Centenaries are odd affairs. Such a passage of time lurches from the approachable to the incomprehensible. As is the case with the Russian Revolution. In What You Did Not Tell, however, Mark Mazower ably conjures up this crepuscular period as he considers his family’s involvement in the events of 1917.
The Mazowers originated in the Pale of Settlement, the western region of imperial Russia where Jews were allowed residency. And although Mazower was raised in the émigré haven of Hampstead and Highgate in the 1960s, by then his extended family had been ravaged by tsarist deprivations, Soviet purges, a German occupation and the Holocaust.
This book is a bracing record of persecution and resistance. It begins at the turn of the 20th century with Max, the author’s grandfather. A respectable bookkeeper in Vilna (today’s Vilnius), he was also a covert agitator for a Marxist organisation of Jewish workers popularly known as “the Bund”. Max was a quiet insurgent – “a figure of the shadows” – who distributed dissident literature, organised strikes and ran a dead-letter drop from a Warsaw haberdashery.
“The Russian Revolution had something of the quality of a family affair,” Mazower notes. And families fall out. Following the downfall of the Romanovs, the Bolsheviks eventually turned on the Bundists. Max fled to England, just as he had before, that time from the Okhrana, the imperial secret police.
In London, he married Frouma, a kindhearted widow from Smolensk, built a future for his family and buried the intrigue. Their son, Bill, flourished in “a world of sheds and bonfires and compost”. One of the most touching themes of the book is the family’s fragile connection, wavering like a half-tuned radio signal, to their homeland.
Mazower resurrects a curious cast of characters, all displaced: a conspiracy theorist in Chiswick; a dadaist muse; an author of romantic potboilers about “Burgundian knights and Regency rakes”. In the wake of the revolution, identities became fluid; reinvention was rife.
Perhaps the most complex figure is André, Max’s illegitimate son (although his parentage is uncertain; there is also a Hapsburg officer in the frame). André excelled at a Quaker school and went up to Cambridge, fostered friendships with TS Eliot and the Duke of Newcastle and distinguished himself at Dunkirk. And then he went rogue. He changed his name, converted to Catholicism, wrote antisemitic tracts and ended up a forger, fantasist and fascist living in Madrid. He was either mad or lost in a maze of ideologies.
A professor of history at Columbia University, Mazower has researched among a wealth of family papers – letters, he notes, were “the lifeblood of the family’s continued existence” – and delved into institutional archives, including those of the Russian state and MI5. Yet he is candid about the fallibility of records and the inscrutable nature of other people’s lives.
His relatives are re-evaluated. “How powerfully one can be shaped by the distribution of affections that one grows up with,” observes Mazower, adding: “One day something can come along and suggest an entirely different angle of vision and a new set of regrets.”
Mazower lets out the line of his family narrative gradually, like a fly on the water, before hooking the reader with a revelation (a betrayal, execution or disappearance). And his eye for interpreting snapshots brilliantly decodes old photo albums. Pictured in later life, Max, the former radical, has the manner of someone used to “trading positions and capital”.
The Mazowers found their safe harbour, but this inspired blend of memoir and investigation left me with a sense of the sad cycle of history. In 1917, the relationship between Russia and western Europe was fraught; huge numbers of people were seeking refuge and propaganda was presented as news. All painfully familiar.
• What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home by Mark Mazower is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99