B-Sides: Alexei Tolstoy’s “Road to Calvary”

If you are a Russian writer called Tolstoy, you forever lurk in the great shadow cast by your namesake. After all, what could compare to War and Peace? Now ...

If you are a Russian writer called Tolstoy, you forever lurk in the great shadow cast by your namesake. After all, what could compare to War and Peace? Now imagine a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy born during some of the most tumultuous decades in modern history to aristocratic parents with the requisite scandalous lives (adultery, duels, etc.); imagine him growing up as a radical anti-monarchist interested in the classic writings of Marx and Turgenev (to whom he was also related, through his mother) but also the adventure tales of Victor Hugo, James Fenimore Cooper, and Jules Verne; caught up in the hurricane of the Russian Revolution and the devastating civil war that followed and casting his lot with the “White” forces against the Bolsheviks; going into a five-year exile in Paris and Berlin after the communist victory; choosing to return to the country now called the Soviet Union and becoming one of the most acclaimed authors of this new land; living through the devastations of the Second World War, and becoming a key investigator of the genocidal crimes committed by Hitler’s regime. Finally, imagine this “Comrade Count” winning the Stalin Prize for an epic novel of his own in 1943.

Today, we are afflicted with both historical myopia and amnesia. The Russian Revolution is shrink-wrapped in clichés about Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. Historians sugarcoat or pass over in silence the subsequent invasion, starting in 1918, of Russia by the allied forces of Japan, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Czechoslovakia, and others. Do we even consider, let alone reckon with, the sheer scale of the Russian Civil War’s carnage—including an estimated 300,000 to 450,000 army casualties—and its subsequent effects on the Soviet Union?

Alexei Tolstoy’s life was its own kind of epic. Between 1921 and 1940, though, he somehow produced a three-volume novel that brilliantly depicts the Russian Revolution not as a historic inevitability but as wildly contingent, a messy game of chance played by flawed humans with desires both noble and harmful. He realized that both the revolution and the subsequent civil war called not for another War and Peace, but for a compelling experiment in genre-busting. Yet, who reads the three volumes and 500,000 words of Road to Calvary now? Throughout the Soviet Union and the socialist-bloc countries it sold millions in the 1940s and 1950s. Latter-day readers, however, presume the Great Dictator’s prize axiomatically makes Road to Calvary just another propagandistic example of dreary “socialist realism”—centered on heroic factory workers and their battles to temper steel.

Pick up Edith Bone’s lucid translation of the novel and you discover a world so large that representing it requires a dizzying array of formal devices. Consider the beginning of the first volume:

Long ago, in the far-off days of Peter the Great, the verger of Holy Trinity—a church still standing near Holy Trinity Bridge—was coming down from the belfry in the twilight when he saw a banshee—a bareheaded, gaunt woman; he was very frightened and afterwards shouted at the inn: “A desert will be in the place of Petersburg” … One day eye-witnesses saw the devil himself riding in a droshky on Vassilov Island. Then again, one midnight, when a gale was blowing and the river was in spate, the bronze Emperor leaped from his granite rock and galloped over the pavement stones. On another occasion a Privy Councillor riding in his coach was accosted by a dead man—a dead government clerk who pressed his face to the coach window and would not let go.

We are closer here to Andrei Bely’s bizarre modernist masterpiece Petersburg than an ode to Stakhanovite welders. And this weird, gothic, nightmarish world is never dismissed as an archaic relic of the past. Rather, it coexists with various others: the futurist one of “scientific” development, the apocalyptic one of total warfare, the claustrophobic and slyly oppressive one of the “respectable” people, the extravagantly decadent but ennui-laden one of the super-rich, the bleakly survivalist one of the peasants and the urban poor.

Most interesting of all, these coexisting worlds demand distinctly different composition styles. So urban gothic appears cheek by jowl with Zolaesque naturalism, satiric comedy of manners with pastoral sentimentality, and yes, socialist realism with existentially absurd moments that recall Gogol and Dostoevsky. Admittedly, this experiment is not always successful. The plot is woven loosely round two couples: the sisters Daria and Katia, and the friends Roschin and Telegin, who end up fighting for opposing armies in the civil war. Thanks to often-clunky coincidence, these pairs traverse the huge social scale of revolutionary Russia as they are repeatedly separated and reunited by the buffeting winds of history. Nor is the ratio between different generic registers perfect: do we really need hundreds of pages of regimental lists, battle orders, and tactical maneuvers at the virtually total expense of the comic, sentimental, or gothic?

These failures, though, are frequently redeemed by the writer’s uncanny ability to give equal space to apparently incommensurable worldviews and perspectives. Peasants, sailors of the legendary Black Sea Fleet, a “White” general, rogue partisan leaders, bureaucrats and morally opportunist artists—each holds center stage and dictates the novel’s narrative logic, at least briefly. This does not lead us to some kind of radical relativism where all these positions are held to be valid. Rather, the approach tries to present the vision of a singular but unequal and uneven world held together by its own tensions and contradictions—both material and ideological. Here is Sharygin, a young Communist League member, being quizzed by sailors of the Russian Black Sea Fleet to whom he had been preaching about the science of revolution a moment ago:

“All right. Now answer me this question: without ability you can’t even set a stove in the bath-house, without ability your wife can’t even make the dough rise properly. So is ability wanted or isn’t it?”

Sharygin answered him: “See, comrades, what Latugin is driving at? Ability is something peculiar to the individual, and hence it is dangerous because it can lead a man to bourgeois anarchism, to individualism.”

“There you go.” Latugin flapped his hand with a gesture of despair. “First chew up and swallow and digest these long words; then you can use them.”

The stoker angrily growled from his hatch: “Ability, eh? We know your sort! Nails dyed with sandalwood, bell-bottomed trousers, gold chain round the neck. … Ability indeed! … What you need is ten years sweating in the stokehold.”

All fixed and settled notions about the “science” of revolution are unmoored. The people are full of prejudices, conflicts, hopes, illusions. Living when all that is solid is melting into air takes practice. In that practice people find a sense of belonging without ever erasing their differences. As a diagnosis of modernity, it is hard to improve upon. icon

Featured image: Bolshevik poster, created in 1922 (detail). Wikimedia Commons