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Tales from the Wardrobe

John Mulqueen

What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, by Mark Mazower, Penguin, £9.99, 365 pp, ISBN: 978-041986845

As the Northern Ireland Troubles have been remembered in the twenty years since the Belfast Agreement, they have also been forgotten. In other words, a painful narrative is shaped by the principal actors, who choose what to remember, or forget. One example: “I was never in the IRA.” But what is forgotten can be as important as what is remembered. Historian Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell is concerned both with those who talked and those who chose to remain silent.

The paper trail pieced together in this brilliant family memoir – ranging across three generations and taking in much of the turmoil of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century – began in a wardrobe. Mark Mazower’s father was not a talkative man; he shied away from the personal. However, father and son were close in their own microclimate of comfortable silence. On the day his father died nobody knew what type of funeral would be in keeping with family tradition. But Mazower, the historian, discovered his father’s diaries. Though there were no introspective insights or emotional releases, the patterns of his life were revealed, and, in particular, his enduring attachment to the north London neighbourhood he lived in. Most of his eighty-plus years, it seemed, could be located at points around Hampstead Heath. Mazower, feeling nostalgic for the London he grew up in as the city changed before his eyes, asked himself some questions:

As Dad lay ill, I thought about nostalgia and what precedes it. How is it that the places we live in come to feel that they are ours? What had it meant for Dad’s taciturn father, Max, never to see his birthplace again? How had Dad’s affectionate, intuitive mother, Frouma, come to terms with being separated from her family in Moscow for thirty years? What invisible psychic struggles, what efforts of renunciation, had gone into making a home in Highgate for their son to grow up in?

The silences of Mazower’s father were nothing compared with those of Max. Max and Frouma were close, but Max, apparently, had never told his wife his mother’s name. “Unlike Dad’s, Max’s silence had hidden real secrets,” Mazower reveals. “Before he met Frouma, he had been a revolutionary socialist in Tsarist Russia, something he never spoke about later, once he had left his underground existence behind.” Many of his closest comrades had died violently, shot either by the Bolsheviks or the Nazis. “In her,” Mazower continues, “he had found someone for whom the nurturing of family ties was a way to withstand the pain of history.” In settling down, however, Max had to abandon his activism: building a family home and political disillusionment went together. Making their home in London meant paying a price, the price all refugees have to pay: forsaking other, older places, with memories of their own. Highgate had been home over the generations to poets and philosophers, romantics and revolutionaries. Many of them had been émigrés, like Karl Marx, who lies in Highgate cemetery.

Mazower sees the courage and commitment of Max’s youth as exemplary for our own times, “with its demagogues and its obscene wealth and its ever more intense introspectivity”. Today, he observes, many people are too suspicious of utopias, even the most practical ones, to fight for anything much beyond what he dismissively terms “the perfection of their own souls”. For Max, it was very different:

Max had fought hard for others – driven by a very old-fashioned passion for justice that had been animated by a firsthand knowledge of poverty and exploitation. He’d had a visceral opposition to tribalism of any kind, ethnic and religious above all, an opposition that came from the gut as much as the brain. The movement for which he had fought more than a century ago had lost out and languished in oblivion, but that had hardly seemed to matter. History’s losers have more to teach us than its winners. No victories last forever – it is what you do with defeat that matters.

Max passed on his idealism to his son.

He belonged to the same revolutionary generation as Vladimir Lenin, the Menshevik leader Julius Martov and the future Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov. And, Mazower writes, his path “had almost certainly” intersected with theirs because when he had gone into business in the years before the First World War, working for a Russian shipping company in Vilna, he had simultaneously been involved in the running of an underground socialist movement. This was known as the Bund – the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Today it has almost been forgotten, the language it communicated in, Yiddish, barely survives, and the people who supported it, the Jewish working class of the Russian Pale of Settlement, were mostly destroyed (pogroms during the civil war, mainly waged by the White armies, killed thousands, if not tens of thousands). “Yet in its time the Bund played an absolutely critical role in the birth of left-wing party politics in the Tsarist empire. Leading a double life as a merchant’s book-keeper and revolutionary agitator, Max had learned early on the value of those habits of caution, silence, and mistrust that were necessary for survival. He never forgot them – or the loyalties he grew up with. To the end of his life Max was not just a man of the Left: He was a Bundist.”

