Fedin’s Cities and Years.

Having finished Bulgakov’s The White Guard (see this post), I decided to stay with the year 1924 and read Konstantin Fedin’s Города и годы (Cities and Years), which I got for a buck last year; like the Bulgakov, it’s not a very good novel, but it’s got interesting bits and relates oddly to official Soviet fiction, so I’m posting about it. Happily, Sovlit.net has a chapter-by-chapter plot description that will save me some trouble: I’ll refer you to that for the details of how Fedin plays with chronology and confine myself to more general points.

The novel consists of several more or less incompatible genres (or, if you’re feeling Bakhtinian, chronotopes) mashed together, which is one reason it isn’t a success. The first the reader encounters is the mystery: why is this guy yelling out his window, what is this rambling letter about, and whoa, why does he get shot? Yes, the protagonist’s death is revealed in the opening chapter: modernism! But we won’t find out why for a long time.

The second is the literary novel. Fedin was a Serapion Brother and thus addicted to literary analysis of an academic nature; like his fellow Brother Yury Tynyanov he felt compelled to ditch boring, traditional elements that kept the reader engaged on a primitive level and make something New to match the new world of Soviet Russia, and unfortunately, as with Tynyanov’s Смерть Вазир-Мухтара (The Death of the Vazir-mukhtar), “the result is … lacking in inner truth, smacking of ‘literature.’” Since he doesn’t bother to make the characters “real” in the boring old Tolstoyan way, the reader doesn’t much care about them and their entanglements.

The third is melodrama. The plot, reduced to its most basic elements, is that Andrei and Max (Margrave von zur Mühlen-Schönau) are both in love with Marie, but neither knows about the other; meanwhile Andrei’s best friend, the German painter Kurt Wahn, hates Max because Max, a rich and possessive lover of art, is subsidizing Kurt but insisting on not only buying up everything he paints but keeping it stashed away in his crumbling Bavarian castle. When World War One breaks out, Andrei is interned as an enemy alien (as was Fedin himself) and spends a couple of years canoodling with Marie before trying to escape and being caught by Max, who could turn him in and let him be executed but takes a liking to him and spares him. Kurt goes off to fight on the Eastern Front, becomes a Bolshevik, and is captured but freed by the Bolshevik Revolution. Max, also sent to fight, is also captured and interned in the invented town Semidol somewhere in Mordovia, where he joins a group of Germans who are trying to start a revolt among the Mordvins and somehow fight their way back to Germany. Kurt and Andrei somehow also wind up there as part of the local Bolshevik leadership, and Andrei somehow winds up getting involved with a local woman named Rita; when the revolt is discovered, Andrei is supposed to kill Max but instead helps him escape and take a letter to his love Marie in Germany. Max, having discovered that Andrei is his rival, delivers the letter but tells Marie about Rita — “If you don’t believe me, go to Russia and see for yourself.” She does, she discovers it’s true, and flees; the appalled Andrei flees Rita and their baby, goes mad, and is eventually killed by Kurt for failing in his Bolshevik duty. All of that might make for a great opera, but it feels a little silly in a novel.

And then there’s the political novel, showing the impact of the Revolution on the petty individual fates of those caught up in it; this is, of course, the mandatory trope of socialist realism, and one is surprised to find so little of it in the novel. It’s basically an excuse for Kurt to shoot Andrei and have the murder approved by a Bolshevik committee, but one doesn’t get the sense that Fedin was very invested in it. He has a fanatical Bolshevik give a speech about how “we know what we’re doing and everything is clear to us, and if anyone crosses us we destroy them; we know that we can’t reconcile our ideals to reality, we must subject reality to our ideals.” The question is, does Fedin believe this? Since the novel was approved by the authorities (as well as being a popular success), it must have seemed that way, and since Fedin went on to become a despicable literary hack who helped attack Pasternak and kept Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward from being published, it’s certainly plausible… but it doesn’t feel real in the novel, it feels like a pro forma nod to the victorious ideology, and what I as a reader retained is the betrayal of friendship and the crushing of love. I’m somewhat surprised it wasn’t seen that way in the 1920s, but that was a different time.

