Anatoly Rybakov’s Kortik: From First Draft in Exile to Children’s Classic

John Schillinger, American Univeristy

Readers outside Russia who have heard of Anatolij Rybakov are generally familiar with only one or two of his works – the Stalin-era novel Children of the Arbat (1987), or Heavy Sand (1978), which follows the fate of a Jewish family and a Ukrainian village before and after the Nazi invasion in 1941. Mention Rybakov to almost any Russian however, and the response is nearly always something like, “Oh yes, the one who wrote Kortik.” 

Kortik (The Knife or The Dirk), a post-1917, Civil War- and NEP-era adventure story, launched Rybakov’s career in 1948. Read by generations of Soviet children, Kortik features a clever and daring young hero, Miša Poljakov, who himself reads Jack London, Jules Verne, Fenimore Cooper, and Twain’s Tom Sawyer. A genuine page-turner, Kortik follows the exploits of Miša and friends as they help track down counterrevolutionaries and unravel the mystery of a coded message hidden in the handle of a sailor’s knife.

Replete with details of life in the new Russia as seen from a youngster’s perspective, Kortik captures the appeal of the emerging society, the uncertainty, and the excitement of a country rife with change. The idealistic Young Pioneers with their red scarves who replace the Boy Scouts, youth groups organized to promote cultural activities, street performers, homeless children, popular films, streetcars, Majakovskij posters, cauldrons of hot asphalt for rebuilding Moscow, propaganda trains, the new consciousness of children who easily use terms such as bourgeoisie, right SRs, speculators and NEPmen, and scores of other period references all combine to bring post-revolutionary Russia to life for young and older readers alike.

What makes Kortik even more interesting today is that the first version of a work celebrating pre-Stalinist Russia was penned while the author was in political exile in 1936. With the publication of the final version of Kortik twelve years later, the former “enemy of the people” Anatolij Aronov became the writer Anatolij Rybakov (his mother’s maiden name), and took his first important step toward rehabilitation as a Soviet citizen

Prior to Rybakov’s death in 1998, he arranged for the documents that make up his life’s work to be transferred to the archives of RGALI, the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art in Moscow where this summer I discovered the first version of Kortik, written in Ufa and dated 1936. Providing Rybakov’s own sketches of the knife and a much shorter version of a work already titled Kortik, the Ufa manuscript presents the character of Miša Poljakov much as he would appear in 1948, as well as a surprisingly different conclusion.

The paper will present the 1936 version (with Powerpoint slides of selected original manuscript pages) and compare it with the fully developed final version. It will also provide commentary upon connections between Rybakov’s own life and this and later works.