The Russian novelist Olga Slavnikova began her career as a journalist, but soon realized she needed to write fiction to describe what she saw and thought. “All of the press was part of a Party organization,” she explains in conversation with Martin Amis for the New Yorker. “I understood that the only way that I could say what I wanted was through imagination—through things I could think of myself.” This turn toward imagination links Slavnikova to a vanguard of modern Russian writers who, beginning with the conceptual works of the ‘90s, did the almost impossible, and restored the public’s trust in the written word after decades of state-controlled literature.
Slavnikova’s novel bristles with voter fraud, fake news, and the cozy top-and-tail of media moguls and politicians.
Straight realism, in turn, risked not being real enough; Slavnikova and her peers often took to metaphysical or magical realist modes, in large part because, as Slavnikova explains, “Russian life is itself at the core fantastical.” Of course, the same might be said of American society, where the right to believe what we want has become the right to live in an alternate reality, and crumbling institutions breed fantasies of every kind.
At the same time, Russia and the United States, as well as truth and fiction, have become more perversely embroiled. In this climate, it’s a good bet that Slavnikova’s latest book, The Man Who Couldn’t Die, lucidly translated by Marian Schwartz, will resound with American readers. Bristling with voter fraud, fake news, and the cozy top-and-tail of media moguls and politicians, Slavnikova’s book is fluent in new language of the damaged reality principle.
Set at the dawn of the new era in early 1990s Russia, the novel traces the efforts of a mother and daughter to conceal the collapse of the Soviet Union from their felled head of household, World War II veteran Alexei Afansievich. Paralyzed by a stroke fourteen years earlier, the former army scout, who specialized in strangling his opponents with a noose he wore around his own neck “the way other thoughtless men wore crosses in war,” is now a kind of vegetable bed for the “large crimson tuber” of his heart, which the family safeguards as their principle treasure. The Kharnitovs, “who hadn’t been handed any favors at capitalism’s kiddie party,” now survive primarily on Alexei Afansievich’s pension and will do whatever they can to keep him alive.
The deception is authored by the veteran’s stepdaughter Marina, a freelance journalist in the news department of a third-rate TV studio. Marina hangs Brezhnev’s portrait on the wall, edits the Pravda articles her stepfather reads, and uses the office archives to create entire newscasts of events that never happened—including the Twenty-Eighth and Twenty-Ninth Congresses of the Soviet Communist Party. Having divined “at the first historic tremor . . . not a pledge of Soviet life’s continuity but the beginning of an end,” the flinty and adaptable Marina is intent upon “preserving the substance of the era for future use . . . purging it of any new admixtures, no matter how harmless they seemed at first.”
Meanwhile, as the chaos of unleashed capital transforms the world outside, reality in the novel splits into inside and outside time. “Inside time,” the time maintained in Alexei Afansievich’s sick room, has come to a standstill. Once the principal natural event (death) has been outlawed, no events related to it may transpire, and change of any kind becomes impossible. The fretful chatelaine of this dusky “Red Corner” is Alexei Afansievich’s wife, Nina Alexandrovna, “a petite woman with a girlish fluff of hair” who cares for her husband’s body and former clothing with the mute, timid reverence of one who believes she is being watched by the state. The veteran’s body, “still authentic in its presence,” is a living monument to the Soviet past: immobile, colossal, and, “like everything colossal, pointless.” When Nina turns her husband’s body, “marked by old scars like the pale, flattened stalks you see under boulders,” she feels she is “moving by a millimeter the entire invisible earthly mass.”
Instead of offering relief from her exertions, however, Nina’s forays into outside time disturb her. Surrounded on all sides by new objects, whose “four-and five-figure prices seemed to make them dangerous to have in circulation, like a gun kept dangerously at home,” Nina has “never felt so depressed outside.” She cannot get her mouth around the American sandwiches. But if Nina struggles with “the new goods-and-money reality, which had the metabolism of a shrew and always seemed to have swallowed something greater than its own weight,” the steely Marina adapts.
Like “every self-respecting person” in the new era, Marina decides to join the “battle for her place in the sun.” After being fired from Studio A, Marina intrigues against the director by plotting to take down his powerful uncle Apofeozov, who has plunged into the local elections in order to receive immunity from the “billowing clouds of financial scandal that were gathering with the change in the local weather.” Promised the position of deputy director at Studio A if they succeed, Marina joins the opposition campaign (headed by a former media professor who runs a failed actor in his place).
