Russian Novelist Erofeyev Stalin Is 'Embedded In Our Genes'

Victor Erofeyev is one of Russia's most prominent dissident novelists, with his subversive work dating well back into the Soviet era. He told SPIEGEL that as Russia drifts away from democracy, the worst thing the West can do is isolate it.


SPIEGEL: Victor Vladimirovich, you've written quite a crazy book about your homeland. Can only crazy things be written about Russia?

Erofeyev: You have to write different kinds of books to explain Russia. Crazy books don't hurt.

SPIEGEL: The genre alone that you have selected is unusual. It's a mixture of history and science fiction.

Erofeyev: Oh, thank you, that's the greatest possible compliment that you could have given me. Every writer dreams of creating a new genre. Writing is like mining -- just about everyone digs at the same spot, wants to write classic novels and eventually shouts: The novel is dead! But there are other places where you can dig, and I've discovered a new one.

SPIEGEL: You've created a wild scenario in your novel: The dead come back to life, seize power and see themselves as the saviors of Russia and the entire world. Does this metaphor mean that Russia is haunted by its past?

Erofeyev: My book is a novel about the human soul and nature. It could be said that every individual is somehow ruled by the dead, who block their path to the future. I've applied this realization to the entire country.

SPIEGEL: And why have you done that?

Erofeyev: To show that Russia is a land of the dead. After the Communist revolution in 1917, there were hardly any proper cemeteries. During the Civil War, many corpses rotted in the fields -- and in the villages there were sometimes no men left to bury the dead. There were mass shootings and mass graves. People were killed because someone wanted their position, their apartment or their wife. Indeed, in Russia all of the dead bear a grudge. The dead live in discord among us.

SPIEGEL: Your scenario functions as a textbook example of psychoanalysis: If you run away from your past, it will eventually catch up with you -- with dire consequences.

Erofeyev: Yes. To understand the past, you need the ability to analyze and reflect. This ability is not very widespread in Russia. This also has to do with our intelligentsia. Many of them believe in Rousseau and his natural man. Ivan Turgenev summed it up nicely in his 19th-century novel "Fathers and Sons," in which he has his hero Yevgeny Bazarov say: "Man is good, only the circumstances are bad." In Russia we always only think about the circumstances and never about the people themselves. We wanted to exchange the czar for socialism, and then socialism for capitalism. Now we want to exchange Putinism for something more decent.

SPIEGEL: That sounds like the country is rushing ahead and spinning its wheels at the same time.

Erofeyev: That's how it is.

SPIEGEL: Why do you live in Russia? During your childhood, you lived in France for four years, and your work is very successful abroad.

Erofeyev: Russia's problems are a blessing for a writer. If life were better here, I would lose the inspiration for my works. If I weren't a writer, I would rather live in Berlin or Paris. Writers are like old radios in the dachas of grandfathers and babushkas. You turn the dial and at first just hear static, followed by voices far off in the distance. It's the writer's job to capture the radio waves. When you don't listen attentively to the voice inside you, and to the world around you, the next morning you're embarrassed by what you've written. You notice that you've just made it all up. But if you listen carefully, you'll find your subject. Mine is death.

SPIEGEL: You've written a satirical parable based on the resurrection of the dead. You don't seem to take this subject all that seriously.

Erofeyev: Humor is an expression of desperation. The question of what we should make of our lives -- given the existence of death -- is extremely serious. The fact of the matter is that we're now more familiar with our cell phones than the meaning of life. The West has degenerated into an agnostic bog that every metaphysical thought sinks into. It's the opposite in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone immersed themselves in metaphysics. At funerals people here used to bid an eternal farewell to the departed. But today they say: "See you soon, Piotr." Neither Western agnosticism nor the new Russian mysticism suits me.

SPIEGEL: What would suit you?

Erofeyev: We should recognize that we have a conflicting relationship with the dead. On the one hand, the dead are a threat because they embody what awaits us: the end. On the other hand, they are our past -- our forefathers -- and they stand for tradition.

SPIEGEL: The dead in your book seize power, and some of them resort to Stalinist methods. Stalin and his rule come up often in your work. Why is that?

Erofeyev: Stalin has embedded himself in our genes. He tries again and again to rise from the dead. Please don't forget that the best were killed after the October Revolution in 1917: the best aristocrats, the best of the bourgeoisie, the best officers, the best farmers -- even the best workers. We, including myself, are merely the best remnants of the inferior leftovers. A nation with these genes is susceptible to Stalin. Stalin has also left his mark on my genes.

