It took me a while to warm up to The Case Of The General's Thumb: At first, it struck me as being an earlier effort than Andrey Kurkov's two penguin nIt took me a while to warm up to The Case Of The General's Thumb: At first, it struck me as being an earlier effort than Andrey Kurkov's two penguin novels -- Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost -- but it looks as if it were written between the two. In The Case of the General's Thumb, there is no Mischa the Penguin, but there is a tortoise named Nina. It must be said, however, that Nina has not a hundredth the character of Mischa.
Kurkov was born in Leningrad and writes in Russian, but he appears to be a self-identified Ukrainian. (This leads me to think that this is not an unusual situation these days.)
The case of the General's Thumb, like the two penguin novels, is a murky stew of various security agencies going at one another hammer and tongs. We see the story through the eyes of Viktor Slutsky (not the same Viktor as the penguin novels) of one unnamed Ukrainian security agency and Nik Tsensky, a military translator. Ostensibly, Viktor is on the trail of the person or persons who murdered a Ukrainian general, cut off his thumb, and left his body dangling over Kiev attached to a Coca Cola advertising balloon. Nik, on the other hand, is paired with an assassin and directed by telephone to perform various odd and threatening actions, mostly in Germany. For most of the book, the chapters are interspersed between Viktor and Nik, eventually coming together at the end.
At first, I was disconcerted by the flipping back and forth between the two characters, but as I grew to know Viktor and Nik more, I came to accept it.
If you want my recommendation, however, the penguin novels are clearly better. ...more
I, who have always loved books on travel, had never heard of An Armenian Sketchbook. Yet, as I started reading Vasily Grossman's book, I saw that thisI, who have always loved books on travel, had never heard of An Armenian Sketchbook. Yet, as I started reading Vasily Grossman's book, I saw that this was not only one of the greatest of all travel books -- on a par with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sir Richard F. Burton, and the great E. Lucas Bridges, author of The Uttermost Part of the Earth -- but also a great work of literature in its own right.
Arriving in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, Grossman is not met at the railroad station, but must find his way through a city not knowing a word of the local language -- and all this time with a painful need to urinate. I know this feeling, having urethral strictures as a result of some medical orderly's inept attempt to catheterize me forty-eight years ago. Although I have experienced this same feeling myself, many times, I had never seen it expressed in writing.
Grossman was to die two years later of kidney cancer. At several points, he meditates on his own mortality, on good and evil, and other basic topics. Here he is after having been unimpressed visiting the head of the Armenian church, and supremely impressed by a genuinely good peasant:
True goodness is alien to form and all that is merely formal. It does not seek reinforcement through dogma, nor is it concerned about images and rituals; true goodness exists where there is the heart of a good man. A kind act carried out by a pagan, an act of mercy performed by an atheist, a lack of rancor shown by someone who holds to another faith -- all these, I believe, are triumphs for the Christian God of kindness. Therein lies his strength.
Again and again, I find myself reading passages that are the equal of the best I have read anywhere.
Grossman was sent to Armenia in 1960 after the Communist authorities had confiscated the text of his great masterpiece Life and Fate. He was to produce a translation from the Armenian of a novel by Hrachya Kochar. Bear in mind: Grossman did not know any Armenian. So for him this was an existential journey that resulted in a book whose Russian title was Dobro van, or "Good on you!" -- a general blessing, a feeling which the author felt from the bottom of his capacious heart....more
Anton Chekhov seems so deceptively simple in his great plays such as The Three Sisters that we sometimes don't see the mystery that is there. In thisAnton Chekhov seems so deceptively simple in his great plays such as The Three Sisters that we sometimes don't see the mystery that is there. In this case, we have a young family consisting of a brother and three sisters, all full of high hopes and expressing a wish to move to Moscow, where "the lights are much brighter there/you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares." The mystery is in the curious entropy of life, that proceeds heedless of our wishes and dreams.
Even Andrey, the brother, whose "brilliant career" as a Moscow professor, comes to grief in the garrison town in the provinces:
Oh, what has become of my past and where is it? I used to be young, happy, clever, I used to be able to think and frame clever ideas, the present and the future seemed to me full of hope. Why do we, almost before we have begun to live, become dull, grey, uninteresting, lazy, apathetic, useless, unhappy.... This town has already been in existence for two hundred years and it has a hundred thousand inhabitants, not one of whom is in any way different from the others. There has never been, now or at any other time, a single leader of men, a single scholar, an artist, a man of even the slightest eminence who might arouse envy or a passionate desire to be imitated. They only eat, drink, sleep, and then they die... more people are born and also eat, drink, sleep, and so as not to go silly from boredom, they try to make life many-sided with their beastly backbiting, vodka, cards, and litigation. The wives deceive their husbands, and the husbands lie, and pretend they see nothing and hear nothing, and the evil influence irresistibly oppresses the children and the divine spark in them is extinguished, and they become just as pitiful corpses and just as much like one another as their fathers and mothers....
At the end, the garrison is transferred to Poland; and the three sisters have resolved to soldier on in their own way, perhaps even irrespective of happiness.
Reading Chekhov could be like a cold bath on an icy day. But there is something in his stories and plays that reminds us that happiness does not come to us as the result of the fulfillment of pipe dreams. It may not come to us at all. No one ever told us that life was going to be fair....more
I will tentatively give Penguin Lost five stars because I loved the book only until the last few wish-fulfillment plot twists. The world of Viktor ZolI will tentatively give Penguin Lost five stars because I loved the book only until the last few wish-fulfillment plot twists. The world of Viktor Zolotaryov is a strange one: In Death and the Penguin, of which this novel is the sequel, he lived alone with a penguin named Mischa he had rescued from the local zoo, which was unable to care for its animals. He befriended a militiaman named Sergey Stepanenko, who suddenly winds up dead. He adopts the daughter (Sonya) of a friend, then is joined by Sergey's niece Nina. But Viktor is in danger of losing his life, and Mischa becomes ill. On the lam, Viktor escapes to Antarctica, of all places.
