In his 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, historian Mark Mazower marveled that the twentieth century ended as well as it did. After catastrophic experiments with fascism and communism, Europe had emerged as a stable collective of democracies that was about to unite, for the most part, in a common currency. Counter to those who saw this triumph as the inevitable spreading of our superior political economy—democratic capitalism—Mazower cautioned that the peaceful denouement of the century was “just one possible outcome of our predecessors’ struggles and uncertainties.” It is easy to forget that, perhaps with just a twist here or a tweak there, things could have turned out much worse.
Mazower, who teaches at Columbia University, has written of these horrors from a scholarly remove. But his most recent book, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, makes them personal. Growing up in London’s Highgate neighborhood, Mazower had heard stories of his grandparents’ flight from the 1917 Russian Civil War and observed his family making a modest middle-class life in Britain. Summoning his talents as a historian, Mazower dives into Russian, Belgian, American, and British population archives, complicated oral histories, and most vitally, letters, diaries, and photographs gathered from his family. The result is a meticulous, sensitive, and fascinating account of his family’s remarkable story, one that provides a window into the hopes and fears of those who suffered some of the worst calamities of the twentieth century.
Mazower introduces us to his paternal grandfather Max, a radical involved with the Bundists, an anti-tsarist Jewish socialist movement. Hiding their subversive network of revolutionaries under middle-class manners, Max and other Bundists set up an illegal print shop to produce their tracts. In Łódź, Max organized demonstrations against the government, notably the 1905 protests after government forces fired on a group of children. After an arrest and escape from exile in Siberia, Max found himself the target of the ascendant Bolshevik party, and many of his fellow Bundists, as well as one of his brothers, were killed. Max fled Russia in 1919, eventually settling in London.
Other family members had no less remarkable stories. Max’s wife Frouma lost much of her community of revolutionaries to Bolshevik purges. Frouma’s daughter Ira experienced a deeply traumatic flight from the Soviet Union, and all her life compensated for her early poverty with extravagance and superficiality. Max’s son André disavowed his father’s leftist past, converting to Catholicism, supporting Franco’s fascism, and working himself into T. S. Eliot’s social circle. André’s mother Sofia had been an anti-Bolshevik revolutionary, and was likely hunted by her Bolshevik brother Nicolai Krylenko, who rose to become the People’s Commissar for Justice of the USSR. Sofia lived among other revolutionaries in Paris, such as Leon Trotsky and Pyotr Kropotkin. The philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin remarked on meeting Sofia, and credited her friend with encouraging his interest in Marxism.