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.
As time advances, though, fewer and fewer readers are likely to be able to do that with much alacrity. I’m sure that I missed things, even though I am reasonably well versed in Soviet history and the conditions that the characters were likely to have experienced. For example, most of the book is told in the third person, but from time to time a first-person narrator appears. I could not tell who that was meant to be. From the context, he must have been somebody from the close circle of school friends, but I just could not work out who, or even tell if Trifonov ever said. It’s possible that there were clues that went past me, or that there were bits of history that would have been plain to a contemporary Soviet reader of the book, but if so I missed them. It was not a big deal, more of a stylistic oddity — hello first-person narrator, where did you come from — but also a reminder that Trifonov was working in a specific context, still facing censorship, still constrained in what he could say and what he counted on his readers understanding without him having to say certain things.
The greater part of the story concerns first Glebow and company in school, followed by his time at a literary institute, a form of Soviet university education and one particularly geared to producing the next generation of professors. Most of Glebow’s school friends died in World War II, but not Shuleba. In fact, he returns living even higher on the hog: leather jacket, car, late in the novel he has one of the first seventy-five televisions in all of Moscow. Either Shuleba’s second stepfather is high up in the KGB, as it was known by then, or he himself was, or very likely both. Trifonov shows Shuleba operating on his own, but he could well have been borrowing authority from a family connection. Glebow is something of a golden boy in the institute, taken under the wing of professor Gantschuk, who is not only an authority on the critical scene but also an Old Bolshevik, a hero of the Civil War, and enough of an operator to have survived the purges of the 1930s. Glebow had known Gantschuk’s daughter Sonja back in school; now their acquaintance develops into something much deeper. Or at least at times Glebow thinks it has, at others he wonders whether it was a youthful rush of lust. At any rate, there is an intrigue within the institute to push Gantschuk out, and that faction decides to use Glebow as one of the levers. Shuleba is apparently in league with the intriguers. Will Glebow join them and ease his career in Soviet institutions, or will he be true to the person to whom he owes so much, and to the woman he maybe loves?
The House on the Embankment offers depictions of many different facets of Soviet life near the top of its pyramid. The story is told without reference to the greater ideological part of life there and then, but the pressures to conform are clear, as is the terror of the 1930s and its lessening in later eras. It also shows how people used revolutionary rhetoric to advance personal goals, and how many people in the Soviet elite came from the pre-Revolutionary elite, despite official pronouncements otherwise. These were all probably pretty daring for Trifonov to write about in the 1970s.
The mystery that’s posed but not really resolved is how Shulepa fell from his high position to a job in the back of a furniture warehouse. The truth is that there were many ways it could have happened. The alcoholism, the recklessness he had long shown, either of these could have led him to commit a blunder within the KGB. Or he may have just had the bad luck to be part of a patronage network that fell out of favor, sweeping him out of the privileged life for no particular fault of his own. By the 1960s, people were no longer shot just to fulfill a quota of enemies of the Revolution, but they could easily lose status without having done something wrong, or at least without having done something that everyone else wasn’t also doing. The House on the Embankment is a look into different eras of the Soviet Union, showing some of dilemmas of privilege, and the kinds of people the system produced.
Das Haus an der Moskwa is part of the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s “Metropolen” series, twenty books set in or relating to great cities around the world. I bought this one, the fifteenth in the set, close to the time it was published in 2010, two years before I actually lived in Moscow. I’m not sure I would have chosen this novel to represent Moscow, though it’s probably the example of Soviet “Urban Prose” that’s best known outside the Russian-speaking world. I might have opted for something more famous like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov or more scurrilous like Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Yerofeev; if I knew Russian literature better, I might have chosen something post-Soviet that looks back through more eras. Arguing with the choices in the various Süddeutsche series is one of the things I like about them, and I’m not about to stop now.