... where we join him in Penguin Lost. Viktor returns from Antarctica with some ill-gotten gains and finds Mischa disappeared. Sonya and Nina are all right, but Viktor leaves in search of Mischa, who has been taken to Moskow, In Moskow, he finds it has been taken to Chechnya (then in the middle of the worst of its war) where it is owned by a Chechen entrepreneur named Khachayev. Viktor works for him at an informal crematorium burning Russian and Chechen bodies that have to be gotten rid of. Eventually, he comes to the attention of Khachayev, who reluctantly promises to return Mischa. First Viktor returns to Ukraine, and Mischa finally shows up some time later.
Andrey Kurkov still tries to get Mischa back to Antarctica, and here the story falls apart somewhat. What remains in my memory, however, is the sad, good-hearted household of Viktor, consisting of a penguin, a jealous cat, a legless Afghan War veteran, Sonya, and Nina. Even the villains are occasionally good-hearted, especially Andrey Pavlovich, a politician who hires Viktor as his idea man.
It's worth reading Kurkov's two penguin books. There won't be any more, because Mischa is now in the Antarctic. ...more
As a Hungarian-American who lived through the period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (we even took in two refugee families at different times), ViAs a Hungarian-American who lived through the period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (we even took in two refugee families at different times), Victor Sebestyen's Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution help refresh my memory. Plus, it made me even more furious at the Eisenhower administration's craven failure to pay any attention to the failed efforts of my people to break free of the Soviet yoke.
During the Revolution, the propagandists at Radio Free Europe, in effect, kept promising American and UN aid, going so far as to give specific military advice. But the eyes of Eisenhower and of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold were on the Suex Crisis, which was taking place at the same time. Even the Russians were nonplussed: They had lined 20,000 troops with armor and artillery along the Austrian-Hungarian border in expectation of an invasion.
Over the long haul, the Hungarians won. Janos Kadar, who was put into power by Kruschchev proved to be a good leader -- years after he had all the uprising participants executed. After the Hungarian people, the biggest casualty of the Revolution was all the Communist parties of Europe. Russia's naked aggression did not stand well with the West, and it was one of those subtle turning points in history that preceded by some thirty years the collapse of Soviet Communism itself. ...more
Anton Chekhov's plays are so dense with the aura of disappointment that it is difficult to summarize them. Here we have a country estate which is runAnton Chekhov's plays are so dense with the aura of disappointment that it is difficult to summarize them. Here we have a country estate which is run by Ivan and Sonia, unmarried brother and sister, for the benefit of their selfish father, the now retired Professor Serebryakov and his young wife. Ivan loves Serebryakov's twentyish wife Yelena; and Sonia, Doctor Astrov, who is in turn also in love with Yelena and thoroughly tired of her aging husband's hypochondria.
Even Astrov realizes that his love for Yelena, in addition to being immoral, is morally suspect:
In a human being everything ought to be beautiful: face, dress, soul, thoughts. She [Yelena] is very beautiful, there's no denying it, but all she does is eat, sleep, go for walks, fascinate us all by her beauty and -- nothing more. Other people work for her. Isn't that so? And an idle life cannot be pure.
Be that as it may, that doesn't stop Astrov, Ivan, and Sonia from feeling trapped by their longings. Why? Because no one's perfect.
As for Yelena herself, she is exasperated not only with her husband, but with the two men who are chasing her and with herself as well. ...more
Serendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor AkSerendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor Akelseyevich Zolataryov who writes for publication what his editor refers to as obelisks. These are obituary essays written about living people so that, when death comes to them, the newspaper is not caught short for materials to publish quickly. Oddly, though, it seems that all too many of the individuals Andrey memorializes is deathless prose wind up … dead.
My favorite character is Viktor’s pet and companion, the King Penguin Mischa. When the zoo in Kiev was suffering a financial meltdown, they sold their penguins; and Viktor bought the one he called Mischa.
Mischa is very like the King Penguin at the right in the photo on my blog site, which was taken on the Isla de Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Tierra Del Fuego. The largish penguin took a wrong turn into the Beagle Channel and wound up in a rookery consisting mostly of Magellanic Penguins and some Gentoos. It was obviously very lonely and disappointed. Every once in a while, he would try to mate with one of the Magellanic females, but caused uproars every time he tried.
Viktor’s Mischa shambles around the apartment, looking into the mirror, establishing a kind of hiding place behind some furniture, and displaying all the symptoms of a morose and puzzled disposition occasionally verging on depression. Even while Viktor worries that his writing job is connected with an assassination ring, Mischa slowly keeps getting worse. At the same time, he winds up taking care of Sonya, the daughter of one “Mischa-non-penguin,” who was associated with the editor who hired the writer, and who disappears after leaving money and a pistol. He also hires a teenage girl, the niece of his friend Sergey (who dies mysteriously) as a nanny for Sonya, who lethargically enters into a relationship with him.
I loved Death and the Penguin for its mellow strangeness. For a man surrounded by violent death, to which he may be contributing in some unexplained way, Viktor is relatively cool. Eventually, the situation changes rapidly. Mischa becomes ill and gets a heart transplant; and Viktor, well, let us say he takes action of an unexpected kind....more
Yuri Olesha wrote Envy in 1927, at a time when many of his contemporary writers were either shot or trundled off to the Gulag. My guess is that the GPYuri Olesha wrote Envy in 1927, at a time when many of his contemporary writers were either shot or trundled off to the Gulag. My guess is that the GPU (predecessor to the KGB) couldn't quite understand Olesha's humor, and I tend to sympathize with them.
