Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya; drawing by David Levine

In his introduction to The New Soviet Fiction Sergei Zalygin writes:

I would like to voice the opinion that our literature—at its best, naturally—has, on the whole, always risen to the occasion, even during the period of stagnation.

By “the period of stagnation” he means the lethargic Brezhnev era, which continued under his faltering successors, Andropov and Chernenko. After which all was talk about Gorbachev’s perestroika. Zalygin is the editor of Novy Mir, which in the 1950s and 1960s kept Russian literature going within Soviet borders. Thereafter, the editor Alexander Tvardovsky having been deposed, samizdat largely took over the same task; and one by one Soviet writers of talent and independent mind made their way, or were forced to make it, to the West. Perestroika remains in many respects a promise that it has become more urgent than ever to fulfill; but glasnost—though still with some limitations—is a vivid reality. It would not have advanced so rapidly if the best of Russian literature, “even during the period of stagnation,” had failed to carry out its immemorial task: to be, in Zalygin’s concluding sentence to the introduction, “a witness of its time.”

What we may hope to see—but hopes are seldom realized in Russian history—is unimpeded collaboration between the metropolitan and overseas provinces of Russian literature, so that it may derive strength both from the writers in exile and from those who, in Akhmatova’s words, can say

I have been with my people
Where to its misfortune my people was.

It has not always been a voluntary choice. But for Tatyana Tolstaya, today widely recognized as the brightest star of her generation, to leave Russia in pursuit of such advantages as the West can offer is unthinkable. In an interview with David Remnick of The Washington Post she remarked: “But after the good life, what would be next? Here, I feel needed.”

She belongs to the vast family that produced not only the Tolstoy who sent its name around the world, but also his distant cousin Aleksey Konstantinovich (1817–1875), honored by Joseph Brodsky as “a poet of unique facility and versatility” and “a superb humorist.” In the twentieth century there was another Aleksey Tolstoy (1883–1945), the novelist who wrote The Road to Calvary and the unfinished Peter the First. He too had his unique facility, and even a kind of versatility, which enabled him to survive as an unassailable potentate in Soviet literature. As “the Red Count” he exploited a latent snobbery that Stalin would seem to have shared with some other revolutionaries.

Aleksey Nikolayevich was Tatyana’s grandfather, and she has fully atoned for his timeserving, if she felt the obligation to do this, by her own admirable intransigence. She was not dismayed when the Union of Soviet Writers refused to elect her to membership because she had spoken disparagingly about Vasily Belov, one of the old guard still in control (which he is now likely to lose). Only during the last few years has Tolstaya, born in 1951, been writing and publishing her remarkable stories.

On the Golden Porch, containing thirteen in all, appeared in Moscow two years ago. It sold out immediately, as good and necessary books do in the USSR; but on this handful of short stories, mostly running to a mere fifteen or so pages in large print, her reputation was firmly established. They show an exceptional virtuosity in language which, unlike Nabokov’s, makes for itself no ostentatious claims. Their originality can be appreciated best after a glance at the work of other women writers in Balancing Acts.

Sergei Zalygin claims that the short story is an indispensable genre in Soviet literature. The main literary journals need to publish at least one in every issue, which would otherwise look “incomplete and unusual” to their readers. Yet he has included only three women in his anthology—the well-known veteran I. Grekova; Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, anecdotist and also playwright, and Tatyana Tolstaya. In her anthology of Soviet women writers, Helena Goscilo has, of course, also chosen one story by Tolstaya—“Peters,” about a sad boy who is kept away from other children, her first to be published in Novy Mir and the one that alerted the public to her significance. A number of the women in Goscilo’s collection could have contended for a place in Zalygin’s. One thinks among others of Viktoria Tokareva, with her cool wit and irony; of Nina Katerli, observant and austere in her account of the impracticalities of passion in middle age; and of the geologist Anna Mass, whose story “A Business Trip Home” gave Goscilo the title for her collection. Soviet women too often face the problem of this story’s main character, to “throw a little bridge…to cross over from one life to the other,” the professional and the domestic.


