THE BETRAYAL by Helen Dunmore

(The notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow)

Helen Dunmore’s THE BETRAYAL brings to mind the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as she tells the story of a physician and nursery school teacher who get caught up in the Stalinist paranoia that existed in the Soviet Union following World War II until Stalin’s death in March, 1953.  The chronological parameters of the book are the Nazi siege of Leningrad during the war culminating in the Doctor’s Plot where Stalin and his henchman dreamed up a conspiracy of Jewish physicians who were bent on killing the Soviet leadership as these supposed Zionists worked with the CIA to destroy the Soviet leadership.  Thankfully Stalin died in the midst of this fantasy and many historians believe his death avoided a second Holocaust for the Jewish people.  The novel concentrates in the year 1952 with flashbacks to the World War II siege.  Immediately, Dunmore provides insight into the plight of the average Russian citizen following the war.  There are references to the lack of husbands reflecting the massive death toll of Soviet soldiers during the war.  Communal apartments reflect the lack of housing after the war due to the destruction from Nazi bombing.  The paranoia of the Stalinist state is rampant as anyone can be destroyed and no one is irreplaceable as “anyone can go out of favor in the blink of an eye.” (11) When Kolya, a sixteen year old boy eats his food he wraps his arms around the bowl, exhibiting the fear that someone will steal his supper as occurred during the siege.  Repeatedly as the story is developed characters express the fear that if one of them is arrested, the rest of the family is in danger as occurred during the “Great Purge” of the 1930s.

(Joseph Stalin)

In living our lives we believe in certain assurances; the sun will rise and set at the prescribed hour, we will not grow hungry; we will have shelter and be able to rest when needed.  What life does not prepare us for is to live in a state of suspended animation were by we lose all control of our freedoms.  In post-war Russia life is a riddle that the accused cannot solve.  Innocent people become prisoners of this riddle like Andrei, a physician, and his wife Anna, a nursery school teacher.  The riddle is played out as Andrei is manipulated into taking on a patient named Gorya, the son of a MGB officer named Volkov who is high up in the state security apparatus.  Gorya, a ten year old boy suffers from cancer and after his leg is amputated the cancer spreads and his father needs a scapegoat, a Jewish doctor.  Unaware of the coming Stalinist persecution of Jewish doctors Andrei, who is not Jewish gets swept up in the Soviet prison system, but first he has to untangle the riddle, a phone call he receives early in the morning from his hospital’s medical personnel, “I am to inform you that, with immediate effect, you are suspended from your duties, pending investigation of serious irregularities.  You are to hold yourself available for investigatory interview without notice.  You are not permitted to enter hospital precincts during the period of investigation.” (195)  Andrei’s journey through the Stalinist legal system begins with that phone call and will culminate in his imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag.  Along the way the reader becomes a member of Andrei’s family and a witness to Andrei’s imprisonment, interrogation, and beatings. The fears of his wife Anna and other characters are explored as we witness the world of Stalinist persecution that is right out of the works of Solzhenitsyn and the likes of the poet, Osip Mandelstam.  For Andrei and Anna what is worse; the experiences of the siege of Leningrad with its starvation and constant death during the “great patriotic war,” or the very real fear that the loud banging on the door in the middle of the night will result in a trip to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

(The siege of Leningrad, 1942)

Dunmore does a remarkable job developing her story and plotline keeping the reader fully engaged.  Her character development is impeccable and she posses a sound knowledge of Soviet history from the purges of the 1930s through Stalin’s death.  If you have read Solzhenitsyn’s CANCER WARD or THE FIRST CIRCLE, Dunmore’s work fits that genre.  If not and you are interested in reading a historical novel that you will become totally engrossed in and not be able to put down, THE BETRAYAL is an excellent choice.

(The Soviet Gulag and its victims)

I am listing a short bibliography for those who are interested in this period of history and might like to read further;

For books on Stalin see STALIN: THE COURT OF THE RED STAR by Simon Sebag Montefiore; STALIN by Adam Ulam; STALIN by Robert Service; STALIN by Edvard Radzinsky: STALIN AND HIS HANGMEN: AN AUTHOROTATIVE PORTRAIT OF A TYRANT AND THOSE WHO SERVED HIM by Donald Rayfield.

The purges of the 1930s see THE GREAT TERROR by Robert Conquest and EVERYDAY STALINISM, ORDINARY LIFE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES: SOVIET RUSSIA IN THE 1930S by Sheila Fitzpatrick;

For the Soviet prison system (Gulag) see GULAG: A HISTORY OF THE SOVIET CAMPS by Anne Appebaum; INTO THE WHIRLWIND and WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND both by Evgenia S. Ginzburg; THE TIME OF STALIN: PORTRAIT IN TYRANNY by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko.

The Doctor’s Plot see STALIN’S WAR AGAINST THE JEWS by Louis Rapaport; STALIN’S LAST CRIME by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov.

For the siege of Leningrad consult LENINGRAD: STATE OF SIEGE by Michael Jones; 900 DAYS: THE SEIGE OF LENINGRAD by Harrison Salisbury; LENINGRAD: THE EPIC SEIGE OF WORLD WAR II, 1941-1944  by Anna Reid; THE FATEFUL SEIGE, 1942-1943  by Anthony Beevor; and Helen Dunmore’s previous novel, THE SEIGE.

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