It has taken more than half a century, but at last the Anglophone world has woken up to the fact that 20th-century communist history makes a superb backdrop for fiction. So extreme and dramatic were the Russian revolution, the arrests and the purges, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and the imposition of Stalinism on the eastern half of Europe that all you have to do is write down what really happened and it sounds like fiction anyway. English historians such as Catherine Merridale (Night of Stone) and Simon Sebag-Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar) have known this for a while now. Now English novelists, from Martin Amis to Sebag-Montefiore himself, are finally catching up.
The Betrayal is Helen Dunmore’s most recent contribution to this general awakening. It is the sequel to The Siege, Dunmore’s widely admired account of one family’s experience of the siege of Leningrad, and it follows the same characters into the post-war era. Dunmore, who is extremely well-versed in the nuances of Russian history, has again chosen her historical moment well. The Betrayal is set in 1952, the last year of Stalin’s life. In those final months, the dictator’s paranoia reached a new zenith, fixing itself on doctors, Jewish doctors in particular.
This story is essentially that of a couple, Andrei and Anna, who are accidentally caught up in that final wave of suspicion. In the book’s first scene, Andrei, a pediatric surgeon, is asked by a nervous and sweaty colleague if he will give a second opinion on a child patient. The twist: the child, who is the son of Volkov, a powerful secret police boss, appears to have a malignant tumor, and everyone in the hospital knows that his death might also be fatal for the doctor who attempts to treat him.
Andrei is unable to wriggle out of the case — though his sweaty colleague manages to do so — and is stuck with the child’s tragedy, and with the predicted consequences. Unwittingly, he drags down some others, most notably a Jewish surgeon, the best in the hospital. She amputates the boy’s leg — professionally, expertly — but the surgery does not save him and the cancer returns. As a result, she ends up dying in prison.
Andrei is also arrested and eventually interrogated by Volkov himself. But even this dramatic narrative isn’t the only one Dunmore offers. She also tells the story of Anna, whose months of starvation during the siege of Leningrad have made it difficult for her to conceive a child; of Anna’s pushy boss at a children’s nursery, a woman who wants to tick every box and win every medal on her way to the top of the Soviet bureaucracy; of Kolya, Anna’s much younger brother, who is showing the first signs of adolescent, and maybe anti-government, rebellion; of Julia, Anna’s childhood friend, who has already spent time in prisons and camps but has saved herself through marriage to a prominent film director.
Dunmore’s genius lies in her ability to convey the strange Soviet atmosphere of these very Soviet stories using the most subtle of clues. We know Volkov is powerful because, unlike the ordinary patients in the crowded Soviet hospital, he meets Andrei in a specially cleared and recently cleaned room: ‘It smells of polish, and someone has deposited a fresh vase of tulips on the desk. Extraordinary.’ We know Anna’s boss is an ambitious party member because she
is finished and perfect in her tailored cream blouse and a dark skirt and jacket . . . they tell the world that while the nursery has to be a place of overalls, mopped floors and the smell of children sleeping in the afternoons, it is also a proper, scientifically managed workplace with targets to meet and an impressive reputation in the wider pedagogical world.
Every so often, the dialogue did ring slightly untrue to me. People in this novel are far more polite to one another than people in the Soviet Union generally were — though there is a wonderful series of rude exchanges with the neighbours in the communal flat. But the scenery is pitch-perfect: the shabby Leningrad streets, the primitive dacha, the stiff office party, the crowded prison cell, even Julia’s elegant flat, so surprising to Anna, who has grown accustomed to ugly interiors.
By the time I got to the end of the novel, I was also impressed by the intelligence of its title. The Betrayal implies that one of the characters will do something awful to someone he loves, and part of the novel’s tension is created by that expectation. Will Andrei betray Anna under interrogation? Will Anna betray Andrei by denouncing him after he is arrested? I won’t give away the plot, except to say that the true ‘betrayal’ in this story turns out to be a broader one: the Soviet Union’s betrayal of its own citizens.
Anna, Andrei and Kolya struggled through the war. Like other Leningraders, they valiantly fought Hitler, they watched their family members die, they worked hard to keep others alive. After the war, they thought they were owed something more, perhaps a bit of prosperity, perhaps some more freedom. Instead, there was more hardship, more silence, and more pain. Doctors who thought they were working on behalf of society found themselves the targets of a vicious political campaign. Young people who worked and studied suddenly found themselves stymied by a political elite which favoured its own. Life did not get ‘merrier’ as Stalin once promised, but more tragic.
‘I remember when we were students, your mother and me,’ an old friend tells Anna:
You would get old women coming in with terrible prolapses that had never been repaired, and ulcers all over their legs. They could barely walk. They believed in the next world, and no wonder, when this one had given them nothing. But we believed in making this world a better place. Of course things went wrong — mistakes were made.
Mistakes were made, and that hope for a better world died as a result. It never revived — not in Stalin’s lifetime, and not afterwards either.