VLADIMIR SHAROV, trained as a historian of early modern Muscovy and Russia’s most visionary historical novelist, died of cancer in Moscow on August 17, 2018, at the age of 66. He had succeeded in seeing his ninth novel through to publication. Three insights he offered into his own creativity might serve as epitaph and as preface to his life’s work. They also suggest a way of looking into Putin’s Russia — not at, but into — that can supplement the news clip, blog, or talk show on current events. For Sharov’s particular type of novel recognizes only the recurrent event. How events recur, and into what fabulous mesh of myth, faith, ecstasy, and horror they are integrated in the collective mind, is the history that Sharov has been telling since his first novel was published in 1991, just as the Soviet Union and its myths were falling apart.

The first insight comes from an interview in 2008 with Mark Lipovetsky, a leading Russian-American specialist on postmodernism and a resolutely secular scholar. Lipovetsky had asked Sharov if any single “meta-plot” runs through his fiction, so full of fantastical invention, improbable intersections, provocative variations on documented fact, yet invariably culminating in the Revolution and its latent nightmarish bloodletting. Sharov answered obliquely. He had little interest in the outer shell of 20th-century history: mass uprisings, class conflict, conspiracy theories to explain a political victory. “Most likely all my novels, one way or the other,” Sharov said, “are about the collision between our — for lack of a better term — secular life and its logic, and a logic that is utterly, wholly turned toward God.” Six years earlier, the literary critic Elena Ivanitskaia had asked Sharov to explain the “absurdist comicality and black humor” in his novel The Resurrection of Lazarus. “But there’s not a trace of absurdist comicality anywhere!” he protested.

I am a realist — and life, such as I depict it in my novels, fully corresponds to what really exists. I am often accused of creating an alt-history [para-istoriia], but that’s nonsense. […] God judges us not only for our deeds, but also for our intents. I write the absolutely real history of ideas, intents, faiths. This is the country that existed.

The third insight occurs later in the same interview. Russia was on the cusp of a new age of the novel, Sharov predicted, just as it had been in the 1920s: “All genuine novels are the children of catastrophes.”

With exquisite artistry, Oliver Ready has been recreating these novels in English, gathering translation prizes as he goes: Sharov’s third novel, Before and During (1993), in 2014, and now the second, The Rehearsals (2018), which was written between 1986 and 1988 and appeared in Moscow in 1992. The title is straightforward. The novel really does concern rehearsing a play. But the play never has an opening night, and its actors, in despair, hand their roles and their hopes down century after century to their children, who gradually lose all identity except their part in the play. In Russian, the word for rehearsals is repetitsii (from the French les répétitions), a resonance that the English title cannot duplicate, except perhaps as “re-hearing.” Rehearsals look toward the future, a repetition emphasizes the past — but in both cases, the re- is everything. For time in this novel, as in all Sharov’s work, is not open-ended or developmental but cyclical and figural. Catastrophic situations repeat on ever smaller patches of space; failure does not shake the heroes’ belief but merely heightens their search for more subtle patterning. The more awful the documented reality (persecution, pogrom, Gulag), the more perfect the fit between personal fantasy and the promised Miracle.

The particular catastrophic focus of The Rehearsals is the Great Schism, or Raskol, in the Russian Orthodox Church that tore the Muscovite state apart in the mid-1670s. It was caused by a confrontation over details of worship between ecclesiastical reformers, led by Patriarch Nikon, and the dissenting but equally fierce traditionalists, most famously the charismatic Archpriest Avvakum, martyr for the Old (or, as he preferred, the True) Belief. The dissenters withdrew from the secular Russian state. Some hid away, others burnt themselves in protest. Devoted to “keeping everything the same,” but isolated in self-contained communities, Old Believers devolved into hundreds of different sects. Sharov considers the cataclysmic Raskol to be the wound from which the Russian people never recovered, and sees in the 1917 Russian Revolution its direct heir. Starting with Tsar Alexei (second ruler of the Romanov dynasty, r. 1645–’76, and father of Peter the Great), the government chose not to heal this wound but, as Sharov put it, to “amputate it.” True believers on both sides dug in their heels. Hanging in the balance was whether or not the Russian nation was God’s new Chosen People, whether Moscow was indeed the Third (after Constantinople) and final Rome, whether the True Russia could stay the course — and if it could, then all that mattered was proper preparations for the Second Coming and the End. Of course things get very, very bad before the absolute end (for example, the advent of the Antichrist). But badness is itself a good sign: if one stands firm, Apocalypse will come — and with it purification and salvation. In his 2008 interview, Sharov pointed out that the 17th century gave birth to a peculiar conviction among Muscovites, still potent in the post-communist era, that Russian society could have dealt with the Raskol and cured itself of its trauma if it weren’t for the perpetual hostility and perfidy of her external enemies: at first the Greeks (the Mother Church), and then Ukrainians, who governed the Russian church for almost a century.