Envy is divided into two parts. The first part is fairly straightforward: A lowlife drunk named Nikolai Kavalerov is "adopted" by a party apparatchik by the name of Andrei Babichev. We see Babichev as a self-important buffoon, who sees his role as creative a gigantic communal kitchen named Two Bits in which the cheapness and wholesomeness of the food with compete favorably with home cooking.
Then, in Part Two, Nikolai meets with Babichev's brother Ivan who is fully as envious of Andrei as Nikolai is. Nikolai takes up with Ivan, who has a strange device called Ophelia, which he plans to use to destroy Andrei and Two Bits. But here things get a little confused: It is sometimes difficult to determine what is actually happening, and what is merely a delusion or figment of Nikolai or Ivan's imagination.
In the end, Envy is good for a few laughs, though decidedly second rank compared to Nabokov and Bulgakov.
This is another work by the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who -- before his imprisonment in Siberia -- was trying to decide whether he was E. T. A. HoffmaThis is another work by the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who -- before his imprisonment in Siberia -- was trying to decide whether he was E. T. A. Hoffmann or Nikolai Gogol. Polzunkov is an extended anecdote about one Osip Mikhailich Polzunkov who narrates a story of how he tried to pull an April Fools joke on a well-respected resident of Petersburg, only to have the stunt backfire on him. Instead of being taken into the bosom of a respected family and marrying the young daughter, he is discharged from his post and forced to try his hand at borrowing money, unsuccessfully.
Even Dostoyevsky's less successful efforts are interesting. ...more
It has been a long time since I had run any of Anton Chekhov's plays, but after I read his long short story "The Steppe" while on vacation, I wanted tIt has been a long time since I had run any of Anton Chekhov's plays, but after I read his long short story "The Steppe" while on vacation, I wanted to take another look. We are sometimes so cowed by Tolstoyevsky -- as my late mother called him -- that we ignore that there are other Russian writers who are just as great.
The central symbol in The Seagull is, of course, the dead seagull. I can imagine high school teachers making much of this, but I don't think one can assign any cut-and-dried meaning to the dead seagull. In the play, we are confronted with a group of characters who are far from comfortable in their own skin. Nobody seems to be what he or she wants to become. And when, in the course of the play, they do manage to become what they wanted, they become dissatisfied and drawn back to the scene where we originally met them.
The seagull is a bird usually found by the ocean, but the play takes place by an inland lake. The men and women meeting at Sorin's country estate would love to soar, but in their own ways, all are shot down like the seagull. In the end, the seagull has been stuffed by a taxidermist and has become a ridiculous reminder of crushed aspirations.
A wonderful play, with a keen appreciation of the ways people become dissatisfied with their lives and one another....more
**spoiler alert** This grotesque little story owes much to E. T. A. Hoffman and Gogol and does not even begin to suggest the mature Fyodor Dostoyevsky**spoiler alert** This grotesque little story owes much to E. T. A. Hoffman and Gogol and does not even begin to suggest the mature Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Yet it is fun to read about this wizened little old man who rents a corner of a room in a Petersburg boardinghouse and is ignored for years until ... until the establishment begins to fill up with younger bachelors who work in the chancelleries and who begin to taunt Semyon Ivanovich Prokharchin beyond his ability to respond.
He runs off for a few days, is seen with low company, returns in the middle of the night -- and the "persecution" begins to ramp up even more. Finally, a drunk slashes his mattress, which scares Mr. P. out of his life. He dies, and the mattress is found stuffed with 2,500 rubles -- not a fortune, but a tidy some nonetheless.
I enjoyed reading this little sketch, but have no doubt that it confused Dostoyevsky's contemporaries. Still, if you idolize him as much as I do, I suggest you give Mr. Prokharchin a try....more
This novelette cannot have been written by anyone other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky, yet it is by no means one of his greatest works. Rather, it harks bacThis novelette cannot have been written by anyone other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky, yet it is by no means one of his greatest works. Rather, it harks back more to the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann than to the mature Russian author.
The Landlady seems to be stuck midway between two genres: German fantastic romanticism and the typically Dostoyevskian "narcissistic complex of self-lacerations and enjoyment of humiliation," as one critic calls it.
The (anti)hero is one Vassili Mikhailovich Ordynov, a poor student of a good-but-not-noble family who in wandering the streets of Petersburg runs into a strange old man accompanied by a beautiful young woman. He becomes obsessed with her, follows the couple, and asks if they could lease a corner of their apartment to him.
Almost immediately, Ordynov falls ill and is nursed back to health by the beautiful Katerina, who seems to be falling in love with him. Yet the interaction between our hero, Katerina, and the old man Murin becomes ever stranger. It turns out that neither of the two are trustworthy in what they convey to Ordynov. Surprises follow, that I do not wish to divulge.
I liked The Landlady, but I think it serves only to whet my appetite for his more mature works....more
In 1965, two Soviet brothers wrote The Final Circle of Paradise, a book about a space traveler who, far some unexplained reason, visits an idyllic resIn 1965, two Soviet brothers wrote The Final Circle of Paradise, a book about a space traveler who, far some unexplained reason, visits an idyllic resort city and proceeds to find out what makes it tick. In many ways Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris are writing about the West, a land where cheap wish fulfillment rules, where a cheap and readily available drug called "slug" sends people into paroxysms of enjoyable dreams, such that they could and frequently do die of nervous exhaustion.
Don't mind the Russian title: That's all that Goodreads gave me to work with.
The Strugatsky brothers' hero, Ivan Zhilin turns out to be a special investigator for the Security Council who reports his findings, but is disbelieved by his colleagues. We never find out the name of the resort city, but it seems to be in Southern Europe, perhaps on the Mediterranean.
