Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Anna Karenina" KARENIN'S EARS

"Karenin." Illustration of the novel by K. Rudakov, 1940-1945

(6) Karenin's Ears

Tolstoy's habit of viewing his characters through certain physical characteristics is best exemplified by his treatment of Aleksei Aleksandrovich Karenin, who is, in the literal sense, "all ears." Here is how Anna, his wife, sees him upon her return from Moscow:

"At Petersburg, as soon as the train stopped and she got out, the first person who attracted her attention was her husband. "Oh, my God, why do his ears look like that?" she thought, looking at his frigid and distinguished figure, and especially at the cartilage that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat. Catching sight of her, he came to meet her, his lips falling into their habitual mocking smile, and his big tired eyes looking straight at her. An unpleasant sensation gripped at her heart when she met his obstinate and weary glance, as though she had expected to see him different. She was especially struck by the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself that she experienced on meeting him. That feeling was an intimate, familiar feeling, like a consciousness of hypocrisy, which she experienced in her relations with her husband. But hitherto she had not taken note of that feeling, and now she was clearly and painfully aware of it" (Part I, Ch. 30, p. 110).

"Akh, Bozhe moi! otchego u nego stali takie ushi?" ("Why are his ears like that?") Why is this an especially appropriate thing for Anna to think at this particular point in the novel? Because she has returned from Moscow, where she met Vronsky, and is now a different person. As she is completely absorbed by her new passion for Vronsky, it is only natural for her to take notice of a rather discordant physical feature in her dry and passionless husband.

Karenin's ears have always stuck out the same way, but only after she falls in love with Vronsky do they really stand out that way for her! In reading the rest of this chapter, female readers often identify positively with Anna; they may even be prepared to condone her adultery. Note the way that Karenin receives his wife back home, after her absence. In his dry, lifeless way he is anticipating enjoyment of the conjugal bed. But duty calls, and first of all he is off to the ministry on business. Then, upon his return home, he signs papers, receives petitioners. He does not even deviate from his usual habit of reading before bed.

"Precisely at twelve o'clock," he comes to Anna and informs her that (in accord with his daily routine) it is now time for bed (and, presumably, conjugal pleasures)--p.119. Anna's revulsion at the thought of her duty is clearly implied, and most readers, at this juncture in the novel, would sympathize with her.

From this point on Anna views her husband no longer as a human being, but as a big pair of ears. Just before the famous steeplechase scene (p.216) Karenin drives up in his carriage, and Anna, glancing out the window, "caught sight of the carriage and the black hat of Aleksei Aleksandrovich, and the ears she knew so well, sticking up on each side of it." When you make a person into a thing, or a pair of ears, you dehumanize the person. Then it is easy to justify your acting in an unconscionable way toward that thing or those ears. When those ears say, "I am your husband and I love you," the natural reaction is "How can a pair of ears know what love is?"

The actual conversation goes a bit differently, but the point is the same. Anna thinks, "Love? Can he love? If he hadn't heard there was such a word as love, he would never have used the word. He doesn't even know what love is" (156).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Tolstoy House Museum in Moscow

(5) Tolstoy's Alter Ego Lyovin. Fascination with Physical Details

Konstantin Lyovin is the character in "Anna Karenina" who most resembles Tolstoy himself. Stiva Oblonsky is his old friend, and he enjoys watching Stiva eat oysters, but his staid, almost puritanical nature will not allow him to really enjoy oysters himself. Tolstoy the puritan frowns upon sensuality and would refute Stiva's idea that the aim of civilization is "to make everything a source of enjoyment" (p.40). Lyovin agrees with Tolstoy.

Lyovin represents Tolstoy's belief in good hard work in a rural environment, duty to wife and children, and condemnation of pleasure for its own sake. He prefers cabbage soup (schchi) and buckwheat kasha to oysters and is offended by what he sees as extravagance in the pampering of the body. He likes to get out and dirty his hands with the hard labor of agricultural work (as we shall see later when we treat the famous mowing scene).

Tolstoy, who is not known for writing comic scenes, is, for all that, quite good at describing the comic side of Lyovin. We get a good idea of this rather awkward country squire's personality at his first appearance in the book, when he gazes in horrified fascination at the long fingers of the effete Grinevich:

"Lyovin was silent, looking at the unknown faces of Oblonsky's two companions, and especially at the hand of the elegant Grinevich, which had such long white fingers, such long yellow nails curving at the ends, and such huge shining cuff links that apparently they absorbed his attention completely, leaving him no freedom of thought. Oblonsky noticed this at once, and smiled."

[Next Oblonsky introduces Lyovin to his friends]:

"I have the honor of knowing your brother, Sergei Ivanovich," said Grinevich, holding out his slender hand with its long nails.
Lyovin frowned, shook hands coldly, and at once turned to Oblonsky."

[a page later, still speaking to Oblonsky]:

"'Yes, later, but I wanted to see you,' said Lyovin, looking with hatred at Grinevich's hand. Stepan Arkadyevich gave a scarcely perceptible smile."
(p. 21-22)

Later in the novel (much later--p. 597) Lyovin is faced with another pampered aristocrat, the young dandy Vasenka Veslovsky, who comes to visit his estate. This time Lyovin is disconcerted by Vasenka's fat leg:

"'Please, let's go,' said Veslovsky, moving to another chair, where he sat down sideways, with one fat leg tucked under him.
'I shall be delighted, we will go. And have you had any shooting yet this year?' said Lyovin to Veslovsky, looking intently at his leg, but speaking with that forced amiability that Kitty knew so well in him. . . "

This scene goes on for some time, and, flustered over that leg, and over what he sees as Veslovsky's undue attention to his wife Kitty, Lyovin ends up throwing poor Vasenka off the estate.

As is one side of Tolstoy himself, Lyovin is embarrassed by the very physical nature of the human body. Throughout his whole life Tolstoy (his puritanical side) railed against human physicality and sensuality. As if to say, "Why do we human beings have to be such animals?" A special problem for him was sexuality. Late in life it became an obsession.

In another highly comic scene poor Lyovin gets himself into a real state when visiting the Sviazhsky family. Sviazhsky's sister-in-law is of marriageable age, and she comes out wearing a low-cut dress. Embarrassed and confused, Lyovin imagines that the decolletage has been effected precisely for his benefit, and he, "in an agony of embarrassment," cannot keep the conversation going (p.347-48).

With his fascination (and sometimes revulsion) for the human body, Tolstoy is especially good at describing physical details and characterizing people by repeatedly mentioning such details. As we have already seen, Stiva Oblonsky is always described jutting out his chest and smiling. Lyovin's brother Nikolai twitches his shoulder all the time. Already in his first work of fiction, "Childhood," Tolstoy was using this device. The prototype of Veslovsky's fat leg is already there in the German tutor, and the father of the story has the twitching shoulder.

And then, of course, the stodgy Karenin has the EARS.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Tolstoy with His Family, Yasnaya Polyana, 1892

(4) Stiva, Monogamy, and Oysters

"Anna Karenina" treats a wide variety of themes, but its central theme is Marriage and Family. Taken as a whole the novel represents a lengthy defense of the monogamous marriage, but Stiva Oblonsky, while he certainly believes in marriage, does not believe in monogamy.

In accord with liberal thinking of his time he sees marriage as an archaic institution. "Family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevich little gratification, and it forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which were so repulsive to his nature" (p.9). As he tells his friend Lyovin, "A man must be independent; he has his masculine interests. A man has to be manly," and the family should not get in his way while he is, so to speak, "being manly": out eating well and pursuing servant girls, governesses, and ballet dancers (p. 617).

Late in the novel, in speaking of his attempts to secure a divorce from Karenin for his sister Anna, Stiva speaks of the marriage rite as that "stupid old ceremony," with its "walking round and round and singing Rejoice, O Isaiah! that no one believes in and that stands in the way of the happiness of people" (p. 723-4). This argument, this refutation of the institution of marriage is still around today. In fact, in many ways this nineteenth century novel is highly contemporaneous with our times, since it raises issues that have never been resolved.

In Stiva's final appearance in the novel he is in a train station, with all the characters in the novel, minus one, who were present in the first train-station scene (p. 63-71--much more on this later). His beloved sister Anna is dead, he has squandered a good deal more of his wife's assets, but he is still beaming with happiness.

We can look at the unchanged Stiva in one of two ways. First, his incorrigible personality, his inability to learn the error of his ways and change for the better demonstrates the perpetual continuity of human vulgarity and philistinism. After all, don't we know people like Stiva who are living around us today?

But then, perhaps, we prefer the second way of viewing Stiva. He walks around beaming, jutting out his chest, wafting goodwill. He revels in life, enjoys it to the hilt. In some ways Stiva is a figure who arouses more optimism than any other character in the book. We condemn his amorality and his selfishness, but, simultaneously, we enjoy having him around. We enjoy watching people enjoy life. We take pleasure, as Lyovin does early in the novel, in the very act of watching Stiva eat oysters. Stiva is the kind of person people enjoy watching eating oysters:

"Stepan Arkadyevich crushed the starchy napkin, tucked it into his vest, and, settling his arms comfortably, started on the oysters.
'Not bad,' he said, stripping the oysters from the pearly shells with a silver fork and swallowing them, one after another.'"Not bad,' he repeated, turning his dewy, brilliant eyes from Lyovin to the Tartar [the waiter].
Lyovin ate the oysters, though white bread and cheese would have pleased him better. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tartar, uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, glanced at Stepan Arkadyevich and settled his white cravat with a perceptible smile of satisfaction." (Part One, Ch. 9, p. 39)

Tolstoy is a master at depicting sensual pleasure. Yet, simultaneously, he frowns upon indulgence in the sensual. Ever the sensual anti-sensualist and the the anti-sensual sensualist, Tolstoy, as we shall see, goes round and round inside his mind.


(3) Stiva in the 1870s

Like nearly all of the great Russian realists, Tolstoy is intent on describing the Russia of his time in his novels. "Anna Karenina" is set in the 1870s, and Stiva is a typical member of the Russian landowning nobility of that time. One scene in particular, Stiva's sale of a tract of land to the merchant Ryabinin (p.178-81--Part Two, Ch. 16) illustrates how Russian landowners behaved, to the detriment of their own interests.

Stiva's sale of his wife's wooded property is typical of the way he squanders his resources in order to maintain his present life of luxury. Note that Ryabinin, who represents the rise of a new, shrewd and grasping merchant class in Russia of the last half of the nineteenth century, chisels Stiva out of this land--acquires it at a very low price.

Typical of the landed gentry, Stiva considers it beneath his dignity as a nobleman to concern himself with such vulgar matters as the proper price for a piece of land. Throughout the nineteen century, owing precisely to such attitudes, the Russian landed gentry was in decline. Stiva, and those like him, are destined to end up mortgaging their land and eventually losing their landed estates. This situation will later be the main theme of Chekhov's play, "The Cherry Orchard."

Long novels have one advantage over short stories. In long novels the author has the time and space to show the development of his characters--in short stories he does not. But over 800 pages the character of Stiva, nonetheless, never changes. The financial status of the character, however, does change. He manages perpetually not to worry about this, but his wife Dolly does. Luck seems always to be with Stiva. The final time he appears in the novel he is still his same happy-go-lucky self. It is always interesting to speculate about what will happen after the action of a novel is concluded.

If Stiva's luck holds (and it always seems to hold), he will probably drop dead of a heart attack at age 55-60, leaving huge debts for his son Grisha to deal with.

Tolstoy, Moscow, 1885

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Lev Tolstoy, Moscow, 1862, photo by M.B. Tulinov


Citations are from the Modern Library Edition, Constance Garnett translation, revised by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova

Part One, Ch. One

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an affair with their former French governess, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. The situation had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife, but also all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that people who met by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they did, the members of the Oblonsky family and household. The wife did not leave her own room; the husband had not been home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend, asking her to look out for a new position for her; the chef had walked out the day before just at dinnertime; the servants' cook and the coachman had given notice.

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky--Stiva as he was called in society--woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o'clock in the morning, not in his wife's bedroom, but on the morocco leather sofa in his study. He turned his plump, pampered body on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

"Yes, yes, how was it now?" he thought, going over his dream. "Now, how was it? To be sure! Alabin was giving a dinner at Darmstadt; no, not Darmstadt, but something American. Yes, but then Darmstadt was in America. Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, and the tables sang Il mio tesoro--not Il mio tesoro, though, but something better, and there were some sort of little decanters on the table, and they were women, too," he remembered.

Stepan Arkadyevich's eyes twinkled gaily, and he pondered with a smile. "Yes, it was nice, very nice. There was a great deal more that was delightful, only there's no putting it into words, or even expressing it in one's thoughts once awake." And noticing a gleam of light peeping in beside one of the wool curtains, he cheerfully dropped his feet over the edge of the sofa and felt about for his slippers, a present on his last birthday, embroidered for him by his wife on gold-colored morocco. And, as he had done every day for the last nine years, he stretched out his hand, without getting up, toward the place where his dressing gown always hung in his bedroom. And thereupon he suddenly remembered that he was not sleeping in his wife's room but in his study, and why. The smile vanished from his face; he knitted his brows.

"Ah, ah, ah! Oo!" he groaned, recalling everything that had happened. And as he recalled every detail of his quarrel with his wife, he realized the hopelessness of his situation, and, most tormenting thought of all, that it was his own fault.

"Yes, she won't forgive me; she can't forgive me. And the most awful thing about it is that it's all my fault--all my fault, though I'm not to blame. That's the point of the whole situation," he reflected. "Oh, oh, oh!" he kept repeating in despair, as he remembered the acutely painful sensations caused him by this quarrel.

Most unpleasant of all was the first minute when, on coming, happy and good-humored, from the theater, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, he had not found his wife in the drawing room, to his surprise had not found her in the study either, and saw her at last in her bedroom, holding the unfortunate letter that revealed everything.

She, his Dolly, forever fussing and worrying, whom he considered rather simple, was sitting perfectly still with the letter in her hand, looking at him with an expression of horror, despair, and indignation.

"What's this? This?" she asked, pointing to the letter.

And at this recollection, Stepan Arkadyevich, as is so often the case, was not so much annoyed at the fact itself as at the way in which he had reacted to his wife's words.

There happened to him at that instant what happens to people when they are unexpectantly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in assuming an expression suitable to the position in which he was placed by his wife's discovery of his guilt. Instead of acting hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent (anything would have better than what he did), his face utterly involuntarily (reflex action of the brain, reflected Stepan Arkadyevich, who was fond of physiology)--utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore foolish smile.

This foolish smile he could not forgive himself. Catching sight of that smile, Dolly shuddered as though in physical pain, broke out with her characteristic passion into a flood of cruel words, and rushed out of the room. Since then she had refused to see her husband.

"It's that idiotic smile that's to blame for it all," thought Stepan Arkadyevich.

"But what's to be done? What's to be done?" he said to himself in despair, and found no answer.


I have cited the whole first chapter because it tells the reader, one who has never read Tolstoy, so much about Tolstoy's methods of characterization. Here too, there are so many nice little touches, all providing inside information on the character of Stiva: his amorality (the affair with the governess), his innate guiltlessness ("it's all my fault, though I'm not to blame"), his serene good humor and fondness for his wife (comes home bringing her a huge pear). The way he has, at any cost, a knack for rationalizing away his bad behavior ("it's the idiotic smile that's to blame").

Stiva will be with us for another 850 pages, but this first chapter already tells us almost everything we need to know about him. It presents a bon vivant whom everyone--reader and writer and all the other characters--should be censuring for his behavior, and whom no one, ultimately censures. Note, e.g., that everyone in the Oblonsky household will be on Stiva's side in this quarrel (see p.8), although they all realize that he is the culprit.

One of the main points here is that Tolstoy is incapable of drawing a totally one-sided character, and this is one of his strengths in everything that he writes. Despite his faults Stiva has a way with people; he makes people feel good. The fact that he is insincere seems not to matter in the least. In the first chapter his main leitmotif of character has not yet appeared: IT IS CHEST JUTTING AND SMILING. He walks about through the novel always jutting out his chest and smiling. When people see that chest and that smile coming at them they feel good.

The obvious contrast in characters is that of Karenin, who, as we later find out, radiates a chill that benumbs anyone in the immediate vicinity. Note the passage in Part 4, Ch. 9 (p.402), when Karenin's presence throws a pall over an entire social gathering. Then Stiva arrives, and within a matter of moments he has removed that pall and changed the whole social aura.

"Ah," you may say, "but Stiva is an unprincipled man, a rake and adulterer. At least Karenin is an honest man, faithful to his moral principles and duties." Maybe, but which of the men do you LIKE better? [more on Karenin later]

Certainly anyone would be justified in condemning much of Stiva's behavior. He lacks not only any concern for his long-suffering wife. He is, in addition, so obsessed with living for his own personal pleasures that he ignores the problems in store for his children.

[Footnote: At one point in the novel Stiva demonstrates the typical Russian nobleman's condescending attitude toward Jews. See the episode where he is attempting to worm his way into a new sinecure, a job with the railways (p. 751-52). Modern readers might see Stiva as Anti-Semitic, but Tolstoy probably would had been surprised if readers of the time condemned Stiva for anti-semitism. The condescending attitude toward Jews here could very well be Tolstoy's own, and that of any Russian nobility of the late nineteenth century. If you accused Tolstoy of hating Jews he could remind you that he worked to help Jews when they were persecuted and came out strongly against government-sponsored pogroms.]

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Note: Back when I was teaching at Miami University I developed 125 pages of lecture text (handwritten) on the novel "Anna Karenina." I've decided to present all of this long lecture on my blog.



Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is often considered the greatest novel ever written. It was Chekhov's favorite novel, Bunin's favorite novel, Nabokov's favorite novel (after his own). It is the second of Tolstoy's great novels and continues with many of the same themes and the same literary methods as his "War and Peace."

He conceived the idea for the story of an adulteress about 1870 but began writing it only three years later. Certain events in his own life influenced how he came to begin writing the novel; his early conception of the work changed in the process of writing.

On Jan. 4, 1872, at 7:00 p.m. a woman called Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, the mistress of Tolstoy's landowner-neighbor A.N. Bibikov, three herself under a train at a small station, Yasenki, in the vicinity of Tolstoy's estate of Yasnaja Poljana. He was present at the autopsy, conducted in a barracks near the station [see Norton Critical Ed. of "A.K.," p. 745, Troyat biog. of Tolstoy, p. 419].

In March, 1873, Tolstoy was working on a novel (never completed) about the age of Peter the Great. By chance he picked up a book of stories by Pushkin, "The Tales of Belkin," which he had read some five-six times previously. He was so enthralled by the book that he read it all the way through again. One fragment, beginning, "The guests were gathered in the summer house," seemed to ring a bell in his head. "Unwittingly, unexpectantly, without myself knowing why and how it would come out, I began inventing people and events."

Tolstoy later thanked "the divine Pushkin" for giving him the inspiration to begin writing [Norton Crit. Ed., p. 746-47]. This is quite a common experience with writers, who often derive their impetus to write from reading other writers, and whose creative inspiration is often set off by the music and rhythms of a single phrase.

But Tolstoy took the broad foundation for "A.K." from a different, more important, Pushkin work, his novel in verse "Eugene Onegin." This brilliant work ends with a woman exactly in the same situation in which Anna K. finds herself near the beginning of Tolstoy's novel. The Pushkin heroine, Tatyana, decides to remain faithful to her stodgy husband. Anna does not. Tolstoy's novel treats adultery and the consequences of passionate love.

Of course, Tolstoy does not limit himself to the issue of passionate love. While his portrayal of the adulterous relationship (Anna and Vronsky) is central, it is really part of a much broader look at marriage and family, especially love between men and women.

Tolstoy begins with his usual didactic, preaching tone, the thing that still irritates those who don't like Tolstoy. His early Anna is called Tatyana, who is to be depicted as a coarse, vulgar woman. She was to be painted all black, and her wronged husband Karenin all white. But the artist in Tolstoy trumped the moralist, and, as the novel progressed the whole issue of Anna's guilt and her husband's fault (or lack of fault) became more complex.

Most importantly of all, as he wrote on in the early drafts, Tolstoy added the character of Konstantin Lyovin, his own alter ego and the spokesman for his moral messages. So we get, in effect, two overlapping novels, the story of Lyovin and Kitty and the story of Anna-Vronsky-Karenin. The novel shows what appears to be Lyovin's progress toward contentment in a sort of ideal family life, and Anna's progress toward perdition after she repudiates the conventionally accepted family life. But is all much more complex than this, and in the end there are implications that Lyovin's "near ideal" family life in communion with wife, children, and Nature is far from ideal.



Saturday, November 29, 2014


The year 2014 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Mikhail Lermontov's birth. So all over the Russian-speaking world people are getting together to commemorate his short life and to read his poetry.

It is always interesting to contemplate meetings between great writers, to consider what they may have said to one another. In 1878 Tolstoy and Dostoevsky sat in the same lecture hall, listening to a talk by Solovyov. They never met, not that day or any other, but if they had the fur surely would have flown.

Here are three great Russian writers, Lermontov, Pushkin, and Gogol, pictured in confabulation, as part of the mammoth Monument to A Thousand Years of Russian History, in Great Novgorod. Such a confabulation never took place, as the three of them never got together. Gogol and Pushkin, however, did know each other, although they were not great friends, and Pushkin provided Gogol with the plots for some of his most famous works.

Lermontov and Gogol met only twice, on two successive days in Moscow, May 9 and May 10, 1840. Lermontov showed up for a party commemorating Gogol's nameday on May 9. It was held in the gardens of the historian and publicist Pogodin, with whom Gogol was lodging at the time. The next day they met again, at a gathering hosted by E.A. Sverbeeva.

On that spring in 1840 Gogol was the most renowned Russian writer of the time, and Lermontov, already highly respected for his verse, had just published the best early realistic novel in Russian literature (A Hero of Our Time).

Each of them was on the way somewhere else at the time they met. Gogol was soon off back to his beloved Rome, while Lermontov, still in the army and exiled from St. Petersburg for his unruly ways, was bound for the Caucasus, where he would be killed in a duel a year later.

What did they say to each other when they met? Nobody knows. Apparently nothing of much interest, since neither of the two writers recorded a single word of that conversation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014



Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita features the story of Satan's visit to Moscow in the time of Stalin. It also retells the story of the passion of Jesus Christ:

"Immortality. . . It's come now, immortality."

Begemot, the Black Tomcat of "Master and Margarita." The name means literally "hippopotamus," and is usually translated by translators of Bulgakov as "Behemoth."

N.Y. Times Travel section, Nov. 13, 1994

The first floor of Bldg. No. 10, Bol'shaja Sadovaja St. in Moscow is the site of the Museum-Theater of the Bulgakov House. Since May of 2007 there has been a second museum in the building. It is called The State Museum of M.A. Bulgakov and is located in Apt. No. 50 upstairs.

Bulgakov himself once lived in Apt. 50 (beginning in Sept., 1921), and, in writing his brilliant novel, The Master and Margarita, he used the apartment as prototype for the place occupied by the devil (Woland) and his henchmen (Apt. 302)--including the most popular character in the story, the huge black tomcat called Begemot--during their visit to Moscow. Patriarch Ponds, the little park where Woland makes his first appearance in the novel, is located nearby.

In the early nineties there were not yet any Bulgakov museums at the site, but there was a sort of unofficial "museum" of tributes to the novel in graffiti outside Apt. No. 50. During these times the apartment was still occupied, various efforts were made to keep sightseers and graffiti artists away, but they kept coming to "the apartment of the devil."

Here I am posting various photographs of the graffiti, some of it quite impressive artistically. I took these pictures in the summer of 1992 or 1993.

Mikhail Bulgakov:

"Master, I'm yours. Margo."

"We love those who don't love us; we destroy those who love us."

"Stop the world; I want to get off."

Woland (Satan) as pictured in his most devilish aspect:

Friday, November 7, 2014

What's it going to be then, eh? Translating Burgess' CLOCKWORK ORANGE into Russian

Translating Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange into Russian presents some rather unusual difficulties. When writing the novel in English, Burgess invented a slang-argot for his juvenile delinquents of the not-too-distant future. The argot is replete with Russian words, many of them jazzed up by Little Alex and his "droogies" (friends, from the Russian word друг).The translator V. Boshnyak could have attempted to do something similar, throwing words with English roots into the Russian text. This would have been a formidable task. So instead of doing this, he kept all Russian words for the text of his translation, but used the Latin alphabet, rather than Cyrillic, for the slangy words:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014



The "mad tsar" Павел I (Paul--ruled 1796-1801), son of Catherine the Great, made sure to stick his monogram all over the castle that he had built (complete with moat). He was terrified of assassination and hoped the castle (and the multiple monograms) might help him be secure. But he was assassinated in March of 1801, only forty days after he moved into his new fortress.

The writer Fyodor Sologub lived in St. Petersburg and would certainly have noticed all the monograms on the Mikhailovsky Castle (another name for the Engineers' Castle). Subconsciously or consciously these monograms may have been the impetus for a scene in Sologub's novel Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon--a modernist "Decadent" novel published in 1907), in which the paranoiac anti-hero Peredonov attempts to protect his identity from evil forces he imagines assailing him by painting the letter P (Cyrillic П, which looks like the Greek Pi and is the same letter on Paul's monograms) all over his body.

Incidentally, U.R. Bowie's illustrious career as Russian scholar begins with the publication of his Master's thesis on The Petty Demon, in 1969, Tulane University: "The Paradox of Peredonovshchina." That work of art is still probably extant, moldering away somewhere in the Tulane library, assuming that Hurricane Katrina did not wash it away.

Saturday, October 4, 2014



Coastal Brown Bears, Mother and Child



R. Bowie
 June 4, 2008

This article originally published in Johnson’s Russia List, #110, 2008



            When we are speaking about the future (in particular, about the Russian future), the one thing that we can be certain of is that we certainly cannot be certain of anything.

            In view of this, it is nothing less than astounding that the majority of pundits who lucubrate about the prospects for Russia in the next 10-50 years deal so superficially with the realities and lessons of the Russian past. Those who do speak of the past often belabor events of the 1990s, or limit themselves to discussion of the Soviet Union (two tiny blips on the timeline of Russian history). Others may treat in some depth historical parallels from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, but practically no one touches upon that vast expanse of Russian history and culture that forms the foundation upon which modern Russian cultural mores, and, consequently, the contemporary Russian political and economic system, rest.

            Bear imagery has become prominent recently with the inauguration of the new President, Medvedev, whose name is derived from the Russian word for ‘bear.’ As one brief illustration, therefore, of Russia’s lengthy cultural heritage (and its consequences for contemporary Russia), let us now speak of the Bear. Literature on the bear as a prehistoric image of reverence and awe throughout much of the world is immense, so we must limit ourselves here to a few telling details.

            If you go back far enough in human history you will find connections to the bear that are relevant to practically everything in modern civilization. Here are some examples. The cities Bern (Switzerland) and Berlin (Germany) are just two of the multitude of place names in Europe and Asia that are bear names. Bern still maintains bear pits as tourist sites and an ancient clock tower that features, among other things, a parade of bear figurines every hour on the hour. The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word for bear (“arctos”). In ancient Germany military fraternities initiated a young man (to stifle his inhibitions against killing) by forcing him to strip naked, don the skin of a flayed bear and “work himself into a bestial rage: in other words, to go. . . BERSERK.[1]

            Why the worldwide bear mania that so inspired our ancestors? Why the obsession with the bear in folk practices that are observed all the way across Northern Europe and Asia, all the way across North America (in Native American mythology and folklore)? Maybe because, as the prominent mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested, the earliest object of religion in the history of the world was the bear:

            “in the high Alps, in the neighborhood of St. Gallen, and again in Germany, some thirty miles northwest of  Nürnberg. . . a series of caves containing the ceremonially arranged skulls of a number of cave bears have been discovered from the period (it is almost incredible!) of Neanderthal Man.”[2]

            In caves excavated in the Alps (dating not later than 75,000 B.C.) a number of altars were discovered, “the earliest altars of any kind yet found, or known anywhere in the world” (Campbell, P.M., p. 341). The focus of worship at these altars was bear skulls and leg bones. As evidenced by the title of the book by Shepherd and Sanders (“The Sacred Paw”), the leg bones of bears have continued to inspire awe in much of the world (Native American culture, Eurasian culture, etc.) up almost to the present day.

            Campbell also discusses in detail (P.M., p. 334-39) the bear ritual of the Ainu peoples, who live on the northern islands of Japan (Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles). This ritual involves capturing a baby bear, suckling it and raising it, then sending it back to the other world in a ritual sacrifice. The bear is assumed to be a divinity, and the sacrifice of the divinity is accompanied by gestures honoring the beast, who was sent into the world for the Ainus to hunt, and who, upon his arrival back in the other world, will speak kindly to the other gods of the Ainus, who have “done him the honor” of sacrificing him. As Campbell explains here (and repeatedly in his books on world mythology), the main idea is connected with the preeminent mythological obsession of the Stone Age, an idea that no means disappeared with the dawning of modern civilization: the eternal return of all events and all beings. In describing Neanderthal burials (in fetal position, prepared for rebirth), he writes as follows:

            “The mystery of death, then, had been met and faced, both for the beasts killed in the hunt and for man. And the answer found was one that has been giving comfort to those who wish comfort ever since, namely: ‘Nothing dies; death and birth are but a threshold crossing, back and forth, as it were, through a veil’” (P.M., p. 342).

            Beginning with bears, therefore, we have worked our way into the issue of the grand round and round, an issue that obsesses (bedevils?) the modern Russian psyche, and an issue that linear-oriented Western pundits blithesomely ignore. Before returning to this issue, let’s take a look at the folklore of the bear on the Russian land. As mentioned above, parts of northern Russia lie right in the midst of that “circumpolar paleolithic cult of the bear” mentioned by Campbell. Although there is no definitive proof of this assertion, anthropologists often assume that the bear was at one time a totem animal for the ancient Slavs. One piece of evidence for this is toponymy: there are bear names (of rivers, hills, islands, settlements, etc.) all over northern Russia. The coat of arms of the cities of Great Novgorod, Yaroslavl’ and Perm all feature depictions of bears.[3] More evidence is to be found in what are obvious naming taboos connected with the bear. From time out of mind, all over the world, there has been a prohibition against speaking the name of a god or other supernatural being. This often includes the names of the dead, of witches, the Devil, etc., plus the names of totem animals. In an article on naming taboos in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology, it is noted that “Ural-Altaic peoples of Siberia. . . never speak the name of the bear; they call him Little Old Man, Grandfather, dear Uncle, or Wise One. . . North American Kiowa Indians say that unless you are named for the bear you must not say bear.”[4]  The word “bruin” (“Brownie”), used for bear in German (and sometimes in English) is another euphemism. Vladimir Dahl’s entry on bears in his famous four-volume interpretive dictionary of Russian is full of euphemisms used to name the bear: e.g., “kosolapyj” (“knock-kneed, clumsy”), “mokhnatyj” (“shaggy”), “leshij” (“wood demon”), “lesnoj chert” (“devil of the woods”). The bear is also given human names: Mishka (Mike), Mishuk (Mikey), Mikhailo Ivanich Toptygin, which suggest the special affinity that Russians have had for the bear and they way they have likened him to humans.[5]

            Westerners dealing with Russians often underestimate the role of superstition in Russian life. Naming taboos still exist in Russia today. Most Russians would cringe at the common American practice of naming babies before birth. You let the evil spirits know the name of your unborn baby and they may conjure with that name. Baby showers or gift-giving for unborn babies are also rare in Russia. They are simply too optimistic in spirit. You don’t want to appear happy or the fates may quickly squelch your happiness. This is probably the reason why so many Russians respond to the question, “Kak dela?” (“How are you?”) with a shrug of the shoulders, a Russian scowl, and a neutral answer: “Normal’no” (“Same old same old”). If you say (as Americans do), “I’m doing great!” then some malicious something out there might decide to show you just how great you are NOT doing.

Of particular interest is the modern Russian word for bear, medved’. Most Russian folklorists and anthropologists have assumed that this too is a euphemism. It means, essentially, “honey eater” and almost certainly derives from the reluctance of ancient Slavs to pronounce the real name of the bear.[6] A check of the words for bear in other Slavic languages confirms that the animal came to be called “honey eater” in Protoslavic times (before the Slavic languages became separated into their three modern branches). The Polish word, e.g., is niedźwiedź and the Belorussian word is mjadzvedz’ (see Unbegaun, Russskie familii, p. 248).

            In their zealous efforts to stamp out pagan beliefs, Russian Orthodox Church authorities fought to extirpate ancient reverence for the bear. This fight, supported by civil authorities, went on for centuries. The original bear trainers were, apparently, the skomorokhi (medieval minstrels and clowns associated with pagan religions and with the licentiousness carnival behavior that lies at the core of pagan mythological beliefs), and this was all the more reason why any manifestations of the ancient reverence for the bear should be suppressed.

            With his tendency to be both a deeply religious Russian Orthodox believer and a scurrilous apostate simultaneously, Ivan Groznyj (the Terrible--1533-1584) manifested ambivalent attitudes toward the once sacred bear and the pagan bear handlers. Preparing for his upcoming marriage to Marfa Sobakina in 1570, Groznyj sent an envoy to the city of Great Novgorod, with an order to have skomorokhi and performing bears sent to Moscow for the wedding celebrations (Nekrylova, “Ursine Comedy,” p. 36). Bear baiting seems to have been a common folk entertainment in the years of Ivan’s reign, which is also associated with tales about how he and his equally sadistic son Ivan threw people into bear pits, or sewed them up in bear skins and tossed them to the dogs.[7]

            When a new religion attempts to establish its beliefs and rituals, it tramples upon the most sacred symbols of the religion that it supersedes. It is not surprising, therefore, that by the nineteenth century the bear was denigrated and mocked, seen largely as a figure of fun: (1) the embodiment of stupidity and clumsiness in the animal folk tales (2) the entertainer who provoked laughter by his awkward imitations of human behavior in the bear acts. More important, however, was that, despite centuries of efforts to ban them, the bear acts were still going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were a particularly popular part of village entertainments and performances in urban marketplace squares, especially at times of the year associated with important (originally pagan) seasonal highlights: winter solstice, Maslenitsa (ancient pagan pre-Lenten festival), summer solstice, etc.

            Old ideas are slow to die out. Russian and Soviet folklorists have established that at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries there remained vestiges of the ancient reverence for the bear, which was still connected in the folk psyche with the most salient elements of the pagan mentality: a striving to promote fertility, health, and well-being through the repetitive enactment of rituals that were often highly sexual and violent. Because of their association with bears the handlers/impresarios in the folk bear performances acquired the reputation of healers and witch doctors. Since it was still widely believed that the bear could drive away evil spirits, the handler would often have his bear step over a sick person or pregnant woman. In accord with the belief that the paw of the bear was supposed to have magical powers, it was sometimes hung up in the peasant household “ot domovogo” (to conciliate the often capricious “household imp”) or put under the floor to encourage the fertility of the domestic animals.[8]  

            One final example of bear ritual perhaps explains best of all why the bear was, and remained, a figure of reverence for so long on the Russian land. P. V. Shein, a famous collector of Russian and Belorussian folklore, published a description of the festive rite known as “komoeditsa,” carried out under the direction of a priest Simeon Nechaev in Belorus (1874). “This festival is always observed on the eve of the Annunciation and is dedicated to honoring the bear. Special viands are prepared on this day: the first course consists of dried turnips, as a way of emphasizing that the bear is primarily herbivorous; the second course consists of kisel’ (jelled oats), because the bear loves oats; the third course consists of lumps of peas, which is why the festival was given the name “komoeditsa” (“lump-eating day”). After consuming the meal, everyone—both young and old—lies down, not sleeping, but in very slow movements rolling from side to side, as if in an attempt to stimulate the [hibernating] bear to make similar movements. The ceremony continues for about two hours; it is intended to facilitate the bear’s awakening and arising from his winter den. . . The peasants are convinced that on Annunciation Day the bear comes out of hibernation. He is to be greeted with encouragement for his well being.”[9]

            This final example brings us to a still-relevant truth about Russian mentalities—a truth that Westerners who study any aspect of Russia ignore at their own peril: this truth is that Russians, as opposed to modern Westerners, are cyclical thinkers, not linear thinkers. Primitive and Oriental mythology, still vibrant in the cultural mores of modern Russia, differ from Western mythology in several important ways. Here are the essential parallels: (1) In the West—straight lines, progress (the apocalyptic view; we are progressing toward some grand End, or at least toward some goal). In the East--the circle; we are, essentially, doing the same thing over and over in our lives, history repeats itself, and we’re not really getting anywhere (2) In the West—free will, individualism, rationality; the assertive individual can change his/her life, can alter for the better even the human condition on earth. In the East—no free will, collectivism, irrationality; the individual cannot really change anything; the broad masses have little choice but to go with the eternal flow of ever-repetitive events (3) In the West—Nature is darkness, alien to the principles of light and progress; death is an abomination, something unacceptable (to be overcome, or, failing that, ignored if at all possible). In the East—Nature, like all of life, is a blend of light and darkness; Death is the complement of Life, not to be dreaded but accepted. Furthermore, Death is not an end, but a new beginning in the eternally repeating cycle: every exit is an entrance and every entrance an exit. The ceremony of “komoeditsa” described above is exemplary, in that it reinforces and promotes the beliefs in eternal return that so many other peasant rituals of the solar calendar reinforced in Russia right up into the twentieth century. Encourage the bear to come out of hibernation in the spring and renew the cycle, and, by so doing, you also encourage the burgeoning of the spring crops and the fertility of the cows and pigs upon whose prosperity the very existence of the peasant depends. Even Christianity in agricultural Russia has the same implications: Christ is ritually sacrificed once a year, and his Resurrection on the third day renews the cycle, promotes the eternal round and round of the agricultural season.

