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Ion Druță: Белая Церковь [The White Church]

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, the world is in turmoil and nowhere more so than in Moldova. The country had been a tributary of the Ottoman Empire but had retained some autonomy. Thanks to Russia under the Catherine the Great, the Ottomans were in retreat and their hold on Moldova was tenuous but still in force. Druță tells the story of the events of this period, with many of the events often seen through the eyes of ordinary people in Moldova. We start with the visit to Jassy (then part of Moldova but now part of Romania) of the Sultan’s executioner. Mr Zarzarian, the Armenian exile vendor who lives next door to the Turkish Embassy observes his arrival and watches what happens. The governor of Moldova is invited to coffee but, on the advice of most people, he declines. However, he eventually decides to go. He does not come out alive. Catherine the Great is very annoyed but feels that she is not ready to act – yet. We then get the story of a monastery and the discussion between a novice, Ioann, a former Moldovan rebel, and his superior, Father Paissi, on the duty they owe, particularly when a group of armed Turks arrive at the door. Only then do we meet the white church and the second Catherine.

Catherine has now sent an army to Moldova to meet the Turks. The force is under the command of Count Pyotr Rumyantsev and we meet the Count and his army as they approach the River Dniester, the border with Moldova. The far side of the river consists of high cliffs and the army soon sees activity, in the form of people fleeing the approaching army, even though it is nominally there to help them. One person who refuses to flee is Catherine. She is a young and attractive woman, as the approaching Russians note, but she is also the mother of six children. She has been helping build a crude church out of chalk – hence the name of the book – but the priest is aiming to flee the Russians and take the few church items with him. Catherine refuses to flee and says that she will stay and defend the church. We pass to Catherine the Great, who is concerned about her lovers but also about the Turks, and Druță gives us an amusing account of how she tries to balance the two concerns. But, at this point, one of her former lovers – and, possibly, a man she married – Prince Potemkin – comes on the scene and dominates the rest of the novel.

It is Potemkin who takes charge of the army and who fights the Turks. It is he who is lauded for the victories, though he owes some of his victories to others, in particular General Suvorov. He also has disputes with Catherine over strategy and also with her latest favourite, Platon Zubov. We get a close-up portrait of Potemkin – his moods and depression, his huge and ostentatious wealth and his lovers – much of which is far from flattering. We also see details of some of the actions, including the Turks burning a village and the capture of Izmail. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Okolina, the other Catherine’s village, have returned but their church is badly damaged and they do not care to rebuild it, focusing on more earthly pursuits, including grapes grown for wine. Catherine is determined that it should be rebuilt, despite the other villagers mocking her and pointing out that they have no priest (he has died) and therefore there is no point in having a church. A confluence of Fathers Ioann and Paissi, the Battle of Izmail, the local horse thieves and some of the locals helps Catherine.

At times this novel is somewhat bitty, jumping from major to minor events and switching focus from one participant to another. However, it is still a very fine novel, with wonderful portraits of Catherine the Great and Potemkin. Even though the other Catherine – Catherine the Little as she is known – is a bit too good to be true, the white church story is interesting. Sadly, this book is available in several languages but not in English.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Lit-ra artistikė
No English translation
Published in French as L’église blanche (under the name Ion Droutse) in 1985 by Messidor
Published in German as Die weisse Kirche in 1985 by Verlag Volk und Welt
Also published in Bulgarian, Czech, Latvian and Slovak