Lev Anninsky about Alexander Potemkin's novels

Lev Anninsky,  6 December at 8:38 0 705

The circumstances under which Alexander Potemkin made his appearance in this world are so unusual that they are worthy of a separate article; they are something out of which future biographers will most likely weave a legend.

Cold in calculation, hot in conviction

Alexander Potemkin, Myself.

However, the circumstances of his cognizant biography, that is, the one created by his own efforts, have already come to the keen attention of critics and interviewers: the latter respectfully claim that here we have a classic example of a man who has made himself, so he is worthy of the global (previously it would have been called universal) title of “self-made man.”

And this is indeed true. After graduating from the School of Journalism (in the so-called years of stagnation), Alexander Potemkin went to work for Komsomolskaya pravda, where he spent seven years (almost like the Biblical canon of Laban). Then he left all this, took off for Germany, became requalified as an economist (in all the confusion and upheaval of the 1980s), and took up stock market analysis, investing in such glorious Soviet-German projects as Burda. Then (in the tempestuous 1990s) he returned to Russia, defended a couple of dissertations at Moscow University (not in journalism, but in economics), began teaching there, became a chief researcher at a major academic institute, worked as a department head for the tax service, received a couple of awards for scientific and literary publications, retired from the civil service as a lieutenant general, and has now presented himself to the public as the author of a number of novellas and novels.

I will top off this honorable list with the most fascinating detail and say that he is also the director of the Magarach Wine Institute in the Crimea. But I prefer not to get into that sphere of his activity, just as I try to avoid “virtual economics,” as one of Potemkin’s novels in tandem with “surrealistic existence” is called, and would do better to concentrate on his prose experiments, where our existence reveals its own surrealism in tandem with virtual, shall we say, logic.

These include The Outcast (the first novel in the Thorns of Spirit trilogy he has announced) and the novellas The Gambler, The Demon, and The Desk, which weave their way little by little into the unusual panorama of our life and bring to mind such projects as Viktor Erofeev’s Encyclopedia of the Russian Soul, Gasan Guseinov’s Soviet Ideologemes, and other attempts at synthesis so characteristic of epoch frontiers, when the fin de siècle makes you look back, while the start of the next century makes you wonder, where is the future taking us?

After straining his eyes to see, Alexander Potemkin arms himself with the best styles of the Russian classics of the century that has just become the century before last. Reading the first lines of the novella The Desk, where a first-rank state counselor settles himself down in his chair, “hangs his jowls over his collar,” and squeezes his secretary’s buttocks, while looking pensively in front of him and clearly “not understanding what he is doing,” is enough to bring Organchik (the mayor in Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The History of a Town—Translator’s Note) to mind and feel Shchedrin’s bilious sarcasm throughout the entire narration. And when the dear, respected Desk comes to life as a female Deskess and walks hand in hand with the boss “to one of the expensive boutiques on Kutuzov Boulevard,” you hear distinct echoes of Gogol’s The Nose.

And you wait for a glimmer of Dostoevsky.

And a glimmer does appear. It is seen in the name of the main (and capitalized) protagonist of the novella Myself: a name that is clearly derived from Karamazov, but keeping in mind that the story takes place in the market era, it exchanges winks with Karman (“pocket” as translated from the Russian) and becomes Karmanov. Also, the finale of Myself  can be literally superimposed on the finale of The Brothers Karamazov—there is a trial in which a prosecutor and lawyer participate and irrational, rational, and a variety of other ideas are deliberated during the intellectual controversy hashed out between the sides.

You notice, however, that the ideas that penetrate Russian culture in Dostoevsky are inseparable from the love fever that almost deprives the protagonists of their reason, while the fever of the arguments in Potemkin is more intellectual and has nothing to do with love.

