The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
It is a bit early for me to write a lengthy, detailed biography. H.G. Wells began his at the age of 65 and managed to scribble out a rather weighty tome — rather larger and heavier than the bricks that a bored Sir Winston Churchill used to build the wall at his country estate.
I wish to merely state that the author was born in the Tretyakov Gallery, where he spent the first six months of his life supervised by a fat feline. He then studied at a Soviet school where he learned all sorts of rubbish and a bit of conversational English.
The author derived significantly more from his interesting travels around the country with his grandparents. They took him to the Black Sea, and brought him with them to spend summers in peasant villages, where, like true intellectuals, they looked at the locals with an inexplicable mixture of scorn and adoration. Thus did the author from a young age stop fearing dirty, drunken “uncles” and “aunts,” quiet, kind-hearted babushkas, and happy, word-twisting “grampas.” They patted him on the head and poured him milk (which he detested) and fed him pies (which he loved), such that he has always gotten on with them. To this day these people evoke normal feelings, and he is able to relate to them like a normal person, not suffering from the illness known as “political correctness.”
Archaelogical studies during the author’s time at Moscow State University allowed him to roam the length and breadth of the USSR. His work in Central Asia, in Tajikistan, not only helped him to write his novel Fish, but also gave him a lifeling love for simple and hospitable Muslims who are so like, and yet so unlike, Russian peasants.
Then there were the years of traveling on assignment for the restoration bureau, where the author twiddled his thumbs in the architectural department and visited the Far North (Novgorod, Solovetsky Islands, Vologda), where he dug foundations for broken-down monasteries and learned that any architectural monument is valuable and beautiful, no matter if it is a 19th century kennel, a 12th century cathedral, a constructivist garage by Melnikov, or Barma and Postnik Yakovlev’s saccharine structure on Red Square, known as St. Basil’s — the edifice that reminds every foreigner that we Russians are yet still Tatars, Asiatics, and all that nonsense.
Being a person in whom flows an assortment of bloods (Jewish on his father’s side, Russian on his mother’s), there is too an admixture of German, a bit more Greek, and some each of peasant, intellectual and noble — according to which the author is also a direct descendant of Ali (a cousin of Muhammed). His most distant ancestor arrived in Rus’ in the 15th century, converted to Christianity and forgot all about the Crimea, where his relatives (the Giray — Huns who ruled the peninsula from the 15th century to the 18th) lived. Possessing this multicultural stew within his ample corpus, the author feels certain it gives him an empathy for the uniqueness of any culture or tradition, an ability to accept them and not shoot from the hip, pointing fingers at Germans, or the Dutch or Belgians, or the French, and so on and on.
The author’s papa was crazy about music, which may be why his cellphone’s ringtone is not the standard trill but Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water — the music of childhood rebellion from back when the USSR seemed to be (and was) a prison of nations. As a student at English Language Special School No. 39, Peter Aleshkovsky spent his evenings reading forbidden literature alongside the classics, attended jam sessions of long-haired rockers, and dreamed of one day seeing that other, foreign world which hid beyond the concrete barrier known as the Berlin Wall.
Those dreams came true and continue to give the author great enjoyment. For just as the author learned to love all architectural monuments, he is continually surprised at how people, like paintings in a museum, are everywhere as unlike one another as they are alike, such that they can even read a novel written in Russian and translated into another language.
Today the author has perhaps just one ardent dream, that aside from English, French and German, one of his works might be translated into… well, you fill in the blank from the endless list of languages on the internet. I don’t have the strength to list them all.
Enough. The plot has been exhausted, and if you have read this to the end, I cannot but be satisfied.
Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
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