The Shoemaker and His Daughter, by Conor O’Clery, Doubleday Ireland, 384 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1781620434
Conor O’Clery is an Irish journalist and author of a number of well-received books, including two earlier works thematically related to The Shoemaker and His Daughter. In Melting Snow: An Irishman in Moscow (1991) he collected his experiences as the Irish Times correspondent in Moscow between 1980 and 1991, focusing mainly on the perestroika years under Gorbachev. Twenty years later he published Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, a comprehensive account of the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, centred on the history and dynamic of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin relationship. O’Clery has been praised for producing original and carefully authenticated yet accessible narratives of complex historical happenings. His writing has also been singled out, as J Paul Goode put it, for “its ability to enliven” historical abstractions, providing ideal introductions to important chapters of Russian history for students and other lay readers.
In The Shoemaker and His Daughter the author once again tackles life in the Soviet Union, this time from a personal angle. He enlivens the abstractions of Soviet history, geography and politics by retelling the life stories of chosen members of his wife, Zhanna’s, Russian-Armenian family – who, though originally from the Caucasus, decided in the late 1960s to start a new life in a faraway region in Siberia. The narrative centres especially on the struggles and achievements of Zhanna’s parents – the eponymous shoemaker Stanislav Suvorov and his wife Marietta, née Gukasyan. Both belonged to a generation born and bred in the Soviet communist system, destined to spend most of their productive lives within its confines. Thus they come close to embodying the type of citizen described by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her Second-Hand Time (2013) as “homo sovieticus”, deeply conflicted about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet order.
O’Clery’s narrative is fascinating for what it reveals about the absurdities of life in communist Russia. But the book is even more valuable for its depiction of the varieties of human experience and resilience in the face of adversity – from the destruction of war, murder and long-term imprisonment to life in the harsh Siberian climate, government-imposed austerity or the chaotic disintegration of basic social structures and compacts. In relating the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens forced to cope with often extraordinary circumstances, O’Clery relies not just on his relatives’ recollections, testimonies and mementoes but also on his own research and considerable familiarity with life in the Soviet Union, where he lived and travelled extensively long before he married Zhanna.
One soon gets caught up in the stories of the strong-willed characters and enmeshed in the complex life trajectories of the individuals chosen by the author as his heroes. The further one reads the multi-strand narrative indeed, the more one appreciates how skilfully O’Clery uses their fluctuating fortunes to illuminate the varying impact of large-scale historical developments in specific locations, on people belonging to different ethnic groups, religions and cultures. It becomes clear that the Soviet Union was far from being an undifferentiated monolith. By tracking the movements of his in-laws from Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh (contested to this day by Armenia and Azerbaijan) to Grozny in Chechnya (recently rebuilt after two devastating wars) and from there to the Siberian Krasnoyarsk, the author is able to capture how different aspects of life in the Soviet Union – from the availability of foodstuffs and consumer goods to the strength of people’s allegiance to communism – varied in place and time: depending both on geography (from the Mediterranean climate of the Caucasus to the tough, six-month-long Siberian winters) and on key political developments. The narrative in effect spans more than a century: it reaches back to the Armenian genocide, includes the seventy years of Soviet rule with its alternating “thaws” and “freezes” and continues up to the recent stabilisation of Russia under Putin after the anarchy of the 1990s.
O’Clery’s writing remains as clear and accessible as ever, suitable for readers more or less uninformed about the texture of Soviet life, not to mention the finer details of the state’s history and politics. They might well be spurred on by The Shoemaker to tackle the more comprehensive works by Alexievich, Applebaum, Conradi and others referenced in the bibliography. But the book offers new insights even to those who already know a good deal, perhaps because they too, like O’Clery’s characters, had the (mis)fortune to have been born into a communist country in the Soviet bloc. Various interesting similarities and differences between Soviet and non-Soviet experience emerge from such a comparative reading.
Among the most striking similarities is the universal pull of the family as a major force in most people’s lives. Family loyalty is what holds things together in moments of crisis, and even under communism loyalty to the family tends to win out over loyalty to the party or the state, the more so as the latter comes to embody inefficiency, corruption, injustice and punitive brutality. This in spite of generations of children in the Soviet bloc (myself included) having been force-fed the manufactured legend (referenced by O’Clery) of thirteen-year-old Pavlik Morozov, a communist martyr venerated for having denounced his own father to the communists as a kulak (wealthy peasant) and then supposedly murdered in revenge by backward villagers blind to the blessings of collectivisation.
Among the most intriguing differences (almost mysteries, from the Czech point of view) is the residual pride and loyalty the homo sovieticus seems to continue to feel toward the Soviet Union in spite of all the brutalities and inefficiencies that ultimately ensured its demise. “You haven’t been to Russia, so stop being so clever,” ran a favourite Czech saying under communism, meaning: don’t think you’ve seen it all, things could be much worse – as in Russia. Outside official discourse, hardly any Czech would use the official title of the Soviet Union other than ironically, as a deceptive Potemkin-village-like label pasted over the awfulness of communist Russia and its državy (imperial holdings). At any time after 1968 ‑ at the latest ‑ communism was perceived in Czechoslovakia as a foreign imposition maintained by military force (there were thousands of Soviet soldiers stationed in the country), while communism in the Soviet Union came to look more and more like a self-inflicted misery, a sign perhaps of some deep-rooted Russian masochism – how else could one explain the persistent admiration expressed by many Russians toward Lenin and Stalin as late as the 1980s? To my generation (as well as to our parents, born largely in the 1940s) Stalin was a criminal tyrant and psychopath, Lenin a universally despised figure of fun. The respect accorded Lenin’s dead body seemed to us an absurd proof of Russian backwardness: my main worry as a twelve-year-old taken to Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square while on a student exchange to Moscow in the mid-1980s was to keep the giggles in. The Soviet Union, it used to be joked in Czechoslovakia, in a paraphrase of the triumphant communist travelogue entitled In a Country Where Tomorrow Already Means Yesterday, was “the country where yesterday means tomorrow”.
