Return to Latvia




Building upon her celebrated autobiography Distant Fathers, Italian author Marina Jarre returns to her native Latvia for the first time since she left as a ten-year-old girl in 1935. In Return to Latvia—a masterful collage-like work that is part travelogue, part memoir, part ruminative essay—she looks for traces of her murdered father whom she never bid farewell. Jarre visits the former Jewish ghetto of Riga and its southern forest, where tens of thousands were slaughtered in a 1941 mass execution by Nazi death squads with active participation by Latvian collaborators. Here she attempts to reconcile herself with her past, or at least to heal the wounds of a truncated childhood. Piecing together documents and memories, Return to Latvia explores immense guilt, repression, and the complicity of Latvians in the massacres of their Jewish neighbors, highlighting vast Holocaust atrocities that occurred outside the confines of death camps and in plain view.

The Words That Remain




A letter has beckoned to Raimundo since he received it over fifty years ago from his youthful passion, handsome Cícero. But having grown up in an impoverished area of Brazil where the demands of manual labor thwarted his becoming literate, Raimundo has long been unable to read. As young men, he and Cícero fell in love, only to have Raimundo’s father brutally beat his son when he discovered their affair. Even after Raimundo succeeds in making a life for himself in the big city, he continues to be haunted by this secret missive full of longing from the distant past. Now at age seventy-one, he at last acquires a true education and the ability to access the letter. Exploring Brazil’s little-known hinterland as well its urban haunts, this is a sweeping novel of repression, violence, and shame, along with their flip side: survival, endurance, and the ultimate triumph of an unforgettable figure on society’s margins. The Words That Remain explores the universal power of the written word and language, and how they affect all our relationships.

A Few Collectors




Beloved Parisian artist Pierre Le-Tan, known for designing New Yorker magazine covers and collaborations with fashion houses, summons up memories of inveterate art collectors in this utterly charming illustrated volume. He evokes fascinating, sometimes troubled figures through an array of intriguing and curious tales. With seventy of his distinctive pen and ink drawings—in vibrant color with meticulous cross-hatching—A Few Collectors opens a window onto the vast or minuscule world created by collectors out of a mix of extravagance and obstinacy. It recounts encounters in Paris, the Côte d’Azur, North Africa, London and New York, where Le-Tan’s subjects have amassed a range of treasures. Some involve famed figures like former Louvre Museum director Pierre Rosenberg. Others are insolvent aristocrats, princes of film and fashion, expatriate dandies, and flat-out obsessive eccentrics. Le-Tan devotes perhaps his finest chapter to himself.

 

Pollak’s Arm




October 16, 1943, inside the Vatican as darkness descends upon Rome. Having been alerted to the Nazi plan to round up the city’s Jewish population the next day, Monsignor F. dispatches an envoy to a nearby palazzo to bring Ludwig Pollak and his family to safety within the papal premises. But Pollak shows himself in no hurry to leave his home and accept the eleventh-hour offer of refuge. Pollak’s visitor is obliged to take a seat and listen as he recounts his life story: how he studied archaeology in Prague, his passion for Italy and Goethe, how he became a renowned antiquities dealer and advisor to great collectors like J. P. Morgan and the Austro-Hungarian emperor after his own Jewishness barred him from an academic career, and finally his spectacular discovery of the missing arm from the majestic ancient sculpture of Laocoön and his sons. Torn between hearing Pollak’s spellbinding tale and the urgent mission to save the archaeologist from certain annihilation, the Vatican’s anxious messenger presses him to make haste and depart. This stunning novel illuminates the chasm between civilization and barbarism by spotlighting a now little-known figure devoted to knowledge and the power of artistic creation.

Watch a video of author Hans von Trotha discussing Pollak’s Arm with historian David Kertzer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Pope and Mussolini, at an event sponsored by Rizzoli Bookstore and the Centro Primo Levi in New York. Click here to watch.

The Vanished Collection




It all started with a list of paintings. There, scribbled by a cousin she hadn’t seen for years, were the names of the masters whose works once belonged to her great-grandfather, Jules Strauss: Renoir, Monet, Degas, Tiepolo, and more. Pauline Baer de Perignon knew little to nothing about Strauss, or about his vanished, precious art collection. But the list drove her on a frenzied trail of research in the archives of the Louvre and the Dresden museums, through Gestapo records, and to consult with Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. What happened in 1942? And what became of the collection after Nazis seized her great-grandparents’ elegant Parisian apartment? The quest takes Pauline Baer de Perignon from the Occupation of France to the present day as she breaks the silence around the wrenching experiences her family never fully transmitted, and asks what art itself is capable of conveying over time.