SPIEGEL: Your father knew Stalin well -- he was his French interpreter. The first-person narrator in your novel has a past that is similar to yours, and you make fun of him and his family's fixation with Stalin.

Erofeyev: Yes, there is a direct path between my experiences and the book. Just imagine, when I was a child, my father showed me Stalin's embalmed body. It was horrible. My father took me along to the mausoleum, one and a half or two years after Stalin's death. I must have been about seven years old. At the time, my father was the assistant to Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and had received tickets to the mausoleum as gifts, much the way people get theater tickets as gifts. The two of them lay there, Lenin and Stalin, as if they were in a double bed. At the time, I was overwhelmed by the fear of death. Lenin and Stalin became the most important corpses of my life. Shortly thereafter, in 1955, we moved to Paris, where my father became the Soviet cultural attaché. My father suggested that we visit Napoleon's tomb under the dome of Les Invalides, but I successfully resisted.

SPIEGEL: During the final years of his life, Stalin reportedly had a friendly relationship with your father. Is that a burden for you?

Erofeyev: As a writer, I find it extremely interesting. Writers often create characters to convey a notion to their readers. Thanks to my father, I understood how multifaceted a single life can be. You have to understand people based on their contradictions. My father worked in the Kremlin, he had no objections to Stalin, yet he was a decent man.

SPIEGEL: Can you explain what Stalin, one of the greatest butchers in the history of mankind, liked about your father?

Erofeyev: He saw in him the new Soviet man: handsome, well mannered, modest and restrained.

SPIEGEL: You opposed the Soviet regime at an early stage. What led to this?

Erofeyev: The first years of my life were the final years of Stalin's life. I had a happy childhood -- my grandmother was delighted with my appetite when I ate an entire can of black caviar for breakfast. We lived terribly well in the early 1950s in Moscow. For me, Stalinism was all about my father's fabulous official cars. After this paradise, we moved to Paris, where my father soon met many artists. Picasso and Chagall used to sit at our table. It wasn't clear whether the Stalin childhood or the France childhood was more wonderful. When I returned to Moscow at the age of 12, I realized that everything was a disaster here. In the heart of Moscow, people lived in basements with rats and no heating. I saw the deception.

SPIEGEL: In 1979, you printed oppositional articles in the literary almanac Metropol, which you initiated. As punishment for his son's behavior, your father was recalled from his position as the Soviet ambassador in Vienna and banished to a backroom of the Foreign Ministry. Did he resent you for this?

Erofeyev: My father never said a word about it. He died two years ago, at the age of 90, and in his last interview he said: "Victor was ahead of his time." Oh, my parents dug their own grave when they gave me an opportunity to live in Paris and read the rebellious works of de Sade, Heidegger and Jaspers. That put an end to any thoughts of me becoming a Soviet man.

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danm 09/13/2013
I know many Russians who are wonderful people. But there is no way a culture can endure centuries of trauma as the Russians have endured and not have it leave a mark. But I see no need to spend so much time dwelling on the past. It is the artistic equivalent of staring at your navel and thinking deep thoughts. Live in the moment. Look forward. Reach for the hope of a better future and don't waste your time on anything else.
Jim in MD 09/13/2013
2. Wise Man
Erofeyev is a wise man, but he gives his compatriots too little credit. Many of the regional governors and mayors were changing Russia for the better before Putin tightened control. It happened in 2003 with the rise of oil and gas prices. Putin simply cut the bud before it could blossom. If oil and gas prices head down again, then a modicum of dissent and self-regulation may return to Russian life.
michael_medley 09/15/2013
3. optional
Within the oldest generation of Russians they have experienced two successful revolutions, a failed third, a great war with roots in the Hapsburg dynasty, a war of decimation with Hitler's fascism, The Cold War and assorted economic turmoils and purges.nIs it any wonder they tend to err on the side on caution and stay out of Continental affairs?
jennynumbertwenty 05/13/2014
4. optional
Interesting read, but a couple of contradictions. First Russia is not a part of Europe and Erofeyev states that Germans think just because Russians don't look Asian, and they look like them, that they're European. Then at the end, Moscow is the Lesbian capital of Europe? So Russia is European? In addition, I find it amusing how Erofeyev seems to think homosexuality is a choice. Right, I chose to be a lesbian because I hate men. Scoff.
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