Written in the Face: On Sergei Lebedev’s “Untraceable”

By Robyn JensenApril 9, 2021

Written in the Face: On Sergei Lebedev’s “Untraceable”

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev

ONE WAY TO BEGIN a review of Sergei Lebedev’s new novel about the creation of an untraceable poison and its application by secret intelligence agencies would be to point to the recent case of Alexei Navalny. The Russian opposition leader was unsuccessfully poisoned with Novichok in August 2020 and then imprisoned earlier this year. The coincidental timing of the novel’s publication with this assassination attempt makes Untraceable seem almost prophetic. But it was an earlier event that set Lebedev’s work on the novel in motion. In 2018, the same nerve agent was used on the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Novichok — “newcomer” in Russian — resonates with the name for the fictional poison that also serves as the novel’s title in Russian: Debutant (“Neophyte,” in Antonina W. Bouis’s excellent translation). However, in the novel, these contemporary events serve only as indexical markers of a larger, submerged history. They are the surface manifestations of a complex underground network of roots, and Lebedev, a former geologist, sets about digging.

Praise for the novel’s English translation has tended, so far, to invoke the shadowy figure of Vladimir Putin, whose unspoken presence is said to be felt throughout. Thankfully, though, this is not a book about Putin. How simple it would be if one strongman were at the root of it all. Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the novel resists the idea that a single “great man” can shape the course of history. We find instead a familiar story about the Faustian desire for knowledge and the inevitable problems of creation. Untraceable follows Kalitin, an aging chemist who worked for decades in a top-secret Soviet laboratory until he defected to the West after the Soviet Union’s collapse. He left not for political reasons, but simply because he thought his research would no longer be needed. Nor is his dedication to creating chemical weapons motivated by any particular ideology, save a misguided belief that scientific experimentation, by virtue of being “Science,” is a neutral quest for truth, an objective good that can be abstracted from any moral or ethical problems.

While Kalitin had assumed that the fall of the Soviet Union had rendered him and his laboratory redundant, he soon realizes that he should have bided his time. Affixing a “post-” to “Soviet” has not changed things as dramatically as he had expected. While reading an article about the Chechen War, Kalitin discovers that an early version of his untraceable nerve agent Neophyte was used to poison a Chechen field commander. Unmoved by the reports of torture, filtration points, and chemical terrorism, he instead experiences profound regret and “the sharpest envy” that his chemical substances have finally been unleashed but that he is not there to take part.

Anyone familiar with stories of creation — God and Adam, Frankenstein and his monster — will not be surprised by what comes next. The untraceable poison that Kalitin invented is now going to be used on him. Things, once created, have a habit of taking on a rebellious life of their own. Shershnev, a lieutenant commander who did three tours in Chechnya, is assigned to find and kill the defector. The novel jockeys back and forth between the two characters, as Shershnev zeroes in on his target. While the narrative structure might seem engineered to produce a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game, it is hard to imagine a reader wanting Shershnev’s mission to succeed or, conversely, for the unrepentant Kalitin to escape. Instead, it feels as if we are slowly watching the movements of two objects set on a collision path. Freed from suspense, we are invited to linger on the forces that brought them to this point.

With Kalitin falling prey to his own creation, the novel refuses neat binary oppositions between perpetrator and victim. That the perpetrator can become the next victim was one of the distinctive features of the waves of terror in the Soviet Union. Semyon Firin, the head of the Belomor Canal forced-labor project, was shot in 1937. One of the chief architects of the Gulag, Matvei Berman, was purged in 1939. Within a single family, there could be those who suffered at the hands of the regime and those who served as executioners. Lebedev’s own family history attests to the complexity of processing such a past. Born in 1981, the author grew up knowing that many of his family members had been persecuted over the course of the 20th century. But at the age of 22, he discovered that his grandmother’s second husband had been a lieutenant colonel in the secret police and the head of a Gulag labor camp. From 1918 until 1954, his step-grandfather had worked with the secret police as their acronyms changed: VChK, OGPU, NKVD, MGB. He received the Order of the Red Banner for his work in 1937, at the peak of the Great Terror.

