Gods of the Steppe by Andrey Gelasimov is the story of Petka, an excitable twelve-year-old boy, who lives in the small village of Razgulyaevka in the far east of Russia and spends his time dreaming of joining the war against the Nazi’s which, since it is the summer of 1945, is winding down. He worships Stalin and Zhukov and creates patriotic adventures for himself near the train tracks, the mine and the prisoner of war camp.
The camp holds Japanese prisoners of war who are forced to work down the mine. There’s a sickness among the prisoners and the local kids who spend too much time near the mine. One of the prisoners, Hirotaro, has a medical background and often leaves the camp to collect plants to make herbal remedies and also secretly writes a journal documenting the history of his family back in Nagasaki, Japan. Gelasimov uses Hirotaro’s journal to contrast the culture of the Japanese with that of his captors.
Japanese forces gather just across the border in occupied China and so war on Russian soil remains a threat to the relative peace in the village. Peaceful that is if Petka wasn’t dashing around pretending he’s a fighter pilot or a tank commander. He watches the Red Army troops aboard the trains mobilising to engage the enemy on the Chinese front and dreams of joining them and dying a hero. He secretly raises a wolf-cub in his grandma’s barn (scaring the goats that live in there almost senseless in the process), hangs out with the guards in the POW camp and helps his grandad smuggle booze across the border.
Petka’s best friend, Valerka, who seems to have a constant nosebleed, is dying of what turns out to be radiation poisoning from the uranium ore the authorities later discover in the mine and Petka is bullied, and indeed almost murdered, by a gang of local boys who hate him for being a bastard child. A wandering Hirotaro saves him from hanging and it also transpires that his mother has also tried to commit suicide by hanging herself.
There’s some happiness in the ending of the story – for instance his mother finds a good man among the soldiers and Petka’s bastard status is revoked (although he doesn’t get on with his father when he returns to the village a hero) – but understandably, given the period of time portrayed, the poverty of the villagers and the constant shadow of threatened and real violence, it’s mostly a dark tale. Valerka survives his illness but is killed off two years later in the closing pages of the book.
The toxic land could be interpreted as a metaphor for the Russia state. The Russian soldiers are not portrayed as heroes (even those lauded as heroes by the villagers are bullies and fakes) but bored, boozing and whoring men with more interest in fooling about than properly looking after the Japanese prisoners.
Gelasimov’s narrative style drifts from dreamlike sequences (the mother-wolf reclaiming her cub) to explicitly violent realism (Petka thinking he is going to die as he is strung up from a tree) and while I enjoyed the novelty of reading about an unusual place and time from a unique viewpoint, I found the conclusion of the story somewhat unsatisfactory since neither Petka or Hirotaro seemed to have robust character arcs.