In Russian, the word shlyopnut means “to slap.” Yet as Paul Goldberg notes in his new novel, “The Yid,” it was also an affectionate term for an “impromptu execution.” This murderous linguistic oddity perfectly captures Stalinist Russia: Where else, when else, were arbitrary death sentences tied to affection?
Life under Joseph Stalin was often brutal, dramatic, and short, so it’s curious that the period is still given such short shrift by fiction writers. Hitler’s Germany, by contrast, is very well-trod ground, and even the post-Stalinist era is a more regular fictional backdrop. Yet neither of these periods can match the mixture of paranoia, longevity, and callousness that marked the dictator’s three decades in power.
English-language books set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, or books translated into English, are few and far between. Adventurous readers may have stumbled on fictional classics by Soviet authors on Stalinism’s crimes, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle” or Varlam Shalamov’s heartbreaking “Kolyma Tales.” But not many English-speaking writers have chosen to write about Stalin’s years in power the way they have pored over Adolf Hitler’s 12 years as Germany’s chancellor.
“It’s easier sometimes for people to get upset about bad things that happened over a short period of time rather than a long period of time,” said Margaret Ziolkowski, a scholar of Russian culture at Miami University in Ohio. “[With] Stalinism, you’re talking about a period of almost 30 years, whereas Nazism is a much, much shorter period. The terrible things that happened, like the Holocaust, are much more dramatic and much more chronologically contained.”
“The Yid” takes place during the despot’s final days in March 1953, when his paranoia was near its apex. Stalin, an unrivaled architect of purges, was orchestrating another. The so-called Doctors’ Plot targeted Jewish physicians who were said to have singled out Russian patients for deliberately shoddy treatment. Propaganda about the failings of “cosmopolites” — “a way of saying the exact same thing without saying Yid,” observes one of Goldberg’s characters — was rampant, and rumors were spreading of a proposed action against Soviet Jews, including pogroms, roundups, and deportation to the nightmarish Kolyma labor camp, part of the Soviet gulag system.
In the West, the Soviet purges of the late 1930s or the gulag aren’t discussed with the same authority or regularity as Kristallnacht or the concentration camps. The fundamental illogic of the USSR, hellbent on consuming its own, is as hard for outsiders to explain as it is to understand. And the complexity of Stalinism’s impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe remains underexplored, literarily speaking. Lithuanian-American historical novelist Ruta Sepetys, author of the World War II refugee novel “Salt to the Sea,” is hoping to expand the frame of stories told about forgotten places and forgotten times: “I’d love to see more fiction about countries like Hungary, Armenia, and Ukraine. Through characters and story, historical statistics become human.”
Americans might be less receptive because of our own mythology of the Second World War. Anything that detracts from that simplified portrait is often unwelcome. Tales of Nazi horrors inflate the American experience and place American efforts front and center. Discussion of the central role of the Soviet Union, and its 20 million dead, deflates American experience and pushes American efforts to the margins.
Another possible explanation is Stalin’s recent rehabilitation in modern Russia. Communist purges and gulags have faded into the shadows, replaced by a gentler portrait of Stalin as a nationalist hero and savior, ushering the country manfully through the crucible of World War II. Vladimir Putin has to some degree remade Stalin in his own image, treating him as a firm if occasionally misguided predecessor. Stalin regularly places prominently in polls of most admired Russian historical figures, making a truthful accounting of Stalinism by Russian writers a far trickier proposition.
Fiction, though, often responds to historiographical currents. Decades of scholarship into under-acknowledged corners of African-American history helped pave the way for the recent flowering of novels on African-American themes, like James Hannaham’s “Delicious Foods” and Mat Johnson’s “Loving Day.” The work of scholars like Gershom Gorenberg on the controversial Israeli settlement enterprise likely inspired novels like Assaf Gavron’s prize-winning “The Hilltop,” on the life of a fictional West Bank Jewish community.
Recent trends point to more books on the Stalinist period. The work of historians like Timothy Snyder and Richard Overy have placed Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes in context, emphasizing that neither figure could be understood without the other. Snyder’s “Bloodlands” was a radical revision of the Holocaust that argued for seeing the worst crimes of World War II as a tag-team German-Soviet project, taking place in the “bloodlands” of Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus. “I personally owe a huge debt of gratitude to historians and nonfiction writers such as [Orlando] Figes and Snyder. Historical fiction sits on the shoulders of nonfiction, memoir, and primary source material,” says Sepetys. “Once my novels are published, I refer readers and teachers back to the nonfiction and historical sources.”
Snyder’s new book, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” returns to the same killing grounds. He writes feelingly of the 21,892 Polish officers and citizens murdered by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) in the Kaytn forest in April 1940. The Soviets and the Germans were collaborators in decimating the Polish elite, but the Soviets, as Snyder notes, were the ones with far more experience in the work: “Vasily Blokhin, one of the executioners of the Polish officers, had killed thousands of Soviet citizens during the Great Terror. Wearing a leather cap, apron, and gloves to the elbows, Blokhin personally shot about two hundred and fifty men each night.” Perhaps one day there will be a novel about Blokhin — or about his victims. What is likely, though, is that that novel will have to possess a comic heart to wrestle with the horrific preposterousness of Stalinism. “Absurdity and history,” an African-American expat muses in “The Yid,” “aren’t they the same, in your country?”
Saul Austerlitz is a writer and critic.