As it happens, this too is a recurrent current event, with an explosive political charge. At the time of writing (October 2018), the word “schism” is being widely used in the crisis between Constantinople and Russia over Ukraine’s bid for an autocephalous church. On October 15 of this year, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the person of President Putin’s close ally Patriarch Kirill, threatened to sever all ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople if Ukraine’s “schismatic” bid for independence succeeded. (The Ukrainian church came under Muscovite jurisdiction in 1686, five years after Nikon’s death — and the intervening time, it seems, has been but a blink in the Cosmic Eye.) One suspects that Sharov would have taken this latest layer of the Raskol palimpsest in stride. He might even have added a 21st-century coda to his Rehearsals, featuring true believers in this most current repetition. But the boundaries of the novel as Sharov wrote it, three centuries from 1653 to 1965, respect his habit of peaking in the Stalinist years. During that era, the contours of popular faith were the maddest, and religious obstinacy most necessary for spiritual survival.

The core story and (literally) central drama of The Rehearsals begins during the time of Patriarch Nikon. All eyes are on 1666, Year of the Beast. But the way in to this story and its eschatological energy is fantastically complex, meandering like a monstrous nested doll over all of Eurasia. Metaphysical and historical themes are introduced in a leisurely way by transitional storytellers (a visionary tour guide in Kuibyshev; exiled, eccentric professors in that city and in Tomsk; a Russian-French-Jewish translator stranded in Siberia), each voice possessing its own past and philosophy. Much of this meandering seems haphazard until the final 20 pages, where all signs align and blaze up like a Burning Bush. Gradually, the reader comes to realize that these secondary carriers of the plot serve to peel history back for the first-person narrator (known to us only as Seryozha) and generate the aura in which he lives. Through a random series of university courses and field trips, Seryozha becomes a historian, a student of the Schism. He is chosen to assist his professor with collecting data from the abandoned Old Believer communities that dot Siberia, devastated first by persecution and then by the collectivization of agriculture. The subtext to all this data collection is not a dissertation, however, but something eerily timeless, static, indispensable for the proper accomplishment of the End. Sharov’s novel opens in 1965 with the statement that in 1939 the Jewish nation, in the person of one Isaiah Kobylin, finally ceased to exist. (Kobylin, we later learn, has been supplying the narrator with old manuscripts from Siberia.) Why this had to happen becomes clearer and clearer, as the drama (that is, the acting troupe that performs the drama) moves from New Jerusalem Monastery outside Moscow through arrest, exile, imprisonment in the Gulag — rehearsing whenever possible, at every rest stop or lull in its cycle of torments.

This is not a story to be summarized in linear fashion. Suffice it to say that Sharov puts to good use the familiar novelistic device of the “discovered private document,” so popular in Sentimentalist and Romantic fiction, albeit shorn here of its chatty domesticity, its personal griefs, jealousies, and routine love interest. No time or space for that. The core narrative begins as a 17th-century diary, written in Breton, that Seryozha acquires from Kobylin and has translated as part of his research. Its author is Jacques de Sertan, a theater director and Catholic convert from a Breton-speaking region of France, who is trapped with his acting troupe in war-ravaged Poland in the late 1640s. He is taken captive by the Russians and is brought first to Moscow, then to New Jerusalem Monastery just outside the city, to meet the Patriarch, Nikon, then in and out of favor with the Muscovite court. Although the Orthodox faithful consider theater — the wearing of masks — a demonic activity, some in the tsar’s entourage are curious to sample the cultures of Europe. This is difficult, since late-medieval Muscovy has no concept of secular culture.

