Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981. Before he became an author he had a career as a geologist working in northern Russia. His debut novel, Oblivion, translated by Antonina W. Bouis and published by New Vessel Press in 2016, is one of the first novels in the 21st century to describe the horrors of the Russian Gulag system. Obliviion is loosely autobiographical as the unnamed narrator in this book travels to Siberia as a geologist and during his expeditions he sees the old, abandoned camps where millions of Russians were forced to do backbreaking labor. The narrator of the book is especially interested in learning more about the Gulag that was run by a family friend, whom he only knows as Grandfather II. Lebedev’s mellifluous and poetic prose as he describes the landscape in Siberia and the desolate camps is striking. Oblivion is a haunting, intense, descriptive literary odyssey; the detailed stories he tells about this once-hidden piece of Russian history ensures that the experiences of life under Soviet rule will indeed not fade into oblivion.
Sergei Lebedev’s follow-up to Oblivion, which is also loosely autobiographical, is set in Russia just as The Soviet Union is nearing its collapse. The Year of the Comet is translated by Antonia W. Bouis and was published by New Vessel Press in February 2017. The unnamed narrator in The Year of the Comet describes his boyhood in the mid 1980’s and his two grandmothers that have the most influence over his life. Although they are very different women—one grandmother is of peasant stock and the other is from a long line of nobility—their strong wills have allowed them to survive many hardships during World War II and Stalinist Russia. The boy suspects that the grandmothers have something to hide so he takes to snooping about their apartments for clues. At the same time as he is becoming more aware of his family’s secret past, the Soviet Union is showing its first signs of collapse. There are everyday things in life that start to disappear: there are plenty of shoes but no shoelaces, binding materials such as glue, wire and pins become scare. Lebedev’s second novel is equally as poetic and insightful as Oblivion as he describes the history of Russia and the Collapse of the USSR through the eyes of a child.
I conducted this interview with Sergei Lebedev via email over the course of a few weeks in December 2016 and January 2017. I want to give a very special thanks to Sergei for his thoughtful and fascinating answers, for being so open and kind and for his time. Of all the posts I’ve written and worked on for my blog this interview is one of my most favorite and cherished pieces.
Melissa Beck (MB): Your first career, before you were an author, was working on geological expeditions in northern Russia. In your first book Oblivion the narrator is a geologist doing this very job and in your current book, The Year of the Comet, the narrator talks about his early love of geology. Can you trace the progression of your career from geologist to journalist to author and poet?
Sergei Lebedev (SL): Geology was my cradle. My mother and father were geologists. I was growing up among the books about minerals and ores, among the beautiful crystals, black and white photos from North and East, expedition equipment… Nobody pressed me as parents sometimes do, but with this intriguing environment, I was doomed to be a geologist. When the USSR collapsed, geology as a science and as an industry was fast to deteriorate. At the same time, the geological spaces were opened for Jack London style expeditions, searches of old abandoned mines, and deposits.
This was my geology. We were collecting specimens and selling them to museums and private connoisseurs. There was no USSR anymore and the new states were like newborn babies. No borders, no authorities, money was calculated in millions. It was something like the period of Civil War that my grandmother witnessed as a young girl and described to me.
It was during this time that I first encountered the remains of the Gulag: ruins of barracks and bridges, old glades and roads, cyclopic heaps of exhausted rock – like the sum of prisoners’ eliminated lives. It was shocking. I thought the former camps existed only in memoirs. They were in fact present on earth, but nobody had seen them.
Later I found that the language of geology was very helpful to me in dealing with the past. “Geology is working with time and pressure” (that is my favorite quote from the Shawshank Redemption). Geology is working with substances transformed by time and pressure, transformed not only once – three, four, five times. This is a perfect parallel with Soviet history, because the USSR was constantly rewriting its history, denying the past and declaring a new future.
In addition, the search for minerals is like an exciting hunt. You cannot simply rely on professional skills. Intuition, luck, a sixth sense also matters. You are like a detective looking for what happened hundreds or thousands of millions of years ago, tracing the marks of mineral veins in the landscape, in the river sand and pebbles, reading the Book of Creation. It is a perfect school for a writer and an investigator!
My own transformation from geologist to journalist and writer occurred when I made an astonishing and eerie discovery in my grandmother`s archive. I found that her second husband was a state security officer of a high rank, a former chief of the Gulag camp. This discovery was my initial impulse to dive into my family`s history. I assumed that this history was quiet, simple and guileless, but it happened to be elusive, dark and unwilling to reveal its secrets.
MB: In The Year of the Comet Grandmother Tanya is an editor for Politizdat and she is also secretly writing a memoir. Did your own grandmother or anyone else in your family encourage you to write and to inspire you to want to become an author?
SL: As I remember from my Soviet childhood, writing was always something a little bit suspicious. I was writing in school where we had ideologically assigned topics like partisans, official holidays like Women`s day, the Day of Victory etc. But this was not writing, it was only repeating ideological formulas. But to write on your own? To write whatever you wanted to write? This was something unbelievable.
I think my grandmother Natasha, who wrote the memoirs about the family`s history, had a different goal. She was writing her memoirs in the late years of the Soviet Union, but had no idea that the USSR would soon collapse. So hers was a text with two contradictory intentions. On the one hand, it gave a wide overview of the past, it reestablished links with the past. On the other hand, it shaped the Soviet approved version of the past, and it excluded some dark pages which could have been an unnecessary burden for future generations.
Her book of memoirs was like the final book, the final piece of knowledge, because she was the family`s only survivor and, just as the Soviet state, she had the monopoly over writing about the past. The memoirs were her precious gift, her testament in a way. However, I don`t think she wanted anybody to go further.
MB: Two strong-willed yet very different Grandmothers have the most influence over the narrator in The Year of the Comet and the narrative is centered around stories about them. What made you choose to make Grandmother Tanya and Grandmother Mara such important characters in your book? Is there a particular memory that you have of your own grandmothers that stands out in your mind?
SL: My own two grandmothers were the most impressive figures of my childhood. Others, like my mother, father, and various relatives, were just regular people like I am. My grandmothers were like pillars of the Soviet Universe. One was from a noble aristocratic family, and one was from a poor peasant’s family. Only the revolution of 1917 made it possible for them to meet, to become relatives.
They embodied struggling times, Red power and White, defeated power (there were no Reds without Whites). All the hidden contradictions of history and society were personalized by their presence. I was feeling two different gravitations, like two different wizards, two magicians were competitively whispering in my ears strong spells shaping my fate, my future, my conscience. Therefore, The Year of the Comet at its core is a Soviet Titanomachy.
MB: The Year of the Comet is full of personal and Soviet history, stories and anecdotes. How did you prepare to write this book? Were there particular family members you went back and Interviewed, old photos you perused or other family documents you read to refresh your memories so that you could include personal details in the book?
SL: The novel was written without any assistance or surveys. I had the idea to write the book of a generation, the book about the last children of the Soviet Union, about those who inherited the full extent of the Soviet mythology produced in Stalin`s era, Khrushchev’s era, Brezhnev`s era, in different USSR`s, as I worded it in the book. I was trying to understand why this mythology survived the crash of communist ideology and twenty years later has once again become vivid and effective. I did spent time in my preparations for writing the novel with Robert Graves’s book about ancient Greek mythology and dozens of memoirs, sociological and historical research, and with newspapers and magazines of that period.
MB: I am actually a classicist myself, I teach Latin and Ancient Greek at a high school here in the US, so your reading about Greek myth in preparation for writing the novel is especially interesting to me. I also noticed your reference to Theseus in The Year of the Comet. Was there a particular story or ancient author that attracted you to reading about Greek myth?
SL: It is a funny story of how I was attracted to read about the ancient Greeks. All the soviet kids were fans of D`Artagnan and the Three Musketeers film. It was shown on TV during every school vacation. I was a fan too. Once my father told me that when he was a teenager he was friends with the actor Veniamin Smekhov, who played Atos in the film. I didn`t believe him because actors were like celestial beings and I asked him to prove it. He showed me a book which he received as a gift from Smekhov with the actor’s signature in it. It was a rare book, the complete editions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For me it was a book recommended by my beloved film hero, by the musketeer Atos himself. And I started to read it while fighting with the hexameter.
I kept returning to Homer repeatedly, especially the Odyssey. I was deeply, unconsciously obsessed with the theme of escape; escape as a category of human actions that I never witnessed because Soviet values taught us to endure, to wait, to reconcile with circumstances. I felt these values and was astonished with Odysseus who never stopped escaping from all kind of traps, temptations, encumbrances, dangers. He was my hidden hero in a way.
Theseus was my second love. The story with the sandals and sword left under the stone, the symbol of his heroic origin… I imagined something like this about myself, imagined I was a Soviet Theseus. My sword and sandals were the orders and medals kept by my grandmother. I thought these orders and medals belonged to her first husband, my grandfather whom I never met, the officer who fought in the battle of Stalingrad and was wounded while crossing the Dnieper River. When nobody was looking, I put the Red Star order on my shirt and dreamed about carrying out feats and attaining glories equal to my grandfather’s. In these moments, I wanted to be his grandson more than to be the son of my parents, to be the successor of his deeds, of his heroic epoch.
Only later, when my grandmother died, did I learn that this orders and medals belonged to her second husband, the chief of the concentration camp, the mass murderer. I wrote the novel Oblivion about this discovery – about a Theseus who finds not the sword and sandals under the stone, but something else that he never expected to find.
MB: In The Year of the Comet, the dacha that the narrator spent the summers in as a child was a happy place full of interesting memories. Helping Grandma Mara in the garden, playing with the other boys in the neighborhood and even solving the mystery of the serial killer were all a part the narrator’s childhood summer at the dacha. Do you have a dacha in your family and do you still visit it as an adult?
SL: Our dacha was an axis of family life since the early fifties. We lived in different flats, but we always had the same dacha. Flats were Soviet-built, anonymous houses, faceless and indistinguishable from each other. Our dacha was built by my grandfather with some trash timber, but it was ours.
At the same time, however, the dacha was a kind of a trap. We possessed our dacha – it represented not only a certain style of living, it was also a safe retreat from ideology and stress and it imperceptibly became a cellar. All our desires and perspectives were connected with the dacha. But, by the very fact of its existence, it diminished our horizons, it diminished our willingness to develop, to discover. Our dacha is the place I was writing about in The Year of the Comet but I am glad to be free of it now.
MB: Some authors who have written autobiographical fiction have angered family and friends for revealing too many private, family stories. Karl Ove Knausgaard and his family’s negative reactions to his books come to mind. What was your family’s reaction to your books? Did they think you revealed too many private family memories or did they enjoy revisiting old stories through your books?
SL: As I said previously, writing was always treated as something potentially dangerous in my family. I didn`t expect my books to be accepted easily by family members. I didn`t want to shock them or to punish them, so I tried to write with patience and tenderness. I think it was tough reading, we had some discussions, but in general my parents’ always supported me and I am grateful for this.
MB: One of the prominent themes in both Oblivion and The Year of the Comet is secrets and the process of discovering them. Do you still have that investigative spirit of the child narrator who is always snooping around his grandmothers’ apartments in search of family secrets? Are there still family secrets or other secrets about The Soviet Union that you want to unravel?
SL: Soviet life is still full of secrets. The archives of state security are still closed and guarded. Secrets, or secrecy itself, is still a main feature of Russian life. Secrecy is the aura of the authoritarian (now quickly becoming totalitarian) Russian state, the mythological evidence of its sacred power and supernatural historical mission. Or, in a more pragmatic way, secrecy serves as a repressive measure against civil freedoms. Because of this secrecy, opening up these secrets, penetrating the curtains is still something important to me.
Later I want to write a book about famine in the USSR. The state-organized famine of the thirties that was used as a repressive measure against peasants brought about the deaths of millions of people and caused wide-spread cannibalism. Famine is not considered a “modern’ mechanism of repression which instead uses arrests, prisons, concentration camps. Famine is a return to prehistory, to Neanderthal times, the bottom of the bottoms, the Ninth circle of Dante`s Hell. Bolsheviks and their successors today are eager to justify Stalin`s rule because, as they insist, he brought modern civilization to Russia. But this is the type of “civilization” he brought: the return to prehistory.
Even repressions carried out during the Great Terror are reluctantly and partially recognized by the Russian state as a crime. Famine, however, is not and it is instead viewed as a “natural disaster.” I want this so-called “natural disaster” to be exposed. This is also part of my personal story since my grandmother`s sister survived the famine in the Ukraine and wrote a few letters about her experience.
MB: In The Year of the Comet you chose to have the narrator tell his story from the point of view of his childhood. You not only capture the spirit and innocence of childhood through your narrator, but you also deal with some very sophisticated topics through his perspective. It seems very difficult to write such a complex book from the mindset of a child. What were the challenges you faced when writing from this point of view?
SL: It is a common thing for elders to have some kind of conspiracy in a family, to keep away from children facts they are too young to know – like a biography of an uncle who was the shame of the family or an old quarrel between twin sisters. Children are very sensitive to such things, they don`t know the rules of silence and obeyance.
In the USSR the family conspiracy was keeping secret the system of life itself. I do remember getting an exciting or chilling feeling sometimes, the feeling that I was a spy or detective in my own family, the feeling that everybody had two faces, that everybody was hiding something. Of course, these were not feelings I had daily, but when they came it was like a sudden breakthrough. For example, I was used to seeing my great-grandfather`s photo in his Red Army uniform. The photo was taken in the early twenties and this was the only image of him given to me. And I remember a feeling of great astonishment when I understood that I didn`t know who he was before this photo was taken, because “before” didn’t exist for me; the revolution in 1917 was like a border between light and dark. In reality before the revolution he was an officer of the Russian Imperial Army –a Tsarist officer was a compromising and unwelcomed job to have in a Soviet citizen’s dossier.
I gave my hero in The Year of the Comet this same type of disturbing feeling as his guiding line, as an Ariadne`s thread.
MB: You write such beautiful and lyrical prose and I wasn’t surprised to find out that you also write poetry. Do you have any favorite poets that have influenced your writing?
SL: Of course, it is Josef Brodsky. We are living and writing within a Russian language that was transformed by Brodsky, we are writing inside his literary universe.
MB: What aspects of Brodsky’s writing in particular have influenced your poetry? Can you elaborate on that?
SL: Brodsky`s poems deeply affected not only my poetry, but my use of language itself. When I first read one of his poems, I don`t even remember which one, I was amazed. I felt the rhythm, the intonation – as behavior, as pace. I understood that I had never met people who behaved like this, people who are not using Aesopic speech.
The Soviet-Russian language was full of crippled words, perverted words, corrupted words, words with forgotten meanings, ruined words, decayed, descended words, turncoat words, dead words, eliminated words, twisted words, poisonous words… People spoke this language. He didn’t. He appeared to me as a linguistic Luther in a way because he clarified and reestablished the language. He was for me like a personalized rebellion against linguistic oppression and depravity. He made it possible for us to stand on the field he prepared, to speak words he transmitted through his magic poetry machine that made them connected with The Word as it was in the beginning.
MB: What are your writing plans for additional books? Your last two books were about your family and growing up in Russia and experiencing the fall of The Soviet Union. Will you write another book about your experiences growing up there or are you exploring other topics? Do you have any plans to publish a book of poetry in English translation?
SL: I have just finished the fourth novel, the last novel of the tetralogy about my family`s history. The fourth book is about the German roots of the family, about two centuries of Russian – German relationships, about two totalitarian machines producing fake identities.
I will be glad if my poetry is translated. But if not, you can find it in the novels. Poetry is my sketchbook that preserves the most inconstant, ephemeral impressions or shapes that later become parts of my novels.
MB: You mention a fourth novel, but what is the status of the third novel, the follow-up to The Year of the Comet that you also wrote about your family?
SL: The third novel is called The People of August and it will soon be translated into English. It was published in Russia and Germany and the French translation of it is currently in process. So there will be a total of four novels based on my family history.