“The past,” William Faulkner famously wrote, “is never dead.” His dictum is twisted in countries beset by political amnesia, where that past is not just dead, but often full of the dead—innocents murdered by firing squads, starved to death in labor camps, buried and forgotten in mass graves. In such circumstances, it’s the novelist’s task to resurrect the anonymous dead, or to reveal how their spirits haunt their nation’s amnesiac psyche. In recent years, this task has been admirably performed by writers as diverse as Eka Kurniawan (in Indonesia), Roberto Bolaño (in Chile), and J.M. Coetzee (in South Africa). Now, the Russian novelist Sergei Lebedev joins that illustrious group with Oblivion, a shattering novel that explores the legacy of the Soviet Union’s gulags.
In form, Oblivion is like a detective story. Our narrator, an unnamed Russian geologist born in the eighties, sets out to discover the origins of his shadowy godfather, who died during his childhood. This investigation turns frighteningly political, however, when it leads him to Russia’s northern Tundra region, which once housed Stalin’s gulags.
This investigation occupies the final two hundred pages of Oblivion. But its haunting atmosphere is prefigured in the novel’s first third, which concerns a seemingly idyllic subject far removed from gulags: the narrator’s childhood, which was spent in a dacha (vacation home) community in the suburbs of an unnamed Soviet city. “Summer days,” the narrator begins his childhood reminiscences, “long, expansive, like an enfilade of bright rooms.” In Antonina W. Bouis’s sparkling translation, Lebedev’s sentences are themselves long, expansive, like an enfilade of luminous clauses—but their subject matter, despite this serene opening, quickly veers into darker territory.
The narrator grew up in a perestroika-fueled dacha community that on the surface was like “an oasis, an island of conciliation, tranquility, amiability,” but whose suburban middle-class happiness, the narrator felt, “was all a sham, a show.” Relationships in the dacha community, according to him, were not based on warmth or kinship, but on arbitrary societal expectations and formality. People may have put on a smile, but they suffered unacknowledged loneliness and alienation. This alienation manifests itself most completely—and most chillingly—in a man the narrator calls Grandfather II.
Grandfather II is an aging blind neighbor of the narrator’s. He is a secretive person who has “lived privately for decades.” No one knows much about him, but his neighborly kindness (he helps with gardening; is happy to provide advice) coupled with his pitiable blindness lead him to gradually be accepted into the narrator’s family. Accepted, that is, by the adults. The narrator, with his child’s perceptiveness, can’t help feeling that there’s something amiss. And what seems to be missing is Grandfather II’s very inner being, as the narrator explains:
It wasn’t that he kept himself aloof, taciturn, it wasn’t about his behavior or character; he was alienated from life almost in the legal sense of the word and only as a consequence of that was he alienated from people as well. Everything that happened in the present did not involve him directly but only brushed against him—not because he was unreceptive but because he seemed to have already lived his life, his existence outlasting his destiny.
To the narrator, Grandfather II seems eerily detached from life. What’s worse is that Grandfather II is strangely attached to the narrator, and in fact was largely responsible for the narrator even having being born.
When the narrator was still in utero, his mother had fallen dangerously ill. At one point, an abortion was considered. But Grandfather II took an unexpected stand against it, arguing that his own childlessness was a curse he wouldn’t want anyone else to endure. Accepting his counsel, the mother decided to keep her baby, and, as it turns out, narrowly escaped death at childbirth. In these mysterious circumstances, Grandfather II became the narrator’s unofficial godfather, the adult, the narrator reflects, who “redeemed me from nonexistence,” and thus had “final right of ownership.”
The word “ownership” here is key. For the ensuing “relationship” that develops between Grandfather II and the narrator is more akin to that between a man and his pet than that between two people. Grandfather II makes the narrator guide him on walks and errands, study under his supervision, and, in general, spend a large part of his youth at his side. But he never displays any real interest in or love for the narrator. The narrator’s family, of course, promotes this relationship: they think it’s good for a child to help an old blind man. And so the narrator grows up in the chilly shadow of Grandfather II, wallowing in resentment (for having to put up with Grandfather II) and guilt (for not being able to repay his mortal debt).
These feelings are only intensified when Grandfather II saves the narrator’s life for a second time. One weekend, when the narrator’s parents are away in the city, he is attacked and bit by a rabid dog outside the dacha. Grandfather II hears his cries, and, miraculously, arrives to save him. The narrator, who is bleeding profusely, is taken to a country hospital where they don’t have his blood type. It’s likely that he will die. But Grandfather II intervenes. Despite their repeated warnings—he is too old to donate blood—he forces the doctors to infuse the narrator with his own blood. The transfusion saves the narrator, but proves fatal to Grandfather II.
After this incident the narrator decides that he must escape the dacha community. The specter of his guilt haunts everything in his surroundings, and he yearns to go somewhere “where nothing would remind me of Grandfather II.” Accordingly, he chooses to become a geologist and sets out to explore Russia.
It is here that Oblivion changes from a personal story into being a political one. What’s so powerful—and masterful—is the way in which Lebedev connects the two parts.
