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from the July 2018 issue

A Quietly Radical Tale of the Rise and Fall of Communist Russia in Eugene Vodolazkin’s “The Aviator”

Reviewed by Sam George Jackson

As a young man, the late Russian scholar Dmitry Likhachev spent several years in a Soviet prison camp in the Solovetsky Archipelago. The stone complex in which he and his fellow inmates were detained had once been a monastery, founded in the fifteenth century by Russian Orthodox monks. The islands lie in the far north of Russia, but despite this remote location the Solovetsky Monastery was once a bustling center of religious and commercial activity. Likhachev, an enthusiastic young student of linguistics, did not allow imprisonment to interrupt his research. During the five years he spent in prison, Likhachev conducted a thorough study of his fellow inmates, with a particular interest in their speech patterns and the card games that played an important role in the daily life of the monastery’s new population.

Likhachev would base several scholarly works on his observations, including Card Games of Criminals. Among his research subjects were thieves and gang members, negotiating social hierarchies through games of chance. But most of the prisoners at Solovetsky were criminals of a different sort: intellectuals, students, and scientists, accused en masse of anti-revolutionary activity during the first decades of the Communist regime. They were rounded up from all corners of the Soviet Union and sent to what quickly became the USSR’s first political prison.

One of the most harrowing passages in Eugene Vodolazkin’s new novel, The Aviator, is set in the hold of a Solovetsky-bound barge heaving through the frigid White Sea with a shipment of human cargo. Our hero, Innokenty Petrovich Platonov, is one of the lucky ones: among the last to board, he is close to the top, out of the crush of bodies in the bowels of the ship. When the barge makes landfall, he must drag the remains of those less fortunate across the deck to shore. Vodolazkin does not spare us the gruesome particulars: the groans of the dying, the stench of the seasick. The Aviator is filled with scenes like this: intense flashes of lived experience, crisply focused, rich in sensory detail. 

Like his mentor Dmitry Likhachev before him, Volodazkin is a medievalist who works in the Department of Old Russian Literature at Pushkin House. Whereas his last novel, Laurus, centered on a medieval holy man and healer, The Aviator probes the tragedies and contradictions of the twentieth century.  At the opening of the novel, when Innokenty awakens in a hospital bed, he has virtually no memory of his previous life. But as vivid snippets rise up into his consciousness he records them in his journal, which makes up the text of the novel. The plot, then, is not a life as it was lived but a life as it is remembered. Images, impressions, and bits of speech are jumbled together, stripped of context, and delivered in all their immediacy. Gradually, as names and dates return to Innokenty, the outline of his life comes together. Born in 1900, he is “the same age as the century,” and he remembers childhood summers at the family dacha, the confusion of the October revolution, an all-consuming romance, and the betrayal that sent him to Solovetsky. Eventually only one great mystery remains: how he came to be in a modern hospital, in 1999, with the body of a young man and memories that barely reach the 1930s.

Innokenty’s situation gives him a unique perspective on history. He has a seventy-year blind spot, a gap that includes some rather important events—Stalin’s Great Terror, the Holocaust, the collapse of the Soviet Union. He comes to in a new country, a thoroughly futuristic Russia that, what with its pop music, its advertisements, and its conspicuous consumption, is a world away from the chaos and repression of the post-revolutionary years. Yet despite this historical blindness, Innokenty’s memories are a miraculous window into the first decades of the century. He recalls the main events and the minor, and, more importantly, he recalls the way it felt to live through them.

The Aviator is rather obviously the work of someone who thinks a lot about the past. Innokenty’s situation, contrived as it may be, is an opportunity to investigate the relationship between memory and history. There is a constant tension between the impressions and the emotions that make up Innokenty’s reminiscences, on the one hand, and on the other hand the epochal events that fill history books. It is tempting to imagine that conversations between Volodazkin and Likhachev lay behind this—the respected academic reminiscing about the forgotten texture of Soviet life, his student musing about how these personal details always escape the official record.

Innokenty’s journal is animated by this tension between the personal and the social. After news of this defrosted Soviet leaks to the press, Innokenty becomes something of a celebrity, and one day he sees a piece about himself on the news. As he watches archival footage of Solovetsky, he feels that it is strangely devoid of human meaning: “in some way, the black-and-white figures darting around the screen stopped corresponding to reality: they are only its faded signs.” This film may be a genuine document of camp life (watered-down and censored as it may be), but somehow it captures nothing of what it felt like to be a prisoner. It lacks the data of the senses: the sound of “a head striking the bunks when a guard came in, took a zek [an inmate] by the hair, and beat him . . . or the snap of nits pressed by a fingernail.”

This is one of Innokenty’s favorite theories (and Volodazkin’s too, presumably): that the documents of the historian, important as they are, lack that vital living essence that can only come with experience. Our protagonist has other pet subjects. His journals contain much musing on the nature of guilt and the difficulty of holding someone accountable for their actions (however despicable and inhumane) when we take into account the powerful social forces that pressured them to act as they did.

If this all feels a bit academic, well, it is at times. The Aviator is not verbose, but it certainly wears its ideas on its sleeve, and the arc of the narrative is as simple and clever as a philosopher’s parable. But this is also a deeply emotional book, and often it is these probing questions that give human depth to the characters. These are intelligent, curious people, struggling to understand their impossible situation. In this they are not alone in Russian literature, nor indeed in Russian history.

The subject of memory is a potent one in Russia today. As the Soviet Union collapsed, various museums were established that documented the history of the Gulag system; fittingly, the first was at Solovetsky. It was closed in 2016. It seems that the memories of the Gulag’s victims, and the desire of their descendants to understand and commemorate their suffering, do not mesh with the nationalistic take on Russian history in ascendance today. In this climate, to remember is an act of protest. The Aviator is a quietly radical novel, animated by the spirit of Dmitry Likhachev, an academic who knew what it was to suffer the blows of history first-hand.


© Sam George Jackson. All rights reserved.

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