Alexei Makushinsky

writer, poet, essayist

 

Writing about the Revolution
Talk, given in the King‘s College, London, on October, 6, 2016 

It is a great theme that I am supposed to talk about, and of course it is difficult to say something about it, that goes beyond simple generalizations. That is why I decided to be consequently immodest and to make some very personal remarks. I hope they are not only of personal interest. Thomas Mann used to say, that he always had the impression, it is enough for him to tell about himself, there will be always some people, for whom it will be also interesting and important. The same must be true with regard to our subject. Of course the Revolution and the Civil War (that can be regarded as a continuation of the Revolution) - maybe the most important event in the 20th century, at least from the Russian point of view (the other one is of course the German-Soviet war) - the Revolution, I say, plays an immensely important role in the life of every person, who had the good or bad luck to be born in Russia or in one of the neighbor countries in this incredible and tragic 20th century. Everybody could write his personal account of his, or hers, relationship with the Revolution, the story of his, or hers, infatuation, fascination, disillusionment, maybe disgust. The generation before mine, it seems to me, was condemned to adhere in some degree to the revolutionary myth - at least in youth. That was the fate of the generation of the sixties, I think, the generation of the so-called thaw-period in the Soviet history. Of course there are exceptions, but this seems to be the rule - and it has to do with the liberation from the heritage of the Stalin-time. The revolutionary era, the Lenin-period seemed a sort of counter-balance to the still darker years that came after that. One still didn‘t dare to be directly anti-Sovietic, but dared to be anti-Stalinist and used Lenin as a sort of anti-poison. It was not only conformity to the ideological schemes of Chruscev, but for many people whom I knew personally a very sincere way of thinking, an adherence to the revolutionary myth, from which they had to liberate themselves in the course of their lives. Some didn‘t succeed at all in that matter.

We had no such problems. Maybe some people did - and still do - but I can remember no time in my life in which I believed in Revolution. The same, I think, can be said about the majority of my friends. The Moscow youth of the late seventies, early eighties was uncompromisingly anti-communist. 

There were revolutionary slogans everywhere, portraits of Lenin and of course his monuments - they are unfortunately still there - but it was only laughable, absurd and disgusting, nothing more.  

I began very early to read books and memories about this time - forbidden books, actually, like memories of White officers and generals. I learned to regard these events as a tragedy - in an almost ancient sense of the word - in the sense, that even if you were on the right side - and for me it was always the White side - you were not completely in the right. For anyone who participated in the events it was not really possible not to make himself guilty, I think. And this is possibly what gives history its tragic greatness. 

But really - and inexplicably - my fascination began the day - I was maybe 19 - as I heard for the first time about the so-called Republic of Elets of 1918, a very small and very absurd episode in the history of the Russian Civil war.  The episode is small and the town is not big. Elets is a relatively little town in the South of Russia, now in the district of Lipetsk, at that time in the district of Orel. 

This Republic of Elets, if it really existed – and there is strong evidence, that it did exist, although I could find but little information about it – must have been created in the very beginning of 1918 and ended in the middle of the same year; maybe the most important witness of these events was Michail Prishvin, a relatively well known, and not very much read, author of the time, who spent the revolutionary years precisely in this Elets, his native town, and who writes about it in his, I must say, fantastically interesting diaries, that were fully published only in recent years. There existed the so-called Elets Committee of People’s Commissars (Елецкий Совнарком); a sort of local government; in May 1918 it officially decided to “give over the fullness of the Revolutionary power to two People’s Dictators – Ivan Gorshkov and Michail Butov – who from now on have the life, the death and the property of all citizens in their disposal.” A different source calls it duumvirate and the both of them duumvires – a Roman masquerade in the deepest Russian province. The Republic had presumably its own money, its own stamps – I could find none – its constitution, and some very interesting laws and decrees (Prishvin tells about them), for example an order of the People‘s Commissar of Education to let free all singing birds, canaries and so on, for the purpose of sparing the corn and as the realization of the great principle of Liberty.

But the main topic, that was discussed at the time, was - whether or not the Elets Republic should declare war to Germany. I am not joking. There was a Peasant Depute Congress, on which it was ardently discussed. They decided finally not to do it, evidently conscious of the fact that the Elets Republic had a very small chance to win. 