“What do you mean, there is no love?!” the attentive reader asks in astonishment. “What about Secretary Liubasha, whose buttocks the desk head squeezes? You mean to say that is not their way of showing love?” No, it isn’t love. It’s sex. Erotic gymnastics under the influence of pills. The butt participates, but the heart doesn’t. And just in case you don’t get it, the author gives you a hint by awarding Liubasha a significant name. She is Popysheva (“popka” is the Russian familiar form of “buttocks”—Translator’s Note). Potemkin is in general a master of onomastic hints and puzzles. The most straightforward way to do this is to leave out a few letters , such as in Khodorkovsky, who recently did a prison term, or in the name of the village of Sofrino, where there is a factory that makes church utensils. Things get trickier with appearance of ballet master Yuri Grigoriev (Yuri Grigorovich) badgered by ballet master Vasiltsov (Vladimir Vasiliev), ballerina Belochkova (Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Bolochkova), film director Miket Mikhailov (Nikita Mikhalkov), democrat Mavlensky (Grigory Yavlinsky – leader of the Yabloko Party), political dame Khakimadova (Irina Khakamada), as well as director of the theater on the Yauza Neliubov (Yuri Liubimov – director of the theater on Taganka) along with an actor from the same theater Serebriukhin (Alexei Serebryakov). Crossword puzzle lovers will say thank you, although they will add that it is not always easy to guess the prototype, and only the magic of rhythm in the name resolves the mystery, as in the case of Vice Premier Santapukin. In the end, the game becomes so absorbing that when a certain Spesivtsev appears in the novel, you still think it is part of the onomastic masquerade, particularly since the author assures us it is a pseudonym. It is only later that you realize the name is not fictional, although of course, this figure has nothing to do with the well-known film director.

This kind of game usually gives Potemkin’s novels an ironical touch.

A supplicant from the “Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church” (incidentally, the Synod is not Holy, but Most Holy, but for such atheists as Potemkin and I, this is not that important), who comes to see the desk head (why? to ask for money, as is easy to guess), asks off the bat, “Did you receive a call from on high about my visit?” Any conversation in this realm is preceded by a call, otherwise it is a waste of time. “From where on high?” asks the boss naively, as though he doesn’t know. “From the highest of high,” clarifies the priest, but he is not thinking of the Highest Almighty here, as might be supposed; he understands that he will have “to go a desk higher” (what an expression! The dream of jug snouts of all times. Gogol is no match—L.A.), “they will ask more there, toss the case down here without any orders (that is, without a call—L.A.), and I am going to have to pay this guy anyway” (that is, the supplicant will have to pay the desk head—L.A.). “I’ll go one desk even higher—he will take thirty percent of the difference in price (language, language!—L.A.), toss everything down to the desk below without signing, and that boss will try to rip me off and again toss it down here. No, I’d be better off paying this guy. He is the key person.” I take my hat off to the market analyst who reveals to us virtual logic in these dark recesses, but I have a question about key persons. What door is it that opens with a key? The intricacies woven by the desk head are wonderful, but where in all his cunning tricks is reality? A million here, a million there. Money is also only a conventional sign after all. Where is reality? Is there anything behind the columns of zeros? Or only the fever of “factors” without giving any thought to the facture?

A certain Mamedov, a restaurant owner, shows up and pulls various delicacies out of his bag: “here’s some dolma with lamb stuffing, this is bozbash (a vegetable soup) made with mutton broth, so delicious you’ll come running back for more, and some succulent tomatoes from Nakhichevani.” I am thinking, but someone must have grazed that lamb, traipsing around the pastures, someone must have grown those tomatoes, stooping and struggling in the plantations. But you don’t hear a word about them. Money, money…

A hairy oaf lumbers in holding a huge dog on a leash ready to play some con game. “Listen, mate, you made my dog angry! He’s going to have to take off half of your behind. And I would like to do your mug in too.” This mug and behind, I beg your pardon, are also reality, this oaf being its envoy.

Then of course we have Liubasha Popysheva’s behind. She is a girl from the provincial town of Gdov, who doesn’t care how or with what she grabs a place in Moscow, either through this boss, or through another, it’s all the same to her.

Between these islands of reality shimmers the unreal world of bureaucratic lunacy, sometimes described by Potemkin with warm irony, sometimes with cold anger, i.e., this is what is called a satirical picture of bureaucratic life, whereby the latest, “federal-democratic” version, marked in a novella written back in 2004 (when Mr. Kh. was in prison). But, while stunning us with the arguments of the parties involved (sitting on either side of the desk), Potemkin constantly lets his thoughts fly off into some philosophical mirage of a self-made man, regardless of everything that binds, beguiles, and bewilders man from the outside.

