Sasha, Stalin and the Gorbachovshchina

T.J. Binyon

On returning from Munich to St Petersburg in the spring of 1837, the poet Tyutchev, as well known for his wit as for his verse, told a friend that he was suffering not so much from Heimweh as Herausweh; and, a little later, hearing that D’Anthès, Pushkin’s opponent in the fatal duel earlier that year, had been sentenced for his part in the affair to perpetual banishment from Russia, seized the opportunity for a mot by announcing that he would immediately go off and kill Zhukovsky – then, after Pushkin, the most famous poet in Russia. Yet Tyutchev’s verse, highly esteemed by Lenin and, according to Erenburg’s testimony, more popular with the Red Army soldier during the Great Patriotic War than the work of any other writer (excluding that of Erenburg himself), expresses a very different view of Russia. He is, moreover, the author of the famous quatrain which succinctly formulates that semi-mystical, annoyingly unanswerable view of Russia’s unique quality, her difference from all other nations:

Russia cannot be grasped by the mind,
Nor measured by a common rule:
She has a special stature of her own –
One can only believe in Russia.

This intertwined love and hate of the motherland, this obsessive fascination with the concept and essence of Russianness, coupled with an unrelenting inquiry into the future and destiny of the country – ‘Whither do you gallop, proud horse, and where do you put your hoofs?’ asks Pushkin of the bronze horseman’s steed that completes Falconet’s statue of Peter the Great, ‘Whither goest thou, o Russia?’ asks Gogol, dithyrambically comparing Russia’s path to the flight of the ‘quick, bird-like troyka’ – are characteristics not only of Russian literature but also, minimally adapted, of Soviet literature. Indeed, it could at a stretch be maintained that the doctrine of socialist realism was merely a translation into ideological terms of these last qualities. And the longevity of the syndrome is demonstrated once again by this group of novels.

Children of the Arbat is set in the early Thirties; the children of the title are a group of young people, acquaintances and friends, who live in and around the Arbat, that Moscow street which runs south-west from Arbat Square to Smolensk Square, between the inner, boulevard ring and the outer, garden ring, the main artery of a district – now mutilated by an urban expressway and redevelopment – which perhaps had some claim to be Moscow’s Soho. Max Kostin, honest, decent and stupid, becomes a soldier; Yuri Sharok, the son of a tailor who clothes most of smart Moscow, guileful and deceitful, goes into the NKVD and employs as an informer the pretty and promiscuous Vika Marasevich. But though these, and other characters, take up a good deal of space in the novel, they are ultimately unimportant: Rybakov uses them only to fill out his portrayal – fascinating as social history – of Muscovite life in the Thirties. The novel is dominated by two characters: Sasha Pankratov, the hero, an obvious self-portrait of the author, and Stalin.

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