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 go for summer holidays. In the old man’s house, the narrator finds a bundle of letters from a northern town, “named for a Bolshevik killed in the mid-1930s,” which had grown from the Gulag. Following his suspicions, the narrator travels to the “papier-mâché town,” whose unreal nature is wonderfully evoked:
There were houses, stores, streets, trees, intersections, and streetlights—but it was inherently ephemeral; the town existed as long as the ore lasted next to it; of itself, without the ore, it meant nothing. It did not arise at a focus point of historical fates, or at the crossroads of trade and military interests, but near a giant pocket of land from which riches could be mined; it was created according to the will of the regime that moved thousands of workers to the north, it grew out of barracks, temporary huts, and that spirit had not dissipated: stale, uninhabited, the spirit of a new construction, of a workshop, oiled rags, and rotting pipes.
Drinking with some old miners, the narrator mentions the name of Grandfather II and is told that he was the former warden of the prison camp, the tyrannical master of 15,000 prisoners, all slave laborers in the mine. The kind old man he remembers from his childhood oversaw the guards’ random killings of prisoners and worked the prisoners to exhaustion, sending those too weak to work to an island in the river, where they were simply left to die. The narrator travels to the island and falls into a pit, in which he makes out human parts half dissolved in the permafrost: “What I had taken for tree roots were arms; the dead flesh had taken on the color of the earth and you could recognize it only by its shape.”
In The Goose Fritz, the underground motif returns in the form of the “Metro of the Dead,” a haunted subterranean world imagined by Kirill, the novel’s young hero:
He must have heard rumors about the secret Metro lines that led from the Kremlin to Stalin’s dacha, Blizhnyaya; heard whispers of the military bunkers beneath Moscow.
Those rumors turned into the image of a different, upside-down Moscow that could be reached through the Lenin Mausoleum or other inconspicuous stations—a Moscow in which corpses rode eternally in ghost trains along ghostly rails, penetrating stone, and the trains were very old, with cushioned seats and yellow paneling, the ones that were living out their days on the old lines.
Who the dead were and why they were doomed to travel underground, unlike his great-grandmother who slept honestly in her grave, Kirill did not know.
Toward the end of his research into his German ancestors, Kirill goes to Volgograd, previously named Stalingrad, to look for traces of his great-uncle, who, he thought, had participated in the battle for that city in 1942–1943. He meets a friend from school who now works in Volgograd’s department of culture, and who tells him after a few drinks:
Do you know how many bombs and shells they are still digging out? The earth is still exploding, the military metal is only slightly covered over. The postwar city is above, the prewar one with its cellars is below. They touch sometimes. They meet. And then the sparks begin. The old capsules come alive. Truth surfaces.
The Goose Fritz is a family saga. With his skills as a historian, Kirill unpeels the layers of his grandmother’s hidden family past—the Schmidts and Schwerdts, who had come to Russia in the eighteenth century to serve the tsars and aristocracy as physicians, midshipmen, engineers, and officials, some of them converting to Russian Orthodoxy to promote their careers. After the outbreak of World War I, especially from the revolution of 1917, this elite German lineage was best concealed. The class hatreds of the revolution found an easy victim in the foreigner, symbolized by the German and the Jew. No amount of support for the Bolsheviks could save some of them, like Arseny Schwerdt, Kirill’s great-grandfather, an army doctor who sided with the revolutionaries. He was arrested in 1937, never to be seen again.
In 1945 Kirill’s grandmother married a Russian, and changed her name from the German-sounding Karolina Schwerdt to become Lina Vesnyanskaya in her Soviet documents. For many years she did not visit her grandfather’s grave in the German cemetery. She was afraid, as she tells her grandson,
that someone would see me by the grave and realize that I was Schwerdt and not Vesnyanskaya. Many years… The grave was overgrown. After the war no one took care of the cemetery. At night bandits hung out in the vaults. In the daytime there were hoodlums. People were afraid to go there. I wanted it to be like that forever. So that the monument would sink into the earth. So that the word Schwerdt would disappear.
