How It All Began

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This beautifully evocative novel has an extraordinary genesis. Nikolai Bukharin was a leading Bolshevik with close ties to Vladimir Lenin; he fell into disfavor with Joseph Stalin and, after a notorious show trial, was executed in 1938. How It All Began was written along with three other manuscripts in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison on odd scraps of paper and miraculously saved from oblivion. Bukharin wrote the following plea to Stalin from prison in 1937: “I wrote [the prison manuscripts] mostly at night, literally wrenching them from my heart. I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear. . . . Don’t let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. Don’t let it be lost! . . . Have pity! Not on me, on the work!”

Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, Bukharin was officially “rehabilitated” in 1988; in 1992, with the cooperation of Anna Larina, Bukharin’s widow, the Princeton University historian Stephen F. Cohen procured photocopies of Bukharin’s four prison manuscripts from the top-secret presidential archive. This superbly readable translation by George Shriver is one of the results of Cohen’s efforts.

Bukharin provides no precise dates in his third-person narrative, but it clearly takes him from early childhood through about his fifteenth year, when it ends abruptly. Several themes emerge vividly: Bukharin’s close relationship with his family; his lifelong passion for natural history, art, and literature (his favorite novel was Huckleberry Finn); his early contempt for the Church; his deep sympathy for the poor; and the awful depression and spiritual desolation he experienced at the deaths of his younger brother Andryusha and his brilliant but frail young friend Tosya (Anton Antonovich Slavyansky).

Kolya Petrov was born in the Zamoskvorechye district of Moscow in an “Academy” belonging to the Aleksandro-Mariinsky Zamoskvorechye Merchants Association. This was a quiet neighborhood where the churches were filled with merchants and self-important government officials (chinovniks) accompanied by their wives. Kolya’s father, Ivan Antonovich (Vanya) Petrov, was a raznochinets—a member of the intelligentsia but not of noble birth—who taught mathematics at the Academy. His mother, Lyubov Ivanovna, was descended from Polish gentry on her mother’s side and also taught at the Academy.

Kolya, the oldest of three brothers, was a precocious child who at the age of four could read, draw, and recite poetry from memory. The family were close and merry and spent their summers in a rented peasant hut in the country, an idyllic setting for Kolya to pursue his obsession with capturing everything that crawled or flew. Their lives changed drastically when Kolya’s father lost his job after a petty dispute with his boss and neighbor, the irascible Mikhail Vasilyevich Yablochkin, husband of Kolya’s mother’s sister, and had to relocate to Byeltsy, Bessarabia (now Moldavia), as a tax assessor. Although life around Byeltsy was exciting for Kolya because of its wealth of animal life to investigate, the chinovniks and petty officials were viciously anti-Semitic, a prejudice that Kolya’s generous father did not share; after a short tenure, he was fired for nothing more than his fair-mindedness.

With the loss of the tax assessor’s position, the Petrovs began a difficult period of job searching and living with Ivan Antonovich’s brothers, two of whom were doctors and the third an accountant. Living in the little village of Tesovo with his Uncle Misha, Kolya got to know the misery in his uncle’s hospital. At the same time, he was shocked by the poverty of the peasants, one of whom sneered at him one day, “Agh, you fancy lords! Prob’ly eat meat every day.” Kolya became very close to the blacksmith Stepan and his young son, Vasya, and first encountered real peasant squalor in their miserable hut, making him aware of the great gulf between the rich and the poor. This new social consciousness was strengthened by the grim conditions he and his family experienced when forced to live in the dingy apartment of his accountant uncle.

When his period of living with his Uncle Misha ended and the family had to lodge elsewhere, Kolya traveled with his father through small villages, where they came upon beggars and pilgrims of all sorts: “They moved along with slow, measured steps, lost in their thoughts, sunk in their cares and worries. There is something elemental in those monotonous movements, that steady step....

(The entire section is 1878 words.)