This question is particularly interesting in that it is directly dictated by the most recent stage in Russian history, with its plunge into the market, advertisements of success, dreams of a middle class, and bogeyman of totalitarianism on all the radio waves and television screens. The intelligentsia of the late Soviet years—I know from my own experience—has bent over backwards to free the independent individual from all kinds of fetters. And there have been enough fetters in traditional Russia: never have individuals “made themselves” in our country, they have always “been made”—by the environment, stratum, masses, party, class, divine dispensation, the will or patronage of the bosses, but never by their own efforts.

Now it is different. Please! Go on! Do it! Do it yourself!

Potemkin’s expertise shows (and he should be believed here) that before the inspired intellectual takes up residence in this niche, the desk boss will settle himself into it and hang his cheeks over his collar. We can only create from what we have.

But I will ask just in case: does this “desk owner,” possessor of “telephone rights,” “man behind the screen,” who manages millions in currency notes, “who patronizes several branches,” and tries on a noble title for size (at the same time revealing who is more important, a duke or a baron) really “make himself,” without clinging to something higher than himself?

As becomes evident from the Synod supplicant, there is nothing higher. What about lower? He couldn’t give a hoot about the people puttering around in the “branches” (at factories, in mines, in fields, and in pastures).

What about from the side?  He despises everyone. And he knows the true price of noble titles (you buy two or three signatures of the same cunning dogs as yourself and you’ll get a special, even regal, name).

So what is the super task? A house on the Canary Islands bought with “currency notes?”

Save up and run off—from this government institution, from this dear respected desk. “Quietly. Not by jumping off the roof with a parachute, not by speeding down in the elevator, but by creeping down the stairs, coughing, sniffling, with a croaky voice, “Oh, I’m not feeling well, humph, humph.” Hobbling, with an icon around your neck. Not in a uniform with gilded shoulder boards, but in plain pajamas, with your arm in a sling, and a plaster on your neck. Take the electric train to Sheremetyevo and fly… Fly! Fly, dearie! The whole world is yours…”  A wonderful place. The person who made himself, created in a vacuum, realized by means of a hybrid of imaginary potentials, is absolutely sure that it is HE who has conquered the “whole world,” and this world is precisely the way HE needs it. The experience gleaned by Alexander Potemkin from the biography of a uniformed bureaucrat, the main protagonist of the novella The Desk, is supported by what seems to be a “chemically pure” experiment—in a novella that is titled with a laconism that is even noteworthy of such a master of short titles as Potemkin, whose “schooling” at Komsomolskaya pravda stood him in good stead. The novella is called Myself.

By the way, it sets another official record: this sizable narration of 12 author’s sheets (a monologue by the main protagonist), including a multitude of other characters, shifts in time and place, arguments and facts, realistic scenes and imaginary scenes, scientific expositions and street jostling, is all written not only without separate chapters (The Desk is also written without chapters), but also without paragraphs.

The publisher’s annotation states, not without pride, “a stream of consciousness.” Nevertheless, I permit myself to remove writer Potemkin from this “stream of consciousness.” Potemkin’s writing has no trace of that uncontrollable open arcade of thought, that awful lunacy, that mushy autotomy the insane and somnambular 20th century left us in the concept of “stream of consciousness.” He is precise, balanced, structured, and clear in his arguments and convictions, and transparent in his thoughts and calculations. His narration may run on in a continuous flow, without chapters and paragraphs, but it still reads easily and is logically arranged in the reader’s mind, I might even say mathematically, although sometimes ad absurdum. “I learned how to read laws though tracing paper, to change and edit them to suit my own needs.” That stands to reason, he is a self-made man after all!

But if he creates everything in a vacuum and, instead of a house on the Canary Islands, ends up with a fat zero, where is the logic and mathematics?

That’s the whole point! There is no reality, but there is logic and mathematics. If the experiment is to be taken to its self-made conclusion, there is no reason to change the rules during the game! According to all the rules of pure experiment, on the very first page of Myself (it is probably nevertheless a novel, the story of an individual, albeit it turned inside out to become an anti-individual) Potemkin breaks off all of this individual’s genetic links.

