Kastuś Akuła: Tomorrow is Yesterday
This is Akuła’s only novel in English – he wrote several in Belarusian, which have not been translated into English. It starts with Mary Karaway, a Belarusian exile, having trouble in Toronto, apparently arrested for prostitution, while looking for the murderer of her mother and children. The story then flashes back to how she got there. The story starts as the Soviet army retreats through Belarus, during Operation Barbarossa. Mary is living with her mother and two children. Her husband has been fighting with the Red Army but has been reported as missing in action. During the retreat, a Red Army soldier comes to their door He is clearly wounded, so the women take him in and care for him. He introduces himself as Vanya, from Leningrad. However, with the Germans approaching they are worried about sheltering him and take him to an abandoned gamekeeper’s hut in the woods. Mary brings him food every day, as the Germans take over the area and order the population to hand over any Red Army soldiers. However, as Vanya gets better he makes advances to Mary and finally tries to rape her. She escapes but tells him to leave, which he does.
The local population is now caught between two force. On the one hand, there are the Soviet partisans who force the local men to join them. On the other hand are the local police, recruited by the Germans primarily from the Volga Germans. Both sides are brutal, attacking the local population, raping and pillaging. Mary sees it at first hand when a Soviet partisan group comes to the school where she is teaching and the leader knocks her round and threatens the children and their parents. However, she hears much about the cruelty of a Volga German called Bergdorf. One day, Bergdorf and his men come to her house and Bergdorf turns out to be Vanya. He seizes her and proceeds to attack her and her children and mother. She wakes up in a partisan hospital, with two bullets in her side, feared for dead, and with her mother and children and dead. Worse still, she recognises one of the partisans as Lara Voynik, a woman whom she was at school with and who hated her with a passion. The two had fought and Lara had been (rightly) blamed. Lara is determined to make Mary’s life hell. She takes her on a partisan raid against a Belarusian patriot, who is neither pro-German or pro-Soviet, and makes Mary watch while he is executed. Finally, she is taken to the partisan leader – Lara’s boyfriend – and made to drink strong vodka and then repeatedly raped. She only manages to escape when the youngest partisan, Kola, helps her escape by faking her death.
After this ordeal, with the help of a teacher friend and the local school inspector, she manages to escape to Minsk, where she resumes her teaching career under an assumed name. When her room-mate is killed as the Soviets attack, pushing back the Germans, she manages to flee to Canada, where her uncle has a farm. But even there she is not safe. Her Uncle Lavon is very good to her but his wife, Lida, very much pro-Soviet, thinks that she is a Fascist collaborator and eventually drives her out of the farm but not before she has seem Bergdorf’s picture in a paper, with his address in Toronto.
Uncle Lavon gives her the name of a contact in Toronto and, as we learned at the beginning of the novel, the contact is no longer there. Having little English, she struggles, asking passers-by for help, not realizing that this is a prostitute area and she is picked up for prostitution. Fortunately, once an interpreter is found at the court, she is freed and helped by the Salvation Army. She manages to get a job as a nurse, meets a fellow Belarusian, Mikola Hlak and pursues her vendetta against Bergdorf, now married with two children. How she manages to gain her revenge while retaining her integrity, is what the rest of the novel recounts.
It is certainly not a great novel. The Belarusians tend to be noble, while the Soviets and Germans are uniformly wicked. Of course, the difficulty that the Belarusians faced, that of trying to deal with both the German occupying forces and the Soviets, while dreaming of a homeland of their own, placed them in a difficult situation. But Akuła tells his story well, even if he leaves us not the slightest doubt where his sympathies lie.
First published by Pahonia in 1968