Set in the author’s native Estonia in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War as the Soviets tightened their grip over the Baltic states this, his first novel, grew out of a well received short story. The original is simply called Pobeda 1946, the addition of the subtitle mirrors the way that the original sections in Russian are dealt with in the translation, that is by providing an English translation immediately afterwards within the text rather than as a footnote as may have been expected. Pobeda’s were a luxury vehicle manufactured by the Molotov works in Gorky and were only available to senior apparatchiks such as the un-named security services (some derivation of KGB in Estonia) major who drives the one in the book. One of the interesting features about the book is that we never find out the names of several significant characters, specifically ‘the woman’ who is married to an ex WWII freedom fighter who is being hunted by the soviets, ‘the boy’, the woman’s six year old son who tries to make sense of what is happening as his parents disappear one by one and ‘the man’ the driver of the Pobeda who causes their disappearance and maintains an apparent friendship with the boy whilst using him to seek out his parents.
Dragged along in the aftermath of this is Joanna, the woman’s half sister who worked as an opera singer before the war and Alan who is employed by the BBC World Service radio as an announcer and who fell in love with Joanna in the 1930’s and now desperately wants to get her out of the country and into safety. The rising tensions of the interwoven stories of the adults and the bewilderment of the all too easily manipulated boy who just want to understand and find his parents whilst also wanting to help the man who he believes is his friend is really well told. The characters are totally believable and I found the book difficult to put down as I became engrossed in just what was going to happen next. I loved the fact that for the most part the story is told from the viewpoint of the boy, his confusion, and also his excitement over his experiences as the man tries to work out the best way to make use of him but which he sees as the mans goodwill towards him that doesn’t seem to work out right each time is a fascinating way to tell the story.
It is explained in the afterwords by the author and the translator that there is some of the authors own family story that provides the basis for the book. He was born in Siberia where his parents had been sent during Stalin’s forced repatriation of the people of the Baltic states and one of the other aspects dealt with in the book is the movement of people in the opposite direction. Joanna has a family from the Russian steppes forced upon her in her tiny flat and when she goes with the boy back to his parents property they find that another family has been moved into there as well. It was thought that if enough Russians were sent to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along with their natives being deported to Siberia then the ethnic balance would be sufficiently diluted so that these countries would quietly acquiesce to their amalgamation into the Soviets republics but this soviet aspiration never really happened. Despite this the Estonian population is still 24.7% ethnically Russian even so long after the movement of people took place, as is the population of Latvia. Lithuania presumably being further away received far fewer people as just 4.7% is ethnic Russian.
Definitely a book to read this year as the 20th August 2021 is the 30th anniversary of Estonian independence from the Soviet block, my copy was published by Nordic Press in 2018. Estonia has been invaded and become independent many times over the centuries hopefully 1991 will have been the last time they need to set a new Independence Day.