Eugene Vodolazkin: Соловьёв и Ларионов (Solovyov and Larionov)
Eugene Vodolazkin’s first novel shows already what a fine novelist he is. This one jumps between the early part of the last century, the Russian Civil War of the 1920s, and the present day and, as the title tells us, primarily features two people. They never met but their lives are inextricably linked.
General Larionov was born in 1882. He came from a military family (though his father worked for the railways, which feature quite strongly in this novel). His great-grandfather lost his leg at the Battle of Borodino and lived long enough to know his great-grandson.
Our general was destined to be a military man from an early age, playing with toy soldiers and quickly earning the nickname General Larionov. There is one key interesting fact about his military career. During the civil war, he fought for the Whites and, for a while, successfully defended Crimea from far superior Soviet forces. Yet, despite fighting for the enemy, the biggest success of his life was, most likely, simply that he was not shot at the conclusion of the Civil War. This has always been considered inexplicable.
Indeed, he survived to 1976, i.e. aged ninety-four. He continually expected to be arrested and executed but it never happened. Why? This question concerned Amélie Dupont, a French historian. Though there were various articles about the General, it was Mme Dupont who wrote his biography and who pondered the fate of the General.
Solovyov was not born to be a historian, despite sharing a name with a famous Russian historian. He was born to work on the railways. He was born by the train station bearing the unprepossessing name Kilometre 715. Both his parents worked on the railways.
However, he grew up in the post-Soviet era. After graduating from St. Petersburg University, Solovyov began his graduate studies at the Institute of Russian History, where General Larionov became his dissertation topic.. He was particularly interested in the fact that General Larionov had managed to escape being shot for his role in the Civil War.
We learn a lot about Solovyov’s methods and how he acquired them but we also learn about his early life. His first sexual encounter was with Leeza (messy, of course) and she inspired him in more than one way. Her surname was Larionova.
We learn also about Kalyuzhny, a fellow student, who studied General Larionov before Solovyov but who abandoned his studies, leaving the field free for Solovyov. We follow Solovyov’s relationship with Mme Dupont (positive, even though he corrects errors she made). We learn how he got money to pursue his studies and how he went to Yalta.
Yalta is key, as it is where General Larionov spent the latter part of his life and where he died. He married (secretly) Varvara Petrovna and they had a child who eventually disappeared.
We follow both Solovyov’s time in Yalta as well as the General’s. We also learn about Nina Fedorovna Akinfeeva, who helped the General in his later life. She had a daughter, Zoya, whose father may or may not have been the General. Yalta is also where Chekhov went when he had his major tuberculosis attack. Zoya now works at the Chekhov museum and Solovyov meets her and gets to know her.
Solovyov is eager to find the general’s memoirs, apparently dictated to Zoya’s mother, Nina Fedorovna, and Zoya helps him do so. It is not straightforward and involves a certain amount of illegality and the Vorontsov Palace (Alupka). His adventures are far from finished.
He attends a conference on the general, which gives Vodolazkin ample scope for mocking academics, which he does with great glee. One of them even suggests that the reason why the general was not arrested and shot is because he was really a woman.
Solovyov finds about about other mysteries concerning the general. Did he know about the Soviet plans for attacking Crimea, given that he seemed to anticipate their every move? Did the general actually meet Zhloba, the Soviet general opposing him? There is circumstantial evidence suggesting that he did.
Solovyov continues his quest to find the answers and, despite a few problems, he is enjoying it. Never before had the search for scholarly truth seemed so gripping to him. But he also has another quest. On returning home to Kilometre 715, he eagerly seeks out Leeza. However, she has gone, perhaps also to university but no-one knows where. It is perhaps not unsurprising that the two quests overlap.
While Solovyov’s quest is certainly fascinating, not least for the questions it raises about what is truth and who owns it, Vodolazkin is a wonderful story teller. He combines a certain tongue-in-cheek approach, mocking several of the characters, including Solovyov, but, at the same time, gets into his characters. He is also very happy to criticise both the Soviet era and the current era in Russia.
He makes a great point of showing that, despite their obvious differences, both men do have similarities. Firstly, they seem to visit the same places in the same way on more than one occasion and Vodolazkin makes sure we know this. Secondly, both the railways and the sea are key to their stories. Both men love the sea, even if they have little experience of it and both men come from railway families and travel a lot by railway. Thirdly, both of his heroes are serious men, with a certain amount of naivety but, at the same time, both are dogged in their pursuit of their goals. Both are also honest, upright men, something, Vodolazkin implies, was not particularly common either then (i.e. in 1920) or now.
Two of Vodolazkin’s later novels have previously been published in English and all three of these books show that Vodolazkin is one of Russia’s foremost writers. As Lisa C Hayden, the translator of all three, says in her afterword, the three form a sort of trilogy. The three novels fit together so beautifully, forming a sort of triptych, that each one is my favourite in its own right, she says, and I can only agree.
First published 2009 by Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie
First published 2018 in English by OneWorld
Translated by Lisa C Hayden