Under Stalin’s tyranny the deliberate concealment of a “spoiled biography” (as anyone with foreign, noble, bourgeois, or “kulak” origins could be described) was a common strategy for survival. People continued to disguise their true identity for years, many well into the 1990s, when the fear of repression began to subside for Lina’s generation, although many took their secret to the grave. It was also not unusual for people with a history of arrested relatives to hide it from their children, so as not to burden them with the same stigma or alienate them from the Soviet system, in which they would thus be free to forge a new identity as fully equal Soviet citizens.
In Lebedev’s novels the family is revealed as a complex web of secrets and forbidden memories. The grandmothers hold the key to this hidden history. In The Goose Fritz, it is Grandmother Lina who takes Kirill to the German cemetery, tells him stories from her own childhood, and gives him information he will later use to learn more about her origins. She does not let on to his parents what she tells him at the cemetery:
He realized she wanted to give him time to process the new information without general conversation and discussion; to his surprise, he recognized that he did not want to share what he had learned, as if while the facts belonged to them all, they had a deeper meaning for him alone.
Grandmothers played a special part in the Soviet family, taking primary responsibility for the upbringing of the children if both parents worked, as was usually the case, or if there was a working mother on her own. As the poet Vladimir Kornilov wrote of the 1930s and 1940s:
It seemed that in our years there were no mothers.
There were only grandmothers.
The influence of the grandmother continued to be felt throughout the Soviet period. She told children stories that in time could serve as a moral counterweight to the propaganda taught in schools.
In The Year of the Comet, the unnamed boy narrator, whose overbusy parents are seismic geologists, is largely brought up by Grandmother Tanya and Grandmother Mara, the only major characters with names. They are affectionate in ways his distant and strictly Soviet parents aren’t, showering him with the uncomplicated love they have stored up since the loss of their husbands—one disappeared in the war, the other died ten years later from the wounds he received in the fighting. Grandmother Tanya, a retired typesetter, is so hard of hearing that
to have a conversation you had to put your arm around her and speak into her ear. Later, as an adult, I realized that my special attachment to her, aside from other reasons, was the result of those embraces as we talked.
Grandmother Mara, who had been a maid, a warehouse keeper, and a seamstress, now lives like her peasant forefathers on the family’s dacha plot:
She liked lipstick and kisses, she liked sweets. She always had candies in a bowl, chocolates and caramels with jam filling. My family considered sweets excessive, an indulgence that ruined not only teeth but character and attitude, the start of spiritual decay…. Only Grandmother Mara lived as if we had earned all this—chocolate, cake, candy, halvah, caramel, marmalade, meringue—just by surviving, by being born despite the war, destruction, and hunger, and therefore, we should celebrate and sweeten every day.
From his grandmothers the young narrator learns some basic principles—to be true to himself and never lie to others—rooted in the Christian values of the prerevolutionary world. These ideas enable him “to maintain some moral mystery inside [himself], a hidden moral life.” The narrative is set in 1986, the year of Halley’s comet. When the boy learns that Grandmother Tanya was alive the last time the comet appeared, in 1910, his world is shattered by the thought that anybody living could have been alive before 1917:
I had been certain that everyone alive was a child of the USSR. All the elderly, no matter how old, were the old people of a new time begun by the revolution and aged by that time…real history, my history and the history of my family, began in 1917.
The revelation prepares him to delve into the Soviet Union’s hidden past—a quest symbolized by his leafing through the entries of a 1920s edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia at his family’s dacha and stumbling on the names of Bukharin and Piatakov, Bolsheviks erased from the history books in 1937–1938. He wants to know about his ancestors, the long-dead people in the photographs in his grandmother’s room, and finds himself in growing conflict with his parents, who live, as many Soviet people of their generation did, in fear and denial of history, finding their stability in the here and now:
As soon as I began thinking of my grandfathers and feeling I was their descendant, the grandson in me started arguing with the son.
On those rare occasions when the grandson won wholly and fully, when I heard the tense silence of the wall of photographs in Grandmother Tanya’s room, when we picked through the grains and I thought every grain in Grandmother’s fingers was telling her something, my parents—as if an invisible power were transforming them—became strangers; the ones on the side of silence; my foes.
