The short life of Yury Tynyanov (1896-1943) spanned some of the most traumatic upheavals of the twentieth century: world wars, revolutions, the Russian Civil War, the dark years of military communism, the waves of Stalinist purges, and the Great Terror. He always claimed that this gave him a keener understanding of history in the making: if there had been no revolution, he never would have understood literature. Like many Russian intellectuals, he welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution and worked tirelessly to implement its ideals, convinced that social revolution should necessitate profound transformation of the entire culture and the arts.
From 1918 to 1923 he made his name as an influential Russian literary theoretician and formalist critic at the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOYAZ) and later as a leading light of its successor, the Russian formal school, in which he worked prolifically until the late 1920s, when it became clear that it was running dangerously contrary to Marxist ideology. Starting in 1925 he proved to be an unignorable authorial voice in Soviet creative writing too, with a singular focus on the first few decades of the nineteenth century and Pushkin’s circle in particular.
The publication of his first novel, Küchlya, about Pushkin’s lycée friend, Decembrist poet and rebel Wilhelm Küchelbecker, was an unexpected roaring success with both readers and critics. It established Tynyanov as the founding father of the Soviet historical novel—an ironical definition considering his middle-class origins and that he was a product of the prerevolutionary system of education, brought up on the literary innovation of the Russian Silver Age and therefore a somewhat suspect “fellow traveler” for the ruling proletariat.
Less than two years later, in March 1927, his second novel, his most experimental and complex one, about the Russian playwright and diplomat Alexander Griboedov, started to come out in installments in the literary journal Zvezda. Its tonality was much darker: death, as in Greek tragedy, was announced in the very title of the novel; the epigraph read like an epitaph for the hero; and in the prologue the narrator for a brief moment revealed himself as the author of the book and drew unambiguous comparisons between Griboedov’s 1820s and his own 1920s, lamenting the tragedy of those who have outlived their age.
A hard death befell the men of the twenties, because the age had died before them.
In the thirties, they had a keen sense of when their time was up. Like dogs, they chose the most comfortable corner to die in. And before they died, they demanded neither love nor friendship. …
How terrible was the fate of the transformed ones, for those of the twenties whose blood had been transfused!
They felt they were the objects of an experiment, carried out by an alien hand whose fingers would not falter.
One of the critics went as far as to say that the novel “was not historical but hysterical”; another said that it completely lacked “any historical distance from the past.” The crux of the matter was that Tynyanov expressed something that many Russian intellectuals had been feeling: they were at a historical watershed in the mid-1920s in the Soviet Union similar to the one a century earlier in Russia—after the Decembrist uprising of 1825 when the era of Tsar Alexander I had ended, giving way to that of Nicholas. Or yet another century back—1725, when Peter the Great died, after his prodigious building of a Russian empire, its institutions, fleet, army, and the Palmyra of the North—the capital city, St. Petersburg—to be succeeded by his second wife, Catherine I. Those were the watersheds between the time of radical change, revolution, and of stultifying reaction. The novel is also an indictment of politically engaged art, which by writing to order inevitably leads to “poets peddling waste instead of fragrance.” It depicts the time of eternal returns, of decay, when the champagne that was Pushkin’s poetry turns into vinegar, fragrance into stench, and the protagonist of the novel, the author of arguably the greatest Russian comedy, into unidentifiable mutilated remains discarded onto the midden tip.
Alexander Griboedov, a homo unius libri of Russian literature, was the author of a single comic masterpiece unpublished in his lifetime. This satirical play in verse Woe from Wit has proved its longevity as a literary best-seller and a titan of the Russian stage; it is forever relevant for Russian society (and possibly any other) in its treatment of the themes of service versus servitude, meritocracy versus nepotism, truth versus the nineteenth-century equivalent of fake news (gossip, hearsay), tradition versus innovation, the progressive man versus the inert masses, parochialism versus universalism—the list is endless. All these themes are reflected in the novel since, by Griboedov’s own admission, he endowed the play’s protagonist, Chatsky, with a number of autobiographical traits.
The novel also portrays a writer ambivalent about his literary fame and anxious to overcome the curse of a “one-book wonder” by producing another work, and horrified to experience an inexplicably incapacitating and benumbing writer’s block. It is also a book about literary rivalry—Griboedov’s tragedy The Georgian Night, which he never completed, was his bid to rival the success of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. Tynyanov provides the reader with tantalizing glimpses of Pushkin through the rather apprehensive and mistrustful eyes of Griboedov, and the two main literary celebrities of the day are portrayed as very different intellectuals sharing a similar sense of the world that had been shattered by the failure of the Decembrist uprising and the harsh reprisals against the rebels, many of whom were their friends. At the height of his powers, Griboedov is plagued with bitterness and indecision and finds himself in a deep existential crisis, unable to achieve creative inspiration or fully realize himself professionally.
It is a novel of deception and betrayal: he is conspired against by his enemies in an elaborate Russo-British diplomatic intrigue and betrayed by his superiors at the College of Foreign Affairs, who are determined to use his remarkable talents as a diplomat to achieve their goals. They sent him as the Russian ambassador to Persia, where in 1829 he was torn apart by a howling jihadist mob. It is a tragic masterpiece, a novel of powerlessness: Vazir-Mukhtar (Persian for Minister Plenipotentiary) turns out to be a doomed man trapped by vicious political forces, and destroyed by them. This is also a novel about honor: Griboedov could have acted differently; he could have avoided death by leaving Tehran a day earlier. The ultimate mystery is articulated in the epilogue by Pushkin, who meets the oxcart carrying the remains of Griboedov in a simple coffin (he first mistakes it for a crate of fruit):
Suddenly he remembered Griboedov.
Griboedov touched him with his refined hand and said:
“I know the whole thing. You don’t know these people. As soon as the shah dies, the knives will be out.” …
He had known but still he had slipped up. But if he had known … why …
Why had he gone there?
… An extraordinary man …
Perhaps a Descartes who hadn’t written a thing? Or a Napoleon without a single soldier?
Any reader can provide his own answer to this question. And any reader who thinks it is going to be a classical novel of the Russian Golden Age will be disappointed. But you don’t have to be interested in Russian formalism, nineteenth-century Russian history, or Middle Eastern affairs in order to enjoy it. Anyone interested in tragedy will be gripped by this book. Capacious, complex, detailed, intelligent, fiercely erudite, and psychologically nuanced, the novel is a riddle, a joy, and a gem, insightful and frighteningly prophetic—one of the most striking Russian novels of the twentieth century. It remains eerily topical and relevant to the present day—as the two worlds, Christian and Muslim, often clash and both sides demonstrate suspicion and ignorance of each other, while superpowers wage trade wars of domination and greed at considerable human cost.