Requiem for
A Lost Empire

Andreï Makine
    About two thirds of the way through this book, I let it drop from my palsied fingers. Although I am normally a glutton for well turned out gloom and depression, this one would be too much even if one were drip-fed Prozac the whole time while reading it, and perhaps for a few weeks afterward.

    Cutting back and forth in time, Makine here surveys the horrors of the Russian civil war, then the ghastliness of the Bolsheviks' New Order immediately afterward; moves briskly through the forced collectivization and the Great Terror of the 30s; then he devotes a major part of the book to the indescribable charnel house of the Eastern front of World War II; then the reimposition of the regime of fear, the normal Soviet order, as soon as the war ended.

    One might hope for a little (comparative) relief after the dictator's death in 1953, but then he takes us on a jolly tour of the incessant, bloody, civil conflicts which the Soviets and the Americans, between them, stirred up and armed on the peripheries of their holdings throughout the Cold War. In fact, Requiem for a Lost Empire begins with this phase of the story, then circles back to the two prior generations, then returns to the Cold War episodes and their aftermath once the Soviet Empire had become a phantom. It was at the return of this part that I dropped the book.

    However, curiosity eventually led me to pick the it up again and finish it. I needn't have bothered. The Cold War and post-Cold War stuff is very sketchy, as if Makine isn't really in command of the subject (as he clearly is in the Soviet sequences); moreover, they include unconvincing spy-thriller stuff (ex-spies jetting around the world in pursuit of one another, close calls, botched execution attempts) mixed up with a doomed romance. It is as if a reject from John Le Carré's bottom drawer had somehow gotten mixed up with an Andrei Makine manuscript.

    Too bad. The powerful sections describing the life of ordinary people in two generations of the country where Makine grew up are merely undermined by their combination with the faux-Le Carré.

[The Civil War]
He had fled his regiment because of a machine. An apparatus placed on the big black desk in the building occupied by staff headquarters for the front. Nikolai arrived in this town as a dispatch-rider, with a letter from the commanding officer of their regiment. In the courtyard, he had noticed a score of civilians, old men and women with children, guarded by several soldiers. He had been told to wait in the corridor. The door to the office was half open and he could listen to the arguments between the commissars. They had to decide whether or not to execute the hostages, the civilians in the courtyard, by way of reprisals. One of the commissars was shouting, "Not till we receive instructions from Moscow." Then suddenly an object sprang to life on the big black wooden desk. It was the strange apparatus around which they were all gathered. Nikolai, his curiosity getting the better of him, peered around the door. The machine was vomiting forth a long strip of paper that the commissars pulled out and read like a newspaper. "There! It's clear now," an invisible voice behind the door had proclaimed. "Read it! Shoot them as enemies of the revolution. Display notices in public places."

Nikolai had handed over his letter, leaped onto his horse and, as he left the courtyard, had seen the "enemies of the revolution" being led behind the building. He no longer knew how many executions of this type he had already seen during those two years of war. But the white snake coming out of the machine constricted his throat with an anger and a grief that were of a quite different order. He was choking, tugging at the collar of his jacket, then suddenly brought his horse to a halt in the middle of the road and said aloud, "No, Fox, wait. Let's cut off across the fields instead...."

Dolshanka, half depopulated during the war, did not notice his return. The village had been scoured by so many waves of armed men, Reds, Whites, anarchists, bandits pure and simple, and then Reds again, by so many lootings, fires, and deaths, that the villagers were no longer surprised at anything. There was just one old woman who asked him as he was passing in the street, "Tell me, soldier, is it true that the Bolsheviks have abolished death?" Nikolai nodded.

§     §     §

[After the Civil War]
The world around them was becoming more and more talkative. People held forth about work instead of working. They made decrees for the happiness of the people and let an old woman starve to death in her izba with its collapsed roof. Above all there was one who talked about the workers, that young, scabby little muzhik they called Goldfish, on account of his red hair, who had never plowed a furrow in his life. And those who promised happiness, like that man, ageless, faceless, expressionless, you might have said, so pale and evasive were his eyes, that unfrocked monk, who chose to be called Comrade Krassny.

This champion of happiness never smiled, included the word "kill" in every sentence, and displayed particular ruthlessness toward anything even remotely connected with the Church. When it came to it, the one Nikolai preferred to these two was the former sailor, Batum, an emissary of the town soviet who at least did not conceal his true nature. He robbed home distillers and drank himself, lived openly with two mistresses and, when the peasants challenged him, chorusing "You have no right..." would drown their complaints with his merry croak, "Here's my right!" roaring with laughter and patting the enormous holster of the automatic pistol at his thigh.

There were many more besides. They all called themselves "activists." They talked endlessly, made everyone listen to them, and would not let anyone else utter a word.

