Bykov’s Justification.

After I finished Margarita Khemlin’s Дознаватель (The Investigator; see this post), I turned to a novel I’d been anticipating for years, Alexander Chudakov’s 2000 Ложится мгла на старые ступени [A gloom is cast upon the ancient steps (a quote from a 1902 Blok poem)], which won the only Booker of the Decade prize ever awarded. As is sadly often the case when I’ve been eagerly looking forward to a book, it was a disappointment — not that it was bad, mind you, but it wasn’t what I wanted. As I told Lizok (the usual recipient of my complaints), “it seems like a standard-issue intelligentsia memoir/novel, with too many relatives to keep track of… There were some good anecdotes, but it was basically just one damn thing after another.” So I gave up after a hundred pages or so and turned to Dmitry Bykov’s first novel, Оправдание [Justification]; having loved his second, Орфография [Orthography], when I read it fifteen years ago (see the links at the start of this post), I was pretty sure I’d enjoy it, and indeed I did.

But it was a bumpy experience. To quote another e-mail to Lizok:

At first it was moving along at a nice pace and kind of reminded me of the Strugatskys, except with a mystery set in the past rather than the future. Then it settled into a quest narrative and it took me a while to adjust. Then it looked like a big chunk was going to be told from the perspective of an Isaac Babel who survived the camps, and I was irritated (I don’t mind Famous People showing up as furniture, so to speak, in historical novels — “Hey, isn’t that Pushkin over there?” — but I don’t like novelists trying to write from inside their heads), but then it turned out it was the main viewpoint character, Rogov, trying to imagine Babel’s experience, so that was all right (and it didn’t last too long), and now Rogov is in a situation reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and I don’t know where Bykov is going with it…

The basic idea (and this is not a spoiler, since it is manifested early on and is what people know about the novel if they know anything at all) is that Stalin’s Terror was not about punishment, it was a filtering system to create a group of supermen — if they could resist six months of torture, they would be the kind of people who could save Russia in the war Stalin knew was coming and help him build a new society. This was not a new concept (as Bykov says, Alexandre Kojève had said something similar decades earlier), but Bykov uses it brilliantly, starting with his young protagonist, the historian Rogov, finding clues that point in that direction and eventually, in 1996, going off to Siberia to try to locate the camp where his grandfather and other survivors had supposedly been held for a decade. Bykov keeps setting traps for readers, pulling the rug out from under their feet over and over again, and by the time I got to the end I was very glad of the experience. (Bykov said a few years ago that though it got terrible reviews when it came out, it is the reading public’s favorite of his novels, “probably because it’s the shortest.”)

Justification is a prime example of what Alexander Etkind calls “magical historicism” (see his chapter of that name in Russian Literature since 1991): “Full of transcendental interventions and extra-corporeal engagements, the post-Soviet novel does not emulate social reality and does not compete with the psychological novel; what it emulates, and struggles with, is history.” Not knowing what to do with the horrors of Soviet history, freshly revealed during glasnost, some post-Soviet writers rewrote history to make them mean something else. He says Viktor Pelevin theorized this (in his 1990 essay “Zombification”), and of course his novels Omon Ra (post) and Chapaev and Pustota (post) are early examples; others that occurred to me are Sharov’s The Rehearsals (post) and Girshovich’s Прайс [Prais] (the title character is the young artist Leonid Prais), which though it was published in 1998 was written in the early ’80s (Girshovich said the idea came to him when he heard about the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: “I immediately knew the Soviet empire was doomed”). In Girshovich’s novel, the Jews are sent to a newly created autonomous region in Siberia in 1953 and, cut off from the rest of the world, they know nothing about it when Soviet power collapses a decade later, replaced by a nationalist dictatorship, and they carry on a degraded but lively version of Soviet life. That separate community is reminiscent of both the endlessly rehearsing religious group in Sharov and the frightening cultic village Rogov stumbles into in Bykov, and of course there’s a real-life analogue in the Old Believer groups that remained hidden in the Soviet backwoods for decades.