All this I was to learn later. In the age of 19 I only knew that there was a Republic in a remote provincial Russian town, and somehow, I cannot really explain how and why, it deeply impressed me and began, let’s put it like this, to lead its own secret life in my imagination.

On the other side: Whether or not the dream, that I am now going to describe, was connected or not with this story of the Elets Republic, I cannot tell. It was a dream I dreamt some years later (in my novel “The Town in the Valley” it is the main character, Pavel Dvigubskij, how dreams it, in the so-called reality it was myself). It looked like a movie, may-be. There was a small town in this dream, somewhere in Russia, not Elets, but an anonymous typical small town, lying in a valley, or maybe it was not even in Russia, as the dreams are, but on waking-up I knew, that it was Russia, and some troops, White troops, entered that town and had to move on, but the principle character, the hero of that dream and later the hero of my book, stayed in that town, because it was his native town, in which or the proximity of which he had spent his childhood. He stayed there and was of course arrested - on waking up I knew that there was a sort of local revolution there after the parting of White troops, a small republic was built. Then came the main scene, the nucleus of the book that I later tried to write and that made me so despaired. He is sitting in prison and somebody comes to him, the main anti-hero, counter-hero of this dream and this book, who tries to persuade him to escape, to run away. The door is open, I am on your side, run... He knows that this is a trap, that he will be killed when trying to escape. But the temptation is so great, that he cannot withstand, resist it. And he runs, across a big square with cobblestones, and then climbs a big brick wall - and a projector follows him - and of course he is killed.

We all have in the course of our lives some important dreams, maybe two, or three, or more. I had two, I think, maybe two and a half. So, I knew when I woke up in the morning, that this is a very important dream, that is going to change my life. Which it did, really.

It also began to live its own secret life somewhere in me, inside. But I had other things to do. In the age of 25 I began to write my first novel, that finally received the title „Maks“, after its principle character, and that took me some 9 years to write. So I was 34 as I finished it, and - this was my plan - I immediately began to write my revolutionary novel (I thought of it as of a small novel, Russian - повесть), which I failed to write till the age of 50, for the next 16 years, and which in these 16 years became a sort of the biggest failure of my life, an obsession, that didn‘t let me go and do other things, and at the same time seemed impossible to be done, to be written.

Writing about Revolution – as this talk is named - turned out to be almost impossible.  

What were the reasons for this failure? Of course there were many - objective and subjective. 

First there was the material reality, or realities, material things and matters that you have to mention if you write about 1919 and that give your book, if you want it or not, a smell of a historical novel – in my eyes a somewhat primitive literary genre (of course there are exceptions, as always and everywhere). It all seemed literary in the worst sense of the word, coming not from my own experience, but re-telling other books. And this is what I absolutely didn‘t want to do, of course. The Russian Civil war was probably the last war in the history of mankind, in which cavalry played a decisive role. So presumably my hero, a White officer, taking part in the great offensive of general Denikin in the South of Russia in summer and autumn of 1919, this hero, whom I could see very well, the hero of my dream, who had to perish in that imagined small town in the valley, - he had to ride a horse. But who am I to speak about horses? I can speak about cars, or about bicycles. But carriages, and horses, these poor horses, with all their saddles, and bridles, and snaffles, and stirrups, and how all these things are called, what have they all forgotten in my prose, in the text of someone who had never even approached a horse... I know absolutely nothing about all these horses, or about old hats and old clothes, all that parts of old clothes that were so easily, so naturally named by the authors of that time, but that sound so shallow, so very much like bad literature, when I, who never wore them, or saw them only in a museum, name them now. It all seemed a fake. A White officer jumps on the horse-back and shouts: Gentlemen, we are going to attack the Reds, where are our machine-guns... It‘s a fake, it is not true, it‘s a bad movie...

There is a really reliable medicine against it, as every author knows (or must know). I mean - irony. Irony helps us in the most difficult situations in which we get involved - in life and in literature as well. The author takes an ironic position and attitude. Well, he says (implicitly or explicitly) to the reader, we, both of us, know nothing about all that old hats and that army ranks and signs, shoulder straps and epaulettes. So let us do it quickly. It is not so very important for both of us, is it? It is just a decoration, let us concentrate on the main thing, the real drama or the real tragedy.

