How my family’s history in London concealed a revolutionary Russian secret

When Mark Mazower researched his unassuming London roots, he discovered his grandpa had kept secret his intimate ties to revolutionary Russia to protect his son

When the acclaimed historian Mark Mazower decided to write a volume about his family history, he had no idea about the secrets he would uncover.” I just had this question: what is it to be a historian of your own family? How does history render you, your personality, your outlook on life, your relationships and the things you value ?”

To answer these questions, Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York city, decided to delve deep into his dead father’s past.” When historians use biography, they generally either be talking about very noteworthy people- which was not the case with my father- or they use the lives they are writing about to illustrate some bigger tale .”

He wanted to do the opposite, and investigate how historical events shape the lives of apparently insignificant someones.” Most of the time, as a historian, you can’t do that because you don’t know the people well enough. The only people you’re likely to know well enough, where you can even begin to do that, are members of your family. So my question was: how did history make my papa ?”

The question was important to him because his father, Bill, whom he greatly admired, was a very contented man, he says, who always tried to live a good life until he died in 2009.” To a large extent, more than the majority of members of us, I think he succeeded. I was interested in this very, very old topic: what is the secret of happiness? And how does history create that? Because in the case of my father, he had this very determined life that revolved around north London. And yet he was the son of immigrants who had lived very turbulent lives. Their fate had been intimately bound up with the Russian revolution, Stalinism and the second world war. So how had history impacted Dad ?”

He also wanted to know what it was about England that allowed households such as his to flourish.” There’s something very special and rather beautiful about England in the middle of the 20 th century that I wanted to explore and understand better. The country was so open in the 1920 s for immigrants to come in. Social mobility was possible in the 40 s in a manner that is we have lost. That seemed to me a tale worth remembering, and thinking about what it did for the country .”

To write his book, What You Did Not Tell, Mazower employed his father’s diaries and testimony as a starting point. He then analyse historical archives and researched genealogical websites to reveal the closely guarded secrets his grandfather, Max, maintained quiet about his entire life.” The volume started with Dad, and Dad didn’t have mega-secrets. Then I realised that the stories of his parents were going to be formative, especially the histories of his father, who had been involved in revolutionary activity in Russia .”

Max, it turned out, was a man of secrets. He had been a member of the Bund, a huge, secular Jewish socialist party active in the Russian empire between 1897 and 1920, and helped to publish illegal books in Yiddish that would promote” socialist feelings” among Jews. In 1903, he wrote a widely circulated leaflet disclosing the truth about an antisemitic Russian pogrom that had taken place in Gomel, modern-day Belarus, Mazower detected. By 1907, Max had been repeatedly arrested by the Tsarist police- who helpfully kept surveillance files about him for Mazower to find- and was incarcerated in Siberia twice, eventually fleeing the country for Europe and settling in England with his wife, Frouma, in 1924.

But the only thing he ever revealed to their son Bill was that he had escaped from Siberia.” Anything that was real suffering was left out .”

Mark Mazower with a picture of his grandpa Max, a leading figure in the Russian Jewish socialist motion “ve called the” Bund. Photograph: Joshua Bright for the Guardian

In hindsight, Max was one of history’s losers, Mazower tells.” The Bund- this big, courageous strand of the Russian left, concerned about equality and social justice- get entirely wiped out. Between Stalinism and Nazism , nothing was left of it. That was a tragic narrative, and Max lived the tragedy .” His revolution was lost.” That hung over him. But I also think he felt fortunate. He knew what it was to have ended up in England .”

Max, after all, intentionally chose to call his son William- at the time a very unusual, British choice for a son with Russian Jewish mothers. Yet his father’s name, Mazower says, was always so much a part of him. Undoubtedly, it helped Bill to identify with the English boys growing up around him.” I think there is a pressure in being the son or daughter of immigrants. You feel the precariousness. Dad had a classic mid-2 0th-century English stiff upper lip. That’s how he dealt with it .”

Another secret Max took to the grave concerned his son, Andre, Bill’s half-brother, who was born out of an affair in 1908 with a fellow revolutionary, Sofia Krylenko. At the time, neither she nor Max could have had any idea that Sofia’s younger brother, Nikolai, who was just 13, would grow up to become attorney general of the Soviet Union, one of the most feared figures in Russia. Mazower discovered this secret by tracing the family tree of Andre’s mother. Max maintained quiet about it all through his life.

