The story is a kaleidoscopic journey through the mind of Pavel, whose memory shuttles back and forth not unlike Marcel Proust’s in A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), with the senses evoking a series of emotions which trigger memories of seemingly forgotten events. In recapturing an ideological and fervent past, Pavel reveals a drab present with decaying morals.
For all of its faults, the older generation—the generation of the Migulins and Shuras—was vibrant, and people were busy being alive and trying to stay alive in order to create a new and better society. The new generation, however, is materialistic and morally corrupt, as portrayed by Pavel’s children, who agonize over such mundane decisions as securing a summerhouse, and by Kandaurov, whose proclivity for the amoral and cynical reminds one of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Svidrigailov in Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886). There is little left of ideology, the driving force in the early days of the Soviet Union. Instead, complacency and banal materialism set in. The hunger for ideals has been satisfied by burying it in the weighty folds of deliberate forgetfulness. It is precisely for this reason that Pavel sets out on his quest for truth, his Holy Grail: By concentrating on a particular historical incident—the Migulin affair—he slowly exposes Soviet history to scrutiny. The microcosm of Pavel’s mind is a reflection of the Soviet society at large, for to understand the present one must dig up the past, the ensuing “dirt” notwithstanding. Thus, the Soviet Union must clean its Augean stables if it wants to refresh and reinvigorate its “true” ideology and moral premises.