May 01, 2023

Four Books

Duel, book cover.


Borys Antonenko-Davydovych
Translated from the Ukrainian by Yuri Tkacz (Glagoslav; $24.99; 200 pp.)

This short, grim, fine novel (titled Death, Смерть, in Ukrainian), first published in 1927, describes the Bolshevik officer Kost Horobenko crushing resistance in early 1920s Ukraine. Horobenko is mistrusted by fellow officers for his former advocacy of Ukrainian causes, namely the country’s independence. But now, with Leningrad's brutal retaking of Ukraine, he means to be more severe than his comrades. “The fact of the matter is, Kost,” he says to himself, “that you are marching against the village. The Ukrainian village… Together with these incomprehensible people, you must now strike the very target which you only very recently built with your own hands as a secure shield. You must shatter this target to pieces so that no trace of it remains. You must shoot at your former self, Kost!”

He wants to stamp out any feeling or expression of Ukrainian separateness or pride – in others but first in himself. He has a guilty conscience, as the petty bourgeois woman he loved, Nadia, fell victim with her family to the Bolshevik terror. Whenever he feels a glimmer of conscience, he shamefully suppresses it. Thus, his continuous (and wholly deserved) torment.

The novelist Antonenko-Davydovych was arrested during Stalin’s crack-down on everyone and everything a few years after the publication of Duel, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor, which was followed by two decades of exile. He resumed his novel-writing career in the 1970s, but once again his works were suppressed for their Ukrainian sympathies.

As compelling as the story of Horobenko’s conscience is, and as resonant as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, the best part for this reader is the bewilderment Horobenko experiences after he and his crew confiscate the villagers’ musical instruments and book-collections. What to do with all of that cultural wealth now?

“And thus, day by day, the room became more and more like an uncovered common grave. In these four walls with their large dirty stains from the damp, the serenity banished from life was buried with the books. Smells innate to individual families and people… all this had been picked up by the flood, after the dams and weirs were broken one stormy night, and had been washed up here. It seemed everyone had lost faith in books. None of the Party members or the plebians ever came here, no one leafed through the books.”

The protagonist’s saving grace, for the moment, is here:

“Only Kost Horobenko entered this room, sitting among the paper cadavers like an undertaker for hours on end… And he grieved over the books. They were the last ‘material evidence’ which had been carried like splinters through the froth, the rocks, the ledges and waves of the rapids of the revolution. They alone could secretly tell so much inside the four walls of this sullen, damp room!”

No wonder Stalin’s gang had Antonenko-Davydovych arrested.

Kennan BookKennan: A Life Between Worlds

Frank Costigliola
Princeton University Press; $39.95; 640 pp.

Immediately following World War II, “America’s top Russian expert,” the diplomat George F. Kennan, was sensibly leery of Stalin. For the State Department, Kennan had attended 1937’s show trials of Stalin’s former cronies and fall-guys and translated transcripts of them. To parry Soviets’ deeper infiltration of Europe, Kennan laid out a plan for containing the USSR. Such containment necessitated an active American military. The US government rather enthusiastically committed to the ensuing Cold War and to using the threat of nuclear weapons. (To clarify, this George Kennan [1904-2005] was a distant cousin of nineteenth-century America’s preeminent Russian expert, also, confusingly for history, named George Kennan.) George F. Kennan’s reputation as the architect of containment was, he felt, the albatross around his neck:

For the rest of his long life, Kennan would combat the widespread conclusion that containment necessarily entailed a military buildup and possibly a military confrontation. He would protest that he had intended containment as a primarily political policy to be applied by adroit diplomats. Nevertheless, despite his caveats in the long telegram and in the [one-time anonymous] ‘X’ article that the Soviets lacked a fixed timetable and did not intend military aggression, most observers concluded otherwise. Within a year of the greatest war in history, Kennan presented the Soviet Union as another existential threat. Not surprisingly, most Americans assumed a military response was again necessary.

Reflective and uneasy with himself in his personal life, conscious of his own divided soul, Kennan was on the other hand unhesitatingly confident in his professional analyses of America’s and the USSR’s problems. Costigliola’s excellent, careful, painstaking, thoroughly readable biography is his effort to acknowledge Kennan’s full personality. The man who eventually saw himself as a prophet was often out of step with his time but continuously wanted to influence the now. Expecting to be able to guide the foreign policy of every president from FDR to the second George Bush, he was continually vexed about being misunderstood, overlooked, and unheeded. After fostering the arms race, he sought to shift American policy to diplomacy, keeping the channels for communication open rather than relying on senseless and potentially catastrophic nuclear build-up. But America’s interest in military power, and our interest in having influence in western Europe, particularly in Germany, outplayed his case for diplomatic compromise as the best, least dangerous form of containment.