In the argumentative milieu of late nineteenth century revolutionary socialism – “an endless debate about the lessons the past held for the future of mankind” – the Bund constituted a vehicle for ideas on political transformation. Within the broad church of Russian social democracy, Mensheviks argued with Bolsheviks, and both quarrelled with the Bundists. While all of them were inspired by Marx, the Bolsheviks followed Lenin, who was determined to have a tightly controlled and centralised party. Whereas both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks claimed to speak for the masses within the Russian empire, the Bund saw itself as the voice of Russian Jews in particular. Its followers believed national, cultural and linguistic differences should be recognised, not ignored. The Bundists were not nationalists and saw the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a dangerous fantasy. Bundists focused on the here and now, participating with others in the socialist movement’s common struggle for a better future, and working to overthrow the autocracy in Russia as a part of that struggle. “At least that was the dream as the twentieth century began, when Max had been active and when the Bund was the largest and most effective revolutionary force in the Tsarist empire. By the 1920s, the Bund was a shadow of its former self; its heartlands had been torn apart, Bolshevism had triumphed in Russia, and the dream lay in the past.”

Following the Tsarist crackdown in the wake of the 1905 revolution Max was exiled to Siberia. It was his second time there, but he escaped in 1907. Having directed Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw and Lódz, he then found himself being interviewed for a job in London. The Yost Typewriter Company decided to put his organisational talents to use, ironically, in opening up the Russian market for its relatively advanced product. In Russia, with mass arrests and tens of thousands being sent to Siberia, trade union organisation, the source of the Bund’s strength, became impossible. Like other Bundists of his generation, Max felt that the revolution was over for good. He seems to have focused on business in Russia during the war years and eventually got out in 1919, following the inevitable brush with the Bolsheviks’ secret police, the dreaded Cheka, the number of whose victims soon dwarfed those of its Tsarist predecessor.

Max left siblings behind him. The son of his youngest brother visited England when he was eighty, as the Soviet experiment lay in ruins. The concrete bridges over the road impressed Osya.

He had come to London proudly bearing a catalogue with pictures of the cranes he had designed, giant constructions looming over tankers in Soviet docks as if to remind us that despite the USSR’s ignominious collapse, his country had once stood for the future. There was something revelatory in his pride. It was easy to forget what the Russian revolution had really meant for people who would never, under the tsars, have been allowed an education at all.

Before the United States, Mazower contends, the Soviet Union had epitomised upward social mobility. Tragedy would never be far away of course. Osya’s family had suffered during the siege of Leningrad, with its ceaseless German bombardment and corpses in the streets, when loudspeakers drowned out the noise of the Wehrmacht guns by playing the symphony Dmitri Shostakovich had composed in the city’s honour. Osya lost his prestigious job in 1949 when a letter arrived from Frouma. She merely wanted to offer family news, but what had been possible during the war had become highly dangerous as Stalin again unleased his paranoid tyranny.

Max kept the last letter he received, in 1940, from another brother, Zachar, who lived in Vilna. Zachar signed off as “Z. Mazoweras”, in the Lithuanian fashion. Having been under Polish rule for twenty years the city briefly became the capital of Lithuania in 1939. Before the Red Army marched in less than a month after this letter was sent, both the Poles and the Jews in the city were on the receiving end of Lithuanian anger. Under Russian control, tens of thousands of Vilna’s inhabitants were arrested, and, then, in 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Shortly afterwards the mass murder of Jews in Vilna began. Max never heard from this brother again. Growing up in north London in the 1960s and ’70s, Mazower tells us that “I think we always felt fortunate that our sense of our family background was not defined by the Holocaust, not bound up with the kind of obsessed fascination with the death camps that was fast becoming part of public culture on both sides of the Atlantic. In thinking about ourselves this way we did not ignore Zachar’s story; it simply did not impinge on us. Actually we did not even know who this long-forgotten uncle of Dad’s was.”

