Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bitter Lessons of History

NEW YORK - Anatoly Rybakov surveyed the tiny group gathered to listen to him recently in a classroom at Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus with a small, sad smile.


"A few years ago, I would have been speaking to a crowded hall", he said. "The interest now - well, it's obviously not as great".


No one is better equipped to understand how fickle memory and fame can be than the man who was perestroika's "first" novelist. The author of "Children of the Arbat" is almost as forgotten in his homeland as he is in the West.


Rybakov became an international celebrity in 1987 when his long-suppressed book on the Stalin era was published for general distribution in Moscow, and then translated into English. In the first flush of glasnost, his novel filled in the blank spaces for millions of Russians who were just beginning to come to grips with their history.


"Children of the Arbat", which Rybakov had been working on for decades in the secrecy of his study, was compared to Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago". In its portrait of ordinary people swept up by the evils of totalitarianism, it was a daring treatment of a long-forbidden theme.


But the book was soon eclipsed by even bolder challenges to the status quo in art as well as politics. By the time his second novel was published, a study of the twisted morality of Stalinism seemed dated. Soviet leaders and citizens alike believed they had put all that behind them as the country was swept up in the euphoria of reform.


Perhaps as a way of keeping his vision intact, Rybakov went to New York to complete the final novel in his planned trilogy of the Stalin years.


He has been living here quietly for over a year, ensconced in a tiny university apartment with his wife on New York's Upper West Side. An unobtrusive, elderly gentlemen in a rumpled sweater and jeans, he could be mistaken for one of the thousands of Soviet emigrants in this city.


Rybakov's keen sense of history gives him a bittersweet attitude towards the turmoil at home, not to mention an understanding of popular anxiety that seems to have eluded Moscow's eager reform politicians.


"People are looking at businessmen and politicians getting rich while their own standard of living gets worse, and they are wondering, did we participate in this revolution just so a few could make money? " Rybakov said, speaking in the staccato, passionate Russian of his native land.


The same psychology played a significant role in Stalinism's ability to secure a long-term lock on Soviet politics, he reminded his listeners.


Rybakov was 8 years old in 1921, when the young Soviet republic emerged shakily from revolution and civil war into the short-lived experiment with free enterprise under the New Economic Plan.


As the decade progressed, he watched as the intellectuals and would-be reformers were replaced by harder men from the provinces who distrusted and hated those who threatened to push "their" revolution backwards. Stalinism, like its leader, embodied the revenge of the poor and disenfranchised against the cosmopolitan, worldly architects of revolution. It was the forced egalitarianism of the politics of envy.


"In those days, people would say 'Yes, we live badly, but everyone else lives badly too', " Rybakov told his audience.


"If we do not understand what was happening then, we will not understand what is happening now. Stalinism remains the key to the emotions still at work in our society".


History has come full circle once again. After the events at the Congress of People's Deputies, and the spread of disillusionment with the pro-democracy forces across the old Soviet empire, fears about a revival of Stalinism - or its modem equivalents - no longer seem as absurd as they once might have.


Life, as Kremlin ideologists might have said, is catching up to Rybakov's message. This quiet, elderly novelist 6, 000 miles away may be hard to listen to. But he is harder to ignore.


Stephen Handleman, former Moscow bureau chief of The Toronto Star, is currently a visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute of Soviet Studies at Columbia University, in New York.