They had shut the door to the past and limited themselves to this day.
In Lebedev’s fiction, the desire to confront the Soviet past comes with a sense of being burdened by its crimes. In Oblivion, the narrator travels to the island because he wants to atone for the sins of Grandfather II, whose blood runs in his own veins. The former Gulag boss had saved his life after he had been attacked by a dog near the family dacha while his parents were away. The dog bit the boy’s throat, and Grandfather II killed it and rushed him to the hospital. Despite warnings from the doctors, the old man gave his own blood for a transfusion, dying shortly afterward as a result. His death occurred on August 21, 1991, just at the moment when the tanks rolled past the hospital on their way to Moscow in the failed putsch that brought the Soviet Union crashing down (a perhaps deliberate echo of Midnight’s Children, in which the narrator is born at the exact moment of India’s partition and independence). “The break in our lives,” reflects the narrator, “coincided with a tectonic shift in history”:
I thought that Grandfather II had not died completely, that he had passed into me, and that when I stood by his grave the two separated parts of Grandfather II’s soul encountered one another, one unsatisfied and the other I carried under my heart like a fetus.
The inheritance of blood. The inheritance of sins. This is what his fiction is about: the haunting of the Russian present by the Soviet past; the passing down of unconscious fears through generations; the collective act of forgetting traumatic or inconvenient memories. Forgetting is sometimes necessary for people to live, to overcome the suffering of their history, as the hero of The Goose Fritz comes to think:
Kirill was afraid that if he went down the family tree even into the 1930s, to the torture cellars reeking of blood, he would learn something that would take away his right to determine his own life, make him one of the men—he had met a few—who were killed alive by the terrible truths of the past, appearing to others as ghosts of conscience, forced to sacrifice themselves to expiate the sins of their father.
The Goose Fritz is the most historical of Lebedev’s novels, more ambitious in its scope and structure but less poetic than his earlier works. Their prose is rich in textures, colors, sounds, and visual details, wonderfully rendered into English by Antonina W. Bouis, who has translated all three books, but there are only glimpses of this stylish writing in his latest work—in the opening pages, for example, where Lebedev describes a thunderstorm:
In the morning, when the storm has passed, the beaten grass around the barrel reveals the overflow of the night: the shriveling flakes of foam, the blossoms washed to fatal translucency. The carp will float white belly up, death depriving them of the only dignity of creatures—being properly positioned in space.
Covering three hundred years of history, The Goose Fritz is weighed down by names, dates, and historical references, which will be unfamiliar to English readers (especially since there are no explanatory notes). There is a sense that Lebedev is trying to show too much of his research, to squeeze into his family saga the most famous episodes of Soviet history (the revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, the Battle of Stalingrad). His characters are less alive than those in his earlier novels because they are subordinate to the historical events, which they serve to illustrate. There is a long and awkward discourse—put into the head of Kirill as he works in the archives—on the origins of the Soviet totalitarian system, which he fancifully traces back to the anti-German mass hysteria following the exposure of some German spies in the tsarist government in the middle of World War I:
Leafing through the government anti-German documents, Kirill saw the birth of totalitarianism in Russia—before the Bolsheviks came to power. He saw how a repressive state arose, how the public was willing to praise terror, keep looking for “aliens,” turncoats, agents of evil who were the cause of all the country’s ills….
If not for the history of spymania in the last years of the empire, it was not clear why people in the Stalin era slid so easily into the madness of mutual denunciations, approving mass arrests and demanding bigger and more frequent executions of “enemies of the people.”
There is a tradition of long and weighty historical discourses in the Russian novel, stretching back to Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and the final—often unread—sections of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In The Goose Fritz, Lebedev, like them, has built a philosophical structure to define the meaning of his narrative. The framework is too obvious, the author’s presence too visible, his message all too clear, whereas in his earlier novels we had seen only nature and humanity, history appearing as a shadow whose forms and meanings could be read in many different ways. Lebedev is arguably the best of Russia’s younger generation of writers. Let us hope that he returns to the subtler effects of Oblivion, the finest of his novels.