Mazower’s grandmother had a background as colourful as her husband’s. Frouma came from a left-wing family: the fall of the Romanovs in 1917 had been welcomed by her mother, while a brother and two sisters were Bolsheviks who transferred their allegiance to the Mensheviks during the war. Frouma’s father, a Jewish businessman, had been born in the year when the Crimean War broke out, 1853, while serfs tilled the fields; he died just months before the Nazi invasion. Frouma received a middle class Russian education in Smolensk, outside the Pale of Settlement, and met her first husband when serving as an auxiliary nurse to help the Tsarist war effort. A medical officer, he died of disease in the Crimea during the Russian civil war. His nephew, Dmitri Baltermants, found fame there as a war photographer, when, in 1942, he flew into an area just vacated by the Germans. A town’s Jewish population of several thousands had been rounded up during an occupation lasting a mere six weeks. Baltermants flew in to find grief-stricken people trying to identify the victims of an SS murder squad, one of several systematically shooting Jews across the Soviet Union before the implementation of unprecedented industrialised mass killing a year later.

Frouma had met Max in Moscow. Under suspicion as the widow of a former Tsarist officer, and with former servants and strangers also living in her family’s apartment, joining Max in England was not a difficult decision to make. When he married her, a Soviet citizen, he entered his citizenship as Polish – they both became British nationals in 1935. In contrast to her husband’s iron wall of silence, the gregarious Frouma had many friends among the Russian Jewish exiles who fled the Bolsheviks and settled in Highgate, Golders Green and Willesden. “For Frouma, who toyed with the idea of returning to Moscow, making England her home depended upon preserving and nurturing her ties with her homeland and her loved ones rather than allowing them to dwindle,” Mazower writes. “Two of her younger siblings also left the USSR and settled in France, but her yearning for the country she had grown up in remained powerful for years. Her strong Russian accent, which never left her, was thus a clue, a significant contrast to her husband’s perfectly accented English.” Letters were the lifeblood for her separated family. Frouma often wrote two or three a day, and letters were copied and circulated for decades. She finally returned to Moscow in 1959 when Nikita Khrushchev had relaxed Stalin’s iron grip. Her parents’ graves were visited and surviving siblings could be embraced. A family reunion after thirty-five long years should have been a happy occasion, but the sombre faces in the photograph indicate there were ghosts in the room.

One sister still did not know what had happened to her economist husband, Herman Shub. A former adviser to the Tsarist regime in Petrograd, he performed the same role for the Mensheviks and then the Bolsheviks. However, technocrats with a suspect political past could not survive under Stalin and Shub was exiled to Kazakhstan, where his family joined him. Then, refusing to play the part of a star witness during one of the early show trials of the 1930s, he was imprisoned and eventually shot. Frouma’s eldest brother was executed in 1938. Leaving the communist party had made him vulnerable, but his family believed he had been denounced by his wife following the tragic death of their daughter. He had been accused of “espionage, terrorism and counterrevolutionary activity” – “one wonders”, Mazower asks, “if those letters to and from London and Paris played any part in his conviction”.

The Terror claimed a third victim in the family, Frouma’s cousin Lev Berlinraut. The rarest of political creatures, as Mazower puts it – a non-Bolshevik activist in the Soviet Union – he had been involved in the events of 1917 as a leading member of Poale Zion, which fused Marxism and Zionism. Jews, the party argued, could never become an organised working class as long as they were a minority. Therefore, only in a Jewish-run Palestine could a Jewish proletariat be created. Berlinraut argued, unsuccessfully, that Poale Zion should align itself with the Soviets’ international organisation, the Comintern, to promote world revolution. When the party split over the issue, Berlinraut did not leave for Palestine as many others did but remained in Russia. “In effect, although he surely would not have put it so starkly, he had opted for Marxism over Zionism. One of his comrades, a Russian Jew from Plonsk named David Gruen, had already made the opposite choice, emigrating to Ottoman Palestine where he was active in the Poale Zion branch in Jaffa. Much later, known by his Hebrew name as David Ben Gurion, he would become Israel’s first prime minister.” This pro-communist party enjoyed an autonomous existence in the Soviet Union for some years until the authorities closed it down when they decided to create a homeland for Jews in Siberia on the Chinese border. Berlinraut, his loyalty counting for nothing, faced a firing squad in 1938.

