Literary periodicals are in great demand these days in the Soviet Union, and issues of particular interest are sold out in hours, if not in minutes. The reason is not any sudden upsurge of curiosity about poetry, fiction, or literary criticism but simply that, as in 19th-century Russia, literature in the Soviet Union provides a framework within which views can be expressed that cannot be aired in other venues—even at a time, like the present, of relative relaxation. Thus, the literary journal Novy Mir has published articles about the state of the Soviet economy, about the accuracy of Soviet statistics, and about other such topics which none of the general or professional journals would have dared to touch.
One literary monthly, Druzhba Narodov (“Friendship of the Peoples”), has recently published the third and last part of Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat, a novel that even before it appeared was being hailed as the great political and literary event of the year. Rybakov, now in his seventies, is best known as the author of books for children and adolescents. Some ten years ago, however, he published Heavy Sands, an extraordinary novel (by Soviet standards) about the sad fate of a Jewish community in a small town under German occupation in World War II. As I noted at the time in a review of the book in COMMENTARY (June 1980), Heavy Sands is not a great work of art, nor does it contain anything new or startling to the Western reader. But in Soviet terms Rybakov had gone as far as he possibly could, and it was a brave thing to do. Heavy Sands subsequently appeared in eighteen foreign languages, including English; if there was a single review of the novel inside the Soviet Union, I have missed it.
Children of the Arbat, which was originally written in the 1960’s but could not appear until now, is in a different literary class altogether, and it has already been highly praised by some of Rybakov’s peers. (The weekly Ogonyok published some ten personal letters to Rybakov by leading writers and critics in which adjectives like “grandiose,” “colossal,” and “Shakespearean” abound.) It is the story of a generation: the young men and women who lived in central Moscow in the early 1930’s. Arbat, to the west of the Kremlin, is one of the oldest parts of the Soviet capital. Originally an upper-class neighborhood, it eventually acquired something of the chic-bohemian tone of Paris’s St.-Germaindes-Prés, and was made Moscow’s first pedestrian zone. Some of its old character is still preserved amid the high-rise buildings of today, although most of those who live there now are in their sixties and seventies.
Rybakov’s novel has two protagonists: a (fictional) student named Sasha Pankratov, and Stalin. Sasha is handsome, a good son and friend, reasonably intelligent, an enthusiast—terribly naive and a bit of a prig. As a young Communist he commits some minor ideological gaffe when preparing a wall newspaper at his college. Although normally this sort of thing would be dismissed, or incur a mild admonition, unbeknownst to Sasha the organs of state security have been building up a case against an old Bolshevik and in a roundabout way he becomes implicated in the frame-up. Thus a student’s prank is transformed into an act of treason; Sasha is arrested and is sentenced (leniently) to three years of administrative exile in Siberia. Poor Sasha does not, of course, understand what has happened to him, and believes that it is all a horrible misunderstanding which could be immediately rectified—if only comrade Stalin knew.
Prison and Siberia cure him only in part of his naiveté. When a machine in the local kolkhoz (collective farm) breaks down, Sasha volunteers to repair it, warning everyone in earshot that it will fail again unless new parts are secured. In the heat of a quarrel he also calls the chairman of the kolkhoz a fool. The machine duly breaks down again, conveniently no one remembers Sasha’s warning, and the chairman brings a criminal action against him for deliberately wrecking the socialist economy—a crime punishable by between ten years and life.
Now the local head of the KGB, a fine person of much experience and originally an enthusiast like Sasha, takes pity on the young man and patiently explains to him some of the ground rules of Soviet society: never volunteer if there is the slightest risk that things may go wrong, never call anyone in authority a fool. ‘“You may call him a son of a whore, or worse; this will be forgotten. But never, under any circumstances, must you undermine his authority.”
Thanks to this guardian angel, Sasha escapes serious trouble. For there is no doubt that he does need protection. His friends and family (with the exception of his mother) have scarcely exerted themselves to help him. In fact, with two exceptions his contemporaries, the young enthusiasts of 1934, do not appear to be an attractive lot, and the worst character in his circle, an out-and-out careerist, joins the secret police.
In the parts of the novel devoted to these young people Rybakov’s description of the mores of Moscow society is excellent. Siberia, on the other hand, he portrays a little colorlessly. But in any case where this novel truly comes alive is as a superb psychological study of its second protagonist, Stalin.
In the 1950’s, under Khrushchev, Stalin was denounced for having encouraged the “cult of the individual” and for “deviating from the norms of socialist legality.” Considering the enormity of his crimes, this was mild enough, but later under Brezhnev the euphemisms were toned down still farther, and indeed Stalin’s reputation was partly restored. Even today Stalin has his admirers both among the leadership and the common people. They will not like this novel. Rybakov portrays a man who genuinely believes in Russia and in Communism but who also happens to be a lunatic and a criminal; a politician who comes to power not through far-sightedness, oratorical skill, personal charisma, or other qualities of genuine leadership but who simply is more brutal and cunning and morally uninhibited than his colleagues in the Politburo, and who ultimately outmaneuvers and liquidates all but the most servile toadies among them.
Rybakov imitates Stalin’s style of speech very effectively, especially the constant habit of posing rhetorical questions (“Is it conceivable that comrade Kirov did not know about the nefarious activities of the opposition under his own nose?” “No, it is inconceivable.” Etc.). And he has certainly done his historical homework: the story he tells is largely authentic, and it will serve well to replace the Soviet histories of the 30’s which were never written. If the names of the second-and third-rank party leaders in this novel will mean something to Western experts, they will come as a surprise to readers in the Soviet Union, where the archives are closed and the figures in question have been unpersons for a long time.
