"...then bands of agitators follow... calling themselves long-awaited liberators. Like swarms of locusts, they seep through the smallest cracks and infest villages and settlements."
With this description young Ivan Kulik, newly appointed village school headmaster, introduces the events of 1939 in Hlaby, his village in the Pinsk Marshes - a region straddling the border between Ukraine in the south and Belorussia in the north. What follows is an extraordinary story, a social portrait of a community struggling to survive in the face of constantly mounting and increasingly violent Soviet interference in the lives of the villagers. By focusing on one village and a limited group of primary characters, Theodore Odrach takes the historical facts onto a very personal and intricate level, building empathy and understanding in the reader who is captivated early on and will remain engaged until the end of the novel and beyond.
Odrach's characters are lively and personable, realistically captured in their daily lives and their new, at times conflicting, emotions. Many are torn between willingness to collaborate with the occupiers, anticipating personal advantage within a Soviet system, or maintaining a more or less neutral attitude, risking being labelled nationalist or even traitor, thereby endangering their livelihood and even survival. As the harassment and brutal attacks multiply, and random arrests, disappearances and arbitrary killings are witnessed more frequently, ignoring reality is almost impossible. Propaganda and reality could not be further apart. Even those, like Ivan Kulik, who are trying to maintain some level of normalcy in the school and the village, have to fear being called for "an interview" at the notorious Zovty prison of the NKVD [the Soviet Secret Police], in Pinsk. Ivan, who is as much chronicler of the events as active participant, has to confront his own suspicions: can he trust even his few friends like Sergei? Is the chatty neighbour or colleague an agent provocateur waiting to report him? Will his faultless "proletarian credentials" protect him from disappearing in Zovty prison or being sent to a concentration camp in Siberia?
For the young women in particular, embracing the "modern" Russian way can lead to unforeseen consequences. Clearly exploiting the benefits of the new system is Dounia Avdeevna. While her machinations read like light relief, the author's message is serious. The primary female character, however, is Marusia, the girl that raises romantic feelings in Ivan. She is rejecting any advances by him, this 'moujik' (peasant) who prefers to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian (which he speaks more fluently than she does). He is also better educated than she is... Odrach conveys the conflicts in the girl's mind admirably, and, mostly, with a lovely ironic touch. Nonetheless, for me one of the most chilling scenes is Marusia's reaction to receiving a beautiful winter coat as a gift - and discovering the label in its collar...
The brutal occupation of the Pinsk Marshes, so empathically evoked by Odrach, has to be understood against the historical context and its unique geographic characteristics. A strategically important region for the Soviet Union, it had been under Polish control until its annexation by the Red Army in September 1939. Its deep forests, broken up by farmland and pastures with isolated villages scattered in the landscape and, most importantly, the river with its large flood plains had provided natural barriers from unwanted intruders. Culturally, the population's identity was rooted in their Ukrainian language. As Odrach expertly illustrates, the region's "integration" into Byelorussia meant much more for the villagers than the compulsory introduction of the Byelorussian and Russian languages: it represented the denigration of their own language and culture and a rejection of their important role in the wider Russian and Slavic historical context. I found it fascinating how Odrach uses the language conflict also as an illustration of social tensions within the community. Some characters, such as the Russian-speaking apparatchiks, when irritated or angry, slip back into their native Ukrainian without noticing ' or they do, losing more than their argument.
I found it especially fascinating how Odrach illustrates the social tensions in the community through the language issue. Some characters, such as the Russian-speaking apparatchiks, when irritated or angry, slip back into their native Ukrainian without noticing - or they do, losing more than their argument.
WAVE OF TERROR is without doubt closely based on the author's personal experiences. Odrach has beautifully fictionalized what he knew and lived through and presented it in a way that readers from everywhere can relate to the individuals, their lives, hopes and struggles. He has done even more than that. With his nuanced approach he has brought to light a mostly unknown tragedy of a community of a specific region that stand representative for the many, many victims of Stalin's Sovietization campaign with the reign of terror suffered by communities with different cultural and linguistic identities.
Theodore Odrach escaped from the Soviet Union and eventually immigrated to Canada in 1953. Since then, until his untimely death in 1964, he used every spare moment to write - not only this novel but a substantial body of works. For me, Odrach's writing stands on its own and does not need any suggestion for literary influences. However, I did find important parallels in terms of theme and approach between Odrach's novel and 2009 Nobel laureate Herta Müller. Both authors have fictionalized the personally experienced terror regimes seen from the perspective of a specific linguistic background. WAVE OF TERROR was published in Ukrainian in 1973 and has only recently become available in English thanks to the great efforts of his daughter Erma, who had to enter the depth of the Ukrainian language and culture to convey her father's words and meaning. She has done so beautifully and convincingly. [Friederike Knabe]