Rights sold: Russia – AST, EKSMO, Greece – MODERN TIMES
When the Soviet-Afghan War triggered a downfall of Homo Soveticus ideology, and the Communist regime collapsed in 1991, there was an expectation, both in the West and in Russia, that the country would embrace Western values and join the civilised world. It took no account of a ruined economy, depleted and exhausted human capital and the mental and moral dent made by 70 years of Soviet rule. Nobody knew what kind of country would succeed the Soviet Union, or what being Russian really meant. The removal of ideological and geographical constraints did not add moral clarity. In particular, the intelligentsia—the engine of Soviet collapse—was caught unprepared. When their “hopeless cause” became reality, it quickly transpired that the country lacked responsible elite able and willing to create new institutions. Herman Bronnikov, a protagonist of Andrei Volos’s tetralogy Judgement Days, was one of these Soviet intellectuals.
Most of the events described by Andrei Volos in his fictional masterpiece entitled “Winner” take place between the years 1979 and 1980. Comprised of two parallel plot lines, each with a proper protagonist, the two main heroes nevertheless are never acquainted or even run into each other by happenstance, owing to each belonging to a different strata of society, yet both plots are intertwined.
One of the heroes, Alexander Pletnev is a junior officer of the KGB. Alexander is a remarkably honest person, a “sincere soul” who is always willing to help his comrades and piously believes in the “ideals of Communism” well broadcast by Soviet propaganda. Much against his will he is transferred from the KGB antiterrorist unit in Moscow to a guard and special services unit attached to the Soviet Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Once in Afghanistan he participates in the assault of President Amin’s palace immediately preceding the Soviet invasion into that country. After their return to Moscow participants of the assault were falsely accused of plundering. A trial ensues; Pletnev is convicted and sent to prison camp.
Central figure of the second plotline is a successful Moscow writer Herman Bronnikov, who writes Soviet politically correct party line prose and concurrently creates a novel based on memories of his distant relative recounting the atrocities of the Soviet regime. When the authorities discover that excerpts of this “secret” novel are published in a foreign Russian-language magazine, Bronnikov faces a difficult moral choice: to collaborate with the regime and to disavow the creative force inspiring him to write this novel, or to lose all the privileges the regime affords him and to continue to write in accordance with his conscience. He chooses the latter option...
The main conflict of this novel consists in the confrontation between human behaviour and the totalitarian mechanism. Both leading characters, instinctively or deliberately make a moral choice that permits them to preserve their dignity, yet at a very high cost.
Along with its fictional characters, there are many real historical ones in the novel that help the reader realize the extent to which so-called “big politics” is subordinate to and dependent on the feelings, emotions, and spirits of living, breathing individuals, who through fate are vested with the power to decide the destiny of millions. The author’s profound knowledge and understanding of historical details (relations between Afghanistan and Soviet Russia, and among other events, the history of Civil War in Russia and WWII) as well as author’s emphasis on revealing trivia illustrate the multiple semantic layers of the novel.
The book is a guaranteed page turner but at the same time it transfers to the reader a certain grim message: “for the most part our life is woven of troubles, and often peppered with disasters. Sometimes life can give way to despair, but despair should be overcome and personal integrity can be maintained”.