            How did the modern West end up (at least in the ideals that it professes to live by) on the linear path, while modern Russia (in the depth of its cultural mores and its mentality) remains committed to the Eastern philosophy of the cycle? This is an issue that demands treatment in an entire book, not in a short article. The usual answer is that Russia skipped the great intellectual movements of Western civilization: the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, etc., but the issue is more complex than that.[10]

            At any rate, reformers (most prominently, Peter the Great, Aleksandr II, Lenin, Gorbachev) have made repetitive efforts to overcome the cyclical Russian mindset and force the country onto a straight-line path. In other words, to undermine definitively the venerable Russian tradition of GETTING NOWHERE and convince the Russian people that it is worth trying to GET SOMEWHERE. These reformers have all failed miserably. Now we are about to see (possibly) a new attempt on the part, paradoxically, of a man whose very name embodies the principles of the round and round: Medvedev.

            The new President has been making linear noises, assuring the Russian people that they can dispense with the chaos of the round and round and live by a new set of rules (Western rules): fixed and enforceable laws, the imperative to stamp out corruption, the establishment of a true middle class and civil society. What the Bear President professes to be seeking is DEMOCRACY, a word that is anathema from the point of view of the grand eternal cycle. The last dance of the bear in Russian folk life (if we don’t count the circus bears that are still around today) was that of the trained bear who was still performing in villages and urban marketplace squares in the early twentieth century. At the climactic moment of the performance, controlled by his handler and trainer (he had a ring through his nose and a lead attached to the ring), the bear got up on his back legs and did a whirling dance round and round.[11]

            So who is Dmitry Medvedev? Is he the same old dancing bear, going round and round and getting nowhere, controlled by his handler, another votary of the grand round and round of Eternal Mother Russia (who is the handler? That’s obvious: VVP)? Or is he the bear who can break the lead and set off on the linear path toward a brand new Russia? I don’t know. That’s a matter for the political pundits to pontificate upon. One thing is for certain: better men than Medvedev have already tried and failed to stop the round and round of  Russian history.

            One last point. For over 230 years the United States of America has been committed to the great linear path. The United States believes in progress, and all of its institutions (political, religious, etc.) are aimed at getting somewhere. Both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, harp incessantly upon the idea of changing things for the better. But if we look at history (present, past and future) from a broad philosophical perspective, of course, we must admit that the ideas of the Neolithic primitive planters (hardwired in the modern Russian psyche) still have validity. Great political reformers (ideologues in the worst sense of the word), who assume that political Utopia is possible and that human cultural mores can be radically revamped, often end up changing essentials very little, while managing to murder huge numbers of innocent people. Examples of such reformers throughout history are rife, but here we need mention only one: “Velikij Ilich” (Vladimir Lenin). Medvedev, on the contrary, is not an ideologue, and let us hope that his efforts to push Russia onto a straight-line path will not involve the excesses of leaders like Lenin and Peter I.

            Any linear path, ultimately however, anticipates, certainly in terms of the mortal individual, and almost certainly in the future of the entire human race, the Great End of the Line (Armageddon or the Apocalypse). This does not mean, however, that we should encourage the dancing bear to just keep whirling round and round. We must make the best of what we have here in our transient existence. So, Da zdravstvuet Medvezhonok! (Long live the Baby Bear!). In terms of the venerable old ways, his ascension to power is an extremely good omen. The ancient superstitions assume that the sacred bear encourages the progression of the solar cycle, promotes well-being and fertility (something that Russia is desperate for in light of its demographic crisis). But (to take the Western perspective) it would also be nice it the baby bear could soon break the lead of his handler, shake the whirling rhythms out of his head, and set off down the linear road, traipsing along on his plantigrade way, following the sign marked, “TO SOMEWHERE.”


[1] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (Vintage Classics, 1987), p. 219. For Indo-European roots of the word ‘bear’ and the  profusion of words derived from these roots, see Paul Shephard and Barry Sanders,  The Sacred Paw: the Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature (NY: Viking Penguin, 1985), introduction, p. xvi. The Shephard and Sanders book is an excellent compendium of bear lore worldwide.
[2] Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (NY: Viking Press, 1979, revised edition 1969), p. 339. The period during which Neanderthal Man lived is assumed to have begun about 200,000 years ago and ended about 75,000 years ago. Some scientists project a much later date for his demise (between 25,000 and 20,000 B.C.) See p. 340-41. On p. 340 Campbell presents a map showing the most prominent areas of Europe, Asia, and North America where the bear cult was ascendant in prehistoric times (“the vestiges of a circumpolar paleolithic cult of the bear”). These include parts of today’s northern Russia and show the influence of the bear stretching southward, into modern Novgorod Province and Belorus.
[3] See the chapter entitled “Medvezh’ja komedija” (“Ursine Comedy”) in the book by A.F. Nekrylova, Russkie narodnye gorodskie prazdniki, uveselenija i zrelishcha (konets XVIII-nachalo XX veka) [Russian Folk Urban Festivals, Merry-Making, and Spectacles (at the End of the 19th and Beginning of the 20th Centuries] (Iskusstvo Publishers: Leningrad, 1984), p. 37-39.
[4] Maria Leach, editor, Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (Harper and Row, one-vol. edition, 1984), p. 782-83.
[5] Vladimir Dal’ dictionary, II, 311. According to Boris Unbegaun, the surname Toptygin comes, originally, from the nickname “tjazhelostup” (“clumsy stepper, lummox”). B.O. Unbegaun, Russkie familii, translation from English edited by B.A. Uspenskij (Moskva: Progress, 1989), p. 123.
[6] On the “honey eater” meaning see an informative letter by Elena Carducci to the journal Russian Life (May/June, 2008, p. 5). Ms. Carducci cites three Russian etymological dictionaries in support of her interpretation. The issue of Russian Life for March/April, 2008, contains an interesting compilation of Russian expressions relating to the bear (under “Survival Russian,” by Mikhail Ivanov, p. 29), but perpetuates the erroneous folk etymology (medved’ as “knower of the honey”), later corrected by Ms. Carducci.
[7] Isabel de Madariaga, Ivan the Terrible (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 295, 358.
[8] Nekrylova, “Ursine Comedy,” p. 37-38. See also V.P. Anikin, Russkaja narodnaja skazka [The Russian Folk Tale] (Moskva, Prosveshchenie, 1977), p. 44-45.
[9] Shein quoted in Anikin, The Russian Folk Tale, p. 45. Note the involvement of an Orthodox priest and the connection of this pagan festival with the Christian Annunciation Day. This is one of multiple examples of the existence of syncretism (“dvoeverie” or “double belief”) in Russia. Paganism coexisted for centuries with Christianity; they still coexist, so some extent, to this very day.
[10] The literature on the Stone Age mythology and folklore that forms the foundation of modern Russian cultural mores is vast. On primitive mythology of the eternal round and round, the best books are by Joseph Campbell (especially his four volume series titled The Masks of God). Equally important are the many works by Mircea Eliade (for example, his The Myth of Eternal Return). Seminal works relating to the influence of primitive plant mythology on Russian culture are, e.g., V. Ja. Propp’s Russkie agrarnye prazdniki [Russian Agrarian Festivals] (Leningrad University, 1963) and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World [original Russian title is Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable], translated into English by H. Iswolsky (Indiana University Press, 1984).
[11] For a detailed description of the marketplace bear performances of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Nekrylova, “Ursine Comedy,” p. 38-53.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review of THE JUDGMENT DAY ARCHIVES in "New York Times Book Review"

NY Times Book Review, Sun., Nov. 20, 1988

                                      A Case for Resurrection

Review of The Judgment Day Archives, by Andrei Moscovit, translated by Robert Bowie, 402pp. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1988.

