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.

Volokhov, whose true native identity has been awakened, is now leading a “flying detachment” around in circles in the forests, living for his trysts with Zhenka. For three weeks they enjoy a nightly idyll in a country bathhouse, and conceive another of the novel’s fateful mixed-blood babies, before the sinister and ubiquitous Gurov/Gurion hunts them down and drives Zhenka away to the destroyer-village of Zhadrunovo.

By this time, Gurov has become something like Voldemort from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, a far more implacable ethnic cleanser and fanatic of pure blood than either the Varangians or the Khazars, who “have no eschatology” and have long since forgotten why they are at war. Gurov is finally overcome by the ferocity of the shamaness Asha’s passion for her pureblood Varangian lover, Borozdin, and their unborn child. True to the genre of fairy tale (skazka), the magical power of love prevails over Gurov’s “alternative” historical mission, and all the rest.

The Varangian–Khazar civil war ends in a chaotic “Final Battle,” whose outcome has been agreed in advance by the leaders of the exhausted armies. Magical tales are never logical, and the very illogic of Living Souls neutralizes the various grand rival historical narratives with which the characters have muddled each other’s heads, and over which they have gone to war. Left behind after all the competing theories have canceled each other out are love (no respecter of ethnic boundaries), poetry, and the romance of the open road. The melancholy song of the natives, “Not alone in the field little road,” is the novel’s refrain. Russian territory has always been “a transport system,” as Gurov himself explains one night over vodka in Volokhov’s Moscow kitchen, after “outing” him as a native: the “simple secret panacea for the Russian people” has always been “to leave home.”

When ZhD was published in 2006, Bykov, ever the teacher, gave his readers a preface explaining what he had in mind as he wrote the novel, and apologizing in advance for the ethnic offenses and national discord it might provoke.10 Following Nikolai Gogol in Dead Souls, Bykov calls ZhD a poema—an epic poem—a genre bound up with the origins and identity of the nation, whose principal themes, he says, are “war and wandering.” Russia, according to Bykov, still lacks a national epic, an Odyssey or Don Quixote. Gogol famously compared “Rus” to a racing troika at the end of Dead Souls: “What is the meaning of this horrific movement?… Where are you racing to?” his novel cries. But before he was able to finish Dead Souls Gogol was “driven out of his mind by Russia’s doubleness, inconclusiveness, and formlessness,” Bykov writes.

Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace is too realistic to be a poema, and contains almost no wandering. In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak came closer than anyone to the epic ideal, but was unable to break decisively from the realist tradition. If ZhD (its title contains Doctor Zhivago’s initials), “an obsession-novel whose twists and turns have pursued me for the past twenty years,” does not “pretend to form the Russian nation,” Bykov writes, it may at least “explain why the nation has so far not been formed,”11 and why Russian history remains a closed circle that no one has yet had the will or power to break.

All these predecessors, and many more, are mapped onto the vast allusive landscape of Bykov’s poema, which depicts Russian history as endless movement, a chronicle of failed relationships between people and territory. In particular, the novel outlines Bykov’s controversial interpretation of Doctor Zhivago in his biography of Pasternak. Bykov describes Pasternak’s novel as a poema and a skazka, a symbolist work that takes a musical, metaphysical approach to history. In its poetics of transcendent love, Living Souls draws on the chapter “Iced Rowanberries,” when Yuri Zhivago encounters a witch, Kubarikha, in the Siberian taiga, who heals cows, sings sorrowful folksongs, and quotes distorted passages of the ancient Russian chronicles, transforming them into shaman visions. Kubarikha’s words provoke in Yuri a vision of his own love for Lara, who is far away, revealing to him the secrets of her soul: “Memories of strange towns, streets, rooms, landscapes….” And Lara, Bykov tells us, “is Russia,” who “draws to herself dreamers, adventurers, and poets,” but who is “destined for the poet.”12

“At the end of an historic epoch abstract concepts always stink like rotten fish,” Mandelstam wrote in The Noise of Time, remembering his school literature teacher, V.V. Gippius, “Better the wicked and gleeful (vesyoloe) fizzing of good Russian verse.”13 Bykov, who has a prodigious facility for improvising light verse, is fond of the word vesyolyi, which means “merry, cheerful, convivial, lighthearted,” or just plain “funny.” Like many in the liberal opposition movement, Bykov believes that the Putin epoch is coming to an end and hopes that its end will be peaceful. Recently, he has turned the gleeful fizzing of Russian verse into a powerful form of political activism.

