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Sasha Filipenko: Красный крест (Red Crosses)

A twenty-nine year old man called Sasha (short form of Alexander) moves to Minsk with his three month old daughter, after being recently widowed. He does not really know the city but his mother lives there with her second husband. There is only one other person on his floor. As he comes in he sees a red cross on the door – the first but by no means last use of the eponymous red crosses. He is rubbing the cross off when he is accosted by this neighbour. She is the ninety-year old Tatyana Alexeyevna. She has Alzheimer’s and the crosses are to help her guide her way back to her flat.

She accosts him and immediately starts talking to him and then inviting him into her flat. He reluctantly accepts – he is tired and wants to go to bed. However, she essentially proceeds to tell him her life story.

Her father, Alexey Alexeyevich Bely, a religious man, met her mother, Lyubov Nikolayevna Krasnova, a ballerina, in Paris in 1909. They married, moved to London and had a child. Sadly, Lyubov died giving birth to Tatyana. In 1919 Alexey annnounces Old people live here in London. A new kind of person — which I’m too old to become, but which you, my dear, definitely will — lives in Russia.Off they go to Russia. We follow their adventures, living in Russia but also moving to Switzerland and back to Russia.

Tatyana starts working for the NKID, the Foreign Office/State Department equivalent. She meets another Alexey who works for an organisation called Aid for Political Prisoners and they marry.

It is now 1937 and we are in the full Stalin Reign of Terror. Filipenko/Tatyana give us the gory details but somehow our heroes are spared. World War II approaches and we get a wonderfully cynical view of German-Russian relations at this time. Alexey is, of course called up.

Sasha asks how she initially escaped arrest. She does not know. This is all about to change. One of the several areas where we learn of the cynicism of the Russians is their (lack of) dealing with the Red Cross (another use!). The Red Cross regularly sends details of Russian prisoners held by Axis countries and asks for details of Axis prisoners held by the Russians. Tatyana routinely translates these missives and passes them on. In all cases, Molotov marks them Do Not Reply. Why? Sasha and Tatyana speculate about this.

One day, Tatyana receives a list of prisoners of war held in Romania. She checks the list and her husband’s name appears on it. Under then Soviet rules, any Soviet soldier that surrendered, instead of fighting to the bitter end, is clearly a traitor. He must be executed and his family imprisoned. What can she do? A total number is given so if she simply removes his name, this will be seen. In the end, she does remove his name but replaces it with the previous name, so that that name appears twice, hoping that the NKVD will consider it a clerical error.

As we know from early in the book, she is arrested and sent to the gulag as an enemy of the people. Her daughter is taken from her and sent to an orphanage. We follow her hard times in he gulag but, as we know, she survives and is eventually released. The rest of her life is spent trying to track down three people: her daughter, her husband and the man whose name she duplicated. We follow this search in some detail.

While we have a framing story – Sasha’s brief story and how he was left a widower with a three month old daughter – and Tatyana’s early life, the main thrust of the novel is to show the horrors of the Soviet system. The Soviets are shown as having no regard whatsoever for individuals. They are treated as entirely expendable and completely subordinate to the whims of the Soviet system.

Filipenko puts in several examples of how they were worse than most of us might have expected, even if we have read Solzhenitsyn and other gulag novels. We see it with the Red Cross and how they continued to assist the Germans even as the Germans were invading the Soviet Union. We know about arbitrary arrests, torture and murders but Filpenko reminds just in case we do not.

They tell us that everything happened for a reason. Everything. The execution of the Tsar’s family, the White Army officers who were put on ferries by the thousands and drowned, Antonov’s rebellion, burned villages, obliterated poets, the Ukrainian famine, and the Gulag — now they’ll keep on saying forever that everything was done for a reason.

What is interesting that it is not really over. Sasha and Tatyana go to a demonstration against the demolition of the Kurapaty mass grave and it is clear that the Belarus authorities have no sympathy. Our leader is red to the marrow of his bones. He doesn’t like that we’re honouring the the victims of the Terror. The custom here is to praise Stalin, not to criticise him.

Later in the book, Sasha’s stepfather, hearing Tatyana’s story, comments She’s lying about everything… There weren’t any purges — i’s all baloney. I saw a documentary. Stalin tried to save the country, and now these rotten democracy-lovers intentionally falsify documents and put them into the archives in order to smear the party. But it won’t work here, not in our Belorussia. Our leader won’t allow it! He is right about one thing. As we have seen in recent months (2021), their leader won’t allow it.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 by Vremi︠a︡
First published in English in 2021 by Europa Editions
Translated by Brian ]ames Baer and Ellen Vayner