Book review: Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

This terrific, gripping book is, first, the story of sons haunted by their fathers and the terrible times they all lived through


Young Heroes of the Soviet Union by Alex Halberstadt (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

This terrific, gripping book, part family memoir, part history, ranging from Stalin’s Kremlin to the Holocaust is, first, the story of sons haunted by their fathers and the terrible times they all lived through.

Second, it is a story of Halberstadt’s grandfather, Vassily, who was once one of Stalin’s bodyguards.

Third, it is the story of his mother’s family: Lithuanian Jews who experienced the Holocaust.

Halberstadt was born in the Soviet Union in 1970 and went to New York with his mother and her parents at the end of the 1970s. His parents were divorced; his father stayed behind and became a figure of mystery for the young Alex. Even more mysterious, was his father’s father, Vassily.

In his forties, Halberstadt went back to Putin’s Russia to find out why his father had stayed in the Soviet Union and why he hated his own father — Halberstadt’s grandfather, Vassily Chernopisky. “The first time I saw Stalin,” he recalled to Alex, “was on November 8, 1932… I had just turned 21.”

And he had just been appointed one of Stalin’s bodyguards. At this point, the book suddenly changes gear. Vassily has a front-row seat at the beginning of the Great Terror. After Stalin proposes a toast to “the destruction of the enemies of the state,” his wife defiantly does not raise her glass. A few days later, she is found lying on the floor in her bedroom, in a pool of blood.

It soon becomes clear that Vassily was not just an eyewitness. And he didn’t just work for Stalin. He also worked for Beria, commissar-general of state security, after Stalin the most feared man in the Soviet Union. As Halberstadt probes, the picture darkens. “In 1944,” he writes, “on Beria’s orders, Vassily was sent to Crimea to take part in the deportation of the Tartars.” Tens of thousands died during these actions.

Alex discovered that his grandfather was involved in the brutal murder of countless people, in the Crimea, and in the torture-dungeons of the Lubyanka, the notorious political prison in Moscow.

After Stalin’s death, Beria began to eliminate everyone who’d been close to Stalin, his bodyguards included. Vassily was to be deported to Siberia but, after pleading, he was sent to Vinnitsa, in the middle of nowhere, to look after his ageing parents. He took his wife and children with him. This explains why Alex’s father was brought up in the sticks, living with Vassily who, for years, sat in silence, reflecting on his terrible past.

The section on Halberstadt’s mother’s family is full of terrible acts perpetrated by the Nazis but also by Lithuanian paramilitaries. “The intruders,” Halberstadt writes, “dismembered bodies, nailed hands to walls, pushed needles into eyes… They set fire to hand-inscribed Torah scrolls and holy arks. They cut off beards with broken glass…” A few members of Alex’s mother’s family miraculously survived the massacres.

Halberstadt tells the story of one grandfather during the Stalinist Terror, and that of his maternal grandparents’ parents, before relating how his own parents met in in 1969, in Moscow, where he was born the next year, and how he and his mother and her parents went to America in the late 1970s.

It is less dramatic than the earlier chapters, but is nevertheless a superb evocation of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ’70s, a world of drab poverty and oppression, but also young rebels listening to pop music, wearing western fashions and reading dissident poetry.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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