Medieval Russia scholar Eugene Vodolazkin (1964-) writes novels in the best traditions of the Russian canon. Characters in this tradition often embody ideas, occasionally to the point of possession (as in Dostoevskii’s The Possessed), but are generally more complex than the ideas they espouse. Prince Myshkin from The Idiot may be an archetypal Holy Fool, but ascertaining exactly what kind of Holy Fool he is requires careful consideration of his specific character, as Dostoevskii presented him.
The specific character of 19th century Russian politics and culture did its part to shape the form that Russian novels took. Popular literature and journalism became, over the course of the 19th century, an outlet for serious philosophical argumentation and social commentary that could not take place in a more straightforward manner, due to the closure of university philosophy departments during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855) and the ever-present (though by no means omni-competent) censorship regime. In short, the notion that fiction is where Big Ideas happen is entirely consonant with the overall flavor of 19th century Russian literature.
Official state atheism and relatively more effective censorship during the Soviet Era provided a certain motive logic that continued this trend. It was the fictional gulag inmate Ivan Denisovich who put Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the literary map, after all. Moby Dick being something more than an irritable and unaccountably vindictive aquatic mammal, this is not to argue that nobody else’s national literature contains profoundly philosophical concerns. However, the history of Russian literature is profoundly bound up with the social and political history of that country. Vodolazkin’s novels can be usefully read as recent entries in this overall tradition.
Solovyov and Larionov (2009, English trans. 2018), Laurus (2012, English trans. 2015), and The Aviator (2016, English trans. 2018) exist in close dialogue with Russian history, but pose questions whose import reaches far beyond it. Put it another way: while trying to come to terms with the history of Russia in the 20th century, Vodolazkin asks questions that concern us all. Most important, to my mind, is a problem that meanders its way through all three of Vodolazkin’s novels: the relationship between the past and the present.
Solovyov, the hero of Solovyov and Larionov, has the same name and chosen career as one of the true doyens of Russian history, Sergei Solovyov (1820-1879). Vodolazkin’s Solovyov is engaged in an historical detective operation. Why was a certain General Larionov, who fought against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), not executed when he was finally defeated by the Red Army? It is this question that Solovyov’s doctoral thesis seeks to answer once and for all, thereby making a name for himself by answering a question that has confounded all the other fictional-yet-all-too-real scholars who put in appearances in Vodolazkin’s novel. Along the way, Solovyov and Larionov subjects the academy’s particular brand of pretentiousness to some punchy satire. At a specialist conference inevitably titled “General Larionov as Text,” a gender studies scholar from Boston concludes that the General was actually a woman. Ok, it’s academic “in” humor, but Vodolazkin has a gift for hilarity at unexpected moments.
In Solovyov and Larionov, Vodolazkin muses that the past and the present are not distinct, but interpenetrate (resist your temptation to read this sentence semiotically). Over the course of the novel, Solovyov comes to discover that his personal history is entangled with that of the mysterious General Larionov. What is interesting, from a philosophical point of view, is that the mystery about the General’s survival is never really cleared up. What is cleared up, however, is the hero’s sense of his own place in the world. In particular, his investigation uncovers the fact that his childhood sweetheart is in fact a descendant of General Larionov, and she possesses some papers that might potentially solve the mystery. In the long run though, what is really important for Vodolazkin is that after a brief fling with a rather adventurous woman, Solovyov is now headed for a reunion with his previous sweetheart, who, while unlikely to initiate sex on an exhibit-piece bed during a nighttime museum break-in (this actually happens), is also far more likely to foster long-term stability. While Solovyov’s historical detective work is incomplete—and perhaps necessarily so—the investigation of that same past is instrumental in solving his mystery of the present, namely, the nature of his place in the world.
