Rybakov, Anatolii (Naumovich)

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RYBAKOV, Anatolii (Naumovich)

Nationality: Russian. Born: Chernigov, 14 January 1911. Education: Moscow Institute of Railway Engineers, 1934. Military Service: Red Army, 1941-45: major-engineer. Family: Maried Tatiana in 1928; two sons from other marriages. Career: Exiled to Siberia for alleged involvement in counterrevolutionary activity, 1933-36. Engineer for motor vehicle transport companies, Ufa, Kalinin, and Ryazan, 1930s. Also worked as a truck driver and ballroom dance instructor. Contributor of fiction to periodicals, including Novy Mir, Oktyabr, and Druzhba narodov. President, Russian Soviet PEN center, 1989-91. Awards: Stalin prize, 1951, for Voditeli; Vasil'ev Brothers prize, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, 1973, for Neizvestny soldat.Died: 24 December 1998.



Sobranie sochineniy [Collected Works] 1981-82.


Voditeli [The Drivers]. 1950, in Oktiabr'.

Ekaterina Voronina [Catherine Voronin]. 1955; revised editions, 1958, 1960, 1970.

Leto v Sosniakakh [Summer in Sosniaki]. 1964.

Tiazhelyi pesok. 1978; as Heavy Sand, 1981.

Deti Arbata (first novel in tetralogy). 1987; as Children of the Arbat, 1988.

Tridcat'pjatyi i drugie gody [1935 and Other Years] (second novel in tetrology). 1989.

Strah [Terror] (third novel in tetralogy). 1990.

Dust and Ashes. 1994.

Remembrance. 1997.

Novels (for children)

Kortik (novella). 1948; as The Dirk, 1954.

Bronzovaya ptitsa (novella; sequel to Kortik ). 1956; as The Bronze Bird, 1958.

Prikliucheniia Krosha [Krosh's Adventures] (novella). 1960.

Kanikuly Krosha [Krosh's Holiday] (novella). 1966.

Neizvestnyi soldat [The Unknown Soldier]. 1970.

Vystrel [The Shot]. 1975.



Kortik, 1954; Ekaterina Voronina, 1956; Priklyucheniya Krosha, 1962; Eti neviuuije zabavy [These Innocent Games], adaptation of his Kanikuly Krosha, 1968; Minuta molchania [A Minute of Silence], adaptation of his Neizvestny soldat, 1971; Neizvestny soldat, 1971; Bronzovaya ptitsa, 1975; Poslednee leto detstra [The Last Summer of Childhood], 1975; Kanikuly Krosha, 1980; Voskzesenie, polorina sedmogo [Sunday, Half Past Six], 1989.


Roman-vospominanie (autobiography), 1997.


Film Adaptations:

Kortik, 1954; Ekaterina Voronina, 1956; Priklyucheniya Krosha, 1962; Minuta molchania, 1971; Poslednee leto detstra, 1975; Bronzovaya ptitsa, 1975; Kanikuly Krosha, 1980; Neizvestny soldat, 1985.

Critical Studies:

In Commentary, June 1979, pp. 85-88; in Time, 27 April 1987, pp. 45-46; in Atlantic Monthly, June 1988, pp. 102-05; in New Yorker, 12 September 1988, pp. 108-14.

* * *

Ever since the publication of Anatolii Rybakov's first book, Kortik (1948; The Dirk, 1954), an adventure story for teenagers in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Young Communist League (Komsomol), and his second book, Voditeli (1950; "The Drivers"), a socialist-realist production novel that earned its author a 1951 Stalin Prize for literature, the story of his success in the censorship-stricken Soviet Union has been interpreted by some of his critics (for example, Aleksandr Gladkov) as that of a gifted opportunist. Even the appearance of Tiazhelyi pesok (1978; Heavy Sand, 1981), Rybakov's only book on the Holocaust, which had been a taboo subject in Soviet Russia for decades, could justifiably be credited to his uncanny ability to make the most of a current political climate, whatever it was. As the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Agreement on Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its emphasis on human rights, forced the Soviet Union to soften its emigration policy, the mass exodus of Soviet Jews, leaving for either the United States or Israel, started gaining momentum (and reached its peak in 1979). With the concomitant partial liberalization of the restrictions on the discussion of the "Jewish question," Rybakov must have felt that this was his chance to tell as much truth as possible about the fate of the Soviet Jewry during World War II. (In his 1997 autobiography, Roman-vospominanie, he claimed that even the estimated number of Holocaust victims, 6 million, was first revealed to the Soviet reader in no other source than Heavy Sand. )

In an unrelated chain of events, the year 1974 saw the appointment of the writer Anatolii Anan'ev as editor in chief of an influential Moscow literary magazine, Oktiabr' ("October"), notorious for being a bastion of communist conservatism. Anan'ev was anxious to turn the magazine around and gladly accepted the challenge of helping Rybakov's controversial manuscript to see the light of day after it had been turned down by the reputedly more liberal journals Novyi mir ("The New World") and Druzhba narodov ("The Friendship of Nations").

