At the Border of Memory and Truth

Urban Zintel/Laif/Redux
Katja Petrowskaja at a demonstration against Russian interference in Crimea, Berlin, March 2014

Lenin believed that history could be rushed. For decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, everyone dreamed of flying. “The entire Soviet Union was against the force of gravity,” writes Katja Petrowskaja in her incandescent family history, Maybe Esther. Like other forms of bourgeois oppression, gravity would soon be overcome. After Lenin’s premature death in 1924, Stalin spent the 1930s intent on “catching up and overtaking” the West. The catching up was desperate and brutal. People vanished. Millions starved to death; about a million more were shot. “Stalinism might be one way of attaining industrialization, just as cannibalism is one way of attaining a high-protein diet,” quipped the historian Robert Conquest. At times—during the 1932–1933 famine in Soviet Ukraine, for instance—the cannibalism was literal.

This was before Petrowskaja’s time; she was born in 1970. “I grew up not in the cannibalistic but the vegetarian years,” she writes. The phrase “the vegetarian years” was coined by the poet Anna Akhmatova, herself a survivor of the cannibalistic ones. It was adopted by Petrowskaja and her contemporaries, who, by grace of a later birth, had been spared a direct encounter with Hitler and Stalin. “War losses were said to constitute an inexhaustible supply of our own happiness,” Petrowskaja explains, “because the only reason we were alive, we were told, was that they had died for us, and we needed to be eternally grateful to them, for our peaceful normality and for absolutely everything.”

Maybe Esther, composed of small narrative pieces, flows among multiple generations, lingering inevitably in the cannibalistic years. Early in the book, Petrowskaja tells the story of her father’s older brother, named by his parents “Vil,” an acronym for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Vil, she writes,

could have stepped right out of the Soviet air force hymn everyone sang back then: We were born to make fairy tales real, to overcome space and expanses, we received steel arm-wings from Reason, our heart is an engine in flames.

When on June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and attacked the Soviet Union, Vil, eighteen years old, was sent to the front. Under German crossfire in the Caucasus, he and other recruits threw their bodies into an antitank ditch; the tanks rolled over them. Vil was later found at the bottom of the ditch “squashed and shot through the groin.” He survived. Afterward he suffered from epileptic seizures, during which Petrowskaja’s father, Miron, had to hold his brother’s tongue to stop him from choking.

No one escaped those years unmaimed. Petrowskaja’s maternal grandfather, Vasily, a Ukrainian from Rivne, also went off to fight in the war; his wife, Rosa, a Jew from Warsaw, fled Kiev with their two young daughters, Lida and Svetlana. They traveled by cattle car; Svetlana fell ill with measles. Once when the train…

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