MOST OF US HAVE a basic picture of how communism fell in Eastern and Central Europe. The Berlin Wall, which went up in John F. Kennedy’s day, came down under the first President Bush; nation after nation shed socialism like an old skin and emerged trembling into the light of democracy. Despite some dangers that the Iron Curtain had held at bay, its retraction is generally considered a course correction in history, a delayed rejection of an artificial division between the first and second worlds. JFK’s poetic assertion in 1963 that “all free men […] are citizens of Berlin” is no longer necessary, now that its converse has become prosaic reality.
Russia’s transition to democracy presents a more complicated scenario: bewilderment, shortages, and exploitation. The images of Soviet disintegration are less coherent than those of the Wall’s collapse (Yeltsin on a tank?), and they haven’t yet added up. The story has no satisfying ending. To argue that things are better under Putin and the oligarchs is misguided, and in any case, it makes for a dispiriting mythology. On the other hand, Russia can’t be worse off than under communism because that would make our own postwar ethos suspect. It might mean some people don’t want to be citizens of Berlin. It might mean our poetic assertions don’t actually work.
The 2003 German film Good Bye, Lenin! affirms the story of Europe’s unification as comedy, following a stalwart socialist and her devoted son through the end of communist rule in East Germany. The film’s central image — a torso of Lenin being pulled by helicopter through a sunlit Berlin sky — is a striking final farewell to a forgettable past. Good Bye, Lenin! swept the 2003 German Film Awards, was widely celebrated in Europe, and spread virally through the arthouse cinemas and German-language courses of America.
Meanwhile, the Russian novel of transition from which Good Bye, Lenin! perhaps stole its plot — Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die from 2001 — won no major awards and has only now been translated into English by Marian Schwartz. This lag in reception makes sense. Rather than celebrate the crumbling of walls, Slavnikova’s novel shows us all the Lenin statues still in place. It portrays a culture chained to old realities, unable to establish a new understanding of itself. This is a funhouse mirror worth looking into, especially in today’s United States with its alternative facts, unpoetic assertions, and morbid relationship with the past.
The physical center of The Man Who Couldn’t Die is a man who cannot die. Alexei Afanasievich Kharitonov, a hero of World War II, suffered a stroke during the Era of Stagnation (captained by Leonid Brezhnev who ruled the USSR from 1964 to 1982) and lies paralyzed as Soviet power collapses and Russia begins its transition to a functionally capitalist, nominally democratic society. Uncommunicative and nearly immobile, Alexei has maintained limited, sporadic use of his left arm with which he clumsily fondles tchotchkes provided by his attentive wife, Nina, and collects scraps of fabric to make into a noose when she’s not looking.
While Alexei plots to kill himself, Nina and the couple’s daughter, Marina, plot to keep him alive so they can continue collecting his veteran’s pension. Fearful that all the changes might be harmful to Alexei’s profitable equilibrium, they keep his sickroom frozen in the 1970s. No Western products are allowed in. Up goes an old portrait of Brezhnev in case Alexei can still see. Finally, Marina, who works at a local TV studio, begins to assemble “new” Stagnation-era broadcasts out of discarded material and plays them in the old man’s room from a hidden (imported) VCR.
This premise was recast in Good Bye, Lenin!, whose hero uses strategies similar to the Kharitonovs (including the fabrication of TV news) to keep his bedridden mother from finding out about the events of 1989. Slavnikova publicly accused the film’s creators of plagiarism. But her novel uses the charade plot in a different way, to achieve a darker end. In Good Bye, Lenin!, nostalgia for the old regime is a conduit of love between family members. In The Man Who Couldn’t Die, nostalgia is a living death, a philosophical plague.
In Alexei’s room, the trappings of communism remain real and hold creative power. In a passage both trenchant and absurd (typical of Slavnikova’s style), Alexei and the portrait of Brezhnev become one,
[T]he general secretary, whose death had here been reversed and whose longevity had become a natural feature that only kept increasing, had somehow borrowed an authenticity from Alexei Afanasievich that Brezhnev himself had never possessed […] [Brezhnev] had attached himself and even begun to bear a certain iconic resemblance to Alexei Afanasievich […] Even Nina Alexandrovna somehow succumbed to the reassuring illusion that Brezhnev in his official portrait was not the former head of the Soviet state at all but simply a distant relative.
As the room shields Brezhnev’s last living subject from the passage of time, it becomes a greenhouse for a tiny new Stagnation-era USSR. At the center is not Brezhnev, but Alexei’s indefatigable war-hero heart, a domineering “root vegetable” sucking resources from a “flowerbed of tortured flesh.” It remains unclear why Alexei seeks death, or even whether he knows he’s seeking it. As a soldier, his favorite weapon was a noose; thus, his present urge to strangle may be only muscle memory. The past burps itself into a stagnant present: the novel’s prime mover is the peristalsis of a constipated body politic.
