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Zakhar Prilepin: Обитель (The Monastery)

The prison camp novel has, of course, a long tradition in Russian literature. The best-known are obviously Solzhenitsyn’s works, particularly Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Prilepin did not take to Solzhenitsyn, saying it was all fiction, claiming that this book was based on fact, namely the story of his great-grandfather, who was interned in Solovki prison camp, where this novel is set. Prilepin also did a lot of research at the camp itself.

There is only one novel on this site, set entirely in a gulag – Верный Руслан (Faithful Ruslan) – but quite a few where Russian prison camps come into the story. I have not read any other books where this camp features but the writer Konstantine Gamsakhurdia was a prisoner there and it is mentioned in Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita).

The book is called The Monastery because there is an old monastery on the site, as well as other religious buildings. These religious buildings were used as part of the camp.

Our hero is Artiom Gorianov. Initially, we do not know why he is in the camp. He declines to say, when asked, though we later learn he killed his father. Details are given still later in the book. The camp had both political prisoners and ordinary criminals, though the latter were often used as guards and team leaders to keep the political prisoners in order. They could be quite brutal and, of course, there was no recourse if they were. Artiom’s team leader, for example picks on him and will arbitrarily hit him for no reason, even though Artiom seems to get on well with everyone else.

Artiom has been fortunate enough to make friends with Vasilli Petrovich. Vasilli had been sent to prison, accused of spying for the French as he used to go to the French Embassy, solely to get a free meal. He now knows the ropes. Indeed, they meet when he offers to help Artiom protect the food parcels he receives from his mother. Gangsters – the term used – steal all and sundry, particularly unprotected food parcels.

The camp is a labour camp and the prisoners have to work though, clearly some types of work are easier than others and the trick is to try and get one of the easier jobs. Artiom and Vasilli have been berry-picking and, while they can help themselves, Artiom does not take to it and does not meet his quota, resulting in reduced rations. His next job is smashing up an old cemetery, which some of the prisoners are not happy about but Artiom seems to be a convinced atheist and therefore indifferent. The sign above the camp reads The master of the world will be work, which clearly recalls the Nazi concentration camp slogan Arbeit macht frei.

The commandant is Teodors Eihmans and he is considered something of an improvement on his predecessor, who would take one man from each arriving batch and shoot him.

However, it is Artiom’s story we are following. Vasilli congratulates Artiom on how well he has fitted in. The key thing is not to be noticed and not ask unnecessary questions. However, these may be famous last words, as Artiom is prepared to stand up for himself when someone upsets him and picking a fight with the gangsters, i.e. the common criminals, is not a good idea. Indeed, not only only does he upset the gangsters, he also upsets the guards (i.e. the ones selected from the inmates). He ends up in the infirmary. He is warned by Galina, Eihmans’ girlfriend and seemingly chief administrator that he has broken numerous rules and could face the rest of his sentence in solitary.

However, Artiom is one of those characters that always seem to land on their feet and he manages to escape those who are after him and becomes close to Teodors Eihmans, helping him look for buried treasure! However, he continues to misbehave but, more or less, gets away with it.

However, things start to go wrong when someone he knows tries to kill Eihmans and though he had nothing to do with it, he and others who knew the man, are implicated. Artiom has been having an affair with Galina (who was a historical figure – Prilepin includes excerpts from her diaries in the afterword) and she has got him out of difficult situations, not least because of her close connection to Eihmans but when Eihmans is replaced with the ruthless Aleksandr Nogtev, things become more difficult and he ends up in Sekirka, the punishment bloc.

Finally, Galina decides that both he and she are in danger and their best bet would be to escape. The problem is that no-one has ever successfully escaped from Solovki.

This is a first-class book. It is very long, so a lot happens. We follow Artiom’s story in considerable detail, his ups and hid downs. and he has plenty of both. But we also follow the stories of many others, from the strong to the weak, from the ruthless and cruel to the (relatively) kind-hearted. Everyone in the camp has a story of some sort, from past and present Chekists to White Russians, from those who were part of the revolution but fell foul of the Soviets to those, like Artiom, who never liked the Bolsheviks.

In many ways, the camp and the novel can be considered a microcosm of the Soviet Union, with people for and people against the communist system, with people struggling to survive but with obtaining food, comfort and safety from, both the thugs in the prison and the guards being the priorities. Some, including Artiom, manage to obtain sex and good food. Many do not. All want to live but we see many die, usually unpleasantly. A few even get released but, again, not many do not, at least alive.

Whether Prilepin intended it to be a microcosm of the Soviet Union or not, he clearly aims to show the horrors of the Soviet camps as well as telling the story of one man who, more or less, manages to get by. Artiom is not your conventional hero. He has killed his father, virtually ignores his mother when she visits the camp, is prone to making sarcastic remarks which he knows will get him into trouble and, understandably of course, will do what it takes to survive. Prilepin tells us that he really existed and we learn what happened to him as well as to the other historical characters, as Prilepin does his detailed research, even visiting the seventy-five year old daughter of Eihmans.

Indeed, we learn something of our author in this recounting of his research. He says, for example, I have very little love for the Soviet government but those who especially hate it are the kind of people whom I abhor, as a rule, even more and we know of his views from other sources, such as his support for the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Given the length, the detail, the complexity, the rich cast of characters and superb story-telling, this book is destined to become a Russian classic. It has been made into a TV series in Russia. While there have certainly been other first-class post-Soviet novels, this book will surely be read for many years to come.

First published in Russian in 2014 by AST
First English translation in 2020 by Glagoslav
Translated by Nicholas Kotar