Russian writer Aleksandr Borisovich Chakovsky was what Americans might call a real jerk. Which admittedly makes my decision to translate his first work of fiction slightly embarrassing. A hard-line Communist whose birth (1913) and death (1994) bracketed the existence of the Soviet Union, Chakovsky was a Stalinist toady who used his position as editor-in-chief of the powerful journal Literaturnaya Gazeta to denounce other writers, including Boris Pasternak. Chakovsky’s obituary in London’s Independent newspaper was unsparing: “he had loyally served everybody in power from Stalin through Khrushchev to Gorbachev. The Literaturnaya Gazeta was always a mouthpiece of the Kremlin but under Chakovsky it became one of the regime’s most sycophantic and sickening propaganda sheets.” Not to let him off too easy, the obituary concluded: “Chakovsky was a careerist to the core and sang to the tune of whoever was in power; he was disliked by his colleagues and fellow writers for that.” The New York Times was equally unforgiving in enumerating Chakovsky’s transgressions: “a self-proclaimed ‘shark of socialism,’ he orchestrated vitriolic attacks in the 1960’s and 1970’s on such authors as Andrei Sakharov, the dissident nuclear physicist and civil rights advocate; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’ and the poet Joseph Brodsky, whom he called ‘scum.’”
Yet it sometimes happens that bad humans write good books, and so it is with Chakovsky, an electrician who turned to journalism, and then to fiction. His first book, a novella titled “This Was in Leningrad,” established his reputation among Soviet readers, and it is still an excellent example of the “socialist realism” style that was the official artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union. I read the book several years ago and admired the prose, which mirrored Ernest Hemingway’s magnetic economy and echoed Erich Maria Remarque’s clarity and power to convey deeper emotions. After realizing months later that the book was still haunting me, I understood that I had to translate it. My only excuse for bringing this bad man to the attention of the modern reading public is this: the book is a good, gripping read, full of pathos, rich in compassion. There are versions available in the original Russian as well as in Polish, Dutch, and German, but not in English. One can probably dismiss the rest of Chakovsky’s books as successively more noxious Communist bile, but his first novella is a slender triumph of taut, muscular prose, making the lack of an English version a bit mystifying. Though socialist realism has been mocked (rightfully) for imposing ideology on art, Chakovsky found a perfect subject for the style — the World War II siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest sieges in world history and one that Chakovsky witnessed as a war correspondent.
Chakovsky’s novella, which runs to about 50,000 words, focuses on the personal tragedies and tiny heroic acts of the residents and soldiers of Leningrad during the German siege of that city in which more than one million people died, many from starvation. Those who survived did so thanks partly to the efforts of soldiers to truck food and supplies across frozen Lake Ladoga along the fabled Ice Road. The novella tells the story of a young war correspondent’s desperate struggle, through battles and blood, to get back to Leningrad to determine if the woman he loves is still living.
The siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941, when the German Wehrmacht cut off all roads to the city, targeting it as a major strategic objective since it served as a major industrial center and as a base for the Soviet Union’s Baltic Fleet. The Soviets didn’t open a land route to the city until January 18, 1943, and they weren’t able to completely break the siege until January 27, 1944. For nearly 900 days, then, the more than 3 million Leningraders increasingly suffered and struggled to live, enduring constant bombardment and shelling. Some months, citizens survived on a daily diet equivalent to five slices of bread, most of which was composed of sawdust and other inedible additives. Winter temperatures, meanwhile, occasionally dropped to -30 Celsius, while electricity, water, and public transportation systems failed. By the end of the siege, at least 1.1 million citizens and soldiers had died – some historians put the number several times higher – and about 1.5 million, mostly women and children, had been evacuated.
The heroism of Leningraders under these circumstances is a matter of historical fact, and this heroism is what made the siege a perfect canvas for Chakovsky to paint in the colors of socialist realism. Characterized by an emphasis on and amplification of Soviet values, socialist realism purports to show reality as it is (hence the term “realism”) while simultaneously presenting a romanticized version of socialist ideals and society. For instance, while the writer might describe the light shining through a frosted windowpane, the chill in the morning air on a factory workshop, or the smell of kerosene in a barn on a collective farm – sensory details meant to convey reality – the characters are drawn so that they unquestioningly support the Communist Party, side with the proletariat in the international class struggle, and express an optimism that one day the socialist state will be achieved in perfection. And they are always, or almost always, willing to sacrifice for the greater good. In socialist realism’s portrayal of World War II (known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War), when a factory manager asks for volunteers to work an extra shift to support the war effort, every man and woman on the assembly line raises their hand, no matter how exhausted they are; an elderly widow gives her last bit of cheese to the young soldier heading to the front; and the young soldier begs his commander, in the name of Lenin, to be allowed to undertake a suicide mission. It all sounds implausible, like pure propagandistic dreck. But in times of war people often do behave this way, so in Chakovsky’s episodic and pointillist description of the siege of Leningrad, so full of suffering and sorrow, the writing leans slightly away from socialist and more toward realism.