Vodolazkin seems to think that humans are too limited to look back on the past and see the “big picture”— our personal mysteries are sufficient. His second novel, Laurus, carries forward these reflections on time. Laurus presents, I think, a paradoxical argument about time. On the one hand, the author thinks, a definitive difference between us and God is that we simply aren’t strong enough to see everything in the sweep of past and present all at once, and so the attempt to thereby assign Meaning to History is doomed to failure. On the other hand, Vodolazkin argues through the titular character, the closer one gets to God, the more the difference between past and present erodes. And so, even if humans did have godlike powers of comprehension, it isn’t obvious that explaining “what it all means” would be achievable or even desirable. Vodolazkin would probably agree with Ivan Karamazov: if understanding the past entails seeing that human suffering (that of children in particular, for Dostoevskii’s character) somehow was “necessary” or “fit” into some Divine plan, then he’d reject such an understanding and renounce Heaven.
Vodolazkin makes this argument about time through his main character, who starts out as “Arseny,” and then morphs through three other identities throughout the course of the novel. Set in the 15th century, Arseny manifests a unique ability to heal others at a young age. The character’s first iteration, then, is as a village healer/medicine man. This is of particular import, as the mid-14th century plague petered out in northwestern Russia in the early 1350’s, but re-appeared regularly in the centuries following. The young Arseny has plenty to keep him busy.
Arseny’s second life involves living as a “holy fool” in Pskov. As someone in closer communion with God than the rest of us, the Holy Fool comes closer than we to transcending time, as God transcends time. Another of Vodolazkin’s characters, “Ambrogio,” illustrates this dynamic as well. Ambrogio (who becomes a close friend of Arseny’s in his post-holy fool existence, has visions of the future, and is clearly in touch with God at a level beyond most people) reads “…historical writings. With their focus on the past, they (and this connected them with Ambrogio’s visions of the future) were an escape from the present. Movement away from the present—in both directions—became something Ambrogio needed as much as air, because it removed time’s unidimensionality, which caused him to gasp for breath” (186).
A third and final way in which Vodolazkin muses about time in Laurus, is his deliberate use of anachronism. Characters periodically lapse into archaic Russian, which the translator nicely renders into archaic English. Likewise, Vodolazkin remarks of Arseny’s grandfather Christofer, that “He was convinced the rules of personal hygiene should be upheld, even in the Middle Ages” (12).
So in Laurus, what do these musings about time add up to? First, I think, Vodolazkin is convinced that what really matters is what we do right now. In Arseny’s final incarnation as “Laurus,” he is a hermit-healer, living out in the woods near his place of birth. Towards the beginning of the story, he had taken in a girl whose village was decimated by the plague. The two became intimate, and she became pregnant. Both she and the baby die, as Arseny was convinced he would be able to deliver the baby, and he wished to avoid any public shame at having hidden the girl and impregnated her without benefit of a marriage ceremony. Arseny spends the entire book in a state of remorse, and if fact it was this remorse that drove him more or less insane and into his life of holy foolishness. Now, at the end of the story, Arseny/Laurus takes in a pregnant girl, whom the area townspeople blame as the cause of a recent plague. Arseny/Laurus defends the girl from the mob, delivers the baby, and dies with it in his arms, thereby finally rectifying his sin from the beginning of the book. So, in a sense, his youthful love is not in fact dead, and neither is the baby.
Further, Vodolazkin’s characters have a fascinating conversation, shortly before the confrontation with the village mob. Laurus has been telling the girl Anastasia about the life of Alexander the Great. Anastasia wonders, “What was the historical goal of [Alexander’s] life? Laurus looks steadily into Anastasia’s eyes and reads his own questions in them. Bending over the sleeping girl’s ear, Laurus whispers: Life has no historical goal. Or that is not the main goal” (350).
Why might an early 21st century Russian novelist be convinced that such is the case? Given the human tragedy entailed by Soviet communism’s “historic” triumph, the point makes itself, I think. It is coming to terms with this tragedy, that forms the backdrop of Vodolazkin’s most recent novel, The Aviator, whose central premise is as follows: Platonov, the main character, was born in 1900, and so lived through the revolutionary era. After his father is killed, he and his mother move into a communal apartment, whose residents include the original occupants, a theology professor named Voronin and his daughter Anastasia, and a phlegmatic sausage factory employee, Zaretsky. Voronin’s profession made him an inherent risk for counterrevolutionary activity, in the parlance of the times. In the mid 1920’s, Zaretsky denounces him to the political police, is later murdered by persons unknown, and Platonov, who is in love with and plans to marry Anastasia, is arrested and sentenced to the infamous labor camp on Solovki Island.
