Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686
[Heavy Sands (also translated as Heavy Sand)] is not impressive from a literary point of view. Characters are either heroes or villains, there are no shadings, everything is either black or white. Heavy Sands, however, will not be read for its literary accomplishments but rather for the detailed description it offers—the first published in the Soviet Union since 1948—of the last days of many Russian Jews. The topic has been taboo for many reasons. It was not to be mentioned that Jews were singled out for extermination by the Nazis, or that the Nazis had much local help in the process. On the other hand, word of mouth had it that the Jews were killed because they were too cowardly to offer resistance. Rybakov takes issue with those who believe this…. He points out that most of those in the ghettos were either elderly people or very young or ill, since all men of military age were serving in the army. And he also notes the fact that hundreds of thousands of young and strong Soviet prisoners of war were also killed in the camps and did not resist—for what could they have done? But this is only part of Rybakov's answer, for more Jews could have been saved if there had been help from the local populace. Of the "good neighbors," Rybakov says, not a few betrayed the Jews, either because they coveted their houses and property or because they were simply scoundrels. The local police were equal in sadism to the SS.
And what about the partisans?… True, in 1942 the partisans were still on the run, and their main task was to attack the Germans, not to help the persecuted civilian population. But some Jews did make their way into the forest in order to join the partisans. The story of the welcome given them is not a pretty one. Some were accepted, but many were not, and a few were even killed. Rybakov has to be exceedingly careful in dealing with this painful topic. The partisan commander who makes an appearance in the novel, Sidorov, is sympathetic, and considers a scheme to help the Jews despite the difficulties involved, but he cannot devote many resources to their rescue and little comes of it. There were, indeed, some partisan units that extended help, but the issue is virtually never discussed in the enormous literature about the partisan movements published in the last thirty years—it is still considered too hot to handle.
After the war, [one of the Jewish sons] … marries a non-Jew; their three sons, however, register as Jews, [not as Russians]. Why?… [The truth is that however] ardently the Ivanovskis may love their native country and its leaders, this does not and will not make them Russians. This is another painful topic, on which Rybakov can comment only by implication.
Published in any other country, Heavy Sands would have hardly been noticed; in the Soviet Union it is a sensation, and also a riddle. In his earlier books Rybakov had nothing but praise for the wonderful generation of the revolution which grew up under Stalin in the period of the first Five-Year Plans and which reached maturity in World War II. What made him, toward the end of his literary career, write a book in so different a vein? And what prompted the authorities to permit the publication of a novel which, however cautiously, offends against so many canons? Almost simultaneously two other books appeared, the first opening with the statement that "Money is the Jew's god," the other making it known that Judaism has transformed itself into the ideological instrument of expansionism, militarism, racism, and imperialism. To paraphrase Lenin, there have always been two Russias, the Russia of the Black Hundreds and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of Stalin and his latter-day disciples, and another Russia, idealistic and humanistic. While the flame of the second Russia is not now burning brightly, it has apparently not been extinguished altogether. (p. 88)
Walter Laqueur, "The Other Russia," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 6, June, 1979, pp. 85-8.