Traditionally, as Goscilo explains, few Russian women have written novels. In the last century they were confined to what were considered minor genres, and notably memoirs. The implications of this Barbara Heldt has explored in Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature.1 Women, it is continually claimed, enjoy equal rights with men in Soviet society. Goscilo points out that all they have gained is “increased obligations camouflaged as expanded benefits.” She quotes a Russian feminist now in the West: “Ideally, a woman is expected to have children, to be an outstanding worker, take responsibility for the home, and, despite everything, still to be beautiful.” Grekova speaks for very many others when she tells of the choices that must be made: “It is either work or home,” adding in parenthesis “with me it was my home that suffered.” This is the all but impossible act of which Anna Mass writes. Her narrator in “A Business Trip Home” has “the sensation that two separate people—not doubles, but totally dissimilar individuals—really ought to merge into one.”

Both William Styron and the Soviet novelist Daniil Granin in their forewords to The Human Experience, a joint collection of American and the Soviet writing, remark that the United States and the Soviet Union face common problems. Granin talks of “universal troubles and dangers…burgeoning.” He speaks of pollution in both countries: “Lakes and rivers are poisoned; the air is poisoned; chemicals hold oppressive sway; animals die.” Styron finds that the “rituals of Soviet and American people seem chiefly to involve the frustrating business of muddling through—of making accommodations.” In a “collaborative effort” like this anthology, designed to “improve understanding and build trust” between the two peoples, it may seem appropriate to urge that “their common humanity” has, in Styron’s words, “made a Californian and a citizen of Kiev brother and sister in spirit.” However, the sisterly experience is radically not the same, even if we are prepared to think of “two worlds become much like each other.”

Women in the USSR, as these stories make abundantly clear, are exposed to the manifold inconvenience of daily life in a way that Soviet men have usually avoided, since the husband is not by and large involved either in domestic labor or in raising the children. Goscilo cites a passage from Nina Katerli’s story “Between Spring and Summer.” The speaker, Vasya, is a husband—Katerli, we learn, “prefers to view events from a male center of consciousness.” Vasya reflects that equality between the sexes has left a man “the least important person” in his own home:

What had happened to men? And where had these women come from who ran everything, whether at home or on the job?… War had happened. Not once, but three times. And remember, all three right in a row…. The men had been killed off, and the women were left with the kids. Who was the head of the house? The strongest? The smartest? Who was the protector? Who knew how to do everything? The mother.

And when the daughter grows up and marries, she will naturally follow this example.

It is no wonder, Goscilo writes, that “recent women’s fiction paints a bleak picture of Russian society, exposes the disintegration of family ties, and communicates all too vividly the debasing indignities with which Russian women contend daily.” A woman writer whom she quotes in a footnote to this observation has described “family life Soviet-style” as “a living hell.” To judge from the stories in Balancing Acts, it has all the rootlessness of Western society with many additional drawbacks. Little is said in them about the incursions of the state, although Grekova’s “No Smiles” (in The New Soviet Fiction) tells of the isolation endured by a woman scientist when her work is at one point found ideologically unsafe. Family life in the midst of shortages is itself full of shortages. One of the most serious is that children have very few siblings. The only child is often looked after by his or her grandparents, as best they can; the mother in these stories may be a doctor, an engineer, a geologist, who is usually away on expeditions, an actress, or even the chairwoman (there is no equivalent to “chairperson” in Soviet usage) of a collective farm. The father is usually discontented and uneasy at home, discontented and no more comfortable when he strays from it into infidelity.

