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Margarita Khemlin: Дознаватель (The Investigator)

Our hero/narrator is Police Captain Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, a happily married man, with one daughter. He had fought in World War II and had been badly injured but had recovered. The party had sent him to Chernihiv (called Chernigov in this book), Khemlin’s home town. The period is the start of the 1950s.

Mikhail has been called on to investigate the murder of one Lilia Vorobeichik. He is not Jewish but the victim and many of the people he will deal with during the course of this case are Jewish (as was Khemlin). Lilia had been stabbed but the murder weapon is missing. The (woman) doctor tells him that Lilia was wearing a well-made dress so Mikhail realises he should speak to the dressmaker. She is identified as Polina Lvovna Laevskaya and, as well as a dressmaker, was a friend of the victim. Mikhail soon discovers that Lilia had a boyfriend, Roman Nikolayevich Moiseenko, a theatrical actor, quite a bit younger than the victim. He soon confesses. Mikhail is worried, as it seems too easy and somewhat unconvincing but a signed confession is a signed confession. Roman is arrested and charged. A knife is missing from a matching set in Roman’s flat. Soon afterwards, Roman commits suicide, leaving no note. Case closed.

But, of course, it isn’t closed. Mikhail is diligent and thorough and is sure that he has missed something. He snoops around. Then, one day, he sees the victim, alive. He tracks her down to the block of flats where Lilia lived and where her body was found, and finds out that the person he has seen is Eva, Lilia’s twin sister. As well as being diligent and thorough, he is observant, and when he enters the Vorobeichik house, he sees matzos. He finds this suspicious for two reasons. Firstly, Passover has recently finished. Secondly, matzos have been strongly discouraged by the Soviet authorities and, indeed, people have been arrested for eating them. He learns that they have been made for the chickens.

Mikhail continues to investigate unofficially. He comes across Zusel Tabachnik, a somewhat suspicious individual who seems to know many of the Jews in the area. Mikhail’s colleague, Evsey Gutin, a Jew, also helps him. He learns about Jewish customs and the fact that many Jews moved to Chernihov when they were driven out of other places. He even attends (somewhat inadvertently) a Jewish wedding. He also finds an old friend from his home town (which he visits for the first time since the war – his parents were both killed by the Germans) – who knows Zusev.

Gradually, we learn the history of the Jews in the area and what the Jews suffered in the Soviet Union. Mikhail seems to be essentially a very decent man but is still not averse to anti-Semitic comments as are many other non-Jews. As this is the Stalinist period, millions of people were arrested and shipped off to Siberia, where many of them die. Many Jews were sent to Siberia and/or shot for being cosmopolitan. Of those Jews, many that were not sent to Siberia, lost jobs, housing and various civic rights, simply because they were Jews.

Mikhail and his wife become more sympathetic. Lyuba, Mikhail’s wife, uses Polina as a dressmaker but then makes the usual remarks when the bill is presented. Then Evsey Gutin kills himself – no-one knows why – and his wife has a mental breakdown. Mikhail and his wife agree to adopt one of their sons, Iosif (named after Stalin). This causes problems. The grandfather, Dovid, who has adopted the other two children, is not happy, though he really is not able to look after them and Iosif has poor health.

Things start taking a turn for the worse. There seem to be several plots and conspiracies going on. Mikhail is more and more dragged into the mess, with an effect on his marriage, an effect on his job and even an effect on his own mental stability. He keeps thinking he is close to a solution but then finds out more that changes his view. I knew lots of things he claims but, it would seem, not enough. There is a revelation by one of the characters, which leads him to make an assumption, but this is soon altered by more evidence.

The novel has a very complicated and very clever plot, with the outcome something of a surprise. However, the novel clearly is intended to show the Jewish community in Chernihiv (Chernigov) and nearby Oster, the treatment suffered by the Jews, both at the hands of the invading Germans and the Soviets as well as attitudes towards Jews from the non-Jewish Ukrainian population. Khemlin certainly does not try to paint the Jewish population as saints and martyrs. Yes, they have suffered a lot but they, too, have their faults and foibles.

It is not just racism that Khemlin focusses on. Men prefer stupid girls anyway. Isn’t that so?, says Svetka, who works for the police but is involved in the plot. It is the women who suffer most, from Lilia as the murder victim, to the many women who suffered in the war.

This really is an excellent and very clever story, which raises interesting social and political issues. While we are undoubtedly aware of the anti-Semitism that prevailed in the Soviet Union, particularly under Stalin, this book helps bring home what the Jewish population went through on a day-to-day basis. It is sad that Khemlin died at the young age of fifty-age and it is to be hoped we might see more of her books in English.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Astrel’
First published in English 2015 by Glagoslav
Translated by Melanie Moore