Frouma’s sister Nata, who lived into retirement age, had, perhaps, the most incredible story of all. Ostensibly a doctor in the Red Army, she was in fact a doctor in the secret service, the NKVD. When her brother-in-law fell into its clutches Nata had been supervising prisoners building the Volga-Don canal. She saw frontline service in the war, and, following shell shock, found herself supervising German prisoners of war in a camp at Krasnogorsk. Field Marshal Paulus, who had surrendered the Wehrmacht forces at Stalingrad, was its most famous inmate. A personal physician to Paulus, Nata became known as “the angel of Krasnogorsk”. All this came to light much later. Mazower remembered a tougher version of his Russian aunt in France, who, as it happened, had married a White Russian. On visits to Paris Nata liked to visit cemeteries, especially Père Lachaise, where she venerated the memory of the slain communards. Inspired, she would return to her sister’s home singing revolutionary songs. In London, her assumptions were not shared: “For Frouma, living next to her daughter in a tranquil apartment overlooking the Heath, the visits to Moscow were revelatory. When she returned to London she told Dad that she realized she felt much more at home in England than in the country of her birth.”

The tapestry Mazower weaves comprises not just the assorted stories of colourful and doomed characters, plus, inevitably, the odd black sheep. Ordinary suburban middle class, mainly English, lives, such as his own and his father’s, are also unfolded here. These extraordinary and ordinary lives – the latter interest perhaps influenced by the fact that an anthropologist supervised Mazower’s Oxford doctorate – are blended to create this family picture. In the late 1930s, as the English middle class closed its eyes and ears to the fascist menace on the Continent, the outside world impinged on the mind of Mazower’s father. Struggling to maintain their former standard of living, Max and Frouma took in lodgers – refugees from Austria and then Danzig. Their leftist son, known as Bill, mapped the battlefields of the Spanish civil war in his bedroom. At school, his headmaster urged him to make more friends rather than concerning himself with politics. “Down the road Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were holding rallies and denouncing the overrunning of the country by refugees. Fascism seemed to be on the rise in England, and in Hampstead … there was plenty of anti-refugee feeling openly expressed.” Mazower’s father went up to Oxford at the beginning of 1943. The university had few students in wartime, with the call-up on everyone’s mind, but there were the usual distractions – “his circle of women friends began to expand and college beauties gaze fondly into the lens for the seventeen-year-old freshman”. Remaining engaged with politics, he joined the Labour Party in north London, and while his revolutionary father had worked underground in Tsarist Russia Bill knocked on voters’ doors in Highgate and Kentish Town. What remained of the Bundists, Mazower writes, applauded the party’s programme to transform Britain into a social democracy. “It is hard now, I think, to recapture what it must have felt like to have been twenty years old and to have gone – the sheer euphoria of it – in only a matter of months from the last terrifying German rocket attacks on the capital to news of total victory in Europe and then on to Labour’s triumph in the general election, a time like no other before or after.” But the dream died for Bill and his friends, just as it had for Max. Like father, like son. Mark Mazower, however, does not preach, he lets his stories do the talking.

It is almost impossible to read this enchanting and gripping book and not worry about that most vexatious issue: refugees. The Bundists, Mensheviks, Whites and Jews who appear in these pages all found refuge in London and Paris. What would happen to them now as the selfish and the bigoted find their voices and put pressure on political leaders? If they sought sanctuary in England, how would they fare as a beleaguered Conservative prime minister waits for a heave against her from her party’s populist right wing, led by Boris Johnson? A Guardian journalist’s assessment of a youthful Johnson, after spending an afternoon with him, tells us a lot: “neither an intellectually thoughtful nor a morally serious person”, a man “who ridicules not just foreigners but most people other than himself” and who is “very bright but not very wise”.

The tragedy in British politics is that the Labour Party is led by an English nationalist who cannot see the golden opportunity arising from the Tories’ Brexit mess. If he could move on from Labour’s inane anti-Semitism row ‑ and it ought to be relatively simple to demonstrate that opposing Zionism does not constitute racism (it didn’t for the Bundists) ‑ he could offer a vision for an inclusive Britain within a Europe united against racism. And if he cannot do a U-turn having supported Brexit, he could throw his weight behind the campaign for another, more informed, referendum. He might remember what a previous British generation learned as they marched through the ruins of postwar Germany – the need for a Europe-wide political structure strong enough to guarantee civilised values. In France, riven as it is with prejudices against minorities, the president at least had the wit to seize the publicity moment opened for him when he posed for the cameras with the victorious twenty-three-strong World Cup squad, nineteen of whom are migrants or their sons. Les bleus thrilled the French one more time, and probably again annoyed the prejudiced in their country, which offers some consolation as so many seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the last century.

1/10/2018

John Mulqueen is a tutor in history at the Open Education Unit, Dublin City University.

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