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.

Thrown out of the institute in which he is studying for his part in composing a seditious number of a wall newspaper – it contains not a single mention of Comrade Stalin – Pankratov is then suspected of involvement in an imaginary counter-revolutionary conspiracy, picked up by the NKVD and, after long interrogations in prison, exiled to Siberia. Meanwhile Stalin, suffering from toothache, sits on the verandah of his dacha in Sochi on the Black Sea, rewriting the history of the Bolshevik underground in Baku, and brooding on the ‘technology of power’: ‘A state apparatus that is a reliable executor of the supreme will must be kept in a state of fear. That fear will then be passed on to the people.’ Oderint dum metuant, in other words. The novel ends with the assassination in December 1934 of the Leningrad Party leader Sergey Kirov – which Rybakov, like most Western historians, believes to have been carried out on Stalin’s orders. ‘There are dark days ahead’ are the last words of the novel, spoken to Pankratov by his companion in exile. This is clairvoyant of him – for Kirov’s murder began the wave of terror that developed into the Yezhovshchina, the Great Purge of 1936-8.

Rybakov originally wrote Children of the Arbat over twenty years ago. In 1966 Tvardovsky, the liberal editor of Novy Mir, announced that it would be published the following year in his journal; in 1978 Oktyabr promised it for 1979. It finally appeared earlier this year, as a serial in Druzhba Narodov. In 1966 it would have been dynamite; in 1979 a sensation. Now, however, developments in the Soviet Union have considerably lessened its impact. Yevtushenko, never a man to avoid a passing bandwagon, has declared that after Children of the Arbat ‘it will be impossible to have the same history books in our libraries and schools.’ And in the Soviet Union school history books have indeed been withdrawn: but as a result of glasnost, not Rybakov. When an official biography of Stalin describes him as ‘politically incompetent, immoral, hypocritical, disloyal, ill-advised and mad’, and when even the divinity of Lenin himself is being questioned, there is more than a whiff of the death of Queen Anne about Rybakov’s revelation that Stalin was a bloodthirsty and paranoiac tyrant. And though the portrayal of Stalin and his entourage is detailed and convincing, it lacks the sinister power of Solzhenitsyn’s version. Indeed, in form – though not of course in content – the portrayal is very similar to that in those post-war Stalinist novels in which the cult of personality bloomed with such vigour: Pavlenko’s Happiness (1947), for instance. The signs have been changed, but the method remains constant: there is only a hairsbreadth between the benevolent and the malevolent tyrant, as there is only a hairsbreadth between the Russia of Gorbachev and the Russia of Stalin. In every respect, indeed, Children of the Arbat is a very old-fashioned novel. In its immense width, its huge cast of characters, its interweaving of discrete narratives, its cross-cutting with historical events, it is another example of the genre begun by War and Peace, which in the West has gradually slid down-market to the latest family sagas encumbering airport bookstalls, but which in the Soviet Union remained, from the Thirties to the Sixties, a respected novelistic form.

It would be difficult to find more of a contrast than Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House, originally published in Russian in 1978, probably the most interesting work to come out of Soviet literature since the Twenties. It is pleasingly coincidental that its appearance in English should coincide with the first appearance in the Soviet Union of Nabokov’s works, for it is, both in tone and manner, undeniably Nabokovian. Where Rybakov deals with a group, Bitov probes an individual; where Rybakov employs a wide, panoramic sweep and introduces historical characters, Bitov concentrates his action and deals only with creatures of the imagination; where Rybakov is historically precise, Bitov is carefully vague; but, most of all, where Rybakov is stubbornly and conventionally naturalistic, Bitov is playfully and modernistically experimental. Yet in the end both can be seen to be confronting the same problems.

The title Pushkin House refers, not only to the Leningrad literary institute in which the hero, Lyova Odoevtsev, works (this, of course, is not the famous Pushkin House, the Pushkinskii dom, attached to the Academy of Sciences, but another with the same name), but also to the house of Russian literature, which, in the sense that all Russian writers have emerged from Pushkin, can truly be said to be his. The novel opens on the day after the annual holiday commemorating the October revolution. On the floor of the exhibition hall of the institute, among the wreckage of the exhibition itself – including Pushkin’s death mask, broken into several pieces – lies the lifeless body of Lyova Odoevtsev, whose history Bitov then relates. Born at the height of the Stalinist terror in 1937, and so a coeval of the author, Odoevtsev finished school in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and dies, it is hinted, in 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the Revolution: killed in a duel, after a heroic drinking spree, by one of Pushkin’s pistols in the hands of Mitishatyev, his best friend and worst enemy. But then the author relents, resurrects his hero the following morning with a terrible hangover, and even, with a stroke or two of the pen, aids him to repair the damage done to the museum.

Though the novel purports to be mainly, indeed exclusively, about Odoevtsev, and particularly about his relationship with three women – Lyubasha, Faina and Albina – it is in fact as much about Russian literature. It is stuffed full of literary references, the majority of which are explained in the translator’s excellent notes, while the centrepiece of the book is a critical essay by Odoevtsev on Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, a brilliant tour de force, which manages to be both a viable and illuminating work of criticism, a rumination on the history of Russia, and a commentary on the mode of thought of Odoevtsev and his generation.

Yet above and beyond this – and it is here that Bitov’s aim coincides with that of Rybakov – the novel is concerned with the problem of coming to terms with the past, a past of arbitrary imprisonment, of terror, of labour camps – and evaluating its significance for the future. Odoevtsev, like Pankratov, is personally involved: his grandfather, a famous scholar, was denounced by his father and sent to Siberia; now, freed and rehabilitated, the old man returns to Leningrad; Odoevtsev visits him, suffering, in a brilliantly written scene, agonies of embarrassment, not so much from the emotional problems as from the social difficulties posed by the situation.

