At 14 years old Alexis Krapivine (Aliocha to his parents) is trying to establish his own identity in the world, to decide who he is, as most boys his age do. He knows who he wants to be, but other influences are at work and an eternally modern situation develops.
The formerly wealthy family arrived in Paris to escape the Bolsheviks, and the parents hold tenaciously to the vague hope of returning to Russia once Britain, France and America have restored the Romanovs to their rightful place. They speak Russian at home, socialise only with other émigrés and try to enculturate their son according to their own past and define his future as a Russian.
Aliocha however wants nothing of Russia. He wants to be French, and while his parents stand in his way on one side, French society stands in his way on the other, reluctant to admit him. He is ridiculed at school because of his name and is treated as a “dirty foreigner”. He is a true outsider.
The one friendship that develops for young Aliocha is with a classmate, Thierry Gozelin, and Thierry is also an outsider, but for different reasons. Although Aliocha’s new friend is thoroughly French he has to inhabit the fringes of society because he is hunch-backed, sickly, supremely intelligent, bookish and from a very wealthy and influential family. The two boys are driven together by their love of literature, learning, neither one of them accepted by their fellow pupils – Dorks in other words.
Aliocha feels that he is becoming increasingly well integrated into French society when he joins the Gozelin family on holiday, goes to a Catholic Church, socialises with French people, and his alienation from what his parents want for him increases. They try harder to claim him for Russia but Aliocha sees his parent’s world disintegrate around them when the world recognises the USSR as a valid political state and all hope of restoration and victorious repatriation vanishes.
Just as young Alexis is finding himself however, tragedy strikes in a particularly cruel way and he is robbed of his way in to French society.
Henri Troyat writes this very tender yet brutal story from personal experience, child of a Russian émigré family himself. Perhaps he writes for all children caught between cultures, unable to make their way in either, doomed to be always outsiders, foreigners, and they have to take refuge in something. Like Aliocha and Thierry I also took refuge in literature.