Kennan never stopped analyzing information and applying his intuition about the Russian people, whom he loved – in fact usually preferred to Americans: “Throughout the half-century Cold War and the 101-year span of his own life, Kennan would cling to his dream of bringing together, somehow, the people of America and Russia.”

Costigliola faults John Lewis Gaddis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning George F. Kennan: An American Life (2012) for devaluing Kennan’s arguments for diplomacy but also credits Gaddis, Kennan’s authorized biographer, for the many interviews Gaddis conducted and shared. Costigliola’s only conspicuous faults are his repetitions of epithets and occasionally of information. We hear too many times about Kennan’s love of Chekhov (in Costigliola’s presentation, the irreducible Chekhov is reduced to being an environmentalist and critic of factory-work), and about the Freudian battle Kennan carried on in himself between “Civilization” and “Eros.” Kennan, though married to the same woman for 74 years, was a shame-ridden serial philanderer.

Even to his admirers (Costigliola counts as one), the eloquent Kennan was sometimes personally impossible and often unforgivably unselfconsciously outrageously racist and sexist. He was an advocate of American “values” yet leery and even contemptuous of democracy, capitalism, and multiculturalism: “He would never… totally outgrow his prejudices and his impatience with democracy.” He was a conservative who was clear-eyed about the consequences of air and water pollution and climate-change. He made no friends in the first Reagan administration when he warned “that environmental and social destruction threatened more than anything the Soviets were likely to attempt.”

During Kennan’s second fifty years, he seemed less a Biblical prophet than an angry Sophoclean protagonist who cannot control the use that others make of his words.

What a large and complicated and influential and frustrated and admired and scorned man Kennan was. Likable? No. Relentless, bold, earnest? For sure. Costigliola has presented a full-bodied, multi-minded twentieth-century dynamo, an intriguing and irrepressible human being: “A man who loved Russia profoundly, he wanted the United States not to triumph over the Soviet Union, but rather to negotiate an honorable settlement that would reduce tensions, restore active diplomacy, and lead to a mutual pullback from Europe.”

Man posing for photo in a suit.
George Kennan in 1947.

TitanA Present Past: Titan and Other Chronicles

Sergei Lebedev
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, New Vessel Press (288 pp.; $17.95)

Constructed out of eleven tipsy, fable-like tales, this novel (published in Russian as Титан in 2022) has aspects that will remind readers of Lebedev’s previous novels. For one, everyday items seem to have lives of their own: “In those long-ago days, dacha complexes managed without dumpsters. … Glass jars were saved for jams and pickles. Sheds held bits of metal, boards, and completely mysterious things – for every object, even unknown, will lie around for a while, come to its senses, and tell you what it is and what for.” Indeed, in
A Present Past things are more substantial than relationships between people, as the various protagonists are usually living solitarily in dystopian worlds.

Another attractive aspect of Lebedev’s writing is the black humor; in “The Obelisk,” most of the action takes place in a cemetery:

“…there’s no soil here, it’s all sand and gravel,” complains a dentist’s wife about their future resting place, “I’m ashamed to lie in it!” A cemetery is familiar and mostly comic territory for Lebedev, as in the very good and superior novel The Goose Fritz (2018), the chronicle of a family told through a series of reminiscent insights. That novel’s narrator only understands the past when he muses himself into a trance of knowledge; suddenly he comprehends exactly what happened and how, even though all such details are necessarily beyond his ken – and this uncommon ability (a talent usually reserved for novelists) continues in A Present Past: “Batitsky was now both himself and not himself; he and the unknown person had in common the cardholder, which was like a room that could be entered from two sides. Batitsky now knew who the other was: a nobleman, lawyer, collector of recommendations and connections, founder of friendships, creator of relationships, manufacturer of affairs and destinies who connected everyone with everyone, a bon vivant, a conductor, intermediary, life of the party, counselor, confidant, favorite.”

A Present Past is an allegory, but deciphering it is sometimes beyond me. The novelist steers clear of immediate depictions of contemporary events. On the other hand, as a private citizen, Sergei Lebedev made a brave public declaration last year at the outset of Putin’s latest war on Ukraine: "It is too early to ask Ukrainians to forgive us," he wrote. "We will ask for forgiveness after the criminals who began this war are punished. If they are punished."[1] (As of late February 2023, Lebedev seems to be living outside of Russia.)

