Books of the Dead

Oblivion

by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
New Vessel, 290 pp., $15.95 (paper)

The Year of the Comet

by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
New Vessel, 245 pp., $17.95 (paper)

The Goose Fritz

by Sergei Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
New Vessel, 319 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Sergei Lebedev
Sergei Lebedev; drawing by Karl Stevens

Not since Alexander Solzhenitsyn has Russia had a writer as obsessed as Sergei Lebedev with that country’s history or the traces it has left on the collective consciousness. Born in 1981, Lebedev grew up in Moscow as the Soviet Union fell apart. His three novels are coming-of-age stories in which a young narrator or hero of his age discovers hidden family histories from the Stalinist era.

In Oblivion, his debut novel, which appeared in Russian in 2011, a young geologist sets out to uncover the biography of a man he knows only as Grandfather II, an important but mysterious presence in his childhood who “lived like a man without a past.” In The Year of the Comet, published in Russian in 2014, the narrator is a young boy whose grandmothers sharpen his view of the last years of the Soviet system, showing him a version of the past not taught in schools. In his latest novel, The Goose Fritz, which appeared last year in Russia, a young historian is inspired by his boyhood visits with his grandmother to Moscow’s German cemetery to research her German-Russian roots. He uncovers a history of repression that climaxes in World War II, which, of all the episodes in Russia’s past, remains to this day the most entangled in the myths of official propaganda.

Like the narrator of Oblivion, Lebedev was trained as a geologist. The excavation of the buried Soviet past runs as a seam throughout his fiction. Oblivion is the most autobiographical of his novels, drawing on his experience as a geologist in the far north of Russia. Flying in a helicopter over the frozen northern Tundra on his way to an expedition, the narrator sees for the first time the outlines of a ruined Gulag camp:

I saw the star-like pattern of logging radiating through the heavy forests, dozens of kilometers of logged forests and the low camp barracks, some still active, some abandoned. I learned more from my impression than I could have read in books; I saw the effect created by the camps, the catastrophic vision of an environment organized in such a way that you could not recognize the evil of it.

From a closer distance he observes the barracks through the mountain fog:

Barely visible through the white mist, they somehow did not seem to belong to a concrete place…. The outlines of the barracks appeared to push the barracks themselves into the background; you couldn’t say you were seeing buildings, human dwellings. The barracks stood like plywood cargo crates in which people were stacked, unnaturally long—this correlation of length and width appears only in coffins.

Concealed from the history books, the traces of the Gulag exist only in geography, scars visible on the landscape.

Grandfather II lives next door to the narrator’s family dacha, where they…


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