While the thrust of Yuri Trifonov’s plot in The Old Man concerns Pavel Letunov’s recollections of certain events during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, there is a complementary subplot in which Pavel is at odds with his own family regarding the acquisition of a dacha. It is 1973, and Pavel,the old man of the title, is spending the summer at his dacha near Moscow.He receives a letter from an old friend, Asya, which triggers his memories of the impetuous and violent days of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed.
Through kaleidoscopic digression, Pavel reconstructs the events which led him, Asya, and her cousin Volodya to join the Bolsheviks, who eventually were to seize power and set Russia into a frenzied spin culminating in the bloody civil war. It was during the civil war that Sergei Migulin, a prominent revolutionary leader and hero, became the vortex of events embroiling Pavel and Asya, then Migulin’s wife; although a respected hero, Migulin was labeled a traitor and executed. Asya’s letter, years later, compels Pavel to search his memory to find the “truth” regarding Migulin’s trial and execution.
Pavel’s quest for the truth of these events leads him to other “truths” as well. His search for the ultimate truth becomes the leitmotif of the novel: What is truth? Is there a generic truth? Does truth exist a priori or a posteriori? Is truth based on ideology, or is it situational, depending on specific times and places?
In his youth, Pavel was infatuated with Asya and vied for her attention even though he was too young to warrant her notice as anything other than a good friend. Pavel, Asya, and Volodya were inseparable before and after the Revolution. Together they roamed the streets of Petrograd, caught up in the excitement of the Revolution: the protests, marches, proclamations, and meetings. The ideals of Pavel’s romantic revolutionary uncle Shura and of his activist mother stirred them. Those were heady times, but the memory of Migulin overshadows Pavel’s reflections.
Migulin was viewed as a counterrevolutionary and declared an outlaw and a traitor for disobeying orders. He was condemned and sentenced to death. Although the sentence was repealed, he was later executed.
In his youth, Pavel supported Migulin out of loyalty to the Revolution and to Asya. Yet as secretary of the revolutionary tribunal which condemned Migulin, Pavel admitted that Migulin had led his men to the southern front although he had been ordered not to undertake such an action, thereby admitting that said action was counterrevolutionary and treasonous in time of war. Thus, Pavel helped condemn Migulin to death. Did he feel justified in doing so because Migulin had won Asya’s love? In order to redeem himself, Pavel later wrote a favorable article restoring Migulin to his historical role as a revolutionary hero.
Fifty years later Pavel receives a letter from Asya. He visits her and asks why Migulin led the march to the southern front in 1919. Her answer reveals the “truth” as she knows it, or, more important, as it matters to her: She never loved anyone as much as she loved Migulin; all the other “facts” about him are long forgotten.
The subplot of the novel centers on the acquisition of a dacha that belonged to a woman who had no heirs at the time of her death. Pavel is irked by the way his daughter Vera and son Ruslan have become wrapped up in their quest for material gain. Their lives seem to revolve around the competition to get the summerhouse, which they think will make them happy—the answer...
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to all of their problems. Their continual hounding of Pavel to use his influence as a venerable member of the Communist Party to help them win ownership of the dacha drives him to escape deeper into his recollections of a time when one’s concerns were of consequence. Pavel’s memory serves not only as an escape valve but also as a search for the truth behind others’ and his own actions.
Oleg Kandaurov, the principal rival for ownership of the contested dacha, is a cynical and amoral pragmatist whose selfish motives define his “truth.” Eventually he succumbs to an illness and is forced out of the competition despite his manipulations. As an ironic Chekhovian denouement, the government requisitions the land that the cluster of dachas occupies in order to build a residence for government workers. All of Pavel’s family’s and Kandaurov’s efforts have come to nothing.
Although Pavel mourns the lost years and time wasted, he rejoices in a life well lived, rich in experiences, and in the fact that he has survived, in spite of his trials. A graduate student, writing his dissertation on the Migulin affair, interviews Pavel and realizes that the latter conveniently forgot about his role in condemning Migulin, which, in a sense, illustrates that truth and belief are so closely related as to be difficult to distinguish one from the other.