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Sergei Lebedev: Год кометы (The Year of the Comet)

The character of our unnamed narrator was clearly formed at birth. His mother was a geologist studying the causes and consequences of natural disasters and his father was a scholar, a specialist in catastrophe theory. They had tried without success to have a child and had all the usual tests. Finally, a wise professor said he had seen many women like her. He saw an unconscious fear of motherhood connected to the great number of violent deaths the previous generation had suffered. He suggested they go somewhere quiet so they went to an abandoned house at the foot of cliff, which was to be flooded for a hydroelectric project. Our hero was therefore conceived in an area subsequently well under water.

His birth was more dramatic A fault opened up beneath Bucharest and the tectonic wave reached Moscow where his mother was in labour. The earthquake was my first impression of being: the world was revealed to me as instability, shakiness, the wobbliness of foundations. I had trouble understanding anything to do with stability, immutability, and firmness….disharmony was closer and more understandable than harmony.

In his subsequent life he preferred disharmony, breakages, cracks in walls, windows and pavements. Not for him the harmonies of classical music, which he abhorred. The world wasn’t made that way, it didn’t have form and discipline.

But the key issue is that Every family in the USSR was “overloaded” by history; the family space did not protect you from anything, it had lost its autonomy. Too many people had died before their time, and the family remained exposed to the crossfire of history. For his family, particularly his two grandmothers, it meant that they had lost a significant number of their family – husband, brothers, father and more distant relatives but also some female ones killed in German attacks. It meant for our hero that he was not just the sole survivor in whom they placed their hopes but, annoyingly for him, they saw in him the features of one dead relative, the hair colour of another. He was not just himself but Pavel or Alexei reborn. The dead were resurrected in me.

Each grandmother tried to make him her grandson. They both saw the first person in their life who was not under the heavy thumb of history, who could not be taken by the universal draft or a form warrant for arrest.

There were other problems. Having a name in the Soviet Union meant that your name might be linked to arrested relatives making you persona non grata and, as he tells us, this makes him afraid of having a name. The only way out he can think of is to perform some heroic deed and get given a new name by history itself.

But he takes it further. He has a creepy feeling of his own inauthenticity, which was not reassured by his mother showing him his birth certificate. He was, however, reassured when his grandmother made him a passport.

He is convinced that they are trying to hide something from him but he does not know what, though he diligently searches the dachas and flats of his parents and grandparents. One thing he does find, hidden away, is an old (1930) copy of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. He reads through it and finds that there are entries (e.g. on Bukharin) that are not in his parents’ more up-to-date Small Soviet Encyclopedia. Are there two Soviet Unions? Is that what has been kept hidden from him? He gets more suspicious, when out skiing, he finds an old buried railways line which seems to go nowhere. His parents tell him to keep away, as there was a testing site there. He is not convinced. It is only after the fall of the Soviet Union a few years later that he learns the truth.

This first part of the book really is an excellent view of the later part of the Soviet Union from a child’s point of view. The war is well in the past but well remembered by his grandmothers, Stalin is long since dead but remembered fondly by one of his grandmothers.

He does very well at school and is invited to the Kremlin as a reward. where they put on a version of the Snow Maiden he is not impressed. It is childish. He has grown up.

The second part is quite different and, in my view, less interesting, although still interesting. It is 1986. It starts with the appearance of Halley’s Comet. However the most amazing revelation for him is when his grandmother Tanya shows him a photo of her at the previous appearance of the comet in 1910. He finds it hard to accept that a living member of his family was actually alive before the Revolution.

We move on to Chernobyl, which his father visits in his professional capacity. Our hero refers to an interesting and maybe prophetic quotation from his Book for a Young Commander: The energy released by a single hydrogen bomb is greater than the energy of all the explosives used in World War II. If the capitalists provoke us into a third world war, our goal will be noble and beautiful—to make that war the last in the history of humanity.

Much of this section takes place in the rural area where the dacha is located and the family spends the summer. We get a series of events. However the key one concerns a serial child killer known as Mister. Everyone is worried abut him – parents and children but also the authorities. It is not clear if he even exists but the fear is there. A general, a relative, comes to stay with our family and he suspects that Mister has some sort of official status which is why he has not been identified. Our hero is determined that he know the reason why he has not been identified. Only a child can spot him and he is determined that he is that child. He has befriended a much older boy and shares his theory with him. Indeed as the older boy is no longer a child, our hero feels that he will be saving the other boy. He sets out to follow vaguely suspicious people and particularly those with some sort of official status, such as the postman.

We have been getting hints that things are not going well in the Soviet Union. There are shortages, for example. However, it is not till the family is back in Moscow that it starts to really deteriorate. Father was travelling more frequently to places where ships sank, gas exploded, planes crashed, and buildings collapsed. He rushed from one catastrophe to another, no longer knowing what to do with them, how to explain it all. In one building that has collapsed, they retrieve a time capsule placed in the foundations of the building in 1972 . They open it, only to find cigarette butts and nothing else. There it is, the future,” Father said. Cigarette butts.

Things really start falling apart and he wanders around Moscow seeing it all. This section may well the most interesting of this second part of the book.

It is a strange mixture, even if the overarching theme is what it was like for a fairly ordinary person in the Soviet Union in its last decade, when there were still people alive who remembered the war and who also remembered – fondly, in some cases – Stalin. People do try to live normal lives but that is not always possible, particularly as things get bad. Indeed when there is a referendum, probably the only one in the history of the Soviet Union, people seem to prefer the stability of the past with the Soviet Union rather than an unknown future. The grandmothers certainly do. However the first part remains the most interesting for me.

First published in 2014 by Центр книги Рудомино (Rudomino Book Centre)
First published in English in 2017 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis