In the early 1990s, I was sent to Russia for a week. After spending so much time covering the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and their collapse, it was time to return to Moscow. I was curious to know what Russians thought about what was happening to their country and what they thought about the end of their empire.
For such a glimpse into that present and past, I was indebted to Lena Nemirovskaya and her husband, Yuri Senokosov. They put me up in their apartment. They exposed me to their friends and to the music of Vladimir Vysotsky. Lena told me stories about her past, about the Soviet system, about existing. It was a painful past—not that more recent times have been kind to her: the Moscow School of Political Studies, which she founded in 1992, suspended its operations in 2014. It was labeled a foreign agent. It’s as if the past was catching up with the present.
This tension and relationship between past and present in today’s Russia is narrated in Oblivion, an extraordinarily intense and beautifully written novel by Sergei Lebedev. Lebedev, born in 1981, first published the book in Russian in 2011. Its sheer, unremitting search to find out about a part of Russia’s ignominious history—the labor camps—is uniquely told. Through the eyes of a child, and then as he grows up, one is taken from the present to the past.
The author wanted to know who Grandfather II was. This old, blind man was a kind of adopted grandparent. Grandfather II had entered the boy’s parents’ household before the boy was born. It was his influence that led to the boy’s birth—his parents had worried that neither his mother nor he would survive the birth. It was Grandfather II who, by sheer instinct and influence, injected inquiry into the boy’s mind. And it was he who saved the boy from death through a transfusion of his own blood. That transfusion killed Grandfather II. The boy knew this. He was living through, or because of, Grandfather II.
As the boy moves into adulthood, this yearning to know about Grandfather II’s past, about why he kept a certain stick or a certain wood cutting in his home, about who his closest friends were, about his dead wife and son, is set out in a special journey. That journey is reaching out to memory, the memory of the Soviet camp system. The narrator has only one link to Grandfather II’s past: a letter written by one of the protagonist’s friends. He sets out to find him.
“I was at the other edge of Europe, which breaks off with rocky ledges into the swamps of Western Siberia. I saw the dark back alleys of the European continent,” Lebedev writes.
He also discovered the dark legacy of the Stalinism that persisted as the Soviet Union gave way to perestroika. It is rare in contemporary Russian literature to get such a glimpse of the past and present co-existing. There are superb histories of the gulags. But this narration, this journey undertaken by Lebedev—a geologist by training, which gives him a special connection with nature—links the present to the past.
In the towns on the outskirts of the camps, Lebedev writes about petty crime, petty power, and disorientation in the post-Soviet world among the older generation: those who knew about the camps, those who had to serve in them, and, indeed, those who were the wardens. Grandfather II, as the author discovers, was one of those wardens. It’s an extremely sad story of a past that to this day is still not being dealt with by the Kremlin.
What Lebedev manages to do in a language seeped in texture is take the reader through a world almost in suspension between the past and today’s Russia. He visits a run-down local office that contains archives that might give him some clue to the person who was Grandfather II’s friend and correspondent.
He is confronted by suspicious people—individuals who either don’t want him to delve into the past or believe he’s out to claim a big inheritance from a factory manager who robbed the enterprise in the ebbing days of the Soviet system, only to become rich from the toil of the workforce.
Above all, the author is confronted by a past so painful and so physical that it has an immense emotional impact on how he sees his world. What makes it so powerful is that the past involves ordinary people driven to control others or forced into the camps. It involves insane people who were put into the camps but almost revered by the wardens because they were so obedient and never complained and never quarreled.
It was one of those inmates who made a wooden whistle for Grandfather II’s son. It was the boy’s first toy. It opened up for him an inner being, an inner freedom, a sense of another world beyond the camp his father ran. The son’s discovery of his own self was destroyed by his father, who confiscated the whistle. It left his son so devastated that it precipitated his death. He fell into a quarry his father had ordered the inmates to dig.
Grandfather II’s relationship with the person he saw as his tacitly adopted grandson can be interpreted in two ways: to make up for the death of his own son, or to exert control over the boy. Either way, the warden of the camp, who became blind, kept his past hidden. Oblivion haunts this novel. By writing it, Lebedev has given the past a present and a presence.
Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is published by New Vessel Press. It is translated into English by Antonina W. Bouis.