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Igor Kaczurowsky: Шлях невідомого (Because Deserters Are Immortal)

Thr book opens in the autumn of 1941when the Germans are invading the Soviet Union and, at this time, are primarily in Ukraine. Our narrator (only at the end of the book do we learn that his name is Serhiy Remez) like many of his fellow Ukrainians, is not very enthusiastic about fighting for the Soviets. He and they try various ruses such as fake medical certificates. They also remove references to Komsomol membership from their ID, in case they are captured by the Germans. As he states it seemed not only cowardly and inane but also ignominious to actively defend a government which had executed my father, exterminated our family and failed to destroy me thanks only to a lucky combination of circumstances.

He hides out in his landlady’s house so when the militia come around she can tell them that he is not there. However, when her son Volodka turns up it becomes more complicated. Volodka had been with a unit that had been surrounded by the Germans but had managed to flee. He learns that Leningrad was surrounded and that the Germans were nearing Moscow. In short it looked as though the Soviet Union was doomed.

Our hero flees by train to a town he calls N. (Kaczurowsky was from Nizhin.) However, he makes a mistake and is enlisted in the home guard. They have decrepit weapons to fight against the German tanks. A new rule is made whereby all deserters are to be shot. When our hero volunteers to be part of a firing squad, he and another man are instructed to take the victim to the cemetery and shoot him. Our hero manages to escape and observes his unit being sent to the front while he hides out. There was no battle really. The Germans did not appear from where they were being expected.

If Serhiy and other Ukrainians think that the Germans are going to be any nicer than the Soviets, they are in for a rude awakening. Serhiy, along with all other Ukrainian men, is captured. They are housed in a huge barracks with no food and any clothing that they have that looks fairly decent taken by the German soldiers. Serhiy survives as a man he has helped befriends him and receives food from his family which he shares.

We now follow a series of adventures in which he is almost killed several times, captured by the Germans and the partisans, daredevil escapes and long journeys on foot to avoid both Germans and partisans. He does get to a city occupied by the Germans where he gets work issuing passports and tries to help the Jews who are rounded up and murdered. While on the run he gets a mixed reception. Some locals help him, others do not. He meets other people on his travels including an ex-girlfriend, a naked lady and a host of others.

He aims to return to his native village where he had not been for many years and on arrival does not recognise it. Most of the younger men had gone, imprisoned, dead, in the army, deported. As he is now considered a catch, he is introduced to various women as a marriage prospect. we follow more of his adventures when the book is followed by a translation of part of the sequel called Дім над кручею (The House on the Cliff) in which we meet the four woman interpreters in the village and Serhiy has a run-in with the local police.

Kaczurowsky does not spare us any details. The Soviets are nasty and vicious and so are the Germans and, indeed, so are some of the locals. There are, fortunately, a few nicer people who help him but, on the whole, he is very lucky to be alive as he could have been killed on many occasions.

Publishing history

First published in 1956 by Verlag Dniprowa Chwyla, Munich
First published in English in 2022 by Baydar
Translated by Yuri Tkacz