Thus very often the stories in the collections under review have at their center some intractable social problem. Fiction in Russia from its beginnings has been accepted as an index to political concerns, which justified the enterprise of Martin Crouch and Robert Porter when they compiled Understanding Soviet Politics through Literature.2 Russian literature has always recognized the duty of dealing with public issues, a duty, needless to say, in which it was often impeded. Many of the Soviet women writers selected by Goscilo are in a sense sociological field-workers, but the hurt is their own; the stresses imposed by society are realized in deep personal frustration. The complaint is sometimes made that they concentrate too much on what Russians call byt—the humdrum, the daily routine, which is really, according to the novelist Yuri Trifonov, “what life consists of,” with all its “mutual relations between friends, co-workers, love, arguments, jealousy, envy.”


Tatyana Tolstaya has her own position in this matter, and in that way is unrepresentative. The best writers usually are, and only later are they seen to have understood their time in greater complexity and shown it more truly than their contemporaries did. On the Golden Porch takes its title from a story of the same name, the first of hers to be published, in the fall of 1983. The phrase, in full “On the golden porch sat: Tsar, tsarevich, king, prince, cobbler, tailor,” belongs to a children’s counting song. By using it Tolstaya makes tacit acknowledgment of the source from which her art draws sustenance—the child’s imagination. Several of the stories deal with the sometimes outrageous fantasy of a child (or an immature or unfulfilled adult). It is that of an exceptionally gifted child, as Tolstaya herself clearly was.

In the beginning was the garden. Childhood was a garden. Without end or limit, without borders and fences, in noises and rustling, golden in the sun…

Let no one suppose from this opening to her story that we are about to enter the frail idyllic scene of Kenneth Grahame’s The Golden Age. Russian writers too are capable of sentimentalizing memories of their earliest years; but Leo Tolstoy never did this in his first work, Childhood. Nor does Tatyana, though it has to be admitted that only in this respect does she resemble her great kinsman. Fantasy was not his strong quality: he ranks among the “literalists of the imagination,” and owes little or nothing to the tradition of Gogol. Tatyana’s writing has affinities with the riot and color of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories especially. Gogol, like her, was always aware of the evil behind the enchantment. But he exults in the play of fantasy, in the rich and over-powering detail of life as he conceives it, in absurdity and in the grotesque.

The child in Tolstaya’s fiction moves naturally in the world of Russian fairy tale, with a freedom and responsiveness very difficult for most children to attain today; for they are deprived of the power to visualize for themselves, as the little boy Petya does in “Date with a Bird,” those legendary creatures from Russian folk tales: the Sirin, the Finist, the Alkonost. The process that began with Disney seems to have paralyzed that nerve in their imaginations, just as the telling of fairy tales must be endangered in Russia with the disappearance of the old peasant nurse, like Nanny Grusha in “Loves Me, Loves Me Not.” The children can always rely on her for a genuine thrill:

Her gray head holds thousands of stories about talking bears, and blue snakes that cure people with tuberculosis by climbing in through the chimney during the night, about Pushkin and Lermontov.

So Petya, eating his rice porridge, sees the butter floating on top as a doomed Atlantis, and the gorgeous city, with its emerald-roofed white palaces, temples whose doorways are curtained with peacock feathers, “sharp silver obelisks with inscriptions in an unknown tongue,” and the presiding statue of a golden god with three eyes in his forehead all “slip, list, into the warm, transparent waves.” This capacity for dream persists in many of the adults depicted by Tatyana Tolstaya. The drabber their surroundings, the more disadvantaged and restricted in life they are, the surer will come to their rescue a vision of southern seas and a promised paradise. Even Peters, who had not been allowed to join in children’s play, and becomes hopelessly frustrated when he grows up, is granted as an old man sight of “the naked golden spring” that cries “laughing: catch me, catch me!” And so he “smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien—marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.” These are significantly the last words of the book.

