Writing a family memoir when your grandfather was Stalin’s bodyguard

CultureWriting a family memoir when your grandfather was Stalin’s bodyguard

Halberstadt recalls travelling from New York to Ukraine in 2004, to meet his grandfather who survived countless purges to live into his 90s, writes JENNIFER SZALAI.


Young Heroes of the  Soviet Union
By Alex Halberstadt; Pages: 289 Pages ; Random House, $28

When poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested by the Soviet secret police in the 1930s, he was taken to the notorious Lubyanka prison for interrogation. He drew a distinction between the guards “on the outside” — village youths doing terrible things out of a dim sense of duty — and the interrogators “on the inside,” who seemed like specialists in cruelty. “To do that job, you have to have a particular vocation,” Mandelstam said. “No ordinary man could stand it.”

It’s an observation that Alex Halberstadt forced himself to keep in mind when meeting with his paternal grandfather, Vassily, who worked in Lubyanka for several years before becoming one of Stalin’s bodyguards. Halberstadt considered his grandfather, who was a member of Stalin’s security detail for more than a decade, to be “the moral equal of a Gestapo officer.” Vassily survived countless rounds of purges and recriminations to live into his 90s — no small feat for anyone so entwined in the paranoid politics of the Soviet state.

In “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union,” Halberstadt recalls traveling from his home in New York to Ukraine in 2004, to meet his nonagenarian grandfather for the first time since Halberstadt was an infant. (Halberstadt had left the Soviet Union with his mother and her parents in 1980, when he was 10.) Vassily turned out to be intermittently candid but mostly evasive. Halberstadt corroborated what he could of Vassily’s few recollections with other accounts, thinking that he would write about his grandfather’s experiences, “trying to piece together and weigh his motives,” before realizing he was on to something else — something at once more capacious and intimate than what he originally had in mind. “This, I understood finally, was history: not the ordered narrative of books but an affliction that spread from parent to child, sister to brother, husband to wife.”

More than a retelling of Vassily’s story, “Young Heroes” is a memoir of Halberstadt’s family and the country where he was born — a loving and mournful account that’s also skeptical, surprising and often very funny. He recreates the lives of his parents and grandparents, tracing their experiences in order to better understand his own.
His father, born in 1945, was the privileged child of a KGB official and a fashion designer, benefiting from a system that revolved around connections but chafing at the state-sponsored indoctrination at his school; he eventually became a fervent anti-Communist and a black marketeer, trading American pop-cultural contraband and turning the family’s Moscow apartment into a “shrine to the West,” filled with jazz records and “an ocean of blue denim.” Halberstadt’s mother was the daughter of Lithuanian Jews, survivors of the Nazi occupation that killed 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population.
Halberstadt didn’t see much of his father after moving to the United States during the Reagan-era Cold War while his father stayed behind. Halberstadt became close to his mother’s father, spending so much time with him that he can affectionately recreate him here, in all of his minor glory. A former science professor, he could hold forth on all manner of subjects, from a platypus’s genetic makeup to the advantages of certain daring chess moves. When his grandfather silently laughed, Halberstadt writes, “his shoulders wobbled gently and the oversize topography of his face contorted like a sea anemone.”

Halberstadt took the title for his memoir from his first-grade history textbook, a graphic martyrology enumerating the bold deeds of youthful patriots whose bravery got them “hanged, shot, immolated, poisoned, left to freeze in the snow.” He remembers paging through it as a child, seeing a drawing of a teenage boy and experiencing the first jolts of desire. This insight into his sexual feelings was about the only useful thing he learned from the book, which otherwise dispensed lessons on setting horse stables on fire and “how to halt a train laden with Nazi munitions by throwing yourself under its wheels.”
That Soviet-era textbook renounced the past by emphasizing the future, whereas Halberstadt learns of a new, Putin-era textbook with the antiseptic title “A Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006” that rewrites the past by making wooden excuses for it. Stalin’s atrocities get cast as necessities; totalitarian suffering was the only response to circumstances that “demanded it.”

A thread that runs through Halberstadt’s book is the inheritance of trauma — how “the past lives on not only in our memories but in every cell of our bodies,” another version of the historical record that gets inscribed into our genetic code. Those parts of the book are elegantly delineated, but it’s the unexpected specificity of Halberstadt’s observations that ultimately makes this memoir as lush and moving as it is. He describes eating Hungry Man frozen dinners with his maternal grandfather, carefully peeling open the gleaming foil from the corner of the cobbler and admiring the “perfect lozenge of Salisbury steak.” The luxury of his paternal grandmother’s enormous apartment in Moscow is remembered for the “late-baroque splendor” of its chintz wallpaper and a cushioned toilet seat that squished down with a satisfying hiss when he sat on it.
Halberstadt made several trips to Russia to visit his father, trying to coax their strained relationship back to life. In an epilogue, he describes how they went on a fishing trip together. Halberstadt wanted to talk about the past; his father didn’t. “There is no more to be gained from sifting through the past than through cigarette ashes,” his father said. This memoir suggests otherwise. But Halberstadt also understands the appeal of forgetfulness, when a historical burden is so suffocating that it can feel impossible to move on. “We lived in terrible times,” his step-grandmother told him. “All that is left now is to be kind to each other.”

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