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Sergei Lebedev: Гусь Фриц (The Goose Fritz)

Our hero is Kirill but he is not really directly involved in the story of the goose called Fritz, though it does happen in his village. Also living in the village are the Sergeant and Fedoseyevna. The Sergeant had fought in World War II and had been injured, though not a glorious injury, just a piece of shrapnel in his buttock. However, on the anniversary of this event, he shut himself up in his house and got seriously drunk. He would then go out looking for Germans, though the war had ended forty years previously. He found one once – the postman in his uniform. The postman was persuaded not to make an official complaint after being assaulted.

Fedoseyevna’s husband had been killed in the war and while she and the Sergeant initially got on well, they fell out and started feuding. Fedoseyevna acquired a gander she called Martyn. It was large and aggressive. On one of the Sergeant’s anniversaries, the goose blocked his way. Convinced that it was a German, he christened it Fritz. The name stuck. Three years later, Fritz was a father and protecting his brood when the drunken Sergeant came looking for Germans. Fritz was determined to protect his brood but the Sergeant saw a German and wrung its neck and then shot one of the brood. Kirill saw the whole thing.

But this book is not about the goose or the Sergeant, who died only a few months after the incident with the goose. It is about the history of his family. His grandmother, to whom he is very close, takes him to visit the German cemetery. Their forebears were German so are buried in a special cemetery for those of German ancestry. On one occasion, when he is older, she shows him the specific graves of his ancestors, the Schwerts and the Schmidts. He comes to the realisation that the book that revealed the secret of the Schwerdt family, that brought together everyone lying here at the German Cemetery and in the soil of various countries, who died on the ocean floor or who dissipated into smoke, would have to be written by him.

His grandmother dies and then the Soviet Union collapses and he gets on with his life, becoming an academic in the field of history. Kirill thought he had to take care of his own destiny first and acquire independence. He worked steadily, defended his doctoral degree on the Russian Liberation Army, made a name for himself. He is offered a job in the US, a well-paid and interesting job. He is all set to go when he visits the cemetery one last time before departure. There is a crack in the marble slab over his grandmother’s grave. It is a sign.

He stays, determined to write the book. He looks through his grandmother’s possessions, papers and the like, he visits archives. He knows that the first of his German ancestors to come to Russia was Balthasar Schwerdt. However, he is not sure why. He decides to travel to Germany to find out more. He learns that Balthasar went to Russia to work for Prince Uryatinsky, an eccentric and essentially wicked man who exploited German immigrants.

He finds out why Balthasar left Germany, why he went to Prince Uryatinsky’s estate and why he stayed there and what he did afterwards. We follow the rest of his family – Balthasar’s descendants – on their adventures.

These adventures are certainly colourful. Lebedev paints a wonderful picture of how the various Schwerdts, Schmidts and their relatives get involved in all sort of exciting, dangerous and lively adventures, including cannibalism, epidemiology, mass insanity, travel to Africa and, of course, love and death (the horrible similarity of death in the eyes of cows and humans).

They get involved in many key events of Russian history: the Napoleonic Wars, Russian expansionism, the Russo-Japanese War, the various Russian rebellions and revolutions, the sieges of both Leningrad and Stalingrad, the Myasoedov Affair, the Stalin purges and the post-war conquest of Germany. Lebedev/Kirill often gives us not necessarily the conventional account of the events, but a perspective that is that of a family who are unsure of their status in Russia and who try to be part of the insider group but, ultimately, cannot be so.

Lebedev skifully gives us considerable details about all of these events, how the Schwerdts and Schmidts fitted in (and how, on many occasions, they did not fit in), how they suffered for being German, even when they were enthusiastically patriotic Russians and how these events played out in Russia, which is not always the conventional view of how the West sees Russia, e.g. Kirill saw the birth of totalitarianism in Russia—before the Bolsheviks came to power. He saw how a repressive state arose, how the public was willing to praise terror, keep looking for “aliens,” turncoats, agents of evil who were the cause of the all the country’s ills.

All of this is seen through the eyes of Kirill who is a shrewd though often sceptical observer and who is always prepare to dig deeper to find the truth and, when he cannot find it, comes up with a very plausible theory of what happened and why. There are lots of family secrets and unexplained events in the family history and Kirill assiduously digs into every one, coming up with an answer if not necessarily the one, true answer.

Lebedev tells a first-class story. Anyone who is even vaguely interested in Russian history cannot help but be fascinated by this account. Kirill certainly explains his idea of what happened (and is happening) in Russia and it is this, the slightly offbeat, unconventional view, the perspective of, if not the ordinary man, certainly of the man (and sometimes woman) who is not at the centre of events, that makes this book so enjoyable. This book confirms Lebedev as one of the foremost living Russian authors.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Vremja
First published in English 2019 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis