In reading my way through Russian history, alternating fiction with nonfiction, I’ve finally gotten around to a fat paperback I’ve had for a couple of decades, Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (Russian text online here). For some reason I hadn’t been very interested in reading it; I knew it had caused a sensation when it came out, but I had the idea that it wasn’t sufficiently “literary” for me. Well, it’s true that Rybakov is no Nabokov, nor does he try to be; his model is War and Peace, and while he’s not Tolstoy either, he’s a great storyteller, and his panorama of Soviet life in 1933-34, ranging from Stalin (who is portrayed as intimately and convincingly as Lenin is in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914) through various levels of functionaries down to “little people” enduring interrogations and exile in Siberia (and their relatives trying to find out where they’ve gone and get letters and parcels to them), is brilliantly done (and presents a loving portrait of the Arbat district of Moscow, where the author himself grew up). By the time I was a few chapters in I was totally gripped; it’s a good thing I had no pressing work, because I would have neglected it, and it’s also a good thing I ordered the second volume of the trilogy and got it in record time, because the first one ends on a cliffhanger. In this post I said “I would tell anyone interested in Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s to read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, the classic factual account, and Serge’s novel [The Case of Comrade Tulayev], which will make you feel what it was like”; I can now add Rybakov to my recommendations. The translation is quite good, with a few inevitable bloopers: on page 31 “I worked in a factory in Frunze [now Bishkek]” should be “I worked in the Frunze Factory [in Moscow, as is made clear a few pages later],” and on page 364 “in the nearby side streets of the Zaryad, by the town houses on Glebov Street” should read “in the nearby side streets of Zaryadye, by the Glebov Townhouse” [the latter being a famous inn, the Glebovskoye Podvorye (Глебовское подворье), the center of Jewish life in downtown Moscow; there was no Glebov Street there]. (On page 391 a brief discussion of Siberian dialect words is omitted, but I can’t really find fault with that.) Here, from pages 440-41, is an example of the kind of eye-opening exposition that makes the novel so valuable:

“…There’s sabotage everywhere, sabotage of tractors, combines, threshing machines, binders — sabotage everywhere. Is it really true? Are they really breaking everything on purpose? Who’s causing the damage? The kolkhozniks? Why should they? It turns out there’s no other answer for it: for hundreds of years our peasants have known only one piece of machinery, and that was the ax. Now we’ve put them to work on tractors and combine harvesters; we’ve given them trucks to drive, and they break them because they don’t understand them, because they are not trained, because they are ignorant in the technological and every other sense. So what can we do? Wait until the countryside becomes technically literate and overcomes its ancient backwardness? Wait until the peasants change the character it has taken them centuries to form? And meanwhile should we let them break the machinery and let them learn on it that way? We cannot condemn our machinery to demolition and destruction; it has cost us too much blood to get it. Nor can we wait — the capitalist countries will strangle us. We’ve only one method, it’s a difficult one, but it’s the only one, and that’s fear. Fear embodied in the single word wrecker. You damaged a tractor, it means you’re a wrecker, you get ten years. For a mowing machine or binder it’s also ten years. So now the peasant begins to think, he scratches his head, he starts to take care of his tractor, he gives a bottle to someone who may know just a fraction about machinery — show me, help me, save me. A few days ago I was strolling along the riverbank and I noticed a kid sitting in his motorboat and he’s crying: ‘I pulled the string, something broke, the motor won’t start, I’ll get five years for it.’ It was a very simple, primitive motor. I opened the lid and saw that a small lever had come loose, so I tightened it up and the motor started. But that boy would have been sentenced for damaging the motor, for sabotaging the plan for fish supply or something like that. That’s how they do things in the courts. And there’s no other way: we’re saving the machinery, saving our industry, saving our country and its future. Why don’t they do this in the West? I’ll tell you why. We manufactured our first tractor in nineteen thirty, but in the West they made their first one in eighteen thirty, a full hundred years before us. They’ve got generations of experience; there the tractor is private property and the owner looks after it. Here, property belongs to the state, so it has to be looked after by state methods.”

One thing I’ve always wondered about is how intelligent people who were part of the system of terror justified it to themselves, and this explanation, put in the mouth of a thoughtful NKVD officer, is very convincing; I’m sure people said more or less exactly that many times.
And now I’m off to read the sequel, Fear!


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    in the West they made their first one in eighteen thirty, a full hundred years before us. They’ve got generations of experience; there the tractor is private property and the owner looks after it.
    And in the West after 1830, too, there was machine-wrecking, sometimes deliberate, sometimes on account of ignorance and lack of training, and the owner–landlord, capitalist–likewise exacted punishment, though not on the same scale or of the same severity. (E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class is decades old by now but I don’t think subsequent work has completely demolished the basic outlines of how the English peasantry was turned into an industrial proletariat within a couple of generations.) I don’t mean the Soviet authorities had no choice, once they’d opted for rapid “primary accumulation” under threat of attack, but to employ the means they did; of course they had alternatives, some of which might even have accomplished the same project more efficiently as well as less inhumanely. But this quote from Rybakov does, I agree, capture the thought process that must have seemed, to many, like simple and inexorable logic, with terror as its logical outcome.

  2. Very interesting quote. I could honestly see myself being convinced by this argument if I were in the same position even though the outcome is clearly terrible. I’m not very well versed in Soviet history but it seems like these conclusions were reached simply because there was a high level of national pride assumed, as if the country wasn’t successful unless they were beating other countries.
    On a language note, is there some peculiarality about Russian that would cause someone to confuse the name of a townhouse with the name of a street that includes many townhouses?

  3. It must have been difficult to translate подворье because the word is pretty archaic, surviving mostly in the arcane language of the church. I was quite surprised to see it translated as “townhouse” (aka row-house in real estate lexicon?) – does the word “townhouse” also mean “merchant’s compound”? I guess in Hanseatic cities these residential-and-warehouse compounds really were townhouses, with a pulley by the attic to lift bales of goods. But the Russian подворье is derived from the word “courtyard”; it’s also residence and business at the same time, but more commonly a cluster of low-slung buildings than a Western four-level baroque row-house.
    One of Rybakov’s fav topics was a conflict between “good locals” and “evil invaders”, the locals in this case being the children of old traditional neighborhoods of this town of seven hills. Therefore, the archaic place-names fit the subject perfectly. Especially fitting is a reference to Zaryad’ye, a neighborhood which had been completely demolished half a century ago, except for a handful of подворье compounds still left standing in the shadow of a monstrous hotel, where a popular movie theater kept the name “Zaryad’e”. Therefore, every Muscovite of Rybakov’e era readily identified the word Zaryad’ye with the world of old extinguished neighborhoods of traditional Moscow.

  4. this explanation, put in the mouth of a thoughtful NKVD officer, is very convincing;
    I’m sure it was, if you shared the disdain for the peasantry that was (arguably still is) common among urban elites. The “kulaks”, and there were many of them, oddly didn’t go around sabotaging their own personal equipment in the 1920s. And there also wasn’t much “sabotage” prior to 1918, although there was a great deal of machinery coming into Russia in the late 19th century. But that is a great passage – on the one hand it is just horrifically false as a description of what was really happening in the Soviet Union, but probably 100% correct as a reflection of how people actually justified their inhuman actions to themselves.

  5. Interestingly, Rybakov established himself as a children’s adventure writer in 1940s and even got a Stalin’s Prize. His ‘Kortik’ (Dagger) and ‘The Bronze Bird’ about adventures of two boys during and after the Russian Civil War have long been top teenage read in Russia/USSR. I’ve recently re-read them (to retell my children) and admired the solid plot construction.
    I am glad you liked the novel, it is an important work that deserves more recognition. His style is deceptively simple, he doesn’t play with words or the turn of phrase, but the depth of characterisation and its succinctness is absolutely astonishing.

  6. I’m sure it was
    I hope it’s clear that I meant “convincing” in the sense “a convincing rendition of what such people thought.”
    His style is deceptively simple, he doesn’t play with words or the turn of phrase, but the depth of characterisation and its succinctness is absolutely astonishing.
    Exactly, and thanks for the recommendation of ‘Kortik’ and ‘The Bronze Bird’; I’ll have to give them a try.

  7. Trond Engen says

    MOCKBA: But the Russian подворье is derived from the word “courtyard”; it’s also residence and business at the same time, but more commonly a cluster of low-slung buildings than a Western four-level baroque row-house.
    Scandinavian gård, cognate with Eng yard, is the generic word for “farm”, “backyard”, “apartment building(s sharing a backyard)” and “commercial building”. In Sweden modern police stations are called Polisgården.
    I wonder how common this is cross-linguistically. Is it special for us recently urbanized North-Eastern Barbarians? (But I probably shouldn’t read too much into it — it’s a simple extension of the meaning “yard” … “court” … “Hof”.)

  8. In my reading of Anna Karenina, I just got to the following passage (I’m reading in Russian, but I’ll quote the Garnett translation; it’s the start of III:24), which reminded me of the Rybakov quote in the post:

    The night spent by Levin on the haycock did not pass without result for him. The way in which he had been managing his land revolted him and had lost all attraction for him. In spite of the magnificent harvest, never had there been, or, at least, never it seemed to him, had there been so many hindrances and so many quarrels between him and the peasants as that year, and the origin of these failures and this hostility was now perfectly comprehensible to him. The delight he had experienced in the work itself, and the consequent greater intimacy with the peasants, the envy he felt of them, of their life, the desire to adopt that life, which had been to him that night not a dream but an intention, the execution of which he had thought out in detail—all this had so transformed his view of the farming of the land as he had managed it, that he could not take his former interest in it, and could not help seeing that unpleasant relation between him and the workpeople which was the foundation of it all. The herd of improved cows such as Pava, the whole land ploughed over and enriched, the nine level fields surrounded with hedges, the two hundred and forty acres heavily manured, the seed sown in drills, and all the rest of it—it was all splendid if only the work had been done for themselves, or for themselves and comrades—people in sympathy with them. But he saw clearly now (his work on a book of agriculture, in which the chief element in husbandry was to have been the laborer, greatly assisted him in this) that the sort of farming he was carrying on was nothing but a cruel and stubborn struggle between him and the laborers, in which there was on one side—his side—a continual intense effort to change everything to a pattern he considered better; on the other side, the natural order of things. And in this struggle he saw that with immense expenditure of force on his side, and with no effort or even intention on the other side, all that was attained was that the work did not go to the liking of either side, and that splendid tools, splendid cattle and land were spoiled with no good to anyone. Worst of all, the energy expended on this work was not simply wasted. He could not help feeling now, since the meaning of this system had become clear to him, that the aim of his energy was a most unworthy one. In reality, what was the struggle about? He was struggling for every farthing of his share (and he could not help it, for he had only to relax his efforts, and he would not have had the money to pay his laborers’ wages), while they were only struggling to be able to do their work easily and agreeably, that is to say, as they were used to doing it. It was for his interests that every laborer should work as hard as possible, and that while doing so he should keep his wits about him, so as to try not to break the winnowing machines, the horse rakes, the thrashing machines, that he should attend to what he was doing. What the laborer wanted was to work as pleasantly as possible, with rests, and above all, carelessly and heedlessly, without thinking. That summer Levin saw this at every step. He sent the men to mow some clover for hay, picking out the worst patches where the clover was overgrown with grass and weeds and of no use for seed; again and again they mowed the best acres of clover, justifying themselves by the pretense that the bailiff had told them to, and trying to pacify him with the assurance that it would be splendid hay; but he knew that it was owing to those acres being so much easier to mow. He sent out a hay machine for pitching the hay—it was broken at the first row because it was dull work for a peasant to sit on the seat in front with the great wings waving above him. And he was told, “Don’t trouble, your honor, sure, the womenfolks will pitch it quick enough.” The ploughs were practically useless, because it never occurred to the laborer to raise the share when he turned the plough, and forcing it round, he strained the horses and tore up the ground, and Levin was begged not to mind about it. The horses were allowed to stray into the wheat because not a single laborer would consent to be night-watchman, and in spite of orders to the contrary, the laborers insisted on taking turns for night duty, and Ivan, after working all day long, fell asleep, and was very penitent for his fault, saying, “Do what you will to me, your honor.”

