War, Perpetuated: On Sasha Vasilyuk’s “Your Presence Is Mandatory”

By Svetlana SatchkovaApril 24, 2024

War, Perpetuated: On Sasha Vasilyuk’s “Your Presence Is Mandatory”

Your Presence Is Mandatory by Sasha Vasilyuk

MANY NOVELS DRAW from their author’s family history, from The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy to Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee. Depending on the writer’s familiarity with the events in question and the immediacy or remove—often a function of intervening generations—of her narrative, the writing may involve extensive research. Roy’s story, an intimate drama loosely based on her own experience as a child growing up in Kerala, India, likely didn’t necessitate poring over archives; Lee, on the other hand, whose ambitious saga follows Korean immigrants to Japan, has described her close perusal of academic works and consultation of multiple primary sources.

Sasha Vasilyuk, who grew up in Ukraine and Russia before immigrating to San Francisco at the age of 13, found herself facing a situation like Lee’s when she started working on her debut novel, Your Presence Is Mandatory (2024). Initially, all she had to go on was a two-page letter describing events that had occurred several decades ago. As Vasilyuk told me over Zoom from her home in San Francisco this March, her grandmother discovered the document following her grandfather’s death in 2007, in Donetsk, Ukraine. The letter, addressed to the KGB, turned out to be his confession; in it, he recounted his capture at the beginning of World War II and admitted to spending several years in Germany as a forced laborer. The news shocked Vasilyuk’s family—in the Soviet Union, becoming a prisoner of war was considered a crime against the state. It’s unsurprising, then, that the writer’s grandfather spent several decades hiding what he believed to be a deeply shameful secret.


Growing up in Crimea and Moscow, Vasilyuk aspired to be a novelist. “But,” she explained, “I wasn’t confident enough in my English to believe I could write fiction in it. So I took a practical approach to writing by becoming a journalist.” Of course, her grandfather’s story continued to fascinate her, suggesting—though the task seemed daunting—potential fodder for a novel. Yet not only was there a near-total absence of information concerning how a Jewish man might have survived for years among the Nazis, but Vasilyuk also doubted she had sufficient emotional experience to write about war.

That changed in 2016. Two years earlier, Russia-backed separatists launched an offensive in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Eventually, owing to ongoing attempts to extend the ceasefire under the Minsk agreements, military operations subsided and, during a relatively safe period, Vasilyuk went to visit her relatives in Donetsk, the region’s largest city. From previous trips, she remembered the city as booming, full of new buildings, restaurants, and fancy hotels. In 2016, though, “everything was shuttered. There were no working ATMs, no post offices. You barely saw anyone under the age of 60. There were bullet holes in everything.”

Vasilyuk and her brother were walking down the street one evening when they heard a sudden blast from an exploded shell. For her, the experience was “absolutely terrifying, nothing like the movies.” Over Zoom, the writer claimed to have come back from that trip “changed,” adding: “Before that, war, to me, had been incomprehensible on many levels, including the emotional one. My trip to Donetsk gave me an understanding of what war feels like and sounds like and smells like and looks like.”


Shortly after Vasilyuk’s trip, the structure of her book came to her. Your Presence Is Mandatory has two alternating timelines. The first traces the experiences of her grandfather, reimagined here under the name Yefim Shulman. It begins in June 1941, when he, a 19-year-old Red Army private stationed with his regiment in Lithuania, is attacked and subsequently captured by German troops. The second narrative primarily focuses on Yefim’s wife, Nina, starting with the couple’s first encounter on a geological expedition in 1950. It recounts subsequent decades of their life together in Donbas: we learn about Nina and Yefim’s recurrent marital problems, caused in no small part by Yefim’s need to keep some aspects of himself hidden, and Nina’s work as a Soviet scientist and university professor. Interwoven throughout this latter timeline are chapters written from the perspectives of other characters—their school-aged daughter Vita; their son Andrey, a psychology professor in his thirties; and their 11-year-old granddaughter, Masha. The book follows these individuals in chronological order, allowing readers glimpses into pivotal moments in each of their lives.

The details of Yefim’s remarkable survival story emerge gradually through this braided structure. As readers, we witness as he endures the horrors of Nazi camps and works for many years at, initially, a farm in Karow, and then a mechanical workshop in Niegripp, both located in the north of Germany. Still, Vasilyuk waits until nearly the novel’s end to tell us how he avoided being shipped to the gulag at a time when individuals like him were deemed by Stalin to be “malicious deserters,” betrayers of their people and country.


Vasilyuk’s grandfather wrote his “confession letter” in the 1980s, 40 years after the events it describes. Consequently, the novelist had no way to determine how accurately he recalled them or whether he was being fully truthful. “He was dead,” she said, “and no one else knew anything about what happened. But I’m a journalist, and I felt comfortable delving into research. I also didn’t want anyone to accuse me of ignorance, so I was very careful about fictionalizing things.”

Comfort level aside, Vasilyuk’s research proved to be challenging. As she soon discovered, surviving as a Jewish prisoner of war represented a subject of shame for many people, or at the very least, one that they were afraid to talk about publicly; despite extensive studies of World War II, little had been written on experiences specifically like her grandfather’s. When she contacted Timothy Snyder, an American historian and renowned expert on the region and period, he admitted to having no idea how her grandfather might have survived. Over the course of the war, 5.7 million Soviet soldiers were captured; more than half of them died in Nazi custody. An estimated 80,000 POWs were Jewish. Only some 4,700 managed to return home. In the afterword to her novel, Vasilyuk writes that she would have never pieced the story together “if it wasn’t for the extraordinary Russian-language research of historians Aron Shneyer and Pavel Polian who had collected data and interviews with Jewish POW survivors, a group that no one else cared much about.” Published as a book, Shneyer and Polian’s findings reveal strategies used by survivors—such as creating fake names and hiding circumcisions, among other methods—that helped people like her grandfather persist.

