#RivetingReviews: Caroline Wyatt reviews GLORIOUS PEOPLE by Sasha Salzmann

This is a glorious book centred on two Russian-speaking families in Ukraine during the Soviet era. At its heart is the complex love-hate relationships between mothers and daughters down the generations. Their story is also shaped by their equally ambivalent relationships with what constitutes home, when the system in which you’re managing to survive collapses. 

Friendship, courage and sheer hard graft are the women’s tools for survival down the generations, and as their society morphs into a predatory wild west that becomes a toxic brew of capitalism, greed and syphilis, their individual responses will ultimately shape their families’ destinies. 

The tension between acceptance of one’s life and fate or opting for rebellion and relocation is the driving force of the narrative, as the families are forced to decide whether to stay in the wreckage of the USSR or head west to see what they can salvage of their lives.    

Lena is born to Rita in the dying years of the USSR, which also turn out to be the years of Rita’s slow decline into ill health, diagnosed as a difficult-to-treat neurological disease. Growing up in the shadow of maternal illness, Lena tries to fit in at Pioneer summer camp and become a good socialist to ensure she isn’t at a disadvantage. She’s all too aware from an early age of the very different faces that must be worn under the Soviet system – the private and the public. The seeds of tension in Ukraine between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers are already being sown. 

After the family are forced to hand over all their savings to a corrupt doctor to get (ineffective) treatment for Rita, Lena makes up her mind to become a neurologist. In theory, the Soviet system provided free healthcare. The reality was very different, and bribery could offer a chance to survive. 

As she gets older, Lena learns nevertheless that – in public, at least – everything about a good Soviet citizen must be glorious, with the book’s title playing on the well-known line from Chekhov, spoken by Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya: ‘Everything about a person must be glorious.’

Yet when perestroika comes, shattering the USSR and the characters’ precarious lives, it changes everything – and not for the better for Lena’s family and many others. The tough and the greedy flourish as they gain even greater power, while the bribes for state officials get bigger as women’s skirts get shorter, the latter’s status now entirely dependent on their looks and connections. 

Lena has to give up her dreams of neurology, and seeks advice from her colleagues as to what to specialise in instead. ‘Do dermatology – they treat STDs too … Everyone has syphilis these days. You’d rake it in!’ they urge her. So dermatology she does, and as perestroika sparks a bonanza of sexually-transmitted diseases needing treatment, so too do the rampantly corrupt privatisations of former state-owned concerns spawn a rash of ill-gotten cash for some. 

Few of the male characters come out of this well. As a rare exception, Lena’s father is at least loving and affectionate, albeit ever-more ghostlike after the death of his wife. But her successive boyfriends are selfish and feckless or disloyal. The only other decent man is Paul, a Jewish engineer whom Lena decides to marry after becoming pregnant by her unreliable Chechen boyfriend whose syphilis she had cured. Paul’s main attraction is that he has a permit to work in Germany, which means that Lena and her daughter Edita can emigrate with him to a new life in Jena, where he continues to communicate largely via the medium of Yiddish humour, much of it lost on his wife and daughter.  

In Jena, Lena meets a hairdresser called Tatjana, whose love affair with a German businessman working in Ukraine has resulted in a baby daughter, Nina, along with the discovery, upon Tatjana’s arrival in Germany, that the businessman had somehow forgotten to mention his wife. 

While Lena and Tatjana share their histories and their homesickness for a place that no longer exists, their two daughters grow up not really knowing where or what is home. Edita and Nina feel alienated from their Russian-speaking families, who are forever harking back to a past that their younger generation doesn’t share, while simultaneously coming of age in a country and a city that don’t feel like their own.  

While Nina cuts herself off from her family and friends, Edita, who prefers to be known as Edi, is a survivor like her mother. Edi finds solace in nightclubbing in Berlin and a career in journalism. She comes out as non-binary, while navigating her prickly relationship with parents who don’t understand their daughter or the younger generation’s ways of thinking, which differ radically from their own.

The book often feels like an empathetic imagining of the experiences of the author Sasha Salzmann’s own family. Salzmann – who uses they/them pronouns – was born in Volgograd in 1985, grew up in Moscow, and was just 10 when the family emigrated to Germany. Salzmann became a successful playwright, essayist and dramatist, with works that often interrogate themes of belonging and identity and integration, as well as how art and language can be used to effect change. 

Glorious People is at its most alive in the USSR years; curiously, the younger women’s narration of their own life journeys in Germany feels less vivid and slightly less real, perhaps a reflection of their dislocation and intergenerational trauma. 

The translation by Imogen Taylor is never less than beautiful, perfectly conveying the joys and the deep melancholy that seep through the dark soil of the Soviet empire and into its people, even long after they leave. Much of the subject matter may be sombre, but it’s leavened throughout with the dark humour that has helped generations of Russians and Ukrainians – and their chroniclers – to survive the capriciousness of their lives and fates, whether at home or in exile.

Reviewed by Caroline Wyatt

GLORIOUS PEOPLE

Written by Sasha Salzmann

Translated by Imogen Taylor 

Published by Pushkin Press (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Caroline Wyatt is an Australian-born English journalist. She has worked at BBC News for over thirty years, holding correspondent posts in Paris, Berlin and in religious affairs and defence. She is a presenter on BBC Radio.


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