The protagonists of A Present Past are on their own in the dangerous, eerie world, where objects are alive or infused with life and history. Ivanov remembers “the rhythm of his childhood. He lay in the cradle, wordless, not quite here yet, seeking the first connections with the world. In the next room his grandmother clattered on the typewriter all day long – and sometimes through the night… Loudly, then quietly. Quickly or slowly. Speedwriting, with descending piano passages. The audible imprints of letters filled the air like buzzing insects. Grandmother kept the windows shut so the drafts would not scatter the pages, and he, an infant, absorbed the sounds.” Years later, in Ivanov’s Gogoleseque world, “herds of letters roamed the city at night. Their metal-shod shoes clattered on the ancient cobblestones.”

The novel’s fantastical occurrences seem to represent the horrifying reality of state-sponsored terror, authoritarianism, and war. In the Preface, Lebedev explains why he sees the past in the present:

“Throughout its existence, the Soviet state destroyed people and destroyed any memory of the destruction. However, the archives of state security still retained millions of files. Millions of invented accusations. Millions of false interrogations built on a single artistic scenario: from denial to confession of nonexistent guilt. These cases, this metatext with its standardized subjects and genres, may in fact comprise the most important and terrible Russian work of the twentieth century. The evidence of evil which remains unread.”

Perhaps in this Preface, Lebedev is further clarifying the grim realization he had when he commented last year, “Soviet crimes went unpunished in Russia, and so they recur. The price for what was not done in 1991 are the Russian missiles and bombs killing Ukrainians today.”[2]

Денография Дремлющих душ /
A Succession of Somnolent Souls

Poems by Alexander Veytsman
Translated by Laurence Bogoslaw, IM Press/M-Graphics ($27; 160 pp.)

This is a bilingual edition, helpful for us not-quite-fluent readers and for those interested in translation. Laurence Bogoslaw’s engaging introduction discusses how he worked Alexander Veytsman’s rhymed and measured Russian verse into English equivalents. He points out that the imagery in Veytsman’s poetry

“is often rooted in history, visual art, history, music. These images are not always self-explanatory to the non-Russian reader, and thus the motivation for using them is not necessarily clear in translation. Rather than try to articulate some overarching principle of how far to go in ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignizing’ a given image or allusion … I will present a narrative of how a line-by-line ‘prose’ translation (more or less what I started out with for every poem) became transformed through a recursive process of close reading, appreciation of poetic structure, analysis of lexical meaning, and research on extratextual references.”

As agreeable as these verses are, most of them written in the U.S. by the émigré Veytsman, the best presentation of them, besides my mentioning a few of the most attractive, among them “Удаляющейся Фигуре”/“To a Retreating Figure,” “Вдоль Побережья”/“Along the Coast,” “Пуэрториканский Дневник”/“Puerto Rican Diary,” is quoting an example of side-by-side versions. Veytsman’s casual and modern Russian is not particularly difficult or obscure, and Bogoslaw seems to have welcomed the challenge of finding equally casual and suave English.

Below is Part 2 of “На Уроках Русской Литературы”  “Russian Literature Classes.”

Russians will immediately recognize the allusions to Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades,” and everyone else should be inspired by the poem to read that famous great story themselves.


Внутри красного дома, между Парк и Лексингтон,
доживала свой век старуха из «Пиковой».
Она с трудом поднималась по паркетной лестнице
и стыдилась памяти, как своего титула.
Она плохо слышала окрики горничной
и безмолвно общалась с еврейским доктором.
Лишь на ветер, дующий с посвистом призрачным
отвечала порой зловещим шёпотом.
Она помнила Германа: его профиль каменный,
Его руки в сумраке, его поступь--помнила.
Он являлся к ней в снах со словами странными,
Что-то там про карты,

                                                      Всё вокруг да около.

Он являлся и исчезал всегда одинаково,
через заднюю дверь, заросшую вербою.
В темноте обменивался с кем-то знаками
и спешил прочь, на Семьдесят Первую.


In a stately red building between Park and Lexington,
the Queen of Spades lives out her years in tranquility.
She totters up the staircase in parqueted elegance,
ashamed of her memories and her nobility.
She has trouble hearing the shouts of her housekeeper
and communicates with her Jewish doctor wordlessly.
Only now and then, when a phantom wind howls at her,
does she make a response, menacingly murmuring.
She remembers Hermann: his stony countenance,
his hands in half-shadow, his steps in the anteroom.
He appears to her in dreams, speaking words
unaccountable—something strange about cards,
                                                      with an importunate attitude.

He appears and disappears the same way consistently,
through the back door overgrown with shrubs soft and
leathery. In the darkness he signals to someone invisible
and then rushes off into the depths of the 70s..

[1]The Moscow Times. 24 February 2022.

[2] Ibid.


The End. Or just the beginning?

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