Vasilyuk’s novel brings these details to life amazingly well. While the author doesn’t shy away from naturalistic descriptions of violence and death, she doesn’t linger over horrors unnecessarily, either. Her tone is matter-of-fact and unflinching. Here’s Yefim in Berlin, having rejoined the Soviet Army right before the war ends:

The spatter of bullets followed him. He heard another man from his squad on his heels, but then the back of his neck was splattered with the man’s blood. He continued to run, alone. Reaching the opposite intersection, he swerved toward a flipped German scout car, burned and crushed by a tank. Yefim crouched behind it. He breathed in the carnal odor of someone else’s blood and brains and, trying to suppress the nausea, wiped his neck with his sleeve.

Notably, the more mundane—or, at least, less extraordinary—experiences of regular Soviet people seem to interest Vasilyuk as much as moments like this one. As the writer chronicles day-to-day existence from the 1950s all the way to the mid-2010s, her characters go to work and to school, have dinners at home, meet friends, and deal with their loved ones’ shortcomings and the various indignities they’re subjected to by circumstance. Vasilyuk is never overly sentimental. At the same time, the journalist and author demonstrates a deep understanding of emotional experience—as, for example, when Nina and Yefim (by this scene married for 25 years) spend a night by a mountain lake in Crimea:

They turned to one another and she felt the warmth of his breath tickling the tip of her nose, and then his hand slid down her hip and she felt herself at one with the pines and the crickets and the man who wasn’t exactly as selfless or as honest as she’d thought but who was here, was hers, and, unlike that first night on Lovers’ Hill, was languid and deliberate and tender.

Through meticulous attention to specifics and empathetic, searching characterization, Vasilyuk achieves a sense of historical and emotional authenticity—thereby offering her readers a compelling exploration of both the distant past and more recent events.


In addition to covering a lot of time, Your Presence Is Mandatory spans wide swaths of geography. Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Moscow, various locations in Ukraine—Vasilyuk renders each of these vividly in turn. Often, her descriptions are brief or compacted; even so, they effectively sketch scenery in three dimensions. As a young Yefim’s captors escort him to the western side of the river Elbe, for example, he’s at once baffled by and drawn to the landscape he observes along their way. “When he saw the neat fields and beautiful old villages,” writes Vasilyuk, “with their huge houses dotted by garden gnomes, roads paved smooth, everything clean, no horse dung, no smoke from burning trash, he couldn’t understand why these people had wanted to come to his country. Their life seemed beautiful, even in the dead of winter.”

Place is an integral part of the plot. Sometimes, it becomes the plot. When, in 1946, a 24-year-old Yefim returns to the village where he grew up, he encounters destruction, houses burned down, and people wrapped in rags. He approaches his parents’ house to find the roof “half caved in, the wet straw sagging inward. The front window, where his mother always kept a jar of pickled cabbage, was broken. Only the old apple tree still towered over the untended yard. What if they were all … but he stopped himself. It couldn’t be.”

Yefim dies in 2007 in Donetsk, the city in which he settled with his family after the war. Then, it bore Stalin’s name (it was rechristened Donetsk in 1961). As a young soldier at the outset of the novel, Yefim believes in the greatness of the Soviet leader as well as the Soviet project; later, he becomes disillusioned with both. Still, he and Nina mostly keep thoughts of these kinds to themselves. (At one point, following a rare dissenting comment she made in front of her students, Nina wonders if the state’s subsequent denial of her business trip to Bulgaria is a repercussion.) By 1991, the couple welcomes the collapse of the USSR and Ukraine’s newfound freedom. Yet the long-awaited, hoped-for happiness doesn’t arrive—Ukraine’s economic situation is dire, the streets roamed by criminals.


The book’s last chapter takes place in the summer of 2015, when Nina, now 90 years old, visits her husband’s grave for what is perhaps the last time. Donetsk has once again become a war zone, mirroring the outbreak of World War II at the book’s beginning—while reading, these political parallels are hard to ignore, especially considering the developments of the past two years. When we spoke, Vasilyuk explained how she was editing the book’s last chapter when Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

This was a continuation of his military effort that had started in Donbas several years earlier, which, for many in the West, had put Ukraine on the map. Your Presence Is Mandatory investigates the origins of the ongoing conflict, fueled by the mythology of World War II—which, during Putin’s time in power, has reached an almost hysterical pitch. Since 1995, laws have been passed in Russia that deal with what can and can’t be said about World War II and the Soviet Union’s role in it, regardless of historical truth.

It’s therefore highly unlikely that Your Presence Is Mandatory will be published in Russian, Vasilyuk’s and my native language. The book directly addresses topics Putin would like to ignore or, at the very least, whitewash: for example, how the Soviet system was itself a totalitarian regime that, in many ways, resembled Hitler’s Third Reich. Yet Vasilyuk’s engagement with uncomfortable truths is chief among many reasons I think it’s so important for my former compatriots to read her novel. I can only hope some way will be found to make it available for them.

LARB Contributor

Svetlana Satchkova is a New York City–based writer and journalist. She is working on a novel set in present-day Russia.


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