Das Haus an der Moskwa, known in English as The House on the Embankment and with the original title Дом на набережной, poses a question that it doesn’t really answer, or at least not directly. On a hot August day in 1972 Vadim Glebow has traveled out to a distant corner of Moscow to get some furniture that he heard might be available, if he could find the right place and talk to the right person. That was the middle of the Brezhnev years, when you could get a lot of things if you knew the right people, when the Soviet system had settled out of terror and revolutionary fervor and into lethargic corruption. At the warehouse, Glebow doesn’t get the furniture but he does encounter a man who had been a friend back in elementary school. He is doing a menial job, and clearly in a bad way, probably deep into alcoholism. Glebow can’t immediately remember the man’s name, and he pretends not to recognize Glebow.
Most of the novel is told through Glebow’s recollections across a variety of periods: childhood and early school years in the 1930s, a little bit about the war years, as a young man at a literary institute in the post-war period, and something of a coda in the novel’s present of the 1970s. Upon returning from his fruitless quest, Glebow remembers the name in question: Lev Shulepnikov, although he was usually called by one of the diminutives Lyovka or Shulepa. He lived in the titular House, which is also sometimes called in English the House of Government. At the time it was built, the House was the largest residential building in Europe, meant as a model Soviet achievement, and home to the all-Union elite that was not quite elite enough to live within the walls of the Kremlin. Glebow lived across a small part of the river from the House, in a pre-Revolutionary house that had been subdivided to accommodate more families. Glebow’s family lives in reduced circumstances, up a set of stairs that is constantly threatening to give out.
Throughout his childhood, Glebow envies the kids in the House on the Embankment who have much more space and unheard-of luxuries at a time when deprivation was the Soviet rule and famine not far in the past. One time, Glebow saw Shulepa’s mother send a cake back because it wasn’t fresh. The concept was alien to him. In his family, cakes only appeared at special occasions such as birthdays or the new year. They were devoured quickly, and had no opportunity to be anything but fresh. By contrast, not only were cakes commonplace for Shulepas, but they could be rejected! That makes almost as much an impression on Glebow as the blank pistol that Shulepa produces and fires during some kind of schoolyard tussle. If regular cakes were an astonishment, a gun for a kid was unimaginable.
The House on the Embankment is one of those novels in which what the characters don’t say is at least as important as what they do say. It’s a reasonably common feature of works set or written in closed societies, but it means that the further readers are in time and space from the time and place of publication, the harder it can be to catch what is happening. Shulepa’s stepfather clearly works for the secret police, although that is not only never stated by any character, it’s not even implied in speech. For Soviet people of the 1930s, or indeed the 1970s, it would be too obvious to need saying. The apartment, the food, the pistol, the obvious fear that teachers and administrators show when some kids take it on themselves to pick on Shulepa — all of these show that Shulepa’s stepfather not only works for the secret police, he’s a very senior figure and could have any of them sent to Siberia or shot with no questions asked. As far as I could tell, the novel does not imply that his father fell victim to machinations of the secret police, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. It’s possible that his mother conspired with the future stepfather to ensure that the father was gotten out of the way. That sort of thing certainly happened in Soviet history. A second stepfather shows up later in the book, with little or nothing said about the fate of the first. That was often the fate of high-ranking secret policemen, and hanging on to memories could be dangerous for anyone left behind. That Shulepa’s mother managed to remain in the House implies that she could play the Soviet game with considerable skill, but Trifonov does not show much of her, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.