Gogol’s sense of an appalling emptiness in life, so evident from his later work, is not absent from Tolstaya’s fiction. The adults who daydream with extravagant and childish expectation of happiness to come, like Rimma in “Fire and Dust,” or like Galya in “The Fakir,” are easily deluded and are virtually always thrown back onto the dreariness of daily experience. They may indulge their imaginations in that particular form of mendaciousness that the Russians do not call lying but give the more tolerant name vran’ë, the art of piling up absurd accretions on a half-truth or no truth at all. Pipka does this in “Fire and Dust”; the fraudulent Filin does it in “The Fakir.” In a more acceptable way so does the old lady in “Sweet Shura,” who can almost persuade us that after sixty years her lover of 1913 still haunts a railway platform in the Crimea, and she will keep the assignation promised long ago. Their common enemy is time, the ruthless unmasker. As Tatyana Tolstaya declares in “On the Golden Porch”:

What mean jokes you play, life! Dust, ashes, rot. Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand?

A. Mikhailov, who wrote a generally sympathetic afterword to the Russian edition, found some of the Tolstaya stories “rather far-fetched.” He cited “Okkervil River,” about the long forgotten singer Vera Vasilevna, whom a lonely Lenin-grader, much addicted to playing her records, seeks out one day to his disillusionment, and “A Clean Sheet,” which tells how an unhappy husband, with a careworn wife, an ailing child, and an unfaithful mistress, visits a doctor for the mysterious operation that will transform him into an elated and appallingly active go-getter. Mikhailov is fairly indulgent to such excesses, as he sees them. But even the most extravagant kites flown by Tolstaya are attached to a tough wire that brings them down to earth.

Her stories must be read with close attention to their economy, the inner coherences that bring out their meaning, and to the oblique but searching light they cast on the daily pressures and restrictions of Soviet life. One of her more recent stories, “Sweet Dreams, Son” (1986), yields rather more than is apparent on a cursory reading. I should place it among her very best, and it must be emphasized that such stories of hers call for the attention we normally give to a poem, or at least to the prose fiction of poets—like Pasternak’s The Childhood of Luvers or Mandelstam’s The Egyptian Stamp, even though both run to the length of novellas.

“Sweet Dreams, Son” is set in the 1970s, that “period of stagnation” rivaling the “muffled” or “godforsaken” years of torpor in the 1880s. Sergei’s mother-in-law, Maria Maximovna, an obvious beneficiary of the system, cannot get over the loss of a very special fur coat, which had a silk lining with a pattern of lilies of the valley. A handsome and comfortable widow, she had been wearing the coat in the flea market, where she went to buy a squirrel fur coat for everyday wear. She handed her treasured coat to Panya the cleaning woman; and it was gone in a flash. After thirty years Maria Maximovna still cannot forget this dreadful episode—the great tragedy of her life. Sergei, newly married to the daughter of the family, unable to “resist her watery charms,” is told this story, and it comes to us mostly in his mother-in-law’s words. Tolstaya is adept at switching from one register to another, as she views what she has to tell through the consciousness of different actors in the story. Her work, with its sensitivity to tones of voice, and its colloquial force, is taxing to a translator. Antonina W. Bouis acquits herself remarkably well and with a sure instinct for the right racy equivalent. (It is evident that an American translator has an advantage here over an English one, because American speech is more democratic and less embarrassed in its use of slang.) Sergei will hear his mother-in-law tell this story many times. With each repetition the nature of the family he has married into becomes clearer to him.

Sergei had his own really tragic loss, when the mother whose name he never knew was killed by a bomb in the war, and he was saved, to enter an orphanage. There they issued him a name and an estimated date of birth. Life in the orphanage is brilliantly evoked: “Long winters, hungry eyes, shaved heads, some adult giving a quick pat on the head as he ran past; the smell of mice in the sheets, the dull light.” His motive for marrying the unresponsive Lenochka was to come out of the cold. He “married in fear and delight, hazarding a guess, understanding nothing.” Lenochka, whom he cannot make out, is “steady and passionless, a sister instead of a wife. Mother and sister—what more could a lost boy want?”