Such revelations haunt Lebedev’s previous novels, three of which have been translated by Antonina W. Bouis. His first, Oblivion, follows a young geologist as he unearths the past life of the neighbor who helped raise him, known only as Grandfather II. In the process, he travels to the Far North where he must confront the legacy of the Gulag camp system and Grandfather II’s involvement in it. The protagonist of The Goose Fritz is a historian who investigates his family’s German-Russian heritage. His novel The People of August (yet to be translated into English), follows a young man in the tumultuous 1990s as he discovers a secret manuscript written by his grandmother. Time and time again, revelations about one’s familial history invite a reckoning with broader social history. The archive — with its documents, photographs, and other material objects that promise a connection with the past — is a common preoccupation of post-Soviet literature, as characters work to understand themselves as historical subjects, shaped by their inheritance of the past. Lebedev’s novels are animated by an archaeological drive, excavating layers of heavy history.

Untraceable might seem to mark a departure. There is no central figure in the novel who works to exhume the buried; these are characters who make things disappear. The idea of an untraceable poison, after all, runs counter to the logic of the archive. But nothing in Lebedev’s world disappears without a trace. Even with the untraceable Neophyte, absence becomes “a trace in itself.” Things change shape, borders move, alliances shift — but still some marker of what once was remains. Shershnev chances upon a Chechen boy he thought they had killed during the war. Kalitin takes shelter with a persecuted priest who recounts how he was poisoned with a substance like Neophyte. He miraculously survived this fatal attack, but his face permanently “turned to stone, a bumpy, lichen mask,” as if it were a memorial to his own near-erasure.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the impossibility of erasing the past is the palimpsestic “Island,” home to Kalitin’s laboratory. The Island undergoes many transformations over the centuries, all the while retaining the traces of its various identities. We hear how a mighty river eats away at a limestone ridge, creating a solitary hill amid turbulent waters. Humans eventually make their way to the Island, where they build temples and statues to their pagan gods. Then come the monks. The inhabitants are forcibly baptized, their false idols are burned, and a new religion is grafted onto the site of the old: “The monks chopped down the sacred tree, the only oak on the Island, old, crooked, its roots deep in the yellow stone, and in its place built a chapel.” One relic of the past, however, proves immovable. The ancient altar stone remains “in the middle of the Island, like a dead but imperishable god.” The new chapel expands into a fortress monastery, and soon prisoners are entombed in the stony cellars. The empire spreads, a new church is erected on the Island, and frescoes are painted on the walls of the church. Time passes. The Bolsheviks come to power. Now it is the atheists who, like the monks before them, perform spectacular acts of iconoclasm, this time to instate the new religion of materialism. Another historical rhyme sees the Island once again become a prison — now a concentration camp.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it draws on the history of the Solovetsky Islands (Solovki) in the White Sea. Indeed, these passages seem to channel Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s account of Solovki in his experimental history of the Soviet camps, The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn, like Lebedev, adopts a geological scale of deep time in his description of Solovki, beginning not in 1923 when the local monastery was converted into a camp (the first node of what would become the vast Gulag system), but with the moment of the islands’ formation.

In Lebedev’s novel, the camp closes and the monastery is briefly abandoned, but as the Russian saying goes, “A holy place is never empty.” The Germans, in need of a secret place to continue experimenting with chemical weapons after World War I, come to the Island to collaborate with the Soviets. This part of the Island’s history borrows not from Solovki, but from a site located further south, along the Volga River: Shikhany, formerly the closed city of Volsk-18. After the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from manufacturing chemical weapons, the Germans reached a secret agreement with the Soviets in 1927 to construct a chemical warfare experimental site at Shikhany. The joint effort, known as the Tomka project, dissolved in 1933, but the Soviets remained and the facilities became the Central Military-Chemical Proving Ground (TsVKhP). We should note it is here at Shikhany that the contemporary nerve agent Novichok was developed.

After World War II, it is Kalitin’s Uncle Igor, a high-ranking scientist, who brings together “[a]ll the previous reincarnations of the Island” with his new laboratory, turning it into a “sanctuary, prison, altar, and test ground.” Igor commissions a German scientist who had worked in a Nazi concentration camp, where he “performed experiments that even they would not have countenanced.” The young Kalitin, who now works at the Institute with his uncle, is initially affronted by the German scientist’s presence. This, after all, is the enemy who “might have tortured and killed our soldiers,” including Kalitin’s grandfather. Despite this, Kalitin comes to feel “that there was a strange, forbidden affinity in their inner desires, that went deeper than nationality, ideology, enmity.” As it happens, the German scientist had been part of the secret Soviet-German chemical weapons project on the Island before the war, along with at least two other German chemists who were later executed for their involvement in the gas chambers. By dwelling on these moments of collaboration on the development of chemical weapons in the inter- and postwar period, Lebedev unsettles the much-mythologized Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The boundary between “us” and “them” begins to dissolve.

