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Andrei Bely: Серебряный голубь (The Silver Dove)

While there are not so many language games as in his other novels, it is still the poet Bely writing this novel, so the imagery and description are strong. His favourite theme – whether Russia is to be a Western or Eastern country – is also to the fore. By that, he means will it follow Western values of logic, order and structure or will it follow the mystic East with, in this case, strange sects and religions. The novel is set in and around the village of Tzelebeyevo and the nearby town of Likhov. Interestingly enough we do not meet the usual peasants but the gentry, intellectuals and craftsmen. Our hero is Pyotr Daryalsky, a poet and writer, who is spending a summer in the country. The locals are not sure why he is there but they are sure that he has his eye on one of the local women and, soon enough, he does. The woman in question is Katya, who is living with her grandmother, the Baroness Todrabe-Graaben. Katya Gugolevo is a sweet, loving young woman and the pair have fallen in love. The baroness is initially opposed but gradually accepts the fact.

We do follow the events at Gugolevo, the baroness’ home, from the courtship of the young couple, the financial problems that the baroness is having, primarily because of bank collapses during the period (the Russo-Japanese War) and the attempts by local businessman Luka Yeropegin to get her to repay her debts to him, to the various characters that live in or visit the house, in particular the wonderful cackling and often drunk footman, Yevseich. However, more important are the Doves of the title. The Doves are a religious sect, a sort of devil-worshiping group. They are led by the local carpenter, Kudeyarov. He is living with Matryona, described as pock-marked and ungainly. The pair are not married, though Kudeyarov has been married before. Kudeyarov seems to have great powers, though he is only a lowly carpenter, and manages to entrance various people in the neighborhood, including Yeropegin’s wife and Pyotr. In a meeting, Kudeyarov and his group decide, in a Rosemary’s Baby-type scenario, that Matryona should be impregnated to give birth to the Dove, a sort of devil/god figure who will lead them. They select Pyotr for the role of father.

Pyotr, partially under Kudeyarov’s spell, falls for Matryona before Kudeyarov is ready and he soon abandons Katya to start an affair with her. She reciprocates his love, as she is not too happy with Kudeyarov. When Kudeyarov finds out, he is quite upset about it and plots his revenge. Meanwhile, the baroness’ son has arrived. After terrorising Yeropegin and getting him to drop his claim against the baroness, he speaks both to Katya (who is his niece) and Pyotr. He tells Katya that Pyotr’s running off with Matryona is good, as it proves that he is not after Katya for her money. He then tells Pyotr that he should abandon the Doves and expounds the virtues of the Western approach. However, the Doves are too powerful for Pyotr and it all ends very badly for him.

This is something of a strange book, as it does go into detail about the Doves and their activities. The group seem to be mainly the local craftsmen but their power or, in particular, the power of Kudeyarov, seems to be extensive. Yeropegin, for example, is rendered also completely helpless by Kudeyarov, merely because Kudeyarov wants to use Yeropegin’s wife and his house for his activities. Critics have said that the novel shows that Bely is aware of the forces that will shape Russia in the future, with the Doves representing the Stalinist side of the Communist Party, though that may be pushing it too far. Whatever the case, it is a fascinating novel about Russia just a few years before the revolution and the forces that, at least as far as Bely is concerned, were then in the making in the country.

Publishing history

First published 1909 by Skorpion
First published 1974 in English by Grove Press