Alexander Terekhov on how his novel came about:
‘Why did the death of two teenagers become the pivotal moment of a book about the 1940s? I don’t choose the subjects of my books; it’s like a disease that infects me, like a passion. By pure coincidence, you end up in a situation that you can only escape from by paying a couple of years of your life to write a book.
After Ogonyok I worked for the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno [‘Top Secret’], specialising in interviews – often with old people, former party members and KGB veterans. Old people are grateful interview partners. Their memories are all they have left. You don’t have to ask any questions, just listen and nod. As long as you don’t twist their words they recommend you to their friends as a trustworthy person, opening up more doors.
It was on the margins of these stories that I first heard about the incredibly beautiful Nina Umanskaya, the crazy young Shakhurin, the stairs of the Great Stone Bridge, the case of the “young wolves” – even the very phrase was abhorrently tasteless. The story was already complete, worked out, wrapped up for sale, and it was told to a new newspaper twice a year, never forgetting to mention Romeo and Juliet. Nina’s parents died in a plane accident in Mexico in 1945, Shakhurin’s parents are long dead too. There was nothing to unearth there; that much was clear. Even I told the story of the “young wolves”, in literally five sentences, as a well-known detail in a broader publication about the “red” families that lived first in the Kremlin, then on Granovski Street, then moving into the House of the Government behind the Great Stone Bridge.
Two weeks later I found a note on my desk, torn out of a calendar. The editorial secretary had written on it: “Nina Umanskaya’s sister tried to reach Terekhov and wants to come into the office.”
As it turned out, she was Nina’s cousin. She had been three years old when Nina died, and could just about remember the chocolates her beautiful cousin once brought her.
“I’d like you to take another look into the case. Volodya and Nina weren’t alone on the bridge. There was someone else there. Neither of the two fathers could believe Volodya had fired the shots. But they were intimidated into silence,” she told me.
I gave an understanding nod. As I worked for a newspaper that investigated disclosures, I was used to people coming in with credible proof that the Battleship Novorossiysk had been blown up by trained dolphins, Hitler had fled from occupied Berlin to the Antarctic and an underground civilisation of Nazis lived there today that sent out its scouts in flying saucers…
“That’s very interesting,” I said, “but unfortunately I don’t have much time at the moment.”
My visitor replied: “A month after the tragedy on the bridge, eight boys were arrested at Nina and Volodya’s school. And they weren’t just anybody…”
As she left, Nina’s cousin told me: “If you don’t write about it, nobody will. You know, I wanted to tell you one more thing: Ambassador Umanskii was passionately in love with a woman, but he sacrificed his love because he didn’t want to break up the family, for Nina’s sake – he loved his daughter more than anything else.”
It all seemed clear enough. Except for one thing: usually it’s the murderer’s family that tries to clear his name. In this case it was the victim’s family. And then there was this woman – an unknown woman whom Umanskii loved. I thought she must know something authentic about the case of the “young wolves”, as she too was a victim of the shots fired on the bridge. And I tried to track her down.
Three months later it seemed I was collecting material for an essay. After a year I consoled myself with the idea of writing a short documentary piece. Three years later I thought, never mind, I’ll just write a novel. Five years on I realised that this research had taken on meaning for my own life, that what I and the people assisting me were doing was reminiscent of raising the dead, something you just can’t stop because there are more voices behind every door. It was the feeling that there was a piece of the past I knew more about than anyone else. I could remind people of their childhood nicknames that they themselves had long forgotten.
That feeling is like no other. I had the impression that all those involved in this story, which began on 3 June 1943 and is still going on today, had been almost waiting for me. Finding the truth proved to be a cruel task, and that cruelty was on both sides. I would never have done it just to write a book.’
Translated by Simon Patterson
Edited by Nina Chordas
Terekhov’s 'fine satire' as it was noted by The Guardian was compared by The Moscow Times to that of Saltykov-Shchedrin and the individuality of his language to that of Platonov. His writing, they suggest, ‘is packed with forceful imagery and the slang of modern Russia... [and] a distinctive and individual intonation’.
Alexander Terekhov was born in June 1966 in the provincial town of Tula, just south of Moscow. After graduating in journalism from Moscow State University he was conscripted and served in the Soviet Union’s Internal Security Forces. After the army Terekhov worked as a reporter for the cultural sections of the journals Ogonek and Stolitsa, and then in various editorial positions. At the same time he began to win acclaim for his literary dissection of military life and his depiction of the chaos that perestroika had ushered in across provincial Russia.
Prizes and awards:
The Big Book Prize 2009