Paradoxically, though Rybakov’s open, crowded and public narrative promises a general assessment of the impact of Stalinism on his generation, in the end the impression is intensely private and personal: Children of the Arbat is in some senses an attempt at self-therapy, a means for the author of exorcising and coming to terms with the experiences of imprisonment and exile. The introverted, introspective narrative of Pushkin House, on the other hand, with its intense concentration on the imperceptible movements of the individual psyche, turns out to provide – if metaphorically – that generalised public statement which would have been expected from the other novel.

Stichomythia run wild, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue consists solely of one-line exchanges between members of a queue – the longest in Moscow – which, some two thousand strong, winds its way up and down the alleys and streets of a suburban district in pursuit of some marvellous, mythical new line in consumer goods. The identity of the longed-for and never attained object – is it a Yugoslav coat, a chest of drawers with imitation bronze handles, or a pair of American jeans with orange stitching? – is never revealed. While there is a plot of sorts, the narrative method makes development difficult and subtlety impossible. The idea should have been left as a sketch for Krokodil: at book length it is interminable, relieved only by occasional blank pages, which, as the translator coyly remarks, ‘at least have been properly translated’.

Vladimir Voinovich is the author of brilliant satires on Soviet life, of which the best is perhaps the first, the Schweik-like odyssey entitled The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. He now lives in West Germany; the hero of his latest novel is a Russian émigré writer living in Munich who takes a Lufthansa flight to Moscow sixty years into the future. The mechanism by which this is accomplished creaks and groans, and the dystopia Voinovich presents has been in all essential aspects familiar since Zamyatin’s We. There are a few new and amusing touches: in 2042 Muscovites have to exchange their own waste products for tokens entitling them to receive food, and are exhorted to do so by a poster depicting a worker with ‘a look of confident optimism on his face, and an enormous pot in his sinewy hand’, beneath which runs a sub-Mayakovskian jingle:

EVERYONE WHO HANDS IN SECONDARY MATTER

WILL FEAST ON PRIMARY, SERVED ON A PLATTER.

The novel ends with the arrival in Moscow, to triumphant acclamation, of another émigré writer, the massive Karnalov, who sets up an absolute monarchy and as tsar receives the narrator in the Kremlin, wearing the Cap of Monomakh, the weight of which was once deplored by Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. Like Rybakov, Voinovich has been overtaken by events: whatever may be the end-result of the Gorbachovshchina, for the moment the progress towards a grey, featureless socialist future seems to have been halted, and what might have been a reasonable bet in the days of Brezhnev or Andropov now appears to be very much of a long shot.

A second émigré novel, Zinovy Zinik’s The Mushroom-Picker, forms a pendant to the first, involving as it does a voyage in the opposite direction. An English girl, Clea, returns home after two years in Moscow with a Russian husband, Konstantin. Obsessed with the West, and particularly with Western food, while in Moscow, in London Konstantin retires into his kitchen to indulge, together with Pan Tadeusz, who keeps a Polish delicatessen round the corner, in a Gogolian debauch on pickled mushrooms, cucumber, salted herring and other zakuski, washed down with gallons of home-made pepper, lemon, or coriander and cinnamon vodka. The climax of the novel is a farcical scene in the matter of Tom Sharpe (and no less unfunny), when Konstantin, on a secret midnight mushroom hunt in a prohibited military area, is caught with his trousers down by Clea, Pan Tadeusz and most of the British Army. This is followed by the meat of the book: a long and heated discussion between the émigré author himself and Konstantin, now in prison, on the significance of Russian history – a discussion which sits uneasily within its novelistic environment.

Finally, a curio. Set in Andropov’s Moscow (punningly known, apparently, as Chekago, from a combination of Cheka, the original Soviet Secret Police, with Chicago), Chekago is written by an English university teacher with close ties to Russia whose identity is wisely concealed by a pseudonym. Certainly the detail of Soviet life cannot be faulted, but the book itself, a cunningly whipped-up confection consisting of two parts of Dostoevsky to one of Gorky Park with a few maraschino cherries on top, written in an excruciatingly genteel style with a complete disregard for most of the technicalities of composition, is hilariously funny – and never more so than in the book’s three climaxes: the detailed descriptions of the couplings of the hero, drunken dustman Sasha Biryusov, with Bobby Weston, a pretty American postgraduate, with Valentina Afanasyeva, a whale-bone-corseted widow from Rostov-on-Don, and with Tanya Lestyeva, a journalist, the beautiful and depraved daughter of a high Party official.

The general impression given by these books is that Russian literature – in exile and in the Soviet Union – is alive and well, full of a narrative vigour and intellectual vitality usually absent from the etiolated works of the degenerate West. Yet none of these novels, perhaps unavoidably, confronts the present: they all concern themselves with an evaluation of the past. It would be simplistic to imagine that greater glasnost must inevitably bring in its train more exciting literature; nor can the novelist, any more than the political scientist, tell us whether what we are witnessing is merely a turn in the helm akin to that with which Lenin steered, as Mayakovsky put it, away from war communism into the amazing calm of the New Economic Policy, or is the beginning of the end, the first few grains of mortar falling from the doomed wall: in which case we might be in for a repeat of that marvellous effloresence in literature and art which accompanied the crumbling of the Tsarist state – an efflorescence promised here, above all, by Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House.