Heavy Sands, by Anatoly Rybakov
The other Russia
Heavy Sands (Tiazhelyi Pesok).
by Anatoly Rybakov.
Oktyabr (Moscow), July, August, September 1978.
I first came across the name of Anatoly Rybakov in 1950 when I read his novel, The Drivers (Voditeli). This, a product of the late Stalinist era, was a boring description of the life and work of a group of truck drivers, a typical “production novel” dealing with the eternal triangle (girl loves boy loves tractor) of which at the time there were a great many. The author was awarded the Stalin prize for this novel, though in later years the critics had some harsh things to say about it. Rybakov subsequently published stories for children and some other books which I have not read; he does not figure prominently in the annals of Soviet literature of the last three decades. I do remember, however, one of his novels published some years ago in which he says, commenting about the Stalin era, that there are no evil times, only evil people.
Last year, without any forewarning, the literary magazine Oktyabr published Rybakov’s new novel, Heavy Sands, in three installments, and it almost immediately, and rightly, caused a sensation. A summary of the plot will help to show why.
The novel takes place in a little town north and east of Chernigov, where Byelorussia and the Ukraine meet. The story opens in 1909. Professor Ivanovski, one of Europe’s leading surgeons, who now makes his home in Switzerland, is returning on a sentimental journey to his hometown, together with his youngest son, Jacob. Soon Jacob meets and falls in love with a very pretty local Jewish girl named Rachel Rahlenko. Ivanovski, a Jew who has converted to Protestantism and is married to a non-Jewish woman of Swiss-Lutheran origin, is none too happy that his son wants to marry a poor small-town Jewish girl, and unhappier still that Jacob has decided to settle in darkest Russia, but at last he gives his consent. Though neither of the two young people happens to be a religious believer, Rachel has suggested to her fiancé that since she is Jewish and he at least a half-Jew, he might as well return to the religion of his ancestors.
So far the story is quite far-fetched—and not only because Jews are not usually called Ivanovski. Few, if any, once having left Czarist Russia, would have gone back on a sentimental journey, and no one in his right mind would have decided to settle there even had he received permission to do so. Still, the reader who makes an effort to overcome his initial doubts will be rewarded, for what follows is a fairly realistic and considerably detailed description of Jewish life in pre-revolutionary Russia. Such accounts have been nonexistent in Russian literature for many years.
The little town portrayed in Heavy Sands is quite unlike the shtetl of Sholem Aleichem. The Rahlenkos are not just a family but a clan, with countless brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, in-laws, nephews, and nieces. They are not Luftmenschen but artisans, self-sufficient, proud, neither rich nor impoverished. Avram, the head of the family, is of uncommon physical strength and a man of iron character. He is the gabbai of the local synagogue, although not an Orthodox Jew; “religion for him was the expression of his national existence.”
The local Jews live in peace with their Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian neighbors. Even when war breaks out, and in its wake revolution and civil war, there are no major upheavals. In fact, surprisingly little changes in the life of our heroes when the Bolsheviks come to power, except perhaps that the Rahlenkos, most of whom are cobblers, now go to work in the new local shoe factory. One uncle, Misha, becomes a hero in the civil war, but after a meteoric career he is demoted for having shown mercy to some local people who were to be executed for a minor transgression, and whose sentence is commuted following his intervention: “He was not clever but open-hearted, like the time in which he lived.” Most of the Rahlenkos are not involved in politics; they are just ordinary law-abiding Soviet citizens, deeply rooted in their native soil, and good patriots.
Living conditions in town gradually improve, the family continues to be the center of all the large and small sorrows and joys. In the early days of the great Stalinist purge of the 30′s, Jacob is arrested, but the family finds an excellent lawyer who, after some eighteen months, gets him out of prison. (In most such cases, in real life, the presence of a lawyer—if indeed allowed at all—would not have made the slightest difference.) Then war breaks out again, and Jacob and Rachel’s son Boris—who is the book’s narrator—joins the artillery; later he is transferred to a front-line intelligence unit.
As for the rest of the family, who stay behind, they along with the other 6,000 Jews in town are rounded up by the invading German forces and moved into the ghetto. Rachel’s brother Joseph, the black sheep of the family, is appointed head of the Judenrat and behaves very badly indeed. The Jews are made to work for the Germans under inhuman conditions; they are starved and humiliated, but at first there are only sporadic cases of willful murder and the news about mass extermination is not widely known. The few traitors in the ghetto are liquidated by the Rahlenkos and their friends who, realizing that it was a fatal mistake to have stayed behind, now engage in resistance, each in a different way. Jacob, for instance, helps to plan a major partisan raid which causes great damage. When the Germans threaten to execute 100 hostages in retaliation, he voluntarily surrenders to save the others; he dies under torture.
