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Dmitry Bykov: ЖД (Living Souls)

This is Bykov’s first book translated into English and it clearly gave the translator some problems as regards the title. The Russian title is simply ЖД, which are the letters pronounced as Zh and D. The translator clearly took these letters to be the acronym for живые души (living souls), a reference to Gogol’s Мёртвые души (Dead Souls), a reference Bykov confirms and which is shown by the subtitle of this novel – A Poem – which was also the subtitle of Gogol’s novel. However, in an article in a Russian journal
(link in Russian only), Bykov gives other possible meanings for the acronym – railway (the Russian version had a railway on the cover), hard drive, Dr Zhivago and others. It also clearly is short for жид, the Russian insult for a Jew, equivalent to the English Yid and it appears in the English version of the novel many times, given as Yd. Indeed, this is one of the key areas where the book has been controversial/politically incorrect. Bykov is half-Jewish himself but though it might be sort of OK for African-Americans to call one another nigger, it does not stop the rest of us from being uncomfortable with it and, frankly, this book’s anti-Semitism did make me uncomfortable, even though it was clearly meant to show that anti-Semitism is prevalent in Russia.

The book has been controversial for its plot. It is set sometime in the future. The world has discovered a new and readily available source of energy, called phlogiston (phlogiston was the name used in times past for what we now know to be oxidation). The West has this stuff generally available but Russia and China still use oil (Russia has plenty for its own needs). It has also meant that the Middle East has become generally irrelevant from the geopolitical point of view and, indeed, Islam seems to have almost faded away. Russia is engaged in a civil war. There are two sides to this war. The first is the Varangians, the old style right-wing Russians, and the second is the Khazars, who are the Jews and associated intellectuals. Note that Bykov’s use of both terms does not conform to what our history generally accepts for these two groups. The war has reached a sort of a stalemate as neither side is too keen on fighting. The Varangians, for example, seem more keen on self-destruction. It is considered much braver to die fighting for your country than to kill the enemy. Moreover, in a clear satire on the Soviets and their predecessors, the Varangians are continually rooting out alleged internal conspiracies and shooting all involved to encourage the troops. We see one example of this when one ineffectual mother’s boy who has said (probably accurately) that the war is unwinnable is arrested and, following considerable psychological (and some minimal physical) pressure confesses that he is part of a massive conspiracy, together with all of his regiment. That he gets off at the last minute is only because of a devious Bykovian plot twist.

Bykov has said that history is distorted and he goes to great pains to distort it here. His basis for the history is that the Varangians and Khazars have been fighting forever, with now one on the top, now the other. But both groups are interlopers and there is one group, whom we only later learn about, who are the victims here – the native Russians. Most of the natives, unable to compete with the Varangians and Khazars, have become drop-outs, riding around on the metro or turning to drink. The term used in the (US) English version of the novel is Joes. Bykov tells the stories of four groups of people caught up in the civil war. There is Gromov, the poet, now a senior military man in the Varangians who is separated from his lover and tries to join her. There is the provincial governor who has an affair with a native girl, which is definitely not approved of by the powers that be, particularly when she gets pregnant and may or may not be carrying a child who may or may not be the Antichrist. There is the teenage girl who adopts a Joe – it has become fashionable to adopt them almost as pets, another part of Bykov’s biting satire, as he goes into this in some detail. However, she treats him well and goes with him when he has to leave. Finally, there is the military commander who had visited the Kaganate (i.e. Israel) and fallen in love with a Khazar (i.e. Jewish) woman but ends up fighting and, indeed, becoming important for the Varangians, while still loving his girlfriend. We follow all of these people as well as the various battles, including, in particular, the battle for Degunino. Degunino and Zhadrunovo are two key towns. Degunino has changed hands many times for, whatever happens, it always seems to have an abundance of food – too much in fact – and an abundance of willing, attractive, fertile women. Zhadrunovo, on the other hand, is the opposite – bleak and grim and miserable where no-one wants to go, yet, somehow quite important. Everything – these four couples, the Final Battle and the armies – will converge on these two towns.

The book received mixed reviews in Russia and in translation, not just because of its racism, but because of its totally negative outlook for Russia and its anarchic structure. In some ways it reminded me of the very brilliant Kevin Smith film Dogma but it is also very Russian and certainly owes something to both Dr Zhivago and to Dead Souls. Its negativity may deter many readers as might its chaotic structure and its detailed discussion of politics but there is no question that Bykov has tried for something original and is showing that Russian literature is definitely on the way back.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Vagrius
First published 2010 in English by Alma
Translated by Cathy Porter