    They killed three of the best calves by letting them into the clover aftermath without care as to their drinking, and nothing would make the men believe that they had been blown out by the clover, but they told him, by way of consolation, that one of his neighbors had lost a hundred and twelve head of cattle in three days. All this happened, not because anyone felt ill-will to Levin or his farm; on the contrary, he knew that they liked him, thought him a simple gentleman (their highest praise); but it happened simply because all they wanted was to work merrily and carelessly, and his interests were not only remote and incomprehensible to them, but fatally opposed to their most just claims. Long before, Levin had felt dissatisfaction with his own position in regard to the land. He saw where his boat leaked, but he did not look for the leak, perhaps purposely deceiving himself. (Nothing would be left him if he lost faith in it.) But now he could deceive himself no longer. The farming of the land, as he was managing it, had become not merely unattractive but revolting to him, and he could take no further interest in it.

    Lyovin’s answer was to give up and let the peasants go back to the old ways, not to start shooting people, but he was dealing with the same problem.

  9. SFReader says

    The question of the technological gap between Russia and the West always interested me.

    It’s complex and not straightforward issue – in some cases, the gap between invention in the West and adoption in Russia is a few years, in some cases it’s decades.

    Very difficult to figure out why.

    In case of tractors, Rybakov (or his Communist character) is lying – the tractors of 19 century were steam-powered tractors, they were expensive, certainly not common and failed to have any wide ranging impact on agriculture – and Russia of course imported them immediately and had small domestic industry which manufactured them – back in 19th century.

    But tractors which Russia had started making in 1930 were modern, diesel tractors and they were invented in the West in 1917.

    13 years

  10. SFReader says

    An example of Western technology which took embarrassingly long time to adopt – denim textile which is used to make jeans.

    mid19th century American invention which Soviet textile industry tried, but failed to replicate in 1970-1980s.

  11. Oh, in the 8 years that passed I learned a lot more about the original Jewish ghetto of the XIX c. Moscow, and about the narrow meaning of the word подворье in the official lingo of Moscow city administration in those years.

    Although generally a “residential-commercial compound”, in the period Moscow podvor’ye more narrowly meant “a guesthouse”. They were located in the business district East of the Kremlin (where Glebovskoe Podvor’ye was located as well), and typically linked with charity causes (some of the best known guesthouses belonged to the monasteries).

    “Glebov’s Yard” at Znamensky lane was no exception. Its original owner, a certain Glebov, went blind at the end of his life, and deeded his property for guesthouse conversion with the proceeds to finance an eye clinic. By 1826, the first visiting Jews were directed to stay at Glebov’s, and in time, the two-story property has become all-Jewish. Like most lower-ranking guesthouses, it gradually evolved into a slum-like tenement (while the best ones converted into regular hotels).

    You can see its pictures here:

  12. … and the map is here … you can see it was an oblong yard opening to Znamensky lane to the North, and with some imagination it might have been called “a miniature street”

    the added details in the link explain that Dmitry Glebov, a poet and a translator (!), contributed to three charitable causes: stipends for 10 girls in a shelter, beds for 5 patients in a hospital, and an eye clinic

    PS Scandinavian gård, cognate with Eng yard
    and of course Russian “gorod” city

  13. Great information, thanks!

  14. Dmitry Pruss says

    And of course Levin’s peasants were simply disinterested and lacked old fashioned economic motivation to embrace new ways. While the ca. 1930 “tractorists” in the USSR were well-paid, per unit of work, and highly respected as the standard-bearers of the Communist agenda. I used to spend summers in a 1930’s tractor-driver’s compound, it was the best one in the village, and everyone spoke in awe of the days when the farm work still earned cash and fame. The tractor manufacturing was a dual-purpose industry in any case, a military-industrial complex’s darling spec’d from the get-go to accommodate manufacturing of the heavier-frame tanks, and of course Russia was always more nimble with copy-catting military technologies than with civilian industries or agriculture.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Kalashnikov actually wanted to design agricultural machines…

Speak Your Mind