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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Insights Eclipsed by History

Literary history has been unkind to Anatoli Rybakov. When he published "Children of the Arbat" in 1988, he was one of the first writers to examine the psychology and character of Josef Stalin. Neither eulogizing nor demonizing him, Rybakov portrayed Stalin with a measure of artistic distance gained from fictionalizing a real person. The book, which had been suppressed by the Soviet censors for 20 years, was a breakthrough for literature in the new era of glasnost. Thousands of people signed up on library waiting lists to read it; the Western press compared Rybakov to Tolstoy and Pasternak; and his place in Russia's contemporary literary pantheon seemed secure.

Eight years and a stream of books and movies about Stalin later, Rybakov has published Dust and Ashes, the concluding volume in what developed into a trilogy about Russia during the decade from 1933 to 1943. (After "Children of the Arbat" came "Fear," published in English in 1994). But unfortunately for Rybakov, those were eight crucial years during which readers both in Russia and abroad learned much more about Stalin and the Terror. This knowledge makes it harder to ignore the quality of the writing in "Dust and Ashes," a criticism which many readers, especially Russians, have extended retroactively to include "Children of the Arbat," too.

To be fair, Rybakov may never have been trying to be a Tolstoy. And Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet, while praising "Children of the Arbat," compared it to a "first-rate mystery." But even more so than its predecessor in the trilogy, "Dust and Ashes" feels forced, as though the author were putting the characters through their paces more for the sake of finishing the project than in order to explore any deep philosophical or artistic issues.

Readers new to Rybakov will be frustrated if they begin with "Dust and Ashes," because a lot of space is taken up reviewing and referring back to events in the previous novels. In all three of the books Rybakov has chosen the unwieldy narrative structure of recounting the parallel lives of his protagonist Sasha Pankratov and that of Stalin. In "Dust and Ashes," he picks up the story in 1937: Hitler is readying his juggernaut in Berlin; Stalin is busy with the purges; Europe is tiptoeing uneasily around appeasement, poverty, and the threat of war; Trotsky is agitating from exile in Mexico; and the fictional Sasha, a former engineering student, returns to Moscow from exile in Siberia. When war breaks out, he becomes an army officer, and in the very last chapter he is reunited, mid-battle, with his true love, Varya. As the book drags through the siege of Moscow and the Great Patriotic War, the reader regrets the ambitious historical time-frame.

A reason for the novel's superficiality may be the predominance of real-life characters. A caveat appears at the beginning: "This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously." But, in a sense, they are not used fictitiously enough. Everyone is here: Stalin and Hitler of course, but also Beria, Trotsky, Yezhov, Molotov, Ribbentrop. Even Stalin's faithful housekeeper, Valechka, and valet/bodyguard, Vlasik, appear in cameo roles. But they fulfil their parts as spear-carriers, rarely surprising us with a quirk or a detail.

The superficiality extends to other areas, too. Chapters set in Paris pit spy against spy, but without the momentum of a spy thriller. Chapters set in Mexico outline Trotsky's assassination without any drama. Chapters set in rural villages demonstrate the difficulty of a life of exile without generating reader empathy. Even the central love story is unconsummated (though there are some sex scenes to keep the story moving along that demonstrate how circumstances can make sex nothing more than a bartering tool).

The parts of "Dust and Ashes" that ring true (and sadly there are not many) are those that correspond to Rybakov's own experience. Like Sasha, Rybakov was an engineering student in the 1930s who was exiled to Siberia. Although he was "rehabilitated" after proving himself as a tank commander in World War II, his bitterness against Stalin, and the system which put Stalin in power, is understandable.

And, in a striking passage in "Dust and Ashes," Rybakov turns that bitterness against all Russians. A friend of Sasha's describes witnessing a purge in a country village, observing that, although the villagers were all in some way related to each other, "relatives, in-laws, godparents," they stood silently by while a "scrawny official" and a "skinny militiaman" packed the family off to their fate. Then the villagers began looting the newly vacated hut. The friend bitterly comments: "I was nineteen or twenty then. And at that moment I realized that our people were flunkies, from the peasant to that flunky writer Sholokhov, from a simple peasant woman to a Politburo member who will admit to being a spy or saboteur if ordered to do so. And everything that those Dostoevskys and other philosophers write about our special soul, our special mission, our special significance -- it's all bull! Tutchev's line 'Russia cannot be understood by the mind ...' that's all poetic malarkey, poetic fantasy."

Large-scale disillusionment may well be the core theme of the trilogy, and that makes it even more ironic that Rybakov is nowadays mostly confined to the beach-reading shelf. Luck and timing, and a good concept, conspired to make "Children of the Arbat" widely read and praised when it was published. Admirers of that book will want to read "Dust and Ashes," to find out what happens, especially to the troubled lovers Sasha and Varya. But curious newcomers to Rybakov should stick to "Children of the Arbat," and read it remembering its shifting place in contemporary publishing history.

"Dust and Ashes" by Anatoli Rybakov, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, Little, Brown & Co, 473 pages, $24.95.