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Sergei Lebedev: Титан (A Present Past: Titan and Other Chronicles)

This is not a novel but eleven interrelated tales which, as the author says, share a mystical topography in which the legacy of totalitarian regimes is ever-present. In his fascinating introduction Lebedev tells of how he and other Russians felt when the Soviet Union fell. Even though I was a child, I remember the phenomenon of mystical feelings, elemental and ubiquitous, as sudden as a volcanic eruption. and a new mystical folklore arose before our eyes, seemingly out of the air of the epoch. He goes on to mention strange creatures and mystical allusions to make the evil past real.

If you are expecting fairly realist stories, you will not be entirely disappointed but also expect some decidedly otherwordly tales.

Lebedev is clearly no lover of Soviet communism nor post-Soviet Putinism. The first story clearly damns both. The protagonist is a Russian judge, Stomakov. He is dealing with a case concerning the Katyn massacre, in which nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia prisoners of war were murdered by the Stalinist NKVD in 1940, with the bodies being found by German forces in 1943.

Judge Stomakov is a wily operator and has pulled a few strings to get the case, knowing that if he makes the right decision, it will mean promotion. Clearly getting his promotion is more important than giving justice to the survivors and the relatives of the murdered men. We learn about what happened to his father in the Soviet Union era and what unpleasant act he committed as as child, a memory prompted by hearing a dog howl when he goes home, after the trial.

Various other excerpts from Soviet history will pop up in various stories. They include a visit to the Lubyanka, the notorious prison, where the Soviet commander of the prison tells us that theLubyanka looked magnificent, its facade was delightful and imposing. But inside it was rotten. Beams, ceilings, pipes—all rotten. The physical rot is no doubt symbolic of the moral rot. More interestingly he sees the various long since dead victims, which include those who had previously been in charge. Other key buildings we will meet include Stalin’s Kuntsevo Dacha where it was the dacha that decided. The old house got rid of the people it didn’t like—some slowly, some quickly. There is also an old and mysterious locked barn in the country which we later learn had a decidedly sinister function and an obelisk in a cemetery which seems to have a mind of its own.

It is not just buildings but smaller objects such as an old visiting card holder, a cuckoo clock, an Egyptian scarab and a typewriter which all behave in decidedly unusual, mysterious ways.

Another oddity is that a few characters by touch or through contact with some object seem not just to enter the life of another character but to delve in to that character’s past. There is an interesting variation on that theme. One character (in the Soviet era) is an excellent mimic and can imitate the speaking voices of virtually anyone. However he foolishly mocked the General Secretary, contrary to Article 70 of the Criminal Code. Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He avoided punishment by taking his skills to the KGB who found his talents were not just verbal but written as well so he was given a new career.

One of the more interesting, more or less realistic tales tells of a fighter pilot who had been shot down but then becomes the pilot for a conventional commercial flight and we soon realises that this is (or is based on) Ryanair Flight 4978, when a normal flight that was flying over Belarus but had not planned to land there, was forced to land in Minsk so that the authorities there could arrest a passenger on the flight, which they did. This story is, of course, seen from the pilot’s point of view rather than from the point of view of the hapless victim sitting in seat 19D (The title of the story).

Perhaps the most interesting story is the title story, Titan. Titan is the pen name of a Soviet era novelist whom the Soviet authorities do not like. He is sent off to a camp by the authorities and they try desperately to find his writings without success. The narrator does get hold of a copy of the book from his composer father but is not too impressed. When Titan comes back from the camp, everyone, including the narrator and the KGB, expect him to write a novel based on his experience in the camp. But how can he do so without the KGB knowing?

And it is not just the Soviets. The final story concerns the Khitan embassy in Berlin. Khitan seems to be based on a mixture of China, North and South Korea. We follow a Khitanese officer in the embassy and his dealings with the opposition, particularly the eponymous singer on the bridge.

These are all superb stories, linked by looking at both the Soviet and post-Soviet world. Apart from the first story, where Lebedev shows the out-and-out nastiness of both the Soviet and post-Soviet legal system, the stories are, to a great extent, subtle with strange happenings and the share a mystical topography mentioned in his introduction. Clearly there are people who opposed and oppose the Soviet and post-Soviet (and Khitanese) states and these people are often seen to be different, special and unusual. Is Lebedev telling us that it will be these special people who will save Russian from itself?

First published in 2022 by Corpus
First published in English in 2023 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis