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Leonid Leonov: Барсуки (The Badgers)

The best novels need to have a certain amount of chaos or, at least, disorder in them and this novel certainly has that. There is not too much to have you really worried but just enough to sometime have you guessing at what exactly is going on. The story is set in Zariadye, a village on the outskirts of Moscow. The first half of the novel takes place before the revolution. We meet the various characters who will be key in the second, post-revolution half, as well as learn something of the history of the area. One of the key pieces of the history of the area, which we only learn about in the second part, concerns Zina’s Meadow. It was originally owned by a rich landowner, Svinulin. One of his favourite pastimes was fighting his pet gander with his neighbour. When his neighbour finally won, he bought the neighbour’s gander in exchange for a hundred serfs. (The newly acquired gander lost its next fight.) These serfs were used to develop some wasteland near Zina’s Meadow. When the serfs were liberated in 1861, the land in Archangel, the village, was divided up so that the sold serfs received poor quality land. They tried to negotiate with the former serfs who had not been sold to acquire some of Zina’s Meadow, which was more fertile, but failed. As a result the descendants of the sold serfs were called Гуссаки (Gussaki – Russian for ganders) and the others Вори (Vori – Russian for robbers). Their disputes will be important later in the book.

Leonov gradually introduces us to the key characters. The first is Yegor Brykin, who has just returned home from Moscow, where he had done well selling knick-knacks in the market but now wants to go home and marry, which he does, marrying Annushka Babintsova. We next meet Saveli Rakhleyev and, more importantly, his two young sons, Senya (also known as Semyon) and Pashka (also known as Pavel). Nastyusha Sekretova (known as Nastya) will become Semyon’s girlfriend, though not without a certain amount of difficulty. There are other characters we are introduced to, who will play some role later on and, in all cases, Leonov tells their stories, with wit and originality, so that we have a wonderful picture of this village, still living somewhat in the past, with its Russian peasant characters.

But the revolution eventually comes to Russia. Initially, the village seems to carry on as before, even if there is now a village Soviet in control and many of the young men have gone away to fight in the war. Some of the young men start to return, primarily as deserters. The first one we meet is the first one we met at the beginning of the book, Yegor Brykin. He returns to find his house in bad condition and his wife pregnant (he has been away too long for him to be the father). We have already learned that the father is the Soviet official, Sergei Polovinkin. He has lost interest in Annushka, now that she is pregnant. The second returning deserter we meet is Semyon Rakhleyev. Semyon soon gets involved with a group of deserters, hiding out in the woods, who are resisting Soviet authority. They call themselves Badgers, as they burrow underground to live and to hide. Much of the rest of the book is about their ultimately failed resistance to Soviet authority, though we see it primarily from their side, rather than the Soviet side. The well-told story shows the relationships between the various members of the group, e.g. Nastya’s uncertainty between Semyon and the other Badger leader, Mishka, the disputes between the Gussaki and the Vori and, of course, the Soviet response to the resistance, which, at least initially, is not very efficient. The story culminates in Pavel Rakhleyev, now a Soviet commissar, returning to the village to try and persuade his brother, Semyon, now a Badger leader, to give up his anti-Soviet ways.

This book should really be better known. Leonov not only tells a fascinating story and shows us a part of the Russian Revolution which does not often appear in Soviet literature, except to show only the evil ways of the anti-Soviet forces, but he peoples his book with a host of colourful characters. While there is clearly an element of satire, he makes them real and shows their foibles, their doubts both about communism but also about their own resistance and their often stoic actions. The outcome is evident – it is a Soviet book – but it certainly is not standard Soviet propaganda.

Publishing history

First published 1924 by Государственное Издательство
First published 1947 in English by Hutchinson