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Russia: The Citizen Poet

Living Souls

by Dmitry Bykov, translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter
London: Alma, 439 pp., $14.95 (paper)
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Mikhail Metzel/AP Images
Dmitry Bykov receiving the Big Book Award for his biography of Boris Pasternak at the Central House of Writers, Moscow, November 2006

Over the past few years, Dmitry Bykov’s creative flow has been noisily saturating his Russian audience with literary allusions, giving new life to old books. Now in his mid-forties, Bykov has published five novels and three lengthy biographies,1 as well as numerous collections of short stories, essays, and verse. A graduate of Moscow University’s Journalism Faculty, he regards journalism as more important than writing books.2 Hardly a day passes without at least one article, broadcast, or blog in which Bykov finds some ingenious connection between a political event and a line of poetry or a character from a novel; he comments on everything from the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to the punk protest group Pussy Riot.3

Bykov’s latest talk show, News in the Classics, airs live three times a week on the radio station Kommersant FM. Everything that happens has a parallel in literature, Bykov maintains. The aim of the show is “to help Russia to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.” So far, as he sees it, Russian history has proved cyclical, and the cycle is tragic.

Following the example of his mother, Natalya Bykova, a renowned teacher of Russian language and literature, Bykov also finds time to teach in high school. The classroom, he says, is the only place where he feels truly useful, as he tries to explain to adolescents (“wild beasts”) “why literature is necessary, and what an author had in mind when he wrote one thing instead of another.”4 In every setting—TV studio, lecture hall, or political street protest—he communicates an infectious bonhomie. Through YouTube, the curly-haired, mustachioed Bykov, round and rumpled in T-shirt and combat jacket, is now in front of a virtual classroom packed with many thousands of attentive listeners, whose responses to his latest impromptu aphorisms on the relations between politics, history, and literature hang below on never-ending comment threads.

The novel Living Souls is at once a futuristic geopolitical fantasy and a panoramic satire of post-Soviet life. It is Bykov’s first work to appear in English. Its Russian title is ZhD, Cyrillic initials with numerous possible significations, among them the Russian word for “Jews,” zhidy. Hyped by its Russian publisher as “the most politically incorrect book of the new millennium,” it depicts the final struggles in a civil war between Varangians (who call themselves “Russians”) and Khazars, rival colonial powers with antipathetic cultural norms.5 Within Bykov’s imaginative scheme, these two “virus races” have been contesting Russian territory since the ninth century, at the expense of the ever-passive native population, who remain pagan and prehistoric, living a hidden vagrant life, moving in circles, speaking their own riddling poetic language. The West, having discovered a new form of energy, Phlogiston (mysteriously produced out of emptiness), has lost interest in Russia (as well as the Islamic world), leaving it to “play out its splendid mystery” in autarkic isolation, eating sausages made of its unwanted oil.

In flashbacks to a Moscow (ethnically cleansed of Khazars) in the years before the war, we learn of the conflict’s ideological origins. “It was as if everyone was searching for answers,” the Varangian poet Captain Gromov remembers,

but the answers were always different, shadowy insubstantial essences floating and colliding in the air, from which something concrete always seemed about to emerge. But nothing emerged, and it was clear something sad and bloody was taking shape before his eyes.

Another warrior in the Varangian army, the historian Volokhov, having studied at Moscow’s “Institute of Alternative History” before the war, “knew that every event was known in countless retellings.” There is no such institute in contemporary Moscow, but as any bookshop reveals, alternative history is a subject of obsessive interest in post-Soviet Russia. Words like “Varangian” and “Khazar” have become in fact vessels of shadowy and insubstantial ideological fantasies, filled with hatred and yearning, about national origins. Bykov stirs countless scholarly and pseudo-scholarly retellings of stories about race, religion, culture, and geography, many of them toxic, into a comic fictional potion. His heroes and heroines agonize over questions of Russia’s destiny and their own, as the plot spins off across the map on fast-turning wheels of transgressive eros and fairy-tale magic.

