Sergei Lebedev. The Year of the Comet

Sergei Lebedev
The Year of the Comet 




Published by

  • Verdier, France
  • Rudomino, Russia
  • New Vessel Press, USA
  • Palomar, Denmark

“What takes place in ‘The Year of the Comet’ could be called the verbalization of traumatic experience, turning it into words and objects, tearing apart the web of an old fear. In the memory of an ordinary Moscow family, all of its past is regarded as a trauma, surrounded by a zone of silence, and at the same time as secret knowledge, which it keeps and carries in itself… But the past, unseen, unheard and non-verbalized, seeps into all the cracks, looks out from nameless photographs, and the inscription “Long live Comrade Stalin” appears on an old wall… ‘The Year of the Comet’ is a novel about fear, as one of the genuine, not imaginary, ‘clamps’ that fettered Soviet reality, and turned it into a monolith. And to the same extent, it is a novel about the destruction of the monolith, about the release from fear.” (Olga Lebedushkina).

Sergey Lebedev’s new novel “The Year of the Comet” is the story of a boy growing up, gaining a feeling of time, space and himself within it, realizing his own identity, his separateness from the family and his unbroken connection with it. This is not a new genre, but the moment of this growing up takes place in a watershed period in the history of the USSR, starting from grocery stores as “places with nothing to buy” and endless queues, and ending with the putsch and the toppling of the statue of Dzerzhinsky on Lyubanka Square. The death throes of the Soviet system have never been described through the eyes of a child before. In his debut novel, “Buried in Oblivion”, reviewers noted the incredible mastery of the young author: precision of perspective, attention to details that escape the average person, the ability to connect seemingly unrelated things, to hear the music of time and go beyond the limits of human vision. This makes Lebedev’s autobiographical novel “The Year of the Comet” a uniquely authentic document of the time of the collapse of an entire era. 

As if by irony of fate, the hero of the novel was conceived in “an ideal nowhere” – in the place of a future flood and a future lake, and was born in Moscow “with the shuddering of an earthquake” – “a tectonic shudder of history, the movements of layers which seemed immovable”. “My mother worked at the geology ministry and was on a special committee that studied the causes and consequences of natural disasters. She saw the ruins of Tashkent, the wreckage on the Kuril Islands and in Dagestan, thousands of people without a roof over their heads, destroyed buildings, rails sticking up into the air, and cracks leading to the underworld. When the maternity hospital was shaken by a mild wave that came from the depths of the earth, my mother was the only person who understood what was going on, and out of surprise, out of fear, as if the earthquake was following her, and had caught up with her in safe Moscow, she started to give birth… My father was a scientist, a specialist on catastrophe theories, and his child was born at the moment that natural forces which my father studied manifested themselves, as if without knowing it he lived in unison with the cycles of the earth, water, wind, comets, eclipses and solar flares, and I, his flesh and blood, appeared on the earth like them, a child… From the very beginning, my parents were worried about this coincidence; it seemed to be a malevolent sign of fate. So they gave me to be brought up by my grandmother, as if they were hiding me in a box of threads, sewing and knitting, in the minutiae of geriatric life.”

“You could say that our family was the result of a historical misalliance; both of my grandmothers were born before the revolution, one was an aristocrat from an old family, the other was a peasant from a family that had been serfs until recently, and they probably wouldn’t have had a common grandson if it hadn’t been for 1917… My grandfathers were taken by the war: one of them died from injuries ten years after the war ended, while the other disappeared without trace in 1942. The grandfathers – all of the dead – were socialized by the state and returned in the form of ideologized images: their deaths became the main foundation of the regime: because of the chronological sequence that substituted for logic, it turned out that they had died so that the Soviet system could exist in its present form.” For the grandmothers who had lived through the war, lost their husbands and almost all their relatives, the grandson was not just a child, but a “stunning win in the lottery, a justification of their torments, deprivations and losses,” everything they placed their hopes in.

Grandma Tanya was retired, but continued to work as a subeditor at Politizdat (the publishing house of the Communist Party) on Pravda (“Truth”) Street, the mere name of which caused her grandson to feel “a primeval fear”. But when she accepted the new way of life, she did not reject the “unseemly” past, and a reminder of this was the porcelain statue of three frogs that she kept on her table, one closing its eyes, one closing its mouth and the third closing its ears. 