The problem was, that I couldn‘t say that, neither explicitly nor implicitly, couldn‘t take this ironic attitude. The book wanted to be tragic, not ironical. Of course, the one doesn‘t exclude the other. But still it was not the ironic, descriptive and digressing manner, that I wanted - or that the book itself wanted from me.     I can write in this manner, really, and I do it in my other books, I know the tricks of it, but this time in didn‘t seem possible. What I saw with my inner eye and what I desperately tried to write, was a relatively short, concise, tight text, without any digressions at all, speedily evolving towards its tragic end. Pushkin speaks in „Eugene Onegin“ about „a novel in the old style“, роман на старый лад. That was what I wanted to do, a novel maybe in the style of Pushkin himself, or maybe in the style of Prosper Merimée, whom he, Pushkin, so much admired, something pre-modernist, even pre-realist, a sort of a Romantic novella, let‘s put it like that. Now, do we have a choice? Can an author actually chose his style, his manner? A certain style has something to do with time, I think, with historical time, the historical period, in which it was born. Can a modern dramatist write an ancient tragedy, with choir and all that? I tried to write this book in the nineties of the 20th century, then in the beginning of the 21century; could it be so written that it would remind the thirties of the 19th century? Well, on the whole, the answer seems to be: no. Perhaps somebody else can do it, but I failed. 

I won‘t bother you with the full account of all my tries and guesses, suffice it to say that I tried many times to pull the plot out of the historical context, to put it in an abstract time and abstract place, to make a kafkaesque parable out of it - and it was in a way a parable - still it seemed intolerably literary. The story didn‘t want to be told, this or that way.

I failed in many other ways at that time. There were personal reasons for this failure, of course, about which - despite my decision to be immodest - I won‘t speak now.

Anyway, this crisis was at some time over as almost every crisis is. I couldn‘t write prose for a time-being, but I returned to writing poetry, which I had abandoned in my youth, and I turned to writing essays - some of which, no wonder, had much to do with our topic. I‘ll speak about two texts this time, that are both collected in my book of essays, titled „By the Pyramid“.

What especially interested me, were what you can call psychological, or mental, or maybe psychologically-ideological preconditions of the Revolution. I don‘t mean the revolutionary ideology in the narrow sense of the word; enough is already written about the Russian Marxism, Bolshevism, the co-called Populism, народничество, about the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and its terror organization and so on and so forth. What really interested me was the mentality of large circles of the Russian educated society, let‘s say intelligencia, as it was expressed by popular poets and writers of the time. It is always better to begin not with generalizations, but with a specific example, a quotation, a poem, an article, or a diary entry. So let us take an entry from the diary of Alexander Blok, whom so many regarded and regard as the greatest poet of that period. On the 5th of April 1912 Blok writes: „The perish, or the wreck, of the Titanic, that made me yesterday  unspeakably glad (there is still the Ocean; the ocean is still there). (I feel) endlessly empty and hard“.

Now, let us try to imagine it. Approximately one thousand and a half persons perished with the Titanic. The majority of them, that couldn‘t get into the few rescue boats that were there, jumped overboard and drowned in the icy water. The rescue boats went away half empty, the officers who had the commando of these boats were first afraid that they get into the whirl, produced by the sinking ship, and then were afraid that those who were still in the water would so desperately try to go onboard that the boats would overturn and sink. So these sea-officers stood in front of the possibly most terrible decision of their whole lives - should they try to rescue some more people and risk their own lives and the lives of those who were already onboard, or save these happy few and let the others die. Most of these captains chose the second; as the boats sailed away they could still hear the cries and shouts of people sinking in the icy water.

And Aleksandr Blok, presumably the greatest Russian poet of the time, is happy - the Ocean is still there.

