This Cold War–era debut novel follows the life of an amnesiac who gets caught up in the Soviet Union’s brutal gulag system.
In January 1951, after waking up from a coma caused by a blow to the head, Stanislaus Sedecki can only remember the languages he speaks (Polish, English, German) but almost nothing else of his previous life, not even his name and nationality. A prologue suggests he was an American who was shot down while flying a reconnaissance aircraft, but now all Sedecki knows is that he’s a prisoner in the Russian gulag system, sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia. At times, as when a guard tries to rape him, Sedecki displays well-trained fighting reflexes that surprise him and help him survive. He learns Russian and makes friends among the other political prisoners, particularly Aleksandr Mikhailovich Leskov, who is like a brother in temperament and appearance. For protection, the dying Aleks arranges to switch identities with Sedecki. After 14 years of imprisonment, Aleks learns he’ll leave the mines to teach English and German. He’s still watched by the KGB, but he takes up a normal life in a small town: teaching school, marrying Lidiya, having a daughter, and then a grandson. In 1993, Aleks’ life changes drastically again when he recovers his memories and finds a way home—but will his government acknowledge him? Yagel, who retired from the Air Force with 25 years of service through three wars and the Cold War, explains the gulag system with clarity and energy. He also deftly shows how people manage to make decent lives even in horrible conditions. With more tender emotions, though, the book is less powerful. For example, Aleks falls in love with Lidiya seemingly only because she’s attractive, outgoing, and pleasant, which doesn’t go very deep. Furthermore, the ending feels rushed, so much so that Aleks’ lost past seems barely important. The book becomes less interested in its characters than in making a tendentious point about the U.S. government colluding with Russia to cover up Americans in gulags.
An uneven Russian tale that vividly describes horrors, privations, and loneliness.