The best things in the novel are the descriptions of life in Germany before and during the war — Fedin knew it intimately and had a good eye. There are also some interesting language-related bits, and I’ll end with them. In the chapter “Суббота в Семидоле” [Saturday in Semidol], set in 1919, we are told “Покисен сквозь золотые очки строго озирал тесовые домишки и полусгнившие мудреные куполки толстых верей.” [Pokisen, through his golden eyeglasses, looked sternly at the little plank houses and the strange, half-decayed domes of the thick veri.] I can’t figure out what these veri might be; Michael Scammell, who translated the edition I linked to above, renders it “gateposts,” but I have no idea where he came up with that.

In one of the German chapters, set in 1916, we get this amusing passage about patriotic word usage:

It is much more instructive to look, for example, at the Berlin hotelkeepers’ association, which devoted several business meetings to the question of whether “hotels” should be renamed “inns.” In fiery debates, the renaming was rejected because, taking advantage of the absence of intransigent linguists, the innkeepers deemed that Hotel was a word of German origin.

Гораздо поучительнее обратить взоры, например, на берлинский союз содержателей гостиниц, посвятивший несколько деловых собраний обсуждению вопроса о том, следует ли переименовать «отели» в «подворья»? В пламенных дебатах переименование было отвергнуто, потому что, воспользовавшись отсутствием непреклонных лингвистов, содержатели гостиниц признали, что отель — слово немецкого происхождения.

And in the chapter Конец Лепендина [The end of Lependin], set in Semidol, there occurs this instructive example of the problems of trying to combine friendship with Bolshevik manners in the meeting of a revolutionary tribunal:

“Specifically, comrade, what [military resources] can you [formal] provide this morning at seven o’clock?”

“You talkin’ to me [informal]?”

“Well, yeah, you [informal].”

“What the hell you [informal] being formal for? At seven…”

— Конкретно, товарищ, что вы можете выставить сегодня в семь утра?
— Это ты мне?
— Ну да, тебе.
— Какого же черта выкаешь? В семь утра…

On the use of the pronouns, see here and here (both on Anna Karenina), as well as here (on the ideology of Soviet forms of address).


  1. I can’t figure out what these veri might be; Michael Scammell, who translated the edition I linked to above, renders it “gateposts,” but I have no idea where he came up with that.

    Слово «Верея» означает столб, на который навешивается створка ворот.


  2. PlasticPaddy says

    The word is also in Vasmer:
    верея́ «косяк, столб у двери и у ворот»

  3. Thanks to you both — I hate not knowing these things!

  4. David Marjanović says

    von zur

    Should be von und zur, a kind of double nobility.

  5. Yup, but that’s what Fedin used. I guess he didn’t hang out with enough margraves.

  6. Or (come to think of it) it may be a subtle indication that Max was an ignorant social climber.

  7. John Cowan says

    von und zu(r)

    As the ordinary meaning of the prepositions indicate, von marks the point of origin of a noble family, whereas zu represents their current residence. When a family splits, the one that keeps the ancestral acres is von, the other one is zu. Using von und zu, as the ruling house of Liechtenstein does, is pure swank: “we are Uradel and have been here since before God was God“. Unsurprisingly, it is also ridiculous: the Burg Lichtenstein, the family’s actual point of origin, is near Vienna, and they didn’t come into possession of the lands of Vaduz until 1718. or set foot in them until 1818.

  8. The whole existence of the principality of Liechtenstein is mostly a result of artificial bureaucratic maneuvering. The Liechtenstein family originally bought some of the territory of the current state in order to obtain imperial immediacy. Their main territories had been held as sub-fiefs (mostly as part of the Habsburg lands), and they wanted to be immediate vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor, so that the head of the house would get a seat in the Diet.

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