Now, what is this ocean? Some years later, as the Revolution happened - the Revolution, that was to take much more human lives, as the 1,5 thousands drowned by the catastrophe of the Titanic - Aleksandr Blok proclaimed his famous slogan about listening of the „music of the Revolution“. With all your heart, all your consciousness and all your body you should listen to the music of the Revolution... I don’t know how you can listen with the body, but he really wrote it… Of course, in the thinking of that time music is irrational, Dionysian as opposed to the Apollinic rationality; all Symbolists and most of their contemporaries were very good pupils of Nietzsche. In Russian we have the notion of стихия - something elemental, irrational, primordial and chaotic. Interestingly you can rhyme this word with Russia - стихия - Россия. Another great Symbolist, a friend and rival (in many senses) of Blok, Andrej Belyi used this rhyme in a well-known poem of the revolutionary year 1917, where he also uses a third word that you can rhyme with these two - the word Messiah, Мессия, and it tells us very much about the real dimensions of this Russian fascination with the elemental. Of course, it is messianic, nothing less than this. „And you, the fire element, go mad and burn me away, Russia, Russia, Russia, the Messiah of the coming day“:

И ты, огневая стихия,

Безумствуй, сжигая меня,

Россия, Россия, Россия —

Мессия грядущего дня!  

It‘s not a bad poem, I must say, it has a dynamics of its own, a certain power, that doesn‘t fail to produce an effect on the reader.

So, the Titanic stands apparently for the civilization, and the ocean for стихия, for elemental forces. That is what fascinates Blok, not only him, but a whole generation, a whole culture, - elemental forces are still there. They have to show themselves, to break through - and destroy all this life, this civilization, this society, this ethics, these laws, and all this world, in which we feel ourselves so endlessly empty and bad. But for us, who look back now, from the distance of hundred years, what is the year 1912? It is very easy to answer - it is paradise. The year 1912 - this is the Paradise, the Paradise Lost, nothing less. It is the time that we in Russia call the „Silver Age“, and for many of us, who had the bad luck to be born in the state of workers and peasants, in the fulfilled Utopia, this time before the Catastrophe was always an object of strong nostalgic feelings. In what year would you like to live? In the year 1913, under the premise, that it would never end. 

That means that wholly different premises, the premises of the catastrophe were already there, long before the catastrophic 20th century showed its real face. In that world, that we can only dream about, they sit and think, how they can destroy it. The Fall happens not after, but before the Expulsion from the Paradise. 

You can say the same about the ideological premises of the catastrophes of the 20th century. They were all there, the right- and the left-wing ideologies, long before the century began. As I already said, it was not the ideology that primarily interested me, but the mental state of those, who may have been more or less politically and ideologically engaged, but whom we remember in the first line as poets and writers. „But you, that are going to kill me, I greet you with a joyous hymn,“ wrote Valerii Briusov already 1905 in a poem titled „To the coming Huns“, Грядущим Гуннам. Maksim Gorkij, when we believe the wonderful memories of Vladislav Khodasevich, adored  pyromaniacs and was himself „a little bit of an arsonist“. He had a nice habit to wait, till there are enough cigarette-buts, matches and papers in an ash-tray - and then put there a burning match, when nobody lookd at him. All of a sudden it all went aflame. These „family fires, as I proposed to call them, writes Khodasevich, had for him some evil and joyful symbolic meaning“. He also liked to speak about the splitting of the atom, but when he spoke about it, it was usually dull and schoolmasterly, and the reason why he did it at all, writes Khodasevich, was to come to a gay conclusion, that „such experiments, you know, can one day lead to the destruction of the whole universe. And this will be a nice little fire“.  And he clacked with his tongue.

That thousands and millions of people will die in this „nice little fires“, is not interesting at all for the „a little bit of arsonists”. They are not even mentioned. Blok writes about the Titanic and the ocean, that is still there, but he doesn‘t mention the victims. The story is not about dying people, it is about the ocean. Not about the executed, or starved to death, or killed in the civil war, it is about the music of the revolution, about the great break-through of irrational, primordial, elemental forces. 

And really there is something extremely irrational about the great events of the early 20th century, beginning with the WWI. Historians still discuss the reasons of the Great War, and it doesn‘t seem they will soon come to a definitive conclusion. Of course there were reasons, but the irrational residue seems incredibly great. You can say the same about the Revolution (the February Revolution; the Bolshevist seize of power in October is easier to explain). Vassilij Rosanov, one of the most fascinating and controversial writers and thinkers of the time, says in a text, characteristically named „The Apocalypse of Our Time“: „Russia disappeared (was washed away, washed out) it two days. Maybe in three. What happened actually? Nothing. The Czar was nervous, there were some queues to buy bread... and that‘s all. Nothing happened, but everything disappeared, the Tsardom, the Army, the Church, everything...“ (I quote by heart).