This was not an easy task. The editorial board of Oktiabr' demanded a large number of changes as a prerequisite for the novel's serialization. (It was eventually published in 1978, in numbers 7-9.) Thus the anti-Semitic leaflets with quotations from Dostoevsky, distributed during the war as part of the Nazi propaganda, were to be replaced by a reference to Knut Hamsun. Zürich, the birthplace of a main character in the novel, Yakov Ivanovsky, was to be changed to Basel because of the fear of possible associations with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's anticommunist book Lenin v Tsiurikhe (1975; Lenin in Zürich, 1976). In Soviet Russia, in those days, Solzhenitsyn's name was unmentionable. The topic of the late 1930s show trials, because of which Yakov's son Lyova perishes, was also deemed highly undesirable, and Lyova had to die by accident, under a train instead. (It was not by chance that the critic E. Starikova, in her review of Heavy Sand, appearing in Druzhba narodov in 1979, found this accidental death "artistically unconvincing.") Rybakov's treatment of World War II had to be readjusted to highlight the fact that not only Jews but also representatives of other Soviet nations suffered at the hands of the Germans. Even the original title of the novel, Rakhil' ("Rachel"), was apparently considered to be patently Jewish and could not stay unaltered.

These demands were largely in tune with the general line of Oktiabr'. (Almost 30 years previously, prior to the serialization of Voditeli in 1950, the then editorial board requested to replace the allegedly Jewish surname of a character called Verbitsky with the more Russian-sounding Vertilin.) They arguably could not inflict serious damage, however, on Heavy Sand. Regardless of how consistently editors (including the chief ideologist of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Suslov) sought to impose a multinational agenda on the novel by eradicating the word "Jew" from it, it remained, in essence, a novel about Jews and about the Holocaust. (Rybakov restored most of the censored episodes and the original story line when republishing Heavy Sand in Sobranie sochineny.

Neither Rybakov himself nor members of his immediate family had firsthand experience of the Holocaust. Rybakov's Jewish roots, however, contributed to his taking the issue personally. For obvious reasons his printed sources were limited mostly to the officially published protocols of the Nuremberg war trials (with some additional information drawn from the Moscow Samizdat journal Evrei v SSSR ["Jews in the USSR"], the access to which Rybakov gained courtesy of the dissident Sarra Babenysheva). Rybakov's visit to the Ponary forest near Vilnius (the burial site of some 70,000 Lithuanian Jews) and especially his extensive inquiries in the Ukrainian town of Shchors (formerly Snovsk), where his mother's family resided for a while, helped him to re-create the atmosphere of a typical ghetto, which was recognized as authentic by many Holocaust survivors. Almost the entire Jewish population of Shchors was exterminated in the early 1940s. Rybakov's main informer on the plight of the Shchors ghetto, a local hair-dresser, is portrayed in Heavy Sand under the name of Bernard Semyonovich. The memorial gravestone at the Shchors Jewish cemetery, with the Hebrew inscription from Joel 3:21, is depicted in the final scene of the novel (contrary to Gary Rosenshield's statement that such "a monument could not have existed in 1972").

Heavy Sand has been branded by some as a piece of propaganda, but its critics seem to disagree on what ideas precisely it was supposed to spread. One reading of the novel suggested that Rybakov "was aesopically advising his Soviet Jewish readers against trying to emigrate to Israel," whereas another, referring to the fact that Basel, mentioned in Heavy Sand, had been a popular location for Zionist Congresses, suspected the book of sending a cryptic Zionist message to the public. Perhaps the most balanced assessment of Heavy Sand belongs to Peter Lewis, who maintained that it "may leave itself open to political criticism …, but at heart it is a profoundly humanistic novel in the great tradition of Russian literature."

—Andrei Rogachevskii

See the essay on Heavy Sand.