This view of Russia as perpetually “behind” may be a crude expression of a specifically Czech prejudice, but in many respects it tends to be borne out by The Shoemaker: only in Russia would it make sense to claim that someone giving up their party membership in the spring of 1990 was “in the vanguard” of history, as the author writes about his wife, Zhanna. Another telling Czech joke comes to mind: “A Radio Yerevan query: ‘Is it true that the new Skoda will have no steering wheel or brakes?’ – Answer: ‘Yes, indeed. The steering will be done by the party, with the Soviet Union putting the brakes on it.’” The truth about the reality of life in the communist countries could often be most accurately revealed in jokes – another similarity – and there are quite a few good ones included in The Shoemaker.
Only rarely does one come across passages that raise questions about the limits of the author’s narrative approach. A first-person utterance or recollection is sometimes recast as a third-person discourse, without being qualified or contextualised. On occasion this has the effect of transforming a potentially biased point of view into something close to an authorial statement of fact; the authentic immediacy of the subjective voice is diminished without gaining in objectivity. Without knowing who is voicing the following assertion and when, the second part of it is hard to credit: “Lena understands why she could not live with her mother in Martakert and she never feels any resentment.” Is this Lena herself reminiscing, or is it a conjecture by her younger sister Marietta? But what kind of a nineteen-year-old girl would feel no resentment against her mother after being left behind twice, however understandable the reasons? One might speculate that the author is loath to assume a more sceptical perspective because of his closeness to the people whose stories he tells. And indeed what repeatedly comes across is the love, respect and compassion he feels toward his loyal, strong-minded and hard-working relatives: at times the book reads like an act of homage to those of them still alive and a commemoration of those who passed away. However, the occasional unwillingness to question how well the reported views and recollections represent the reality of the situation, rather than a retouched memory or a retrospective attempt at self-justification, can tend to undermine the narrative’s credibility.
It is also understandable that in a book celebrating the survival of a family O’Clery eschews any in-depth or discussion based on principle about the moral rights and wrongs of communism, including the question of his heroes’ complicity. The author simultaneously shows a clear awareness of the moral dilemmas involved and a clear bias in dealing with them: the most favourable spin (morally speaking) tends to be put on any questionable decisions and actions taken by his wife and in-laws, while the hypocrisies and uneasy compromises entailed in their (largely conformist) way of life tend to be glossed over. This becomes most noticeable in passages dealing with the family’s resourceful, if not always above-board or even legal attempts to cope with the material and ideological pressures common in an economically inefficient and politically corrupt authoritarian state – especially Stanislav’s illegal sale of his car and his subsequent imprisonment for the crime of “speculation”, but also the Suvorovs’ willing acceptance of benefits conditional upon their political conformity and loyalty to the local hierarchy – the significance of which the author tries to minimise, somewhat curiously, even as he repeatedly demonstrates how the system of privileges and threats (described already in The Melting Snow) worked in practice.
As may be pointed out by the few who refused, in spite of the manifest disadvantages and occasional risks involved, to steal from the state, give bribes, become party members, trade favours with local functionaries or agree to report back to the KGB in exchange for a chance to go abroad, the thing with communist corruption was that it took two to tango. The author’s admiration for the Suvorovs’ ability to negotiate and exploit the system in order to safeguard and improve their family’s circumstances should therefore be at the very least tempered by a recognition of the dubious morality of many of their dealings. My mother, for example, though far from a dissident herself, would have some harsh things to say about people like the Suvorovs, with carefully cultivated contacts in what used to be called the greengrocer mafia, who were able to trade favours with grocers and butchers in exchange for privileged backdoor access to luxuries such as prime cuts of meat – while she spent hours queueing in front of the shop for whatever remaining items would make it to the shelves for sale afterwards. That said, food (and other) shortages were never as severe in Czechoslovakia as they were in Russia: in another Czech joke, the Soviet Union was called “the country where they already ate yesterday what they were meant to keep for tomorrow”.
In the end none of these criticisms and reservations detract from the considerable merits of O’Clery’s book. The Shoemaker and His Daughter is a well-written, informative and engaging introduction to the realities of life in the Soviet Union and a useful antidote to uninformed defences of communism prevalent in some circles in the West. Equally importantly, it is an enjoyable, entertaining and occasionally moving story of the ups and downs experienced by an ordinary, yet extraordinarily resilient, family. As such it strengthens one’s faith in the powers of human endurance and survival even in circumstances of considerable adversity.
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree and, most recently, the novels City of Bohane and Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. She is currently at work on a translation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).