The Trial Begins

(This review was originally written for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

4 stars

This 126-paged novel (billed as a true story) was published in 1959 with the essay “On Socialist Realism.” They were written by Andréy Sinyavskiy (who died in February of ’97) under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. In 1965 he was discovered to be the author of these and other works challenging the regime, and was arrested along with fellow writer Yuliy Daniel. Sinyavskiy got seven years in a forced-labour camp, getting off much worse than a dissident like the late great Iósif Bródskiy, who “only” got shipped away to a mental hospital.

This novel takes place in the last year of Stálin’s life, focusing on the Doctors’ Plot, Stálin’s last planned purge before his death. Most of the doctors accused of the trumped-up charges were Jewish, demonstrating how anti-Semitic Soviet culture had become. According to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn,  in Volume I of Archipelago, the Great One was planning to intervene at the last moment (“and Stálin’s character can be divined here”), as they were being marched into Red Square to be publicly hanged, shipping them off to Siberia instead. Luckily, though, The Great Evil One died before this purge could be fully realised, and most of the charged doctors got off very lightly. “Cosmopolitan,” in Soviet lingo of the time, is a not-so-secret way of referring to a Jewish person.

Vladímir Globov is a very important public Prosecutor, pursuing the case against a Dr. Rabinovich for illegally performing an abortion. Large families were extremely encouraged, with medals given to women with over seven children; the most important medal went to women with over ten children.

The Soviets weren’t against abortion on religious or moral grounds, but because they felt it was murdering future Soviet citizen. And as it turns out, Globov’s second wife, Marína, tells him she’s had an abortion on the child he’d hoped they’d have together, whom he’d hoped would be a girl. It’s never said if Marína is the woman on whom Rabinovich performed his abortion.

Globov’s marriage is in trouble not only over this matter, but also because of his wife’s intense, intimate friendship with the attorney Yuriy Karlínskiy. They go out alone often, to the movies, art museums, the planetarium, restaurants, but don’t sleep together for a long time. This is more an intellectual affair of the heart and soul, not of the body and sexual organs. Globov considers it unseemly that his wife is carrying on so intimately with another man, even dancing with him (and other male guests) at her thirtieth birthday.

Marína is a liberated, educated woman, and quite beautiful and fresh-looking for a 30-year-old. She isn’t disfigured from excessive childbearing or work on a kolkhoz or in a factory like too many other Soviet women her age, and she wants to keep it that way. The men around her, particularly her husband, don’t grasp that she and a growing number of women want to take charge of their own reproductive destiny by limiting their number of children, or not having any children at all.

Globov’s son Seryozha is also giving him a major headache. Together with his friend Kátya, Seryozha has formulated some nonconformist theories about the State, Stálin, and how best to bring the Revolution to the rest of the world. We don’t get much insight into exactly what they believe or what they’ve written and said other than vague generalities, but we do know the people around them think it’s a load of “Trótskiyite” rubbish and reeking of bourgeois theories.

Seryozha doesn’t want to overthrow the State, and is very committed to Marxism and Communism, just not the way The Evil One has brainwashed his minions into practising it. Kátya realises the error of their ways and tries to destroy Seryozha’s notebook, after she shows it to Karlínskiy in the hope that he might be able to save Seryozha. But it’s already too late, and the trial begins.

The novel ends with the death of Stálin and the terrifying stampede by his brainwashed followers to see his body. I have a very vivid picture of this massive crush, which trampled over a thousand people, on their way “to get a final glimpse of their Master,” because of the chilling end of the film The Inner Circle. It’s like the stampede that killed the Cincinnati Eleven times a million. The final line of this book is just as chilling as the poignant and chilling end of that movie.

The Epilogue features the narrator, Rabinovich, and Seryozha in a Kolyma GULAG. The camps have become rather empty since Stálin died, because of the amnesty issued to many of the zeki upon that moment, but it’s still pretty brutal. And six years later, the narrator really was off in the GULAG.

The storyline was interesting, but the characters and the plot could’ve been developed more deeply. I would’ve liked more explanation into what exactly was so offensive about Seryozha’s beliefs, other than vague generalities. It’s more about ideas and a trial, but more character development could’ve really helped things along. It also might not be as appealing to a Westerner as other classic Russian fiction because a lot of the references and events would only be understood by someone who really knows the history.

The translator, Max Hayward, also made some errors in the page explaining some of the references to Russian historical figures or other Russian things. The pages supposedly referring to these things are not accurate, but are several pages after the references. There are also some transliteration errors.


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