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Helena Duffy
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This project germinated late in 2011 when my laptop was still resting on my belly swollen with new life. Yet, instead of thinking of the future, as I perhaps should have been, my thoughts were on the past and, even more surprisingly, on the dark subject of the last world war. Or maybe my concerns did stem from my preoccupation with my son’s prospects after all, and in particular with his safety, since my own Polish childhood had been overshadowed by the spectre of World War ii and, with the Cold War in full swing, by the threat of another and potentially yet more lethal global conflict. As far back as my memories go, television screens were filled with black-and-white Polish and Soviet war films and television series: Seventeen Moments of Spring, More than Life at Stake, or Four Tank-Men and a Dog. Those were interspersed with colour Western movies projecting a nuclear apocalypse that one day would inevitably resolve the tension between the usa and the ussr. That this was not an unlikely possibility could be inferred from the omnipresence of the last war’s legacy; the buildings in my city still bore scars left by machine gun fire. A T-34 and ‘Vanya’, as the statue of the Red Army soldier put up in honour of Poland’s ‘liberators’ was familiarly called, were my city’s two most prominent monuments. Veterans hobbled on crutches and in the summer Holocaust survivors displayed their blood-curdling, bluish tattoos. Yet, most mysteriously of all, a lady I often saw at my bus stop would puzzle those unaware of her wartime ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo with a waterproof cape that she wore in rain or sunshine. Bookshop windows were full of works, both fictional and academic, about the war, and one Christmas as a Secret Santa present I received a pair of nylon stockings and a book about the World War ii fortunes of some Soviet battleship. Needless to say, being only thirteen I found either of little interest or use.

Despite a considerable age difference between us, this is what Andreï Makine and myself share: a childhood over which loomed large a catastrophe that had affected the lives of our grandparents and parents, that had literally shaped the world we grew up in and that was tirelessly commemorated in both the Soviet Union and its satellite states. In the process war memory was refashioned, romanticised, simplified, politicised and, effectively, distorted. Consequently, in my imagination it was the Polish partisans who, with a little help from their Soviet friends, a dashing secret agent, Hans Kloss (the alias of Stanisław Kolicki), and a friendly Alsatian called Sharik won the Second World War. Six million Poles lost their lives between September 1939 and May 1945. We had been brave, organising the resistance and maintaining our dignity; one could be shot dead for the most minor offences, captured in the street at random and be sent to Germany as a forced labourer or to a concentration camp as a human guinea pig. We saved Jews, despite the draconian measures against those who were discovered to do so. But, curiously, ‘Holocaust’ was an unknown word and Auschwitz a place where Polish citizens (including those of Jewish origin) had been massacred. From my first visit to the former camp I remember long rows of photographs captioned with the names of those murdered: -ski, -ska, -icz were the endings, not -baum, -blum or -stein. Having said that, there existed an alternative discourse, a clandestine one. In whispers people around me said: Ribbentrop-Molotov, Lwów, Monte Casino, Katyń, Fieldorf-Nil. Others must have been saying: Jedwabne, Radziłów, Wąsosz, Szczuczyn.

Luckily, since then much has changed in Polish historiography and so has it in Russia, although there, as Makine’s writing alone confirms, the cult of the brave, self-sacrificing, kind-hearted and patriotic Ivan who singlehandedly defeated fascism has proven more resistant to historical revisionism than its Polish equivalent. Even more worryingly, the myth of Soviet martyrdom and heroism has recently found a new strength thanks to Putin’s Soviet-style government. And yet, during perestroika, cracks started to appear in the simultaneously tragic and heroic image of the war which, forged as of the first days of the Russo-German conflict, had been very much de rigueur throughout the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. And so some hard facts about Russia’s twentieth-century past began to be written back into Russian history. Among these were the ussr’s 1939 invasion of Finland, the 1938 Russo-German pact, the 1939 Nazi Germany’s and ussr’s joint invasion of Poland, the annexation of the Baltic states, the 1940 Katyń massacre of twenty thousand Polish officers, the expatriations of whole ethnic groups suspected of German collaboration, or the mass rapes and lootings committed by the Red Army on its way to Berlin. Similarly, the Soviet soldiers’ desertions, the nkvd units shooting those retreating or wounded, Stalin’s wartime crimes towards his own people, the gulag, the notorious punishment battalions, the tragic fate of Soviet prisoners of war returning from German captivity, the collaboration with the enemy in the German-occupied parts of the ussr, or, finally, the Soviet wartime anti-Semitism stopped being a secret to anyone. Anyone, so it seems, except Andreï Makine.

This is why this book had to be written: to take issue with novels that, evidently destined for Western consumption, propagate an overwhelmingly positive image of the Soviets’ role in the worldwide conflict. Having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain, I feel compelled to tackle Makine’s depiction of the war, which seems to me deliberately misleading. One way of achieving this, I feel, is by comparing and contrasting the author’s vision with two different narratives on the historical period in question: the official Soviet one and the one created in the West and in post-perestroika Russia, which, although also inevitably tendentious, must be less so than Soviet-time propaganda. Indeed, all discourse on the past, as Makine’s narrators themselves repeatedly tell us, thus echoing postmodern historians and novelists, is subjective, partial, mythical, intertextual, divorced from empirical experience, determined by the concerns of here and now, and motivated by political interests. Is Makine therefore a historiographic metafictionist, as Linda Hutcheon brands those postmodern writers who probe the secrets of the past in order to, paradoxically, flaunt the impossibility of knowing or narrating history? And if so, is it possible to embrace the postmodern rhetoric of doubt and relativity, and the poetics of fragment connected to the histories of those marginalised and oppressed, in order to ultimately reaffirm the totalising and monolithic narrative of tyrannical power? These are the central questions posed by the present book that sets out to explore the potential clash between the postmodern aura of Makine’s novels and their curiously conservative political agenda. This book is intent on exploring these novels’ implications not only for the understanding of World War ii among Makine’s Western readers, but also for a theory that attaches postmodernism to historical revisionism and political dissent. Before giving full attention to these issues without, however, being able to provide unequivocal answers to the questions arising from my analyses, I can assert one thing: while being a potentially politically dangerous phenomenon, by speaking in the name of those silenced by a repressive regime and yet promoting reactionary values, the Franco-Russian author’s beautifully written, engaging and moving prose is, as is all historiographic metafiction, an artistically self-contradictory enterprise.

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