Zhilin's musings in the book are priceless:
And as for progress -- it will come to an end only for the real society, only for the real progress. But each separate man will lose nothing, he will only gain, since his world will become infinitely brighter, his ties with nature, illusory though they may be, will become more multifaceted; and ties with society, also illusory but not so known to him, will become more powerful and fruitful. And you don\'t have to mourn the end of progress. You do know that everything comes to an end. So now comes the end of progress in the objective world.
Those are fighting words to a card-carrying Communist, and an interesting indictment where two Communist brothers thought the West was headed.
It's a pity that this book appears to be out of print. The Strugatsky brothers always make one think.......more
Victor Serge is virtually unknown in the West, and that is a shame. Born in Brussels, Serge was a Communist Revolutionary who saw action during the ReVictor Serge is virtually unknown in the West, and that is a shame. Born in Brussels, Serge was a Communist Revolutionary who saw action during the Revolution. Conquered City is about the years 1919-1920, when the Bolsheviks have largely prevailed but are being assailed from within by Mensheviks and Left SR's and from without by the White Russian armies financed by the Western powers.
Conquered City skips around from one set of revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries to another. Although some sections are first person narratives, it is not always easy to know who is speaking. The book is, however, a powerful study of cynicism tempered by starvation. The hero is Petrograd itself, which was at the time threatened from the West by a White army.
Several years ago, I read Serge's The Case of Comrade Tularev, which I found to be one of the best, if not the best, fiction relating to Stalin's purges. (Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat trilogy is another candidate.)
Both books showed Serge to be a superb, if unsung, novelist. He wrote in French. In Russia, he quickly came into conflict with Stalin and was imprisoned by him. It was the pleading of Western writers which led the Chekhists to release him. Like Trotsky, he died in exile in Mexico, though, unlike Trotsky, of a natural death.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double is an early novel by the Russian writer while he was still searching for his grand theme. Coming out soon after Poor FFyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double is an early novel by the Russian writer while he was still searching for his grand theme. Coming out soon after Poor Folk, it is a very Gogol-like story of a Petersburg clerk who somehow encounters his double, who promptly gets himself hired in the narrator's office and does everything he can to discombobulate the narrator. Much of the story deals with the narrator's attempt to come to terms with this double, who is not only identical to him, but bears his name and is getting to be ever so much more popular than he is. ...more
This is a review only of Anton Chekhov's long short story (or short novel) entitled The Steppe, which apparently is not published by itself. I had reaThis is a review only of Anton Chekhov's long short story (or short novel) entitled The Steppe, which apparently is not published by itself. I had read it years ago, but felt like giving it another look. It is probably one of my favorite tales of childhood, and certainly my favorite Chekhov story: The story is seen from the point of view of a child in the provinces being taken from his home to attend a school in a larger provincial city. There is a simple beauty and innocence to this tale that time cannot stale. It makes me want to read some more of his stories....more
Years ago, I read Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and found myself not liking it very much. When I heard how Tales of Belkin influenced DostoyYears ago, I read Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and found myself not liking it very much. When I heard how Tales of Belkin influenced Dostoyevsky according to Joseph Frank's biography of the latter, I decided to give it a try. It has been so many years since my first exposure to Pushkin, and I have changed so much in the meantime, that I expected the result this time would be different. It was. The five tales of Belkin were brief, to the point, and composed with a lightness that I found delightful. Curiously, the story I liked best was the only sad one in the lot, "The Postmaster," which I found to be remarkably similar to Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk in tone.
Now I think I am ready to read Eugene Onegin and some of the author's other prose works. ...more
The young Fyodor Dostoevsky was a talented writer even before his work became deeper and more profound as in the great novels that followed. Poor FolkThe young Fyodor Dostoevsky was a talented writer even before his work became deeper and more profound as in the great novels that followed. Poor Folk was by far the better of the two books, being a naturalistic study of urban poverty reminiscent in its small way of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It is written primarily as an epistolary novel with a few pages of the journal of Barbara Dobroselov while a young girl. Her correspondent is a much older man, Makar Devushkin, a copyist in the lowest grades of the civil service. The two end of emotionally lacerating each other even as they try to help each other, despite the scorn of the neighbors, who make fun of both of them.
The same sense of embarrassment can be found in A Little Hero, which is a tale of purely social embarrassment. A large group of people attend a get-together in the countryside. The eponymous "little hero" is only a young boy, but he develops a passion for a married woman, a Mrs M----. This is noticed by many of the other guests, who ridicule him and call him a crybaby.
When Poor People was first published in 1846, it was immediately recognized by the prominent critic Visarion Belinsky as a great book and became instantly famous. It is still well worth reading today, if for no other reason than to follow the path Dostoevski took to writing his great novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov....more
The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is a humorous fantasy about a Russian immigrant who is trying to find himself, and usually finds hThe Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart is a humorous fantasy about a Russian immigrant who is trying to find himself, and usually finds himself in hot water. The hero/narrator is one Vladimir Girshkin, who finds himself in a dead-end job and an unsatisfying relationship. He dreams for something better, but the advice of his friends leads him, on one hand, to Florida, where he infuriates a Catalan mobster by refusing to be his catamite. Then -- on the advice of a highly suspect Russian named Rybakov -- he goes to the Stolovan Republic (a kind of generic east European country on the model of the Czech Republic) where Rybakov's son, the Groundhog, is in charge of the local rackets.
In Prava, capital of Stolovan, Vladimir and the Groundhog set up a highly successful pyramid scheme, until the Groundhog turns on him.
