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Insanity in the Soviet Union

08 August 2014

Michael Bourdeaux enjoys a novel from 1993 in translation


St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (1555 and later), where each dome tops a separate church: one of the famous structures featured by Jon Cannon in The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces: Decoding churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship around the world, with fine photos, plenty of text, and pictorial "decodings" of, e.g., the Rose de France window in Chartres, and the Great Stupa at Sanchi, India (Duncan Baird Publishers, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-84899-111-8)

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (1555 and later), where each dome tops a separate church: one of the famous structures featured by Jon Cannon in The Se...

Before and During
Vladimir Sharov
Oliver Ready, translator
Dedalus £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT217 )

THE leading words of the blurb of this novel "set in a psychiatric clinic in Moscow in the long decades of late-Soviet stagnation" led me to expect that it would be an exposé of the shameful abuse of this aspect of medicine (used as torture) in the Soviet Union. It turned out tobe far different. It is a work of pure fiction, recounting the extended ravings of inmates who were deeply disturbed.

Since the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, no Russian novels have penetrated Western consciousness, and we have had to wait a long time for this one: Vladimir Sharovis 62, and this was first published in Moscow in 1993. Superbly translated by Oliver Ready, of St Antony's College, Oxford, it is worth the wait, and is the only one of his eight novels to have appeared in English. We should know more of him.

The "ravings" are disturbing to us, too. They inhabit the sort of realm first explored by Nikolai Gogol, the 19th-century Russian-Ukrainian novelist and playwright best known for The Inspector General. Sharov's enclosed world is a phantasmagoria with a foot so firmly planted in reality as to upset many - Russians as well as us, as evidenced by the scandal created when the famous literary journal Novy Mir (New World) originally published it.

It upset many because of the satirical basis of the book, reflecting the hold that the ghosts of Lenin and Stalin still had (and have?) on the Russian mind. Inmates recount their imaginings to the author, who reports them objectively and in serious literary language. The nub of the book (not revealed in the blurb, but I must do so) is that Mme de Staël admired the French Revolution and begot the Russian one. She did, in fact, visit St Petersburg in 1817 and obtained a Russian passport. Endued with immortality(she died in 1817, aged 51), shelived on to inspire Lenin and -wait for it! - her progeny eventually produced Stalin (Staël -Stal - Stalin, whose real name was Djugashvili).

There is much more, involving the composer Scriabin, and Lenin; but to unravel it you must read this book, which, incidentally, to me, has a controversial Christian underlay.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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