The narrator’s geological career may allow him to escape Grandfather II, but it brings him face-to-face with another, far greater terror: the lingering presence of Stalinism. The narrator is flying over the Russian’s frigid northern Tundra region as part of an expedition, when, for the first time, he sees the ruins of a gulag, “the star-like pattern of logging radiating through the heavy forests, dozens of kilometers of logged forests and the low camp barracks, some still active, some abandoned . . . the effect created by the camps, the catastrophic vision of an environment organized in such a way that you could not recognize the evil of it.”
This vision, and his subsequent visit to the ruins, has a profound impact on the narrator. Afterward, he begins to see signs—or rather the ideology—of gulags everywhere: in farmhouses, apartment buildings, provincial hostels. “In many other buildings scattered across the country,” he says, “I intuitively recognized those camp barracks. They were hidden inside the buildings, clad in pathetic architectural dress—and yet they were revealed in general outlines, corners, and most important in the sense of deadly . . . dreariness.”
It’s not merely circumstantial that geological study is what allows the narrator to understand Russia’s history more clearly. Indeed Lebedev’s point is that the workers sent to the Tundra have been so thoroughly hidden from Russia’s consciousness, that traces of their life only exist in the country’s landscape, not its collective memory.
Upon his return from the Tundra, the narrator is forced to visit Grandfather II’s dacha to take care of some errands. While there, he finds a bundle of letters from a far-northern town. Grandfather II had never revealed anything about his previous life. This fact, combined with the sender’s postal address, combined with the narrator’s recent experiences, makes him suspect that there are some dark secrets in Grandfather II’s history. He sets off to investigate, and in a harrowing turn of events, his suspicions are proven right.
More so than any place he has visited before, the northern town reminds the narrator of gulags. It is, on the surface, a mining town that is built around a quarry. But the buildings are all protected by barbed wires, the dilapidated houses are padlocked, and, by evening, the streets are deserted. This was “a prison camp zone,” the narrator observes, “even though these were not prison factories; the zone was everywhere, its mark was on everything.”
For a few days the narrator tries and fails to locate Grandfather II’s correspondent’s house. Then, one evening, he runs into some old, ragged miners and ends up drinking with them. When drunk, the narrator mentions Grandfather II’s name to them. They recognize it, and their subsequent revelations unite Oblivion’s two narrative threads in a horrific knot. This mine, they inform the narrator, was once run as a prison camp. And Grandfather II was “the warden of the camp . . . . He was in charge of it all. Fifteen thousand people. Two thousand guards and employees, the rest were prisoners.” The narrator is dumbstruck, and doesn’t enquire further. But in a series of subsequent meetings—with the correspondent, who he eventually tracks down, and with locals—he obtains details of Grandfather II’s past life: about the random executions he oversaw, about the mass graves surrounding the camps, about his greed, and his tyrannical treatment of workers. The details (which are well known in the town) are as shocking as anything in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
We would expect these revelations to bring the narrator a sense of closure. Grandfather II’s dark history has been revealed: the narrator is finally free of his childhood guilt. Yet, the opposite happens. From an old cripple, the narrator learns how Grandfather II would send prisoners to uninhabited islands in the nearby river, and simply leave them there to die “in exile,” with no boats to return to the mainland. The narrator considers this to be Grandfather II’s vilest atrocity, and decides that he must “go to the river and find the exiles’ island . . . to travel the entire trajectory of Grandfather II’s fate.”
It is here—through this commitment—that the narrator reveals his feelings of complicity with (rather than curiosity about) Russia’s past. For he isn’t content with uncovering Grandfather II’s actions: he wants to atone for them, to experience what Grandfather II’s victims experienced. Why? What compels him to atone for sins that aren’t his? These questions lead us to the heart of Oblivion, and reveal that its true subject matter is Russia’s present, not its past. For just as the gulag’s ideology continues to manifest itself in various innocent buildings, so Russia’s history, the narrator feels, continues to live on through him.
This idea is most directly represented in the blood transfusion scene from the narrator’s childhood. (Indeed Grandfather II’s blood transfusion turns out to be Oblivion’s central image.) “It seemed to me,” the narrator had reflected after the transfusion, “that my ‘grandfather’ was not completely dead, that he had settled in me, and when I stood by his grave, both of the isolated parts of his soul came together and experienced ecstatic pleasure.” The narrator, in other words, feels that he has inherited Grandfather II’s sins. Consequently, his decision to “travel the entire trajectory of Grandfather II’s fate” becomes his quest to exorcise this dark inheritance.
The legacy is expelled in the novel’s final chapter, where the narrator sets out on a boat, and, after days on the water, finally finds the island. Stumbling across its surface, he comes across a giant sinkhole that he falls inside—and discovers is a mass grave:
In the black peaty protuberances, in the icy smears I saw the outlines of human bodies. The funnel was full of dead people: the permafrost had preserved them. The opening in the wall filled with grass turned out to be a mouth; a rounded bump was a head . . . the dead seemed to be trying to step out, to break the ice crust . . . I was in the belly of the earth; my brothers lay here.
But this is not a descent into hell, rather a recovery from it. For only in the icy pit, surrounded by preserved but forgotten carcasses, is the narrator finally freed from the “madness” that overcame him when he first saw a gulag. “I felt my madness recede,” he says, “its fever leave, and the blood of Grandfather II . . . there was no more of that blood in me.” The narrator exorcises his inheritance by embracing Grandfather II’s dead bodies. Russia, by implication, can only do so once it embraces its history.