In the end, he ends up where I began, in Cleveland, Ohio, married to his American terrorist girlfriend he met in Prava:
Downtown Cleveland. Its three major skyscrapers standing above the cosmopolitan wreckage of factories aching to be nightclubs and chain restaurants; the squat miniskyscrapers that look as if they had been cut short in their prime; the hopeful grandeur of municipal buildings built at a time when the transport of hogs and heifers promised the city a commercial elegance that had expired with the animals... But, somehow, this city has persevered against the unkind seasons and the storms that gather speed over Lake Erie. Somehow, Cleveland has survived, with her grey banner unfurled -- the banner of Archangelsk and Detroit, of Kharkov and Liverpool -- the banner of men and women who would settle the most ignominious parts of the earth, and there, with the hubris born neither of faith nor ideology but biology and longing, bring into the world their whimpering replacements.
Yep, that's Cleveland, all right-- except I don't know about the hogs and heifers. More like car parts and machine tools, but Shteyngart's mostly right.
This is a very funny book, but it tends to get goofy in parts. What keeps it worth reading is Shteyngart's wild imagination in depicting the American and the Eastern European scenes. His Vladimir ranges from a schlemiel to a picaro as we progress through his efforts to find a love and a life in a strange land, wherever it may be. ...more
We tend to be so overwhelmed by the nineteenth century Russian novel that we tend to ignore the literature of Soviet Russia during the twentieth centuWe tend to be so overwhelmed by the nineteenth century Russian novel that we tend to ignore the literature of Soviet Russia during the twentieth century. Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman is one book that almost never made it out of Russia, which would have been a tragedy. It was suppressed for years and finally made it to the West in a typewritten samizdat manuscript sprinkled with lacunae. Grossman was at Stalingrad during the siege and knew many of the Russian military officers, including General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army that held fast under the withering attack of the German 6th Army.
Life and Fate is the tale of an extended Jewish family, the Shaposhnikovs, who are spread from the Ukraine on the West to Kazan in the East. Many of them are directly involved in the Siege of Stalingrad, and many of them are in trouble with the State's security organs, notably the NKVD, which later became the KGB.
Perhaps the most sustained character is the Soviet physicist Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, who is involved in nuclear research. Torn between his wife Ludmila and the wife of a colleague, he runs into some heavy going when he appears to run into some anti-Semitism when he relocates from Kazan to Moscow. Thinking he is about to be arrested for some unusually frank conversations with his superiors, who he imagines are about to denounce him, he suddenly receives a call from Stalin himself inquiring about his work and praising him for his discoveries. Although the picture for Shtrum improves, there is a scorpion sting when he must sign a letter denouncing two Jewish physicians as murderers of the writer Maxim Gorky.
This is a big novel (almost 900 pages) and takes a number of days or weeks to read, but the effort is more than worthwhile. There are beautiful scenes such as the following, when Ludmila's mother walks the streets of Stalingrad after the siege has been lifted:
And here she was, an old woman now, living and hoping, keeping faith, afraid of evil, full of anxiety for the living and an equal concern for the dead; here she was, looking at the ruins of her home, admiring the spring sky without knowing that she was admiring it, wondering why the future of those she loved was so obscure and the past so full of mistakes, not realizing that this very obscurity and unhappiness concealed a strange hope and clarity, not realizing that in the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realizing that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that fate alone has the power to pardon and to chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory and infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings. No, whatever life holds in store -- hard-won glory, poverty and despair, or death in a labour camp -- they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man's eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be ...
In many ways, Life and Fate is reminiscent of Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat trilogy (Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Dust and Ashes) in that they cover much of the same territory. One difference is Grossman's unique perspective on Stalingrad, though Rybakov does an outstanding job covering Stalin's purges of the late 1930s.
I rather doubt that most readers will have the sitzfleisch to attack either Grossman or Rybakov. Unless one is somewhat familiar with the history and with Russian character names and patronymics, one is not likely to stray too far from the tried and true and excessively familiar. But, know this, there are rewards for those who do....more
This is a painful book to read, as it shows the horror of the war on both sides. The half-year battle for the streets of Stalingrad was an unremittingThis is a painful book to read, as it shows the horror of the war on both sides. The half-year battle for the streets of Stalingrad was an unremitting horror, with not only two armies, but thousands of civilians jammed into a city that was being bombed into rubble while everyone was starving or dying of thirst. (Apparently this book demonstrated the dangers of trying to substitute snow for water.)
Just when the battle for the streets of Stalingrad appeared to be turning into a stalemate, with General Vassili Chuikov of the Soviet 62nd Army fighting Paulus's German Sixth Army to a virtual draw, Marshal Zhukov initiated an encircling movement that caught the Nazis unaware. Both Hitler and his generals were astonished that the Russians had so many more men, tanks, and planes when it had seemed that there was nothing left on the Russian side but stumbling starvelings. In a trice, it was the Sixth Army that turned into stumbling starvelings sans food, sans ammunition, sans fuel, sans everything.
Hitler forbade Paulus to surrender. It was his fervent wish that the whole army commit suicide so that they could go down as heroes. They didn't: tens of thousands surrendered. But Hitler and Goebbels tried to buffalo the German people into thinking that the whole army was wiped out.
In the battle between Hitler and Stalin, it appeared that the Russian was the more reasonable. Hitler had no notion whatsoever of supplying a large army that was thousands of miles from its base in Central Europe. He just thought that his armies could supply themselves by living off the newly occupied territories. That worked to a certain extent, but how does an army make its tanks and cannon work without replacement equipment? And what about ammunition? As the Eastern Front collapsed toward the Volga, the Russians were closer to their base of supply in the Urals and around Moscow, while the Germans were dangerously stretched.
Antony Beevor has written an excellent history which should be required reading for those who think that D-Day was what broke the back of the Nazi war machine. The Wehrmacht units on the Ostfront would have paid to serve against the Americans and the British, instead of dying by the millions on the pitiless steppes of Russia....more
We have been trained to think of World War Two as essentially a Western war, with the Russian contribution somehow beinActually four and a half stars.
