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Boris YAMPOLSKY The Old Arbat

Vasil BYKOV The Manhurt

Translated by Rachel Polonsky and John Dewey

paper ISBN 9785717200905
ebook ISBN 9785717201339
272 pp.

“These two novels, saturated with an emotional intensity and inescapable horror, chart the traumatic decades of Stalinism which today’s ‘scared generation’ of middle-aged Russians must now put behind them.” – World Literature Today

"These novels, in their different ways, explore the inner powerlessness of the victims. Crushed and tormented by the totalitarian system they begin to feel that they must be responsible for their own ill fate... Written in an intense, suffocating style they make a powerful reading." – The Moscow Times

“Nominated more than once for the Nobel literature prize, Vasil Bykov was proclaimed ‘the leading writer’ in Belarus – a country with only a weak sense of national identity – based on his series of frank novels drawing on his experiences of the Second World War.” – The Independent

“Called the Andrei Sakharov of Belorussian literature, Vasil Bykov wrote dark prophecies about his beloved Belarus.” – Los Angeles Times

In Vasil Bykov’s The Manhunt, a dispossessed peasant secretly returns from his Siberian exile to his home village in Belarus. As he walks towards his native village he recalls his whole life. The local Cheka, now headed by his own son, is hunting him down. Bykov often turns to the subject of betrayal. The history of the Civil War in Russia abounds in cases when children denounced their parents, and vice versa, and when on the strength of neighbors’ or colleagues’ denunciations whole families were dispossessed and exiled to Siberia to die of cold, hunger and back-breaking toil. Bykov has always been preoccupied with the problem of retaining humanity in inhuman conditions. Among his characters there is always one who, faced with a moral choice, prefers death to infamy.

Vassil Bykov (1924-2003), a major Byelorussian author is best known for his war novels. Amidst the flow of bombastic paeans to war heroism he was the first to look at the unheroic aspects of the war and to investigate the problem of moral choice versus per-sonal safety.

The Old Arbat by Boris Yampolsky examines the inner state of a hunted man, his fears and his loneliness as he wanders around Moscow trying to escape the KGB. You recall the tortured wanderings around St Petersburg of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Unlike Raskolnikov, however, Yampolsky’s hero is innocent. And yet he is not at all surprised to find himself tailed and obviously doomed to eventual arrest. Like Yampolsky himself the hero saw action in WWII and was fearless, but now, in the atmosphere of Stalinist witch-hunts, he is paralyzed by uncontrollable terror. It is impossible simply to disappear – there is nowhere to hide, and no one to turn to for help. Yet at some point his hopelessness produces an inner freedom which gives the hunted man the strength to resist. Yampolsky’s anatomy of fear evolves into a remedy for overcoming fear.

Boris Yampolsky (1912-1972) was a noted novelist and journalist in the late 1950s and 1960s. His major novel, The Regime Street, was banned by the censor and not published until the 1990s.

