In the bloody summer of 2014 Vladimir Sharov’s eighth novel, Return to Egypt, was shortlisted for “The Big Book,” Russia’s most prestigious literary award (and the world’s most remunerative after the Nobel Prize for Literature).1 It won the Russian Booker Prize several months later. Its hero, a Soviet agronomist descended from Nikolai Gogol, takes upon himself the task of completing his ancestor’s unfinished masterpiece, Dead Souls, and leading the Russian people to salvation.
In September, Sharov gave a long interview to Rossiyskaya gazeta, the Russian government’s newspaper of record. “Your main themes, from book to book, are God, History, Motherland, art,” the interviewer commented. Lamenting the lack of escape these days from politics, she quoted a passage from Return to Egypt describing Gogol’s birthplace:
Ukraine, a former borderland for Poland and for Russia, was born of their mixing and their hatred. That riot of unclean forces that you find in Gogol comes from his belief that there is no place on earth better or freer for unclean forces than here.
Sharov expressed horror at any connection of these words with the daily news: “I would never have wanted to be a prophet of anything like this.” The conflict in Ukraine will take decades to resolve, he predicted: “In history wounds heal very slowly.”
Sharov’s fiction is a search for the seeds of history. He is a historian by training; his graduate dissertation was on the “Time of Troubles,” the Russian political crisis of the early seventeenth century. He bears the wounds of Soviet history:
I, like others, was never able to forgive Soviet power many and varied things, among which were the millions of people who were shot or perished in the camps, including two thirds of my own family.2
Their number included his paternal grandparents, Israel and Faina Nyurenberg, members of the socialist Bund from Ukraine. Faina’s name appears on an execution list sent to Stalin by Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD, the secret police, in July 1938. Sharov’s father, Sher Nyurenberg, who was born in Kiev, specialized in genetics at Moscow State University. In the 1920s, he became a popular science writer, changing his name in 1937 to Aleksandr Sharov (a common Russian name with no Jewish trace). In that year of mass purges, he joined one of the heroic scientific expeditions of the Stalin era, a winter flight across the Arctic. Vladimir, his only child, was born in 1952. In the late 1950s, Aleksandr Sharov turned to writing magical tales and science fiction for children. “My father was a child until the end of his days,” Sharov remembers. He regards the childlike brightness of his father’s way of seeing—his naiveté, fantasy, and acuteness of perception—as necessary conditions for the writing of genuine magical tales, and integral to a tragic view of life.3
The genre in which Vladimir Sharov writes has been called “magical historicism.” The cultural historian Alexander Etkind groups him with Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, and Dmitry Bykov as “fashionable post-Soviet authors” of fantastical fiction, who combine religion and history in “rich and shocking ways.” Russian magical historicism, unlike magic realism, grapples with history rather than social issues or psychology. The context is a “postcatastrophic” contemporary Russia in which “there is no consensus on the crucial issues of historical memory.”4 All these writers are now published by mainstream publishers, win literary prizes, enjoy media coverage, and have created public sensations. Though Sharov has quietly gained critical prestige in Russia, he is the only one of the four who has remained unknown to English readers.
Before and During, the first of Sharov’s works to be translated into English, was his third novel. He wrote it as communism was falling apart between 1988 and 1991, and calls it the last novel of the Soviet era. It was published two years later in Novyi mir, the respected literary journal for which his father had written. The novel caused a distressing scandal. An effigy of Sharov was burned near his home. A rift opened in Novyi mir’s editorial board. Two board members, literary critics Sergei Kostyrko and Irina Rodnyanskaya, dissented from the decision to publish the work, which, they felt, had sullied the journal’s pages. Their article, “Trash from the Hut” (airing dirty linen in public), is a miniature testament to the febrile cultural insecurity of the early 1990s, when the Soviet empire had run aground in the wreckage of the twentieth century’s ideological experiments, and the popular culture of the West deluged Russian media.
Lamenting the general spiritual confusion and loss of aesthetic consensus, Rodnyanskaya called Sharov’s treatment of “Russian and sacred history” a “rape.” His intention, she concluded, was to make fools of his readers. Kostyrko accused Sharov of dragging Russian high culture—as well as the “legends of Christ, the secrets of the Stalin regime and the mysteries of the Jewish mentality”—into the realm of contemporary kitsch: the realm, as he put it, of Arnold Schwarzenegger, soft porn movies like Emanuelle, and Anatoly Kashpirovsky, the psychic healer who, as the USSR disintegrated, gazed hypnotically at a dazed population from TV screens, promising to repair domestic appliances and broken lives with extrasensory powers.
