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    A Debut Novel Revisits Ukraine’s Past

    Sasha Vasilyuk’s Your Presence Is Mandatory calls us to honesty and openness with ourselves and our loved ones.

    By Nadya Williams

    April 16, 2024

    It is 2015 in Ukrainian Donetsk, and Russian missiles relentlessly rain on the city. This first war in the Donbas, a precursor to the ongoing most recent Russian invasion that began in February 2022, is the concluding backdrop for journalist Sasha Vasilyuk’s debut novel, Your Presence Is Mandatory.

    But first, when the novel opens in 2007, the reader witnesses one elderly man’s mostly peaceful final journey out of this life and the secrets his departure unexpectedly reveals to his unsuspecting family. He is Yefim Shulman, a World War II veteran, loving husband and father. An ordinary man, boring even. But following Yefim’s death, his wife and daughter discover a packet of papers – a written confession of his, addressed to the KGB, telling of the secret he had hidden from everyone else for over sixty years, of what really happened to him during the war. A secret that, he had feared his entire life, could kill him. But then, such a life of secrets – bottled and never shared – was a feature, not a bug, of Soviet life.

    “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” David proclaimed three thousand years ago. David’s life included plenty of suffering – some of it of his own doing, the result of sins and secrets that he had wished to bury but couldn’t. Often we idealize the Davidic kingship as a golden age of sorts for Israel. Sure, it was better than the disobedient and civil war–prone divided kingdom that came later, but it was no Hallmark Channel either. In his own lifetime, David walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” many a time, as at various points he faced threats on his life from his father-in-law, one of his sons, and some former allies and friends.

    Yet he knew God was always with him.

    What if the valley never seems to end, and what if there is no God? For many like Yefim, who lived through part or all of the Soviet Union’s officially atheistic tumultuous existence, their entire lives were filled with all-engulfing shadows of death. The fear of evil was omnipresent – and for good reason. The history of the USSR runs in a straight line from the Russian Revolution to Leninist purges; Stalinist purges; gulags; Holodomor (Ukrainian Famine of the 1930s); World War II and the stamp of the Holocaust on Ukrainian and Lithuanian Jews; more arrests, deportations, and secret executions – all to dead-end grotesquely in the collapse and resurrection of Soviet-style dictatorship, now in the person of Vladimir Putin. To Donetsk especially, Putin’s rule has only brought war.

    But even in the midst of such evil, if only we look closely, God’s work of mercy is visible still in the lives of individuals. Or it might look like Yefim’s gravestone in 2015, whole and unharmed by the bombing, alone in its pristine perfection in a graveyard pockmarked by missiles. Too often, war does not spare even the dead.

    The thread of divine glory and mercy interlaced with the shadows of death runs through the novels of Eugene Vodolazkin, a Ukraine-born Russian writer who brings out the transcendent in a world of casual cruelty and despair he has observed all around. And now, reminiscent of Vodolazkin’s writing, this same theme comes through Vasilyuk’s novel as well.

    The novel is a song of mourning expressing the author’s despair that earthly redemption for Ukrainians cannot come from Ukraine.

    Vasilyuk was born in Soviet Crimea, and after a childhood spent in Donetsk and Moscow, she moved to the United States at age twelve. Based loosely on her grandfather’s life, her novel sets forth a story of God’s extraordinary provision in one ordinary man’s life. Yefim Shulman is the youngest son of a large Ukrainian Jewish family. He leaves his home village behind when drafted into the Red Army early in World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as it was known in Russia. But very early in the war he is captured by the Germans. First held as a POW in Germany, with great difficulty he manages to hide his Jewish identity – discovery would have meant sure death. After escaping that first camp, he spends four years in wartime Germany, mostly passing as one of the many Ostarbeiter (conquered civilians enslaved by the Nazis) in the country, repeatedly escaping from increasingly more perilous situations each time by a hair’s breadth – or through divine provision. At last, at the very end of the war, he rejoins the Red Army, arriving in Berlin victorious.

    While Yefim’s survival to the end of the war – a Jew on the lam in Nazi Germany for four years! – is nothing short of miraculous, no less astounding is his luck in reintegrating himself into Soviet life after the war. In the United States, POWs have usually been treated as war heroes, men who suffered heroically on their country’s behalf. Not so in Russia. Considered traitors to the Motherland, POWs were sentenced to the gulag or similar exile camps after the war. In yet another miracle, in Yefim’s case, during his debrief after discharge from the army, a regional bureaucrat takes pity on him on a whim, giving him clean papers instead. It is yet another gift of life – for the gulags were often a death sentence. One more escape for Yefim from the valley and its shadows, ready to swallow him whole. God’s provision yet again brings life.

    In a powerful moment in the novel, Yefim comes back to Ukraine after the war, visits his abandoned childhood village and home, and tracks down his mother. He learns that the two of them are the only survivors of their large extended family. His mother says, reminiscing of her pregnancy with him, her youngest baby:

    “I prayed every day to let this baby live. When you came out, you were strong and healthy, with a roar of a voice, and I named you Haim.”

    “Haim?” said Yefim, taking her hands off his face, confused.

    “You were Haim for a year before the repressions made us change our Jewish names. That’s how you became Yefim, but now it’s clear you are Haim.”


    “Because in Hebrew haim means life.”

    These are words of life in the valley, a poignant reminder that there is no redemption in the deeds of men, but God’s mercy prevails nevertheless. But is there any obvious earthly redemption in a story like this one? What is the point of a life of survival against all odds, if the thread leads only to more war at the end?

    This question is clearly on Vasilyuk’s mind, as she has observed more recently the differences between her life of safety in the United States and the ever-growing danger in which her surviving relatives in the Donbas find themselves. “My family never asked to be liberated,” she noted in citing Putin’s slogan of liberating Donbas, which he used when attacking Donetsk and the surrounding region.

    For Vasilyuk herself, this novel is a dirge, a song of mourning and sorrow expressing her despair that earthly redemption for Ukrainians cannot come from Ukraine. An unspoken longing hangs in the air at the novel’s conclusion.

    If the ending feels at first glance unsatisfying, abrupt even, it is because the history of the region is. Indeed, Vasilyuk is an acclaimed journalist, but in this novel, she is first and foremost a sensitive, lyrical storyteller, who brings attention to the tragic history of Ukraine that began decades before the earliest events in the book and is yet unfolding. But there is more – the very nature of the story in this book calls us to engage gently and compassionately with generational trauma, rather than burying it and passing it on. Structuring the novel around a secret long buried, Vasilyuk calls us all to honesty and openness with ourselves and with our loved ones: no matter where and when we live, we desire to know those we love and be known by them.

    Contributed By portrait of Nadya Williams Nadya Williams

    Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity. She is Book Review Editor at Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.

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