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Theodore Odrach: Вошадь (Wave of Terror)

This was Theodore Odrach’s final work before he died of a stroke in 1964. It was more or less finished and was edited and then translated by his daughter. It is presumably at least partially autobiographical. More particularly, for Western readers, it shows clearly how badly the Ukrainians were treated by the Russians even when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and how the Russians looked down on the Ukrainians as moujiks, i.e. peasants in the pejorative sense.

The novel is set in 1939. The Nazis have invaded Poland. What people in the West may be less aware of is that, sixteen days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. The Nazi invasion is barely mentioned in this book. The Soviet invasion is key to the book.

The novel is set in the Pinsk Marshes, the largest wetland in Europe, particularly in the village of Hlaby and the town of Pinsk. Both had been part of Poland prior to the invasion. However, the locals were primarily Ukrainian and spoke Ukrainian. When the Russians took over, the area we are dealing with was transferred not to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic but to the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (and is now in modern-day Belarus).

Our hero is Ivan Kulik. He is a teacher and has recently been made headmaster of the school in Hlaby. He initially has no teaching staff, no ancillary staff and a decrepit building. He soon meets and recruits Sergei as a teacher and other teachers are appointed later. He will later have a cleaning lady, Paraska, a woman with five young children and a sick husband.

Life under the Poles was not particularly good. There was a local landowner, Olivinski, who, though he certainly exploited the locals, was not terribly vicious. He was murdered when the Soviets took over and his estate was confiscated.

Cornelius Kovzalo has been appointed village chairman. He had been in Polish prison for opposing the Poles so is considered something of a hero by the Soviets, For the locals, however, he is an ignorant horse thief. Odrach mocks him throughout the book. I would not be surprised to learn that he was modelled on a real person. He is stupid, uneducated and cowardly but can also be vicious.

Apart from the lack of staff and equipment and a decrepit building, Kulik faces another problem. He is a Ukrainian speaker. He does speak some Russian but not Byelorussian. The locals, who are all peasants in the non-pejorative sense, speak Ukrainian. They do not speak Russian or Byelorussian. Howver, Kulik is required to conduct classes in Russian or Byelorussian. When he raises the issue at a local teachers’ conference, he is branded as subversive. Ukrainian was a crude, backward language spoken only by a mob of illiterate peasants.

Odrach has no doubt that the Soviets are unremittingly evil. At the start of the book an old man looks towards the East. Everyone knew that evil came from the east.

Kulik and Sergei struggle with the Soviet system and people like Cornelius who are devoted Stalinists but have no clue about real life. Sometimes he simply mocks them while at others they are shown as evil. Innocent people who may have had some contact with the Poles under the previous regime are suddenly arrested and shipped off to Siberia. Paraska’s husband is meant to be working but really cannot as he is very ill. He is arrested but the Soviets are annoyed because by the time they arrest him he is dead.

Part of the novel is set in Pinsk. Kulik has to go there to get supplies and deal with the education authorities. Sergei introduces him to his relatives, the Bohdanovich family. They have a daughter, Marusia, to whom Kulik is attracted but there is a mutual antipathy. She speaks Russian (badly) and Kulik feels she is betraying her roots while she considers him a peasant as he speaks Ukrainian. However, she has mixed views about Lieutenant Sobakin of the NKVD (Soviet secret police). He is important if not attractive. However, she soon turns against him when he tries to rape her. He will not give up and will also make life very difficult for Kulik and Sergei, not least because he works in the Soviet prison where people are frequently taken and tortured.

The Bohdanovich family have a son Lonia who is allegedly in Lvov. Efrosinia, his mother, wants to bring him back and is continually urging her husband to go and fetch him, which he refuses to do, She also elicits Sobakin’s help and he tells her that her son is OK and studying and will be back soon. Marusia is convinced thayt Sobakin is lying.

Other things change. Pinsk had been a thriving town with a large market and lots of shops. All that disappears. Even the bars and cafés disappear as admission is restricted to members of specific unions. And, of course other aspects of Ukrainian culture disappear such as Christmas and religion as a whole.

Sergei and Kulik know that the net is drawing in around them. Regular visits from NKVD officials and other Soviet officials, rumours that virtually everyone is now an informer and the sudden and unexplained disappearance of ordinary people all show them what is like;y to happen. When wandering round Pinsk, Kulik bumps into a man who, he learns, is on the run and that clearly is happening more and more frequently. He gets a visit from a delegation. The government officials had played their usual games and applied standard intimidation tactics, but somehow he had been able to withstand them all. They had tried to break him, to confound him, to frighten him, and they had failed. But how long before they came after him again? And in the next round he might not be so lucky.

This is an excellent book, not least because of its relevance to the current situation with Putin trying to suppress Ukrainian culture. Odrach is completely partial in his views. The Soviets/Russians are all bad and the Ukrainians who try to curry favour with the Russians by adopting Russian ways and speaking Russian are not much better. We know that Odrach escaped, eventually getting to Canada. Kulik’s fate is less clear.

Publishing history

First published in 1972 by Committee for Publishing the Story “Voshchad”
First published in English in 2008 by Academy Chicago Publishers Studies
Translated by Erma Odrach (author’s daughter)