Russians in the Snow: Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Children, transl. Michael Pursglove, Alma Classics, 2015.

There seems to be a bit of revisionism going on with the titles of Turgenev’s work, and I wonder if this is because he was translated so early on, even during his own lifetime, since he lived abroad for much of his life, became good friends with Flaubert, and met all sorts of luminaries of the English literary establishment on his visits to Britain. For example, this novel was originally translated as ‘Fathers and Sons’ (which is largely accurate in terms of the characters portrayed), but the Russian original would be closer to Fathers and Offspring/Children – or so I am told. Another of his novels has been translated as ‘Home of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of Gentlefolk’.

Because Turgenev was quite concerned with the plight of the Russian peasant and was often satirical about the inertia of the noble classes in Tsarist Russia, even after land reforms, he was perceived as one of the acceptable Russian classics even during Communist times. Needless to say, that kind of praise was enough to put me off him, although I enjoyed his play A Month in the Country (which I seem to remember seeing performed in Bucharest at some point) and many of his short stories or novellas. I was very moved at the ti,e by ‘Mumu’ – the story about a young serf who sacrifices his dog, the only creature he has ever cared for and the only one who ever shows him some affection – although the interpretation of it from the dialectical materialist point of view left much to be desired.

Nowadays, I quite like a bit of social critique with my reading, but I wasn’t expecting Turgenev’s description of the conflicting points of view of the different generations to hit me personally. As a parent who is now older than the ‘forty-something’ Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, one of the fathers in the story, I found myself more often than not siding with the older generation, understanding their eagerness to not displease their sons when they (infrequently) come home to visit, eager to keep up with their thoughts and vocabulary, even if privately thinking them a bit pretentious or exaggerated.

Nikolai is waiting for his son Arkady to come home after graduating from university. He is the owner of a modest estate in the provinces, which is not doing too well since the liberation of the serfs, probably because Nikolai is too kindly and weak as a landowner. Arkady brings his friend Bazarov, who is a self-proclaimed nihilist (the first time such a figure appears in literature, it is believed), and whose radical views have clearly influenced young Arkady very much. Arkady’s uncle Pavel, although normally a strong proponent of Western values and culture, poo-poohs Bazarov’s philosophy, but Nikolai is unsettled by it.

‘At the present time the most useful thing is rejection – and we reject.’

‘Everything?’

‘Everything.’

‘What? Not only art, poetry… but also… I’m afraid to say it.’

‘Everything,’ Bazarov repeated with ineffable calmness.

‘However, allow me,’ Nikolai Petrovich began. ‘You reject everything or, to put it more precisely, you destroy eveything… But one must build as well, mustn’t one?’

‘That’s none of our business… First of all we must clear the ground.’

Hmmm, I can see why the Communists liked this aspect of Turgenev! Although the author was clearly sympathetic to nihilists, seeing them as being of a scientific turn of mind, who will not accept anything without seriously questioning it, the term ‘nihilism’ soon acquired negative connotations following the publication of this book. You can see why, because Bazarov is not an easy character to like at first. He is smug and arrogant, delights in putting other people down and is often manipulative. While he might be justified in mocking the ‘all talk no action’ conservatism of Pavel, he is unnecessarily cruel and distant to others around him, including his own parents.

‘My dear [this is Bazarov’s father talking to his wife], on Yevgeni’s first visit we were a little bit of a nuisance to him: now we need to be a little wiser.’

Arina Vlasyevna agreed with her husband, but did not gain much from this because she only saw her son at the table and finally became frightened of talking to him at all.

‘Yevgeny, darling,’ she kept saying, and he would scarcely have time to glance in her direction, when, starting to finger the laces of her reticule, she would babble: ‘Never mind, never mind, I’m all right’ but would turn to Vasily Ivanovich and say to him…:’How can we find out, my dear, what darling Yevgeny wants for dinner today, cabbage soup or borsch?’ ‘Why haven’t you asked him yourself?’ ‘But I’ll bore him!’

