In the beginning of this short novel, Captain Khabarov, commander of Sixth Company in Karabas, Kazakhstan, embarks on a seemingly straightforward mission: he will order his men to plant, rather than eat, their meager potato rations. Come autumn, there will be plenty for everyone, and their harsh lives at this remote outpost will become slightly more bearable. Trouble is, this "surplus" turns out to be the property of the army, and unauthorized consumption of state assets is tantamount to treason.
Khabarov's unit is attached to a Soviet prison camp located deep within the bare plains of Central Asia. For the conscripted soldiers and prisoners sent there, the steppe is a hopeless wasteland. For the state, the steppe provides a fertile environment for social re-education and—more important still—access to mineral resources. No one in Karabas is there by choice: "The zeks [camp prisoners] and the soldiers lived here for years, seeing out their terms, which meant military service for some and imprisonment for others." There seems to be very little difference between the two.
Captain of the Steppe (Kazennaya skazka, 1994)—now in an excellent translation by Ian Appleby—is the first of three semi-autobiographical novels that are based largely on the author's experience as a prison camp guard in Kazakhstan. The first installment, published when Pavlov was only twenty-four, was very well received by Russian critics and promised a successful literary career. His writings have since won numerous awards, including the 2002 Russian Booker Prize.
Up until the potato episode, Captain Khabarov was a dull functionary of the system. He dealt with the constant, unnecessary mistakes of his over-complicated bureaucracy with little more than a shrug and a sigh: "There's no way around it; just have to put up with it."
Khabarov's pragmatism falters when a disillusioned young political officer tries to kill himself. Vasil Velichko had arrived at the camp with ambitions to "save everyone and change everything on earth." It's no surprise when he comes up short and falls into a depression. The soldiers have no time for his lofty ideology. Even when he shoots himself in the chest, he aims too high, as though he were "not sure where his heart really was."
In scenes such as this, Pavlov skillfully navigates the razor-thin gap between dark comedy and tragedy, making the novel more humane and serious than many satires. The novel follows a loose plot structure and meanders—somewhat ploddingly at times—through unconnected episodes and long digressions into the backstories of secondary characters (the most colorful being the itinerant Cossack Ilya Peregud, whose "heart and soul ran on vodka"). The main story arc continues with Khabarov and his potatoes, the investigation into his activities by the vicious Special Department officer Skripitsyn, and Khabarov's long subsequent depression.
It’s sometimes hard to tell to what extent Pavlov’s descriptions of camp life are exaggerated. This has the unnerving effect of giving credence to sections that, in other novels, would simply be taken as farce. Consider these passages:
Once the soldiers had eaten, they were led in a column to the crappers, where by company and platoon the final evacuation of the day—there were supposed to be three, in all—took place.
An order had recently gone round the regiment that anyone who fell ill should be treated on the spot, not sent to hospital. The order had gone out because the very existence of hospital beds significantly weakened discipline.
Both are strange enough for the purposes of satire, but not so much that they entirely depart from reality. Captain of the Steppe abounds in similarly balanced episodes. Chief among them is Khabarov’s venture in potato-rearing. All of which raises a frightening possibility—that the real tragedy of life in the camps is that so little embellishment is necessary for it to repeat itself as farce.