Chapter Headings

  • Prologue
  • Blissful School Years
  • The New Teacher
  • Children of the Underground
  • Lyursy
  • The Green Tent
  • Love in Retirement
  • All the Orphans
  • The Wedding of King Arthur
  • Boots Slightly Too Small
  • Classmates
  • The Brainy Angel
  • The Dragnet
  • House with Knight
  • The Coffee Stain
  • The Fugitive
  • The Dissident Dog
  • The Shade of Hamlet
  • Poor Rabbit
  • One-way Road
  • The Bemedalled Trousers
  • The Good Place
  • Friendship of the Peoples
  • Deaf and Dumb Demons
  • High Register
  • Milyutin Park
  • First Farewell
  • Second Farewell. Ende Gut
  • A Russian Story
  • A Russian School (Epilogue)

Excerpt from the Novel

Encountering these Muscovite boys after the village school, Victor returned to his musings on childhood for the first time since his rural experience. Where was the boundary beyond which the child becomes an adult? It was obvious that for the village children childhood ended sooner than for those in the city.

The Moscow children were more diverse, better developed, studied much better, but in some respects were weaker than village children their own age. Developmental psychology provided no explanation. He started reading academic books.

It was all very interesting, but just a bit too ‘scholarly’. Self-evident things were presented as discoveries: the fact that in adolescence boys lose respect for their parents, become irritable, quarrel, experience acute sexual curiosity, and that this results from the hormonal tempest raging in their bodies. The authors’ explanations and interpretation struck Victor as often speculative and inconclusive.

He did not find what he was looking for there, but Tolstoy provided important insights, calling this tormented period “the desert of boyhood”. That was closer than anything else to what he observed in his disorientated and dishevelled pupils. A time came when they seemed to lose everything they had previously acquired, and at a later moment life seemed to begin all over again. It looked, though, as if not all of them left the desert behind. A significant number remained stuck there forever.

Misha Kolesnik became almost the only person he could talk to at that time, a childhood friend he had played with in the courtyard, a soldier wounded in the war, a biologist, and audacious homespun philosopher. Misha listened attentively but became impatient at any slowness and would interrupt with a muttered, “Go on, go on, I see the point.” He hurried Victor along, interjecting curious remarks which were not instantly comprehensible, constantly drawing analogies with biology. Victor did not understand these at first, but gradually came to recognise the universality of knowledge towards which the limping Kolesnik was leading him. It was from Misha that this wholly arts educated man of letters learned about the principles of evolution, the contradictions between Lamarckism and Darwinism, and such specialised topics as metamorphosis, neoteny, and chromosomal heredity.

Now as he reflected on his developing boys he seemed to discern how closely the processes taking place in them resembled the metamorphosis undergone by insects. The unsophisticated larvae consume any food that comes their way, they suck, chew and swallow anything, every impression they encounter, and then pupate and inside the cocoon everything grows as it should and acquires the necessary structures. Reflexes are developed, skills acquired, and primary conceptions of the world mastered. How many pupae perish, however, without ever reaching their final phase, failing to split along a seam, failing to release the butterfly within. Anima, anima, the precious soul… colourful, flying, short-lived, and beautiful. Lev Vygotsky in the 1920s and 1930s distinguished between the acquisition of skills and the process of developing interests, but Victor saw a different picture. He saw wings developing, spotty, argumentative boys, impressionable and aggressive, spreading their immature wings on which meanings and patterns were being impressed. But why did some, like insects which completed the full cycle of development, undergo this metamorphosis while others failed utterly?

Victor had a physical sensation of the moment when the keratinous case of the pupa split, and felt the trembling and rustling of wings, and was filled with joy like a midwife delivering a child.

For some reason, however, by no means all, indeed a minority of those he was educating, were undergoing the metamorphosis. And what was its essence anyway? Awakening of morality? Yes, of course, but Rais Galeyev and Vitya Nikitin had a sense of morality. They were good boys who did not bully those younger than themselves, did not get into fights or lie, yet still were weak pupils with no interest at all in studying. Both came from large families. Perhaps they were good families. In almost every parallel there were boys like them who did not lie or behave disgracefully. Was that really because they were from religious families? In cultural terms they were nullities.

But what about Ilya Bryansky? His mother was perhaps a cleaner, or a carer in a kindergarten, a woman with minimal education and yet her son was smart, talented, and had fantastic intuition. What was going on? Why did some open up at this time of transition from childhood to boyhood but not others? Was there some enigmatic ritual, some rite of passage?

Or perhaps homo sapiens as a species was also capable of something along the lines of the neoteny observed in worms, insects, and amphibians, where the capacity for sexual reproduction appears not in adult specimens but already at the larval stage so that specimens which have not grown to adulthood reproduce larvae like themselves without ever achieving maturity.

“Well, of course, that is only a metaphor. I understand that physiologically these underdeveloped humans of mine are physiologically entirely adult. An imago, so to speak,” he excused himself to Kolesnik, but Kolesnik had already got the idea and needed no commentary.

Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait (

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