“First of September” publishing house, Moscow 2011
S. Fischer, Frankfurt
Pistorius & Olsanska, Czech Republic
New Vessel Press, New York
Keller editore, Italy
Natur & Kultur, Sweden
Ajakirjade Kirjastus, Estonia
“With his Gulag novel that was published in Russia in 2011, Sergei Lebedev opens up new territory in literature. For this work does not revolve primarily around perpetrators and victims, crime and punishment. Lebedev’s narrator, a child of perestroika, did not experience the horrors of the Gulag. But he suffers under the shadow that the silence of the perpetrators throws on the descendants. … Lebedev’s prose lives from the precise pictures and the author’s colossal gift of observation. The language is the greatest strength of this novel, which unfolds slowly and uses almost no dialogue.” Spiegel Online, 06.05.2013
“Unlike the great chroniclers of the Gulag, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, in his novel Lebedev does not so much reconstruct the martyrdom of the victims as the psychodrama of a perpetrator. This is new in contemporary Russian literature, as is the interest in this theme for an author of his generation… At the end, the narrator follows the tracks of deported prisoners into the wastes of the north, and on an island he stumbles across a hole in the ground full of undecomposed corpses. There are symbolically charged cathartic pictures of horror, and the beauty of the language is almost impossible to bear. The novel luxuriates in poetic language in general… Overcoming the consequences of the disastrous industrial and social Utopias of Stalinism is, according to the young author, a task on the scale of all humanity, but modern-day Russia still refuses to face it. On the contrary: the enormous country only continues to exist geographically, but not historically. The state-sanctioned amnesia leads to a situation when people do not know where they come from, and those who do not know their past are blind for the future.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 19.04.2013
“‘The Sky on their Shoulders’ is a monomaniacal meditation on memory and forgetting, presence and emptiness, Europe and its other. Added to this, on the basis of the author’s own biographical materials there is the first person narrative of a nameless Alter Ego about the discovery of horror, and the attempt to clarify the connections on a journey to the Arctic Circle. To fathom the abyss of humanity, Lebedev deploys depth psychology and the philosophy of history, apocalypse and mythology (particularly the Gilgamesh epic). His language is of stupendous poetic richness, and his gift of description has overwhelming atmospheric power. … It is a landscape of apocalyptic disappearing and forgetting, which Lebedev portrays in a phantasmagorical report, and the reader can hardly resist its demonic power and morbidity. … While Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov now have the definitive ineffectiveness of classic writers, Lebedev’s grandiose novel has the potency to become a mirror and wake-up call to a Russia that is blind to history.” Neue Züricher Zeitung, 16.07.2013
Sergei Lebedev’s novel impresses by its mastery, its stylistic perfection and its attention to details. We believe that we know about the crimes of Stalin’s regime, we have read Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, but this book is not just about that. It is about how great the extent of forgetting is, so that the memory of the death of thousands of people seems to have disappeared into the air.
“At present, this book is the only one that takes on the very difficult task of a historical confession, which Russian society does not want to have anything to do with. Sergei Lebedev asks his torturous questions in a county where, unlike for the Nazi criminals, no single head of a camp, no commander of a firing squad has had to answer before a court for destroying thousands of lives. No one can say for sure that they do not have the blood of executioners running in their veins – even if it does not come from their ancestors, it may perhaps come from a blood transfusion.” (Olga Lebedushkina).
The novel “Buried in Oblivion”is a detective story in its form. The narrator and protagonist can thank his blind neighbor at the dacha for his life, because although the doctors had advised his mother against the birth, the neighbor insisted, although it was his own life that was at stake. Both of the narrator’s grandparents were killed in the war, and so this neighbor was silently accepted into the family, and is now the protagonist’s new “grandfather”. No one knows who he was previously. Supposedly, he was an accountant. He claims that he was not involved in the war, but keeps his medals in a box of sweets. As a small child, the narrator already feels that the “grandfather” is not who he claims to be. “A child’s world experience has a fine sense for someone who casts another person’s shadow. It seemed to me that this false grandfather knew his real shadow, corrected it and made sure that it did not betray him. He constantly pulled on it just like the long folds of a coat... There was an external defect – his blindness – that concealed another one: his absent past. I had the feeling that he was dead inside, separated from the world of the living; he was not a ghost, not a spirit, but a tangible, living dead person with a long life. At the same time he was always concerned about me, and had a kind of attachment. Perhaps he was unconsciously trying to bring me, to unravel some knots in the past and to remedy the drama that had made him who he was.”