Two decades later, Before and During remains a disorienting read. The novel invokes real historical events and people (Tolstoy, Madame de Staël, Saint John of Kronstadt, Alexander Scriabin, and Stalin, among others), swirling them into a phantasmagoric alternative chronology. Stories germinate within other stories, unfolding in astonishing variations. The clarity and directness of Sharov’s prose—wonderfully rendered by Oliver Ready—are disconcerting, almost hallucinatory. His writing is at times funny, at times so piercingly moving, so brimful of unassuaged sorrow, that it causes a double-take. “How did I get here?” is a question his reader will likely ask again and again.
Alyosha, the first of the novel’s storytellers, starts out lost on an “uneven, uncertain path,” in an urban wasteland outside Moscow, trying to find his way to a psychiatric hospital. Three years earlier, he slipped on ice and hit his head. He has suffered repeated blackouts and been lost for weeks in vagrancy. The danger to his life and the terrifying prospect of complete amnesia have brought him to the Korsakov Hospital to seek treatment from an enigmatic Dr. Kronfeld. Alyosha knows that his own thoughts are “strange.” The stories he will hear in hospital are stranger still. They are told by his fellow inmates, who, Kronfeld informs him, are mostly Old Bolsheviks and former Party bosses. Though demented, incontinent, and unaware of their own condition, they are still dedicated to habits of intellectual inquiry, and all long to confess and seek redemption.
The year is 1965. Alyosha is in mid-life, a “seasoned” writer. His university dissertation was on Madame de Staël. Though he once planned a popular biography of her for a series called Lives of Remarkable People, he has made a living writing children’s books about Lenin. The Bolsheviks of his imagination are as vanilla-sweet and comforting as confectionary, conjured out of childhood sense memories. As a boy, Alyosha had lived across the street from a cake factory called “Bolshevik,” which gave off delicious smells. He cherishes a beautiful image of his mother’s slender fingers, tipped with violet nail varnish, reaching into boxes of chocolates made in another factory called “Bolshevik Girl.” So all the Bolsheviks in his books (“my Bolsheviks”), both male and female, end up “like mummy, kind, tender mummy.”
In Alyosha’s injured mind, the play of memory and forgetting becomes obsessional. Memory is “the centre of [his] world,” an obligation so heavy he cracks under its weight. He decides that he can do without his own, but that he has a duty to preserve the memory of others: “Those whom only I had known or, at any rate, whom only I was prepared to remember.” He takes an idea from the life of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. As he learned from his father, Ivan compiled a Memorial Book of the Disgraced at the end of his life, recording the victims of his terror so that prayers might be said for their resurrection. Alyosha sets out to write his own Memorial Book, which will conform to “that Old Russian genre, the Lament”:
A lament for people I knew and loved. For people who, sad to say, died before their time, leaving nothing behind except in my memory…. Not one of their lives fell into place; in none of them was there much love, joy or, at times, even meaning; and not one of these people accomplished much while they still could…. They went through agony before dying and departed in sorrow. Dying, they felt hard done by, disgraced, cheated.
The first two names in the Memorial Book are Nikolai Pastukhov, a former public prosecutor caught in a love triangle, whom Alyosha met by chance on a train, and Vera Rozhdestvenskaya, a distant relative who, though now senile, is his last tie with the relatives from whom he was cut off by his father’s death. Rozhdestvenskaya’s husband, who once ran oilfields in Chechnya, was arrested in 1937 and shot. Her life since has been “hard and terrifying.” In the undignified muddle of her dementia she retrieves a few “sharp, detailed and above all joyful” fragments: “Her first pair of dancing shoes, the dacha…, the boycott of German shops in 1914 and the thoroughbred collie she was given not long before the war.”
Pastukhov and Rozhdestvenskaya have each sought to create some remembrance of themselves in writing. Yet though his Memorial Book gives Alyosha a sense that he has “been granted the gift of resurrection,” his attempt to bring people back with words underlines the impossibility of creating a true record of the past. What is not written down drifts away and dies; what is written down is falsified by memory, and much of what happens is too “dreadful and unforgivable” to be remembered at all. So what becomes of love, he wonders? And what becomes of ideas, beliefs, and prayers, and the yearning for collective salvation that runs through Russian history in a current of sacrificial blood?
