Georgij Vladimov and the Perestrojka Historical Imagination: Echoes of a Different Past

Amy Isaac Obrist, University of Southern California

Georgij Vladimov’s 1995 Booker Prize novel General i ego armija encountered mixed reception. On the one hand, the novel was acclaimed as a “masterful” and penetrating portrayal of events from the Second World War. Aleksandr Kogan, V. Kardin, and others defended the novel as an accurate and insightful reflection on important events of Russia’s history. Yet not everyone was enthusiastic about Vladimov’s latest work; not surprisingly, it incited a heated debate in Russia between 1995 and 1997.

Even in a post-glasnost′ era, many people still fear the past. World War II has remained one of the last holdouts of conservativism in presenting and interpreting the past, despite de-Leninization, de-Stalinization, and perestrojka. There is good reason for this, since hundreds of thousands of deaths and unbelievable losses came about as a result of blunders of the Soviet High Command—from which the popular conclusion follows that much of Russia’s profound historical suffering was in vain, and therefore meaningless. Yet, in a place where lots of skeletons have already been retrieved from historical closets and are floating about, shaking off their dusty limbs, it would be an oversimplification to say that people are enraged by Vladimov’s reconsideration of Russia’s national history. What is maddening is his probing into “little” or “local” histories—the acts and statements of individual participants in the war.

Thus Vladimov’s problem is at one level an issue of history. That is, he could have ignored critics who complained about his version of the facts on the grounds that he was writing a novel anyway. However, he chose to answer them, and defended his novel in the press not as a work of art, but as a fundamentally correct revelation of previously blank pages in Russia’s history. Does this relegate the novel to the traditionally “low-brow” genres of popular fiction for political purposes or historical fiction for popular enjoyment? To some extent, Rosalind Marsh’s basic argument in History and Literature in Contemporary Russia applies: Vladimov has political interests at stake and uses history to promote a certain view of present events. However, General i ego armija was written and published after the genre of historical fiction was already becoming marginalized and was therefore less influential in political terms than fiction on historical themes published between 1987 and 1994. A more essential issue is that Vladimov’s argument is concerned with more than whether history has been presented in all correctness. The novel goes beyond the perestrojka imperative of presenting unknown material, staking a claim in the fertile Russian traditional of historical novel that probe the nature of history-making and history-telling. Vladimov relies heavily on intertextual dialog with several key moments for historical fiction in Russia, from Puškin’s adoption of Sir Walter Scott’s paradigms in Kapitanskaja dočka, to Tolstoj’s “loose and baggy monster,” to the Soviet World War II novel-making General i ego armija into a forum for the discussion of the meaning of history for the individual and for the Russian people.

Although several key intertexts are reflected in the novel, General i ego armija relies heavily on a dialog with Tolstoj’s Voina i mir to make its argument. While Tolstoj, according to Gary Saul Morson, argues forcefully for a teleological determinism but epistemological uncertainty that renders the individual incapable of influencing the course of events or even knowing what causes any event, Vladimov, in my argument, believes that individuals do have power and freedom to influence what happens and that the power of a leader over the masses is no illusion. The implication, of course, is that this power carries with it a moral responsibility, which to deny is tantamount to accepting the blame for any wrongs that ensued as a result of one’s power. Vladimov plays with the opposition between freedom and necessity in his novel, at times using irony and at other times discussing the issue directly to suggest that, while there is possibly a kind of determinism at work in the forces interacting in history, in that a large number of wills in agreement can overwhelm the individual, nothing is really inevitable because the choices and decisions of individuals carry both a little power and a lot of responsibility. The fact that alternatives always exist to the actions we choose, and that we are free to choose them, gives hope and sometimes makes a difference, albeit a small one, for Vladimov. More importantly, however, this view of history finds mere reconsideration of Russia’s national history is insufficient, if it is undertaken at the national level-and insists that local history is the key interface between the individual and what it means to be Russian.

My interpretation of Vladimov’s novel is based on an application of the theoretical principles of Andrew Wachtel (Obsession with History: Russian Writers Confront the Past) and Gary Saul Morson (Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time) as well as the paradigms of two philosophers of history, Alexander Demandt (History that Never Happened) and Geoffrey Hawthorn (Plausible Worlds). Focusing on Vladimov’s engagement of Tolstoj’s views on history, I develop an approach to recent Russian fiction on historical themes suggesting that alternative history-what might have been-plays a key role in the application of historical memory to cultural expression during the perestrojka period.