Ivan Kulik is the young headmaster of the village school in Hjalby, near Pinsk. Kulik believes himself to be Ukrainian, and teaches his pupils in Ukrainian, but it is becoming fashionable amongst the emerging middle classes, those who want to differentiate themselves from the moujik peasant past, to speak and act as Russians.
It is 1940, and the region has been liberated from oppressive Polish rule by the Red Army, and the Soviets decree that it is now part of the Belorussian SSR. (Naturally, this means teaching in Belorussian, a language almost none among them understands).
The book begins with villagers dividing up the proprty of the feudal Polish landlord but it is quickly apparent that the new order is corrupt, with new civic bullies grabbing the spoils and ingratiating themselves into the Soviet system.
So Kulik finds himself walking through Pinsk, along Lahishenska Street: "A lovely broad, treelined avenue with shops restaurants and government buildings, army trucks, armored cars, tank units. Everywhere, on building walls, on fences, in entranceways, were pictures of Stalin."
Some, including the beautiful but selfish Marusia, welcome the changes. At one point she is embarrassed by her arguing parents:
They were going at each other in Ukrainian! Why couldn't they do it in Russian? And why did they have to use such dreadful phrases as 'May you get cholera and die' or 'You old scarecrow in a pea field!'"
Pulling the covers over her head she felt overwhelmingly embarrassed and distressed. She envied her friends whose parents were able to maintain well-balanced arguments in Russian without using even the slightest Ukrainian word. Why couldn't her parents do the same? She vowed to herself that when she was married all her arguments with her husband would be in Russian and Russian only.
But these are brutal times. Marusia will come to the attention of the NKVD thug Sobakin. The villagers have seen Sobakin kill an old man with revolver blow: "Well, well, it looks like I have found myself another subversive."
Kulik is quietly defiant.
What had happened today was a sign of things to come. The people in this small out of the way place were falling victim to a huge complex organisation they couldn't even begin to understand. They knew that something terrible was happening to them. If this was the beginning, what would life be like tomorrow, after tomorrow?
The novel ends before tomorrow comes - invasion by the Nazis - but the relentless, remorseless change of shifting borders and totalitarian power makes and breaks lives.
The circumstances are terrifying, but Wave of Terror is warm and often amusing. The shadow of the NKVD prison where Sobakin and his like inflict beatings and worse hangs heavy, but Odrach brings to life a vivid range of people he clearly holds in great affection.
Ordrach was born near Pinsk in 1912 and the novel, translated by his daughter Erma draws heavily on his experience. It is a very powerful read, but somehow manages to be nowhere near as bleak as its title and circumstances would suggest.
One of the more colourful characters, Dounia, the focal point of a scandalous menage a trois, is for reasons that suit her suitors, proposed as candidate for Deputy. She teaches in a school, and draws on this when making her nomination speech, telling the audience:
"A teacher, dear people, is like an ant that pulls a weight greater than itself. Grammar, arithmetic, geography and so on, must all first be absorbed by the teacher and then deposited on the heads of the pupils. This mission is a very difficult one because your children, as we all know, are all morons."