Russians have a reputation for being at once soulful and tough. Is this because of the adversities their country has put them through, from severe cold to famine and brutal wars? Or is it because of the value their culture has historically placed on the pursuit of truth, as opposed to our own emphasis on the pursuit of happiness? Elena Chizhova wonders too, in this 2009 Russian Booker Prize-winner recently translated into English. By way of answer she evokes Soviet, World War II, and revolutionary times as well as the Tsarist/serf era, in an overlapping narrative about three generations of women living in a communal apartment while the USSR was putting down the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.
At the forefront of the novel are the women’s alternating voices, spoken and interior; most of their concerns (as well as the narrative’s hooks) have to do with matters of Soviet life that range from the mundane to the urgent—applying for new living quarters or a TV, currying favor with bureaucrats, protecting one’s loved ones and oneself from the suspicions and interference of factory supervisors, neighbors, and the “municipal and communal services office.” The book’s title, though it may have another appeal in our own particular cultural moment, is (unlike much of the lyrical prose in the book) strictly literal: generations of Russian woman lived without men lost in wars, from the revolution and civil war through World War II, which figures particularly prominently in the memories of the three Grandmothers, unrelated woman who share ingrained survival instincts. Their religious faith also intertwines, renewed and strengthened as it’s been by having been outlawed, to help them keep watch over the single mother Antonina, also unrelated to any of them, and her worrisomely unspeaking daughter, the observant and artistic Sofia. As Grandma Glikeria says in a human, non-political take on a fundamental tenant of Communism, “People aren’t related by blood only.”
Actually, “in the daytime we called her lovingly—Sofyushka. Among ourselves—Sofia”: the ever-changing names and voices contribute to the evocation of a shimmering, tricky-to-grasp reality, in spite of its apparent harshness. From the absent, maimed, or drunken men at the edges of the story to the red-hot nails put in flour to keep it from going bad, the communal apartment-dwellers’ habit of turning on faucets to prevent eavesdropping, and the frequent discussions of what “they” require people to do—no antecedent needed—Chizhova paints Soviet Russia with a stiff-bristled but oddly softening brush, even in the feared character Zoya Ivanovna, Antonina’s factory supervisor, whose jurisdiction extends to other parts of workers’ lives.
The doubtful but tantalizing Soviet vision—of a paradise of washing machines and no need for money that will be achieved in twenty years, perhaps—intersects with Sofia’s delight in fairy tales, a performance of Swan Lake that her French-speaking grandmother Glikeria takes her to at an unnamed but elegant St. Petersburg theatre (the Mariinsky, maybe), a performance that’s also broadcast for watching on the newly distributed (after qualifying and waiting) TVs. Television provides a window to the real Russia’s past, too: in vintage footage Grandma Ariadna hopes for a glimpse of her lost loved ones. For Grandma Yevdokia and other faithful, the awaited paradise is of repeated references to “the other world.” For Grandma Yevdokia and other faithful, repeated references to “the other world” hint at a paradise worth waiting for.
For Antonina, after a diagnosis for unexplained bleeding, paradise is of less concern than providing for her daughter’s future by an arrangement with elements of the romantic, the mercenary, and the humane in proportions open to debate by all the other characters. Like the corpses of serfs on which Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, here’s the flip side of paradise, fairy tales, and artistic and architectural elegance: disease, along with hunger and fear and death and anti-Semitism and malicious gossip, all part of the truth of the Russian world, and Chizhova doesn’t flinch away from any of it. In Solzhenitsyn, cancer was perhaps a metaphor for the Soviet state, but Chizhova’s characters discuss it head-on: as mysterious as it is deadly, as apparently vulnerable to individual character and behavior as individuals can be to it. “‘In the old days,’—Glikeria recalls, —in the country, this cancer didn’t exist.“ And Grandma Yevdokia asks, “What sort of disease is this, if everything depends on the person?” Like the dramatic plot turn in this ethereal yet gritty story of yearning and survival and the struggle not just to cope with but to understand the forces that determine one’s life in a particular time and place, it’s a hard but compelling moment.
Overall, the particular time and place Chizova treats here propel the novel forward; any reader with an interest in things Russian—from the above-mentioned glimpses to the German blockade of Leningrad to the way Russians see America, and which nation really saved Europe in WWII—will find as much here to learn as to recognize. That the paradise didn’t in fact come to fruition in 1976—or ’86 either or, more arguably, with the ’91 break-up or afterwards—provides a poignant unspoken backdrop to the hopes, dreams, sufferings, and small triumphs of these characters, as if they haven’t been written for us poignantly enough already.