The narrator tries to become fond of him, but “it was impossible to love this ‘grandfather’, love had no chance in his presence”.
On a hot August day, while his parents are in Moscow, the young boy is bitten by a dog, and is taken to a hospital in the country with a severe loss of blood. There are no supplies of blood from his blood group, the car carrying medicine gets stuck in a traffic jam, and there are tanks driving through the village – these are the days of the putsch of 1991. The “grandfather” insists on donating his own blood, even if this costs his life: “I can well imagine how he spoke to the doctors in a way that rejected any contradiction, just as he had broken the dog’s back with a stick. So I survived, and he died, as if the blood that he gave contained his life, while the life that stayed in his veins was empty and useless.”
The boy realizes that he now belongs entirely to the man who saved his life. “It seemed to me that my ‘grandfather’ was not completely dead, that he had settled in me, and when I stood by his grave, both of the isolated parts of his soul came together and experienced ecstatic pleasure, because they had cheated death, and had hung on to life. He thirsted to live – through me, in me. He was so scared of death, as if he knew how he would be received on the other side...”
The maid carries out the “grandfather’s” will: she burns all his papers. “They say that she was not the only one who acted this way during those days in August. While the masses stood by the government buildings, they let the most cautious representatives of the previous era see to it that their belongings disappeared, or pieces of evidence were removed. Sometimes they disappeared themselves. If one counted how often ceremonial pistols fired their first and last shots at that time...”
The “grandfather” left behind a telephone number, and the people who answered it arrive in a swift military manner to collect his awards against signed receipt, and to bury him. Only one wreath without an inscription is placed on his grave.
The narrator inherits the apartment and dacha of the dead man – and the secret of his life. He tries to avoid the burden of this inheritance, and spends many years of his life as a geologist on expeditions to the northernmost parts of Russia. During his travels across the country, the narrator is confronted with the past. After they catch graylings in a river one day and savor their white meat, the geologists discover an island made of turf, with “skulls, bones and half-decayed bodies” sticking out of it, “that are as limp as cranberries that have lain under the snow all winter. It was a cemetery island, which had begun to be washed away, because the river had changed its course. You start to vomit up the fish, and in the meat of the graylings you find these bodies, and you are a cannibal, and you are all cannibals, because you have eaten this fish and drunk this water, in which the dead are dissolving. It makes you sick, but the filth does not disappear, it is in your body, it stays forever in your blood”.
Everywhere, he encounters traces of camps – barracks that look like “plywood boxes for parcels, in which humans are stacked. They are unnaturally stretched out, this ratio of length and width is only found in coffins.” He recognizes this form in the cow pens of a collective farm, in the apartment buildings of the Khrushchev period on the outskirts of cities, in the houses of workers’ settlements, in provincial hotels, in army hostels, and in district hospitals. “And these contours, they felt like a drawn-out shriek, a shriek of a form that has suddenly been overcome by horror of itself... I realize why people had been exiled to the taiga and the tundra: they had been erased from the common life of people, banned from history, and their death no longer took place in history, but in geography”.
“Buried in Oblivion” reminds us that there is no other path but repentance and recognition of collective guilt for the past. The only possibility of taking this path is a reconstruction of what happened – in both the common and individual memory. In the novel, memory and forgetting stand opposed to one another just like vision and blindness. When Lebedev’s hero says “I can see”, this means “I remember”.