“The third person I’m going to write about is Tolstoy,” Alyosha announces in a sudden divagation from his promised lament for unremarkable lives. Other inmates enter the scene: Morozov and Saburov, disciples of Tolstoy who once lived in a Siberian commune, and “many other people” who discuss at length the rival interpretations of Tolstoyanism. Were the great writer’s ethical principles so pure that they could not be put to bad use? Or was his ideology “an act of violence against ordinary human nature,” almost identical with Bolshevism in its desire to remake people and build paradise on earth? Could Tolstoyanism indeed have been an inspiration for the cruellest investigators of Stalin’s NKVD?
Alyosha’s account of this debate is intercut with childhood memories of a neighbor, Semyon Kochin, a survivor of Stalin’s camps, expert in Tolstoy’s life and thought, “who in 1936 passed through the hands of just such an investigator in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.” Kochin, a wise and eccentric recluse (who also seeks to prolong his life through writing), becomes the fourth subject of Alyosha’s Memorial Book. “In general,” Kochin says in a grave paradox, “those who feel the imperfections of this world most keenly are disinclined to set much store by the lives of others.” Tolstoy was torn between his beliefs and the bonds of family love. He was “a very good man,” Kochin would say, but his renunciation of his wife and children in favor of a set of ideas was evil.
Sharov has said gnomically in interviews that all Russian history is a commentary on the Book of Genesis. Questions of origin and identity preoccupy his hero Alyosha. “There wasn’t…anyone to tell me who I was or where I’d come from,” he laments when thinking of his own family. The “vital childish question,” he says of the Bolsheviks, is “where they came from and how they were born.” An intricately looping thread of fantastical incestuous genealogies winds through Before and During. The first of these is in the Tolstoy family, whose doctor, Alyosha says straightforwardly, confirmed that Tolstoy’s eldest son Lev was, in fact, the writer’s monoovular twin, whose development was delayed, and who mysteriously matured in the womb of his wife Sonia.
In search of an explanation of the hospital’s origins and the other patients’ identities, Alyosha seeks out another inmate, Nikolai Ifraimov. Ifraimov, a kind of Jewish mystic and sage, tells him that between 1922 and 1932 the hospital had been a top-secret Institute for Natural Genius, “signed into existence by Lenin.” Its director, the “charming and exceptionally clever” Professor Trogau, studied genius and its proximity to mental pathology. The institute’s purpose was to increase the genius of the country, bringing it closer to the fulfillment of its sacred mission: human redemption. In 1932, however, Trogau was purged and his institute disbanded. (Later, we learn why.) Ten of the present inmates, including Ifraimov, are the last of its alumni.
Ifraimov’s nightly storytelling is intercut with Alyosha’s accounts of his own mental state, and the intellectual discussions and orgiastic sexual activities of the other inmates. He begins another Memorial Book to record their lives, “to make them loved.” They stand in line to empty out “whole sackfuls of life…numberless trifles of lived experience.” In writing, Alyosha again finds saving purpose. He comes to realize that Ifraimov, too, is dictating a text for the Memorial Book. The “essence” of events “so often, is obscured,” says Ifraimov. He recounts an alternative, fantastical history of the Russian Revolution, unearthing its buried philosophical seeds and its “ultimate aim”: “The return—by the efforts of man, not God—of all humankind to heaven.” Finally, the narratives converge in a snowy reprise of the Flood in Genesis, with the hospital ward as the Ark of Salvation.
At the center of Ifraimov’s story are Madame de Staël and the influential nineteenth-century philosopher (and librarian of Moscow’s Rumyantsev Museum) Nikolai Fyodorov. Fyodorov, who in reality died in 1903, developed the idea that humanity’s “common task” was the material resurrection of the dead. Alyosha learns that the elderly couple on his ward—“the elegant, straight-backed old lady in the next room…and the old man in love with her”—are de Staël and Fyodorov. In the final sequence, Fyodorov becomes Noah. Though the historical de Staël died in 1817 (she visited Russia in 1812), Ifraimov’s de Staël has used kabbalistic magic to give birth to herself three times, becoming a provincial Russian landowner, “Evgeniya Frantsevna Stal,” mistress of the virginal Fyodorov (in a creepy fairy-tale erotic adventure involving opium stupors and a crystal coffin), and mother of his three brain-damaged soldier sons (who are also on the ward).