This was some years later. 1912, as Blok was not sure, that the ocean still exists, all of it (the Tsardom, the Church, the Army…) seemed made for centuries. The whole of the educated Russia, more or less, dreamed about the Revolution almost for a century, but that it would really come, and above all, that it would smash away the whole old order (the Church, the Army etc…), it seems that nobody really believed it, just as nobody in the wonderful European summer of 1914 really believed that the war would come and destroy forever the old European life that we can hardly imagine to-day. And it is possible, even probable, that precisely this feeling of stability led to the boredom and depression, which, in their turn, seduced them to accept the coming catastrophe and not to think about its possible victims. 

The ocean is still there, writes Blok. I feel myself endlessly empty and it is hard to live. If we assume that irrational (if you want, but I don‘t insist - demoniac) forces had to break through, perhaps we can say that they needed this emptiness and depression, and this boredom in human souls to find the way to the surface. When you are bored, you may hope that a feast would change your mood for the better. And what is the outbreak of a great war, the outburst of the revolution if not a feast? Revolution and war - it means first of all that children don‘t go to school. The great freedom now proclaimed is last not least freedom from your everyday duties. Children don‘t go to school, but they run to the central square with the monument of the local king, and climb on trees and lantern posts, and march with the soldiers. It will be only after that, that they will be poisoned with gas and dying in military hospitals. At first it is a feast, happiness, great events and decisions. „These hours (after the declaration of the war) liberated me from unpleasant feelings of my youth. Even to-day I am not ashamed to confess, that, conquered by a stormy inspiration, I fell on my knees and from the depths of my overwhelmed heart sent a thank to the Heaven, that it gave me the chance to live at that time“. The quotation is from a certain very dull book, named „My struggle“, Mein Kampf, written by a certain Adolf Hitler whose military rank greatly improved between the two world wars.

Now I‘ll make something terrible and immediately after Hitler quote Anna Akhmatova, who wrote many years later - in prose and in verses - that she is happy to have been born in that time and to have been a witness to events, that you can compare to no other events in history. If we think about her own fate, and the fate of her family, we can only stand in astonishment. It is astonishing and frightening that political monsters whom we abhor and great poets whom we adore, say sometimes very similar things, in a very similar language. In what an interesting time do we live! as Sergei Kirov used to exclaim, one of Stalin‘s closest comrades-in-arms, whom he assassinated 1934 (the trigger for the so-called Great Terror). As somebody joked: How very much I would like to live in an uninteresting time!

And really, what is so great and good about living in interesting times, about witnessing great events? The ocean is not just there, but it is everywhere, and the chance that you drown in the icy water is very big. And there is mostly nothing spectacular, nothing great about the way you perish. It was Nicolai Gumilev, who heroically died 1921, executed by the Bolsheviki. The others died terribly, prosaically, anonymously, in concentration camps, in the communalka-flats, if you know what I mean, surveyed by their neighbors,  small agents of the secret police, in eternal fear and hunger. And still it was a great temptation, it seems to me, to feel oneself a witness, if not a participant, of great historical events. As almost all the other temptations were over, other illusions dispersed themselves, this one held. It is not only the Feast of History (with big H) that fascinates, - the feast is very soon over, and the drab existence that begins after the revolution is much more drab, and gloomy, and hopeless, than the existence before, - but it is the History itself, that fascinates on a still larger scale. And it has something to do with our longing for Sense (with a big S), for a divine Sense. Often enough we feel that our life is senseless (endlessly empty and hard, as Blok wrote), but if we witness, or participate in historical events that we regard as great, we feel ourselves in contact, in a communication, with something that makes sense. Paradoxically even the irrational, the elemental, the „ocean“, when it breaks through, seems to make some sense. It cannot be that all this blood is spilled, all these crimes are made - for no sense at all. It can be, but we don‘t accept it. It is History in the pathetic sense of the word, and it seems to us, or seemed to them, the people of the first half of the 20th century, that it cannot be completely absurd. We fail to see the Providence, the God‘s hand in it, we don‘t even want to see it, we accept the irrational and elemental, and still, paradoxically, it gives us a feeling of our participation in something great, mighty and sacred, if you want. The sacred, the godly, the divine, the numinous, as Rudolph Otto named it, doesn‘t have to be rational and full of evident sense, on the contrary - it has to be sometimes, quite often, irrational, obscure and terrible. Who can pretend to understand God? 