In the constant battle between the old and the new, Turgenev does a great job of showing that both sides have their flaws. He allows Pavel, for instance, to land a few satirical punches as well, even if he is a typical representative of what Turgenev elsewhere called the ‘superfluous man’ – a well-educated dandy who does not use his position of power in society for any reform, but instead engages in all sorts of vices to allay his existential boredom. Blind to his own shortcomings, Pavel describes the nihilists in similar terms:

Young people used to have to study; they did not want to have the reputation of ignoramuses, so they worked hard willy-nilly. But now all they have to do is say “Everything in the world is rubbish” and the thing is in the bag. Young people are delighted. Before, they were simply dolts; now they’ve all suddenly become nihilists.

Yet it is Pavel who stands up for his brother’s honour by protecting his lower-class mistress, although his motives are not entirely pure. Incidentally, the father’s relationship with the daughter of the housekeeper, Fenechka, mirrors Turgenev’s own life: both he and his brother had affairs (in his brother’s case, even a marriage) across class boundaries.

Pride comes before a fall, and Bazarov finds out the limits of his philosophy and how deluded he was when he falls in love with the wealthy young widow Anna Sergeyevna. She invites him and Arkady to her home, enjoys their verbal sparring, but rejects him when he somewhat shame-facedly breaks down and admits his love for her. Anna is perhaps the personification of the philosophical stance he has tried to adopt: ‘having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong convictions even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life’. She either does not recognise the depth of her feeling for Bazarov or else does not confuse temporary fascination with love. ‘Was there the truth, the absolute truth, in their words? They did not know themselves, and the author even less. But they had a conversation as if they completely believed one another.’

An attempted seduction, an almost farcical duel, a marriage proposal, an eavesdropped conversation and a death later, some of the sympathetic characters in the novel reconcile and have a happy end, while others are left to nurse their disappointment, or sorrow — or else embark upon new adventures. Arkady no longer is the eager disciple, but Bazarov himself (whom we have grown fond of once we realise his bark is worse than his bite)… well, let’s just say we can either describe him as a man whose dreams have been shattered, or else a young man who has suddenly become mature. Sadly, the author does not give him many years to redeem himself, but instead lambasts the Russian students abroad once more:

… the young Russian physics and chemistry students, who flock to Heidelberg, and who at first astonish their naive German professors with their sober outlook on things, and later on astonish the same professors by their complete inactivity and total laziness.

Throughout his life, Turgenev was both praised and criticised for his often scathing depiction of Russian society. To some, he showed no respect for traditions and had an irreverent attitude towards religion, while for others he was not intransigent enough. In this novel, in which he is critical but also sympathetic towards both sides, we can see that his chosen path was moderation, and that he tried to reconcile these extremes within his own life and his work. But it would always be difficult to write about the homeland when you are accused of living too long abroad!

I also found him much easier to read than I expected and was amused to discover that Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert and Nabokov all rated him higher than Dostoevsky (and even Tolstoy for some). I did get a little weary of the author giving us the full back story of every single character we are introduced to, certainly a writing technique that is not recommended nowadays. The translation does read a little old-fashioned in parts, but no more so than reading a Victorian novel, which is probably exactly the kind of effect that the translator was aiming for. After provoking a lot of excitement about Turgenev on Twitter, I decided to ignore all recommendations (which tended to favour ‘Nest of the Gentry’) and got myself the novel Smoke instead. I will certainly be reading more of him in the future but I don’t think he will topple Dostoevsky and Chekhov in my heart any time soon.

Russians in the Snow: Victor Pelevin

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield, Faber, 1996 (original version first published in 1992)

This is my first acquaintance with Victor Pelevin, but I will certainly be reading more by him. From all I hear, he seems to be a somewhat enigmatic character, a writer who stays firmly out of the limelight, yet has won numerous literary prizes for his esoteric, multi-layered work, which nevertheless often mimics genre fiction. He has translated Castaneda’s work and has admitted to a fascination with Buddhism, travelling often to China, Japan and Nepal, but he is not a self-publicising hipster.