Grandma Mara, who experienced life in an orphanage and had had many proletarian professions, was on the contrary the creation of the Soviet era. When her grandson looked at her photographs in her youth, he thought that she was tricking him: “I’ve already seen that woman… in sculptures at the Ploshchad Revolutsii metro station”. I couldn’t consider that young grandmother to be a relative of mine, just as I could not consider a style to be a relative – in art or architecture”. At the dacha, in her little empire, Grandma Mara “worked on the Communist upbringing of senseless plants, believing that the unfruitful plum tree was setting a bad example for its colleagues.” And her grandson understood why, despite not being a member of the Communist party and the insignificance of her position in the social hierarchy, she was called “Soviet power” by her neighbors. “A peasant’s daughter, she was most afraid of having lessons and precepts taken away from her, without being able to give someone guidance”. Stalin was her God figure. But for Grandma Tanya, “the essentially similar concept that made her who she was was the Leningrad blockade”. And although she never talked about her sisters who had died of starvation in Leningrad, the Blockade “took root in her, it became a mode of existence”. She could not look at the Rabelaisian holiday feasts of Grandma Mara without shuddering – her food was buckwheat, bread and milk. But both of them thus paid homage to the dead.

Their late, unexpected grandchild was supposed in some way to live out the life of the dead, the arrested, the missing, to become “the sum of the features of the dead”, “an eternal debtor”. But he was scared by the iconostasis of photographs of men and women in civilian clothing and military uniform with faces “which never knew old age”, in Grandma Tanya’s room, and the trophy service for 20 people of Grandma Mara, brought by her husband from Germany, and which embodied the “emptiness, absence” of those who could not sit at the festive table. And the boy with his child-like insight realized how similar these two different, irreconcilable grandmothers were in their loneliness, and the realization that “you need to hide from history like from an avalanche, and withdraw as far as possible into the family circle.”

Each of the family members lived in their own internal emigration. The father, a specialist on catastrophe theory, bitterly tried to find “a broken inner balance” in symmetry and order, which protected him from the unpredictability of the outside world. He “placed the spoon and fork at an equal distance from the plate, put the toothbrush glasses in the corners of the shelves in the bathroom, gathered books into stacks, and constantly moved objects, according to unclear principles – color? form? weight? function? – laying them out in pairs, “balancing” one with the other in order to achieve a harmonic state of matter known to him alone… He looked for stability, constancy in everyday life, searched with such intensity that you could sense an unacknowledged fear behind it… And only in my mother did I find the plasticity I needed so much, the smoothness of transitions between the pleasant and the unpleasant, the richness of halftones in relationships… My mother had a terrible pain which did not go away for several days.., which gave her torments some kind of ethical meaning… And it seemed to me she had been inhabited by someone else’s old pain, roaming the earth…”

It is as if the hero of the novel lives two childhoods. In one of them he is a son, grandson, pupil, friend of his peers, “a tributary of his age”. In another, he is a “universal orphan”, who dreams of receiving “the right to own himself”, even afraid when his surname is written down in the hospital register, as if he already knew that “the bureaucratic machine wanted to “sew” things tightly together,, to link a person and his name, so that neither he nor it could run away from each other, so the personality was always precisely identified”. The hero tries to protect and assert his “separateness”. A single mitten or shoe “called on him to understand how they lived out their incompleteness”. “Knowing that I would be punished, I sometimes dropped a cup, to feel the moment of the non-recoverability of the object and the irreversibility of time”. He lives with a feeling of the disharmony of the world that was given to him from birth, he feels that his family keeps many secrets, and this forces him to look for a second foundation in words or the simplest things, which he imagines to be shape-shifters.

Gradually, the accustomed picture of the world begins to crack. In Grandma Mara’s cupboard the hero finds the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of the 1920s-30s. In his parents’ house, “with the empty passion of the erudite”, he had read the encyclopedia from the 1960s, but where did all those people go, who were written about “with a view to immortality?” The hero’s intuitive guess about the “great spaces of silence” was confirmed at a skiing expedition, when he tripped over a rusty railway which led to a firing range, and crumbling columns covered with barbed wire. Several years later, he reads in the paper about the Butovo firing range that was used for executions – a fragment of “that lost country, that Atlantis which he discovered thanks to the old encyclopedia”.