Sometimes, as the plow jolted slowly and ponderously along, Nikolai told himself that this whole new order of things was only a transient clouding of people's minds, comparable to the posturing of a drunkard. Yes, it was a kind of hangover that would one day come to an end of its own accord. How could they change essential things, all these prattlers in leather jackets? This Krassny, whose principal achievement was mobilizing activists to tear down the domes of churches in the vicinity of Dolshanka. Or Batum, whose repertoire of gestures, when he did not have a bottle in his hand, was limited to two: unbuttoning his fly and reaching for his revolver. Nikolai shook his head, smiled, leaned heavily on the handles of this plowshare polished by the earth, against this earth, open in the expectation of seed, against this wind that still had a snowy chill but was already mingling with the warm exhalation of the plowed land.

At other moments when he talked with the villagers, who grew increasingly wary of speaking about such things, or learned that yet another committee had been created (Committee of the Poor, Committee of the Godless, Committee of the Horseless --- it seemed to him as if the activists invented a new one every day), Nikolai no longer felt this confidence in the solidity of things.

Then he said to himself that this seed, nourished with so much blood, was bound to produce a good crop. And that perhaps the noisy efforts of the activists had a hidden force, whose meaning for the moment eluded him. This force made itself manifest in the spring of 1928 in the same field in the morning warmth of the same plowing. Without interrupting his slow progress behind the horse, out of the corner of his eye Nikolai observed the approach of four figures from the village. Goldfish, Krassny, Batum, and a stranger dressed in a long leather coat, no doubt an inspector eager to monitor the first steps taken toward collectivization. A group of activists, men and women, followed them some paces behind. Nikolai knew why they were coming.

For several months now the talk in Dolshanka had been of nothing else. The posters pasted on the door of the soviet announced it clearly. The organization of a kolkhoz, a collective farm. The only obscure point in Krassny's declarations concerned sewing needles. The peasants had not fully understood if these had to be handed in to the kolkhoz, along with their animals and their tools. Some people, afraid of being suspected of opposing the Party's policies, had even brought their crockery to the soviet. Others were biding their time in the hope that this excess of madness would abate. Nikolai was of their number.

He finished the furrow and, when he reached the headland, stopped the horse and waited. Following the activists' progress across the field, he felt a choking rage that reminded him of a day long ago: disconsolate hostages gathered in a courtyard and that slim paper snake slithering out of the telegraphic apparatus to proclaim death. He had not slept a wink the night before, wrestling with thoughts that led nowhere: Run away, taking the family with him? Burn the house down so as to leave nothing for those parasites? But run away where? In neighboring villages it's even worse, they're putting people in prison who own even two horses. Into the forest? But how could we live there, with a child of eight, when the nights are still cold? Picturing this escape, he saw the whole country peopled with activists, entangled in coils of ticker tape.

He looked at them, then lifted his eyes higher, toward the slope rising up from the plain, where the first izbas of Dolshanka could be seen. And, as he did from time to time when plowing, saw the figure of Anna. She was standing there, motionless, the two pails placed at her feet.

At this distance he was unable to discern the expression in her eyes and he knew that she could not but maintain her silence. But, more than any voice, more than the trembling of her eyelids that he could sense, it was the very air of that morning that suddenly diverted him from the moment he had lived through.

The air was gray, light. The wind bore with it the humid sharpness of branches scarcely touched by greenery and the last resistance of the remaining snowdrifts hidden in the woods. Nikolai felt that the woman over there, his wife, Anna, and he at the other end of the plain, were linked by the air, by its pale light, the mark of a spring day....

§     §     §

After the famous spring of the confiscated needles there were two years of famine, a hundred dead in Dolshanka, several arrests. The disgust Nikolai had experienced that day at the sight of the telegraph machine became so familiar that he no longer noticed it. Everyone knew that the famine had been organized. But in order not to lose your reason, to survive in the midst of this madness, it was best not to think about it, it was better to concentrate on the straightness and depth of the furrow.

Besides, even during those years, they could still wake up in the middle of a beautiful October day with a flight of birds above the river. Or again on that day of great frost: coming home, Nikolai saw Anna beside the window, one hand on the cradle of their second child and the other holding a book. He went up to her, sat beside her, quite numb from the icy wind, glanced at the pages. It was a foreign book, Anna was looking only at the pictures, of men and women in ample old-fashioned clothes, of unknown cities.

There was infinite calm in their izba at that moment. The child was asleep, the fire hissed softly in the stove, the window, all covered in ice, blazed with the thousand scarlet granules of a sinking sun. This brilliance, this silence were enough for life. Everything else was a bad dream. Speeches, hate-filled voices talking about happiness. Fear of not being hard enough, not showing yourself to be happy enough, hate-filled enough toward all the enemies, fear, fear, fear. While all life needed was these minutes of a winter sunset, in a room protected by this woman's silence as she leaned over the sleeping child.

--- From Requiem for a Lost Empire
Andrei Makine
Geoffrey Strachan,
Translator ©2001, Arcade
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