Moscow, 1940. Bright young Misha comes home one day to discover his mother has disappeared. His father may be part of Stalin’s inner circle, but that’s no guarantee of protection. Quite the opposite, in fact. In a city of ubiquitous surveillance and thin walls, it doesn’t take much to lay oneself open to a visit from the dreaded NKVD. Add the notorious paranoia of the Soviet Union’s great dictator and the chances of survival become remote indeed.
As distraught as he is, Misha knows that his only option is to keep his head down and carry on as if nothing has happened. He continues to excel at school, teach an adult literacy class in his spare time and swallow the Party’s outlandish propaganda. In short, he’s an exemplary comrade.
The seeds of dissent have sprouted, though, and not just in Misha. Valya, Misha’s best friend and love interest, has begun to notice cracks in the communist wall. Most ominous of all, Misha’s father knows that, despite Stalin’s unfathomable opinion to the contrary, the Nazis are about to invade. With enemies closing in from all sides, Misha and Valya must find a way to escape.
Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the Nazi invasion of the USSR, was launched on the 22nd of June, 1941, making now a good time to enjoy Paul Dowswell’s Red Shadow. This tense and intriguing YA novel will serve as a great lesson on the circumstances in Moscow and the Kremlin in the days leading to Hitler’s catastrophic attack. Using real-life events, Dowswell accurately depicts the fear and stress felt by those who worked for Stalin, as well as the tyrant’s stubbornness and mental frailty. Stalin really did refuse to heed the warnings of everyone around him, even as German troops massed on the Polish border and Nazi spy planes flew over Russian air space. When the attack did come and Red Army troops began dropping like flies, Stalin really did flee to his country house for four days and experience something close to a mental breakdown.
A fine novel for the history classroom, then, but perhaps not one for the writing course. Dowswell’s fondness for transliterations of Russian terms — dacha, vozhd, babushka — hampers more than it helps; and though the level of historical accuracy is high for the most part, there is one scene that stretches the imagination. It comes as Misha finishes his adult literacy class, where he has been teaching his students Shakespeare. The factory’s ‘Political Organiser’ comes to remonstrate with our hero for his choice of text:
‘Richard II could be considered counter-revolutionary, could it not? It was politically naive of you not to notice this… Much Ado About Nothing would be a better text to study.’
Perhaps I’m the naive one, but I think we all know the most suitable play for communist Russia would have been Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Speaking of Shakespeare, there is a line from Hamlet that Dowswell and indeed all writers would do well to remember. It comes as Hamlet’s mother reminds her mournful son that all things that live must die. ‘If it be’ says the Queen, ‘why seems it so particular with thee?’, to which the enraged prince replies, ‘Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.’ I mention this because Dowswell often gorges himself on Hamlet’s least favourite intransitive verb: ‘[He] was delighted to see at least twenty workers had come along to his class. Word seemed to be spreading. Today he introduced his students to Richard II. They listened to what he had to say and seemed to appreciate the points he made about the play.’; ‘And no one ever seemed to smile.’; ‘Everyone seemed quite subdued after that.’ etc. You might say he’s bursting at the seems.
The odd utilitarian phrase aside, this is an enjoyable and useful novel.
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