Vladimir Sharov: Будьте как дети (Be As Children)
If you have read either of Sharov’s previous novels translated in to English – Репетиции (Rehearsals) and До и во время (Before and During) – you will have an idea of what to expect from this book. You will know that Sharov was an expert on medieval Russian history and is highly knowledgeable on Russian history in general. Do not let that put you off as, though this knowledge informs this book, it is mainly set in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Sharov is fascinated by Christianity in Russian history. The title clearly comes from Matthew 18:3: And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. As we shall see this concept is key to this book but perhaps not in the way you might think. Again, do not be put off by Sharov’s interest in Christianity. I am not in the slightest bit religious but really enjoyed his approach to Christianity, both the general doctrine but, in particular, how it functioned in Russia both in the pre-Soviet era and in the Soviet era.
The Russian Orthodox Church went through a major schism in the seventeenth century when the Patriarch introduced reforms. A large group, known as the Old Believers, remained true to the old ways and they continued (and still continue) the old beliefs. Sharov is clearly sympathetic to them and we see them in this book (and in Репетиции (Rehearsals)).
The other aspect of Christianity that is key to Sharov in this book is the idea of the Holy Fool, normally a man but in this book a woman. A Holy Fool is a person who is a firm believer in Christianity but comes across as something of a fool and uses this disguise to preach and to help fellow Christians.
Finally, the other key aspect of Sharov that we have learned from his previous books is that he tells a really good story. He goes off on tangents. At times we wonder where he is going. At times his characters behave in ways that, to us, may seem strange or even irrational. In many cases his characters have very colourful lives. All of these factors,of course, enhance our enjoyment of his work because one thing is guaranteed: it is not going to be your standard realistic novel.
In this novel, for example,we have a bandit who becomes a holy man, a female holy fool and a dying Lenin becoming a child. Indeed, whatever your preconceived notions of Lenin – positive or negative – I can assure you this book will give you a very different view of him.
We essentially follow three stories here. The book is narrated by a man caled Dmitry who is an ethnographer. The first story concerns Dusya. Dmitry had known her for a long time – she was his godmother. She came from a noble family, married and had two children. She had been very keen on playing with children. Her husband died in the Civil war in 1918 and in 1927 she took the veil. One son had died but Seryozha wandered around the North of Russia, drawing whatever he saw. Dmitry has two friends – Irina and Vanya – who have a child after several miscarriages, Sashenka. Sashenka gets ill and dies. Dusya says it is best that she died because she still retained her innocence and therefore would go to heaven. Dusya had a community, which continued into the Soviet era whereby everyone in the area (the Arbat district of Moscow) helped one another financially. She was considered something of a saint but was devoted to children but less so to adults.
We now already have the key theme of this book – children and their innocence.
Seryozha and Dmitry, influenced by Seryozha, wander around Siberia, recording and exploring. We learn of various stories but, in particular that of Peregudov, a bandit who became a holy man and we follow in detail his complicated story and how he ends up as the resident holy man of the Siberian tribe the Enets.
However, the main story is about Lenin, specifically Lenin in his final years. We get this story from two sources. Dmitry chaired the education committee of the province of Ulyanovsk, a post once held by Lenin’s father, where a teacher tells the story to his pupils. Secondly, a historian whom he meets in hospital, has done his research, the authorities try to hide it but Dmitri gets a copy of the study.
There is a fascinating story about Lenin – his relationship with God and how, after he has his strokes, he becomes more childlike as he forgot how to read, write, speak, count and, partially, to understand words. We have several interesting aspects of this, particularly one where we learns how a blind deaf boy communicates and he tries to copy the idea. Lenin becomes more and more of the view that it is not the workers who are the true proletariat – they are becoming more bourgeois – but children. Indeed, we see that initially he is not enthusiastic about children. However, as the picture on the left shows (and the picture is mentioned in the book), he changed his views.
Lenin decides that a children’s crusade to the Holy Land is called for and this becomes another sub-theme, as Dmitry tries to find out more about it, And this leads to Dusya ‘s brother Pasha, who also organises one. Inevitably this all links up with the Enets as well.
As you can see, we have the three main stories – Dusya, Peregudov and Lenin – but also various sub-stories – Dmitry, Pasha, Seryozha, the crusades and the Enets in particular. All of these stories link in one way or another but generally not in obvious ways. However, there is a lot more – from God winning an election to Aramaic counting rhymes, from bears killed as kulaks to telling people’s fate by examining porridge and many other side issues
So what is this book about, you may ask. In her excellent afterword, Caryl Emerson singles out the idea of human processions, the idea of masses of people moving with a common purpose and this is certainly a key feature of the book. Emerson later quotes Mikhail Epstein as saying that Sharov’s books are a mix of history and phantasmagoria, God-seeking and psychopathy, an experiment in penetrating the collective unconscious of Russian history. Both of these views are clearly a good part of what Sharov is.
I would go a bit further. Clearly, the book is about sin and innocence. We probably all have an idea about the role of sin and innocence, probably based on our own religious views. However, whatever your views on the topic, I think that you will find that Sharov has a somewhat (but only somewhat) different take on the idea. We have already seen that he sees children as essentially innocent and, by extension, adults as essentially sinners. You do not need to be a Christian to at least understand him, if not agree with him. The idea of innocence and sin colours the whole book, as, of course, does the role and lives of children.
As mentioned above, Caryl Emerson focusses on the idea of human processions and, while I would agree with that to some extent, we also see several individuals determinedly making their own path through life, away from the crowd. Dmitry, Dusya, Seryozhka, Peregudov and Lenin all go against the norms of the day and the norms of their groups to go their own way to find what they are looking for, though, not surprisingly, they do not all succeed.
Looking at the book not so much as what it is about but rather as to whether it makes for enjoyable reading, that is, for me, an easier task. Sharov tells several highly original and at times convoluted stories, often veering off on a tangent, at times mixing with the other stories, full of interesting ideas and even more interesting side stories, delving into Russian history, both distant past (Old Believers, Orthodox schism) and more recent (Lenin). We also get to learn about the non-Slavonic people of Russia. His characters are generally very original and quite different from the sort of people we Westerners are likely to come across. You may question the motives of some of them but, of course, that is part of the pleasure. I certainly do not want to read about people who think and act like me. In short, this is another absolutely brilliant book by Sharov, a thoroughly enjoyable read, a book you can really get your teeth into and one that will keep you going for some time.
First published in 2008 by Vagrius
First published in 2021 in English by Dedalus
Translated by Oliver Ready