Fiction That Tells a True Story
A hundred years of history. A lifetime of listening to family stories. Ten years of research. Three years in the writing. On the Sickle’s Edge, my Soviet-era novel, is finally about to be born. Not a moment too soon. The publication date – January 16, 2017 –is significant in more ways than one.
The publication year, 2017, marks the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which gave rise to the USSR. It led to the destruction of a corrupt aristocracy that bankrupted the country and sucked the lifeblood from its people. Replaced it with a new Soviet aristocracy of entitled bureaucrats and political operatives. First Lenin, and then Stalin, wreaked devastation, starvation, repression and mass murder on the Russian people. Finally, after 74 years, the fall of the USSR broke the massive communist enterprise into multiple sovereign nations, promising changes that would improve the lives of millions of people.
Today, less than a quarter of a century later, those promises have in large measure not materialized. Russia has fallen back into repression and totalitarian rule. The KGB has been reborn. Freedom of the press is dead. The corrupt and entitled aristocracy had nothing on Putin, the KGB man who, with his coterie of oligarchs, has robbed the country blind. On a Premier’s salary, Putin has allegedly amassed a fortune in excess of $80 billion. As Lena, a character in my novel, says, “Mother Russia devours her children. Again and again.”
The publication date, January 16, is also significant. It marks the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose resonant voice and moral certainty led to the achievements of the US Civil Rights struggle. But as in Russia, one era passes and another emerges. Which brings us to the present. Our present.
Even before his inauguration, Donald Trump’s election threatened to turn the serious, thoughtful work of democracy into a sideshow, complete with scary clowns jumping out of the shadows. Conflicts of interest among the president-elect’s family—and his cabinet—are like nothing yet seen in our country’s history. Trump and those governing under him, with fortunes already made, will benefit in quantities most of us can’t even imagine. No wonder Trump admires Putin, perhaps for his “strong leadership,” perhaps for his financial stealth. I shudder at the thought that Trump might like to emulate either of these traits, but I would be unsurprised if he did. Yes, the swamp will be drained, right into the bank accounts of the man we elected and those he appoints.
Then there is the Cabinet. Among a scattering of reasonable and qualified people, Trump’s cabinet selections include people with racist and homophobic histories and proponents of bizarre conspiracy theories. Trump’s thoughtless rhetoric and manic posturing have legitimized frightening behaviors and attitudes — leading to a rise in violence and hate speech against Muslims, Hispanics, black and brown peoples, and Jews. Homegrown white supremacists, waving Nazi flags, mimic the Nazi salute, unconcerned — and perhaps delighted by — the terror it inspires. We’ve been here before, in this experimental democracy, and made mistakes that have cost people their lives and freedom. The shadows we see are those of Japanese internment, McCarthyism, legitimized voter suppression, racial and ethnic discrimination rising to pre-civil rights levels.
I will be relieved to be proven wrong. Perhaps in a few months—or in four years— we will look back on this bleak period in our political and civic history and wonder how we could have been so concerned about something that amounted to so little.
An aged poet was once asked why all his poems made his readers weep.
“You have to tell the truth,” he said. “And the truth is very often sad.”
On the Sickle’s Edge is fiction, but it tells a true story. It is very often sad. And it is also more important now than ever. Unless we read books like it — books that remind us of the lessons of history and its impact on ordinary people — we will indeed be doomed to repeat it.
Photo: 1917 Russian Revolution painting by Vladimir Serov – “V. I. Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power”