Consider a single page from the book. The following scene takes place in a field hospital where a nurse named Lyuba treats a wounded soldier named Andrianov while the narrator looks on from a nearby cot:
When I awoke, Andrianov was still sleeping. Lyuba threw a towel over her shoulder and approached Andrianov with a basin in her hands.
“We’ll wash him,” Lyuba said affably.
Andrianov continued sleeping. Then she quietly jostled his shoulders.
“That’s enough sleep, sleepyhead!” Lyuba held out a piece of soap toward the still drowsy Andrianov.
The lieutenant didn’t raise his hands.
“Hold the soap,” Lyuba said.
Andrianov hesitantly raised a hand and wiggled his fingers.
“Andrianov!” Lyuba shouted, and her voice trembled. “Here’s the soap!”
The lieutenant smiled in confusion and began to grope with his hands along the blanket. I saw Lyuba’s hands shaking as she held the basin, and how the water splashed over the edge.
“Do you … see me, Andrianov?” whispered Lyuba.
The lieutenant shook his head and ran his hand over his eyes. He was blind.
Lyuba set the bowl on the floor and ran out of the tent. Minutes later she returned with the doctor.
“Can you see me, Andrianov?” the doctor asked, business-like, as he walked up to the bed.
The lieutenant shook his head slowly. The doctor leaned over and with two fingers raised Andrianov’s eyelids.
In the evening there was a consultation at his bedside. And the next morning Andrianov lost his hearing. Now he lay deaf, blind, and dumb. I watched over him for hours. The more the blows fell upon him, the noisier and more restless he became. The lieutenant smiled as if facing someone, fidgeted on his bed, bent his fingers to resemble fanciful rabbits, mumbled something, ran his fingers over the palm of his hand, mimicking a gramophone, and pressed his fingers to his eyes in the shape of eyeglasses…
Toward evening he turned to me, mumbled something and scratched his finger along a palm. I realized that Andrianov wanted to write something, so I put a pencil in the fingers of his right hand and a notebook in his left. The lieutenant scribbled something and handed it to me. I read it. On the paper was written, simply: “I’ll fight through.”
I tore the paper from the pad and placed it beneath his pillow.
The following morning when I awoke and looked at Andrianov it seemed to me that his partly downcast eyelashes glistened with tears. I grabbed Andrianov’s hand and forcefully shook it. Andrianov opened his unseeing eyes, held my hand and moved his fingers along my palm, as if writing. I understood that he was writing the same thing he had written on the paper.
During the day Andrianov became paralyzed. Now he lay motionless, plunged into darkness and silence.
It was strange for me to look at his hands, those same hands that earlier didn’t know a minute of rest and that now lay helplessly on the thick gray blanket.
The doctor arrived. He jostled Andrianov on the shoulder and asked, “How are you?” – even though he knew the lieutenant was deaf.
Toward the evening they evacuated Andrianov.
“This Was in Leningrad,” written in 1944, eventually became the first volume of a popular trilogy in the Soviet Union. The second book, “Lida,” was published in 1945; the third, “Peaceful Days,” in 1947. The trilogy laid the groundwork for a literary career, and in 1950 Chakovsky won the Stalin Prize for his 1949 novel, “It’s Morning Here.” He followed up with a series of other novels, and in the late 1960s returned to the theme of the siege of Leningrad, writing a five-volume epic titled “Blockade” (1968-1978), for which he won the Lenin Prize. By then, though, critics and readers alike had come to consider Chakovsky’s constant praise of Stalin tedious, and Chakovsky’s popularity among readers declined. But his role as chief editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta from 1962 to 1988 made him a major influence on Soviet literature, giving him the power to damage writers’ careers – which he did willingly — and helping to limit what Soviet citizens could read. And he didn’t limit himself to critiquing literature. As the New York Times noted in its obituary of Chakovsky: “From his positions he also castigated some Soviet painters for works that were more Western impressionism than Socialist realism, charged Western journalists with slanted coverage of Soviet affairs, and vilified Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate, although he was Jewish himself.”
To read “This Was in Leningrad” now is thus an act of forgiveness, or partial forgiveness, anyway – perhaps one can never completely forgive someone who actively worked in the service of a repressive regime. As I work for hours in solitude translating the book, I often remind myself that the book is not Chakovsky – it does not carry the burden of his sins. It does not deserve to be forgotten, nor does the heroism of Leningraders.