Tuesday, January 26, 2021

‘If the Whites had Won the Russian Civil War,’ What Would Russia Today be Like? New Novel Asks

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 24 – More than 40 years ago, the author of these lines purchased a board game on the Russian Civil War largely because it was promoted with the words “In this game, the anti-Bolshevik White Russians can win.” And he like many has long been inspired by Vasily Aksyonov’s The Island of Crimea about a Taiwan-style White Russia survival.

            Now, Russian philologist Aleksandr Sobolyev has offered an alternative history premised on the idea that the Whites rather than the Reds won the Russian Civil War, an imagined outcome that would have changed a wide swath of things in Russian and international life (meduza.io/feature/2021/01/24/esli-by-grazhdanskaya-voyna-zakonchilas-pobedoy-belyh).

            Entitled The Gryphons Guard the Lyre (St. Petersburg, 2020), the action of the novel takes place during the latter half of the 20th century. The Whites have defeated the Bolsheviks and Russia has avoided being drawn into World War II; but despite featuring many things Russians are familiar with, reviewer Galina Yusefovich says, its end is “unpredictable.”

            The novel is closest of all to “alternative history,” she says. In it, the Whites win, and the Reds retreat to Latvia “where behind an iron curtain supposedly flourishes ‘the most just state of workers and peasants in the world.’” Elsewhere, the Russian Emprie remains unchanged “like in a museum.”

            The son of the last tsar sits on the throne as the heir but doesn’t take the imperial title. Instead, Russians honor people like Milyukov, Struve, and Witte; and the opposition “sympathizes with the communists.” There is no Internet or mobile phones, so the story presumably takes place in the 1960s and 1970s, “an era of ‘imperial stagnation.’”

            The novel’s hero, Nikodim, seeks to find out about his father who has disappeared in the course of the troubles. But with time he ever more clearly understands that what he is doing is recapitulating the story of Telemachus who looked for Odysseus and that “each step of his path to his father is not accidental” but being watched by supporters and opponents.

            Unfortunately, Yusefovich says, as a work of fiction, the novel falls short because each passage is “a puzzle without a solution,” something that may provoke reflections among its readers but does little to move the action of the book itself along. That in fact seems to be Sobolyev’s primary purpose.

            In this, the reviewer says, he is following the course of Marina Stepnova in her novel The Garden which also explored the possibilities of alternative courses of development of Russia but took as its point of departure debates of the late 19th century (meduza.io/feature/2020/08/22/sad-mariny-stepnovoy-izyskannyy-i-masshtabnyy-roman-otsylayuschiy-k-tolstomu-turgenevu-chehovu).

            That book struck a nerve and became a best seller; Sobolyev’s novel is likely to have the same fate, the critic suggests.

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