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Vyacheslav Shishkov: Угрюм-река (Gloomy River)

This novel is considered as a key Russian novel and, perhaps, the great Siberian novel, in Russia. It is still very much read and was made into a successful TV series (not available in English). Unfortunately, it is little known outside Russia. It was translated into English by Irene/Irina Henderson (nee Mochalova). Sadly, she died before completing the translation and it was completed by Emily Justice. The book was privately published by Harry Henderson, Irina Henderson’s husband. Of course, it should be better known in English and widely available. It has been translated into German (as Der dunkle Strom), Czech (as Řeka života) and Polish (as Rzeka posępna).

The two books tell the epic story of one Siberian family. Danilo Gromov has moved to the area, though no-one knows where from. By dint of hard work and a certain amount of dishonesty, he had done well for himself. He has a son, Pyotr, and a grandson, Prokhor. But now he is dying. He calls Pyotr to his side and tells him where he has buried the money which, we learn, he obtained as a bandit, robbing and killing people. Despite the bad weather, Pyotr immediately abandons his dying father and rushes off to search for the money buried in the woods, accompanied only by his faithful dog. He has difficulty in finding it from his father’s instructions and is frequently frightened by noises in the wood but does eventually find it. By the time he returns home, his father is dead. Now he is rich and, equally as importantly, in charge, he celebrates, drinking steadily but decides to send his son, Prokhor, off on an expedition to the Gloomy River (a fictitious river), accompanied by Prokhor’s Circassian friend, Ibhrahim, who will act as a guard for the eighteen year old boy. During Prokhor’s absence, Pyotr will chase after Anfisa, a young woman whom Prokhor thinks he loves, and threaten to divorce his wife.

Prokhor and Ibrahim have many difficulties and nearly die but finally make it back to Kraisk, where Prokhor meets Nina. He has already had a couple of brief flings with women while on his journey but now falls for Nina, delaying his return home. Back home, he will take up with Anfisa again (who is still being courted by Pyotr, as well as the local police officer), while still claiming his love for Nina. Nina is a better match, at least from the financial point of view, as her father is rich. However, Pyotr is jealous and sends Prokhor out on a longer mission this time. Prokhor and Ibrahim set up a trading post and do very well, acquiring many furs. He manages to see Nina, while still writing to Anfisa. During both journeys he meets both local people, Siberian natives, as well as exiled revolutionaries, and both of these groups will play a fairly important role in the book. When Prokhor returns home, he and his father almost come to blows over Anfisa. However, when she mysteriously dies in a fire, the finger of suspicion points towards Prokhor, though Ibrahim takes the blame for her death.

We then jump ten years ahead. Pyotr is in an institution. Prokhor is married to Nina and owns extensive tracts of land in Siberia, which he exploits for their products, including timber, furs and gold. He is now very rich, very powerful and very cruel. He treats his workers very badly but they do not all take it quietly and we see the rise of revolutionary consciousness. He treats Nina badly, having numerous affairs, and tries to prevent her from helping the oppressed workers. And he is ruthless in his business dealings, happy to cheat anyone out of anything. He depends on the engineer Protasov. Protasov is very competent. He is also a leader of a revolutionary group and in love with Nina. Much of this book is taken up by the travails of Prokhor, many of them of his own making. There is a serious forest fire. He is continuously at war with his workers. Nina tries to help the workers behind his back. He has problems with investors and politicians. Most of all, his demons come back to haunt him, both the physical ones – his father and Ibrahim – and the ones in his head.

This is a masterly and epic work. Prokhor, in the Russian tradition, is a larger-than-life, fiery, strong, ruthless man but one who suffers from internal torments the more he drives himself and others. The development of Siberia from a wilderness to a thriving business is a key to this book but it is the characters – Prokhor and Nina, Pyotr, Ibrahim, Protasov – that make this book and add another epic to the list of first-class Russian epics. It is to be hoped that it will be made more accessible and, for once, I hope that it will be available in other languages than the four in which it is already available.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 1933 by Gos. izd-vo khudozh. lit-ry
First English translation by H Henderson (privately printed) in 2003-2006