This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War. It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).
Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment. People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s. It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.
None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric. Ahem. The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it. Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.
The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire. This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles. With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18. With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools. It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much. I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army. There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.
So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic. It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains. And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!
We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756. Oh, come on. The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795. The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War. You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds. There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt. I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge. And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.
Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc. Even Google can’t follow it. I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter. So there!! There were some issues with the quality of English, as well. Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).
All right, all right, enough moaning. What about the actual story? I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself. There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting. A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area. Oh, and a dog. The dog had quite a big role.
TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting. I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing. And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.
Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do. But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives. Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”. Excuse me? I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”. Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!
Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy. And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.
Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier. As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war. It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.
Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved. And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.
The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books. I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that! Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!