A Basement in Yekaterinburg
On the 17th of July 1918, the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including Tsar Nicholas II [nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody], were murdered in a basement in Yekaterinburg. There are numerous rumours surrounding the deaths, with perhaps the most lurid being that the princesses had to be finished off with bayonets, as the bullets intended for their flesh had been deflected away by the jewels hidden in their blouses. Although the Russian empire had collapsed with Nicholas’ forced abdication, the deaths of the family put something of a seal upon it, as there was always the threat of an attempt to reinstate the Tsar.
“In light of the approach of counterrevolutionary bands toward the Red capital of the Urals and the possibility of the crowned executioner escaping trial by the people (a plot among the White Guards to try to abduct him and his family was exposed and the compromising documents will be published), the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, resolved to shoot the former Tsar, Nikolai Romanov, who is guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people.” – An announcement from the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government.
I often ask myself why I am drawn to books about the Russian Revolution and what followed it [specifically Stalinism]. These two subjects make up a considerable proportion of my reading, and I supplement that reading with just as many documentaries. There is, of course, something quixotic about revolution, certainly a socialist revolution, something attractive about the idea of people fighting for a better and more just world [as they see it]. And so it seems extraordinarily tragic that the Russian Communist revolution, which promised great things, and claimed to oppose tyranny, could succeed, yet ultimately only to lead to the reign of one of the most brutal dictators in history, Joseph Stalin.* It’s like the plot of a particularly bleak Thomas Hardy novel; it is life caning the back of your knees and telling you, ‘don’t ever hope to improve the world, or fight the established order.’
The Liquidation of B.D. Novsky
While I wouldn’t want to speculate as to the reasons behind Danilo Kiš’ interests and inspirations, it is nevertheless the case that his short story collection, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, could have been written with me in mind, in that almost every entry is concerned with revolutionaries, dreamers, murderers, exile, torture, tyranny, Eastern Europe [mostly Russia], Communism, and so on. I do not intend to to write about each story individually, for what I would end up with would be either a review so long that no one would read it in its entirety or a summary review that would not be worth reading at all, and so I will focus on the two most significant [and enjoyable] stories instead.
The longest in the collection is the title story. It is concerned with the mysterious B.D. Novsky, which is only one of many aliases used by Boris Davidovich. Boris was the son of a soldier, David Abramovich, who was one day flogged by his colleagues, either for not taking part in their drinking or for being a Jew or both, and a young girl who nursed the soldier’s wounds. All of the stories in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are presented as a kind of summarised biography, almost like a wikipedia entry, focussing on an important period or periods of each subject’s life. However, in this instance, Kiš charts Boris’ progress from childhood to death, giving it a breadth and depth that some of the others perhaps lack.
It is not necessary to follow in Kiš’ footsteps and give all the [available] details of Boris’ life, except to say that he becomes a career revolutionary and bomb maker [he was, we’re told, obsessed with the idea of making a wallnut sized bomb]. All that is engrossing stuff, but the real meat of the story is in his arrest and interrogation. If you know anything about Russia under Stalin, you will know that it wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence for old revolutionaries to be denounced, arrested, tortured, made to confess to crimes they had not committed, before being murdered. The idea behind this was to eliminate dangerous people; these men [and women] had already proved that they were capable of working to remove a sovereign, and so it makes sense that Stalin would fear or mistrust them.
In his story, Kiš pitches Novsky against Fedukin; it is a battle between two highly capable [one might say great] and strong-willed [there’s an almost amusing scene in which they fight over the wording of the confession] men, one a revolutionary and one an interrogator. Yet despite Fedukin’s best efforts, and most brutal treatment, Novsky will not confess. The reason for this is that he does not fear death so much as he fears that the integrity of his biography will be compromised. Novsky wants his life to have meant something, and so it is paramount that his story not be sullied by lies, or be re-imagined or reframed; as a revolutionary, a patriotic Russian, he does not want to become [for in confessing he would become] an enemy of the State. The problem that Fedukin faces now is, ‘how do you get someone who is more concerned with how they are remembered, than they are scared of pain or death, to confess to a terrible crime?’ It is, for the philosophically minded among us, certainly something to chew on.
Fedukin’s solution is to take Novsky into a room containing a young man, who, he states, will be instantly shot if Novsky does not confess. What is clever about this is that while a man might be reconciled to his own suffering it is perhaps not the case that he is reconciled to the suffering of others. Moreover, it forces Novsky to weigh up whether allowing people to die for him will ruin his reputation, will taint his biography, more than confessing would. For the reader, it is worth considering in a different light, in terms of two questions. Firstly, is preserving the integrity of one’s life, the truth of who you are/were and what you did, more important than someone’s actual existence? We would automatically want to say no, and yet one would have to bear in mind that these people would, in all likelihood, be killed anyway. Secondly, if someone kills in your name, how responsible are you? You do not, of course, pull the trigger yourself, but equally we do not want to accept that it is a morally neutral action to stand by and do nothing to attempt to save someone.
