And while there are moments of hope and redemption – such as the triumphant expression of individuality in his father having pressed a serviceable copy of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock on to an X-ray of a lung (the best shellac substitute he could find) pinched from a Moscow hospital – overall the book is crushingly bleak. I was guiltily reminded of P G Wodehouse’s evocation of “the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty”.
Halberstadt saves his most majestic writing for his father, and their strained relationship. Of his childhood, he writes: ‘I felt as if I were treading water on the periphery of his awareness, unable to swim closer.’ His memoir is not so much a journey backwards as a wading towards something that had previously felt out of reach.
While he theorises that ‘trauma is perpetuated by repression,’ he also sees that not everything need be explained. ‘We lived in terrible times,’ he is told by Vassily’s wife, Sonya. ‘All that is left now is to be kind to each other.’ And this personal history is, indeed, a kind book.