In One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Márquez tells how in Macondo three thousand workers are machine-gunned at the behest of a ruthless banana company. Their corpses are thrown into the sea and relatives are told that there haven’t been any dead bodies: “You must have been dreaming… Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened…This is a happy town.” Residents accept the official account and dismiss the testimony of the only survivor. But subsequently the town sinks into ruin. Such is the story of Macondo, and of all world dictatorships, which leave a destructive, lasting, and demoralizing legacy.
The brutal Stalinist regime left Russia depopulated and suffering from collective loss of memory. Millions were destroyed in the Gulag and during the Terror Famine. But in Putin’s Russia, the history of Communist terror has been replaced with the myth of the country’s great past. There is no national monument to the numerous victims; instead, there are calls to restore monuments and museums honoring Stalin. Recently, in her Nobel lecture Svetlana Alexievich called Russia “a country without memory, the space of total amnesia.”
The loss of Russia’s national memory is the main theme in Sergei Lebedev’s insightful debut novel, Oblivion. It belongs to a new generation literature examining the impact of Stalinism on Russia today. The novel is masterfully translated by Antonina W. Bouis, whose list comprises 80 titles––writings by famous Soviet and post-Soviet authors as diverse as Mikhail Bulgakov and the Nobel Prize Laureates Alexievich and Andrei Sakharov. Lebedev’s compressed metaphorical novel is the prose of a poet, and Bouis renders his original style effortlessly and artfully.
Lebedev’s writing benefitted from his training as a geologist: he can read the story in a rock or the tundra permafrost. As a poet, he tells it through imagery, creating sensual portraits of objects: “It was through a break in the fog that I saw the barracks in a mountain pass… The barracks stood like plywood cargo crates in which people were stacked… The outlines felt like a long scream…” Having traveled widely in Siberia and Russia’s north, Lebedev had come across the many decaying barracks of the Gulag Archipelago. Soviet labor camps were constructed in desolate places with no witnesses, at the “limit of the inhabited world,” as Lebedev aptly puts it. Russia’s vastness helped conceal the existence of prison camps where conditions were similar to the Mauthausen. Scientists, philosophers, writers, dispossessed peasants, and international communists shared a single and horrible fate. Branded as “enemies of the people,” they were starved and worked to death in uranium and gold mines or constructing railroads and canals. Lebedev creates a collective portrait of the generation, which vanished without a trace, of people whose lives were “smashed” by the will of the state. His novel traces their experiences through visions and dreams––of people becoming prisoners instantaneously; of freight cars with barred windows; of a train engineer unaware he is transporting his own brother to the Gulag. Robbed of names, families, and freedom, multitudes were banished to places where everything from landscape to speech was meant to dehumanize. Their destruction was complete: branded as “enemies of the people,” they were crossed out of contemporary records and died in anonymity, so that “their deaths took place in geography, not in history.”
The Soviet State viewed its people as dispensable and their lives as subordinate to production targets. But the gigantic construction projects, devised by the Party and built by slave labor, such as the White Sea canal and railways constructed beyond the Polar Circle, proved useless. Lebedev alludes to this through the story of an abandoned railroad he saw in the mountains near the Arctic Ocean. He makes the reader feel the anguish of prisoners who cleared the rock with bare hands, only to realize futility of their labor. The railway line was left unfinished: “the ends of rusty rails hung over the emptiness.” The mountain, where prisoners toiled, opens a view to the lake with striking contours: “A mean trick of nature, a joke that had waited several million years: the lake looked like Lenin’s profile, which was imprinted on us by medals, badges, stamps, statues, paintings, and drawings in books.” Numerous lives were sacrificed to the socialist dogma. Soviet history was a series of falsifications, its ideals were stillborn, and the end of the Soviet era spelled out their demise. Soviet textbooks and insignia with Lenin’s profile were discarded; paper money, too toxic to be burned, was dumped in plastic bags in a northern mine. But Stalinism did not end there: the old guard resisted the change.
Oblivion is a first person account, a meditation on the memory of millions, and on personal memory. The narrator recalls his family’s neighbor at their dacha, whom he had met in childhood and whom he named Grandfather II. The old man is hiding his past, so his story unwinds slowly, until it becomes apparent that Grandfather II was a warden in a Gulag camp where prisoners dug radioactive ore; he had “administered death through labor.” For this service the state rewarded him with a luxury apartment. Grandfather II is blind, and his secretiveness and blindness are suggestive of Russia’s suppression of facts about the past. Having outlasted his epoch, “dead inside,” the old man wants to continue living through the boy. The episode of Grandfather II saving the boy’s life by donating his “scrawny” blood is symbolic. The transfusion takes place in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the new era dawned. Grandfather II dies, and the boy, saved by his blood, grows “like a graft on old wood.” This is a fitting image for an embryonic Russian democracy, grafted on Stalinist stock.
The Stalinist legacy is pervasive in contemporary Russia: “There were barriers everywhere, warning signs, ‘no entry’ symbols, guard booths…Man … was not master in these lands, and the guard booths were the architectural descendants of prison camp guardhouses; this land was infected with a fungus, the fungus of the watchman, and all of this, the fences, wire, barricades, was like a single never-ending shout: ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’” The northern town, where Grandfather II had lived supervising prisoners in a nearby uranium mine, was built by slave labor. Every brick tells the story of working under duress. Love of labor has been destroyed here forever, which is why “the whole town drank,” its residents bent on self-destruction. The town’s self-isolation is a part of the Soviet legacy and of Russia’s present. The town “cut off its own path to the outside, destroyed the window to the big world.”
Russia’s failure to deal with its Stalinist legacy, to establish the truth by remembering the millions who died, has invited the past to return. Lebedev’s imaginative novel is thoroughly pessimistic, as it’s meant to be: “This text is a memorial, a wailing wall, for the dead and the mourners have no other place to meet, except by the wall of words…” An insightful and soulful tale about Russia’s historical amnesia, Oblivion speaks of the need for us to remember and to renounce evil regimes with their man-made calamities.