The tale Rybakov unfolds is all but unrelievedly grim, although it does have its gruesomely light moments. Thus, while relaxing at his villa at Sochi, Stalin suddenly comes down with a toothache; his personal dentist, a man by the name of Lipman, has to be flown in from Moscow. There ensues an inner conflict as Stalin must reconcile his desire to be feared by everyone with his need for a dentist whose hands do not tremble. After various complications the leader is indeed fitted with a new bridge; but Lipman himself is not so fortunate. One morning on the Sochi beach Lipman happens to meet Sergei Kirov, number-two man on the Politburo, the darling of the party, but whom Stalin plans to liquidate politically and physically. Next, Kirov tells Stalin about his meeting with the dentist; whereupon Stalin, sensing a conspiracy, immediately gives orders to remove Lipman from the Kremlin medical unit.
Does Rybakov have nothing at all positive to say about Stalin? Actually, there does seem to be an underlying suggestion in the novel that his iron fist was somehow indispensable to the development of the Soviet state, and that “objectively” he may therefore have played a certain positive role. Whether Rybakov himself subscribes to this line of thought it is difficult to say; pseudo-objectivity of this kind may be the price for the publication of a book like Children of the Arbat in the first place. But it could be that Rybakov does believe it, for he is himself a member of the generation of which he writes, a generation of people who, though totally disillusioned, still find it difficult to accept that Stalinism had no redeeming features.
In this respect, Children of the Arbat, moving and powerful as it is, falls short of telling the whole truth; it is a story that is not brought to its appropriate conclusion. The novel proper—there is an epilogue that flashes forward several years—comes to an end on the very eve of the Kirov assassination in 1934, an event which triggered off the mass arrests, trials, and executions, and the effect is a little like War and Peace ending before the battle of Borodino or the burning of Moscow.
How typical, a Western reader may ask, is the story of Rybakov’s young Sasha? How many people, altogether, were affected by the “repression” of the 30’s? More or less simultaneously with the publication of Children of the Arbat, unofficial figures covering the number of victims of arrest, purge, and deportation during this period were for the first time given out in Moscow. They must have caused bewilderment among some revisionist American scholars who have been arguing that longstanding Western estimates of millions of dead in the purges are “grossly inflated,” and that no more than a few tens of thousands died. Some of our political scientists have gone even farther, raising doubts as to whether mass arrests in fact took place at all, or whether the whole episode may be rather a figment of our imagination. Books like Rybakov’s, together with the new Soviet estimates of up to seventeen million victims, cannot come as welcome news to these Western experts, who will now have to think of reasons to doubt their veracity.
The attitude of most Soviet historians has been similar: they too do not like the new literature of which Children of the Arbat is such a striking example. Indeed, among proponents of glasnost in general, specialists in Soviet history have been conspicuous by their absence; they have either remained silent or have actually engaged in counterattack. It seems doubtful that this will change soon. Those among the historians who are pro-Stalin may perhaps revert to the line prevailing in the days of Khrushchev, but beyond this they are neither willing nor able to go. And so the Soviet reading public will face an interesting phenomenon: one version of Stalin in their history books and another, quite different, in a few historical novels.
The bittersweet epilogue to Children of the Arbat describes a chance meeting at the front toward the end of the war between Sasha, now a major in a Guards division, and his old friend Maxim who early on in the novel had joined the army and now has risen to the rank of general. They warmly embrace and drink to the memory of their less fortunate comrades who did not survive. Sasha confides to his friend that his personal file carries the notation of his once having received a sentence under paragraph 58 (treason and crimes against the state), which is to say that he will remain forever vulnerable. Since in a subsequent volume Rybakov intends to carry his story beyond the end of the war, up to the 20th Party Congress (1956), at which Khrushchev made his famous speech denouncing Stalin, one already foresees new tribulations for our hero.
Not so long ago happy endings were de rigueur for Soviet books; if a story or a play did not end well, at the very least the author was obliged to call it an “Optimistic Tragedy.” In recent years Soviet literature (and to a lesser extent Soviet movies) has become far more interesting but also far less optimistic. There have been complaints by party authorities about these “negative trends” in contemporary literature, as “socialist realism” has given way to realism tout court. And certainly the picture that emerges is a bleak one—so bleak that a reader sometimes suspects that conditions cannot truly be as depressing as they are described in, say, Viktor Astafiev’s novel The Sad Detective, or people as nasty to each other as they are in the stories of Fyodor Abramov.
The Soviet people still have to come to terms with their past, and Rybakov’s book is a milestone on this painful road. But they also have to look forward—and this is likely to prove even more difficult. Gorbachev’s exhortations notwithstanding, one does not find much optimism in Soviet cultural life these days. Some leading writers preach a (slightly veiled) return to religion; others call for getting rid of “cosmopolitans,” rock-and-roll, moral and physical pollution, or the drug peddlers and the mafiosi who dominate not only the Central Asian Republics, the restaurants and food shops, and the drivers’ cooperatives but even the cemeteries (as described in novels by Chingíz Aitmátov, Aleksandr Bek, Ilya Stamler, and Serge Kaledin respectively). Gorbachev himself wants to enlist the aid of writers in rekindling the enthusiasm of the 1920’s and early 30’s, when even the young Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an ardent Communist, when (we are told) the spirit of voluntarism and of sacrifice was strong, when people were poor but helped each other and showed consideration and miloserdie (charity).
But where will the inspiration and new idealism come from? Not, one suspects, from the burned children of the Arbat or their offspring. The Soviet Union certainly needs glasnost, but it needs a cultural revolution even more. Indeed, it is on this that the future of the Soviet Union will depend, far more than on changes in labor laws or the decentralization of economic planning. So far, although all sorts of interesting proposals have been advanced, even the most fervent proponents of “openness” would not claim that the Soviet Union is anywhere near such a cultural revolution.