Chris Harman


A novel idea?

(September 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.112, September 1988, pp.9-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“THE VENGEANCE of history is much more powerful than that of the general secretary”. Trotsky’s words, written at the height of Stalin’s terror in the mid 1930s, kept flashing through my mind as I read the just published English translation of Anatoli Rybakov’s novel, Children Of Arbat.

The Arbat is one of the best known streets in Moscow. The novel is about what happens to a group of young friends from the street in the mid 1930s.

Several have relatives who hold high positions in industry and the state. Their lives inevitably become intertwined with the terror that Stalin is unleashing. The most enthusiastic of the Komsomols (young Communists) ends up in exile in Siberia; the least enthusiastic, the son of an artisan opposed to the revolution, climbs to a powerful position in the secret police; one of the girls becomes an informer on those with whom she sleeps among the bohemian fringe of artists, actors and foreign businessmen.

Rybakov traces the threads which entangle their lives from their encounters with each other through to the very top of Russian society, where Stalin debates his next move with himself and jokes with his close cronies before, eventually, arranging for one of them, Kirov, to be assassinated.

The method employed by Rybakov is not new. It was employed by Solzhenttsyn in First Circle, which although set at a later date, shows the same interconnections between the fate of those trapped in GPU’s prison system and the high politics practised in the Kremlin. Even before Solzhenitsyn it was used, to brilliant effect, by Victor Serge in The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

The most important thing about Rybakov’s novel is that it was first published last summer in Russia. It was eagerly seized upon by an audience who had not even had the chance to read Khrushchev’s “secret” speech denouncing Stalin, let alone Comrade Tulayev.

The publication was an historic event in a double sense: it marked the opening up of a new phase in Glasnost, in which for the first time the Stalin era could be talked about honestly, and it forced the relics from the Brezhnev era who presided over official expositions of Russian history on to the defensive. Rybakov, like Serge and Solzhenitsyn, went through Stalin’s prison camps himself. And the novel is marked by the same angry determination to come to terms with Stalinism as theirs is.

But there are important differences in the attitudes taken by the three.

Serge was from the generation that made the revolution. An anarchist activist in France and Spain, he made the long journey from Barcelona to Petrograd in 1919 to join the Bolsheviks and to work for the Communist International. His testimony is that of one of the very few Left Oppositionists to be allowed out of the camps and out of Russia.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev is about the fate of that generation. Its key figures are old revolutionaries seeking to come to terms with the new horror which is sweeping the country. As they confront betrayal, imprisonment and execution they torment themselves with questions about the fate of the revolution. Again and again they ask whether Stalin is, in some way, carrying the revolution forward or whether in fact he embodies a counter-revolution.

The answers they arrive at determine whether they betray their friends and abase themselves with absurd confessions, or whether they fight Stalinism to the end, as does the old Left Oppostitionist Ryzhik when he secretly starves himself to death and aborts the massive show trail his gaolers are planning.

The other two novels are about the next generation, those who grew up in the Russian middle classes during the 1930s—both Solzhenitsyn and Rybakov served as officers in the Russian army during World War Two. The accounts of the Stalin terror are as seen through their eyes—eyes which are virtually blind to the revolutionary perspective of those who preceded them in the camps.

In First Circle itself, the revolutionary period serves mainly as a point of reference, as a source of slogans against which the present is found wanting. The one revolutionary who miraculously survives finds that:

“Twenty years have gone by since, and all those toasts they had drunk and oaths they had taken no longer make any sense and had faded from memory.

“Those of them who had capitulated had been shot as well as those who had not. Only Adamson, a lonely survivor, preserved a memory and understanding of those years. They were preserved in his head, like a tree unseen in a hothouse.”

Yet Solzhenitsyn, despite his subsequent degeneration into a variant of pan-Slavic religious mysticism, was capable in First Circle of using the comparison with the past slogans to paint a damning indictment not just of the present terrors, but also of the social conditions which accompanied it.

The poverty and degradation of the mass of people outside, as well as inside the camps is described. And so too is the lifestyle of the new ruling class:

“They belonged to that circle of society where such things as walking or taking the Metro is unknown, where even before the war, a journey was made by air in preference to sleeping car, where there is never any worry about furnishing a flat ... They did their best to taste every new exotic fruit: to know the aroma of every rare brandy, and the difference between a Rhine wine, a Corsican wine and all the other wines from the vineyards of the earth; to wear all the clothes and to dance all the dances; to swim off fashionable beaches ...

“For six years humanity was torn apart, men and women died fighting, or were buried in the ruins of cities, grown up people, driven out of their minds, stole bread rations as small as communion wafers from children. Not a breath of the sorrow of the world fanned the cheeks of Innokenty and Datomos.”

The focus of Children of the Arbat is much narrower than that of First Circle. The “children” are from the privileged circles with only one exception—and he becomes the secret policeman. Their lives are shielded from the hardship of the workers and the famine of the peasants by a wall of privilege which Rybakov rarely notices.

The horror which confronts them is the terror, seen almost as a historical accident, cut off from any real questioning, of the social conditions—the rise of a new, counter-revolutionary state capitalist class.

Rybakov seems able to give only one possible answer to the question as to why Stalinism arose:

“Kirov recognised with bitterness that the Party had made a grave mistake in not taking Lenin’s advice and removing Stalin as general secretary. They should have done it. Trotsky would not have got the upper hand ... Nor would Zinoviev and Kamenev have become leaders ... The Party today would have been led by ... the present Politburo, plus Bukharin and Rykov, and even Stalin, but as an equal member ...”

Contrast this with the reflections of the repentant supporter of Stalin, Rublev, in Comrade Tulayev: “It was impossible for us to adapt ourselves to a phase of reaction, and as we were in power, surrounded by a legend that was true, born of our deeds, we were so dangerous we had to be destroyed beyond physical destruction, our corpses had to be surrounded by a legend of treachery

“The weight of the world is upon us, we are crushed by it. All those who want neither drive nor uncertainty in the successful revolution overwhelm us, and behind them they have all those whom the fear of revolution blinds and saps ...

“The worst venture, the most hopeless venture is to seek immobility and time when continents are splitting and breaking adrift ...

“We wanted the courage to continue our exploits, and people wanted nothing but more security, rest, to forget the effort and the blood on the eve of the rains of blood!

“Upon one point we lacked clarity and daring: we were unable to perceive what the evil was that was sapping our country ... We ourselves denounced as traitors those among us who revealed it to us ...”

Serge’s was the view of an intransigent revolutionary. Rybakov’s is that of those in Russia who put their faith in reform today. They want to reform the structure which Stalin built while distancing themselves from the horror which accompanied the building. That means they can denounce the horror, but only from a limited perspective.

Poor politics can produce very good literature—if it allows the writer to have a deep enough insight into the times through which he lives. In First Circle the directionless hatred of Solzhenitsyn for Stalinism provided him with such an insight, even if it did not reach the heights of Serge’s. Unfortunately, Rybakov does not measure up to either.

Children of the Arbat is important as a political document, as a weapon used to open the doors of history in the USSR. It is also an enjoyable read. But the fact that it is the only novel on the Stalin terror yet to be published openly in Russia should not lead anyone to believe it is the best.

Last updated on 15 April 2010