He appears to live according to his beliefs and has made much of his older work freely available on the internet. He is incredibly prolific, publishing a book a year on average (maybe because he shuns interviews and public appearances). Under the mantle of science-fiction or fantasy, he is often highly critical and political – not just of the Soviet system, but perhaps of any ideological construct, which he perceives as an illusion, a sop to the masses. He is often compared to Bulgakov, but I detect a much greater similarity (at least in this novel) to the Strugatsky Brothers.

What I find most revealing in the scant biographical detail available about him is that he studied mechanical engineering, which might explain the link to his main protagonist Omon in his debut novel Omon Ra. The young man has always dreamt of becoming a cosmonaut, one of the ultimate aspirations for a boy growing up under the Soviet system, with Yuri Gagarin constantly being presented as a role model. A poor provincial boy, with an indifferent, practically non-existent family, the dream of space travel provides an escape from the drabness of everyday Soviet existence.

I suddenly felt disgusted to think that I was sitting in this lousy little closet that smelt like a garbage dump, disgusted by the fact… that the entire immense country in which I lived was made up of lots and lots of these lousy little closets… and most important of all – it was painful to think that these very same stinking little closets were the settings for those multi-coloured arrays of lights that made me catch my breath in the evenings when I happened to look out of some window set high above the twilit capital. And it all seemed particularly painful in comparison with the beautiful American flying machine in the magazine.

He befriends Mitiok, another ‘outsider’ at his school, who has the same dream as him, and they both join the gruelling training regime of the space cadet academy in Zaraisk. And this is where the disillusionment starts.

The character seems predestined to be made a fool of, with a name like Omon Krivomazov (a pun: Omon is an acronym for a branch of the secret police service, the surname bears similarities to Karamazov, which means ‘black face’, and krivo and maz are Russian words for ‘crooked/wrong’ and ‘unguent/smear’). Sure enough, Omon and Mitiok soon discover that the Soviet space programme is based on lies and deceit, that the cosmonauts are simply disposable and interchangeable tools for the glorification of the Soviet empire, to cover up the lack of advanced computing or technological power.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the narrator digs into layer after layer of deception, some of it hilariously farcical, yet with an undercurrent of tragedy too. There are some utterly surreal moments, not all of them related to space flight. The scene of Henry Kissinger going to hunt bears (although the hunting of wild animals was forbidden by law) is unforgettable. Absurd (and untrue) though that story is, it is very close to a lot of the patently obvious and ridiculous deceptions that happen all over the world in the attempt to appease political tyrants.

I don’t think it would be too much of a reach to say that this novel is also very much about the collapse of certainties, the disappearance of a society that – flawed though it was – provided some sort of values that people could cling to. You long for freedom all your life, and then when freedom comes, it proves to be too much of an unruly beast. You start craving the rules and order you knew before, some commonly accepted values system.

… all my life I’ve been journeying towards the moment when I would soar up over the crowds of what the slogans called the workers and the peasants, the soldiers and the intelligentsia, and now here I am hanging in brilliant blackness on the invisible threads of fate and trajectory – and now I see that becoming a heavenly body is not much different from serving a life sentence in a prison carriage that travels round and round a circular railway line without ever stopping.

A short but powerful novel, which is both a satire of the Soviet society, but also reveals the anxieties and fears of the 1990s in the newly ‘free’ Russian society.

Russians in the Snow: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family, transl. Anna Summers

I had heard of Petrushevskaya and her bleak, almost allegorical tales of striving and surviving against all odds, with no hope of redemption, no greater purpose. My Russian friend, who often has a similarly dark and cynical outlook on life, does not like her – perhaps because she cannot come to terms with the way Petrushevskaya pokes fun at the sacred subject of motherhood. Additionally, there is also perhaps a certain ‘tough love’ approach in Russia to the down-and-outs of society – why have they not helped themselves, why are they not resilient enough? – and it’s precisely these people that the author chooses to feature in her stories. The ones that Soviet society refused to acknowledge even existed (and Petrushevskaya’s work was banned for most of the Soviet period), the ones that have now been forgotten or abandoned by the new Russia. The author has often described herself as simply ‘taking down the stories’, a ‘documentary writer’, capturing the essence of everyday life, particularly for women, in Russia.

