Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 19, 2017

Children of the Arbat, by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Harold Shukman

children-of-the-arbatChildren of the Arbat was a sensation when it first became available to Soviet readers in 1987.  A landmark text of glasnost, it was written between 1966 and 1983 but had been suppressed as anti-Stalinist and was therefore distributed only via very risky underground means known in the USSR as samizdat.  But during the Perestroika era the novel was released in serial form in newspapers and its sequels 1935 and Other Years (1989), Fear (1990) and Dust & Ashes (1994) became available too.   Children of the Arbat, set in the 1930s,  is partly autobiographical: like the central character Sasha Pankratov, Anatoli Rybakov (1911-1998) was himself exiled to Siberia for three years.

Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov (Wikipedia Commons) By Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Arbat St in Moscow, photo by Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov (Wikipedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

There are three strands to the story: Sasha’s arrest for spurious reasons and his exile to Siberia; life in Moscow as his girlfriend Varya Ivanova waits for his return; and the depiction of Stalin as he plots to cement his power by eliminating all opposition.  The title is instructive: the Arbat today is a tourist precinct, a lively hub of commercial activity in the historic heart of Moscow.  (It’s the only place I’ve ever been where you are offered a free vodka (neat!!) as soon as you walk into a shop.) Before the Soviet era the Arbat was a place for artists, intellectuals and academics, and and today as it becomes gentrified it’s still a desirable place to live. But in the Soviet era it was where high-ranking officials lived, and the title of the book refers to the generation born at the time of the Russian Revolution, who by the 1930s were young adults who had grown up believing in Soviet ideals. They were privileged by comparison with most people in the Soviet Union because they had better access to education and opportunity, they were in a position to see the economic progress being made under rapid industrialisation, and they were forgiving of the human cost because they saw it as an unavoidable aspect of the creation of the Soviet State which they wholeheartedly supported.  The novel charts the slow disillusionment of this generation as they begin to see the consequences of rule by terror.

Sasha is finishing his final year as an engineering student when he is accused of anti-Soviet activities.  He’s a hardworking, idealistic and loyal member of the Komsomol (the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) so at first he thinks it’s a joke, and then he thinks it’s a mistake that can be sorted out.  But although his loyalty and idealism doesn’t falter, under interrogation he realises that it’s perilous to mention the names of his friends who also wrote some humorous verses for the student newspaper, and that he ought not to mention his powerful uncle either for fear of drawing him into what appears to be some kind of arcane intrigue.  His friends react with caution as they too begin to realise that the ‘mistakes’ that can be made, are impossible to unravel.  They are not like Sasha, who subscribes to the Komsomol way of life, avoiding smoking, drinking, religion, and anything else deemed anti-Soviet and dedicating himself to the improvement of society through volunteer work.  These friends are not interested in politics; they are either ambitious and keen to avoid any trouble, or they are fun-loving, enjoying Western-style popular culture, dining out in restaurants, going to the cinema and dances, and wearing fashionable clothes.  They find it all too easy to forget him as he is shunted off to exile.  Even Varya Ivanova lets herself be seduced into the good life…

Sasha’s journey into exile is not like the Solzhenitsyn experience of the gulags that was described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Although Sasha suffers from the loss of his freedom and his separation from his vulnerable elderly mother, he is not in a forced labour camp but is expected to get a job in the village he has been sent to.  But he is not free from surveillance and is the automatic victim when anything goes wrong.  When he is accused of being a ‘wrecker’ (a saboteur trying to destroy the progress of the Soviet Union) because he gave advice that a tractor part needed to be repaired, it is explained to him that the peasants have no experience of mechanisation and do not look after their tractors.  They break down of course, and the State has found that the only way to make them quickly learn to maintain their equipment is to punish them harshly for any damage.  Sasha faces ten extra years added to his sentence because no one will take responsibility for the failure to heed his warning, and because no one will take his side because he is an exile.

‘You don’t understand the situation you’re in, Pankratov!  You think that because you’re in exile you’re free.  You’re mistaken!  And I’ll tell you something else: the people in the camps are better off!  Yes, I know, it’s tough there, they have to fell trees in the cold and there’s hunger, they’re behind barbed wire, yes, but there you’re surrounded by prisoners like yourself, you’re no different from each other.  Here there are no sentries and watchtowers, you’ve got the forest all around you, you’ve got the river and the healthy air, but here you’re an alien, here you’re the enemy, and you’ve got no rights.  We’re obliged to put you inside on the first denunciation.  Your landlady could come and say you were rude about Comrade Stalin.  That would mean you were preparing a terroristic act.’