We have been trained to think of World War Two as essentially a Western war, with the Russian contribution somehow being amorphous, off line, and, to to speak, off-screen. It might not be a bad idea to begin reading this book with Table E on page 307, which shows the Wehrmacht losing 13,448,000 dead, missing, and disabled by war's end. Of these, the overwhelming majority fell on the Eastern front -- as many as 9,000,000. In comparison, all the Western front battles from North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany itself was a comparative small fraction, irrespective of what we learned in school and from watching endless documentaries lauding the American and British contributions.
Glantz and House have written a formidable book. Perhaps it is too formidable in its massive details, often whole paragraphs of different units and generals with relatively few anecdotes. In a way, it needed something equivalent to the Knocking at the Gate scene in Macbeth to relieve the tension. At times the book resembled a sentence outline jam-packed with statistics.
In the last two or three years of the war, the Soviets fielded six million men in arms stretched over a front line that extended almost 3,000 miles from Finland to the Caucasus.
Despite the dryness of the authors' presentation in When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, the magnitude of the Soviet accomplishment shines through. (Even I find myself trying to cite statistics in describing the Eastern Front, it was just so massive in scale.)
Stalin, Zhukov, Vasilevsky and other members of the Stavka, or Supreme High Command, are probably the heroes of World War Two. Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery and Bradley would have just been four generals in Russia, among scores of others who merited equal praise.
Books like this make one think about our closely held cultural myths which we have perpetuated across three or more generations. For us, WW2 was a "Good War"; for the Soviets, it was either win or die horribly. ...more
Anatoli Rybakov's Arbat Trilogy is probably the most detailed look at Stalin's Purges and the "Great Patriotic War" (World War Two) that followed immeAnatoli Rybakov's Arbat Trilogy is probably the most detailed look at Stalin's Purges and the "Great Patriotic War" (World War Two) that followed immediately upon its heels. I have now read all three volumes: Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Dust and Ashes. I find them to be probably the most sustained look at a society that is both fearful of being caught up in the NKVD's meshes and yet determined to last through the horrors that await them.
This is not a series for people who like neat, happy endings. Some really nice people die under grim conditions. Although the books do not spend any time in the Gulags, what was happening in Moscow and along the long three-thousand-mile front that formed the war against the invading Germans was bad enough.
I will not quickly forget about a dozen of the characters, whose careers I followed from their youthful follies in the old Arbat section of Moscow, characters like Sasha Pankratov, Varya, Lena, Gleb, Shamov the Chekhist, and a host of others. Among the characters are some more famous names: Stalin, Yezhov, Beria, Zhukov, and Vasilevsky.
I took more than four years to read the 1,500-odd pages of the trilogy, but it was worth it. Rybakov is a traditional novelist -- no postmodern touches -- but he writes a story that is, I firmly believe, true to history and to the character of the Russian people.
If you are not put off by lengthy reads, I recommend Rybakov to you. His Arbat trilogy is well worth any time and effort you put into it. ...more
This is another big-ass Russian novel, with close to 700 pages and a huge cast of characters spread across a good chunk of the old Soviet Union, fromThis is another big-ass Russian novel, with close to 700 pages and a huge cast of characters spread across a good chunk of the old Soviet Union, from Siberia to Moscow to Kaliningrad. It is the second novel of a trilogy, the first entitled Children of the Arbat, which I read in 2008 not even knowing it was part of a trilogy. Sequel or not, Fear is so good that I plan to move on to the third novel, Dust and Ashes, some time in the coming year.
Anataly Rybakov took his chances writing these works during the 1960s and 1970s, when Khrushchev and Brezhnev were still not ready to face the collective horror that was Josef Stalin's purges of the 1930s. For decades, the Arbat trilogy circulated in samizdat format until they finally reached the printers during the rule of Gorbachev.
There are numerous characters who narrate bits and pieces of the story, the two main ones being Sasha Pankratov, who has been exiled to a small Siberian village near Taishet for a implied slur on Stalin, and Stalin himself. Others include: Yuri Sharok, an interrogator for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB); Vadim and Vika, brother and sister, the former an informer for the NKVD and the other an escapee from Russia when she marries a French writer; and Varya and Nina, two sisters, one a devoted Stalinist who finds herself liable to arrest for associating with the wrong people, and the other a young divorcee who tries to get together with Sasha, but is flustered by his being forbidden to visit Moscow because he was a political prisoner.
Mind you, Rybakov's novels requi9re a great deal of attention, as -- typical with fat Russian novels -- every character has multiple names and nicknames. A familiarity with such conventions as Sasha being a nickname for Aleksander and Varya, for Varvara, will help.
The most frightening part of the books are the chapters seen from Stalin's point of view. As Rybakov sketches him, he is a frightening paranoid. Even a stray look askance from a subordinate sets him off, leading to the latter's execution after days of torture. Most of these chapters conclude with a "butcher's bill" summarizing the executions of the former leaders of the Russian Communist Party and the military.
The purges started with the assassination of Sergey Kirov, head of the Leningrad Party, in December 1934. This assassination is now thought to have been the work of Stalin, who was widely thought to be his best friend, but who was actually envious of his popularity. That theory is backed up by the mysterious disappearance of virtually the entire Leningrad Party security apparatus.
Once he got started, Stalin added other enemies, accusing them of being involved in the murder of Kirov -- and why not kill two birds with one stone? -- tools of the evil Trotsky, who by this time had left the country. First there were Kamenev and Zinoviev, who right after the October Revolution were among the most powerful leaders of the Party. Then Bukharin, Rykov, and scores of others. Then, just before World War II, he decided to purge most of the generals and admirals of his armed forces, starting with the Civil War hero Tukachevsky.