The novel is full of Russian landscape: damp, melancholy, “bewitched.” The landscape of contemporary Russian thought that it evokes is as dense and confusing as the Siberian taiga. Among the many twentieth-century thinkers whose rival mystical conceptions of Russia Bykov plays with is the Eurasianist Lev Gumilev, perhaps the most widely read and influential historian of the post-Communist era.6 On the scant archaeological traces of the historical Khazaria, Gumilev constructed an elaborate vision of a clash of civilizations, in which mercantile urbanized Khazars (Jews) are eternal enemies of the nomad peoples of the Central Asian steppe, which include the natives of Rus. Another is Alexander Dugin (“Dudugin” in the novel), a self-described “expert in sacred geography,” who is even more explicitly anti-Jewish than Gumilev. Dugin describes Russians as a people “intoxicated” with territory, its “guardians,” uniquely “initiated into its mysteries.”7

For its “sacred geography” Living Souls draws eclectically on Slavic pagan mythology with its nature gods, sorcerers, and wolves. The map of Russia becomes an arena of magic. All the novel’s journeys pass through two villages, Degunino and Zhadrunovo, “two Russian rural archetypes,” as Bykov calls them: a village of abundance, where everything grows, and a village of emptiness, a time warp into which everything disappears. In Degunino, where the story begins, there is a sacred grove to the pagan god Dazhd-bog (“Give” in the English translation), in which stand a magical pie-baking stove and an apple tree. The Varangians, who think like Nazis, preach that Degunino, “where North and South come face to face,” is “the geopolitical heart of Eurasia, and whoever controls it will be master of the world.” However, the real reason both sides love to take the village is because its docile peasant women cheerfully welcome all invaders with pickled cucumbers, cabbage pies, and fireside cuddles.

The first of the novel’s two parts, “Departure,” introduces four couples, sending them out on mysterious quests, which intersect in the second part, “Arrival.” Gromov loves Masha, who has been evacuated from Moscow to faraway Makhachkala on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Volokhov illicitly loves a brilliant Khazar journalist whom he met before the war on a research trip to the Khazar Kaganate. The bookish Governor Borozdin, a pureblood Varangian of the gentler kind, posted from Moscow to faraway Siberia, has fallen for a native shamaness, the skinny wolf-girl Asha, whose prayers to the earth “sound like some mad futurist poem.” Anka, a Moscow teenager, has adopted a helpless middle-aged native, a “Joe” (“Vaska” in Russian), Vasily Ivanovich, and goes on the run with him, as Varangians begin a roundup of “Joes” in the capital.

Threading his way through these love-and-quest plots is the bald, bespectacled Gurov/Gurion, a double agent given to sarcasm, who poses by turns as a senior Varangian and a senior Khazar, but who is, in fact, a native “Guardian” protecting his “noble race” from destruction. Gurov detects hidden aboriginals (like Volokhov, whose name is a hybrid of the Russian words for “wolf” and “magus”) by addressing them in folk riddles about circling falcons, apple trees, and cats, awakening a genetic memory of the native tongue. His mission is to send a killer to hunt down and destroy the unborn mixed-race babies of Borozdin and Asha and Volokhov and Zhenka, whose births, according to prophecy, will break the endless circle of native history. As a native, he is incapable of killing.

The first chapter, “In The Camp of the Russian Warriors,”8 introduces Gromov, a poet who enlisted because his life in Moscow seemed so pointless. Bykov’s portrait of the Varangians combines a gleeful caricature of Vladimir Putin’s siloviki with painful satire on the waste and cruelty of Russian military culture. The Varangian army is a self-devouring male death cult, whose main purpose is to exterminate its own soldiers with maximum efficiency. The top brass proudly trace their pure blood back to the Vikings. Varangian ideology is a Russian variant of Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler’s Aryan religion, encrusted with the thinnest overlay of Orthodox Christian symbolism. Its apotheosis is the creepy warrior-priest Ploskorylov, who is lasciviously climbing his way up the Varangian ladder of initiation rituals.

Ploskorylov gives fanatical lectures on the “Nordic path,” has a picture of Friedrich Nietszche on his wall, prays to Odin “for Victory over the Sons of Ham” before a skull, a swastika, and a crystal, and is aroused by the pointless execution of young recruits. Like the Russian neo-Nazi fantasists one finds on the Internet, Ploskorylov is stimulated to shudders of ecstasy by the canvases of the Soviet-era painter Konstantin Vasiliev: trite images of blond-bearded knights on Nordic battlefields, pine forests, crags, skulls, dragons, soaring eagles, and ancient tribes praying to stone idols of the thunder god, Perun. Varangianism won’t stop “until only the last worthy men are left,” Ploskorylov knows, but he cannot help wondering what the last worthy men do then: “Dances around the ice crystal to Father Frost? Group copulations in endless positions and combinations? He was free to imagine what he liked.”