“When I was five, my father raped a Finnish tourist and did her husband grave bodily harm. Communist Femida issued a verdict: the death sentence.”

Incidentally I will note that the father was not punished innocently, not without reason, so there is no need to rant and rave against the communists; it is more a statement of biological fact and legitimate logic: you sinned – you are punished. “He was shot. Then the whole district began calling me a ‘degenerate’s son’.”

The shame drove his mother to drugs and she died of an overdose.

“Then everyone began calling me a ‘contemptible lad’.”

Rather vapid. But essentially precise. The provisions of a pure experiment are punctiliously observed: an individual deprived of his roots and bearings must make himself—from scratch. Potemkin gradually robes the formula “searching for oneself” (also vapid, clearly taken from us sweet-and-sour Sixtiers) in the armor of experiment and camouflages it in scabs gathered in the most malodorous cul-de-sacs of reality. Religion, faith are all cut off. “You, you wretched thing, have no business here. Get out of the church!” Driven from the church, the wretched thing does to the Jewish outcasts and on Saturdays does their household chores for a few pennies. This earns him a new nickname: “Yiddish helper from the local knacker’s yard” (now this you can’t call vapid).

On the whole, if we keep in mind that the author gives this character a shock of bright red hair, it is clear what destiny awaits the person who dares to make himself. Our reality in this chemically pure experiment (biologically pure, if we clarify the details) is interrupted by episodes, the incandescence of which ultimately makes my reader’s bile boil.

A full-scale children’s colony. Where else can an outcast go who has been cast out of everywhere? A bed “blackened from being washed without soap.” Shouts of “Rise and shine!” Dirt “on their boots.” Orders to “masturbate to the words Communist Party of the Soviet Union” (the last detail is not entirely clear, but sickeningly nasty, which is probably why it is necessary).

Then impressive scenes at the doorway to the Ministry of Defense building where our red-haired natural scientist snares officers who have received Foreign Trade Bank checks after serving abroad and, buying these checks from them for dollars, foists them off on simpletons, tricking them with hoaxes cut out of newspaper.

In addition to the technique detailing this lowdown trick, the purely descriptive observations are interesting: “The unkempt, dirt-ingrained uniform either hung on scraggly figures or stretched over corpulent bodies. Not one muscular athletic body, I thought to myself in surprise. “What sort of army is this then? What do they do there?”

A good question.

And, finally, the third pillar in this putrid world: the so-called creative intelligentsia. A foul-mouthed “national artiste.” The lordly arrogance of famous people and the rabid envy of losers. And universal insanity over success and gratification. “The first stage is pop songs.” Berserk consumers. The infrastructure of prosperity. The metropolis of abundance! Moscow, “a huge city, wide asphalted roads, luxurious shops, apartments arranged with elite furniture.” And not one person! They’ve died out! Vanished! Swept away with some wonderworking weapon (you mean the neutron bomb?—L.A.), ceased to exist. Move in! Take possession!

What does the self-made man who imagines all of this and takes complete control over a “fifty-million city,” or to be more precise, this entire human (too human?—L.A.) world dream of?

“To move into the best rooms in the Kremlin.” “Stuff the mattress with gold and the pillow with jewels.” “Juggle with Faberge Easter eggs.” “Use the country’s Constitution for boot liners.” Isn’t it time to return to the viperous naivety of Vasily Rozanov, who promised nothing more than to cover the world civilization with his robe? There is much less of the viperous these days: Vasily Karamanov (I will remind you that the name of the protagonist, like the name of Rozanov, translates as “king”) vacillates to and fro between rat and swine—it is precisely from these biological materials, he believes, that present humankind is woven, and there is nothing else.