“I wish to live in peace with myself and not with the world.”
I mentioned in an earlier paragraph that each story in this collection is presented as a biography. What elevates A Tomb for Boris Davidovich above most of the others is that biography plays such an important part in it, for what we have is a fictional biography about a man for whom the details of his life, the truth of his existence, was so important. For me, it is this kind of thing that distinguishes great short story writers from ordinary or average ones. Furthermore, I think the title story is the best example here of something that Kiš does frequently throughout the book: which is to present characters and situations that are entirely believable, so that one [or certainly I, anyway] will be putting the names into google in order to check that they were not in fact real people. In this way, his work reminds me of the marvellous German writer W.G Sebald.
Up to the Elbows in Blood
Another notable story is the opener, The Knife with the Rosewood Handle. It is set primarily in the Czech Republic and features Miksha, who is described as a man with potential, someone who could be a kind of master craftsman. In the early stages of the story he is working for Reb Mendel, a Jew, whose chickens are being stolen. In the book’s most memorable, and terrible, scene Miksha captures the culprit, a skunk, and expertly skins it alive. There is, Kiš suggests, a kind of anti-semitism in the act, or certainly an eagerness to make a mockery of Mendel’s faith and belief in ‘the Talmudic prattle about the equality of all God’s creatures.’ The longer we spend with Miksha the more we come to realise that violence defines his existence. For example, once Mendel dismisses him he gets a job slaughtering lambs and is said to spend his time up to his elbows in blood.
However, killing animals is obviously not Kiš’ real focus. He uses it as a way of foreshadowing Miksha’s later behaviour, and as a way of making a point about the brutality of Stalin’s Communism. While working for a rich landowner Miksha becomes involved in revolutionary activity, which results in him murdering an innocent young woman, Hanna Krzyzewska, who had been denounced as a traitor. As previously noted, denunciations were not rare in Communist states, and the result was often the same as it is for Hanna i.e. death. So what we see here is a mirroring of Miksha’s professional life with the political, whereby Hanna is another one of his sacrificial lambs. Moreover, one of the aspects of tyrannical Communistic thinking is the belief in the unimportance of the individual, in the idea that there is nothing sacred about a single life, that it can and will be taken in order to serve the greater good, and this is also Miksha’s attitude, both, one could argue, in terms of Hanna and the animals.
To return to the idea of mirroring, it is also interesting to note that Miksha doesn’t merely kill the skunk, he tortures it, and that he too comes to be tortured towards the end of the story. This is a reminder of another aspect of Stalinism, which was people being brutalised by the very regime they believed in, and worked to bring about. Tellingly, when Miksha moves to Russia he doesn’t find empathy, understanding, and community, he finds cruelty. He was exploited by the bourgeoisie, and made to kill their lambs, and exploited by the Communists, and made to kill Hanna. As with almost every story in the collection, Kiš concludes The Knife with the Rosewood Handle matter-of-factly, with a brief paragraph full of unpleasantness.
You Cannot Hide from History
[Left: Boris Nikolayevich Rozenfeld: Russian Jew; born 1908 in St. Petersburg; higher education; no party affiliation; engineer of the Mosenergo company; lived in Moscow. Arrested on January 31, 1935. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Prisoner of Byelomoro-Baltisky complex of camps in Karelia. Transported from the camp to Moscow on April 12, 1937. Sentenced to death and executed on July 13, 1937. Rehabilitated in 1990.]
As one begins each story in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich one knows how it will end – with suffering, with torture, with death – because not even fiction can hide from history. There may never have been a Boris Davidovich, but there were, all the same, thousands upon thousands of Boris Davidovich’s. With that in mind, I want to conclude with a quote from a man called Victor Serge, a real man, a real revolutionary, whose life seems as fabled and extraordinary as anyone in this book, and whose fate, by some accounts, was to be another Boris Davidovich.**
“I have outlived three generations of brave men, mistaken as they may have been, to whom I was deeply attached, and whose memory remains dear to me. And here again, I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to live a life devoted wholly to a cause which one believes to be just; a life, that is, where one refuses to separate thought from daily action. The young French and Belgian rebels of my twenties have all perished; my syndicalist comrades of Barcelona in 1917 were nearly all massacred; my comrades and friends of the Russian Revolution are probably all dead — any exceptions are only by a miracle. All were brave, all sought a principle of life nobler and juster than that of surrender to the bourgeois order; except perhaps for certain young men, disillusioned and crushed before their consciousness had crystallized, all were engaged in movements for progress. I must confess that the feeling of having so many dead men at my back, many of them my betters in energy, talent, and historical character, has often overwhelmed me; and that this feeling has been for me also the source of a certain courage, if that is the right word for it.”
* During the peak period of Stalin’s purges his secret police were estimated to have killed 1000 people per day.
** It is suggested by some that Serge was poisoned on Stalin’s orders on 17th November 1947.