Eventually a general insurrection takes place in the ghetto; most perish in the uprising, but 400 escape, making their way to the forest and safety. Rachel stays with those gradually falling behind, encouraging them to make a last decisive effort. And then, having accomplished her last mission, she disappears, as it were into thin air. For long afterward local people will speak in awe of this miracle.
In the final scene of the book, which takes place many years later, Boris and a former partisan commander named Sidorov visit the neglected local graveyard. Over the mass grave they find a tablet which reads in Russian: “To the Eternal Memory of the Victims of the Fascist German Occupiers,” and in Hebrew: Venikoisi, domom lo nikoisi (“I will cleanse their blood that I have not yet cleansed.” This is from the morning prayer on the Sabbath preceding Pentecost and the Ninth of Av—there are no such memorial tablets in Hebrew letters in the Ukraine). Sidorov asks Boris whether the Russian text has been faithfully translated. Whatever Hebrew Boris knew in his childhood he has forgotten, but “out of unknown and eternal depths of memory” he remembers the letters and the words and replies, “Yes, everything has been quite correctly rendered.”
Rybakov’s novel is not impressive from a literary point of view. Characters are either heroes or villains, there are no shadings, everything is either black or white. Heavy Sands, however, will not be read for its literary accomplishments but rather for the detailed description it offers—the first published in the Soviet Union since 1948—of the last days of many Russian Jews.1 The topic has been taboo for many reasons. It was not to be mentioned that Jews were singled out for extermination by the Nazis, or that the Nazis had much local help in the process. On the other hand, word of mouth had it that the Jews were killed because they were too cowardly to offer resistance. Rybakov takes issue with those who believe this—“scoundrels or idiots or people who have never been in battle.” He points out that most of those in the ghettos were either elderly people or very young or ill, since all men of military age were serving in the army. And he also notes the fact that hundreds of thousands of young and strong Soviet prisoners of war were also killed in the camps and did not resist—for what could they have done? But this is only part of Rybakov’s answer, for more Jews could have been saved if there had been help from the local populace. Of the “good neighbors,” Rybakov says, not a few betrayed the Jews, either because they coveted their houses and property or because they were simply scoundrels. The local police were equal in sadism to the SS.
And what about the partisans? In the area north of Chernigov was one of the biggest partisan concentrations from early in the war. True, in 1942 the partisans were still on the run, and their main task was to attack the Germans, not to help the persecuted civilian population. But some Jews did make their way into the forest in order to join the partisans. The story of the welcome given them is not a pretty one. Some were accepted, but many were not, and a few were even killed. Rybakov has to be exceedingly careful in dealing with this painful topic. The partisan commander who makes an appearance in the novel, Sidorov, is sympathetic, and considers a scheme to help the Jews despite the difficulties involved, but he cannot devote many resources to their rescue and little comes of it. There were, indeed, some partisan units that extended help, but the issue is virtually never discussed in the enormous literature about the partisan movements published in the last thirty years—it is still considered too hot to handle.
After the war, Boris marries a non-Jew; their three sons, however, register as Jews. Why? “Because they honor me? No, I do not think so. . . . They honor their mother not less. But, you understand, the son of a Georgian and a Russian mother usually says he is a Georgian, the son of an Uzbek registers as an Uzbek. You know, the husband does not take the name of his wife, but the wife adopts the husband’s name, and also the children. I think my children acted correctly.” The logic of the argument is not quite convincing. Boris says on many occasions that Russia is the country he loves, he has no other, he knows no language other than Russian, all his roots are in the country. The same would be true, a fortiori, for the next generation. But 1978 is not 1928, and however ardently the Ivanovskis may love their native country and its leaders, this does not and will not make them Russians. This is another painful topic, on which Rybakov can comment only by implication.
Published in any other country, Heavy Sands would have hardly been noticed; in the Soviet Union it is a sensation, and also a riddle. In his earlier books Rybakov had nothing but praise for the wonderful generation of the revolution which grew up under Stalin in the period of the first Five-Year Plans and which reached maturity in World War II. What made him, toward the end of his literary career, write a book in so different a vein? And what prompted the authorities to permit the publication of a novel which, however cautiously, offends against so many canons? Almost simultaneously two other books appeared, the first opening with the statement that “Money is the Jew’s god,” the other making it known that Judaism has transformed itself into the ideological instrument of expansionism, militarism, racism, and imperialism. To paraphrase Lenin, there have always been two Russias, the Russia of the Black Hundreds and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of Stalin and his latter-day disciples, and another Russia, idealistic and humanistic. While the flame of the second Russia is not now burning brightly, it has apparently not been extinguished altogether.
1 The only exception known to me is a not very sympathetic novel published by a non-Jewish Byelorussian writer in 1963, at the height of Khrushchev's thaw.