Review of Anthony Marra’s "The Tsar of Love and Techno"

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Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. He is the author of A History of Russia, Vol. I and Vol. II. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here.

Anthony Marra’s new book The Tsar of Love and Techno (2015) has already received rave reviews for its literary excellence. Here, however, we’ll focus on how well its interrelated nine fictional stories reflect developments in Russia, especially in post-Soviet Russia. (See here for a broader treatment of the value of fiction in deepening our understanding of history.)

In his “Acknowledgements,” Marra mentions eight “works of nonfiction [that] were invaluable while researching the stories of this book.” One of these is David King’s The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia (1997), which especially provided background for his first story, “The Leopard.” Set in Leningrad, in 1937, it is the only piece dealing exclusively with the Soviet period. Its narrator, Roman Markin is a “correction artist” who airbrushes Trotsky and others out of old photos. “During one bleak four-month stretch,” he tells us, he did nothing but airbrush Stalin’s pitted cheeks.

In depicting Markin through his own narration, Marra does a good job portraying the mentality of a communist true believer. Markin says of his nephew Vladimir, “I wanted that little fellow out there on the divan to grow up, to become an active builder of communism, to look back on his life when he is a fat and happy old man, to know that the faultless society surrounding him justifies his father's death.” 

Later in the story when Markin is arrested, as many were in the late 1930s, he thinks like some other loyal Stalinists did. Urged to confess to the falsehood that he conspired against his country, he thinks, “By refusing, I become the traitor whom I am accused of being. . . . But my allegiance to the party has superseded all other allegiances . . . without it, I don't know who I am; without it, I die a stranger to myself.” Historians like Robert Conquest and Simon Sebag Montefiore—a book of each is among the eight acknowledged by Marra—have recognized that such thinking was among the many reasons (including torture) that people, especially Communist Party loyalists, confessed during the late 1930s to crimes they could not possibly have committed.

Marra’s penultimate story, “A Temporary Exhibition,” is set in St. Petersburg, 2011-2013, and features a showing of Markin’s altered works of art. His nephew Vladimir is now an old man and is accompanied to the exhibit by his adult son Sergei. This reappearance of an individual from an earlier story frequently occurs in this collection, and Vladimir and Sergei were also the chief characters in the previous story, “The Palace of the People,” which is set in 2001. These two post-Soviet pieces dealing with a father and son reflect some of the realities of Russia’s Putin years.

In the 2001 story, Sergei is worried about being conscripted into the army and being sent to fight in Chechnya, where Chechens were continuing a guerilla war even though the Russians had devastated and then captured their capital, Grozny, in the previous year. Sergei states that “deferments went to university students, fathers, and prisoners, only the last of which me and my friends had any hope of becoming in the near future.” The prospect of having to serve and maybe die in Chechnya persuades Sergei and his friends to think of crimes they might commit to get themselves sent to prison until the conflict is over.  

These young men were typical of many alienated youth in post-Soviet Russia. Sergei states, “We knew nothing of history—“decent odds that three of the four of us couldn't tell you what year Jesus was born. . . . We wanted to become gangsters, but who could we look up to? Where were our heroes? Our fathers drove gypsy [unlicensed] cabs, washed dishes, and pumped gas, their blood so timid a guillotine couldn't make them bleed. They longed for the old days, not because their lives had been better, but because there had been an equality of misery back then. We were their sons and we wanted more.”

The nostalgia for Soviet times that Sergei speaks of when there was “an equality of misery,” characterizes many older Russians. Back in the Soviet period, dissident historian Andrei Amalrik believed that the desire that “nobody should live better than I do” was the “most destructive aspect of Russian psychology.” And the new “crony capitalism” of post-Soviet Russia produced some fabulously rich oligarchs, but left many Russians worse off and more resentful than ever of the nouveau riche, who now flaunted their wealth in ostentatious displays with their new automobiles and other consumer goods.

Sergei’s parents had tough lives. Like many Russians, his mother died while still in her working years—she was a cashier who worked in a store where shortages were the norm. His dad (Vladimir) “wore rubber gloves and a surgical mask when he bagged white powder on the kitchen table.” For a while Sergei thought he was a doctor, not realizing he was a heroin dealer. When his mother discovered Sergei was his “father's errand boy,” she slapped her son and proclaimed, "Criminals, everywhere . . . . On the TV. In the street. In the Kremlin. Now in my home. I won't live with two of them." She called the police, and Vladimir went to prison.

After his dad’s release and his mother’s death, Sergei and his friends also often use drugs. His dad gets him a job helping a legless veteran (Kirill) who begged in the Petersburg metro system. Sergei observes, “You couldn't go more than three metro stops without seeing a crippled vet from the war in Chechnya. . . . [Some] got drunk and murmured stories so depraved they could never be true.”

High death, alcoholism, crime, and drug rates were all major problems in post-Soviet Russia. By 2002, its death rate was higher than any time since WWII. In his 2014 book Russians: The People Behind the Power, Gregory Feifer writes, “If alcoholism was a Soviet nightmare, it approaches the level of Armageddon today.” As, Sergei’s mom said, “Criminals, everywhere.” By 2000, one estimate suggested that 9,000 mafia (organized crime groups) existed. Newspapers reported gory killings and daylight gangland shootings.