Eventually Nikon hires Sertan, who tries to pass himself off as a Protestant (the religion of his birth, more acceptable to the Orthodox than Catholicism), to produce a mystery play on the Life and Passion of Christ. The actors are all untutored peasants who must learn their roles, word by word and for years on end, from Sertan himself. But no one is cast as Jesus. The rehearsals cannot include Jesus, because the point of the drama is to redirect God’s attention to the New Holy Land, the New Chosen People, to create a vacuum that His Son will voluntarily, joyously come to fill, thus assuring the Second Coming on Russian soil. The Patriarch’s goal is to create one vast, historically accurate open-air theater for the Passion. Over six years, the land, rivers, and villages around the monastery are resculpted and renamed to duplicate ancient Palestine, the paths where the Messiah walked and preached. The reader’s mind jumps ahead to the early Bolshevik years, where the Revolution in Petrograd was reenacted by casts of thousands in scripted mass spectacles, their shape and intensity replacing the historical event as an icon replaces errant flesh.

With Sertan (and with Russian subjects more generally, then and later), what begins as a free hire ends in arrest and compulsion. The distinction between freedom and necessity is gradually erased. The hidden hand of the state is benevolent, however; director and troupe are exiled to Siberia in a single convoy. Sertan dies en route, but the rehearsals continue. As Sertan wrote in his diary about his peasant actors:

They are not separate people, but parts of a single whole. Parts which, having broken their ties, having freed themselves from each other’s constraints, from the need to answer to one another, from the need to undertake common, mutually agreed actions, are beginning to grow uncontrollably. Their growth is equal to their freedom.

The actors are being freed from their own present. The meaning of their lives is no longer mired in what merely is under their feet, thus they bear no responsibility for it. Such a worldview was in keeping with the teaching of Seryozha’s PhD advisor in Tomsk, who insisted that the Russian state was not built on economic ties or everyday realities “but on ideas, on its understanding of its place and territory in the world of ideas, on its understanding of its destiny, its mission, of what set it apart from the destiny of everyone else.” Remove that sense of the whole, and self-respect as well as legitimacy crumbles.

How peculiar to Russia is this rhetoric? One can only wonder, as nation-states around the globe swing to the populist-nationalist right. But Russia’s variant on messianic exceptionalism is distinctive, Sharov seems to suggest, in that it lacks even the feeblest liberal corrective. Parts feel more vigorous, more courageous, and more like historical agents if they remain obedient parts, not individuals. Midway through Sharov’s novel, the actors effectively lose their birth names. Generations are marked, every dozen years or so, by the passing on of roles from mother to daughter and father to son: a newer and younger Apostle, Zebedee, Caiaphas, Pilate, Magdalene, moneychanger in the temple. These transitions are always times of heightened insecurity and dread. By the 19th century, Siberia is filling up with exile convoys as the Russian imperial administration dumps its dissenters beyond the Urals. But with the Revolution, and especially with enforced collectivization after 1929, dumping is not enough; integration into the present is required, and Siberia obliged to pull its weight. The actors’ community, a bog-ridden stretch along the river called Mosslands, becomes a collective farm with delivery quotas of grain and peat. The prosperous and law-abiding Jews are the first to see that rules have changed — now one has to give everything away in order to survive; they start working with the communists. When the Christians balk, or are uncertain what their roles dictate, forced expropriations begin. Matters have become so very bad that the Second Coming must be nigh. But with whom did God have the Covenant? Clearly, Peter the Apostle reasons, Christ is not coming as promised because the Jews, although aware of their role in the play, are reluctant to crucify Him; this is as bad as calling for His crucifixion. In either event, a pogrom is justified. Massacres begin.