He smiled at Sasha.

‘So there it is, Pankratov, that’s how things stand.  You’ll get ten years minimum.  Do you understand?

‘Yes, I understand.’

He understood it all right.  If they could exile Soloveichik for a harmless joke, and Ivashkin for a misprint in a newspaper, and a cook for putting ‘Lazy Soup’ on the menu, and if a pair of stolen soles could get you ten years according to the law of the seventh of August, and if he himself had been exiled for a few stupid rhymes, then for the separator – agricultural machinery – they would really give it to him.  (p.503)

Yet he is not bitter about this… the striking element in this novel is the extent to which Sasha’s generation believed in the new system, and were philosophical about its excesses.  They accept that sacrifices must be made to build a new society and to enable the Soviet Union to catch up with the rest of the world.

But the chapters about Stalin’s paranoia are chilling.  They show his subordinates acquiescing to his commands – which are not issued as orders but rather as oblique statements which they have learned to interpret, i.e. if he says something is a good idea, that means it’s a decree. His secretary, for example, takes note of how many letters he takes to Stalin’s desk each day, and he sorts them when they’re returned.  Some are actioned, some are ignored.  And some are destroyed while others are secreted away for purposes unknown.  It is this secretary’s job to try always to be one step ahead, but it is even harder for the other members of the Politburo to negotiate the shifting sands of Stalin’s repressive policies.  These chapters also depict Stalin’s imagined thoughts, deluding himself as to what brutality might be forgiven by the masses in the name of stabilising the Soviet state.  We see some of the senior members of his inner circle secretly regretting that they didn’t deal with him when they could, and we see his determination to eliminate Kirov as a more moderate rival.  As history shows, Stalin went on to be responsible for millions of deaths.

The edition I read is a mass-market paperback that I found in an OpShop.  (A new copy isn’t available anywhere, as far as I can see).  Arrow Books, a London division of Century Hutchinson, obviously rushed it into print in 1988; it is full of really annoying typos: Khrushchev spelt with a double K; ‘and’ separated with a space into ‘a’ and ‘nd’; missing words; incorrect use of homonyms; and plenty of other errors which disrupt the flow of the reading.  But the print size is mercifully normal for a book of 700+ pages, and the translation by Oxford scholar Harold Shukman is excellent.  Flawless.  The cover image BTW isn’t acknowledged but with a little sleuthing I found it: it’s a detail from “The Strike 1905” (1964), by Alexander Alexandrovich Smolin, held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. 

children-of-the-arbat-movie-posterWikipedia tells me that the novel was adapted into a TV series in 2004, but a review at IMDB suggests that it hasn’t been subtitled, so that’s that.

BTW There was recently an excellent discussion about contemporary Russia on ABC Sydney.  It featured Graeme Gill, Norman Hermant and former diplomat Tony Kevin, author of one of my favourite books, Walking the Camino and a new book called Return to Russia.  I think they should replay the program on Radio National to give it a wider audience.

Author: Anatoli Rybakov
Title: Children of the Arbat (Дети Арбата)
Translated from the Russian by Harold Shukman
Publisher: Arrow Books, 1988, first published 1987
ISBN: 9780099633303
Source: Personal library, purchased from Abe Books.

Availability: Out of print, try your library, Abe Books or other second-hand bookshops.

 


Responses

  1. I hadn’ t heard of this one before, thanks Lisa. Most of the Soviet era books we come across in the West deal with people battling against the system but do you know of any portraying more apolitical characters? Similar to Kundera perhaps.

    • That’s a tricky question…
      I know of some written about the Soviet era after it ended, like The Concert Ticket, The New Moscow Philosophy and The Investigator, but no, I can’t think of any that were written during the era. That might just be my ignorance, or it might also be that western publishers only translated protest literature during that era?
      Have you asked Stu? he might know of something…

      • Thanks Lisa. It might be worth checking out those you mentioned as I only really meant set during the Soviet era although ones written during the period would be especially interesting. I may have a dig around.

        • I really do recommend those three, all three of them are more about the lives of ordinary people during that era.

  2. I read this book several years ago and was very impressed by it. The young people in the novel are trapped by the system — it doesn’t matter whether they believe in it or not, they are still trapped. I remember another character (forget name) who is ambitious for a career but because of unfortunate family connections is pressured into working for the KGB.