Watch a video of author Pauline Baer de Perignon telling experts at Sotheby’s auction house how she obtained the restitution of a valuable French masterpiece plundered from her great-grandfather and that later hung for decades in a museum in Dresden, Germany. Click here to view.

Interview with Klaus Wivel



You speak about it a bit in the book, but could you tell us the impetus for The Last Supper?

For many years I’d been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the collapse of the peace negotiations in 2000 the Second Intifada began. I reported from the Palestinian side and it became clear from talking to Christian Palestinians that a shift had taken place in the struggle for Palestinian nationhood.

Palestinian Christians had always been a crucial part of the nationalist movement. The Palestinian cause was about culture, history, and language before religion, which meant the both Christians and Muslims could partake in this endeavor.

However, from 2000 the definition of being Palestinian shifted and Islam became more and more the main denominator. This meant the Palestinian Christians began to feel like strangers in their own land. On top of that the methods in combatting the Israelis also shifted to include suicide bombings, which Palestinian Christians did not want to be a part of. Hence, they where looked upon by many militant, Islamic Palestinians as traitors to the cause. Thousands of Palestinian Christians began to emigrate. They felt trapped between the Israeli military on the one side and the militant Palestinian Islamic fundamentalists on the other. Christians in Bethlehem told me that if the level of emigration continued at this pace, Bethlehem would be emptied of Christians within a few decades. I knew this had to be an enormous story in the West, that the birth place of Christ was being abandoned by Christians. However, the story never really got much attention. This puzzled me.

I also learned about Christians leaving other Arab countries. In 2006, for instance, it was mentioned that two thirds of the Christians in Iraq had fled the country following the Iraq War. Churches were being bombed, Christians kidnapped, priests killed and whole Christian neighborhoods in the two biggest cities, Mosul and Baghdad, ethnically cleansed. This too failed to create a big media story in the West, despite the fact that the Christian community in Iraq is one of the oldest in the world.

When Copts in Egypt became the target of persecution after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and began to leave by the thousands, I wrote an open letter in my newspaper, the Danish weekly Weekendavisen, calling upon the new Danish foreign minister to arrange a meeting with ambassadors from the Muslim countries and ask them how they were going to protect the Christian minorities in their countries. He never answered. I decided that it was time to pay the Christians a visit in the Arab countries and ask why so many were leaving.

 

The entryway to the small church of St. Simon the Tanner in Cairo's garbage city, home to a large community of Coptic Christian garbage collectors and recyclers.

The entryway to the small church of St. Simon the Tanner in Cairo’s garbage city, home to a large community of Coptic Christian garbage collectors and recyclers.

 

What was the most difficult part about covering this story? Were you ever in danger?

I’m certainly not a reporter who would head for danger if I could avoid it, but there were a couple of dramatic situations. In Cairo for instance I went to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, with a Christian, female journalist. In one of the backstreets we were accosted by thirty or forty teenage boys who looked as if they hadn’t slept for days and were on the verge of running amok.

Tahrir Square has become notorious for the mistreatment, harassment and raping of women–three women had been stripped nude by a major crowd the day before our encounter–which is why women at that time more or less stayed away from the square unless they were completely covered up. The boys that encircled us began to harass the woman who, being a Christian, refused to wear a headscarf. We were completely outmatched, but she managed to talk her way out of the crisis and we were able to get away shaken, but unharmed. After that she said: “Don’t ask me why Christians want to leave Egypt. Ask me why they want to stay.”

 

There are many moving and troubling passages in this book. But one of the strangest stories, by far, is that of Andrew White, the pastor of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad. We get to meet him, of course, but tell us a little more about your experience with him, what he is like as a person.

I had heard of him in Christian circles in Denmark where he was spoken of as an almost mythic figure, because he is among the only Westerners with the guts to stay in Baghdad outside of the Green Zone during the Iraq War despite having a prize on his head from Islamist groups. Churches had been bombed in the city, Christians had been kidnapped and most of the Christians had left. But he stayed on to help both Christians and Muslims get through the horrible war with a school and medical clinic.

