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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Miniseries Waiting to Happen

After three years of intimidation and harassment, the KGB finally arrested Irina Ratushinskaya in earnest in 1982. They were confident that she would break easily under interrogation for she seemed so frail and vulnerable, with the wide-eyed expression of a child. But they underestimated the courage of this ardently Christian poet.

Three years into her sentence in a "strict-regime" labor camp in Mordovia for expressing "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" in her verse, Ratushinskaya went on a hunger strike. With her health deteriorating quickly, and "No, I'm Not Afraid," a volume of her camp poetry that was smuggled out and published in Britain to great acclaim, her case captured the imagination of the West. Foreign governments lobbied, pressure groups mobilized and at last, just days before the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, Ratushinskaya was released.

A decade later, Ratushinskaya and her husband, the human rights activist and jeweller, Igor Gerashchenko, have built a cozy new life for themselves in Britain. They love their brand new North London house because "nobody cried here, nobody died here." And the trees which they planted in their garden have, like their children, thrived. And yet, like other Soviet dissident writers, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ratushinskaya's muse, robbed of a cause, seems to have lost its sense of direction. Having failed to publish any poetry since 1988, she has turned to writing prose which, she maintains "requires much more concentration [than poetry]. I must be absolutely isolated and cannot combine speaking English with writing in Russian."

"The Odessans" is the result of this change of literary direction. Billed by the British publishers as a Russian "Wild Swans," the novel tells the brutal history of early 20th century Russia and Ukraine through the lives of three generations of three families from Odessa. It is a bold undertaking even for this brave Odessan.

Odessa has always been different from other cities in the region. A free port on the Black Sea, built on the wealth of traders and smugglers from all over the world, it was always cosmopolitan and varied, with Jews and Gypsies, Greeks and Poles all contributing to the local culture. "Odessan children ... [are] born poets and adventurers, and that's what they grow up to be." And it is this spirit of freedom and southern insouciance which Ratushinskaya has tried to capture against the background of the terrible political excesses of the period.

The action of the novel opens in the anarchic and eventful year of 1905. The Russians are facing humiliating defeat in the war with Japan. Meanwhile, back home, the workers are revolting. Jews are being slaughtered in ferocious pogroms and, just outside Odessa harbor, the sailors on the battleship Potemkin have mutinied.

"This was 1905, and with their daily cries of 'amazing news' about strikes, student unrest and terrorists, the newspaper boys had managed to shriek themselves hoarse, and now everyone was tired of hearing them. Events here somehow cheapened."

But though the Russian Empire is in its death-throes and communists are consolidating their hold on power, life for the children of Odessa continues much as normal. The Petrov siblings, scions of a noble Russian family, have befriended the Teslenkos, a family of Polish-Ukrainian extraction, and the Jewish Geibers, whose family was ruined in the Nikolayev pogroms. It proves to be a fateful meeting, for these three families remain intimately connected through all the hardship and suffering which is to afflict Odessa over the next half century.

And here lies the novel's weakness. Having created a large and unwieldy cast of characters, who are buffeted all over Europe by political events, Ratushinskaya is forced to rely on implausible reunions and fortuitous encounters to hold her narrative together. Aware of this over-reliance on coincidence she has tried to justify herself in an authorial aside: "but what was so out of the ordinary about it: Odessa was a big village, so why shouldn't people bump onto one another?" Nonetheless, credible characterization and good writing are abandoned as the action gallops from war to civil war and back again.

Take, for example, the fate of Vladek Teslenko, a medical orderly serving on the Polish front in 1915. In the space of 22 pages, Vladek meets and parts with his best friend Pavel Petrov (who has just killed a German who is a dead ringer -- the twin perhaps? -- of a mutual German-Odessan friend) before he bumps into Pavel's sister Zina, whom he has always loved. Vladek proposes to Zina, but while she is making up her mind she contracts typhus. They marry, and Zina adopts an orphan in the days before she dies. By this time Vladek's Polish soul has reawakened. He decides not to return to Russia and is abandoned to his Polish fate by the author and is only mentioned briefly once again.

Cliched writing and schmaltzy love scenes inevitably thrive under this kind of narrative stress. And the reader would be shocked by the sudden changes of the political or national allegiances of the characters -- which transform them unexpectedly from "goodies" into "baddies" and back again -- if one did not feel so thoroughly indifferent to their fate.

Ratushinskaya has been ill-served by her translator who, with no attempt at consistency, puts contemporary slang, sometimes English ("hunky dory, bonking, faffing around"), sometimes American ("Hey, quit messing around"), into the mouths of turn-of-the century characters, yet simultaneously peppers the text with anachronisms such as "yonder" and "of yore."

In writing about the internecine blood-letting, world wars, occupying armies and famine which afflicted Odessa during the first half of this century, Ratushinskaya has attempted an historical epic novel in the grand Russian tradition. It is an ambitious project for a first novel. And the reader should not wonder that this readable, yet unremarkable novel, is not so much a classic as the stuff that miniseries are made of.

"The Odessans" by Irina Ratushinskaya, translated by Geoffrey Smith, Sceptre Hardcover, ?16.99 ($26).