Inside the head of modern, young Russia
Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko
I was browsing for books about modern Russia while listening to an interview with Margaret Atwood and picked up The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Margaret Atwood is quoted saying it’s a must read on the cover. Since Atwood was also chatting away in my podcast, the book went straight in my purchase pile.
I then picked up Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko. By the time I was on the third page — when the young man comes home to his new apartment and sees a red cross painted on the door and is accosted by an old woman when he tries to clear it off — I knew I was taking that one home too. It was all too perfect when I turned it over to see that Svetlana Alexievich said, “If you want to get inside the head of modern, young Russia, read Filipenko.”
Red Crosses had such a big impact on me that I pushed everything else back on my schedule to read it immediately. As soon as I finished, I scheduled my next discussion salon about it. I hope you will read this book and consider joining me for the discussion on April 5th. It’s a remarkable novel that explores the bridge between the past and the present and the way history is lived out through individual lives. Usually it would be a few weeks before it appeared on the blog: but I think now is the time to read this novel.
It’s not just ‘relevant’ though. It’s also gripping. What would you do, faced with an impossible moral dilemma in the middle of a war, stuck inside an oppressive regime? In extreme circumstances, people have to make life-changing decisions. That’s what makes this novel such a page-turner.
Red Crosses is a short, heartbreaking story about a young man whose personal life has been torn apart and an old woman who is suffering from Alzheimers. They are neighbours. He wants to hide. She wants to tell someone her long term memories before they disappear. Gradually the sorrowful old lady encourages the sullen young man to listen to her story. Her life, too, was torn apart, during the second world war and the Soviet aftermath. And the consequences of that history of oppression are all too obvious in modern society. But unless she can pass on her memories to someone who will take her seriously, her story will be lost.
It is possible for the vast, impersonal forces of history to make the brutal truth about Soviet cruelty vivid and real, like in Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin, a book I struggled to finish it was so horrible. But nothing can make the reality of ordinary life under oppression, the tragedy of citizenship under tyranny, as real as an individual tragedy. The old woman, Tatyana Alexeyevna, is the heart of the book, and her life is a symbol for the ways in which modern Russian politics is a product of the Soviet era.
As Alexievich told Der Spiegel a few weeks ago: “Not everything can be explained with Putin. It’s also the people. If you’ve been locked in for as long as we Eastern Europeans were, you no longer know what it means to be free. What remains after a dictatorship? Not just a broken economy, but also the duped populace.” This is exactly the theme of Red Crosses: the legacy of Soviet lies on modern politics and the tragic irony of individual lives under that system. (The whole Spiegel interview is worth reading.)
This is not just a history lesson, although there are archival documents in the novel. Like Chekhov, Filipenko structures his plot tightly, using messengers, reversals, arrivals and departures, to create a tragic dramatic arc. Hardly a word is wasted. Everything has symbolic value, even the young man’s job as a soccer referee (although the LA Review disagrees with that.) The ending is a shock.
I really cannot recommend this enough as a book to read now. The evening I finished it, there was very little else I could do with myself. I hope more of Filipenko’s work will be translated into English. In the meantime, I do hope you’ll join us at the discussion group on April 5th. It promises to be a fascinating conversation.