When I went to Baghdad to meet him he me picked at the airport with a heavily armed military escort that drove me through town at 90 miles per hour to his church in the middle of Baghdad, probably the most fortified church in the world. The vicar is huge in every way—big feet, big body, big head, big ideas—but since he suffers from sclerosis, he walks with a cane and often has to be seated. As a friend of Denmark, he had erected a monument in the middle of the courtyard with the names of the nine Danish soldiers who had died during the Iraq War. The vicar had been in favor of the war (but not how it was being fought), he cherished living dangerously while helping the poor, there were books on Jewish mysticism on his night table, and he spoke with warmth about Israel. Not many with that mindset in that city at the time, I’m sure.

 

You visited four “lands” – Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. It seems as though in all of them Christians face a bleak future. However, did you see any chance for survival there, any reason to hope?

It differs from country to country. The Iraqi situation is the bleakest. I visited areas around Mosul to the northeast that were conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014 and where all the Christians, over 100,000 of them, have had to flee. In Iraq they face ethnic cleansing. Outside the Kurdish areas there are only few Christians left. They are not likely to return any time soon, if ever.

In the West Bank, however, the situation for the Christians today is better than in many years. In 2007 the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Army drove Hamas underground and since then some Christians have returned. In Egypt, Christians are also doing better since the Muslim Brotherhood was evicted from power in the summer of 2013. However, it’s important to note that in every Arab country except Lebanon, Christians do not have equal rights. Just to give one example: A Muslim man can marry a Christian woman, and then their children will become Muslim. But a Christian man cannot marry Muslim woman. Discrimination like that—and there are many more examples—relegates the Christians to second-class citizens. In times of crisis the Christians are the group that is being scapegoated.

 

How long did it take you to write this book? When did you do the research?

A little less than a year, from the autumn of 2012 to the summer of 2013. I took one country at a time and wrote the chapter on each before travelling to a new country, except for the chapter on the Palestinian Christians, for which I returned to visit the Christians in Gaza.

 

Were you afraid that people would see your reporting as being mission-driven: in other words, that when you were writing, you already had an objective and an ulterior motive in mind? What do you say to critics who might ask, Why not write about every religious group that’s being persecuted?

I knew I would be accused of having an ulterior agenda. In Denmark and in Europe (and in the US, I guess) the debate on Islam and Muslims has been contentious for years and I knew I would be venturing into a minefield. Some told me before I began that I only was writing this book because I was Christian. This is why I make a point of saying that I’m not Christian. I was never baptized. I consider myself an atheist.

Others were certain that I wrote the book to put Muslims in a bad light. I guess the consequence of this line of thinking is that you shouldn’t write stories where Muslims appear as the perpetrators, not even when they clearly are. How this can be seen as a morally right thing to do escapes me.

Some would also criticize me for only focusing on the Christians when other minorities in the Middle East also are suffering. But despite my secularity I fail to see why being interested in the fate of the Christians in the Middle East, the origin of the dominant religion of the West, can be seen as dubious. Frankly, I have for years found it odd that it’s not more discussed than it is.

In a word: Anyone who reads the book will hopefully understand that this is a piece of journalistic work. I aim to convey that the situation for Christians in the countries I visit is so dire that we must shed light on it.

 

There was great controversy in Denmark after the book was published there in 2013. What were the different responses to your book? And how did you react? Were you surprised?

The book certainly received a lot of attention when it came out, mostly because most Danes were simply unaware of what was going on when it came to the Christians in the Middle East. But the book mostly got fine reviews on all sides of the political spectrum. I hope it shone through that I managed to be balanced and fair. But I’m critical in the book towards influential academics in the field of Middle East studies who in my view have completely neglected this topic and who have appeared apologetic towards the Islamic world. Naturally they were not too fond of this. However, after the ISIS attacks on Christians in Iraq and Syria, the gravity of the situation became evident to everybody. Last fall the new center-right Danish government included in its platform that it would show special attention to the persecution of Christians and other minorities around the world. I’m sure my book has played a role in this.

 

How would you respond to politicians and other persons of influence who might be reluctant to speak out about the persecution of Christians for fear of inflaming tensions between U.S./Europe and the Muslim world?

We cannot afford to abandon minorities facing extinction, and we are not doing the Muslim countries any favors by evading a forceful response. Christians in the Middle East have been great merchants, businessmen and artists for centuries, and many Muslims are well aware how much more impoverished and monolithic the area would become if the Christians left. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that for years Islamists have persecuted Christians all over the Middle East. As I write this, at the end of March 2016, an attack on Christians in Pakistan has just killed over 70 people. The question to those who fear “inflaming tensions” is: How has our silence helped this minority?