Introduction by Rachel Polonsky

The first person we meet in Boris Yampolsky's The Old Arbat is a self-satisfied young lieutenant just out of KGB college, admiring the elegance of his handwriting as he fills out an arrest warrant for an innocent man. The first question the novel asks is, "What really did happen then?" Now, when men and women from the KGB, who take open pride in its history and traditions, have returned to political power, the question has acquired a new urgency. It is in this context that the editors of GLAS have chosen to reissue The Scared Generation, ten years after its first publication.
The Soviet myth was a highly-wrought construction which survived by cultivating mass indifference to the reality of the past and present. In the former Soviet homelands of both Yampolsky and Vasil Bykov, the myth has proved easy to reconstruct in the form of nostalgia, while the mechanisms of political control have been manoeuvered back into place. The elevating story of Soviet greatness, enacted in parades, light entertainment, monuments, and solemn speeches, promises to lift people out of weariness, sorrow, and shame, to erase memory. Now, as then, the amnesiac fantasy is underpinned by repression, subtle and overt. Now, as then, the maintenance of the system requires the invention and destruction of "enemies", both internal and external.
"They fear memory," the dissident writer Lydia Chukovskaya wrote in 1967, "even now the authorities still will not tolerate any mention of 1937." Yampolsky's Old Arbat, written in the 1960s, comemmorates a later phase of Stalinist repression, the "Doctors' Plot". "This has happened before, in 1937", the hero thinks, as he destroys his notebook, letters, and photographs: "everything was electrified, the whole atmosphere became stifling and laden with fear, and there were universal demands for sacrificial victims". He is an intellectual, a writer. Living in a room "like a prison cell", perched above the "wailing and snarling" din of central Moscow, he attempts to give his life a deeper meaning through literature, experiencing the sense of isolation and abandonment of the individual who cannot submit to the blind ideological machine. "What was all this: vanity and ambition, overwrought nerves, the natural urge to work?", Yampolsky's hero asks of his daily compulsion to write, "or was it a sense of responsibility, a hungering after truth and justice, a contempt for all that was base and vile? Most likely it was a combination of all these things…".
Like the writers and dissidents interviewed at the end of this volume, Yampolsky's writer-hero acknowledges the problem of inner freedom in circumstances of political repression. "You can destroy my spirit with fear and a feeling of uncomprehended guilt", his inner voice affirms in words of archetypal resistance, "yet it is not in your power to make of me a lickspittle and amoral cripple". In his candid and nuanced "Confessions of the Sixties Generation", Lev Anninsky describes how he learned to maintain inner freedom within the climate of all-pervading fear in which his generation was raised. Valery Agranovsky's painful reminiscences of a Soviet father-son relationship confront the damage done to a child's sense of truth by a system dedicated to the "reforging of souls". At the same time, Agranovsky pays tribute to the goodness of certain individuals at the very heart of that system. The darkly amusing tale of Vladimir Moroz, a "dissident art collector", reveals that, then as now, avarice can masquerade as ideology in the law enforcement activities of the security services:
"During the trial every effort was made to fabricate a case for confiscating his property. His lifestyle was categorized as bourgeois, and this was amply corroborated by evidence collected by the KGB. ... While Moroz refused to admit his guilt, two hundred witnesses, their names taken from his diary, were interrogated. His own interrogations lasted for many hours. It soon became clear to him that what his jailers were after was his art collection."
As the dissident writer Yuri Glazov wrote in The Russian Mind since Stalin's Death, many people who submit to totalitarian myth-making "do not want to know the truth" not because they "trust the media's description", but "because they have become tired and felt discouraged long ago from knowing the truth".
The Belorussian writer Vasil Bykov was a rare individual who, up to the very end of his life, refused to allow fatigue or discouragement to prevent him from bearing witness, through imaginative literature, to the truth of Soviet history. Bykov hungered after truth and justice in his writing, a stoic sage, retaining the austere courage of witness against official lies about the Soviet past. Though he claimed to regard evil as "infinite" and "prone to mimicry", and human beings as impotent in the face of cruelty and intractably resistant to self-scrutiny, he continued to write about World War Two and Stalin's collectivization from the point of view of their least remarkable, least remarked victims. A truly "Soviet" writer, he wrote in his native Belorussian and translated his prose into Russian himself.
Bykov's peasant-hero, Khvedor Rovba, is no intellectual. Yet his inner life is rich and affecting. From his quiet observations of "all sorts of people and bosses", both "at home and in exile", he perceives Marxist-Leninist theory in all its moral nullity: "he understood that you find goodness where you find justice and truth. And where there was class struggle, that unreconciled state where everyone on top does what he wants with the people beneath him, where was goodness?" Khvedor loves his home and his own freedom with an instinctive intelligence. He knows why the land thrives and how it dies. Hunted down in terror by his own son in the swamps of his native land, his death is at once submissive and defiant.
The decade since the publication in GLAS of The Manhunt have seen the hardening of dictatorship in Bykov's native Belarus. Political opposition and independent media have been suppressed, Soviet symbols restored. Bykov drew active official disfavour for his clear resistance to the "Soviet colonels with a communist mentality" whom he accused of destroying his nation's culture and restoring Soviet ideology. He became a dissident again, subject to vicious hate campaigns in the media, labelled 'politically retarded' by a state-run literary magazine. His funeral in 2003 was a politically-charged event which led directly to the expulsion from Belarus of Russian TV journalist, Pavel Selin, for a report that was allegedly "unobjective, biased and provocative information aimed at tarnishing the image of the authorities". More recently, a group of activists was detained by security services in Bykov's birthplace, Grodno, for gathering in a public place to advance the politically provocative suggestion that the town name a street after its illustrious native son.
So why do the "Soviet colonels" still pay literature this tribute of fear? They fear literature precisely because literature does not fear them. Writing compelled by a free conscience – like Yampolsky's novel about Stalin's terror, kept in the drawer unpublished until long after his death; or the stories of collectivization and war which earned Bykov exile and vilification – reverses the corruption of language on which the Soviet myth depends. It dares to tell us what really did happen then.