So out of what does the self-made man wish to weave himself? And what will he get as a result? The “ideals” people live by “turn him inside out.” The beastly mundanity does too. Whom can he become? Surely not the same beast, the same idiot as these? Forgive them? But, by forgiving you become the same as they. By orchestrating his life in spite of them, Potemkin’s protagonist goes through all the stages of renunciation, exclusion, segregation he (and we) knows from the history of culture. He is a superfluous person, a “person from nowhere.” He is a hermit with a hint of holiness, like St. Francis he is willing to “live among the swine,” but not among people. He is a loner replete with icy arrogance (do we sense something from Ibsen’s Brand here?). Ultimately, he, unable to crouch down to everyone else, is a superman, Ubermensch.

I have no intention of sticking any of these labels on him (for personal reasons, I will not even discuss some of them). Even more so since this is how Potemkin’s protagonist is described, albeit backhandedly, during the final trial, which, for the most part, he deserves.

But what is the gist of the above-mentioned self-construction, the source of the inner searching for oneself, the results of which congeal in such labels, his primary motivation to act, his super task?

“It is …. it is…. the devil knows what.” That is, “a rampage of mutations,” where the absurd is crossbred and the incompatible mixed, blended into a single cocktail of the fetid and the flowery, the most pure and the contaminating.” This explains all the different things the protagonist tried out: he was testing his knowledge “about the world of men”; “became submerged in crime, engaged in culture, politics, art, and science.” And he came to the conclusion that it was time to destroy mankind. Mankind has become extinct! “You can draw the line!” A big fat one!

We will also draw a line under the experiment on cultivating the individual who creates himself from present material of current reality.

The result is demonstrated in biological rather than chemical formulas (although not without chemistry: genius is explained by the level of some acid [uric, I believe] in the individual’s body, while the verdict given mankind is attached “by the polymorphism of the length of restriction fragments of DNK” and sprayed with, I hope I get this right, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase [MTNFR]).

After handing this cocktail over to a pure scientist for an expert’s opinion, I will return to the literary image of Potemkin’s universe.

I will remind you that the protagonist came into this world with a great mission—to illuminate mankind’s entrance into non-existence with a torchlight procession.

But who will inherit all that miscarried mankind leaves behind? Who is that superman who, in spite of this mankind, in spite of the ideals that turn him inside out, in spite of the mundanity that gives rise to rat-like malice and swine-like stupidity, will make himself?

Homo cosmicus, says Potemkin. That is, a being who claims to possess not some Moscow, from which the residents have vanished, not some Russia, the Constitution of which he will use to line his boots, but the Cosmos! The Universe!

So his place of habitat has no sides or boundaries, it is universal, something global.

It is pointless trying to comprehend this something with feelings (human, too human). It could conceivably be comprehended conceptually, forgive my play on words. The protagonist “does not presume” that he has a heart, not a “technical” organ, but a “feeling” organ. But he does presume to “understand all the mysteries of the Universe” with the help of reason. Reason is a weapon. Absolute reason. Boundless reason. Rampaging reason.

Like everything universal and absolute, this project is difficult to specify. It mentions that a complex infrastructure will be installed in the expanses of space. It also mentions the fantastical ensemble of spirit, soul, and body. The main thing is to wait until the time comes. And then you will become master in the universe. And you will find a comfortable place for yourself in this universe.

I give the protagonist his due. He finds a sobering souse for every drunken fervor. At the peak of his fervent dreaming he feels a sudden chill. He feels as though he is “in some silent, cold realm.” He discovers that around him and within him is “absolute emptiness.” The experiment to create an individual out of himself is over. First, an avid fight to get rid of everything that binds. Then chilling cold from the damned Russian question: why?


I cannot restrain myself, however, and, overcoming my understandable hesitation, will nevertheless mention the circumstances under which the author of abovementioned novellas made his appearance in the world. He was born after the war. His father was a Soviet officer, his mother, a German, who was first a prisoner-of-war in our country, later a poetess back home in Germany, and ultimately reunited with her son who was born and grew up in the Soviet Union.

There is one rather mystical detail. Potemkin had a distant relative, whom his parents held up to their son as a guide and point of reference, who fought on the front in the first world war, was captured by the Germans, returned to Russia, and became a poet… “If nails could be made of these people free,
The strongest nails in the world they’d be,” said Nikolai Tikhonov.

There is indeed something that brings those souls who set out into the boundless expanses of the universe back to the fold in hometown Putivl!