Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881
Spokoinoi nochi is a highly fragmented, phantasmagoric memoir-novel about Andrei Sinyavsky’s life as a Soviet intellectual and secret dissident writer (under the name Abram Tertz), his betrayal, trial, and years in a labor camp. Written after his emigration to France, it is an attempt to understand his life and to trace the development of his worldview as man and artist. Reared an orthodox Communist, Sinyavsky evolved into a sophisticated, paradoxical artist and thinker who came to believe that “reality” is phantasmagoric and understandable only in such terms. Spokoinoi nochi uses the phantasmagoric aesthetic to probe the harrowing story of Sinyavsky’s life as Abram Tertz. Although this technique is aesthetically effective, it yields a chaotic, impressionistic narrative that is fully accessible only if the reader is already familiar with the historical context and the basic outlines of Sinyavsky’s life.
The last years before the death of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin in 1953 were a nightmare of paranoiac despotism. Millions were in labor camps. The arts were reduced to primitive propaganda under the rubric “Socialist Realism.” Andrei Sinyavsky was a young scholar specializing in twentieth century Russian literature at the prestigious Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. Like many of his friends, he was deeply disturbed by the official revelation in 1956 of the crimes of Stalin, which resonated with certain of his own unpleasant experiences. The fear of a possible return of Stalinism led the young critic, under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, to write two works which were smuggled to the West, where they were published to great acclaim. One of these, the essay Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (1959; On Socialist Realism, 1960), attacked the state-imposed literary doctrine and argued for a freer, speculative, “phantasmagoric” fiction. The essay’s principles were exemplified in a short novel, Sud idyot (1959; The Trial Begins, 1960), which painted a surreal picture of Soviet life in the last months of Stalin’s life. Sinyavsky continued his double life until 1965, when he was betrayed to the KGB, receiving the maximum sentence of seven years at hard labor for “anti-Soviet propaganda.” Released in 1971, he and his wife were permitted to emigrate two years later.
The ironically titled Spokoinoi nochi (the Russian for wishing someone a sound night’s sleep—usually rendered in English as “good night” but more precisely rendered as “[have] a good night”) is loosely structured around five widely separated “nights,” both real and metaphorical, which stand as nightmarish nuclei in the author’s life. Each “night” is a chapter. The first, “Turncoat,” recounts his arrest. Whisked to the KGB’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, he meets his interrogator, Lieutenant Colonel Pakhomov, who will be almost his sole human contact for several months. The trial itself is a travesty in which the audience applauds his conviction and which the author compares to an imperial Roman gladiatorial fest. Here, as throughout the narrative, the biographical facts serve as points of departure for meditations often only remotely and metaphorically related to actual events. In addition to these “digressions,” Sinyavsky incorporates grotesque set pieces, fictional vignettes, which further illuminate the absurdity of events.
Soviet camps allow brief annual conjugal visits in special quarters set aside within the camp. The second “night” centers on a visit by Sinyavsky’s wife, Maria. Much of the night in the bugged room is taken up with an exchange of written (and promptly destroyed) notes speculating how the narrator came to be detected. The prisoner relives in memory his secret life: the first word that his work had appeared in the West; the speculation about the identity of “Abram Tertz”; the sense of a net tightening around him.
The third “night” revolves around Sinyavsky’s father and his own childhood. A former member of the privileged classes, Sinyavsky’s father was a non-Bolshevik radical who ardently embraced the Revolution only to find himself a suspect outsider. In the darkest night of Stalinism in 1951, he is arrested for supposed espionage for the Americans during famine relief work thirty years earlier. Released from interrogation before his exile, he takes a last walk with Andrei and talks, quite rationally, of the tiny radio transmitter implanted in his brain.
March 5, 1953, the date of Stalin’s death, is the fourth “night” of Spokoinoi nochi, and the dictator’s ghost is the focal point of a wide-ranging conceptual montage. Sinyavsky spends much of the day reading an old account of Russia’s Time of Troubles, a bloody interregnum during the seventeenth century. Seizing upon parallels between present and past, Sinyavsky weaves a strange verbal tapestry incorporating ghostly images of Stalin.
Sinyavsky’s final nightmare, “In the Belly of the Whale,” is a portrait of two friends who played crucial roles in his life. The first, Seryozha, a friend from Sinyavsky’s childhood until his arrest, betrays him (and others) to the KGB. The second is Helene, the French naval attache’s daughter, who meets Sinyavsky while the two were fellow students at Moscow University in 1947 and introduces him to Western culture. Learning of the friendship, the KGB unsuccessfully pressures Sinyavsky to entrap her. It is Helene who later serves as the courier who takes the works of “Abram Tertz” to the West. In their opposing ways, Seryozha and Helene lead to the creation of Abram Tertz and the events chronicled in Spokoinoi nochi.
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