    Also, re the separator part, Sasha tries to be helpful in fixing a problem no one can deal with. Then, because they continue to abuse the situation, the part fails beyond anything he can do to fix it. Because he handled the part, he is now responsible for its failure. Because the failure impacts production he is a saboteur. All saboteurs are enemies of the State, so he is an enemy of the State. The logic is irrefutable.

    Even more terrifying than Children of the Arbat is the sequel Fear, demonstrating how everyone must yield both minds and bodies to Stalin’s system.

    • I think you mean Sharok, the one who works for the KGB? I don’t think he minded too much until he realised just how trapped he was…
      But yes, the whole population was trapped. I will have a look for Fear, I’ll probably have to track it down second-hand.
      BTW, I must ell you, remember you kindly sent me that Trollope book about Australia?… my father who is now in aged care is about to read it! Much to my surprise he was very interested in my recent reading of Trollop’s autobiography, and one thing led to another and he is now half way through the autobiography and has the Australia book on his table ready to read next. He said he finds Trollope easy to read, because of the style of writing. (I suspect that he has trouble holding plot elements in memory to enjoy a novel, but remembering what’s in previous chapters doesn’t matter so much in that kind of book). So thank you again!!

      • If he enjoys Trollope and likes short, see if you can find a copy of the novella Kept in the Dark. It is typical Trollope — misunderstanding between husband and wife — but short, minus the many parallel subplots of the longer books.

        • Thanks for that, I’m always on the lookout for suitable things, he loves to read, it’s so much a part of his identify, I want to help him be able to do it for as long as he can. Thank goodness his eyesight is good!

  3. Thank you for this detailed review – and how timely for me are your insights into Russian history and Russia! Books on this period that stand out for me are Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but also Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. I was 18-19 when I read those books and of course, Solzhenitsyn was constantly in the news early 70s. I remember having this heated debate with my uncle in Scotland. As a card-carrying member of the communist party for a good part of his life he defended the Russian authorities by using the old ‘the end justifies the means’ argument. It’s frightening how easily people can be brutalised to become the ones orchestrating the brutality or quickly choose to turn a blind eye.

    • Until fairly recently, dissident authors were all I had read of C20th Russian Lit too, but thanks to Stu at Winston’s Dad I’ve now also read novels about the lives of ordinary people as well, which casts a different light. I will go through my shelves to see if I still have the ones I reviewed, they would be great reading for you before your trip, but also have a look at the tag https://anzlitlovers.com/tag/year-of-russian-literature/ which are the books I read before my trip. Some of them are free from Project Gutenberg…

  4. Fascinating review, Lisa. I have the three books sitting on Mount TBR – a not-at-all matching set of various editions I managed to track down second hand from here and there. I’d only come across mention of the series recently and your review has made me even keener to read them!

    • Ooh, well done you for getting hold of them! Interesting that you heard about it somewhere too because there’s no reprint that I know of, only second-hand copies available. I can’t remember who suggested I read this one, but I’m glad they did.

  5. I’m glad your reading/reviewing is giving us views of the soviet union other than the approved anti-communist version. There are forms of communalism which might work but they are always stamped on by authoritarian regimes – of all colours – before they can set an example to others.

    • Yes, well, I have long argued that the now much-derided welfare states in the UK and elsewhere were pre-emptive strikes against “the communist threat”… so much more congenial for the workers than sending their young off to fight in domino wars…
      These days everyone just says that communism is dead and that’s the end of that, but we know that capitalism isn’t working in developing countries so it’s time great minds applied themselves to a viable alternative. Which might be democratic socialism, or something else.
      I want to get that new book by Tony Kevin because he’s a smart fellow who thinks outside the box (and used to be a diplomat) and I want to see what he makes of it. I get the impression that while the media likes to demonise Russia, there is another credible POV that casts them in a different light.

  6. I too have problems with the demonisation of Russia even though it’s undeniable the brutality of the totalitarian state apparatus. However the west has not a lot to be proud of either when it comes to brutality. Where to start?

    • I remember reading John Steinbeck’s book about visiting the USSR in the 1950s during the Cold War and he wrote that there was no way the people wanted another war when they had barely started reconstruction after WW2. If only ordinary people had more of a say on both sides of the equation, there would be a lot less war.

  7. […] parochial local.  (This passage put me in mind of the urban generation in Anatoli Rybakov’s The Children of the Arbat whose education and experiences in the capital meant that they did think of themselves as part of a […]


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