An or­di­nary fam­ily’s tale in ex­tra­or­di­nary Rus­sian times

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - JOHN BOLAND

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

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