For me, this has been a year in which my reading has been strongly colored by Russian history and literature. I am currently reading the third volume of Anatoli Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, which consists of Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Dust and Ashes.
The Arbat is a street around the center of Moscow that dates back to the sixteenth century and is famous for its picturesque buildings and as the home of artists, academics, and petty nobility.
What Rybakov does in these novels is take a group of young people who knew each other in school in the Arbat and follows them through Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and into the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War). In addition to his fictional characters, Rybakov also gives us a glimpse into the minds of Stalin, Voroshilov, and other Russian political and military leaders.
Suppressed for many years by the Soviet authorities, the Arbat trilogy finally saw the light of day after twenty more than years of circulation via the samizdat underground press. In the meantime, he had served for three years in the Gulag, after which he was a tank commander during the war.
I read the first volume, Children of the Arbat, in 2008, while Martine and I were on vacation in Canada. Then, at the beginning of this year, I joined a European History discussion group, which in the end turned out to be a Russian History discussion group. This was no disappointment for me, as I delighted to learn more about Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the purges under Stalin, and now the Second World War in Russia.
The literature of Stalin’s purges is vast, including Victor Serge’s great The Case of Comrade Tularev and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. But I have a special fondness for Rybakov’s trilogy, as I have gotten to know the characters as they manage to walk on eggshells during one of the darkest periods of their country’s history while still retaining their essential humanity.