De Staël recognizes Fyodorov as “the source of the coming revolution, its true root.” He sucks out of her all she knew about the French Revolution, adapting it for Russia, which, for centuries, has believed itself chosen among nations. Fyodorov wants life on earth to be made perfect. He is in revolt against the world’s complexity, and he dreams of simplifying it through destruction. This is, in essence, a revolt against God, Ifraimov explains, for “the world of God is the world of questions. Only questions are commensurable with the complexity of his world.”
The self-reborn de Staël has an astounding talent for love (and for negligent procreation). The “trail of her ideas…stretches far and wide.” Her affair with a noble Georgian begets a son, Stalin (“son of Stal”), who later becomes her lover in a history-shaping on-off affair. In her Moscow mansion, she nurtures revolution: fund-raising, organizing, and sleeping with socialists. The most ardent revolutionaries are not Leninists but Fyodorovists, delirious with Russian messianism. After 1917, de Staël assumes “a fairly elevated position in the communist hierarchy” and founds the Institute for Natural Genius with Professor Trogau. She shapes the Stalin cult, aborts Trotsky’s baby, and provokes the purge of the Old Bolsheviks by seducing them one by one to provoke Stalin’s jealousy. If he really wants to build communism, she urges as they walk among the “bugs and butterflies” in his dacha garden, he must “kill and kill,” for communism can only “be formed by perfect people.”
De Staël’s most ecstatic moments of physical passion are with the composer Scriabin, “the most brilliant of all the revolutionaries to have crossed her path.” They lunch together almost every day at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel as he works on his revolutionary Mysterium, a synesthetic musical composition that will enact “the Universe in ruins” and “provoke global catastrophe.” We learn that the “unofficial” history of 1917, based on “highly unusual sources,” for which Trogau was purged, was a decoding of Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The famous treatise is in fact part of Scriabin’s lost Mysterium, encrypted by an obedient Lenin in 1914. In his Memorial Book, Alyosha copies out “Trogau’s transcript of Lenin’s shorthand,” a twenty-page stream of visionary historical writing, in which revolution, war, and terror are evoked through smell. On the shores of Lake Geneva, Scriabin—John the Baptist to Lenin’s Messiah—preaches “world war, carnage, the death of the old world, revolution, socialism, the last days.”
Sharov’s sense of revolutionary history comes from the Soviet writer Andrei Platonov. In a recent essay he calls Platonov “one of the few, who saw and knew the revolution from within” in all its childlike enthusiasm, for whom the connection between Communist revolution and Orthodox Christian eschatology was obvious. Controversially, in today’s Russia, Sharov sees the idea of Muscovy as the Third Rome—set down by the Monk Filofei in 1510 and carried into the twentieth century by Fyodorov—as a potent seed of 1917. Russia’s sense of divine election and its mission to spread the faith led to a meek acceptance of terror, when “one part of a nation leads another to slaughter,” as a necessary cleansing, the price of deliverance.
Sharov deserves a readership outside Russia. His novels convey a singular vision of history in all its baffling strangeness. While the metaphorical density of his fantasies may be perplexing, Sharov’s luminous prose never loses the enchantment and warmth of traditional magical tales, or their sense of hidden menace. In the face of overwhelming individual and collective loss, he has turned fiction into a style of mourning and an instrument of authentic historical discovery.
Sharov’s forgotten Fyodorovist-Bolsheviks bring to mind Stalin’s henchman, Vyacheslav Molotov. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1906 and died in 1986, not long before Sharov began writing Before and During. In old age, he spent his days in Moscow’s Lenin Library (the former Rumyantsev Museum), writing unwanted memoranda for the Communist Party Central Committee. He still affirmed the “special mission” of the Russian people. When asked why terror had been necessary, he replied, “We do not have ready-made pure people, purged of all sins.”5
The prize was announced in Moscow on November 25, 2014. Sharov’s Return to Egypt won third place after Zakhar Prilepin’s The Dwelling and Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluriya. ↩
Vladimir Sharov, The Temptation of Revolution: Essays (Moscow: Arsis, 2009), p. 58 (in Russian). ↩
Alexander Etkind, “Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied: Magical Historicism in Contemporary Russian Fiction,” Slavic Review, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Fall 2009). ↩
Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics—Conversations with Felix Chuev, edited by Albert Resis (Ivan R. Dee, 1993), pp. 63 and 255. ↩