This collection features a longer novella The Time Is Night and two shorter ones, Chocolates with Liqueur and Among Friends. They are all not just acidic portrayals of domestic violence, betrayals and dysfunctional families, but also an indictment of social services (or lack thereof) and the housing situation, for example, in cities like Moscow, which give rise to such unbearable situations.

In Chocolates with Liqueur, Nikita abandons his wife Lelia and their two children, but they all have to continue to live together in their two-room apartment, because they have nowhere else to go. No wonder that Nikita starts harbouring murderous intentions so he can free up the space for himself and his new lover, or else his own mother and sister. The poisoned chocolates are merely the culmination of years of abuse, which the neighbours all knew about but refused to get involved. The story was deliberately written as an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, but there is something jarringly off-hand, even jaunty, in the way the poisoned chocolates are discussed.

The friends in Among Friends have been meeting for years and years every Friday in the flat of one couple whom they all admire. They deliberately try to stay away from discussing politics, because they know that one of them is an informer. As the years go by, people fail to achieve their initial promise, while relationships between couples are dissolved and new couples are formed, sometimes, awkwardly, from within the same circle of friends. The narrator spares no one with her acerbic comments, especially not her good-for-nothing husband, who has finally divorced her. She is convinced she will die soon, everyone in her family has died young, and she is afraid that no one will look after her son.

My parents had raised him [her son], surrounded him with love and care. And how he is to remain completely alone, for I am going to leave soon, too, and as for Kolya, I can’t rely on him to take care of our son. Kolya, so generous and kind to the otehrs, quickly gets bored and irritable at home and yells at Alesha, especially at mealtimes. In addition, Kolya was preparing to leave us…

Despite her criticism of all of her friends, in the end she has no one else to turn to when it comes to deciding her son’s future, although the action she takes may strike most readers as rather extreme.

The novella that relies less on sudden shocking scenes but more on a steady drip-drip-drip of grimness is The Time Is Night and it is also the one that speaks most to me, describing the constant struggle and contradiction between art and life. Anna is the heroine of the story, but we are reading the diaries she left behind after her death. She is caught in that horrible bind of middle-aged carers – between her senile mother, her young grandson, her grown-up but demanding and parasitic children. She does all sorts of hack jobs to make ends meet, a poet who struggles to turn the rotten straw of her daily life into the gold of poetry, and whose family despises her writing. She is not a likable person, at times she brings her bad fortune upon herself, is often bitter and cruel, has no doubts that she is always right and the others are weak sops.

Only at night could I experience the joy of motherhood. I’d creep over to their beds and listen to their breathing, inhale their scent, adore the in silence.

The misery is not quite unrelenting: there are extracts from the daughter’s old diaries with the typical teenage whingeing; there is a ridiculous conversation with a ‘bard’ when Anna gets invited to give a poetry reading at a children’s winter camp. But the monologue gets more and more frenzied, following a mad dash to stop the schizophrenic grandmother from being shipped off to an asylum out of town. Finally unable to keep the various strands of her life together, we assist in Anna’s comprehensive, spectacular unravelling. There is no safety net other than family and friends, but they are also the ones most likely to let you down.

I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ these tales of everyday suffering, but I respected what the author was trying to achieve. It is high time these stories are made visible, the stories we usually tell ourselves in whispers, horrified that they can happen to anyone we know well. There is an extreme, almost performative element to these stories, the very opposite of the restraint we typically associate with English literature. The style of storytelling is imbued with Russian fatalism and vicious exchanges of dialogue, yet I am sure that many of these tales are as universal as folk tales… and just as dark and scary.

Russians in the Snow: Tales from Petersburg

I am dedicating most of my December reading to Russians in the snow (other seasons also acceptable) and started with two very entertaining reads set in one of my dream cities.

