Translation and annotation of the letters
This book began as a personal favor to a friend who was preserving her grandfather's wartime letters. As I helped her to translate, research and annotate the letters, they slowly grew into the material for a book.
Four kinds of stories
In his letters, Nikolay Yassievich writes to four members of his family, ranging in age from 5 to above 60. For his five-year-old daughter Irina, he composes a reassuring version of his life, with stories of the forest and its animals. The war is present in these stories, but never in detail and never as the main topic. To his sixteen-year-old son Georgy, he tries to impart as many life lessons as he can, and as much of his own experiences, views and values, while preparing him for army life. With his wife Frida, he discusses family matters and plans, and reflects on their past and future together. With his elderly mother, he discusses his wife and their extended family.
Restoring the context
Nikolay Yassievich and his fellow soldiers were fighting in extremely harsh circumstances. Though badly underfed and underequipped, they managed to hold off German forces for three years with a combination of incredible persistence, ingenuity and grit. Strict, repressive censorship prevented him from describing his experiences in detail, but he communicates much between the lines. Using stories he later told his family, and those of other survivors, we were able to reconstruct some of what remained implicit or untold in the letters. We added annotations to help younger readers better understand the meaning of the letters and the context in which they were written.
I came to like Nikolay. I've rarely encountered a more serious person. Sitting in a dirty blindage, half-starved and sleep-deprived, he cautions his war-refugee wife against becoming a petit-bourgeois, creates happy animal stories for his little daughter, and tries to teach his son lessons in courage. I sometimes think I see reflections of his earnest, steadfast character in my friends: his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In conclusion, I'd like to say that while I'm not primarily a specialist in the Russian language or Russian history, I undertook this work because of a sense of urgency. We felt we had to preserve these letters now, using the resources we had, while we still had access to living witnesses and sources. I hope that our book will help readers - especially the youngest generation - to understand a little of the complex reality that Nikolay and the others found themselves in.
I hope that our work will be well received, and welcome comments and critique.
James M. Boekbinder, 15 May 2017