Russian Fantasy and Its Real History
Needing distraction from Peter the Great’s Great Northern War against the Sweden of Charles 12 – I’m engrossed in Robert K Massie’s 1980 biography of the Tsar – I pick up Gogol’s Collected Tales in the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Stories like The Nose, The Portrait and The Overcoat all tell of surreal and grotesque developments – someone becomes a nose, a person steps out of a painting and so on. Gogol lived 1809 to 1852 but his stories seem to point to Kafka, or to the magical realism of South American fiction.
But I am also re-reading Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Hangmen (2004) or at least picking my way through it. So I have this heretical thought: what actually happened in Russia with the Bolshevik freak show that commenced in 1917 leaves all this fantasy stuff behind. The grotesque and surreal was actually everyday life. Like Solzhenitsyn’s observation that if Chekov’s characters had been told about the tortures that would shortly become life for millions of Russians they would have walked off-stage and committed suicide.
Nothing in Gogol is remotely as creepy as Lenin declaring that the whole class of rich peasants would have state power directed against them, or Trotsky and Zinoviev and other cafe windbags taking the reins of power, or a cut-throat like Stalin deciding that all potential – note that “potential” – enemies must be executed.
In fact confine yourself to the history of the security agencies alone – the Cheka, the NKVD, the OGUPA – as Rayfield does, and the story is best told as a national nightmare. Total fantasy. The surreal and grotesque. Nothing in their history prepared Russians for what was to sweep over them. Gogol’s polite little stories are ridiculously tame compared to 1917 and Russia’s actual history thereafter.
Strangely one work of fiction did prophesy: Dostoevsky’s Demons or The Possessed (1871-2) a story of a revolutionary cell and the warped, power-mad characters it attracts. These were precisely the types who would invent Bolshevism and flourish under it. The people who Dostoevsky imagined terrorizing a little community and committing a single murder became rulers of the whole country and set about murdering millions.