A View of the Revolution and its Aftermath in Contemporary Russian Literature
I recently started translating a novel called Казус Кукоцкого (pron.-Kazus Kukotskovo) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who won the Russian Booker Prize for this work in 2001. This novel, whose title I’ve chosen to translate as The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky, begins with a focus on the life of one Pavel Alekseyevich Kukotsky, who is, at the beginning of the book, a boy coming of age at the time of the Revolution of 1917. Not having any idea what this story was about before I started working on it, I am surprised and excited to find that, in addition to presenting some juicy translation problems, it addresses questions that I hope to find answers to in contemporary Russian literature: how do today’s Russians view the Revolution of 1917, the history of Communist Party rule, and life in Russia, generally, in the Soviet period? Here I will discuss one early passage from the novel in terms of both its challenges to translating it into English, and how it speaks to these questions.
The two paragraphs I will look at come at a point in the story when Pavel is of an age to attend university. It is just after the Revolution, and the Civil War is on. (These paragraphs are separated by one short one discussing Pavel’s character as a student, which I will not include here):
В том же году Павел поступил на медицинский факультет Московского университета. В следующем его отчислили: отец его был ни много ни мало полковником царской армии. Еще через год, по ходатайству профессора Калинцева, старого друга отца, заведующего кафедрой акушерства и гинекологии, его восстановили в студенчестве. Калинцев взял его к себе, прикрыл грудью. . .
В начале двадцатого года Кукоцких “уплотнили” – в их квартиру вселили еше три семьи, а вдове с сыном оставили бывший кабинет. Университетская профессура, кое-как выживавшая при новой власти, ничем помочь не могла – их всех тоже изрядно потеснили, да и революционный испуг не прошел: большевики уже продемонстрировали, что человеческая жизнь, за которую привыкли бороться эти прогнившие интеллигенты, копейки не стоит.
Aside from some vocabulary that I am unfamiliar with, there are four phrases that are giving me some trouble. This first is ни много ни мало, which literally translated means “not more not less”, and essentially equates to, “neither more nor less,” but in the context of the sentence it is in, though, this will not work: “his father was neither more nor less a colonel in the tsarist army.” So I settled on: “his father was no less than a colonel in the tsarist army.”
The next problem comes at the end of the first paragraph, in which it is explained that Pavel is accepted to the University, then expelled for political reasons, but later re-instated after the intercession of a faculty member who is an old friend of his father’s. The last part of the paragraph explains, Калинцев взял его к себе, прикрыл грудью. Literally this reads, “Kalintsev took him to himself, covered the breast.” Trusting that I understand the essence of this, I have come up with this so far: “Kalintsev protected him, and nurtured him. . .” (the ellipses are part of the text of the book).
The last sentence of the second paragraph goes right to the root of the questions I posed above concerning how Russians themselves view the history of the Soviet Union and the Revolution, but presents some difficulties for translation: да и революционный испуг не прошел: большевики уже продемонстрировали, что человеческая жизнь, за которую привыкли бороться эти прогнившие интеллигенты, копейки не стоит. Here I resorted to Google translate, and got this: “and the revolution was not frightened: the Bolsheviks had already demonstrated that human life, which are used to fighting for these rotten intellectuals, not worth a penny.” This doesn’t help much as my initial impression was that it reads, “and indeed, revolutionary fear did not go: the Bolsheviks had already demonstrated that human life, which the ? intellectuals were accustomed to fighting, was not worth a kopeck.” So my problems are with “revolutionary fear,” and the word “прогнившие.” For the first I tried a number of combinations of “revolutionary” and “fear”, and decided to go with “fear of the revolution,” which works pretty well, in this context.
For definitions of “прогнившие” I found, ‘rotten’, and ‘rotten to the core.’ O.K., but how does that work? How are intellectuals, who are used to fighting for human life, “rotten?” Thinking that perhaps “rotten” in Russian does not carry the same negative connotations it does in English, I decided that perhaps this relates to the fact that these intellectuals, specifically professors, had “somehow or other survived under the new regime.” So this descriptive might refer to the suffering they’ve endured, and that they were regarded as relics of the pre-revolutionary past, rather than to them as bad people. In that light I thought I’d try something like “decayed” or “decrepit” instead.
Putting it all together, the following is currently my best effort:
In that same year Pavel became a student of medicine at Moscow University. In the next he was expelled: his father had been no less than a colonel in the Tsarist army. After another year, through the intercession of one professor Kalintsev, an old friend of his father and head of the faculty of obstetrics and gynecology, Pavel was reinstated as a student. Kalintsev protected him, and nurtured him. . .
At the beginning of the 20’s the Kukotskys were “condensed”–three more families were lodged in their apartment, and the widow and her son we’re left with the former office. No university professor, who had somehow or other survived under the new regime, was able to help–they were all quite pressed as well, and indeed, fear of the revolution had not passed: the Bolsheviks had already demonstrated that human life, for which these thoroughly decrepit intellectuals were accustomed to fighting, was not worth a kopeck.
This passage reinforces the narrative of the revolution and its aftermath I’ve found in numerous sources, including ones I’ve recently discussed in this blog (see ‘Третья Мещанская‘ and ‘Former People‘). Two aspects of this history are especially highlighted here: after the Bolsheviks took power, all property became “communal” and this meant that space in the large, or not, apartments of the upper class was made available to other families. I like how Ulitskaya uses the word “condensed” to describe this process. the other part of this storyline that I’ve seen elsewhere is that official labeling of a person as “politically unreliable” or “enemy of the revolution” was consistently based on ‘the sins of the fathers;’ Pavel’s class origins alone where enough to get him expelled from Moscow University. Many others suffered much worse for the “crime” of being born to the wrong family (again see my review of Douglas Smith’s book, ‘The Fate of Former People‘).
While the character of intellectuals might be subject to debate, the narrator’s view of the Bolsheviks is fairly clear; they put no value on human life. The Bolsheviks, the party of Lenin, would become the Communists and, as the only political organization allowed to operate in the U.S.S.R., enjoyed a monopoly of power for nearly three quarters of a century.
The Communist Party was clearly discredited by 1991, and the failed attempt by party hardliners to re-establish old-scool centralized control meant the complete loss of their power and prestige. So far this novel, published nearly ten years after the end of Communist Party rule, points to a clearer and more critical view of the history of the Revolution than was allowed under party censorship during the Soviet period. I hope to find more along these lines as I continue to read this novel, and intend to explore further and try to determine if this is a popular view today.
© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved