An ordinary family’s tale in extraordinary Russian times
Doubleday Ireland, hardback, 320 pages, €17.99
THE daughter in question is the author’s Armenianborn wife and it’s through the prism of her life and that of her parents that this family story also becomes the story of a vast country and the regime that ruled it for most of the 20th century.
Conor O’Clery met Zhanna Suvorov when he was posted to Moscow as Irish Times correspondent in 1987 and needed someone to help him develop his conversational skills in Russian. The relationship soon deepened and in 1991 the divorced father of five and the recently widowed 29-year-old married in Moscow before moving to Washington in 1991, and finally to Ireland in 2005.
Back in 1961, however, when Zhanna was only three, her father Stanislav had been accused of the trifling but anti-Soviet crime of selling his car for profit and sentenced to seven years in jail. After serving five years he was released but for reasons of family prestige took his wife Marietta and daughter from their home town of Grozny to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he resumed his craft as an expert shoemaker.
Under Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, this was a time of relaxed austerity and Stanislav found rewarding work and decent accommodation, though Krasnoyarsk was a closed city because of its chemical plants and nuclear research. But the family thrived there as loyal Soviet citizens, including Zhanna, who joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party.
In 1980, at the age of twenty-two, she married trainee engineer Viktor, but seven years later, as she was temporarily away in Moscow pursuing her studies in foreign literature, the wayward Viktor was assaulted in the street and died from his injuries. Soon after that, though, she met Conor O’Clery and her life, and that of her little daughter, changed for the better.
This, however, is only the bare outline of an intricate and eventful family story that’s recounted here with skill and clarity — though also at too great a length, with many events and details that will mean less to most readers than they plainly do to the author and his family. Indeed, in the early part of the book there’s such a profusion of incidental characters that you may feel obliged to consult the introductory pages, which document the family trees of both Stanislav and Marietta.
And clarity isn’t always helped by the author’s decision to frame the narrative in the present tense. Presumably this is intended to lend a sense of immediacy and urgency to the storytelling, as if it’s all happening in the here and now, but occasionally all it does is to create confusion between past and present.
That said, the book is mostly absorbing. The author has a story to tell and he tells it very well, both about Zhanna’s family and about the Soviet Union and its eventual collapse, which as a journalist he witnessed at first hand.
The new freedoms under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin led to revelations about the communist regime and led Zhanna to realise that the old system had been “founded on lies and monstrous crimes”, though she had already reacted angrily to the KGB when they asked her to report back to them details of her meetings with O’Clery and his associates and friends.
It’s an intricate and eventful family story that’s recounted here with skill and clarity — though also at too great a length
But change was everywhere, the author noting how young people adapted immediately to new ways: watching MTV, dressing differently, planning foreign holidays, absorbing new technologies, demanding instant service in shops.
But the chaos and corruption that accompanied these freedoms caused older family members to lament the sense of order that had prevailed under the Soviet regime.
In Marietta’s view: “We had a good life in the Soviet Union and we were happy. Many things were unfair under communism but nowadays they are a hundred times worse”. In the old days “there was free healthcare, free education and free housing. Everyone was equal... Yes, there was disparity, but nothing like what we have now. Yeltsin and the others sold off the country”.
Marietta is still alive, but Stanislav died in 2015 at the age of eighty-six. The book is a moving testament to these decent people whose ordinary lives coincided with extraordinary times and testing circumstances.
Conor O’Clery and his wife Zhanna in Moscow in 2002
MEMOIRThe Shoemaker And His Daughter Conor O’Clery