Olga Gromova

Sakharny rebenok Sugar Child
Memoir. KompasGide. Moscow 2013. 160 pages with photographs
With a preface by Lyudmila Ulitskaya

Autobiographical memory of Stalin‘s repressions and experience of surviving exile true story, coming-of-age, survival experience, mother/daughter relationship, historical drama

What is it like to be a „public enemy“ from one day to the next, to be exposed to Stalin‘s repressions - the Great Terror? Stella Nudolskaja experienced it with her parents in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Separated from their father, who was killed by the Soviet regime, mother and daughter Elia were deported from Moscow to Kyrgyzstan in 1937, where they were humiliated, marginalized, hungry and suffering. Their lives resemble an odyssey from one labour camp to the next, from one foreign environment to the next; uncertainty and fear as constant companions. Nevertheless, mother and daughter maintain an independent and dignified attitude to life. And: they take back home with storytelling and singing. Elia and her mother are released when the construction of the camp is completed. But they are then forced to stay in the region and, above all, to find work and housing on their own. When her mother coughs and gets sick ending up suffering lying on the ground near a barn, they have nothing left. Elia does not lose courage, and knocks on the door of a farm that houses a very large family headed by a good, courageous and taciturn man, Saveli Yuzhakov. He takes Elia and her mother in and treats them well. They call Elia „kant bala“ (Child of sugar in Kyrgyz), because of the whiteness of her skin. 1941, Russia enters the Second World War and her mother is forced to leave her job. She finds a job as a German teacher. 1946, Elia and her mother are allowed (thanks to a falsified document) to return to Moscow and some time later they are rehabilitated. They learned many years later that the father died at Magadan camp in 1940.

This novel of the deportation narrated by a little Russian girl is a great lesson in humanity for all. Protected by a mother whose courage does not leave her, she asks the legitimate and just questions that children ask themselves. Her mother never fails to show her the path of dignity, to look forward, while avoiding the unspeakable. This novel is also a novel of solidarity and kindness, when men are subjected to the torments of history. As she herself says, Elia has forgotten the bad people she met, she only remembers the good ones, despite the wounds inflicted. And throughout her exile in the Kyrgyz lands, solidarity and mutual aid will allow her to escape the most difficult moments when illness and poverty make her foresee death. «Sugar Child» is full of scary and cruel scenes, but none of them overcome its overall light and inspiring tone.

At a time of global antagonisms and differentiation of all kinds, this story shows that man is still man, when life is at stake. And that different peoples, languages, cultures are able to coexist and support each other. A story about love, and yet about dignity and freedom. As in Roberto Benigni‘s film «Life is Beautiful», a father manages to get through the horror of Nazi concentration camps with a smile on his son‘s face, in this book a mother guides her daughter with great dignity and perspective through deportation and misery. A beautiful educational novel, a love story about the strength of the heart and freedom leaving the reader moved to tears and stronger. As Elia’s mother says: „Slavery is a state of mind. Free man can’t be made a slave.“

«Sugar Child» is not a pure memoir, but also a literary novel: despite the story on behalf of little Elia, the author does not give any „children‘s look“ at the history of the 1930s-1940s, does not play with readers by a pretended „retransformation into a child“: On the contrary, behind the story of the girl the adult is clearly visible. Perhaps this is the reason why the story, which was originally aimed at 12-16 year old readers, is no longer perceived as „young adult“, but has become part of the great Russian literature.

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