Book Review - Glorious People

Set during the final decades of the Soviet Union, Sasha Salzmann’s second novel — originally published in 2021 as Im Menschen muss alles herrlich sein — explores migration, integration, identity and intergenerational relationships, following the intertwined fates of two Russian-speaking Ukrainian women called Lena and Tatyana. 

As a child in the 1970s, Lena visits her grandmother in Sochi, where she helps her pick and sell hazelnuts. Then she is sent to a Pioneer summer camp, where she learns how to be a good socialist. Her mother is sick, so Lena watches in despair as her parents pool their savings in order to ensure they can pay the bribes and afford the drugs prescribed by an unethical local doctor. Lena resolves to train as a neurologist but initially finds her route into medical school blocked. With perestroika, corruption and patronage become endemic.  

The title, Glorious People, is taken from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the great playwright’s examination of thwarted dreams and unfulfilled promise. Early on in her medical career, Lena watches a senior consultant humiliate a young doctor who had dared to come to the clinic dressed in jeans and a polo-neck. “Everything about a person must be glorious. Face, clothes, soul — even thought,” rails the consultant. “If a doctor comes to work in sloppy or, even worse, Western-style attire, he will be taken for a gherkin seller and treated accordingly.” 

The chastised trainee is nonplussed, telling Lena: “It’s the same drivel my grandmother used to spout . . . Reactionary fools who can’t accept their time is past.” After working as a private doctor, treating the new biznissmeni and their STDs, Lena emigrates to Germany with her daughter Edita and Jewish husband and settles in Jena. 

Salzmann was born in Volgograd in 1985 and grew up in Moscow. Aged 10, the family emigrated to Germany, where Salzmann — who uses they/them pronouns — studied literature, theatre and media and has enjoyed a successful career as a playwright and essayist. Their background is evident in the meticulous accumulation of psychological detail, the underlying melancholy peppered with wry humour. As well as writing eloquently about the breakdown of families, Salzmann sensitively maps their characters’ attempts to escape the past and forge new lives. 

Like Lena, Tatyana also finds her way to Germany after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, lured there by a German man. After getting pregnant, she discovers he is already married. There is a devastating moment when she realises “the soon-to-be-father of my child didn’t actually look serious at all; he looked indifferent, absent; he wasn’t with me and he wasn’t anywhere else either”. Tatyana is left destitute in Berlin with her baby, Nina, until Lena takes her under her wing. While the two women struggle to adapt — Lena finds employment as a nurse and Tatyana works as a hairdresser — their two daughters find it hard to connect to their mothers and the world they find themselves in. The latter part of the novel covers Tatyana and Nina’s stories, as well as the experiences of Edita (now Edi), who relocates to Berlin.   

Glorious People suggests you can feel as alienated in your country of birth as in your adopted homeland. Deftly translated by Imogen Taylor, the book is an astute, deeply empathic portrayal of the dislocation of first-generation immigrants and intergenerational trauma.

Originally published by the Financial Times