Saturday 9 May 2015

9th May

As a little girl I was curious and would hunt through places I ought not. Once I found a little brown cardboard box in a drawer in my parents’ room. In it were some medals and piece of paper with a name that was unfamiliar to me. I asked my mother, but she was rather coy. She said something about the medals being my grandfather’s and that he’d died in the war. I asked why he had such a funny name. She explained that he was my grandpa Alex. That he had been her father, but that she’d been too young to remember him. I pointed to the strange name on the paper. She explained that he was also called Alexei and then I was told firmly to put the medals away and not to speak about them to my grandmother who would only be upset.

It wasn’t until years later and then only gradually that I heard the whole story and then only after my grandmother had died. Her mother had been a governess in Russia prior to and during the First World War. The family she lived with were part of the nobility living in the provinces a long way from Moscow. As this world collapsed into revolution, she found herself along with what was left of the family attached to the White Army. However, sometime around 1920 as the defeat of the Whites became clear, she escaped on a British ship that was evacuating Whites from Novorossiysk. With her was an infant.

The story that she told was that a young couple from the family with whom she had lived for so long, pleaded with her to take their child hoping to be able to join him later. There were however, of course, always whispers that, in fact, the child was hers. Perhaps, she had married someone from that family, or someone else entirely, then again perhaps not. These were difficult times. Perhaps, really the child had been the child of the young couple desperate to at least save their baby. I have never been sure and there is no way of finding out now. So I don’t even know if my great grandmother was really my great grandmother. These things were kept hidden for a reason. Alexei grew up with her, but had a different surname to hers, but neither was it the name of the family in which she had been a governess, the family which might or might not have been his family in Russia. There was a reason for this, too. It would not have been safe.

Alexei died when my mother was very young. It was in 1940 or thereabout and he was a pilot in the RAF. That is almost all I know about my grandfather. I don’t even know what his “real” surname was. But does it matter? It certainly doesn’t matter to me.
My husband has a similar story to tell. His grandfather also came from the nobility.  He too changed his surname. He was lucky, for by accident or by design, the regional archive where his family had their estate had been burned down. This was a common practice in those days as the ability or not to search through an archive was frequently a matter of life and death. The wrong sort of ancestors could get you killed.  Because of the lack of information that could be hunted through, he could successfully portray himself as from a working family. It is whispered now that he may have been a prince. There are family rumours, but no-one even knows what his real name was. It was never mentioned, not even to his wife. The risks were just too great.

Relations who were unable to disguise their origins ended up being described as enemies of the people, simply because of who their parents had been. Some of them spent long periods in the Gulag, many died there. Whether or not you could arrange to burn down an archive or whether it happened fortuitously made quite a difference. People died because they had the wrong name.

My husband’s grandfather died in one of the greatest battles in history. The  Red Army in 1944 crushed the German Army Group Centre in an enormous battle of pincer movements and a huge double envelopment. In many ways here was the Red Army’s greatest triumph where they used the concepts of Deep battle and Маскировка [Maskirovka or military deception] to the greatest effect. My husband’s grandfather died somewhere in Belarus in a battle that few in the West have heard of. It was called Operation Bagration. And he died a Hero of the Soviet Union.

But just as you have no doubt never heard of the battle, so no-one even knows his real name. He is listed on a monument to all the Heroes of the Soviet Union in Moscow. I have seen it. He has a name that sounds in Russian rather like Smith does in English. He was from a family who we think  could trace its origins back to the early rulers of Russia, but that name is lost now because he dared not whisper it.

I am the child of both these men, Russians with unknown names who died a few years apart and many miles apart, but for the same cause. I have a common enough surname, Deans, and I was named after a character in a novel. Is that really so very unusual? I have a married name and a first name that works better in Russia. I keep these private for a reason.  If you really want to go digging in the archive, read my books. There are lots of clues. But these same clues might also suggest that it would be better not to dig. 
My husband’s grandfather did not agree with the regime he fought for. But then he didn’t fight for that regime, neither did millions of others. They fought for the Motherland. So too many of us don’t agree with the present regime in Russia. But Russia goes back centuries, it is not the present regime, nor the regime under Stalin, nor that under the Tsar. Russia is an ideal. It is called Святая Русь [Holy Rus’]. It is this that we fight for. It is this which enabled Russians to defeat Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1945.  

The Soviet Union should have been defeated in 1941. No other army in history could have survived the scale of that disaster and the disasters that followed. No other army in history could have stopped the Germans at Stalingrad. It required a level of sacrifice that few in Britain can contemplate. It required something more. It required a miracle, a continuous four year miracle that eventually brought victory.

I may hope for more democracy in Russia. I may hope for greater prosperity, less corruption and more enlightened rulers. I may even do what I can to bring about these things.  You don’t know me, nor how much I am involved. But whatever I think of the present regime I today commemorate what the Soviet people achieved. Their sacrifice isn’t lessened by the fact that their leader was Stalin, nor is it lessened by the name of the present leader of the Russian Federation. Their sacrifice has nothing whatsoever to do with these transitory things.

The allies made the decision not to invade Western Europe in 1943, partly because they feared it would not succeed, but also because they hoped that the Red Army would sufficiently wear down the Germans so that by the time they did invade, the task would be easier. Soviet soldiers died so that British soldiers might live. Their sacrifice meant that we have fewer names on our memorials, while they have more. The British and American Armies would quite simply have been incapable of liberating Europe on their own without using nuclear weapons.  So whatever the faults of the Soviet Union, whatever the faults of present day Russia, let us be thankful that 70 years ago so many Soviet Citizens fought and died for their Motherland and for us, too.

It is a disgrace that Western leaders have chosen not to come to Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Short term political calculation and disapproval has trumped a long term debt to the people of the Soviet Union that can never be repaid.

These same Western leaders are happy to pay court to the Chinese leadership no matter what their disagreements over recent history and present policy. But then that relationship is founded on money. The smell of hypocrisy becomes rather strong sometimes.

Today I remember two dead heroes who were my relatives. One fought and died for Britain though he was born in Russia. The other fought for the Soviet Union, though the authorities there might have killed him if they had known his name.   

People in the West think of Russia as rather mysterious and sometimes rather threatening. They know very little and understand less. How many Russian cities can you name? There is a lot of prejudice and recently even quite a bit of hostility. Some of this may even be justified. But now is not the time to focus on present day disagreement. Now is the time to remember that it was only because of the help of the Soviet Union that together we could defeat the greatest evil in history. Remember this as you think briefly of the scale of the sacrifice that the Soviet people made. Remember too those whose names are lost to history. These are soldiers of the Great Patriotic war whose names are known unto God.

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