 

You wrote the book after the murder of Daniel Pearl but before the killings of several Westerners by ISIS. Are you planning to return to the region yourself to do further reporting of this kind? How do you see the outlook for similar reportage on human rights conditions in the societies you visited?

I would be thrilled to go back, but I was sent to New York to cover the US after the book came out, so the Middle East is not the topic I’ve been covering these past few years. That’s why I haven’t returned since I wrote the book.

For years there was too much focus on Israeli atrocities and way too little attention given to abuses in other Middle Eastern states. I don’t say this because I wish to shield Israel from bad press. On the contrary: I have a view that shouldn’t be very controversial—especially coming from a journalist—but in strange way it is. A critical press is good for any country. We take this for granted in the West. Although Israel dislikes the negative attention it receives from Western media (including its own) and generally doesn’t see it like this, media scrutiny is basically a service to the country; the same argument can be made for all countries. And on the flipside: the lack of scrutiny given to Arab regimes especially in the European press has been a betrayal of the Arab peoples living there. It treats them as if they were too fragile and immature to deal with the inquiry we expect the press to accord our own Western societies. Human rights groups have had the same fundamentally flawed approach to the Middle East.

Since the Arab Spring this has changed. At the moment I think we have many excellent and courageous journalists living in the Middle East doing important human rights stories.

 

Say something about the people who helped you on the ground.

Since Arab countries are more or less closed societies it’s crucial to have locals helping you. I’ve had help in all the countries, but in places like the Palestinian Territories and Egypt, some assisting me didn’t want me to publish their names for fear of retribution. Journalists often forget to state the obvious: that there is very little freedom of speech in some of these places. You can’t expect people to give you a truthful answer.

In Egypt and the Palestinian Territories dissidents are in fear of ending up in jail. This is one reason why it’s easier to work as a writer than as a TV journalist. People will—and this was specially the case in the Palestinian Territories—often say one thing when a camera is on, and another when it’s off. It was highly evident among the few thousands Christian who were still living in Gaza under Hamas rule. Christians—especially here, but in many other places—are in a way doubly oppressed. Not only by a government that allows little dissent from Muslims and Christians alike, but also from a dominant Muslim society where Christians are treated with contempt amid increasing radicalization. In such places you have to rely on anonymous sources.

 

 

What other stories have you covered? What have you been covering since you left the Middle East? You worked for a year as the New York correspondent for Weekendavisen. What was your favorite story here? The most interesting/strangest/most memorable place you visited?

I’ve been working as a journalist since 1998 so I’ve covered many stories and also allowed myself to do many different genres of writing, like interviews, reviews, essays, etc. I’ve also been editing for my paper over long stretches of time. A few months after writing the book on Christians in the Middle East, I helped to write the autobiography of one of Denmark’s most notorious and famous bike riders, Michael Rasmussen, the Danish version of Lance Armstrong. Of course, like everybody else he had been doping too, and he spilled the beans to me. Great story that caused a sensation in Denmark and abroad, but, well, quite different book from the one I’ve been talking about here.

I actually spent two years writing from New York: I came back to Copenhagen last summer. I’ve covered everything in the U.S. from the potter’s field at New York’s ghostly Hart Island where prisoners bury the unclaimed dead, to the water shortage in California, bull fighting in Texas, artists in Detroit, prison education inside Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, following the campaign trail in Colorado, and many interviews and book reviews. I also took the time to go to Chile to write about how former dictator Augusto Pinochet plagiarized his history professor in one of his books while serving as president, and to do a story about a soccer team in Chile, one of the country’s best, started by Palestinian, Christian immigrants. Of course, I wanted to know where they went and what they did when they left the Middle East. They played soccer, I guess.

I certainly wouldn’t mind spending many more years in the Americas.

North and East




Sergei Lebedev is the author of Oblivion, The Year of the CometThe Goose Fritz and Untraceable.

One day, on a cold winter eve, my father took his rifle down from the rafter to clean it. In answer to my unspoken request, he took out, from under the ceiling of the apartment, tightly bundled heavy canvas sleeping bags, a threadbare, faded rucksack, marsh boots, smoky mess kits, an officer’s field desk for maps, and a geologist’s hammer—his expeditionary equipment. While he took apart the rifle and cleaned the barrels with the ramrod, I, who had never been farther than the dacha, looked at these items from his past—and I knew who I’d become when I grew up, where the blue arrow of the compass, with its cracked leather strap, would take me.

