There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life. That is, her parents were told that she was dead, but they weren’t allowed to keep her body. (The family had been riding the bus together; the girl was standing up front at the time of the explosion, and her parents were sitting behind her.) The girl was just fifteen, and she was thrown backward by the blast.
While the parents waited for the ambulance, and while the dead were being separated from the wounded, the father held his daughter in his arms, though it was clear by then that she was dead; the doctor at the scene confirmed this. But the body still had to be taken away, so the parents climbed into the ambulance with their daughter and rode with her to the hospital morgue.
She seemed to be alive, as she lay on the stretcher, but she had no pulse, nor was she breathing. Her parents were told to go home, but they wouldn’t; they wanted to wait for the body, though procedures still had to be followed—the autopsy performed and the cause of death determined.
The father, who was desperate with grief, and who was also a deeply religious man, decided to steal his daughter’s body. He took his wife, who was barely conscious, home, endured a conversation with his mother-in-law, woke up a neighbor, who was a nurse, and borrowed a white hospital coat. Then he took all the money in the house and went to the nearest hospital, where he hired an empty ambulance (it was two in the morning), and, with a stretcher and a young paramedic, whom he’d bribed, drove to the hospital where his daughter was, walked past the guard and down the stairs to the basement corridor, and entered the morgue. There was no one there. Quickly he found his daughter and, with the paramedic’s help, put her on the stretcher, called down the service elevator, and took her to the intensive-care unit on the third floor. The father had studied the layout of the hospital earlier, while he and his wife waited for the body.
He let the paramedic go. After a brief negotiation with the doctor on duty, he handed over his money, and the doctor admitted the girl to the intensive-care unit.
Although the girl was not accompanied by a medical history, the doctor could see perfectly well that she was dead. But he badly needed the money: his wife had just given birth (also to a daughter), and his nerves were on edge. His mother hated his wife, and they took turns crying, and the child cried, too, and now on top of all this he had been assigned exclusively night shifts. The sum that this (clearly insane) father had offered him to revive his dead princess was enough for half a year’s rent on a separate apartment for his own little family.
This was why the doctor began to work on the girl as if she were still alive, but, since the father was determined not to leave her side, he did request that the man change into a hospital gown and occupy the cot next to his daughter.
The girl lay there, as white as marble; she was beautiful. The father, sitting on his cot, stared at her like a madman. One of his eyes seemed out of focus, and it was only with difficulty, in fact, that he was able to open his eyes at all.
The doctor, having observed this for a while, asked the nurse to administer a cardiogram, and then quickly gave his new patient a shot of a tranquillizer. The father fell asleep. The girl continued to lie there like Sleeping Beauty, hooked up to her various machines. The doctor fussed around her, doing all he could, even though there was no longer someone watching him with a crazy unfocussed eye. In truth, this young doctor was a fanatic of his profession—there was nothing more important to him than a challenging case, than a person, no matter who it was, on the brink of death.
The father slept, and in his dream he met his daughter—he went to visit her, as he used to visit her at summer camp. He prepared some food—a sandwich, that was all. He got on the bus—another bus—on a fine summer evening, somewhere near the Sokol metro station, and rode it to the paradisiacal spot where his daughter was staying. In the fields, amid soft green hills, he found an enormous gray house with arched gates reaching to the sky, and, when he walked through these giant gates into the garden, there, in an emerald clearing, he saw a fountain, as tall as the house, with one tight jet of water that cascaded at the top into a glistening crown. The sun was setting slowly in the distance, and the father walked happily across the lawn to the entrance, to the right of the gate, and took the stairs up to a high floor, to the apartment where his daughter was. She seemed a little embarrassed when she greeted him, as if he had interrupted her. She stood there, looking away from him—as if she had her own, private life here, which had nothing to do with him anymore, a life that was none of his business.
The place had high ceilings and wide windows, and it faced south, overlooking the fountain, which was illuminated by the setting sun.
“I brought you a sandwich, the kind you like,” the father said.
He went over to a table by the window, put his little package down, paused for a moment, and then unwrapped it. There lay his sandwich, with its two slices of cheap black bread. He wanted to show his daughter that there was a patty inside, so he separated the bread slices. But between them he saw—and right away he knew what it was—a raw human heart. The father was terrified that the heart had not been cooked, that the sandwich was inedible, and he quickly wrapped the sandwich up again. Turning to his daughter, he said awkwardly, “I mixed up the sandwiches. I’ll bring you another one.”
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …