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Category Archive for 'Russia/Soviet Union'

The speaker in this quotation, called “the man” throughout most of this novel, will repel every female reader – and most male readers – with his macho vulgarity, his unrelenting assessment of women in terms of their anatomy and sexual stamina, and his proud alcoholism. Boasting of his ability to consume seven bottles of vodka in his prime, he manages “only” two bottles a day on this trip to a new job site in construction in Mongolia. “The girl,” who has the great misfortune to be sharing a compartment with him on a trans-Siberian train traveling four thousand miles from Moscow to Ulan Bator, had hoped to be alone on this trip. Recovering from a personal crisis involving Mitka, a young friend on whom she had set her romantic sights but who is now hospitalized, the girl is making this trip almost as a memorial to him, since they had hoped to make the trip together. She had met him in Moscow in college, where she studied antiquities and anthropology for three years, and she is especially anxious to get to Mongolia now so that she can see the famous ancient petroglyphs there, some of them dating back to 12,000 B.C. So quiet and repressed that she makes only one or two statements during the entire trip, she is the complete opposite of Vadim, the man, with whom she has been fated to travel, destined to spend the trip fending off his advances. Considering the fact that neither of the main characters is one with whom the reader will identify to any great degree – Vadim because he is so disgustingly venal and the girl because she is so passive – author Liksom does a remarkable job of keeping the reader completely occupied during her novel. Vibrant pictures of life in the Soviet Union from the 1940s to the 1980s emerge as Vadim tells his life story in pieces throughout the trip, and the girl’s own life, though a bit confused and undirected, reflects some of the attitudes of young people and the reasons for her own lack of commitment.

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Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin. Marra is not writing a political history, however. Instead, he concentrates on the ordinary people who live in three different parts of the former Soviet Union during this time period, recreating the atmosphere of everyday life during this period, with all its fears and privations. In the later sections of the book, especially in the story “The Grozny Tourist Bureau, his sense of satire and dark humor rise to the fore, showing the absurdities which the main characters themselves recognize as they are determined to rebrand Chechnya, the most devastated city on earth, as “the Dubai of the Caucasus.” Equally important in this story, however, are the stories of some characters whose future the reader comes to care about. Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin.

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In a novel which ranges widely over almost three centuries of Russian history, author Andrei Makine, a Russian émigré who has lived in France since 1987, recreates the life of a young Russian author/filmmaker who finds that the concept of creativity in the world in which he lives must always bend to the will of someone else – the censors, a hired director, or the tastes of the public – if his work is to survive. In this metafictional novel Makine presents Oleg Erdmann as his author/main character, a man whose parents were originally from Germany. Oleg was born in Russia, but his father was unable to cope with the difficulties he faced as the head of an immigrant family in a country which did not admit him into its mainstream, and he spent most of his spare time escaping his personal problems by painstakingly creating a detailed model of a giant castle, elaborate and reminiscent of the castles from the eras of Peter the Great and his successors Whenever serious problems would arise in his daily life, his father would say, softly, “This is all happening to me because of that little German girl who became Catherine the Great.” Determined to write a screenplay about Catherine the Great years later, Oleg goes way beyond the limits of the usual biography, questioning not only Catherine’s life and her decisions but also the very nature of love and how one achieves it, using Catherine’s lengthy affairs with over a dozen men to expand the scope of his screenplay into a discussion of life, love, and art.

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Reading this thriller is like reading an action film – an experience filled with non-stop drama, several different plot lines, quick changes of scene, numerous exotic settings, characters ranging from sick sociopaths to innocent children, and enough torture and gore to make one wretch. Opening with the point of view of Amy Boxer, the eighteen-year-old daughter of former investigator Charles Boxer and Detective Inspector Mercy Danquah, British author Robert Wilson brings the reader directly into the action. Amy, anxious to escape the boredom of her life and her parents expectations, has completely cleared all her belongings from her mother’s London apartment, a few things at a time, and has come up with what she regards as a fool-proof plan to run away and not be caught. She must be particularly careful to make no missteps. Her mother Mercy works with the Specialist Crime Directorate – the kidnap unit – and Amy not only wants to escape her life and vanish but, even more importantly, to embarrass her parents in the process.

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This unusual novel features a cast of characters whose lives change constantly in response to the circumstances of their lives. Even death is not permanent. If the unnamed main character makes a bad choice and dies, usually through no fault of her own, author Jenny Erpenbeck simply changes one or more of the conditions which brought about the character’s death and its terrible consequences to the family and retells her story. In fact, the unnamed main character here has five “deaths” in the novel’s five “books,” and other characters experience similar changes of fortune as the author examines the very nature of time, mortality, fate, coincidence, and the effects of a death or other terrible event on the people connected to that character. There is no heavenly hand, no higher deity, no fate with predictable goals or rewards controlling the outcomes here, only the hand of the author, with her long view and broad themes. Erpenbeck aims high, creating an unnamed main character from early twentieth-century Galicia (now incorporated as parts of Poland and Ukraine) who endures two world wars and their aftereffects, the growth of communism, the division of Germany and later the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other major events of European history over the course of a century. The main character’s death-defying personal traumas match those wrought by political changes, and as she endures, or dies and is given a second chance, she also becomes an “Everywoman” for the century. The main character’s intimate life story, portrayed within the context of major historical events in various locations in Eastern Europe, makes the small details of a person’s life feel real at the same time that major political and sociological ideas are sweeping the continent. Her setting becomes the world of Europe in miniature, a microcosm of the continent over the course of a century.

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