(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Trial Begins is a tale of Soviet life in the last few months before the death of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin. The novella’s historical backdrop is the paranoid dictator’s last purge, the “doctors’ plot,” of an alleged cabal of physicians (mostly Jewish) who planned to assassinate high Party officials. The plot, hatched by Stalin’s security services and exposed as fraudulent after his death, was in fact a campaign against Soviet Jews, euphemistically labeled “rootless cosmopolitans.”

As the novella opens, the writer-narrator sits in his room reflecting upon the recent visit of two plainclothesmen who searched his room. They presage the supernatural visitation of the Master (Stalin), a huge phantasmagoric figure who looms over the Moscow dawn and points out to the narrator the figure of his “beloved and faithful servant,” Prosecutor Vladimir Petrovich Globov: “Follow him,...defend him with your life. Exalt him!” The story that follows is the narrator’s unsuccessful attempt to celebrate Globov.

Globov is preparing his case against Dr. Rabinovich, an abortionist. Meanwhile, Globov’s wife, Marina, is meeting her suitor, Yury Karlinsky. Condemned to spend the day alone, Globov talks with his son by an earlier marriage, Seryozha, who has attracted undesirable attention at school with questions about “just” and “unjust” wars and other moral issues. Globov brushes aside the boy’s concerns, saying “The aim sanctifies the means, it justifies every sort of sacrifice.”

A few days later, a nude Marina does her morning exercises before the mirror and narcissistically admires her beauty, which is unspoiled by childbearing. That evening at her birthday party, a guest offers a toast to Marina’s future daughter, a thought that elates Globov. The party ends badly when Globov, incensed by Karlinsky’s intimacy with Marina as they dance, “accidentally” knocks over the record player. The couple has a bitter fight, in which Marina gloatingly tells Globov that she has just had an abortion.

Embittered by his wife and troubled by his son’s dangerous unorthodoxy,...

(The entire section is 877 words.)