What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past And The Journey Home by Mark Mazower

The Blurb On The Back:

This is the remarkable story of a family, and the sacrifices and silences that marked a generation and their descendants.  Mark Mazower uncovers the history of his ancestors, who fate drove into the siege of Stalingrad, the Vilna ghetto, occupied Paris, and even into the ranks of the Wehrmacht.  His British father was the lucky one, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants who settled in London after escaping the civil war and revolution.  Max, the grandfather, had started out as a socialist and manned the barricades against tsarist troops, but never spoke of it.  His wife, Frouma, came from a family ravaged by the Great Terror yet somehow making its way in Soviet society.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order WHAT YOU DID NOT TELL: A RUSSIAN PAST AND THE JOURNEY HOME by Mark Mazower from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Mark Mazower is Professor of History at Columbia University.  This fascinating book looks at Mazower’s family history starting with his grandfather, Max, a Jew born in the Russian Empire to piece together who they were and what drove them overseas.  However while Mazower does his best to fill in the blanks, there is a lot of supposition here, so while you learn a lot about the politics, his family themselves remain to an extent unknowable.  

I didn’t really know anything about the General Jewish Labour Bund of Russia and Poland (better known as the Bund) before reading this book.  I have a vague memory of it being mentioned in my GCSE class when I was learning about the build up to the 1917 Russian revolution but didn’t know anything about how it operated or its relationship with Lenin’s Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks.  One of the best things about this book is how Mazower uses the fact that his grandfather Max was a leading member of the Bund (it was a group with a ruling committee rather than a fixed leadership structure) and had a key role in disseminating propaganda and organising workers to explain and contextualise what the Bund was and its role in the rise of Soviet Russia.  He is also very good at looking at what was happening politically in Russia with the Civil War, take over by the Bolsheviks and rise of Stalin through the lens of what happened to his extended family members.  It’s an effective technique that brings home the horrors of the Great Terror (notably how members of his family did not know what had happened to loved ones for years after their execution before finally getting a cursory note) and the Nazi invasion of Russia and how it touched on individuals.

Mazower begins with his grandfather Max (named Mordkhel at birth) who was born in 1873 or 1874 in Grodno in the Russian Empire (now Belarus).  Following his father’s death when he was only 14 years old, Max, his mother and his two brothers – Semyon and Zachar left Grodno for Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania) where he found work with a shipping merchant.  Vilna was the birthplace of the Bund and Max soon became involved with it, rising through the ranks to help organise and produce and distribute propaganda.  However his grandfather’s reticence about talking about these years means that it’s not known what drew him to the Bund and although Mazower does a great job of tracking his activities as best he can (including his arrests by the Russian police and escape from internal exile) there is no way of knowing what he thought about those early years, what he was hoping for, how he saw the organisation and what his thoughts were on the Bolshevik and Menshevik groups (although clearly he was no fan as he never joined them).

The first 6 chapters of the book focus on Max and his experiences, including his eventual arrival in London and how his job with a typewriter manufacturer allowed him to travel back to Russia to try to make sales to the preliminary revolutionary government.  I found the details of his life that Mazower has pieced together really absorbing and Mazower creates a real sense of their life in London, interspersing it with biographies and experiences of other Russian exiles (Bundists and communists alike) who were in the vicinity or within their friendship groups.

The book then moves on to looking at what happened to Zachar, who stayed in Vilna.  Although he had always been in poor health and only ever worked as a manual labourer, Zachar wrote regularly to his brother until his last letter was sent on 20 May 1940.  Mazower does his best to track what happened to him, his wife Pearl and daughter Rebecca.  All three were caught in the ghetto during the Russian offensive and although it is shocking when Mazower puts forward what he thinks happened to them, more shocking is the fact that following Max’s own death in 1952, none of his children (including Mazower’s father) really considered them because Max rarely spoke of them.  It’s terribly sad but also horribly relatable as this was an experience shared by so many who lost relatives to the Holocaust.

Of the family members discussed in the book, Max’s son André was probably the most interesting, in part because of his emotional split from his father (to the point where he denied he was Max’s son) and in part because that split drove him to the far right and to the point where he made up a more preferable past for himself.  Again, the issue is that Mazower didn’t know his uncle particularly well and given he was over 10 years older than Mazower’s father, his father didn’t have a huge amount of information to give Mazower about him.  This was one of those instances in the book where I was a bit frustrated that Mazower doesn’t set out more about his research methods and whether there were any other family members or cousins who he could have spoken with about him.  What he does piece together is fascinating because of the opportunities that André had through his time at Cambridge and connection to T S Elliott and how they didn’t really come together into the kind of career and life he should have had.  The chapter where Mazower delves as much as he can into the life of André‘s mother is particularly interesting given her revolutionary pedigree and the connections she had.

Mazower than moves onto his grandmother Frouma, (born Frouma Tourmarkine) as one of 8 children to a timber merchant father and a mother who also belonged to a merchant family.  Mazower pieces together her first marriage to a medical officer in the Russian army called Alexander Baltermants, who had a somewhat shady reputation (and whose brother, Dmitri was a war photographer and the first to capture the German execution squads killing Jews during the invasion of Russia) by whom she had a daughter, Ira.  It’s clear that she led a difficult, nomadic life before meeting Max and it must have been very difficult for her to move to the UK when she spoke no English.  Mazower uses her to track what happened to her remaining family during the build up to and during the the Second World War and it’s, again, difficult reading, as so many fell victim to the Great Terror.

Ira is shown by Mazower as a mercurial character, prone to fantasy and, like André, keen to escape her life at home (even if that did not extend to giving up her room).  Again, I wished that Mazower had tracked down some more people who knew her as the information he gets from his father seems a little skewered and I think it might have helped give an outsider’s perspective on her attitudes towards the family and her upbringing.  The final chapters of the book turns to Mazower’s father, where there is clearly a lot of warmth and love there but again, distance as there were aspects of his life that he was reticent to discuss and, again, a lack of interviews with contemporaries of him to help flesh him out.

Mazower peppers the book with photographs of his family where he has them and although the ones of the relatives killed by Stalin’s authorities are particularly difficult to look at, it helps bring home who these people were and what they meant to each other.  There are chapter notes at the end, which help draw out sources or other pieces of relevant information and there’s a glossary of terms at the end to keep track of terminology (although I found it clear enough to not have to turn to it).  One thing I would have liked was a family tree to explain who everyone was and what their relationship was with each other as it would have helped to keep everything straight from a chronological point of view.  This criticism aside, I found this to be a genuinely informative and moving read that shows the difficulties of trying to piece together a generation who were stoic to the extreme and as such, I do think this is worth a read.   

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