North. And East.

 

I don’t know or remember what my peers dreamed about. My book of desires was a geographical atlas of the USSR, a giant folio with maps on the scale of 1:2,500,000, twenty-five kilometers to one centimeter. I’d open at random to a page with a map of the Transbaikal or the Archangelsk region, drink in, swallow from the pages the names of rivers and mountain ranges, distant islands in the polar seas; I’d imagine where I’d go, alone in a dark valley, along susurrus rivers in the fog, with clear stars climbing above the glaciers at the foot of a gorge. Neither my friends nor my comrades appeared in these dreams. Only untamed spaces, and their calling out to me.

North. And East.

 

My parents’ friends used to gather at our apartment—the same geologists, geophysicists, the staff from polar expeditions. They held conversations over vodka, sang songs—the songs you wouldn’t hear over the radio, songs of the camps, songs of the arrestees. And an icy chill from the faraway places would blow over the table, over the simple snacks and the shot glasses, and the air of celebration abated, as if the others at the table saw what I couldn’t see—some sort of frozen abyss, where people disappeared without a trace; a dark ill-boding secret arose behind snatches of words about the abandoned barracks, exiles who were enlisted into labor, about the unknown graves.

What could I comprehend of this? Nothing. But those far-off evenings, those voices, they did something to me, mingling with the inner whisperings of blood; something further sharpened, further aimed the arrow of the compass: North, and East.

 

There was only one figure of childhood that was able to, if you will, divert the arrow. At my grandmother’s house—my mother’s mother—there was a hefty box of war decorations and medals. It weighed a kilogram or two. The Order of Lenin, two Red Banners, two Red Stars, countless medals; sometimes I was allowed to look at them, hold them in my hands, my fingers growing numb. My grandfather, first husband of my grandmother, was a company commander in Stalingrad, and I always knew, though nobody ever told me, that these were his decorations, the decorations of a true hero.

When nobody was looking, hesitating out my own impudence, I would pin one of the orders onto my shirt and stand in front of the mirror. And I no longer saw mountain valleys, but frozen ditches, oncoming German tanks, black smoke, misty, snow-covered fields. There was probably nobody who was more Soviet than I was at that moment, a ten or eleven year old kid, frozen in front of the mirror wearing somebody else’s—though mine, too, in a way—medal, which was pulling comically on the pocket of my child’s t-shirt.

To fight and die for one’s country; to adapt somebody else’s biography as your own—a child of the last generation of the Soviet Union, I was still open to its heroics, its myths, its hagiographies, behind which I didn’t suspect the possibility of deceit.

This ebbed when I was a teenager, of course, but still something remained deep in me: like honor or pride, like a feeling that you’re a purposive link in the chain of generations.

 

And then, life determined what came next—which arrived like a telegram, a sign from my own personal future, too massive to understand it at that age.

At fifteen I set off to work on my first geological expedition—there, to my coveted North, to the promised land of the East. In the city of Pechora we plunged into a helicopter to fly to the pre-polar Ural Mountains. The old Mil helicopter took off roughly from the field, gained speed, gathered height, and the striped, prison-camp color scheme of the heat electropower station flashed by, and jagged clouds, a sliver of Pechora with the scattered logs of tree felling on the shoals—and all the sudden, just like an irregular heartbeat, the entire taiga opened up for tens of kilometers all around.

gulag There was a strange bald patch that could be seen in the middle of the taiga, half overgrown roads and toy-like houses (from the distance), with caved-in roofs, grey and black, decorated by light lilac-covered smears. Smears the color of fireweed, the plant that grows on fire sites and vacant lots. And all of this—again, from a bird’s eye view—came together into a certain scheme, an architectural draft, as if an invisible hand had scattered them all across the taiga, united by roads, decayed bridges over rivers.

Not believing, not wanting to believe, I looked at the second pilot through the open door of the cockpit. Understanding my question, he shouted in a loud voice, to block out the roar of the turbines:

“That’s a camp! A former camp!”

 

I’d already read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, already understood what was being discussed around my parents’ table as a child. However, being born in Moscow, living in Moscow, I never thought that the camps existed in the same times as I did; in my time. They had to do with the deep past, the era of my parents’ youth, and it was impossible to imagine them in 1996.