On his return to Moscow, the narrator realizes that his flight was ultimately a return to the secret of his “grandfather”, which he did not initially want to think about. In his “grandfather’s” apartment, he finds strange, hand-crafted toys – a horse, human figures with weapons and dogs, which are made with an obsession for detail bordering on madness, and also a bundle of old letters, which were sent from a small town in the north. He sets off for this town, in order to find out whose blood flows in his veins.
The search for the truth turns into a journey to hell. In a town with state box-like apartment buildings, endless barbed wire fences, empty construction sites, watchmen’s huts and barriers, everything seems “like a single, eternal shout of ‘stop or I’ll shoot’”. The town was built by political prisoners, and existed as long as uranium and other valuable minerals could be produced there. It has remained a temporary place, for many generations now, who are controlled more by the past than by the present. Wherever you go, you run into a quarry, which has not only sucked the life out of people over decades, but also their hope for the future, and has turned them into alcoholics, as if they dreamed of finishing their lives as soon as possible.
Before he discovers the secret of his “grandfather”, the narrator tries to come to terms with the place where he spent his life. He finds the uranium mines where prisoners worked, and remembers a story that was told in the 1980s at the Geology Ministry: a driller on his pension sent an innovation proposal to use boreholes as cemeteries, in which the dead could be buried vertically. The note explained: With these methods, “the work force would be freed up, the gravediggers and coffin makers, which could then be used for other tasks of the state. When I stood in front of these abandoned drill cores, I felt where this person must have come from, and what milieu must have clouded his reason”.
The low clouds bring a snow storm in June, and the chimneys emit vermillion-colored smoke. “The tundra around the cemetery turned red, as if blood diluted with water was coming out of the ground, and through the tundra ran a polar hare that had turned red, racing from side to side as though it was fleeing from an imaginary pursuit, from the madness of the color red. I realized that it was pointless to flee like this hare; it is pointless to say that this is just the emissions of the factory, when you know intuitively what this red snow means; you are called upon to follow your own shock and live through it.”
As the narrator discovers, his “grandfather” sent his letters to the former head of the firing squad – a sour old man who is dying a long death from radiation. He is choked with hatred for the young man from another time. As though he wants to make him his accomplice, he hurries to tell him how he shot people with a revolver and a rifle, and that “many years later, bears came to the abandoned dumps where we threw the bodies, and that near the town there were still undiscovered graves, and that he knew where they were, and could show them to me. The old man was scared. Not of what he had done; he was frightened by the recognition that he, the head of a firing squad, was a nobody in the world of today, and no one was afraid of him anymore.”
The head of the camp was his “grandfather”, as the narrator discovers, with the help of the old engraver from the cemetery and the camp archivist, who keeps the prisoners’ files. Mentally ill patients were also put in the camp who hid a poster with a portrait of Stalin in the toilet. These people, who could not even remember their own names, proved to be ideal workers: “They didn’t know that freedom existed anywhere, they didn’t want to deceive anyone, work less or feign illness; the shovels and crowbars, the unity of action and form gave them enough reason for them to meld with their tools, even to become the tools themselves. The shaft of a spade, the handle of the crowbar became their support, their world axis. And this is what they were called – ‘Crowbar’, ‘Spade’, ‘Cart’, and they soon began to answer to these names. The guards even joked that this experiment should be continued, and all the psychos in the country should be arrested: Where else would you find such obedient workers?”
Now the narrator gets on to the secret of his “grandfather”. He had a son who knew nothing outside of the camp and the people in it, with whom he made friends. He had no toys, and all the children of the camp personnel played games that imitated the work of their parents – convoys or soldiers on watchtowers. A pipe in the form of a bird that a prisoner made out of wood for him changed his life – the toy showed him that another world existed. He increasingly spent time alone and invented simple melodies.
