One Man in his Time: A Memoir, by N.M. Borodin

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Review by Karen Langley

Nicholas Borodin (as he is billed here) is something of a man of mystery, at least for the English speaking reader. Apart from his memoir, One Man in his Time, he appears to have no obvious presence online – and for that there may be a good reason… His book, now reprinted by Pushkin Press, was originally published in the heart of the Cold War by a man who had abandoned his country of Soviet Russia, claiming asylum in the UK. So what drove his change of heart, and why did he feel the need to share his story with the world?

Borodin was born in 1905 in Kamensk, Russia, of Don Cossack heritage. As recalled here, his childhood was a harsh and impoverished one, full of superstitions and hardship. However, he was sent to school, but his education was dramatically interrupted by war, revolution and then the devastation of the civil war and the ensuing famine. Indeed, much of his early narrative centres around food, and the impossibility of finding any. He spent some time fighting for the Red Army and the story of this period of his life is stark; the civil war was brutal, with death a regular presence.

The Reds shot our headmaster Bogaevsky dead, because he was White. The Whites hanged the teacher Gorobtsov because he was Red. The Reds shot my schoolmate Obukov and his six-year-old sister, because they sympathised with the Whites. The Whites shot the boy Soloviev and his old mother, because they sympathised with the Reds. Our school no longer existed. The teachers and pupils were either fighting or helping one or other of the sides, and many of them had been killed, some by stray bullets during street fighting

However, Borodin was determined to follow a scientific path and in the post-revolutionary period was able to return to education; because of his proletarian background he was given priority for this and despite the poverty and lack of food, he managed to study and gain his qualifications. His field was the research of animal disease and in a country ravaged by famine, the ability to fight whatever might kill livestock was crucial. Therefore, his importance as a Soviet worker could not be underestimated, and Borodin relates his gradual progression until he ends up in a series of high-ranking posts, in charge of institutions and research centres.

It’s not all straightforward, though, as Borodin was living through the 1920s and 1930s in Soviet Russia, a place where fear of betrayal was at its height. The purges went on around him, with friends and colleagues being accused and dragged off, or simply disappearing; Borodin had moments where he was under threat but somehow, whether by luck, keeping his head down or simply moving around a lot, he managed to dodge the bullets.

As his life and career develop, however, the narrative dips into murkier territory. Borodin is approached by the secret police and ends up working with them, being dubbed their ‘scientific adviser’. Needs must, I suppose, and survival is a basic instinct, but this does make slightly unsettling reading. Our scientist worked in Moscow for a while, and perhaps reached a turning point; he witnessed a prominent Soviet official throwing himself under a bus, and promptly relocated to Baku to continue his work there. 

Another turning point came after the end of WW2, when Borodin’s bosses sent him overseas to study the production of penicillin. Visiting the UK and the USA was something of a shock to the system and it was clear that the mission was intended as a propaganda exercise as much as anything else. However, it became obvious to Borodin that he was at risk, as scientists were being purged left, right and centre if they didn’t toe the party line. On a trip to London in 1948 he renounced his Soviet citizenship; what happened after that is a bit of a mystery, to be honest!

One Man in his Time is a fascinating read on a number of levels, not least because Borodin was an eyewitness to world-changing events. He brings a cool scientific eye to what he sees, recording the horrors around him in straightforward prose, and his narrative gives a vivid insight into what it was like to live through his times. The early struggles and suffering, the violence and the famines, and then experiencing the horrors of existing through a period of deep suspicion, not knowing who you could trust – these are all captured quite brilliantly. And yet, this is a book that is quite difficult to read on an intellectual level, as well as a visceral one.

Borodin makes no excuses or apologies for any of his behaviour, and frankly it’s not always good. He is in effect a collaborationist, prepared to work with the Secret Police as it might be interesting, and he seems unconcerned at first about this. Frankly, he appears to be driven by his scientific curiosity and if he can do his work, that’s all that matters. However, as his story goes on, he gradually becomes split, describing his state of mind as if he had two personalities: one which accepted the Soviet line and continued working; and a second which knew that what he was being told was wrong, and that all the ridiculous claims made that it was the Soviets who had made every pioneering discovery was a lie. That dichotomy becomes stronger as the book reaches its end, until Borodin jumps ship, either because he can’t reconcile the two halves of his nature, or because he sees this as the only way of survival. The letter renouncing his citizenship, reproduced at the end of the book, is surprisingly moving.

And here his story ends. There’s no biography of him to be found online, so the reader has no idea what happened to Borodin after his defection. A review of this book from Time magazine in 1955 does state that “Borodin renounced his Soviet citizenship and changed his name. According to his publishers, he now works in England in a job ‘where his scientific knowledge is in full use’.” If that’s the case, he certainly managed to successfully cover his tracks and disappear completely; and the modern reader can’t help wonder about the rest of Borodin’s life and career. 

One Man in his Time is a remarkable book, telling a powerful story of what it was like to live through unspeakable times. Borodin’s prose is not that of the professional writer; other authors covering this period, either in fiction or memoir, have written more lyrically. Some of this could well be the fact that he wrote the book in English, which was not his first language. However, the value of this story is how it gets you inside the head of someone who was canny enough to negotiate his way through war, famine and the purges, surviving until he perceived it was time to jump ship. The story is gripping, and Borodin’s honesty can perhaps be commended. In a period when the world is once more riven with conflict, the book is a timely and sobering reminder of how it is to live under a totalitarian regime, and a warning to modern readers to be wary about what we let our leaders get away with…

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and wishes the world would learn tolerance.

N.M. Borodin, One Man in His Time: A Memoir (Pushkin Press, 2024). 978-1782279952, 366pp., hardback.

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5 comments

  1. Oh, this sounds fascinating! I know I always say this, but I’ll say it again: history is that much more fascinating when it’s told through the eyes of the people who live it. The everyday lives of people show us so much more than a dry recitation of facts.

    1. It’s a powerful read, Margot, for sure. And I agree – actual stories of lived experience can really transport you back into historical events and settings.

  2. An excellent quote which demonstrates the complete illogicality of war. Shostakovich also manage to survive despite the fact that Stalin was really fed up with him. Osip Mandelstam didn’t. It was such a lottery. I don’t know whether you’ve read Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of a Life, which I recommend. It’s with Vintage.

    1. It really was a lottery – Bulgakov too survived, although it took decades after his death for his work to come out. And thank you for mention of the Paustovsky – I’m actually reading the books in the old six-volume hardback edition and they’re wonderful!

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful and engaging review of a book I’d not heard of (from a press I admire). The contradictions and complexities make it sound very rewarding.

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