Apofeozov proves a formidable political opponent, an avatar for the “get-rich-quick spirit” of the new age, a screen on which voters’ and viewers’ fantasies can play. In his “fantastic vitality, (which was nothing more than the indomitable will to eat, drink, build a suburban home that resembled the ogre’s castle in the fairytale, and open secret accounts in Switzerland),” Apofeozov’s “life-affirming persona” sets off an epidemic of optimism that sees many citizens yielding to “the fantastic illusion that a car and a bank account were possible in their lifetimes.” In an effort to counter this advantage, Marina and the opposition campaign set up a scheme of paid canvassers that quickly gets out of hand.
As in previous novels, including 2017, for which she was awarded the Russian Booker Prize, Slavnikova proves a deft ironist of the totalizing logic of capitalism and the moral capsizing it inspires. Bribing voters is legitimate when all parties—including political ones—are consumers: “Instead of rendering services to the population,” the opposition leader determines, “[they] should buy and pay for their services: then it would be perfectly legal to call the corrupt voter—who basically just wanted a drink—a canvasser.”
Likewise, when bettering yourself means getting rich quick, stealing is an acceptable shortcut to self-improvement. The “sudden thirst for life” unleashed by Apofeozov’s campaign is accompanied by a wave of hopeful robberies. A local store is held up with a cap-gun; an emboldened beggar tries his luck with a cocked chicken bone. This is part of magical thinking under capitalism: faith in the transformative power of purchased goods, which are bought not because of what they do but for what they signify.
But if the book casts a baleful eye on the sharp-toothed “optimism” exported by America, it also illuminates what may prove a no less transformative Russian export to the US: a media environment in which truth and lies are interchangeable, and reality is managed for distraction and dramatic effect. To acquire material for her fake newscasts, Marina tells her accomplices she’s creating “an alternative post-documentary film—which was mostly the truth, because her fake news turned out to be more expressive than what was supposedly authentic.” Like a toy gun used in a robbery, something only needs to seem real to be real. Sometimes, what seems real is shaped by something fake. Looking for subjects, a cameraman covering the campaign focuses on an “old guy with a purple nose in the shape of a frozen potato and a clear, hundred-proof gaze, who looked a little like a Soviet film actor.” It’s easy to see what you expect when you’re watching a movie you’ve already seen.
The effect of such political stagecraft is disorder: the interchangeability of fact and fabrication.
All the actors in the novel understand that those who control the narrative take the true seat of power. When, to the surprise of everyone involved, the opposition campaign wins the election, its leader marches into Studio A and, with help of “twenty or so young studs in camo” picked up from “a friendly security firm along the way,” replaces the director with their own man. The casual violence of the takeover is chilling, as is the resemblance of the new director to Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief architect of the Kremlin propaganda machine. The new director of Studio A—formerly a poet—is a man who sees “the seized studio as one big house of mirrors created for his directorial pleasure.” Surkov, you may remember from Adam Curtis’s film HyperNormalisation, studied theater before joining the Kremlin and has been credited with importing postmodern ideas from the art world into Russian politics, orchestrating elaborate political spectacles in order to destabilize perception. The effect of such political stagecraft is disorder: the interchangeability of fact and fabrication, a cynical citizenry, and a fractured opposition whose mudslinging is cheap fodder for a slot on daytime TV.
The Trump administration may not have state-controlled media at its disposal, as the Kremlin does, but it operates by a similar logic. It creates chaos in the system by rubbing out the distinction between truth and lies, ensuring that there is no firm ground for its opposition to fight on. For its part, Russian literature has its own legacies and its own history. But as the politics—and perhaps the political strategies—of Russia and the United States spiral together, churning the muddy border between truth and fiction into a no-man’s land, we might look more closely at the literature from the former Soviet Union. By reflecting on the Americanization of Russia, The Man Who Couldn’t Die, like a mirror—or a house of them—shows the selfsame process in reverse. If we are dismayed to recognize ourselves in Slavnikova’s story of fake news and the electoral machinations of a telegenic ogre, hell, it might just be one of the risks of free trade.