The novel also draws parallels between the horrors of the 20th century and contemporary atrocities. When Shershnev’s winding journey to Kalitin unexpectedly brings him to a museum on the site of a former Nazi concentration camp, he is struck that although he has never been to such a museum, he has already seen “real concentration camps.” Shershnev has in mind the “filtration points” he saw during his three tours in Chechnya. In these sites set up by the Russian military during the Chechen Wars, an estimated 200,000 people were held and subjected to interrogations, beatings, torture, and execution. As a boy, Shershnev had dreamt of fighting the Nazis, but now he finds “the visual resemblance” between the camps and the filtration points to be “painfully obvious.”

While Shershnev seems haunted by his past, Kalitin remains largely indifferent to the death and suffering he has wrought. When an experiment on a chemical weapon to be used in the Soviet-Afghan War goes awry, Kalitin and his colleagues are forced to journey beyond the confines of the laboratory and into the nearby town. There, Kalitin is confronted with his work’s unintended consequences. He discovers that a problem with the exhaust ventilation’s filtration system four years ago has led to health problems in the surrounding area. (Indeed, in the summer of 1993, residents of Volsk began to experience various side effects — mysterious red sores appearing on arms and legs, an increased rate of cancer, stillbirths, and infant deaths, as well as various diseases and conditions among children — all attributed to the nearby chemical weapons plant at Shikhany.) The poison itself may be untraceable, but its effects are plainly written in the townspeople’s faces: “Faces, faces — Kalitin suddenly saw them in extreme proximity, screaming about the hidden pains of their bodies.” For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face-to-face encounter is an ethical one. The naked, vulnerable face of the Other addresses us with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” and we are called upon to recognize our obligation to the needs of the person before us. But Kalitin experiences something more like disgust; the faces are too close, their twisted features grotesque. For a moment, though, the realization of what he has done “turned the world inside out, revealing the hidden side.” His vision is transformed:

Kalitin no longer saw the pastoral landscape, the glowing light of life, the healthy flesh of the universe, but the dark spots of diseases, the ulcers of postponed death sprinkled on the foliage, in people’s bodies and faces, in the crooked letters of the GROCERY sign, in the potholed asphalt, in the cracked windowpanes of listing huts.

While this encounter briefly estranges Kalitin’s perspective, it is an ethical test that he ultimately fails.

Lebedev’s novel also seeks to reveal the “hidden side” that lies beneath, to transform our vision of the present. On the ceiling of Kalitin’s lab, formerly a church, a painting of angels is still partially preserved. While he had long regarded the angel as an anachronism, “a ghost of another era, herald of a trial that did not take place,” he later realizes during a fateful night spent in a different church that he had been laboring all that time beneath a painting of the Last Judgment. Moments like these (and there are many in the novel) are almost too neat. Read generously, this gives the impression of a highly patterned world, where we sense the presence of a higher consciousness (God, the author, etc.) that has organized such details into a delicate web of connections — what Tolstoy called the “labyrinth of linkages,” the hidden architectonic structure of his novels. Crucially, in Tolstoy, it is a structure submerged beneath the novel’s surface. While the conceit of Lebedev’s novel is the excavation of buried historical layers — from Solovki and Shikhany to the World Wars and the Chechen Wars — one occasionally wishes that, on the level of form, some traces were left for the reader to unearth herself. Even so, there is an elegance, and urgency, to the narrative’s slow unfolding of secrets and memories. Untraceable invites us to look at what has been hidden in plain sight.


Robyn Jensen is a visiting assistant professor in the German and Russian Department at Pomona College. Her work focuses on 20th-century Russian culture, with an emphasis on photography theory and visual culture, aesthetic theory, and theater.

LARB Contributor

Robyn Jensen is a visiting assistant professor in the German and Russian Department at Pomona College. Her work focuses on 20th-century Russian culture, with an emphasis on photography theory and visual culture, aesthetic theory, and theater. 


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