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.


Anonymous said...

Both Children of the Arbat and Heavy Sands are going on my Russian authors list! I'm looking forward to hearing more about Rybakov as you read him. Thanks for a dose of Russian!

Ted said...

As a fellow Russian nut, It will be good to discuss these with you. What a time in history! What passions made this mess!

Sam said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I've had Children of the Arbat on my shelves since the first week it was published in the U.S., a mint first edition copy, and that I have not yet read it. Maybe this will finally get me to open it up and get started...about 25 years late.

Ted said...

Sam, I know what you mean, even though I try to bring them to the used bookstore after about 4 or 5 years, there are a few that just sit there and sit there because I know I should. Catch 22, The Rings of Saturn, At Swim Two Birds. One day, one day.

Eva said...

sounds interesting! I haven't read that much Soviet lit (depressing), but I think I'm going to have to join Sarah in undertaking a Russian discovery. :)

Anonymous said...

To me, the astonishing thing about this book is the portrait of what it was like inside Stalin's head. The psychological interior portrait. Most biographers throw up their hands in bafflement when faced with evil such as Stalin - I've read pretty much every Stalin biography there is - and none of them ever "explain" him - something is always missing - there is a dark mystery at the heart of this man (there were those who said stalin had the most deadly and RARE of combinations in dictators: capriciousness and patience. Most dictators fail because of their impatience - they reach too far too soon and fall. Stalin NEVER over-reached. He knew how to wait.) - anyway, it is a type of pathology rarely studied or even mentioned (because the left in the West still has a vested interest in seeing Stalin as a "bad example" of something they still believe in - a socialist utopia. It is too often brushed off as "he was a madman". Way too easy. Stalin was FAR from mad. Rybakov - more than any other writer I have ever seen - gets inside Stalin's head. And no, the writing isn't all that clever - or brilliant - like Bulgakov - but he nails Stalin.

Don't read a biography of Stalin (unless you read books about what he DOES). The clues to Stalin's psychology are not in his childhood or his pain or whatever - the clues are in his ACTIONS. That is where the trail is - because he got what he wanted. Sometimes it took years ... but he got what he wanted.

It's a shattering portrait.

Anonymous said...

Oh and Ted - recently Children of the Arbat was made into a mini-series in Russia - and to this day, the book is controversial - even after everything.

I'd love to see the mini-series - the book feels very cinematic to me.

To me, though, the value in it is in the portrait of Stalin - and the whole lead-up to the Kirov murder - which is when Stalin really took the gloves off. Kirov was the excuse ... Robert Conquest calls the murder of Kirov the most important murder of the 20th century - even more so than the assassination of franz ferdinand. And I think he has a point (he wrote a whole book about it.)

Okay, I'll shut up now.

I'm just psyched you're reading it, Ted. Stalin and everything about him is one of my obsessions (uhm, obviously??) so this book was a must-read for me.

Ted said...

Sheila - Actually, I'm just up to the second of those trips into Stalin's psyche and have begun to realize how that is going to propel the story. As I look at the cast of characters in relation to him, whether they are loyal communists or rebels, it seems like a bee hive with its queen, or even like an ant hill. They all seem to fulfill some program, even if they have individual lives.