After his emigration from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1979 and the publication of his works by American and French publishers (beginning with Ardis’s publication of Nikolai Nikolaevich in 1980), Yuz Aleshkovsky (uhl-yihsh-KAWF-skee), born Joseph Aleshkovsky, became a leading writer among Russian émigrés. In the Soviet Union, his best-known works were the anti-Stalinist songs he wrote when he was in prison in the early 1950’s. These songs entered into Russian popular culture and are known by millions. Until the spring of 1989, however, when Novy mir published a collection of these songs under Aleshkovsky’s name, most people considered them to be anonymous folk songs. The children’s stories and novels that Aleshkovsky published while a member of the Writers’ Union in the 1960’s and 1970’s are also quite well known to the general reading public in his homeland. His adult novels, none of which were published in the Soviet Union, earned him recognition among the educated elite. These novels are noted for their comic, earthy, obscene style of narration and for fantastic, picaresque plots in which a roguish hero/narrator tells how he has used his underworld skills to survive the Stalin years between the late 1920’s and the 1950’s.
Although he was born into an educated Moscow family in which it was expected that he would pursue a higher education, young Aleshkovsky rebelled against such conventions. He left high school in Moscow at the end of World War II after throwing a brick through the school director’s window. He worked at various factory jobs during the late 1940’s before being drafted into the navy. In 1950, he rebelled against the military authorities and was sentenced to prison for insubordination (charges included stealing his commanding officer’s car). Released from prison one year early during the general amnesty of prisoners after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Aleshkovsky became a truck driver and began writing stories for children. He published his first story in 1955 and became a professional writer and member of the Writers’ Union in 1963, writing stories for children and scripts for television and films during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
At the end of the 1970’s, Aleshkovsky collaborated with a number of other Moscow writers to arrange the samizdat publication of Metropol, a collection of prose and poetry that had not been approved by the censors. Soon after the authorities attacked him for his role in samizdat, in 1979, Aleshkovsky emigrated to the United States, settling in Middletown, Connecticut, with his wife, Irina, who joined the staff of Wesleyan University.
Beginning with Nikolai Nikolaevich, which appeared in 1980, Aleshkovsky’s novels have been based on the invention of strange and surreal plots, which give his picaresque protagonists plenty of room to explore the strange and surreal social realities of Stalinist Russia. In Nikolai Nikolaevich, the narrator is a retired pickpocket who, in order to avoid a crackdown against petty theft, takes a job as a sperm donor in a biology lab. This job places him at the center of the Lysenko affair, which involved the discrediting of classical Darwinian genetics by Trofim Lysenko, with Stalin’s support, because it did not adequately emphasize the role of environmental determinism in evolution. In Maskirovka (camouflage), the narrator is an alcoholic hired by the government to lead a brigade of alcoholics who walk the streets of Moscow as “camouflage” to lull foreign observers into thinking that Soviet society is degenerate and therefore not a military threat to the West. While carrying out his duties for the government, the narrator tells about the institutes and factories the Soviet government has built secretly under the streets of Moscow, which are producing the most powerful and technologically advanced army in the world.
In Kangaroo, the narrator is again a common thief whom the State Security Committee (KGB) picks in 1949 as the subject of its last great show trial (following in the tradition of the public trials of elite members of the military and the Communist party under Stalin). Kangaroo describes the mixture of brute force and futuristic terror which the KGB brings to bear upon the narrator to make him lose touch with his simple earthy self and appear on national television with a confession of fabricated crimes against the state. The narrator’s strong, physical, sexual sense of self is ultimately victorious in this struggle. Aleshkovsky would say that the positive moral goal of Kangaroo was to encourage his Soviet readers to affirm a similar sense of self.
The longest and most politically complex of Aleshkovsky’s novels is The Hand (the Russian title, Ruka, can also be translated as “hired killer”). Its hero is a KGB agent who as a child watched his family being killed by Soviet secret police for resisting the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930’s. Having survived the Stalin era by himself becoming a member of the KGB and a personal bodyguard to Stalin, the narrator uses his position to avenge himself upon the twelve men who had killed his family when he was a child. The Hand is composed primarily of the dialogue between the main character and his last victim among the twelve men, to whom he tells his life story while preparing to torture and kill him. Ending with the narrator’s suicide, The Hand poses a complex moral-political problem: Those who have survived the Stalinist system may be implicated in it, so to repudiate it may entail some kind of self-negation.
Set in post-Gorbachev Moscow, A Ring in a Case explores the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of Russia after perestroika. Helium Revolverovich Serious begins to doubt his scientific atheism when he becomes plagued by demons. His meditations reflect the philosophical questions posed throughout Russian literature and illuminate the collapse of Russian society.
Although the satire Aleshkovsky directs against the Soviet Stalinist system is, as in The Hand, often violent, his other books are charged with a loving appreciation for the simple pleasures of life: food, erotic sexuality, and the witty, playful dialogue his narrators share with their interlocutors. The erotic principle Aleshkovsky finds embodied in these simple pleasures is for him an absolute metaphysical principle of goodness. In this respect, his fictive heroes follow in the tradition of figures such as Fyodor Dostoevski’s Dmitri Karamazov. The same Dostoevskian influence can be seen in Aleshkovsky’s plots, fantastic adventure-filled plots that represent the struggle between good and evil in twentieth century reality.
Brown, Edward J. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. Rev. and enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Treats Aleshkovsky briefly at the end of the book.
Efimov, Nina. Review of A Ring in a Case, by Yuz Aleshkovsky. World Literature Today 69, no. 4 (Autumn, 1995): 819. A positive review that calls Aleshkovsky’s writing “genuine and provocative.”
Matich, Olga, and Michael Heim, eds. The Third Wave: Russian Literature in Emigration. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984. Includes some of the best material on Aleshkovsky, including interpretations and interviews.
Meyer, Priscilla. “Skaz in the Work of Juz Aleshkovskij.” Slavic and East European Journal 28 (Winter, 1984): 455-461. Meyer writes about Aleshkovsky’s narrative style.
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