Éditions des Syrtes, Switzerland
Rights acquired by
Edicije Bozicevic, Croatia
Európa Könyvkiadó, Hungary
Edizioni e/o, Italy
Pistorius & Olsanska, Czech Republic
Europa Editions, U.S.A.
“A novel about one life in which the fates of millions converge” (Boris Minaev, writer).
“‘Red Crosses’ is a dazzling novel that goes deeply into the human soul, as only the great Russian authors can do. One thinks a little bit of Dostoyevsky (guilt, search for god and/or redemption) and a lot of Axionov and Alexievich in the way of describing the terror in the everyday life of the USSR” (Figaro magazine).
Tatyana Alekseevna, the novel’s main character, was born in London. In 1920, her father decided to return to Russia where the New Man is being born. With an unidentified status, Tatyana’s father traverses Europe while she attends a Soviet school along with the heirs of the party elite. After her father’s death, Tatyana, thanks to her good command of foreign languages, lands a job as a typist at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Mass arrests are already in full swing. Her friend is arrested, and her husband, an architect, miraculously dodges imprisonment in a camp. The apartments in her residential building are vacated one by one. With places of arrest on it, Moscow’s map would look like a sieve. Tatyana returns to the commissariat from maternity leave only to find nearly all old employees gone, chaos raging all over the place, and the new staff completely ignorant of diplomatic service. Nobody believes intelligence reports about a possible invasion by Germany. German Communists are deported to Germany for slaughter, and books critical of Hitler are extracted from bookstores. Hitler’s army enters Paris, and Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Ivanov, who is known for his criticism of Hitler and Fascism, is recalled in September 1941—with a war against Hitler’s Germany already underway—and sentenced to five years in a prison camp.
A sea of documents passes over Tatyana’s desk on a daily basis, and one such document is a letter from the Red Cross. And suddenly, she comes across a Romanian list of Soviet prisoners of war containing her husband’s name. Tatyana realizes that if she does not doctor his name, he will be doomed—as every soldier who has been taken captive—to be executed as a traitor. If she does save him this way, and the truth is revealed, then she and her little daughter will be punished severely as the family of a traitor. So she does something she will regret for the rest of her life—she erases her husband’s name and repeats the name of another man from the list.
As an old woman Tatyana relates the story of her life to her new neighbor, Sasha. Even though Alzheimer’s disease is killing Tatyana’s short-term memories, she remembers in detail the interrogations and the camp, her search for her daughter, husband, and the man whom she has subjected to harsh retribution by repeating his name on the list.
“The novel contains the shocking but nearly unbelievable story of a young hero, a tense plot compressed like a coil spring, cinematography-like flashbacks, and a paradoxical plot resolution” (Vremya publishing house). What make the novel truly shocking, however, are the unique documents found in it. For example, guidelines for dismantling barracks in a German concentration camp to be transported and reassembled like IKEA furniture in GULag, or a document defining procedures for removing gold dental crowns from dead bodies. But most intriguingly, it is the 1941-1942 correspondence—or rather something resembling unilateral appeals—in which the International Committee of the Red Cross pleads with the Soviet Government, mainly USSR People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov, for the Soviet prisoners of war in the camps of Germany, Romania, and Finland. To be more precise, the Red Cross tried to mediate in a prisoner swap.
As early as the day following the invasion of the USSR by Hitler’s army, Geneva offers cooperation and attempts to delegate two representatives to Moscow, but they are denied visas. In the first six months into the war, about four million Soviet soldiers and officers are taken captive, of which 57 percent die of starvation or disease. All of the Red Cross’ attempts to alleviate their suffering and reach an agreement on a prisoner exchange are ignored. The Kremlin’s order was clear: Do not reply!
The author, working at the Red Cross’ archive in Geneva and trying to learn more about the fate of each prisoner of war, was stunned by the fact that said “correspondence” with the USSR is limited to three boxes, while the communication with Germany occupies three rooms. The absurdity of it all was so off the charts—and it is also documented in the novel—that the Romanian authorities were willing to exchange Soviet prisoners of war for just information about their own prisoners. Do not reply! Finland’s leader, General Carl Mannerheim, in his letter to the Red Cross, requested humanitarian aid for Soviet prisoners of war because he was out of provisions to feed his own Finnish people in the first place. So, in 1942, food supplies are transported from Switzerland to Finland. Even the Vatican, unable to stand aside, tried to facilitate information exchange about Soviet, German, Italian prisoners of war through the Swedish government at first and then through the American and Bulgarian authorities. Do not reply! But even those Soviet prisoners of war who had survived in captivity and returned home were declared traitors and executed by a firing squad, and one such soldier was the husband of the heroine in The Red Cross novel.
Tatyana was released as late as 1955. She was prohibited from residing in Moscow. With no place to go, she returned to the prison camp. It took her two years to be rehabilitated, after which she started working for the post office to find mothers like herself and write a history of the formerly imprisoned part of the country’s population. Many, believing it to be a test of loyalty to the party’s ideals, keep silent. “The horror of silence, the memorial society of silence.”
One finds many crosses throughout the novel. A cross made of two metal pipes which she, in defiance of the prohibition from the orphanage’s matron, places over the place of her daughter’s burial, a mass grave with no signage. Numerous red crosses drawn with chalk on the walls of the entrance hall, elevator, and her apartment door—how else would she find a way home? By accident, Sasha turns on the Pastor’s Word TV show to learn that the cross, in its evangelical meaning, stands for the suffering and pain brought about by circumstances which a human being cannot bear, and the ability to bear one’s is a demonstration of inner strength. The Lord’s Cross cannot be unbearable. This proved to be the answer to her question: How could she live on after learning that her infant daughter had died of starvation in an orphanage, and her husband had been executed.
Today monuments are erected to celebrate Stalin, history textbooks are rewritten, and Victory Day, the country’s main holiday, is celebrated with pompous military parades. One of the novel’s heroes, Tatyana’s friend, says, “We have lost again. Now they will forever hide behind these parades to say that it all was not in vain… the execution of the Royal Family, White Army officers herded onto barges and then drowned, villages burned to the ground, poets wiped out, the Holodomor, camps…” No wonder, then, that Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko is a novel about “how the Soviet authorities would expunge and remove hundreds of thousands of lives with a mammoth rubber eraser”, and this is why it has invoked the wrath of Russian “patriots,” those whose bumper stickers read, “1941-1945: We Can Do It Again.” Thanks to this novel, despite everything, “the truth has been handed down to us, the posterity, and now we have a choice between knowing and not knowing it” (B. Minaev).