St Petersburg ranks very highly indeed in my wishlist of places to go – and has done since I was about 12 and read my first Dostoevsky. In the meantime, I have read so many more Russian writers who were in equal parts fascinated and repelled with the city, in love with its beauty but satirising its pretentiousness. My son was due to go on a school trip to St Petersburg (taking the night train from Moscow – how romantic!) in 2020, and I was green with envy that he would get there before me. But now it looks like both of us will have to be patient a little longer. So I console myself with two books that have Petersburg as a setting, but one hundred years apart.

Nikolai Gogol: Petersburg Tales, trans. Dora O’Brien

Back in the 1830s, St Petersburg was the capital city of the Russian Empire, a nest of bureaucracy and a hotbed of political advancement and intrigue. Gogol felt an outsider when he came to the city in pursuit of literary fame – and no doubt was made to feel an outsider, derided for his Ukrainian roots, thwarted in his academic ambitions, ridiculed for his physical appearance (he apparently had quite an inferiority complex about his nose and lack of height). He has the sharp eye and merciless satire of the outsider when he describes Petersburg and its inhabitants.

The first story, ‘Nevsky Prospect’, spends a good nine of its 52 pages simply describing a day in the life of the famous main street in St Petersburg, from dawn to dusk, and the people who either go about their business quietly or else parade there ostentatiously. Gogol has a style as a chatty omniscient narrator who takes you into his confidence, shares jokes, mocks affectionately (and sometimes sharply), expects you to agree with him. He makes sweeping generalisations at times, which will nevertheless have you nodding your head in stunned recognition as if ‘why did I not think of this before?’ Take for example his description of the shy, idealistic young artist Piskarev:

A St Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snow, an artist in the land of the Finns, where all is wet, plain, level, pale, grey and misty. These artists have nothing in common with Italian artists – proud, passionate, like Italy itself and its sky – on the contrary, these are mostly kind, meek folk, timid, easy-going, quietly enjoying their art, drinking tea with a couple of friends in small rooms, modestly discussing their favourite topic and shoring no interest at all in anything else.

Piskarev espies a classical beauty on Nevsky Prospect and follows her home, only to discover that she works in a brothel. He is determined to rescue her from her terrible, fallen ways through marriage, but discovers that not everybody is as keen on his artistic vows of poverty.

‘The Nose’ is probably the best-known story by Gogol, an enchanting concoction of equal parts social critique and surrealism, a mantle taken up later in literature by Bulgakov. A placid barber, who ‘like any decent Russian skilled worker was a dreadful drunkard’, finds a human nose in his bread roll one morning and panics, believes he recognises it as belonging to one of his clients, and tries to get rid of it before he is accused of a crime. Meanwhile, social climber Major Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose missing – there is no visible wound on his face, simply a flat surface where his nose should have been. This gives him a tremendous inferiority complex, and all his plans for advancement in the labyrinthine Tsarist civil service Table of Ranks seem doomed to failure. As he chases around the city to try and find his truant nose, he discovers it wearing a military uniform of superior rank and not at all disposed to return to its rightful place. In despair, he accuses the mother of a girl he refused to marry of witchcraft, but then realises that he has no choice but to resign himself to his ignoble fate even after his nose is returned to him – for it will not stick to his anatomy!

The story really is laugh-out-loud funny, even if you are familiar with its broad outlines – there is always a line or observation that will strike you afresh upon each rereading. This time it was the witty swipe at police corruption that got me:

The Superintendent was a great promoter of all the arts and manufactured goods [his whole house is packed with sugar loaves brought to him by merchants as tokens of friendship], but he loved a banknote best of all. ‘That really is something,’ he would say, ‘and there’s nothing to beat it: it doesn’t require food, takes little room, always fits in a pocket and if you drop it, it doesn’t break.’

‘The Overcoat’ is somewhat more sentimental because both the author and the readers have a lot of sympathy for the pitiful little clerk Akaky Akakievich, who has worn his coat threadbare and has to scrimp and save desperately to get himself a new one to survive the harsh winter months, only to have it stolen from him.

