Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924
Yuri Valentinovich Trifonov (tri-FAWN-awf) was one of the Soviet Union’s leading prose writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was born in Moscow on August 28, 1925, the son of Valentin Trifonov, a longtime revolutionary activist. The elder Trifonov, who had joined the Bolshevik Party in 1904, had suffered imprisonment and exile under the czarist regime. By the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Valentin Trifonov was a member of the revolutionary council in Petrograd, and during the civil war of 1918-1921, he helped to organize units of the Red Army. His prominent position allowed him to obtain an apartment in “the house on the embankment,” a large gray structure in Moscow for high government officials and, later, the setting for Trifonov’s novel of that name. In 1937, during the purges ordered by Joseph Stalin, Trifonov’s father was arrested, and the following year he was executed. An important influence on Trifonov’s career was the effort to come to terms both with the revolutionary activities of his father and with his father’s disappearance while Trifonov was still very young.
In 1938 Trifonov’s mother was also arrested; until her release in 1946, he and his sister were raised by his grandmother. At the beginning of World War II, he was briefly evacuated to Central Asia, but then he returned to Moscow, where he worked at an airplane factory. In 1944 Trifonov, who had written both poetry and prose throughout his youth, entered the Gorky Literary Institute—Russia’s leading writers’ school. There he concentrated on prose, publishing his first stories, which were based on travels to Armenia and to the Kuban region, in 1947. He graduated from the institute in 1949; his thesis was the novel Students, which deals with academic life during the postwar years. The book was awarded a Stalin Prize and brought Trifonov early renown.
There was then a thirteen-year hiatus until the appearance of his next novel, Thirst Acquenched, which deals with the construction of an irrigation canal in Turkmenistan. His travels to the area resulted as well in the volume of stories Pod solntsem (under the sun). During the 1960’s Trifonov also wrote numerous stories and sketches on sports, which formed the basis for several collections.
The first signs of Trifonov’s later interests can be found in the factually based narrative Otblesk kostra (the fire’s gleam), an account of Valentin Trifonov’s role in the revolution and its aftermath. Although inspired by actual documents and memoirs, the book is less a conventional biography than an attempt on the part of the narrator to understand several key moments in his father’s life. Even when Trifonov is simply describing actual events, he allows himself to manipulate the material to create an artistically more satisfying work; hence, while he resisted the efforts to assign this story of his father to any one genre, many critics persist in calling it a novel. Trifonov’s interest in the biography of revolutionaries can also be seen in The Impatient Ones, a portrayal of Andrey Zhelyabov, who, as a member of the People’s Will Party, conspired to assassinate Alexander II in 1881.
Trifonov gained renewed fame not so much through his historically based writings as through a series of stories and novellas from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, in which he depicted a spiritual malaise within the urban middle and upper classes that had grown up in the shadow of Stalinism. Particularly important in this regard is his “Moscow cycle,” which originally consisted of the novellas The Exchange, Taking Stock, and The Long Goodbye, but which most would extend to include the majority of his subsequent novels as well. While the three novellas are not overtly political, they offer an implicit critique of Soviet society by showing an entire generation of people who no longer believe, or are even interested, in revolutionary ideals. Their lives are totally occupied with efforts to achieve success, but they have discovered that neither acclaim from their peers nor material possessions provides satisfaction. In his later novels Trifonov combined his portrayals of contemporary society with investigations into the events that formed his characters. By the end of the 1970’s, Trifonov was attaining new heights with each work; thus his sudden death at age fifty-five, from a heart attack following a routine kidney operation, came as a great shock to all who follow Russian literature.
Trifonov’s writing did not so much broaden as deepen. During the final decade of his life, he again and again returned to situations that he had treated earlier, exploring similar situations from different angles and trying to gain a deeper understanding of his characters, of the eras that he had lived through, and ultimately of both his father and of himself. Trifonov served as a spokesman for his generation. During the time that Leonid Brezhnev governed the Soviet Union, when most writers were too timid to examine the Stalinist legacy, Trifonov pushed back the limits of what was permissible within Soviet literature. In addition to treating once-forbidden topics, his works are notable most of all for their honesty: His villains are usually deserving of some sympathy, and his protagonists elicit more pity than praise. Those whose outlook was formed during the Revolution find themselves ill-equipped for life afterward, while their descendants, those of Trifonov’s age, have compromised all too often. Perhaps his most lasting achievement, then, was to chronicle the moral void sensed by many of his contemporaries, who no longer believed in the exemplars of the past and could find no heroes in the present.
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