Darkly sardonic novel of life in a post-Soviet Russia that keeps looking longingly to its totalitarian past.
Alexei Afanasievich Kharitonov served in the Great Patriotic War as a scout, his specialty dispatching the enemy by strangulation “without noise or weapon.” Now, half a century later, he lies paralyzed in his family’s dreary apartment, felled by a stroke. For a decade and a half, his body has stubbornly refused to die. This is all to the good, as far as his family is concerned, for they rely on his pension. In a scenario reminiscent of the 2003 German film Good Bye, Lenin!, his stepdaughter, Marina, who “had divined in the decrepit general secretary’s replacement by a younger, more energetic one not a pledge of Soviet life’s continuity but the beginning of the end,” concocts a scheme to keep the apartment just as it was in the Soviet days even though things have changed irrevocably outside. Marina edits the daily edition of Pravda to be sure that no word of the collapse of the Soviet Union sneaks through, not quite sure whether her stepfather is able to comprehend anything at all but taking no chances. He does, and he wants nothing more than to end it all, having silently “declared war on his own immortality.” Will he live forever in that shrine to Soviet life, complete with a portrait of Leonid Brezhnev that Marina stole from a university journalism archive? Slavnikova’s novel, following on her 2017, which won the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, is oddly timely, for there are all sorts of understated hints about voter fraud, graft, payoffs, and the endless promises of politicians who have no intention of keeping them. It is also deftly constructed, portraying a world and a cast of characters who are caught between the orderly if drab world of old and the chaos of the “new rich” in a putative democracy.
Concise but densely packed and subtle in its satire. Well-known in Russia, Slavnikova is a writer American readers will want to have more of.