Cheekily but usefully, Bykov writes about his own novel in the last essay in his Лекции по русской литературе XX века [Lectures in Russian literature of the 20th century], and explains that it arose from his struggle with his own guilty attraction to Soviet life (he actually thought of joining the Communist Party in 1991 out of a perverse nonconformism, but was dissuaded by his beloved mentor Nonna Slepakova). That explains the moral and emotional intensity that the reader feels pulsing behind the clever narration and that gives the novel its power; I’m surprised it hasn’t been translated into English (though there is a French version — Olivier Rubinstein told him “They wouldn’t curse a book so badly if it was no good, so I’ll take it”), but then hardly any Bykov exists in English. Maybe now that his opposition to Putin is in the news, he (like Sorokin) will get more attention over here.


  1. Incidentally, I learned a new word from the novel: турслёт [turslyót], which is short for туристический слёт ‘tourist gathering’ but seems to mean something more like ‘outdoor event.’ If my Russian-speaking readers can give me a better sense of how it’s used, I’ll be grateful.

  2. David Marjanović says

    a newly created autonomous region in Siberia in 1953

    So not the one that was created in 1928?

  3. Incidentally, I learned a new word from the novel: турслёт [turslyót], which is short for туристический слёт ‘tourist gathering’ but seems to mean something more like ‘outdoor event.’

    No insights, examples, or tips here but what a great word!

  4. So not the one that was created in 1928?

    No, this one is in the Far North.

  5. турслёт

    New to me too. Just from the form of it I would have guessed that it is a Soviet bureaucratism for “gathering of tourists” which in Soviet times meant mostly hikers, campers, alpinists and such. Which is confirmed by wiktionary. But a quick look at the Russian national corpus shows only 4 citations, all from 21c. Among them, 3 happened during some corporate events and at least 2 have some competition component. Strangely, in 1980s I participated in one such event (not being a “tourist”, mind). It was some work-organized gathering with various sporting activities like foot orienteering and kayaking. If it was called турслёт, I have forgotten it completely.

  6. Surprised that nobody expounded on турслёт yet. Been to dozens of those, for the sake of brevity usually just called слёт, literally “flying together to the same spot” , meaning jamboree / campfire gathering. Colleges and neighborhood outdoor clubs organized the more formal ones, there were less formal ones too. Slyots were usually weekend-long, ostensibly dedicated to outdoor sports, but in practice more a anarchic kind of a place for illegal songs, free mixing between sexes, sleepless nights with the friends by the fire and booze. Many Galich songs are forever associated in my memory with the slyots where I heard them first. Nighttime skinnydipping is another fav memory. The most famous backwood slyot venues near Moscow were affectionately renamed to underscore their devil-may-care reputation: станция Скоротово -> “Скоро того” ~~ “About to lose our minds”, станция Хотьково -> “Хоть кого” ~~ “Nobody can mess with us”.
    There is a continuing слёт tradition in the US, largely under the umbrella of kspus /, they are mostly about a cultural happening, not just songs but also amateur skits etc. I’ve only been to a few of those but some friends are frequent slyot-goers.

    The тур part of the word is for tourist which is somewhat of a false friend of a translator, meaning more specifically an overnight camper / a tent dweller in Russian

    BTW I added a handful more tango translations in recent days which is always a good reason to include the link )

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Первый туристический слёт в школе был проведён в 1967 году.
    So I would guess people used the longer form in writing (or the 1967 tursljot was called something else).

  8. Dmitry Pruss: Thanks very much, what a great explanation!

  9. this has me thinking about post-soviet anglophone writing that makes more sense to think of as “magical historicism” than in other genre categories: paul goldberg’s The Yid, first of all (though it’s an interstices-of-history novel, not an altered-history novel).

    and that’s going to make me think about whether it’s a useful rubric for a whole zone of yiddish (and what i’d call post-yiddish anglophone) cultural work – including some pre-soviet writing (the tevye stories, for instance) as well as soviet (perets markish’s Fertsikyeriker Man, maybe?) and post-soviet (elana dykewomon z”l’s Beyond the Pale; judith katz’s The Escape Artist; and i suppose Everything Is Illuminated and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union if we must).

  10. Yes, I immediately thought of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

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