And then came a time when “there was a feeling of collapse, a kind of pre-war chaos in everyday life; items began to disappear for good from hardware and building stores. And the first things to disappear were supposed to hold things together – nails, screws, wire, cement, glue, without which boards and bricks are useless and pointless.” All the newspapers announced that Halley’s Comet was approaching Earth, which worried his Grandmothers, who usually took little interest in astronomical news – “as if for some reason they remembered when it was supposed to come, as they remembered various anniversaries”. For the first time the hero hears Grandma Tanya, “as if feeling her way on an overgrown, almost disappeared path of memory, whisper the words: ‘And God said, Let there be light in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years’. I felt a huge weight descend on me. I had never heard words of such great seriousness in my life; I immediately realized that they were just a small part of a whole, and they were much higher than me, higher than my Grandmother, higher than everything on Earth…” In a picture by his Grandma, he sees two dozen people in old white dresses and jackets, looking at a yellow comet that is bent like a scorpion’s tail, and he realizes that they are all his ancestors, and that they also had fathers, grandparents and great-grandparents. The year 1910! And in his uncertain time, confined to the USSR, a feeling of historic distance arises – “as if a network of coordinates in time had appeared”.

What the hero had looked for in ordinary objects for a long time, suspecting them of hiding some secret, begins to reveal itself to him in a scrap of uniform with a bullet hole in it, and some chance words by Grandma Tanya about her great-grandfather the general who was killed by a Chechen bullet, and his mother’s story of a boy she was in love with a school, but who met with an accident. “Almost every day, at a certain time, Stalin’s cortege raced along Bolshaya Dorogomilovskaya Street from the ‘Nearer Dacha’. And the local kids came up with a game: they tied each other’s hands together with a rope of linen and, tied together, they ran across the road right in front of the cortege. Stalin’s bodyguards seemed to be entranced by this strange act – whether the boys would manage to run across or not, feeling admiration, horror, yearning, and sweet terror from the fact that someone risked playing this game with the Leader… There probably weren’t any orders given by his guards, as if they knew that Stalin liked it… And once a pair of boys, one of them who was the boy my mother liked, decided to run very close by, perhaps close enough for Stalin to see their faces from the car. They ran past, but suddenly a policeman whistled, apparently a newcomer who didn’t know about this game … And one boy tripped, he stepped on the slack rope, he fell over and knocked his comrade over… No one came to help them, or to call an ambulance, everybody froze, expecting the door to open and for Stalin to get out – to look at these boys who dared to play this outrageous and entrancing game… The two boys, tied together by a rope, with their skin torn off by the asphalt, with twisted joints and broken bones, also lay silent, without groaning, because a groan could tip the scales of punishment and mercy. The guards got out of the black car, they lifted the boys up and put them inside… The boy returned from the hospital a month later: despite what people had assumed, he was not punished at all. The lack of punishment, and the expectation of it, destroyed the boy… shortly afterwards he hanged himself in a wood shed… I remembered this story quite differently than the way my mother wanted me to. She was protecting and warning me, probably feeling that some evil forces were building up inside me. But I heard something else: a child can do something that adults wouldn’t dare to do… I realized that this was just what my mother was afraid of – that one day, by accident or on purpose, now or in 20 years, as an adult, I would do something similar; jump up, run out and go where I shouldn’t.”

Disaster struck: “my father received a phone call early in the morning, and unfamiliar words resounded – reactor, isotopes, radiation sickness… On the third day the word Chernobyl arose… But as much as I tried, I couldn’t imagine Chernobyl, the danger was invisible, death flowed together with the water, it flew with the wind, it fell with the rain, it grew in the grass and leaves, it got inside things; my father left for the afterworld, for a realm beyond the grave. “The energy of the explosion of one hydrogen bomb exceeds the energy of all the explosives used in the Second World War,” I read in my “Young Commander’s Book”. “In the Third World War, should it be unleashed by the imperialists, our goal will be noble and great – to make this war the last in the history of humanity”. The war has begun, I thought. And although I had thought so many times about becoming a soldier, and running away to the frontline, I suddenly realized that my dreams were no longer valid, so to speak. We were brought up on the semantics of the bullet, on the fact that a soldier can play with fate, some are hit by bullets, some avoid them; the nuclear bomb had done away with all that. At the same time, it had done away with heroes.” “I remained a child, but my childhood was over.”