Early Soviet science was sometimes indistinguishable from science fiction. Science fiction novelist Alexandr Bogdanov, for instance, was in charge of a clinic that attempted to create the New Soviet Man through blood transfusions. (He died in 1928, of a bad blood transfusion). Likewise, cryogenics was a matter of interest to early Soviet scientists, and when Lenin died in 1924, freezing was an option under consideration. These types of research, paired with the ideological sense that socialist revolution could admit of no insurmountable scientific frontiers, provide Vodolazkin with the contextual fodder to have the Soviet leadership try to demand that (fictional) cryogenics researcher Muromtsev attempt to freeze the stroke victim Feliks Dzerzhinskii (1877-1926), the first head of the Soviet secret police. Muromtsev, out of scientific principle, refuses, for which he and his entire research team are exiled to Solovki. As of 1926, Stalin’s power was growing, but his eventual supremacy was not yet assured. Vodolazkin has Stalin intervene to protect Muromtsev’s research (though not to release him from the camp), and so, our hero Platonov, who has been getting frostbite in punishment for his crime of passion, now gets to freeze in the cause of science.
Fast-forward to 1999: Platonov wakes up in a 30 year-old body, 99 years after his birth. Soviet communism has collapsed. This scenario raises one of Vodolazkin’s central questions: How can one come to terms with such a thing as the Soviet century? How is it possible to “make sense” of life experiences such as Platonov’s? How does one come to terms with individual connections to “historic” events? As in his first two novels, Vodolazkin’s answer takes the form of a philosophy of history.
Part of the trouble, both for Vodolazkin and for his protagonist, is that nobody actually experiences the past as “history.” “History” is what happens when one adopts a looking-down-from-the-sky approach to what happened, thus the title of the novel. As Platonov struggles to live in this new world as someone with both an inside and an outside perspective on 20th century Russia, the standard distinctions between facts and events begin to collapse. What he had experienced as “events” are mere “facts” from a later vantage point, and vice versa. Granted that a porch isn’t much good if you’ve haven’t got a good novel to read while sitting on it, this is where Vodolazkin’s novels should be of genuine interest to residents of the Porch. Vodolazkin is convinced that grasshoppers and samovars are just as much historical “events” as the Battle of Waterloo or the Soviet Terror (222-3, 359). Here, Platonov’s view needs quoting: “a historical event is anything that can exist in the whole wide world. Including, it stands to reason, a grasshopper and a samovar. Why? Well, because, as it turns out, both those things disseminate calmness and peace. And in that, he said, lies their historical role” (223).
Throughout Vodolazkin’s novels, then, is the recurrent sense that what is of Ultimate Importance is, paradoxically, what is right here, right now, not whatever “event” is on the cutting-edge of historical progress. This doesn’t make Platonov anti-historical. Rather, this character and many of Vodolazkin’s other characters challenge us to consider whether our concern with things such as “social trends” and “cultural changes” might need leavening with a solid dose of appreciation for the sound of grasshoppers.
In an unexpected plot twist, it turns out that Platonov did in fact commit the murder of Zaretsky, the murder weapon having been a marble statue of Themis with her scales of justice. At the end of The Aviator, Platonov is on a plane that is about to attempt a belly-landing, on a return to from Munich where he was seeking additional medical counsel as to why his brain is deteriorating. We do not know whether he survives the landing. We do not know if he will see his new wife and unborn daughter again. We do not know if he will survive his brain deterioration, if he does survive the landing. Themis’ scales are broken off, and neither do we necessarily know what capital ‘J’ Justice is.
Rather, I think, Vodolazkin’s novels encourage us to narrow our focus somewhat, to pay attention to our immediate surroundings, to acknowledge our inherent limitedness. If, for Vodolazkin, refusal to acknowledge human limitedness did its part to lead to the human tragedies of the Soviet era, we occupants of the Porch can profitably read Vodolazkin in light of our own concern to acknowledge human limitations and find ways to live well and more fully in our own communities. Understood in this light, the past has the ability to ground us more fully in our surroundings, and Vodolazkin’s novels encourage us to do exactly that.