Children of the Arbat: Anatoly Rybakov

March 22, 2013

31F2JGC8WTL._AA160_This novel – first of a trilogy – was a sensation when it was first published in the early days of glasnost and perestroika. But then it was overtaken by events – the end of the Soviet Union – and it took five years before the second volume was translated, and the third appeared a few years later, but only in the USA, as far as I’m aware.

I had never read the third volume, so there was an excuse to revisit all three. Rybakov paints a detailed, convincing and frightening picture of the gradual unfolding of the Stalinist purges and show trials of the nineteen-thirties, against a backdrop of the youthful enthusiasm of its main characters for the construction of a new and better society, which was warped and destroyed by the tyrant.

This enthusiasm is genuine and reminds us that there are other ways of building our world, that socialism has never really had a fair trial, and to beware of leaders. There may be a touching naivete – with hindsight – about the students and Komsomol members – but they want their world to be different and are committed.  And not all the older people are cynics and manipulators.

Children of the Arbat begins in 1934 with the hero in trouble and eventually exiled as the atmosphere of the times becomes ever more paranoid and menacing; he is probably saved by being sent to the depths of Siberia. In Fear, the second volume, the real madness of the times is brilliantly developed as Rybakov dares to create a convincing picture of Stalin through internal monologues; we see the increasingly twisted mind plot the destruction of rivals, potential rivals and anyone who has crossed him; we see the evil that is the NKVD grow in power and eventually consume its own, and we also see how Stalin is weakening his own country in the face of the growing Nazi threat, by destroying his best military talent.

In Dust and Ashes, Stalin struggles to face the Nazi double-cross, and the nation pulls together in the face of evil. The story of our hero works towards an inevitable tragic conclusion, and I was interested that a critic had referred to it as a Soviet Romeo and Juliet.

The trilogy is as long as War and Peace, and just as gripping in its own way. It’s a creation of its times which deserves to survive as more generations grow who never knew the Soviet Union, Stalin and the Cold War and only come across them now as headings in a history textbook. It’s ambitious and convincing in its sweep, and makes an effective contrast with the much narrower and more concentrated focus of Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

One of the tests of ‘good’ literature’ is whether it survives to be read by subsequent generations, and picking out those texts which will endure is not easy. At some point in the future, theses will be written on the creature that was Soviet Literature. The dross that was soviet realist hackwork will be forgotten, but the works produced by those times, which had to wait to be published, or be published abroad, deserve to be preserved for the future, to remind us about both dreams and tyrants.

2 Responses to “Children of the Arbat: Anatoly Rybakov”

  1. […] Life and Fate could not possibly be published for at least two centuries? Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy, which explored the darkest times of the Stalinist purges and show trials, only saw the light of […]


  2. […] through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about […]


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