August was a very successful reading month for me in terms of Women in Translation books, although I didn’t get to all the books I had planned to read. However, #WIT books are for life, not just for August, and so I went on to pick up one of the volumes for which I ran out of time – and it turned out to be a very intriguing read indeed!

The book in question is “Moscow in the 1934s” by Natalia Gromova (translated by Christopher Culver and published by Glagoslav Publications in 2016). From the start it’s an interesting book which puts the reader to the test with its subtitle “A Novel from the Archives”; just what genre does this book fall into? Gromova has worked in libraries, as an editor on The Soviet Encyclopedia, at the Marina Tsvetaeva Museum, and spent many years exploring Russian archives and private collections. This has led to her authoring a number of historical and biographical studies, although I’m not sure if any of these are available in English. The suspicion must therefore be that this is a book drawing on her researches, her contacts and her experiences of life and work in and out of the Soviet Union; and this certainly makes for a fascinating book.

Life rolls on like a ball, lifting up its heroes on high and then dropping them to the bottom. This ball keeps rolling even after the person passes away, it continues to act on his fate in the same was when he was among us. How many times have I had to witness the strange reflections or distortions of a person’s life in their posthumous existence!

“Moscow….” sets out to explore the literary scene of the time, and certainly the 1930s was a complex decade of change, with many falling foul of Stalin’s purges. Writers and artists were particularly vulnerable, struggling to balance the demands of their own muses and the authorities’ desire for art for the masses; not an easy time to live through. Many names well known in the English-speaking world flit through the book’s pages – Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva et all – but Gromova’s main focus is on those less well-known to non-Russian readers (well, at least to me…) and these are intriguing names, such as Olga Bessarabova, Maria Belkina and Lydia Libedinskaya. Then there is Lugovksy and his circle, plus the Andreyevs. And what is perhaps most fascinating is that Gromova was able to make contact with the survivors from that time, talk about their archives and private collections, and recreate some of the story of the past.

Because as you realise as you read through her narrative, much of the past was hidden during Soviet times and the reality of history and previous events was often not known by the descendents (the story of Gromova’s own grandfather springs to mind, concealed for a large part of her life). Some survived the Purges and following World War; some did not; and the truth was often buried. So much of Gromova’s narrative is spent teasing out facts and histories, piecing together events from old letters and diaries. Bulgakov, Elena Bulgakova and even Mayakovsky make more or less fleeting appearances, but the focus is not directly upon them.

The more I read, the more I became convinced that this is a hybrid work, pulling together what can be known of the histories of the various protagonists, but also exploring the experience of the archivist. One of the most fascinating and valuable parts of the book is the insight it gives as to the complexity of the archivist or researcher: the constant sifting of material, much of which reveals nothing; the serendipity involved when a chance encounter brings an important result; and the sheer randomness of research. Often it seems as much about knowing what to look for as it is about knowing where to look. In some ways, the book reminded me of the works of Maria Stepanova and Sarah LeFanu which I’ve read and reviewed recently; the journey the author takes in their explorations is just as interesting as the results they achieve, although for a researcher in the Soviet Union things were infinitely more complicated.

“Moscow…” also shares with Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory” a certain complexity in its structure, in that it is anything but a linear narrative. I suspect that might be deliberate, as if to mimic the process of research where your trails can take you in all different directions at once. This did mean I struggled occasionally to keep my footing with the book and it does require a little work from the reader. Where I thought the book could have helped would have been with a dramatis personae of some kind for the non-Russian reader; as many of these figures are not familiar to me, I did find it a little difficult to keep track at times. Also, some kind of potted history of the main characters would also have helped – an example being Maria Belkina, one of the main protagonists and apparently author of an important book “The Intersection of Fates”. I could find nothing about her online, and only brief mention of the Russian version of the book on Amazon USA. As Gromova’s narrative is structured in a fragmentary way, some background to the lives of her characters would have helped.

As Lisa from ANZLitLovers says in her review (linked below), it’s best to just go with the flow and read the book, not worrying too much about connections and who or what is what, because there is much here which is fascinating. For example, I knew, of course, from knowing about Akhmatova, that she was evacuated to Tashkent for safety during the Second World War, but hadn’t realised there was a whole colony of writers and artists out there. Tashkent is a recurring motif in the book and there are references to Gromova’s Tashkent book (which I assume is the “Wanderers of War” mentioned on the back of this one) – that would be a fascinating title to be translated into English!

The book ends with an autobiographical piece from Gromova and then a photographic section which contains a poignant collection of snaps of the various participants in the story (presumably from Gromova’s collection). This provides a moving coda to what is an interesting and often very evocative book, albeit one which does present a few difficulties for the non-Russian reader. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating work and if you want to explore the complexities of living in 1930s Soviet Moscow this book will certainly open your eyes!

Review copy kind provided by the publishers, for which many thanks

You can read Lisa’s review here

Stu has also reviewed the book here