Early in 2011, Bykov launched a satirical Internet project called Citizen Poet with the actor Mikhail Efremov and a producer, the former newspaper editor Andrei Vasiliev. Every week, Bykov would compose a verse pastiche of a well-known poet around some item of political news. Efremov, a comic actor of astonishing versatility, would then perform this “news-in-verse” for the camera dressed as the poet. Mimicking poets from Pushkin and Lermontov to Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling, Citizen Poet poked ever more daring fun at then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev. By September 2011, when Medvedev announced that Putin would run for a third presidential term in the next election, the Citizen Poet clips that appeared online every Monday morning were notching up hundreds of thousands of hits; some were watched over a million times.

Though Bykov is one of the organizers of the Moscow opposition movement, he describes Citizen Poet as a “cheerful [vesyolyi] aesthetic project” rather than a “protest project.”14 Nonetheless, its impact was political; in the course of a few months, it had made the Russian heads of state publicly ridiculous, releasing a riot of long-suppressed collective laughter. Lines from Bykov’s parodies and nicknames he had invented for Putin—“the Great Pu,” “Pussin”—were among the most popular slogans painted on the homemade placards in the carnivalesque anti-Putin street protests of 2011 and 2012.15 Citizen Poet exposed the “illusoriness of Putin’s machismo, its artificiality,” he says. As well as ridiculing the stylistics of state power, the show reminded Russians of the poetry they had been made to learn at school.

The week Putin dived to the bed of the Black Sea and pulled up two sixth-century-BC amphorae, Efremov, in a crumpled raincoat, pulled a mini-amphora out of a fish tank, reciting a parody of Mandelstam’s Black Sea poem, “Sleeplessness, Homer….” Putin’s crooning performance of “Blueberry Hill” in front of Sharon Stone and Kevin Costner at a charity gala was greeted with a wicked spoof in the style of the fabulist Ivan Krylov (Russia’s Aesop). Soon even the Kremlin press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had declared himself a fan of Citizen Poet. Bykov and Efremov were invited to an audience with Putin, which they prudently declined.

Independent-minded oligarchs offered financial backing. Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov (the butt of one memorable spoof in the style of the children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky) sponsored a sell-out tour by Bykov of the Russian provinces. Alexander Mamut (who recently acquired the UK bookstore chain Waterstones) published a glossy album of the project. The exiled tycoon Evgeny Chichvarkin organized two shows in London (now a city with many prominent Russians) on the weekend of the presidential election in March 2012, after which the trio declared the project dead. The last poet to be reincarnated by Efremov was a sinister Joseph Stalin, fondling his pipe as he hymned the nightingale and the dawn of Putin’s third term. Bykov read from his laptop an impromptu poem that he had composed then and there on a theme suggested by the audience: a string of bawdy punning couplets on the Pussy Riot arrests, with much play on the “organs of the law.”16

Bykov has recently raised a caveat about the comic frame that his verse has placed around Putin’s rule. After the Russian president’s surreal micro-light flight this summer teaching Siberian cranes how to migrate, Bykov told his public that he would provide no poetry on the subject: Putin had flown out of Russian politics. “Hearing the general laughter, Putin’s people have made him into a figure of fun to distract us from what is really going on,” he warned; “all we should be talking about now is how to build a modern education system and how to make an economy that does not depend on natural resources.”17

Bykov has reminded his nation that among its most precious resources are the Russian language and its literature, whose richness is the fruit of centuries of ethnic and cultural mixing. His role as political improvisatore in the fast-maturing opposition movement that has taken shape over the past year has put citizenship back into Russian poetry—and a little poetry back into Russian citizenship.