” Max’s love affair with Sofia meant he was tied very closely to one of the most powerful and dangerous humen in the Soviet Union. That was something anybody with any sense would have kept totally silent about- especially if you still had family in Russia, as Max did. You didn’t want to get on Nikolai Krylenko’s radar and you also didn’t want to get on the radar screen of people who were opposed to Krylenko, and who eventually brought him down. It was about protecting people who you love .”

At this phase, the border between what was history and what was family started to blur for Mazower.” I realised that your family history and the history of the Soviet Union could start to bleed into one another, even though your grandfather was not a particularly important person. Max was still living with Soviet realities in England in the 1930 s .”

Max rarely spoke to Bill about his family in Russia, even though he did everything he could to send fund back to them- at one point selling the family home to do so. Even when he discovered that his beloved friend and niece had been killed in Lithuania’s Vilna ghetto during the second world war, he maintained quiet about it. Why had Max said so little?” Compared with some households, the Holocaust was not something that was endlessly discussed. There was no great anti-German feeling. Max’s silence enabled Dad to take his own position on that .”

Bill was aware, though, that his fate might have been very different if his mothers had not chosen to move to England.” I guess my father did feel very fortunate, and I think it was part of feeling English .”

Overall, Mazower believes Max’s decision to keep his secrets secret had a liberating impact on his father.” Suppose about what Max gave my dad, by being silent. Because Max never imposed on his son his own tales of agony, it cleared the ground, in a way, for Dad to have happiness. The silences were important .” Yet his father, he tells, always received it frustrating that his grandpa was quite so silent.” Dad would have really wanted to know all this stuff I found out about Max. I wish he could read the book. He would have been the best person to discuss it with .”

Mazower interviewed his father about his family history 12 years before he died, recording five hours of videotapes.” We only sat together and talked. It was my notion. I said we’ve got to do this .” He has eight-year-old twins and says he wrote the book for them to read in 20 years’ time.” I wanted them to understand the family, and England. We live in New York and when I started writing it, I was feeling nostalgic for London and trying to figure out what it was about some places that attains you miss them. The short answer is: they are home. But that created a bigger topic: how did Golders Green, this small suburbium of north London, become home for my father? Writing it helped me to understand that- and why it felt like home to me .”

Mazower also discovered that his grandparents regularly met with active Russian-Jewish revolutionaries who were drawn to Golders Green.” Growing up in Golders Green was a weird experience for me since this place has no history. It was a big revelation to discover that Golders Green in the 1920 s was full of these super-important world anarchists, who were hanging out with my grandparents and recovering from the revolution. It abruptly attained the whole place make sense .”

This English suburb was a survivor’s paradise at the time, Mazower tells.” Here, people could be themselves. There weren’t generations of people from round here, so this place became theirs. They felt that very strongly. They understood the value of England, perhaps more than other people did. Because nobody in the 1920 s and 1930 s knew more than some of the people living here about what was going to happen when the Nazis came in .”

By trying to find out how history had shaped his father, he began to realise he was making important discoveries about himself and his own relationship with north London.” It matters a great deal what roots you, who forms you, what forms you, where forms you. This became clear to me. I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which I had been shaped- my outlook and my taste- by things that predated my birth by a decade .”

For example, he tells, he always thought he felt a connection to Hampstead Heath because he used to go to school there.” Then I realised reading through Dad’s diaries that he was cycling all over there in the 1940 s and 1950 s. Then I realised from a bit more digging that was where Max had lodged in the 1920 s. In a funny style it was almost as though the places that mattered to me had nothing to do with me at all: they had been defined there for me .”

He thinks everyone should interview their relatives about their family history.” Otherwise, those narratives that you have in your family will die. Otherwise, you’re like a blind man on a raft that’s being whirled down a turbulent river. At least, if you’ve got the narratives, you can see where you’re going and where you’ve come from. Personally, I’d rather know .”

* What Did You Not Tell by Mark Mazower( Allen Lane, PS20; published in the US by Other Press, 17 October 2017 ). To order a copy for PS17, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p& p of PS1. 99.

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