                                                by Stephen Dobyns

How is a witch doctor able to stop the flow of blood from a wound with the repetition of a few muttered words? How can a hypnotist cause a burn with a ruler? How can a yogi reduce his pulse rate and make himself invulnerable to pain?

          Well, imagine that within the blood are elements that carry information from one part of the body to another—protecting, strengthening, educating—and that it is possible, if you’re a witch doctor or a yogi, to speak to these elements. Imagine that these elements—call them transcendents—contain the code for the whole human creature, and if a way were found to freeze and preserve a drop of blood, then someday the human creature could be resurrected, cloned from that one drop of blood. Imagine that a way has been found. Wouldn’t this guarantee immortality?

          Such ideas are at the center of The Judgment Day Archives, a sprawling Russian novel of great energy and imagination. The scientist who makes the necessary discoveries is an Estonian hematologist, Leida Rigel, a woman whose complicated private life includes two former husbands, several boyfriends, two adolescent children and a difficult mother. Additionally, she is being pursued by agents of the K.G.B. Leida Rigel is brought in contact with a somewhat sinister Italian organization called the International Enterprise for Research Financing, which supports potentially lucrative research—alternatives to gasoline and electricity as well as these peculiar discoveries about the blood.

Rigel and the Enterprise represent knowledge and power. Only vision is needed to set them in motion, and this is found in the person of a defrocked Russian priest, Father Averyan, who preaches to a small flock of heretics at his vegetable farm outside Paris. His message is that Judgment Day will be in the hands of the living carrying out the will of God, that the living will resurrect the dead. Once he comes under the influence of the Enterprise, however, his message slightly changes.

“Leave a drop of thy blood,” he preaches, “to be preserved eternally, in expectation of the advent of thy enlightened son, who will learn from the Lord our God how to create that suitable location, so that there the drop of thy blood may build the whole of thee, raise thee anew in the flesh.”


Together the scientist, the capitalist and the visionary form a sect called variously “Sons in Salvation of the Fathers,” “Acolytes of the Resurrection,” “Proselytes to the Judgment Day Truth” and, more simply, “The Clients.” In southern New Hampshire they establish the Judgment Day Archives. Judgment is needed because it is not possible for everyone to be resurrected. There wouldn’t be enough room on earth. Consequently, only certain people will be chosen. Some day, far in the future, a court will be convened and the deserving will be brought back to life, while the failed, the flawed and the futile will be left to their oblivion. For a mere $3000 the faithful can have placed in the vaults of the Archives a specially frozen drop of their blood and a cassette, magnetic or video, containing their testimony: their arguments to this future court as to why they should be resurrected. Despite the price, thousands flock to the Archives from all over the world.

But the Archives are prey to certain dangers. First, there is the greed of the Enterprise. Secondly, there is the frustration of those people who can’t afford $3000. Thirdly, there are others who would like to acquire the Archives’ secrets. For instance, many members of the Communist Central Committee are rather elderly and take a keen interest in the possibility of resurrection. This leads the K.G.B. to kidnap Leida Rigel’s son in order to make her their agent. Will she become the Judas of the sect?

All this would be rather ponderous if the novel weren’t written with great verve and intelligence. Andrei Moscovit is like a juggler trying to keep 10 balls in the air: some fall but the performance is impressive. The jacket copy compares the novel to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. This is hyperbolic; Mr. Moscovit lacks Bulgakov’s discipline, wildness and vision. What he shares with Bulgakov is energy and scope.

The Judgment Day Archives is about many things other than the K.G.B. versus a beautiful hematologist. It is about power and our fear or our mortality. It is about how one preserves a sense of the self in the face of great odds. Late in the book Leida Rigel’s son, now 19 years old, is in the army in northern Russia, where he repairs antiaircraft equipment. He thinks, “The next war would be started not over a piece of disputed land, not by the power brokers of the world, but simply because somewhere or other the revulsion a person felt toward his own life would become so unbearable that it would overcome even the instinct of self-preservation. An intoxicating brew of loathing would begin foaming up in some little man’s insides, and nothing but destruction would be able to damp it down. And if someone considers his own life worthless, how can he be expected to take pity on anyone else?”

Mr. Moscovit uses the complicated machinery of his novel to investigate how we are able to live in a difficult time. Although he never quite brings off this investigation, neither does he fail. What he achieves is a marvelous piece of verbal gymnastics, wonderfully written and gracefully translated by Robert Bowie. The novel could be shorter and better controlled, yet while it often threatens to break free of the author’s grip and escape into chaos, it never actually does. Andre Moscovit is the pseudonym of Igor Efimov, a Russian émigré who lives in New Jersey and is the founder of the Hermitage House Publishing Company. He is the author of 15 books, including novels and works of political philosophy; this is his first work to be translated into English.


What the Geezer Saw

          He had nearly finished his “marinated herring, sauce de noix” and was pouring himself a dram glass of lukewarm vodka when she appeared in the restaurant and walked slowly down the central passageway. . . .
          Now, if I didn’t know her and if there were nothing between us, he thought, would I freeze the way I did just now, with my glass halfway to my mouth? Would I be staring now, like that Air Force fellow and that gray-haired geezer, and like the waiter, and that old babe with the wig slipping down?
          So her shoes weren’t made at the local Skorokhod factory, her dress doesn’t come from Moscowseams, and the handbag obviously travelled across a border or two before it ended up hanging from her shoulder. . . . But are there really so few stylish women running around Moscow? . . . She played her role well, came up by a circuitous route, asked if the seat were taken, sat down with an independent air, and stuck her nose in the menu.
                                                      From The Judgment Day Archives

Stephen Dobyns, a poet and novelist, is the author most recently of Saratoga Bestiary, a mystery novel to be published later this year.