By the mid-1930s, Mosslands has been reclassified as a prison camp. The play, retitled Christ the Counter-Revolutionary, becomes an official part of the anti-religious propaganda agenda of the Cultural-Educational Sector. Convicts (“zeks”) from Sertan’s acting families get release time to rehearse. But it isn’t easy for the actors to stay together. Christians, Jews, and Romans (the latter long in alliance with surrounding Yakut tribes) need one another to keep the play going. With the influx of so many Trotskyites, kulaks, and traitors from other parts of Russia, the plot becomes diffuse. When tensions become too great, Christians stalk Jews.

How all this plays out between these exhausted groups, inherited roles, and shifting power hierarchies in the final hundred pages is scorching. But one detail is worth special attention. Individuals emerge — as lovers, as faces, as distinct families — only at the point where the novel focuses in on the Jews, who try (while living and dying) to do justice to their scripted parts. The Apostles fuse with the secret police. Some of them collaborate to protect “their” Jews, others become double agents or traitors, but “becoming informers had broken them: they could no longer act or rehearse.” The novel ends on a love story so curious and unexpectedly poignant that the reader can scarcely bear it. Two men, a woman, and a small child. A lofty Old Testament intonation infuses this final stretch of text, recalling a time when books of the Bible were named not after social classes or groups but after individuals: Matthew, Isaiah, Judith, Ruth. And in the space of a page, with a cadence so swift, powerful, and efficient that we can hear the chord resonating back throughout the novel, the final paragraph snaps us back to the opening scene, and resolves the whole.

Finally, some formal considerations. Oliver Ready, it is said, translates Sharov’s novels the way Sharov himself composed them: pacing the floor, speaking the words out loud, making sure the accents and rhythms serve the flow of the thought. This is good policy, because that flow is everything. Sharov’s style is harrowing. There are no chapters. The Rehearsals is 350 pages of solid prose without down time. There is very little dialogue. Although lay philosophers and professors pontificate their worldviews — and overall the novel cautions us against becoming teachers, for students are children who never grow up — the book supplies little readerly relief in the shape of small talk, friendly banter, or casual flirtations. One Russian critic compared Sharov’s style to Ivan Bunin’s: dense, cerebral, monotonic, its rhythm “like the drum of rain on the roof.” Like nature looking in the window, it’s hard to pinpoint an addressee. But Oliver Ready demurs. He hears and renders into English many stylistic registers, reminding us that Sharov began his creative life as a poet. If it is true — and I believe it is — that translation requires the most intimate dialogue possible with another’s consciousness, then Sharov’s rebirth into English in such staggeringly fine prose is the perfect tribute to commemorate the departure of his mortal body.

Mark Lipovetsky, whose 2008 interview with Sharov opened this review, has called Sharov’s prose “neobaroque.” The term is intriguing. The neobaroque, by his definition, is theatrical, performative, repetitive, explosive, obsessed with fragments, labyrinthine with a wandering center — or better yet, the center is altogether absent. If Christ is that absence, the description is indeed appropriate to The Rehearsals. But the neobaroque is a child of secular postmodernism. It will always prefer irony to piety. In fact, piety will look primitive, deluded, or naïve. Sharov, I suspect, would smile at the thought that Christ was absent from his second novel. The presence, or absence, of a real (although invisible) divine interlocutor and its compatibility with the violence of the Marxist-materialist Soviet experiment is an issue that Lipovetsky raised with the author during his 2008 interview:

Volodya, you’re an historian by training, the author of a dissertation on the Time of Troubles, and almost singlehandedly you have created a new type of historical narrative. Your characters, historical or quasi-historical, carry on a maximally stressed, at times furious dialogue with God, but at the final moment they cannot sustain it — and their fate, their quests turn out to be uninterruptedly tied to Revolution, to the Terror.

Sharov did not entirely disagree. But he insisted that those “dialogues with God” were tightly tied to the Revolution, that the Bolshevik century was thoroughly of one piece with Russia’s past, and that this past was always oriented toward the proper End of the World. Such an end would connect the world’s Christianity with Russian soil, with a Russian seeker. If so, then Sharov’s Rehearsals might prove the most ambitious attempt since Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita to integrate biblical plots and the terror of the Living God into the fabric of Russia’s horrific 20th century.

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Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music.