As the hero of the novel grows older, he is increasingly drawn to walking along the edge of the abyss: to make friends with the adult and mysterious Ivan, to make himself a living target for the elusive serial killer known as Mister, who roams the dacha settlement. But he also regrets a frustrated friendship with a neighboring boy – a loss that cannot be replaced, because the boy left for Israel. And the new neighbors, who simply threw away the belongings (or the life) of their predecessors, as the treasure of many dacha neighbors would be thrown away on the rubbish heap, as they were driven out by the “new” nomenclature, whose lack of personal life amazes the hero – identical radios, lampshades, cupboards, fridges, chairs… And Grandma Mara, who was the first to “give in”, as if she sensed her death in these new people. There are childhood fears from the old women’s stories that rats would come along soon– their phantom fears of war time. And the real fear of what a person could become. 

The hero watches a film being made about the war, where according to the script a partisan was supposed to be hanged. The soldiers from the military division who were “lent” to the film crew, dressed in German uniforms, cordoned off the area; and gathered the local residents there… The soldiers, sergeants and senior officers got used to their German uniform too easily, in literally just half an hour…, as if there were some evil, frantic temptation to find themselves in the “enemy’s skin”, to be fascists. Just as naturally, using their gun-butts, they pushed the people into the cordoned-off area, and this could not be explained by the mere wish to have some fun after the boredom of the barracks… “Protected” by the German uniforms, the image of a non-human, to whom nothing was dear, it seemed that if the director had ordered them, the soldiers would have driven the people into burning huts. The local residents, rounded up by the soldiers, also changes; and suddenly, without any order from the director, by memory and intuition, the people took off their hats, and a gut-wrenching bareness of heads was revealed, the solitude of each head before the noose.”

“This merging of the crowd and the victim ‘in unthinkable, brotherly, sisterly, parent and child proximity’, and we should add, almost in an ecstasy of love, makes Russian history move in a circle. To break out of the circle means to break the chain of sacrifices. … I do not recall such bold expeditions into the depths of the national collective unconsciousness in contemporary Russian prose. Sacrifice – one of the central topics of Russian culture and Russian history, a sacred cult object – shows its terrible other side in Sergey Lebedev’s novel. … But total fear is not driven out, the taboo on history in Russia exists, and so Lebedev’s novel is painfully contemporary. And like any real Russian novel, it is a novel with an idea. The idea is not simple: Russia is tired of sacrifices, it needs at least one generation to live without them, to grow up with a clear memory of the past, and a calm vision of the future, which does not resemble a bloody altar” (Olga Lebedushkina).

The hero finds a book with a brown binding on his table, written in Grandma Tanya’s handwriting. “The history of our surname dates back to the 14th century,” his grandmother wrote. “In our family, there were military governors, marshals of the nobility, priests and metropolitans, generals and sailors, revolutionaries and philosophers, officers sentenced for taking part in the Decembrist uprising, and terrorists from the military organization of the socialist revolutionaries. Your great-grandfather, whom you know nothing about, was half German, a nobleman and military doctor. And you, my grandson, are the seventeenth generation of the family…. I was going to be born once more.”

“The Year of the Comet” is not just an incredibly accurate panorama of life at the breaking point of two eras, but also a journey into an amazing childhood world, which we remember so little about. With his novel, Sergey Lebedev shows that the world of a small person, which seems to be limited to family, school and friends, is an entire universe.

“The optics of the novel, the special, metaphysical ‘backlight’ for each object and detail somehow resembles Benjamin’s ‘Berlin Childhood’. And like Benjamin, the child’s attitude to the world essentially makes the world itself a magical creation.” (Olga Lebedushkina).