The Betrayal

Dunmore, Helen

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle
  • Date of entry: Jun-14-2010
  • Last revised: Jun-11-2010


In this novel medicine and  politics interface, with disastrous results. The time is the early 1950s, the place Leningrad, and the Soviet leader is Josef Stalin. Andrei Mikhailovich Alekseyev is a  conscientious young pediatrician in a city hospital.  Though Andrei has been warned to be careful, he chooses to take on Gorya, a patient with osteosarcoma, the only child of Volkov, an official high in the Ministry for State Security. Dr. Brodskaya, a Jewish woman surgeon, performs a biopsy and recommends amputation above the knee. Andrei recommends that she perform the surgery. But Gorya develops lung cancer. Brodskaya applies for a transfer to Yerevan, well aware that Volkov will take revenge if the boy doesn't improve, but Andrei decides to stay in Leningrad.

He lives a spartan existence with his wife, Anna, and Anna's younger brother, 16. They bicycle out to their country dacha to fish and  harvest fruits and vegetables. Suddenly, a phone call to his home tells Andrei he is suspended from his medical practice. The police arrest Brodskaya. Shortly thereafter, in the night, Andrei hears police  boots on the stairs. The officers raid Andrei's and Anna's home, breaking furniture, emptying pickle jars into the sink, and confiscating their English dictionary. They send Andrei to Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he is tortured to get him to sign a confession. Andrei reflects on his situation: "If he dies here, he'll die alone. The last faces he will see will be the guards' faces. Outside, he would never have believed that three initials scratched into a piece of soap [from the shared lavatory] could be so precious. In here, to know that another prisoner has taken the risk of trying to communicate brings a kind of hope"(262). He forces himself not to think about his pregnant wife, instead naming the muscles of the hand, or bone after bone of the human skeleton.

Finally, he is confronted with Volkov who tells Andrei Comrade Stalin has begun a purge of doctors because doctors have been killing communist leaders: "We are uncovering an international conspiracy of Zionists working as tools of the Americans, who directed these criminal murderers and saboteurs" (277). Volkov tells Andrei the Jewish Dr. Brodskaya has ‘suffered a heart attack', that is, she has been executed. Volkov accuses Andrei of betraying his trust by amputating his boy's leg, an operation that did no good, as the boy is now dying of cancer. Volkov dismisses Andrei and goes to visit his son who is comatose. Then he shoots himself in a dark Moscow street. Andrei is sent to the Gulag for ten years.

Anna has moved to safety at their dacha with her brother, Kolya. There she gives birth to her daughter and names her Nadezhda. In March 1953, Stalin's death is announced. Beria, head of the NKVD, announces an amnesty of Gulag prisoners serving shorter sentences. Beria sets up an investigation into the Doctors' Plot and exonerates those doctors. In the following years, thousands of prisoners make their way back to the Soviet Union - one of them is Andrei.


This is a moving story about two young people trying to live an ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances. Dunmore does an excellent job of detailing their constant fear, their haunting memories of Hitler's Siege of Leningrad, and the years of Stalin's Terror. Andrei sacrifices his personal happiness because he wants to help his young patient, but his altruism betrays him.  Anna teaches nursery school. She preserves her father's memories of the Siege, and does her best to feed her family. The author portrays their daily lives at work and at home and Andrei's experience as a political prisoner with authenticity.


The volume includes a two-page bibliography of books and articles.



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