Aside from his absurdist touches, which baffled his contemporaries, Gogol has been revered (mostly after his death) for being the first realist writer, his biting satire of bureaucracy became a model for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Yet it is his description of the lives of the ‘little people’ which seem particularly poignant and which form the link to the next book I read:

… in those hours when the grey St Petersburg sky completely fades away and all the civil-service folk have eaten their fill and finished dinner… when rest has come to all and everything after the departmental scratching of quills, the running around, the performance of your own as well as others’ necessary tasks… when clerks hurry off to devote the time that is left to pleasure… or… this happens most often, simply to go to visit their fellow clerk who lives on the fourth or third floor, in two small rooms with either a hall or a kitchen and some fashionable pretentious objects… Akaky Akakievich did not indulge in any form of relaxation.

Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Having two rooms and a kitchen of one’s own would seem like an unimaginable luxury to the working classes in Yakovleva’s Leningrad of 1930. The author sprinkles the crime story with lots of details of daily life in the Soviet Union. The grand old houses have been split up into communal apartments with shared kitchens, with ten Primus stoves and tables of all different shapes and sizes, queues for the bathroom, the heavy stench of other people’s cooking, the constant noise from other rooms, the neighbours trying to spread gossip about you in the hope that they would be allocated your living quarters if you got ‘purged’.

This book is not just a ‘retro’ piece of historical crime, to provide some cosy relief and differentiation from all the present-day police procedurals that are starting to look a bit samey. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace. Like Abir Mukherjee’s series set in India in the last decades of the British Empire, it is in equal measure entertaining and educational. But we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were: Zaitsev, the main investigator, is snatched by the OGPU (secret police, forerunner of the KGB) and imprisoned for several months right in the midst of the story. He knows that he is in danger of being purged for good at the slightest misstep.

He believes he might be on the tracks of a serial killer, who seems to like posing his victims in a very theatrical fashion. Yet there is nothing to connect the victims, there is no clear motive for the murders. His superiors are less interested in the complications of a serial killing theory – they only want to rapidly resolve the crime that occurred on Yelagin Island, which is earmarked for development, to create a leisure park for the masses.

There is a lot of love for the city, despite its recent decay: at some point, Zaitsev wonders how anyone should want to think about committing crimes in such beautiful surroundings, and his deputy quickly counters that some of the buildings could do with a lick of paint. The city appears as a provincial backwater when compared to Moscow, where Zaitsev heads briefly during his investigation, but in such heavily political times, perhaps being less at the ‘heart of things’ is a good strategy. Yet the author also pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Leningrad’s inhabitants, who believe they are superior to anyone else in the Soviet Union, especially the cultured elite who despise the ignorant working classes. The sense of place is excellent throughout, even if slightly less satirical than in Gogol. And of course, I cannot resist a description of winter, after all, it is about Russians in the snow, right?

Outside, there had been a sudden thaw. His shoes squelched in the icy slush. The sky was reflected in the dove-grey puddles, with crumbs of ice… He crossed Nevsky under the very nose of a tram, narrowly missed a black Ford, a horse and cart. Leningrad was the former capital of the empire… but pedestrians behaved like it was a village, crossing the street wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, cutting straight across, diagonally, or even wandering along the carriageway, listlessly dodging the few cars. Most of them had recently been villagers, after all, who poured into the city in search of work. They still had their provincial havits, never mind that they were lethal with the city traffic.

There is such a lot of potential with this setting, this time period, the quirky characters who form Zaitsev’s team, as well as all the crimes that occurred during that period, that I hope this leads to a long-running and successful series of crime novels – and maybe even a TV adaptation. I can see Babylon Berlin parallels there!

Now of course I am tempted to continue with something set in contemporary Petersburg, nearly a hundred years after the setting for Yakovleva’s book. But contemporary Russian authors seem to set their stories more in Moscow or other places. However, for a glimpse of Petersburg in the 1980s and 1990s, I would recommend two films: Leto, depicting the underground rock scene of the early 1980s with its charismatic rock star Viktor Tsoi, and Brat directed by Aleksei Balabanov, about a young man released from the Soviet army in the mid-1990s and discovering capitalism thanks to his older brother, who is involved in the criminal gangs of Petersburg.

But let’s end on a more romantic note for the city…