Thursday, August 16, 2007
Secret writings on Stalin's reign of terror (Books - Children of the Arbat - Anatoli Rybakov)
Above, as the street sign tells you, is Arbat Street in Moscow, photographed about 10 years ago. I wasn't in the mood and yet somehow I've been sucked into Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov, an epic novel highly critical of the Stalinist Russia. Written in the 1960s, it was suppressed by the Soviet government and could be read only in samizdat - secretly produced copies of works that had been censored by the state. Bulgakov's amazing The Master and Margarita was also first available only by samizdat, which translates as 'self-published. ' Although some of these editions were printed, many were produced on typewriters with carbon paper and the limited copies passed from hand-to-hand by enthusiastic readers. What must it have been like to read a work like this in samizdat?! For those of us who love books, the passion that would drive one to literally risk one's life to read and write, can sound almost romantic, but I can't believe there was anything romantic about living under it. I've heard many people who say that "better" art was created under these repressive regimes. For an interesting book about the effect of glasnost on the visual art world in Russia check out Andrew Solomon's The Irony Tower.
Anway, Children of the Arbat was finally published in 1987 and in the U.S. in 1988. I am about 200 pages into the book. There is nothing particularly clever in the writing, unless Harold Shukman's translation does not serve it well. This is a book driven solely by the force of a great story. It is set in soviet Russia in the 1930s and looks at life in the 15 year old utopia across a broad swathe of society - party official and rebel, bureaucrat, student, and factory worker, child and adult, those of a peasant background and those from money. Stalin himself is a character. While the revolution of 1917 overthrew czarist rule, as soon as Stalin defeated Trotsky, he created a plan to make a backward Russia competitive with the world's other ruling powers. To accomplish he instituted a totalitarian government, installing himself as its leader. Along with that came programs to industrialize,create collective farms, and a draconian campaign to repress anyone whom his party officials determined to hold ideas politically contrary to this plan or, more exactly, to Stalin. This resulted in imprisonment and forced labor in the gulags and, ultimately, the death of millions of people. Articles on Stalinist Russia here and Stalin himself here, if you're interested.
What I'm finding impressive about this quickly paced book is that, while I'm learning history, I'm experiencing it through its impact on individual lives. Rybakov brings very much to life the excitement driving the dream of creating an ideal society on the one hand with the terrible costs that resulted when paranoia and a dehumanizing hysteria drove those with power to try to force millions of others to act and think as they wished them to.
Rybakov has been compared to Pasternak and Michner (accurately, I think). He also reminds me of Uris. Rybakov has also written Heavy Sand, about a Jewish family's life in the Soviet ghetto and their participation in the Warsaw uprising, which I've never even heard of. Alibris has several copies for a couple of dollars. One of them is going to be mine.
More on Children of the Arbat as I continue reading.