At one point, at a political denunciation meeting in Kaliningrad, Pankratov (who managed to leave Siberia as his 3-year term was up and the security organs had not yet tracked his peregrinations) has this thought:
They were all tied to the same rope. A country of many millions, singing, shouting, damning invented enemies, and glorifying their own executioners. The herd was rushing at wild speeds and whoever slowed would be trampled, whoever stopped would be crushed. You had to keep running and shouting at the top of your lungs, because the whip would hit whoever was silent. You couldn't stand out in any way. You had to trample the fallen ruthlessly and recoil from those who were hit with the guard's whip. And shout and shout to quell the fear within you. Victory marches and songs were that shouting.
At the end of Fear, Sasha is surprised to hear that Kaliningrad is declared off limits to all ex-Section 58 (Political) prisoners; and he is given 24 hours to leave. He sets his sights on Ufa in the Urals, where his fellow truck driver Gleb has gone with several other politicals to start a ballroom dancing act....more
The historian Amy Knight has chosen for herself an interesting niche in Russian history of the Soviet period: She is perhaps the most renowned chronicThe historian Amy Knight has chosen for herself an interesting niche in Russian history of the Soviet period: She is perhaps the most renowned chronicler of the secret police. Abd what greater mystery is there in Soviet history than determining who was responsible for the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the party chief of Leningrad and supposed friend of Stalin. On December 1, 1934, he was shot in the back of the neck just in front of his second floor office in the Smolny Institute.
As soon as he heard the news, Stalin rushed to Leningrad and personally took charge of the investigation. Surprisingly, Kirov's bodyguard, Borisov, died in a freak traffic accident on the way to be interrogated. (Hmmm.) Not surprisingly, Stalin claimed that the gunman, Leonid Nikolaev, was a tool of a conspiracy hatched by -- oh what a surprise! -- Stalin's main enemies, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, who were forthwith arrested to be reserved for the first big show trial to kick off the infamous purges that peaked a couple of years later.
Although Stalin publicly treated Kirov as his best friend, Kirov was under no such misapprehensions. At the Seventeenth Party Congress, Kirov came within an ace of beating Stalin in a popularity contest in which the latter garnered a large number of negative votes, which, not surprisingly, have been lost. Knight concludes that Stalin used Kirov as a pretext to formulate a vast conspiracy (which was born suspiciously soon after Kirov's death) to be used for ridding the party of anyone whom he felt opposed him or could even conceivably oppose him. As Knight writes:
The story of Kirov's murder did not end with the trials of January 1935. On the contrary, the murder and its aftermath marked the beginning of a nightmare that would consume the Soviet Union for the next four years. Some historians insist that the police terror that unfolded after Kirov's assassination was not the product of any grand strategy of Stalin's, but rather a haphazard, frenzied process that fed on itself. But when one considers how Stalin meticulously pored over transcripts of interrogations and indictments and how he systematically meted out retribution to his real or perceived enemies, a picture of a carefully planned vendetta emerges.
I highly recommend Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery to anyone interested in the great purges that culminated some seventy-five years ago and more. ...more
This is at one and the same time a very long book and a fascinating one. As a exhaustive study of Russian history from the reign of Nicholas II to theThis is at one and the same time a very long book and a fascinating one. As a exhaustive study of Russian history from the reign of Nicholas II to the death of Lenin, it is epic in its sweep. The only reasons I could not find it in me to give it five stars are the following:
 Orlando Figes has developed a reputation for controversy. First, he wrote reviews for Amazon.Com under an assumed name (Birkbeck) in which he excoriated competing writers on Russian history, blaming them at first on his wife. Secondly, in his most recent work, he has been assailed for misrepresentations and gross inaccuracies. Both of these events came after the 1997 publication of A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, which seemed to this unsophisticated reader as a work displaying an admirable sense of balance.
 The last third of the book about the Civil War showed some exhaustion in its composition. There were so many parties over and above the Reds and the Whites, including the Komuch, the Don Cossacks, Makhno's Ukrainian partisans, Petliura's partisans -- to name just a few. Also, there were at least a dozen occasions when Figes would suddenly conclude that the main reason the Whites lost was A or B or C ... down to Z. All were convincing reasons, but they led to a loss of focus in this section.
 This is not something I usually complain about -- and it has nothing to do with Figes at all -- but Viking, the publisher. For some reason, the number one was shown as a capital "I." Hence, monstrosities such as the year I9I9. Also in the Italic font used, the letter "b" and the letter "h" were indistinguishable. Hence the word burzhooi, Russian for bourgeois, looks more like burzbooi whenever it appears.
In the end, I think that Figes has done an admirable job compacting more than thirty years of turbulent history, broken into four epochs (Tsarism, the February Revolution, the October Revolution, and the Civil War), into merely 824 pages. Also, I think his conclusions are by and large on the mark:
But Russia's prospects as a democratic nation depend to a large extent on how far the Russians are able to confront their own recent history; and this must entail the recognition that, however much the people were oppressed by it, the Soviet system grew up in Russian soil. It was the weakness of Russia's democatic culture which enabled Bolshevism to take root. This was the legacy of Russian history, of centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule, that had kept the common people powerless and passive. 'And the people remained silent' was a Russian proverb -- and it describes much of Russian history. To be sure, this was a people's tragedy but it was a tragedy which they helped to make. The Russian people were trapped by the tyranny of their own history.
