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Vladimir Sharov: До и во время (Before and During)

Our hero (who, we learn later in the book, is called Alyosha) is an unlikely Soviet citizen. He actually likes the Bolsheviks, not because of any great political conviction but because he grew up near the Bolshevik Cake Factory, so Bolshevik always reminds him of delicious cakes. He started life as a journalist but when he had to write about the Bolsheviks, he was always, as he says, soft and tender towards them. So he quit and started writing for children’s magazines, which was very successful (Bolsheviks are like mummy, kind, tender mummy, and children love these stories.)

However, then, aged forty-two, he had a head injury, as a result of slipping on ice and falling near a bus shelter. He started having blackouts, with the result that he would go off on his own, no-one knew where, and would be picked up in another part of the country, sometimes in a detention cell or in a psychiatric clinic. He would often have been badly beaten up, by the police or hospital attendants or by others. He would go home and gradually recover, till the next time.

We learn that he is a religious man – he believes in Christ and in Lenin. However, he is also interested in death. Death is a return to God, a return after long and difficult trials, after responsibility and freedom of will. One of his obsessions is based on Ivan the Terrible’s Memorial Book. Ivan the Terrible allegedly felt guilty about all the people he had killed and, as he is dying, remembers these people and sets aside money for prayers to be said for them. Our hero plans to do something similar, though not for people he has killed, but for those who would otherwise have been forgotten. He calls it a lament for people I knew and loved. He picks four people to write about, one of whom is Tolstoy, though the other three are, indeed, ordinary people who, without his memorial, would have almost certainly been forgotten, though all three have an interesting aspect to their life.

However, the book opens with our hero on his way to an appointment at a mental hospital. The difficult journey is symbolic of his state of mind. He us advised that he will have to spend some time in the institution getting treatment which makes him nervous. However, he soon more or less settles in.

It seems the institution has had a colourful history, having been a boarding school for the children of top Soviet officials sent abroad (with the children possibly kept in the school as hostages to their parents’ return) and as a home to the Institute for Natural Genius. A few of the members of that group still remain and they give seminars on various topics. Two of the residents are keen Tolstoyans, hence his memorial about the man and his family problems.

A whole host of interesting topics come up, such as a need for the geniusification of the country and an alternative version of the Christ story. However, Alyosha has decided to abandon his memorial book, only to revive it for the denizens of the hospital.

Before he starts on it, he is confronted by one of the Genius residents, Ifraimov, about Germaine de Staël. A significant part of the rest of the book is about her. Historically she did travel to Russia but did not stay a long time. Sharov now completely subverts the historical record. For her second life Madame de Staël chose not France, by which she had been so cruelly disappointed, but Russia, with which she was extremely taken.

She lives in Russia, has affairs in Russia and brings up some of her various children there. She also develops her estates successfully. She has a long affair with Nikolai Fyodorov, the Christian philosopher. Indeed, for their first child (they have four) she drugs him and rapes him, so he is unaware of the fact that he has fathered a child with her. All of this is fantasy, not least because the historical Fyodorov was born twelve years after her death.

She later meets a Georgian called Vissarion Ignatashvili by whom she has a child called Josef. As he has subsequently married someone else, the child takes his mother’s name. As Staël in Russian is written Stal and the –in suffix is a diminutive, the child is called Josef Stalin. And, yes, it is that Josef Stalin. She loses touch with him but later saves a young man from drowning who turns out to be her son. Though the historical Mme de Staël died in 1817, we follow Mme de Staël through the nineteenth and, indeed, twentieth centuries. It is this Mme de Staël that essentially, as the tale-teller says, who was the mid wife to the Russian Revolution.

She encourages, with the help of Fyodorov, the revolutionaries but as he is a Christian Utopian visionary, the Bolsheviks and the Revolution are not quite as we know them. Indeed, there are two aspects we follow in the development of the revolution that we do not associate with the historical Revolution – a strong Christian Utopian flavour and an element of eroticism. Not only does Sharov subvert the history of the Revolution but he also shows why Mme de Staël is to blame for Stalin’s reign of terror.

She continues to have affairs. Indeed, it is the composer Alexander Scriabin who becomes both her lover and leader of the Party. Scriabin told her in passing that he was the Deity come to earth, doomed, as Christ had been, to pass through unthinkable torments, to sacrifice himself for the salvation of mankind.

Alyosha has been listening patiently to Ifraimov’s story but wondering why he has been telling him Mme de Staël’s story. He is writing a memorial book for the hospital residents. Only towards the end does he realise that this is what is intended: Mme de Staël and Fyodorov are residents of the hospital, still alive.

When I reviewed Sharov’s previous book, I called it a most original novel. This novel is even more so. Once again, Sharov takes Russian history and subverts it. As in Репетиции (Rehearsals), the Russian Revolution is key to the story though, in both cases, he endeavours to give a Christian aspect to it. In particular, in both books, Sharov’s vision, shown through some of the main characters, is a Christian Utopia on Earth and, particularly, in Russia. It may not be a view espoused by many but it is certainly an interesting idea.

Whatever your views on religion, you cannot fail to be impressed by Sharov’s undertaking. He has given us a radical view of Russian history, from the early nineteenth century to the present day. He has completely changed the historical facts about major historical figures: Stalin, Mme de Staël, Scriabin, Lenin, Fyodorov, not to mention a bit of Tolstoy and used the to make his point about a Christian Utopia. But this is not a simplistic view of the matter. He sees that it is complicated and he and his characters struggle with it. Reading it as a novel, and not as a religious and political tract, which, of course, you should, it is an outstanding work.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Novy Mir
First published 2014 in English by Dedalus
Translated by Oliver Ready