After his father takes the pipe away that the “madman” made for him, the boy fell ill and did not seem to want to get better. Then his father decided to build him a real toy, made by a wood carver, an engraver and a sewer – a miniature camp. “A wind-up engine with small wagons sped across tracks made of barbed wire, carrying real ore; slowly the sun moved in the form of a lamp; the diggers could bend over and stand up straight, and the guards could aim their rifles; the toy camp imitated reality in every way, and only one figure was absent – the figure of the ‘grandfather’”.
One evening, the father gave his son the present. The next morning, the boy was found hunched in the corner, shivering with fatigue and fear. The camp was destroyed completely, right down to the last nail. He managed to break everything without a sound, silently, as if there was nothing more important to do in his life. The father forbade the boy to leave his room. Two days later the boy was found dead at the bottom of a quarry. He fell into a quarry where stone was blown up in order to find eudialyte, a bright red mineral that was popularly known as shaman’s blood. His father ordered for the place to be blown up. But the eudialyte lode opened up even wider, and from that time on, the head of the camp never looked at the north wall of the quarry, and the observation tower was built in such a way that the place where the boy died could not be seen anymore. Soon afterwards, his wife also died, as though her son had been all that was keeping her alive.
At this time, a group of Kulaks arrived at the camp, who were supposed to be sent on to the area of the river mouth, which was not far from the town – the dispossessed farmers, it was believed, would be able to turn the tundra into a blossoming landscape. But in a dangerous mission, the deported men were able against expectation to place explosives in a tunnel to stop its further collapse – and for this achievement, the “grandfather” promised to spare them their fate. He may have even kept his promise, if it had not turned out that the Kulaks came from the same place as the wood cutter who made the pipe for his son. They were sent away with a barge and left on an island. They were followed by many others into the tundra; some even managed to survive and build settlements, but no one knew what happened to the first group. A year later, the “grandfather” went blind.
The narrator now tries to find the island where the exiled prisoners disappeared. He imagines it as a space which has no witnesses: “This landscape seemed to have emerged from the mind of a imbecile, as if the same word, the same line, the same motive would repeat itself endlessly; the seas of the tundra, the swamp and the hilltops were all so similar than one lost any idea of their length: This area contained nothing which the gaze could identify as something new or different, and one did not know if one was moving forward or standing still. Distances could only be calculated from the remains of camps. Rails and sleepers, as well as walls, were removed. A five meter high earth wall was built by the hands of prisoners. And the fact that the wall was abandoned and the rails had disappeared did not seem to be a mistake, but rather the logical consequence of this original insanity”.
Apart from a few families of wandering shepherds and the remaining exiles – three blind old men, who are waiting for death in an abandoned village, no people live here. Only the shepherds preserve the memory of the first missing group. The exiles were put on the island in the middle of the river, where there was nothing but a couple of old logs. They were only given a few sacks of flour and some shovels, and in the morning it started snowing. For several days on end, cries could be heard on the island, then just groans, and when the snow ended, “there was no one alive on the island; not even their bodies could be seen – the people hid themselves away as best they could, and they died in holes in the ground, which they dug with their hands and branches, with what little they had been left.”
Since that time, the drifting island appears at various places on the river, as if it were a ghost ship. The dead lie in their holes in the eternal frozen ground, like in a ship’s hold. Vultures circle about the island, on which an enormous sinkhole has formed. The island seems to drag the narrator in, gives him a shove in the back, and finds himself down below – in hell: “In the dark peat hills, in the icy humps I recognized the outlines of human figures. The sinkhole was full of dead people. The eternal icy ground had mummified them. A hole in the wall full of grass turned out to be a mouth; a round protuberance was a head; the dead, covered with earth, which they had become part of, seemed to want to cry out, in order to break the crust of ice; what seemed to be the roots of trees were arms; the frozen bodies had taken on the color of the earth, and were only recognizable through their form. I was in the belly of the earth; my brothers lay here, and the fact they had not decayed was not because they were holy, but because they were deprived of death. They had not gone the way of decay, but had grown into the earth, but had not become a part of the earth; for all other people they had disappeared, gone missing without a trace. They could not even give the last report that people can give about themselves, about their death; and so they had not completely died.”