Ah, well, I guess the book deserves four and a half stars. It kept me on the edge of my toes for eleven long days of reading the book....more
The Wanderers traveled all over the galaxy, and -- who knows? -- perhaps beyond. All this happened some thousands of years ago. After all this time, nThe Wanderers traveled all over the galaxy, and -- who knows? -- perhaps beyond. All this happened some thousands of years ago. After all this time, no one knows what the Wanderers look like, even whether they were humanoid or not. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote about what they referred to as the Noon Universe, as described below by the Wikipedia article about the brothers:
The main characteristics of the Noon Universe are: a very high level of social, scientific, and technological development; the creativity of the general population; and the very significant level of societal maturity compared to the modern world. For instance, this world knows no monetary stimulation (indeed, money does not exist), and every person is engaged in a profession that interests him or her. The Earth of the Noon Universe is governed by a global meritocratic council composed of the world's leading scientists and philosophers. That Noon World has been clearly named as "World of Communism" in their novels, which was handy for publishing their novels in the USSR where the Communist Party decided whether a book would be printed, and approved for mass circulation.
The Universe was described by the authors as the world in which they would like to live and work. It became highly influential for at least a generation of Soviet people, e.g. a person could quote the Strugatsky books and be sure of being understood. At first the authors thought that the Noon Universe would become reality "by itself", but then they realized that the only way to achieve it is by inventing the High Theory of Upbringing, making the upbringing of each person a unique deed.
One of the important story arcs of those books is how the advanced human civilization covertly steers the development of those considered less advanced. Agents of humans are known as Progressors. At the same time, some humans suspect that a very advanced spacefaring race called Wanderers exists and is 'progressing' humanity itself.
In Beetle in the Anthill, we are presented with a relentless search for one Lev Albakin, one of the Progressors described above, who has killed an associate and traveled to earth without permission.
For me, however, the very best parts of the book are excerpted from a journal by Lev in which he and a doglike extraterrestrial named Schokn, who seems attached to Lev but who thinks little of the human race: "Humans. How can there be any doubt? Naturally, it was humans. Iron and fire, rubble, it's always the same." As in their great Roadside Picnic, there are wonderful outland scenes in which inexplicable things, things that can only be described as eldritch. They wandered across a ruined landscape, where strange objects and threats materialize seemingly from nowhere, and they are treated with suspicion by the surviving human population, who are affected by a plague that makes them age prematurely.
The Strugatsky brothers are not for your typical sci-fi fan: Beetle in the Anthill is a mystery wrapped within an enigma, and the tale unfolds slowly in a series of fragments, mostly from the point of view of Maxim Kammerer, who is seeking the Progressor Albakin. Nonetheless, the conclusion is a shocker with profound implications about the Wanderers and the peoples they visited these many millennia ago. ...more
I read this first volume of three of Isaac Deutscher's massive biography of Leon Trotsky for a discussion group on Russian history. It turns out thatI read this first volume of three of Isaac Deutscher's massive biography of Leon Trotsky for a discussion group on Russian history. It turns out that seeing the Russian Revolution through the eyes of one man -- perhaps the most brilliant of the early Soviet leaders -- gave me a unique perception of Russia's successes and failures in those critical early years.
Communism started out more or less as an international debating society with branches all over Europe. It was only the proto-revolution of 1905 that showed Trotsky and Lenin that the whole thing was possible. What they didn't expect, however, was that the whole rest of the world did not march in lockstep with them. They conducted their revolution in the middle of World War I, while under attack by the Germans, succeeded in an almost bloodless overthrow of Kerensky's Menshevik government, then had to deal with several years of civil war against the White Russian forces of Denikin, Kolchak, and Wrangel -- not to mention an invasion of the Ukraine by the Polish. At the end of this time, Russia was in the middle of a famine, industrial production was way down, and something new had to be done.
Trotsky was not only the major player in the October Revolution, but founded the Red Army to combat the Poles and the Whites. As Deutscher writes:
It was his clear, consistent, and swift logic -- the logic of the great administrator -- that defeated Trotsky. His mind fixed on his objective, he rushed headlong into controversy, impetuously produced arguments and generalizations, and ignored the movement of opinion until he overreached himself and aroused angry resentment. The self-conscious administrator in him got the better of the sensitive political thinker and blinded him to the implications of his schemes. What was only one of many facets in Trotsky's experimental thinking [namely, a monolithic state] was to become Stalin's alpha and omega.
The first volume ends in 1921, as Trotsky was still in his prime, but beginning to run into opposition from Stalin and others.
On a squib of the back cover of my edition, Graham Greene states, "Surely this must be counted among the greatest biographies in the English language." To which I might add that it is a sine qua non for understanding how communism emerged from a theory into a large and powerful state....more
We have read fiction by prisoners in the Soviet Gulag system, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Varlam ShalamovWe have read fiction by prisoners in the Soviet Gulag system, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. Now, with Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone, we have a novel about the lives of Soviet Army guards in the 1960s -- written by a man who worked as one himself -- but among criminal rather than political prisoners.
Dovlatov's wry humor informs this set of short stories, which are interspersed by letters from the author to Igor Markovich Yefimov, publisher of San Francisco's Russian language Hermitage Press, trying to talk him into publishing this book. Strange as it may seem, the letters and stories seem to cohere fairly well. According to the author in one of his letters: "We were very similar to each other, and even interchangeable. Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term."
Here is a short clip to give you an idea of Dovlatov's sharp wit:
Soviet rudeness often takes a legitimized form of injunction. I have read many announcements in my life that startled me, but I especially remember three. The first one I saw on the wall of a Leningrad food store. It read: "THE GUILTY WILL BE PUNISHED!" After that, not a word. A threat ominously addressed into space.
Apropos: In this same food store, a friend of mine saw a note lying on the cover of a zinc tub: "Zina, don't water the sour cream, I already watered it."
The second announcement was on a wall in the office of the head of the militia in the city of Zelenogorsk. It read: "DON'T ASK ANY QUESTIONS!" This order reeked of hopelessness.
But the most surprising announcement of all was one I saw in the admissions office of a country hospital. It consisted of two words -- "NOT ALLOWED" -- followed by three exclamation points.