Kirill’s begging on the metro proves so profitable that he tells Sergei, “I'm saving for a dacha” (second home, usually outside city limits). Sergei tells us, “It was hard to take him seriously. Only crooks, oligarchs, and politicians—often the same person—could afford dachas. Men who could walk, who had never gone to Chechnya, whose sons would never go to Chechnya. And here was Kirill, thinking he could be one of them.” When Sergei’s mom indicates that criminals are also in the Kremlin, she alludes to the widespread political corruption that accompanied organized crime.

In “A Temporary Exhibition,” set in 2011-13, Sergei is a decade older and now making a living by sitting in a Petersburg cybercafé and scamming (via the telephone) naïve Americans into providing personal identity information including Social Security numbers. Vladimir is proud of him. “Wasn't this what every parent hopes for? To equip your child with the confidence and support to seize opportunity, to succeed where you failed? His boy, an entrepreneur. He felt a strange surge of patriotism, a gratitude for the vision of his leaders. Here in the New Russia, you weren't bound by the past. The grandson of an enemy of the people, the son of a convict, his boy, a successful businessman.”

Although Marra seldom directly mentions Vladimir Putin, who has dominated twenty-first-century Russia, the few characters who do speak of him generally do so favorably, as do most real-life Russians. In Marra’s second story, “Granddaughters,” a group of young women are critical of one of their friends, Galina, who “was stupid enough to become a dissenter” and critic of Putin. “Had she educated herself on the situation in Chechnya,” they think, “she would have seen that the president [Putin] was correct in his approach, as he is in all things.”

“Granddaughters,” is set in the fictional town of Kirovsk, 1937-2013. It is one of the three major settings for the book’s stories, the other two being Leningrad/St. Petersburg and Chechnya. Kirovsk resembles the actual city of Norilsk, each being inside the Arctic Circle and a polluted, unhealthy center for nickel mining. In the valuable book Ecocide in the USSR (1992) we read that “the men of the city [Norilsk] were said to have the highest rate of lung cancer in the world.” In Marra’s longest story, entitled the same as the book as a whole, the narrator says that “the doctor confirmed what we already knew: ‘One in two people in Kirovsk will die of lung cancer.’” In another story the narrator says, “Average male life expectancy in Kirovsk hovers somewhere in the high forties and while elderly men aren't mythical creatures, they aren't quite of this realm.”

Kirovsk is also the setting of “Wolf of White Forest.” And the story does what most of the others do—links generations together, so we sense the effect historical developments have had on various characters. Vera is now (1999) 63 years old, but as a child in Kirovsk, she had been greatly praised by Soviet authorities for denouncing her mother. But in this last-year of Yeltsin’s presidency, Vera complains that inflation is hurting her because her “pension stays the same” and half the time doesn’t even get paid. Her friend tells her that “the economic shock treatment has hurt the weakest members of society . . . . Not just you. Also the enfeebled and alcoholic.” To help herself financially, Vera lets her home be used for drug processing.

One member of the drug gang is Kolya, who is between tours in Chechnya. He describes to Vera “the heroin trade like a market analyst, cloaking the brutal business in the hazy virtues of laissez-faire capitalism.” About Kolya, Marra adds, “Schools had only taught him how to cheat; the military had trained him in ballistics, subordination, and intimidation; he had returned to a mining town where the jobs had become automated and the narcotics business was the only prosperous industry that would benefit from his skill set.”

Two stories, “The Grozny Tourist Bureau” and “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” occur mainly in Chechnya from 2000 to 2003. (In his 2014 award-winning novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra dealt with the same area in the decade between 1994 and 2004.)

In the first story, as in some others, Marra mixes tragedy with comedy. Before it was destroyed by Russian rockets, the Grozny Museum of Regional Art featured a picture that Markin (see above) had altered in the 1930s—this nineteenth-century picture by a Chechen artist also appears in several other of the book’s stories, helping bind them together. Blinded in the museum blast was its restoration artist, Nadya, who Ruslan, the museum’s former deputy director, now helps. He is also offered a new position trying to attract tourists to “the most devastated city on earth.” He works on a brochure trying to put a positive spin on such realities as the Russian occupation of the city—“first-rate security his brochure will trumpet.

In the second Chechen-centered story the “prisoner,” before his death in a mined field, is contract-soldier (mercenary) Kolya, who we have met before as part of a Kirovsk drug gang. Before his first Chechen posting he had got Galina (see above) pregnant. She later became a beauty queen and film star before becoming a dissident. She and Oleg Voronov, the rich oligarch she married after Kolya first went to Chechnya, are the most notable nouveau riche people in Marra’s stories. Although post-Soviet Russia does indeed contain such people, they are far outnumbered in real life, and in this collection, by all the less fortunates.

Like any historical non-fiction, Marra’s fictional stories do not completely describe post-Soviet Russia. The effects of Soviet and post-Soviet history, including Putin’s years in power; pollution; political corruption; yawning social and economic inequalities; conflict with the Chechens; high death rates, alcoholism, crime, and high drug rates are only part of the story. But an important one, and Marra tells it well.



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