You cannot change your family history, yet you have the power to determine its legacy. In “What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home,” Mark Mazower’s sensitive excavation of his parents’ and paternal grandparents’ lives, nobody emerges with a keener understanding of this than the author’s unassuming father.

Mazower, an acclaimed historian of Europe and its eastern reaches, has written a deeply personal book, but one that will resonate with many readers, particularly those grappling with a fraught heritage.

It isn’t immediately clear that Mazower’s father, whose death some years back occasioned the author’s plunge into the family’s past, will serve as the book’s linchpin. Born and raised in London, his life was uneventful when compared with those of his parents and relatives in the turmoil-ridden Russia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Take Max, Mazower’s paternal grandfather. A prominent activist on behalf of the Bund, a socialist opposition party of Yiddish-speaking Jews, Max played mouse to the Tsarist secret police’s cat before getting caught. He escaped forced residence in Siberia for Britain in 1907. Curiously, Mazower finds fault neither with his grandfather’s Marxism nor with his doing business with Tsarist Russia after a triumphant return to the country as a salesman for British companies. Yet this fiery Russian revolutionary who ended up a diminished London suburbanite nevertheless cuts a fascinating, almost tragic, figure.

The Bolsheviks’ capture of power following the Russian Revolution of 1917, exactly one century ago, was celebrated by other Communist factions as well as non-Communist socialists (such as the Bund), unaware of the repression they’d soon face.

Meanwhile, as “it did not take genius to see that life in Bolshevik Russia as the widow of a suspect former Tsarist officer was not going to be easy,” a woman named Frouma knew she had to leave. In 1924, she wed Max and they moved to Britain permanently. Not a moment too soon; Frouma (who became Mazower’s grandmother) would lose a brother, brother-in-law and cousin to the Soviet Union’s deadly purges.

How to process all this? Realizing that it falls upon you to make sense of all that was endured by your forebears — distant and immediate — is at once liberating and burdensome. Ironically, you may think that you’ve freed yourself from your family history even as it consumes you. That’s what happened to Mazower’s father’s half-siblings.

Whereas Andre veered toward “a kind of exaggerated conservatism, the Catholic Church, and conspiracy theories,” including anti-Semitic ones, Ira took to “glamorizing the Tsarist past and creating a series of aristocratic literary fantasies” in her romance novels.

And Mazower’s father, Bill? He never tried to banish his parents’ tumultuous history from his mind — yet he didn’t allow it to preoccupy him. As Mazower lovingly shows, Bill enlisted that history as extra motivation to be a good husband and father, a supporter of the moderate-left Labour Party, “having transposed his father’s youthful commitment into a mid-century English key,” and ultimately a happy man, for “he knew what good fortune was whenever he looked at his family tree.”

Perhaps this is the simple yet solid approach to life one should adopt when a tortured past improbably metamorphoses into a serene present.

 

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.