He could want a father. The obvious candidate is the missing member of the family, that high-ranking military doctor who in 1944 had found the fur coat in Germany and immediately sent it to his young wife. Maria Maximovna describes the long ago deceased Pavel Antonovich with genuine admiration—“a warrior against the plague,…complex, quick to judge; terrible in his wrath, and honest in his work.” But Lenochka can barely remember him—she thinks of him in his official car, with its chauffeur who had steel teeth, common in those hard times. Lenochka recalls the “angry nape” of her father’s neck and her only other memory of him is a scene of his terrible wrath, on some trivial pretext at home. By then her father had been “insulted, abandoned,” while his ungrateful students carried “the slightly soiled banner onward.” That phrase is surely not Maria Maximovna’s. It reveals the first crack in her idol.

The boys at the orphanage had wanted Seryozha to climb through the narrow window and steal bread for them from the bakehouse. But a voice, which he believed was his mother’s, told him not to take it. Pavel Antonovich worked up one of his righteous rages when the coat he sent from Germany was stolen in 1948. He accuses Panya; she must be arrested and made to denounce her “co-conspirators.” Panya’s testimony is muddled. “In short—they convicted her.” At one time Sergei fantasizes that she may have been his mother. But her morality would not have let her steal. And if her imagined husband had been so tempted, he wouldn’t have stooped to it either.

Sergei has often pictured the scene in the abandoned German house. Pavel Antonovich, as always, “didn’t waste time.” He took down the coat, parceled it up, “knotted the twine with his clean medical fingers.” And it was sent back home. Pavel Antonovich justifies his action in a phrase the translator has missed: “For our towns and villages.” It was an act of sacred vengeance. After all, as Maria Maximovna insists, “doctors are saints.” Pavel Antonovich had evidently performed astonishing feats in the 1920s and 1930s in his warfare with the plague, destroying every species of rat, and many other small mammals. He even discovered that camels are plague carriers. With his assistants he would at grave risk catch a camel, infect it, take samples, and finally visit upon it the condign punishment of death. This grotesque business haunts Sergei. He sees his father-in-law “in anti-plague goggles and rubber boots, with an enormous syringe,” closing in on the camel. Maria Maximovna says, “He had no patience for cowards.” The uneasy doubts grow for Sergei: “Was he afraid? Such an important man. Terrible in his wrath and honest in his work. But why that fur coat?”

Yet Sergei cannot free himself from the ghostly presence of his father-in-law. He longs to find his own “link in the chain,” as a true descendant of Pavel Antonovich, Anton Felixovich, Felix Kazimirovich. In his orphanage they used to play a game not unlike Nuts in May. When they called out “send Seryozha” he remembers how he would “run…from one line to the other, from his family into another, to push apart the thin clasped hands, and to join them, the strangers, if he could, feeling proud of his strength yet a little treacherous too.” His new family is also alien: their names are all Polish on the male side. When Sergei accuses in his mind Pavel Antonovich of vulgar theft, he addresses him as “high and mighty gentleman,” using the Polish word pan. The doctor and his wife are alien in a deeply opprobrious sense, because they have lived by the exploiter’s code that the Revolution had aimed to eradicate forever.

Pavel Antonovich had unlimited power, particularly over animals. Tolstaya is much aware of the wrongs inflicted upon animals: in “The Circle” she lists all the animals who have to suffer atrociously for a well-to-do lady to dress in fashion. Doctors in two other stories are presented as wielders of despotic authority. Zoya in “Hunting the Wooly Mammoth” sees a surgeon as “king of this world,” consecrated “to perform the highest judgment, to come down and chop off, to punish and to save, and with his glowing sword give life.” And in “A Clean Sheet” the doctor has “a rough, blue Assyrian beard,” and appears to his patient as Vrach Vrachei, Physician of Physicians.

“Sweet Dreams, Son” ends with little Antosha, the child begotten without love or understanding, asleep in his cot. The world has been made safe for him—temporarily. “The plague corpses in the cemetery are covered with lime,…the camels are locked up in the zoos.” It is hard not to see this story, about homelessness, the utter loss of parents and connection with the past, the iniquities of power, and corruption in high places, as a reading not only of Soviet life, but also of what man can easily do to man in the best-intentioned of societies.

This Issue

June 1, 1989