Book Note

From THE NATION, December 16, 1987/January 2, 1988 issue

Among the recent publications about perestroika and all that, the book that taught me most about the problems facing Mikhail Gorbachev was one that deals with the Soviet Union during the last war. K.S. Karol's Between Two Worlds (New Republic Books, $19.95) details the life of a young Pole in Russia between 1939 and 1946. You may know the author, a prominent Paris journalist, for his books on Cuba and China, but this is a different sort of work, since it is based on reminiscences of his adolescence. You thus get the peregrinations of an innocent abroad, who is first an assistant to a political commissar in the Red Army, then a bewildered and dazed inmate of the Gulag and finally a student in war-ravaged Rostov, where he learns that socialism in the Soviet Union is not what he had dreamt of. But you also get the journey of a charmer, a born storyteller capable of weaving Tolstoy's Natasha into the narrative of the Count of Monte Cristo for the pleasure of his prison audience; you get the story of an almost-child growing into a man, discovering love and friendship amid his Soviet contemporaries, particularly the Cossacks from the Don.

Using himself and a few other individuals such as Klava, his wife, who could not follow him abroad, or Kola, his best companion in the Air Force and in civilian life, Karol has drawn a portrait of a whole generation. The portrait is painted against the background of a Soviet Union that is neither an evil empire nor a socialist paradise but a real country full of paradoxes and contradictions. After having earned money through a black-market deal to supplement their starvation-level student grants, youthful war veterans drink vodka in a crowded Rostov room and passionately debate justice and equality in the future socialist society: "The collectivity didn't care a fig about our individual interests and we repaid it fully in kind." The contradictions of yesterday give a good idea of the problems and possibilities of tomorrow. This moving tale of an adolescent coming of age in a country torn by war, who sheds his illusions without losing his principles, reads like fiction but tells us more than any sociological study.