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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Nation's Pain in the Eyes of a Child

"The child is father of the man," wrote William Wordsworth, summing up in seven words what it would later take Sigmund Freud decades to figure out. The unbreakable link between the traumas of youth and the problems of adulthood provides the framework and impetus for Childhood, Volume 16 of the Glas literature series.

To some extent, the book is an attempt to come to grips with the chaos of the present through an examination of the formative past. Most of the writers represented here were born in the 1930s or even earlier. Their childhood, therefore, encompassed both Stalinist repression and the deprivations of war.

What impresses the reader is not so much the horror of the events described as the matter-of-fact attitude of the children through whose eyes we witness them. The only world they know is one of orphanages, hunger and poverty. Rather than wasting time on bitterness or self-pity, they busy themselves with the simple business of survival.

After reading "Childhood" one is less puzzled by the stoicism and seeming passivity of the Russian people. A country that lost 20 million to war and many more to revolution and repression is unlikely to be unduly agitated over a few months without wages.

Glas, the excellent series edited by Natasha Perova and Arch Tait, has brought many new names to the attention of Western readers in the six years since its inception. No other single source has done more to familiarize both professional and general readers with the contemporary literary scene in Russia today. Each volume of Glas is centered around a single theme; previous offerings have included love, the grotesque and revolution.

"Childhood" is a curious mixture of newer writers with more established ones. While the stated aim of Glas is to publicize new Russian writing, older pieces appearing for the first time in English translation are offered as well.

Anatoly Pristavkin, whose "A Golden Cloud There Rested" is close to a modern classic, is represented by an excerpt from his autobiographical novel "Kukushkin Kids or the Cuckoos," and is arguably the star of the volume.

Pristavkin, who now heads the Presidential Committee on Clemency, offers a picture of a boyhood spent in an orphanage set up for the children of "enemies of the people." The hero, Sergei, has been given the name "Kukushkin" by a kindly doctor, who bestowed her own surname on children in an effort to keep them from meeting the same fate as their parents. Sergei is in an orphanage filled with other little Kukushkins, and is visited by an "aunt" who wants to tell him about his real father.

The child's inability to comprehend the truths he is being told offer a glimpse into the psychology of the Terror generation. Sergei clings desperately to his own reality -- the quest for food, simple loyalty to his buddies and the punishment inflicted by the callous authorities. One senses the boy's reluctance to accept the pain that would come from too detailed knowledge of what he had lost.

For all this, "Kukushkin Kids or the Cuckoos" is not a dark work. The hero's appeal shines through clearly, particularly in one scene in the local train station, where he has his first experience with restaurants, live music and art.

Equally as buoyant is an excerpt from "Orphanage," by Misha Nikolayev, a writer whose life followed the tragic path of his country: He lost his parents to the purges, was imprisoned as a dissident and emigrated to the United States in 1978, where he died 10 years later.

"Orphanage" is his autobiography, and it is imbued with an innocence and humor unexpected in an account of a deprived childhood. The author cheerfully recounts the "games" his caretakers dreamed up to make the children into good little Soviets -- "spy tracking," for example.

Nikolayev cites a few facts that bring home to the reader just what the orphanage system involved: "It all happened on such a vast scale. Take Pokrov, where I was sent. ... This small town, 100 kilometers from Moscow, had a population of 5,000. And no less than five orphanages. ... Who were these children? How many were there of them? All this makes six to seven hundred orphans in one small town. How many such towns were there in Russia?"

Two early stories by Andrei Bitov are offered for the first time in English translation. Bitov is the most established writer named in this collection, and his psychological sketches make for challenging reading. The stories included here are from 1959 and 1960, and are interesting mainly as the early works of a developing writer.

Leonid Latynin, whose epic account of Russia's prehistory has enjoyed international popularity, has reintroduced his hero here in "The Bear Fight." Emelya, half human, half bear, has to come to grips with the death of his father and passes through a series of tests to become a man. Latynin's hypnotic, incantatory prose, valiantly translated by Kate Cook, is fascinating in itself, but the story of Emelya contributes little to the theme of childhood and strikes a jarring note in the collection. This long entry might be better enjoyed on its own or in combination with Latynin's "Sleeper at Harvest Times," which gives us more of Emelya's story.

Other gems in the anthology include excerpts from "The Stamp Album" by Andrei Sergeev and "Opening the Skull" by Sergei Gandlevsky. Both are fine pieces, which give just enough of a taste of each author's work to prompt the reader to rush out for more. Sergeev and Gandlevsky were both recognized by the Russian Booker committee in 1996 -- Sergeev with the main prize, Gandlevsky with the "Little Booker."

Ludmilla Ulitskaya burnishes her reputation as a major writer with "The Foundling," a psychological portrait of love and cruelty between two young twin girls. It is, perhaps, the least political of the entries here, and the most universal: The girls could be from anywhere.

An entire anthology centered around the theme of childhood is a difficult conceit to sustain, and this volume manages it with mixed success.

Julia Nemirovskaya, a younger writer now living in the United States, offers two slight works that seem the product of an inexperienced writer taking herself a bit too seriously. And Alan Cherchesov's "A Requiem for the Living" is nearly indecipherable with its dense, allegorical style.

But these are quibbles. "Childhood" is in most ways a rare treat, and is a worthy addition to the Glas series.

"Childhood," Volume 16 of the Glas series, GLAS Publishers, 224 pages, $15.