So it is a sort of divinisation of History - if there is such a word - that we see here. History is experienced as something divine - even in its terror, its horror. And the divine - once more - is something, that, even in its horror, makes sense, even if we don‘t see it.

Let us - provisionally - call this attitude Hegelian (of course Hegel believed that he knew this sense and meaning; for us it is not very important now; important is his conviction that there is a sense in history...). There is quite a different attitude, that we can call provisionally Schopenhauerian. For Schopenhauer history has no sense at all and there is nothing divine about it. It is just a repetition of horrors that doesn‘t lead anywhere. You have to look for sense elsewhere, in the art and in the asceticism. We can probably say - but this is a great theme, that I won‘t develop now, - that after all the revolutions of the 20th century (including the last one, the student‘s and social revolution of the 1960s) the Hegelian attitude doesn‘t prevail anymore over the Schopenhauerian as it used to do in the last centuries of the European history. We don‘t regard History as something divine any more, we are not really fascinated by great historical events, the „ocean“ means to us very little, the most of us, I think, would prefer to live in an uninteresting time, and we don‘t really expect History to bring any sense in our lives. We also look for it elsewhere. In this, and only this, sense we can perhaps speak about the End of History. The history goes on, to be sure, but the Divine History, the Goddess of History seems to be more or less dead.

I wrote all that not in order to blame or accuse anybody - who am I to accuse A. Blok? We must not forget the enormous price that they all, the people of that time, had to pay later for their fascination with the „ocean“. It is very easy and it doesn‘t cost much to be clever post festum, after all has already happened. I like the position of those, who - after all has happened, i.e. the revolution, the civil war, the terror, - after the end, as Anna Akhmatova put it, - blamed not the others, or not only the others, but themselves as well. Not you, but me myself do I blame, wrote Akhmatova in her „Poem without a Hero“. You can find this attitude in the “Necropolis” of Khodasevich, in my eyes one of the best memoirs about that time, and one of the best books of Russian prose in general. He is severe with others, but he makes no exception for himself.

To write all these essays, that I partly quoted now, was a great fun and pleasure. Still there was no solution for my Civil war novel - with its symbolic death of the main hero. I didn‘t really hope to write it any more. I couldn‘t do it. But I could do something different, I could finally go to the town of Elets and describe the journey. This is what I really did, in late summer 2007, with my girl-friend of the time, who later became my wife and still later my ex-wife. This was a great experience; and I wrote a long text about it, „Three days in Elets“, published first in the magazine „Znamya“ and then in the book of essays, mentioned above.

There was not much to learn about the Elets Republic of 1918; in the local museum they were very surprised when I asked about it. This was a typically Soviet local museum, with all its typical components, a copy of Lenin‘s „Letter to the workers of Elets“, lots of revolutionary posters, glorifying of the collectivization of the thirties and of course very much about the WWII. The Soviet time was still going on in this museum. Fortunately there was a very different museum in the town, with a different spirit and atmosphere, and this was, and is, a small museum of Ivan Bunin, one of my favorite writers, I must say; a museum, organized in the time of perestroika in the late 1980s - before that a museum for an émigré writer was of course impossible in the Soviet Union. It is located in the house where Bunin lived as a boy, when he studied in the local school (gymnasium). He describes it in great detail in his novel „The Life of Arsen‘ev“, without naming the town; and on the whole Elets plays a great role in his texts (in such marvelous short stories as „The Late Hour“ or „Snowdrop“, to name only these two). It was fascinating - and a little bit intimidating - to see how precisely he could remember the town of his childhood and first youth after half a century, writing about in South France, in Grasse, where he spent so many years of his émigré-life. It was still the same town, astonishingly. It seems that the Communist regime somehow forgot about it - the best thing that could happen to a town, a person, or anything else in Russia of the 20th century. It means that it just deteriorated, its churches, all but one closed, became ruins, or were used as storehouses, the streets were not repaired, the cobblestones not renewed and so on, but its architectural substance was not smashed away to give place to some great socialist project as it happened in so many other places in Eastern Europe. 

