Introducing children to the concept of communism—and its grisly realities—is a difficult task. Fortunately, the American author Gloria Whelan has the puzzled parent’s back. Specializing in historical fiction for children ages 7–12, Whelan has written multiple novels on the lives of young people in communist countries.
Over the course of ten years, Whelan wrote a historical quartet that followed the same family from the genesis to the fall of communism in Soviet Russia. The first book, Angel on the Square, follows a young aristocratic girl, Katya, through the fall of Imperial Russia and into the Bolshevik Revolution. Katya is a young teenager coming to terms with the death of her father and the social activism of her foster brother, Mischa, the orphaned son of her parents’ friends. Internally, the Russian aristocracy live frugally, much like the middle classes, but they are careful to present a façade of opulence to the population, unaware of its alienating effect. When Mischa introduces her to a group of students who agitate for a reform of the monarchy and an end of the feudal land system, Katya begins to question of sustainability of their lifestyle. As World War I ends and Imperial Russia falls, Katya finds herself trapped in Russia and struggling to survive as Vladimir Lenin comes to power and institutes collectivism.
The second part, The Impossible Journey, is set in the age of Stalin, and takes as its historical hook the 1937 Operational Order to the Secret Police No. 00486. This order mandated that the wives of state enemies were to be treated as criminals in their own right and any children were to be separated from their parents and placed in state orphanages. At the beginning of this book, Katya and Mischa have married and have two children, whom they struggle to support as they are blackballed as former aristocrats. The children, Marya and Georgi, are unaware of the state order, but they do know that their parents have prepared them to flee to their neighbors across the hall if the secret police arrive. After her parents are taken in the night by Stalin’s secret police, Marya becomes responsible for her younger brother and, upon overhearing the neighbors decide to hand the children over to a state orphanage, decides to take him and find their parents. With only a map torn from a textbook, some rubles stolen from their neighbors, and no concept of the meaning of the word “Gulag,” Marya and Georgi set out for eastern Russia, following the general direction of the trains they knew took their parents. Over the next three years, the children walk to Siberia while dodging human traffickers, secret police, and seeing firsthand the carnage wrought on the country by the communist system.
The third book, Burying the Sun, finds a widowed Katya and her children back in Leningrad following the completion of her prison sentence. Although glad to be home and reunited, there is a shadow: it is the height of World War II and the German army is approaching the city. Using the skills they learned during the previous years, the family arms themselves against starvation, even as the authorities assure the population there is no cause for concern. Whelan incorporated known historical details into this novel, giving it an unusual sense of veracity. Even as Marya receives food for working at the Hermitage Museum, she learns that people are already stealing books from the local library in order to eat the flour paste bindings, and the Germans are not yet fully camped around the city. The ultimate note of the story is one of hope as the siege is relieved and the family attends the premier of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony—one of the pieces the author himself secretly considered an anti-Stalinist work. Over the course of the story, Marya and Georgi learn the difference between patriotism and communism.
The final installment, The Turning, is set in 1991, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. All of the Soviet countries are in the process of regaining their independence, but the people of Leningrad are still living in deprivation and under a repressive government. Georgi’s granddaughter Tanya is a ballerina with the Kirov ballet and is preparing for the company tour to Paris. Although the family has recaptured some of their lost wealth, through her father, Georgi’s son, becoming a black marketeer, Tanya yearns for full freedom, rather than mere comfort. The difficulties faced by the country are encapsulated in Tanya’s explanation to a friend that she would like to live in the West because she simply wants toe shoes that don’t require repair after every rehearsal and performance. Raised to remember the suffering of her grandparents, great-aunt, and great-grandparents, Tanya fears civil upheaval. When her great-aunt Marya, deputy head of the Hermitage Museum, tells the family that the military and civil service are dividing into Gorbachev and Yeltsin factions and the country is facing civil war, Tanya decides to seize her chance to escape.
Gloria Whelan’s Russian Saga—as well as her other books set in communist Vietnam and China—provide a solid introduction to the concept and reality of communism for children. The structure of the books enables a young child to encounter the ideas presented through a simple, relatable story. While Whelan avoids horrors unsuitable for children, she doesn’t shrink from describing events such as mass deportations under Stalin or the rise of human trafficking in China. Throughout her books, the irrepressibility of the human spirit, and the desire for freedom, shine through.