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Nikolai Klimontovich


Naughty reminiscences about the late Soviet years

ISBN 5-7172-0069-2, 270 pp.

Translated by Frank Williams

Sample writing excerpt from the novel

"A veritable Moscow Decameron," "the Soviet Casanova of Russian literature" – these appellations were given to the naughty autobiographical narratives penned by Nikolai Klimontovich in the 1990s, of which The Road to Rome, stands out.

Klimontovich (1951-2015) made a living as a reporter before becoming the prize-winning novelist and playwright he is today. The son of a famous physicist, an Academician, he was also trained as a physicist while writing stories and plays from the age of 19. In 1977 he was lucky to have a collection of his early stories published by a big Soviet publishing house (as part of their short-lived campaign of "encouraging young talent"). Although the reviews criticized the book for its lack of "ideological position" Klimontovich was able to join the Writers Union, which gave him the official status of a professional writer, a great convenience at the time, opening many doors. However, his subsequent works never passed the Soviet censorship and were rejected by publishers and journals alike on grounds of their "erroneous aesthetic and ideological views." Instead he was widely circulated in samizdat (in the USSR) and published by tamizdat (abroad). Because of this he was constantly under KGB scrutiny – appearance in émigré periodicals was considered a crime in the USSR.
Opposed to the dominant ideology he and some fellow-writers – well-educated, nihilistic, ironic, oriented at Western culture – founded an independent writers’ group called "Belle-Lettres Club" in the spring of 1980. The almanac Katalog was the first and only output of the Club, which included some of the then young unpublished writers, such as the now world-famous Evgeny Popov, Evgeny Kharitonov, Dmitry Prigov. They decided to legalize their almanac by applying to the Communist Party Central Committee for official permission to publish it. The same day the writers’ homes were searched by the KGB and their manuscripts and books confiscated while the club was dissolved. In one day Klimontovich lost all his manuscripts, including an unfinished novel, a play, several short stories and his notebooks. In 1982 the Katalog was published by Ardis in the USA.
Klimontovich, like most intellectuals of his generation, suffered from a "confinement complex", lacking the freedom to travel and see the world. This is the subject of his best-selling book The Road to Rome relating his picaresque encounters with women from the West as his way of breaking out of stifling Soviet reality and into an exotic and forbidden world. Eventually able to travel abroad, he ends up spending a year in America and returns to Moscow – the Third Rome – with a firm conviction that his place is in Russia for better or for worse. However, as a result of his Odyssey, both existential, during his internal exile within Soviet Russia, and real trips to foreign lands, he attains the desired self-liberation.
The appeal of this book is not only in its infectious eroticism, its wit and humor but mainly in its masterful portrayal of Soviet Russia in the 1970s and 80s through a multitude of cleverly observed details.
Although The Road to Rome is actually a collection of reminiscences about real events it is structured as a plot-driven narrative and was in fact nominated for the Booker Prize in 1995 as a novel.
And finally, why Rome? “The Third Rome”, a catch phrase referred to Moscow, comes from the 15th century political doctrine aspiring to establish the importance of Moscow as Russia’s political and religious centre while Moscow tsars claimed to be successors of the Roman and Byzantine emperors. The idea was first formulated by Metropolitan Filofei in his letters to the Grand Duke Vassily III: "Moscow is the Third Rome and there never may be the fourth." The saying "All roads lead to Rome" is reinterpreted by Russians in this sense as well.