So it is a wonderful little Russian town in a catastrophic condition, a town with small wooden houses, gardens full of apples, a quiet river with a wonderful name Быстрая сосна, Quick Pine-tree, long empty dusty streets - and an enormous amount on churches. The only thing that they seem to repair and renovate there are these churches; on every corner you see one more church, that is being renovated; in one of them a nun from the near-by monastery told us, that the frescoes restore themselves with God‘s aid and no participation of human beings - especially at night, when nobody sees them. 

There were other important episodes of the Civil War connected with Elets. In August-September 1919 the city was shortly occupied by the White Cossack Troops of General Mamontov who made his so-called „Raid through the Red Rears“, in general a not unimportant episode of the Civil War, preceding the great debacle of the Denikin offensive in the fall of 1919. The apparition of the Cossacks meant robbery and Jewish pogroms, nothing more. The regular troops of Denikin, that behaved themselves on the whole better, but unfortunately also not always very well, didn‘t manage to take the town - the diaries of Prishvin, that I mentioned at the beginning, are full of rumors and hopes, that they may still come; but they didn‘t. I found the long brick wall of my dream - it was the wall of the monastery (described by Bunin), 2007 there was still a автобаза, a motor depot there. And you could still see traces of bullets, because it was there that the cossacks of Mamontov executed the local communists - there was a memorial desk to that matter, - and the communists, the two dictators and those who came after them, executed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people, whose only guilt it was, that they belonged to gentry, or to rich merchant families of the town, or to priests families - there was of course no memorial desk to that matter. Only in the local newspapers of the time, which I had the luck to read, you can find long lists with the names of the executed - at first, the Bolsheviki used to publish such lists, presumably to frighten everybody else, and then stopped doing this; the lists became too long... And possibly these traces came from some other bullets, or perhaps from no bullets at all, but it was there, in front of this wall, that the executions took place, so I still prefer to think that these were original bullet traces.

All these impressions were, as I now understand, of great importance for the novel, that I finally wrote. It was only 2010 that I found a solution for it. I don‘t have much time to tell about it now... and of course I would prefer that you just read the novel. Let us put it this way. If you don‘t manage to write a novel, you still have the possibility to write a novel about not being able to write a novel.... I played for years with this idea, of course. It is easier said than done. Such rational ideas bring very little, I am afraid; art, if art it is, comes from other sources. I had that dream, of which I told you, in the age of 21, now I was 50; 30 years, a whole life, if you want, had passed. All had changed, in my own life, in the world around me. The communism didn‘t exist anymore, the Soviet Union disappeared, the East-bloc, the Cold War... that was all history now. What we really experienced was the end of a big historical period that began - with what? With the WWI, the Revolution, the Civil war... Step by step, very slowly, I began to conceive a book, that had somehow to deal with all that, with my own life, my youth in the late Soviet Union, the collapse of the regime, the emigration and so on - and with the beginnings, the Civil War. And just as the hero of the book about the Civil war, that I had failed to write, led his own life in my imagination and accompanied me all these years, another hero emerged in me now, a certain Pavel Dvigubskii, whom I describe in this novel as a friend of mine (I imagined him from the beginning to the end, but many readers ask me, if I really had such a friend) and who desperately tries and fails to write the Civil war book that I had failed to write myself. So, in a certain sense I give my failure over to him. He fails in many other ways - in general it is a book about failure - and he also dies, not so pathetically as the Civil war hero, killed in the little town in the valley as he attempts to flee, but in a hospital in Paris, of cancer. It means that there are three main characters in this novel - the author, me, and these two men, who both of them die, one in the Civil war, the other in our days, 2007. So I am the only one of them who is still alive, who survives. No wonder, that after this book about failure I wrote another one - about success, in spite of all the tragedies of the century. It is called „Steamship to Argentina“ and it itself brought me more success than all the previous ones. People seem to prefer books about success to those about failure. But of course I am not going to speak about it now; better spare it for another talk.

© Alexei Makushinsky, 2015, 2016
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