When you’re on a helicopter that’s in flight, the scariest thing of all is to hear silence. That means water’s gotten into the fuel line, the turbines have stalled, and the propellers have begun to windmill.

But at that moment I heard silence. No, the turbines hadn’t stalled, there was a terrible vibrating din, but I was cut off from it all, I’d been tossed into another dimension. I sat on the seat at the side window looking down and I was sealed in a capsule of silence, was one on one with myself, just myself. I felt I was a witness, that life had changed irrevocably simply because I had seen what I saw.

Then there were seven years of expeditions; the same North and East. Deserted mines and adits, rusty rails and train cars, rotting wooden boards of former barracks, old caravan trails, sunken in the yielding tundra earth by the hooves of packhorses. We walked the areas of the former camps, gathered samples of minerals for museums there, where once inmates had labored.

There weren’t enough of us and in order to cast our wide net without gaping holes over the huge area, we walked solitary routes, a strictly prohibited technique for safety reasons. Why do I mention this? Because, of course, later this would tell upon our fate: the feeling when in the morning you lace up your boots at the campfire, and around you are the voices of your comrades; but by the time you’ve finished tying them, you take a step and you’re alone already, only dispassionate nature all around, and whether you’ll make it through depends on you.

You’re alone, and nobody will help you.

 

I believe this feeling helped me back then. Then, when the North and East let me go, released me, all of the sudden I felt they’d given me everything I needed, and further expeditions would simply be repetition.

My grandmother died. I went to her apartment, to get her papers in order.

My grandmother had two husbands—one, my real grandfather, the same one who was the company commander in Stalingrad, and a second one, who died when I was six months old. I didn’t know anything about the second one except his name—Aleksandr Ivanovich—and what he left behind: two fishing rods, a hat, and a folding chair, stored in the attic at the dacha.

Among the papers I found two officer’s ID booklets. I remembered how in childhood I imagined myself as the descendant of a grandfather-hero. And, spurred by curiosity, I opened the ID card of my grandfather Grigory.

But there was nothing noted in it except a medal “For Victory over Germany”—a medal given to everyone who participated in the war.

Already standing stock still, I opened the second ID card.

            Aleksandr Ivanovich Erkin.

            Lieutenant Colonel, B.Ch.K. (All-Russian Special Commission for Counter-Revolution and Sabotage); OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate); NKVD (People’s Commission of Internal Affairs); MGB (Ministry of State Security).

            Did not fight in the war.

            Was awarded …

All of these orders and medals belonged to him, my grandmother’s second husband, an executioner and murderer, twice decorated in 1937, the year of the Great Terror.

And I stood with two cardboard ID booklets in my hands, cursing myself, cursing my parents—yes, they knew whom the medals belonged to in reality, and they were silent. I stood, understanding why I wandered through the North and East, for what reason I’d seen the ruins of the former camps, stood at the foot of the unnamed graves—in order to write a book.

A book for those like me, who will one day open their family archive—and find there something completely different than what they expected.

 

—Sergei Lebedev

Two Red Stars



Sergei Lebedev is the author of OBLIVION, a stunning novel about family, fate, untamed nature, Russia, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. Here’s a poem by Lebedev called “The Red Star,” which highlights some of the paradoxes and contradictions of Russia’s past. This poem, like Lebedev’s novel, was translated by Antonina W. Bouis.

Order of the Red Star

The Red Star  

One grandfather was a bomber pilot,

he did not see the people he killed.

He dropped bombs in the Quadrant sixteen slash seven

and pulled the plane out of a dive.

In forty-three they gave him the Order of the Red Star.

 

My other grandfather worked for the NKVD.

He was a senior lieutenant, the equivalent of army major.

He saw the people he killed,

when he made them kneel at the edge of the execution ditch.

In thirty-seven they gave him the Order of the Red Star.

 

One grandmother was an orderly

in a Moscow hospital, where they brought

seriously wounded officers.

She remembered the handful of Red Stars

left by the dead.

 

My other grandmother stayed in occupied territory,

in the house of her forester father.

She remembered the retreating officers

burying their red stars in the garden

in the potato bed or beet patch

in the fall of forty-one.

 

The sisters of my grandfathers starved to death in the blockade,

no one knows where they are buried.

The brothers of my grandmothers were privates lost in action,

surrounded near Kharkov and Orel,

no one knows what happened to them.

 

Two Red Stars lie in my hand,

one for a soldier, the other for an executioner.

And I don’t know how to tell them apart.