The next cultural landscape that Bykov evokes is Khazar. Five years before the outbreak of war, Volokhov leaves Varangian Moscow and makes a research visit to the Khazar Kaganate, where “life…couldn’t be more alive.” He falls in love with the journalist Zhenka Doronina (another ZhD), whose intensity makes Volokhov wish that he too were a Khazar. At the same time, he experiences stirrings of anti-Semitism, wondering in passing whether The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though fake, might not have been onto something in its portrayal of Jews as a “secret brotherhood.” Volokhov visits the historian Misha Everstein, “‘so Khazar it’s indecent’…he had the sharpest mind of anyone Volokhov knew.”

Everstein expounds his own alternative version of history, which is new and beguiling to Volokhov. Because the Varangian “Russians” are not the native people of Russia but colonizers, Everstein explains, “they’ve always behaved like occupiers in a foreign country…treating their own people as alien.”9 When Volokhov returns to Moscow from the Kaganate, he sees with new eyes the cultural poverty of Khazar-free Russia. He thinks of the contribution to Russian literature of the “Khazar” writers Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, remembering a poem of 1917 by Mandelstam that ends with Odysseus returning to Penelope “filled with space and time”: “God, how he loved that poem…. Nothing better had been written in the language….”

Volokhov himself is destined to become a wanderer, filled with space and time, half Moses, half Odysseus. Zhenka, whom he still loves, has returned to Russia, from which her people had been expelled, as a commissar with the invading army of “ZhD” (zhidy rendered by Porter as “Yds”). The Khazars believe they can run Russia better than the Varangians with their kitsch Nordic tastes, their dried-up language, and their inability to do anything other than lay waste and purge. Bykov throws in early Soviet industrialization and post-Soviet privatization as examples of phases when Jews were pushing the wheel of Russian history and things got done. The imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who, like Bykov, has a Jewish father) receives passing praise for having created “the greatest oil company in the world” and spending its profits on educational philanthropy.

  1. 1

    Bykov’s biographies of Boris Pasternak and Bulat Okudzhava were published by Molodaya Gvardiya in 2005 and 2009; his biography of Maxim Gorky was published by Astrel in 2008. His biography of Vladimir Mayakovsky is due out next year. 

  2. 2

    See www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXyfdD7 W1-Q. 

  3. 3

    Three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced in August 2012 to two years in a labor camp for dancing in front of the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a YouTube video of their “punk prayer,” “Mother of God, Drive Out Putin.” “God does not need a lawyer,” Bykov remarked the day after the sentence, see Bykov, “Zashchita,” Novaya gazeta, August 18, 2012. 

  4. 4

    See Svetlana Romanova, “Dmitry Bykov: In School My Hour is Worth about Two Thousand,” at slon.ru/russia/dmitriy_bykov_v_shkole_moy_chas_stoit_gde_to_dve_tysyachi-684310.xhtml (in Russian). 

  5. 5

    According to Russia’s twelfth-century Primary Chronicle (and widely accepted historiography), the Varangians (“Russians”) were Vikings who came from Scandinavia at the request of the ungoverned east Slav tribes to found the first Russian state in Kiev in 862. The Khazars were a Turkic people who created a state on the southern steppe in the lower Volga region north of the Caspian Sea, whose ruling class converted to Judaism in the eighth and ninth centuries, and whose prosperous empire, the Kaganate, was finally subdued by the Kievan prince Svyatoslav in the mid-tenth century, leaving few traces. Arthur Koestler, in The Thirteenth Tribe (Random House, 1976), which Bykov invokes, popularized the theory that Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of the Khazars. 

  6. 6

    Lev Gumilev (1912–1992) was the son of the poets Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. In her translation, Cathy Porter confuses Lev Gumilev with his father, losing the sense of the original. 

  7. 7

    A. Dugin, “Apologiya natsionalisma,” Konservativnaya revolutsiya (Moscow, 1994), p. 142, quoted in Vadim Rossman, Russian Intellectual Antisemitism in the Post-Communist Era (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), p. 40. 

  8. 8

    This is a characteristically Bykovian allusion to the poet Vasily Zhukovsky’s “A Bard in the Camp of the Russian Warriors,” about the Battle of Borodino in 1812. 

  9. 9

    The fictional Everstein’s explanation of Russian history bears some resemblance to the scholar Alexander Etkind’s concept of “internal colonization,” leading Mark Lipovetsky to suggest that Bykov’s Everstein may have been based, in part, on Etkind. See also Mark Lipovetsky and Alexander Etkind, “The Salamander’s Return: The Soviet Catastrophe and the Post-Soviet Novel,” Russian Studies in Literature, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Fall 2010), and Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Polity, 2011). 

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