanimous Stalin, is going to fit me with a new suit.” The years wheel by, and Boris’s daughter Natasha is caught in the crossfire of betrayal, denunciation and suspicion; by 1938, she is a ghost in the political machine, “not dead exactly—more like indifferent.” Matters should not improve for anyone when the Nazis attack Leningrad, laying the city to terrible siege, but Natasha, having endured so much, finds herself invested with a new will to live, with “such an alien feeling that she has to grope to find the word to describe it . . . Happy.”
Slovo risks melodrama, but on the whole her tale is smart and poignant, exploring some of the same moral territory as Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Burnt by the Sun. A big idea well handled.