Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal

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The Betrayal Summary

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The Betrayal is a 2010 work of historical fiction by Helen Dunmore. Set in Russia in the wake of World War II, it concerns the emerging Soviet regime and the ways in which it engendered precarity and havoc in the lives of innocent civilians. It follows the protagonists Andrei and Anna, a young doctor and nursery school teacher who have fallen in love and seek to make a life with each other in the ravaged country. Altruists at heart, they try to balance the responsibilities of their careers in medical and educational service with the demands of Stalin and his Ministry of State Security.

The novel begins after its protagonists’ struggle through World War II, which begin in the countryside outside Leningrad, leaving them in a tiny apartment in the city. Twenty-two-year-old Anna Levin lives with her father in a tiny dacha, helping to raise her five-year-old brother, Kolya. Her father, Mikhail, has worked all his life as an aspiring professional writer; however, becoming known for the inaccuracy of his political understanding, he is a literary outcast in Leningrad. Along with his failed writing career, he has recently lost his wife, rendering him incompetent in the perception of his community.

Similarly, Anna lives without much ambition. She spends her days supervising the family, practicing her hobby of drawing, and tending to the garden. The one task that ties the family together is the necessity of voicing politically correct beliefs in public to evade the scrutiny of Stalin’s officers from the Ministry of State Security, who at all times patrol communities throughout Russia looking for political dissidents. They live with this false enthusiasm for Comrade Stalin, always conscious that the wrong move can put their whole family in a black van to be whisked away in the middle of the night.

After living in this social and economic purgatory for what seems like eons, Anna is shocked to receive news that Germany has launched an attack on Russia. The narrative quickly shifts from the sad and dire tensions characterizing Russian life during peacetime to the unparalleled brutality of this war. At first, the community stubbornly refuses to believe that the German army will reach Leningrad. Yet, as the army draws nearer every day, Anna moves with her family into the walls of Leningrad to ensure their resources are not cut off. They occupy a small apartment and are joined by an actress named Marina who has fallen out of the political world’s exalting spotlight. Anna learns also that Marina used to be lovers with Mikhail during his tumultuous marriage. They are also joined by a novice doctor, Andrei, who falls in love with Anna. As winter approaches, their inadequate heating and cramped housing conditions become nearly impossible to live in. Yet, they survive by rationing food and telling stories.

The novel moves to the years of recovery after the war. Miraculously, Andrei and Anna have survived in the apartment with Kolya, who is now sixteen and aspiring to go to university. Yet, they are still overshadowed by the oppressive regime, especially since Stalin recently rose to power. Realizing she is thirty-four, Anna aspires to make more out of her life, but her family’s plans are interrupted when the child of a senior secret police officer arrives at Andrei’s hospital and is diagnosed with cancer. As Stalin’s regime waxes and finally wanes, Andrei is forced to juggle the demands of the aggressive and desperate Volkov with the safety of his family. The task is complicated when Anna becomes pregnant with a daughter. After stringing them along with threats of labor camps, imprisoning Andrei in one in Siberia, Volkov comes to accept that his child will inevitably die no matter what medical intervention they make. This realization is coupled with the knowledge that he has fallen out of grace in Stalin’s regime. He leaves his son’s deathbed at the hospital and commits suicide in an alley, liberating the family from his grip.

The novel ends with Anna taking care of her new daughter. The news of Stalin’s death has come, and the family is happy, but solemn, knowing that he has left an indelible impact on all of their lives. Finally, the narrator describes the political changes implemented after Stalin’s fall: amnesty is introduced for prisoners of the gulag and more than a million prisoners are released. Among these are many doctors, including Andrei, who begins his long journey home.

A novel about how a family’s hopes and aspirations can tragically fall at the mercy of an inhumane political environment, Dunmore suggests that all lives are contingent on larger political contexts outside of their control. Focusing on an extreme case, the life of the family in a fascist post-war country, Dunmore portrays happiness as something one must obtain from small acts of hopeful resistance against one’s conditions.