Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. Before I knew it, 10 years of writing the book annual digest on this blog had passed. Reading them makes me nostalgic and occasionally rekindles my interest. At times, my own words sound surprisingly unfamiliar. Taking a view of a decade gives me a perspective that is not discernible when I look back at the end of each year.
Quite a lot of my reading has been at the blurry edges of literature and politics, between paradise and labyrinths. These labyrinths traverse across many lands and times. They have taken me to to places made familiar by past reading- Russia, Hungary, various countries in South America — all places I have visited only via books. In the last decade, a few new countries surfaced on my literary map — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Norway and Bolivia.
But nowhere feels as familiar a home as Russia does when it comes to literature. The universal themes of Russian literature make us all feel Russian at heart. For me, this started during adolescence and continues to be of interest, though less intensely, in the decades since.
The reason isn’t too far to seek; the classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature. More often than not, it was a means for communicating ideas and philosophical reflections. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes, what with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and forging ahead on the trail. .
If Latin American literature is an Amazonian river, Russian literature is like a constellation providing direction to lost voyagers– as we all are at some point or the other.
During the last decade, I have journeyed through 20th-century Russia through some of its novelists of this period. Some of the more significant writers that I read in the last decade are Andrey Platonov, Vasili Grossman, Evgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Boris Akunin. What follows is a digest of this journey through my reading lens.
Andrey Platonov is, along with Vasili Grossman, my favourite writer from this period of Russian literature. Born in a working class family and educated as an engineer, Platonov’s enthusiasm for the revolution was quickly replaced by his reflections on the unbridled violence and coercion of the new state. His personal life was made tragic by later events — his 14-year-old son was condemned as a “terrorist” and exiled to a labour camp on Stalin’s orders. Platonov’s last days were spent as a window cleaner in the Soviet Writers Union building.
Platonov used the medium of the novel to comment on the progress of the Russian Revolution. The Foundation Pit, as also his previous, longer novel, Chevengur, follow up on themes that were previously treated by Dostoevsky in The Possessed and Joseph Conrad his near-prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post-revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We that was published in 1920.
While The Foundation Pit and Happy Moscow were satirical in tone, Platonov’s novel, Soul called for a more humane socialism, much before the term became popular in the 1950s. Platonov’s pointed style in The Foundation Pit would tone down in successive works that dealt with later Five Year Plan periods. His style became more nuanced in his later works, for example in the very effective use of the rhetoric in Happy Moscow.
Many consider Platonov to be one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century, whose works were suppressed during the Soviet era. His writings re- emerged, along with others like those of Vasili Grossman, only in the 1990s.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is often seen as a precursor to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Indeed, there are similarities, though We strikes one with it’s originality and the fact that it was written in 1920-21, when the newly-formed Soviet government was still consolidating its power. Zamyatin’s Bolshevism allows him a far more optimistic outlook than Orwell’s. At one place in the novel, he says,
“Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”
While it is possible to read We as a dystopian novel about Soviet socialism, it can also equally be read as a critique of the technocratic Western society.
There is perhaps no other novella about the early Soviet years that is as devastating and as concise as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (1925) whose satire provided comic relief by caricaturing the emerging “New Soviet Man.” It made me feel like re-reading the longer novel that Bulgakov wrote, The Master and the Margarita.
I met once again, the realist novelist and journalist, Vasili Grossman, while reading his work Everything Flows. Grossman has used tight prose even in the soliloquies on Lenin and Stalin that provide a sweeping view of a thousand years of Russian history. It was refreshing to read a simply-written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than Life and Fate. I finished the 200-page Everything Flows in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse and surgically-precise prose.
In his Chekovian epic Life and Fate, Grossman had invoked Anton Chekov from the golden age of Russian literature. This, however, did not save him from being considered a dissident.
Chekhov said, let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere.
He finished the book in 1960 and sent the manuscript of his magnum opus for publication, believing that the Khrushchev “thaw” would permit his book to be published. He was rudely shaken when it was confiscated by the Khrushchev regime. Unknown to him was the reality of the power struggle during the “thaw” in which Khrushchev was being pushed into a corner by his comrades.
Khrushchev on Khrushchev, a chance discovery at a downtown used books sale, was a wonderful find, even if an accidental one. The first part that dealt with the days of Nikita Khrushchev are well described by his son, Sergei, lending a human touch to a very significant part of the Soviet and world history. The events leading to the secret speech against Stalin and the subsequent overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev by the neo-Stalinist brigade are described from a keen memory that remembered small and significant details all through the intervening decades. The book was published in 1990, towards the end of the Soviet rule.
The Stalinist revivalists that overthrew Khrushchev were represented by the sullen face of Brezhnev. But, as Nikita Khrushchev on the eve of the coup observed, there had been a fundamental shift in Soviet society by the time he was forced out of office.
“I have done the main thing. Relations among us, the style of leadership, has changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us any more, and suggesting that he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear’s gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”
Soviet Russia had carried forward the ideas of the Enlightenment to its extreme conclusion. It were its revolutionary intellectuals who established the most radical state in human history under the Bolsheviks. For the first time in history, power belonged to those who removed all class distinctions and banned God from its boundaries. It was to survive for a very short time before the revolution started devouring its own children. Its writers and intellectuals were disillusioned. They, and not the state that many of them had helped to create, seemed to be withering away, though the reality was, more nuanced than Western propaganda would have us believe.
On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Great October Revolution in 2007, 17 leading academicians from Russia, among them Roy Medvedev and Mikhail Shatrov issued an appeal reiterating the achievements of the Revolution and criticizing post-USSR attempts to whitewash that period of history.
We do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another. Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”. Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.
Such nuanced understanding, is however, not what the contemporary Russian novelists seem to keen to portray. Perry Anderson has scathingly critiqued the contemporary writers for being oblivious to the concerns of their predecessors.
Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov… What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched… satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past.
This escapist trend is a sad culmination to the critical writings of Andrey Platonov and Vasili Grossman, followed in the 1960s to a swerve towards Christianity and mysticism in the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The existence of the Soviet State that ruled with the promise of building socialism while enforcing a stifling bureaucratic rule had ensured that its dissidents provided a legitimacy of sorts to its intellectuals. During the Soviet era, literature was an occupation no less dangerous than rebellion and its novelists no less than David pitted against Goliath.
The collapse of the CPSU and the Soviet Union made them redundant, as Solzhenitsyn discovered after his return to Russia in 1994. In the middle of a chaotic decade, he was greeted with rude silence and not the rousing welcome that is accorded to a prophet, which is apparently what Solzhenitsyn expected.
His death in 2008 went practically unnoticed. Perhaps it was more than that. It announced the demise of the once-great Russian novelist.