Leonid Leonov: Вор (The Thief)
Like Барсуки (The Badgers), this novel certainly has an element of chaos but it is still a very fine book and one that deserves to be better known. It had something of a varied life. Though hardly a paean to Soviet development, it was published but was eventually suppressed and not republished in the same form in the Soviet Union, though Leonov did revise it in a way that completely changed the role of the eponymous hero. He is Dmitri Vekshin who, like some of the other characters, has a variety of nicknames, though is generally known as Mitka. Mitka has been a hero of World War I and the Revolution/Civil War but has been in trouble with the authorities, not least because he severed the arm off a White Army officer (thereby killing him) who had killed his (Mitka’s) horse. Mitka is worshipped by Sanka, known as Bicycle and the pair of them set up as thieves after the war.
The story of the novel follows the community in which Mitka and Sanka generally live. The story is somewhat complicated by Firsov who is writing a novel about the group so we get the real story mixed in with Firsov’s version of the story, which is partially idolised and partially distorted. Seeing a novel being written about the events of the novel we are reading is a fascinating post-modern twist. But the story – both Leonov’s and Firsov’s version – is peopled with a rich array of characters. There is Mitka’s sister, Tanya, who later becomes a circus acrobat. She struggles with her relationship with her brother, with her lover and with her career. Chikelyov is a civil servant who takes advantage of the system and people. Zinka is in love with Mitka and has an on-again/off-again relationship with him, as she struggles to support her daughter. Manyukin is a former barin (aristocrat) who tries to make his living by telling stories. We even meet Mitka’s sycophantic brother and rogue father. The charm of this novel is that all of these characters, all with their flaws, are so well-drawn and are rich characters.
The whole story is set against the background of the period, primarily the early 1920s, and Leonov takes lots of swipes at the New Economic Policy and how various people exploit and abuse it. It is this that makes us surprised that the book was published at all. Above all it is the character of Mitka that stands out. He is a complex man – a successful communist hero, a very successful (even world-famous) thief but a troubled man with both his conscience and his relationships. He disappears for periods, only to turn up unexpectedly. He is a loner and a man who is indifferent to fame and fortune. In short, he is a complex character, even if somewhat representative of a Russian type, the man who does not fit in but whom we cannot help but admire. Like its hero, this a book that we cannot help but admire, as it dissects the Russian character and how it fits or does not fit into the Soviet system. It is a book that deserves to be better known.
First published 1927 by Государственное Издательство
First published 1931 in English by Secker
Translated by Hubert Butler