Outside Alexei’s room it is the 1990s, and the world is purportedly changing. As capital begins to hold sway in the Kharitonovs’ district (somewhere in the Urals), the monolith of official culture is crumbling, and the old standards of value emerge as illusory. Primaries for the regional parliament present themselves mainly as an economic opportunity. The question of which petty oligarch will be elected to the post of regional deputy is totally meaningless; the political landscape seems just a larger version of Alexei’s charade-bound sickroom. Under the smoke and mirrors and poster glue is a public body caught between states of being, a snake arrested by its own half-shed skin.
When Marina goes to work for the campaign of candidate Fyodor Krugal, she witnesses the new stagnation firsthand. Krugal, admitting that he can’t buy votes outright, enlists an army of canvassers, promising them 50 rubles plus a victory bonus on the assumption that the canvassers will bring their families to the voting booth. But as prospective hires line up to register and receive their initial pay, campaign headquarters enters its own era of stagnation. The narrator excoriates these new life forms: It “was anyone’s guess […] why the district’s inhabitants kept streaming into headquarters for their pathetic fifty rubles with a doggedness worthy of some better application. Most likely, they were driven […] by a sense of fairness that demanded the equal distribution of free stuff, just for the signing.” The line for handouts connects the new society to the old; here is “a citizen organization [that] had spontaneously inherited the power of lines” from the Soviet state.
In Good Bye, Lenin!, the pull of the past is emotional. Here it’s physiological. Slavnikova presents nostalgia as biological inheritance, expressed not in thought or feeling but in the rhythmic movements of primitive life forms. The queue is a singular beast with “dozens of feet [that] shifted, scuffed, and kicked at bags” as it inches forward; meanwhile the campaign registrars are “caught up in delaying [as if] a kind of fibrous fabric […] had been implanted in their being. It was as if their circulatory and nervous systems had been stretched out by red tape.” Slavnikova’s gift for epithet becomes Dantean as canvassers and registrars are bound up into a “twisted, convoluted organism […] sending blood and nerve impulses wandering through labyrinths.”
For the campaign workers, queueing eventually becomes its own end. As they wait to get paid, they begin to feel an “immortal connection, formalized in the line.” This time around, their “sudden belief in immortality” is triggered by a “get-rich-quick spirit” and not by a perpetually deferred socialist paradise. This new zeitgeist has “stamped the golden autumn with a strange literalness and lent the foliage the paranoid gleam of a dream coming true.” Everything is about to turn gold: money, and not Marxist dialectic, stands ready to redeem reality. Yet despite Western infusions of capital and democracy, the way to redemption is still to queue, just like in the old days. Brezhnev remains in the bones.
The Man Who Couldn’t Die is not about us, but it may speak to us. Slavnikova is describing our counterpart — our cousin. Seventy-five years ago, our common ancestor saved the world from fascism. The myth of the “greatest generation” remains at the heart of both our nations.
Alexei Kharitonov plays this common ancestor to a T: revered, ubiquitous, commanding, silent, putrefying, petrified, helplessly immortal. His descendants, awash in his myth, are powerless to swim against it and can at best stay afloat. The novel’s men are poster-splash ciphers and cheating husbands, contentless vectors of libido and capital. Its women — the hapless go-getter Marina, the myopic dotard Nina — try to make practical sense of the new world but can’t get a grip. The mute, immortal patriarch keeps the living from moving past the past. Alexei may share his identity with Brezhnev, but he is also Lenin — the real one, still on display in Red Square. In his insistent physicality and uncanny authenticity, Alexei is like that unimpeached mummy, leaching formaldehyde into the national water supply.
When I go searching for a matching body on the near side of the Curtain — a leader to whose persistent myth I, as a Westerner, am morbidly bound — I find John F. Kennedy. To be more concrete, I stop before an eternal flame. There are at least six eternal flames dedicated to JFK in the United States — plus one in Jerusalem — and as far as I know, no other American president is honored this way. The fire substantiates, I suppose, the torch that Kennedy declared had been
passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Spoken by a Navy hero, these words link the myth of the greatest generation to the social transformations and anxious geopolitics that defined postwar America.
Kennedy gave this speech at his inauguration in 1961, a few months before the Berlin Wall went up. Today they ring a bit hollow, as if exiting the building. In the election of Donald Trump, we saw a celebration of their departure; in the funeral of George H. W. Bush, we heard them mourned. And yet, I can’t escape the feeling that Kennedy’s words are nested in my bones. If they continue to move me (and they do), I wonder if they do so in the way “hot, colorful soup with a big dollop of lovely sour cream” moves Nina Alexandrovna. Such things are part of one’s organism, an inheritance worth living or dying for. If Slavnikova holds her characters in suspended animation, it’s to reveal that inheritance — like a fault traced through the flesh of a display cadaver — in detail both tender and grotesque.