A guest post by Russian literary scholar Muireann Maguire, who blogs about literature as Russian Dinosaur
Between 1918 and 1928, Alexander Vasilievich Chayanov (1888-1937) wrote and published (at his own expense) five short Gothic-fantastic tales in separate volumes with print runs of no more than 300 copies, mostly under the whimsical pseudonym “Botanist X.” In his lifetime and until the 1990s, Chayanov was better known as an expert in agricultural economics, particularly peasant labor – and his objections to Stalin’s program of forced collectivization caused his arrest in 1930, exile from Moscow to Kazakhstan, and eventual execution. After his rehabilitation in the post-Soviet period, these stories were re-issued in a single volume and ran to multiple editions, sparking a short-lived Russian “Chayanov boom” and a renewal of academic interest in his fiction.
Scholars are particularly intrigued by the potentially significant creative link between Chayanov’s short story “Venediktov” (1921) and the novel The Master and Margarita (1940) by his much better-known contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov. Chayanov’s illustrator, a friend of Bulgakov’s, gave the latter a copy of “Venediktov” as a gift. Bulgakov was intrigued and somewhat spooked to discover that this story’s narrator is also called Bulgakov, and that his fictional namesake falls victim to a bizarre form of psychic possession, or hypnotic persuasion, exerted by a quasi-diabolic force. Since both Chayanov and Bulgakov share an obsession with demonic characters, carnivalesque grotesquerie and magical chaos, it is reasonable to speculate that the former’s now-obscure tales influenced the latter’s now world-famous fiction.
Another tantalizing link to literary celebrity is the coincidence that Chayanov’s science-fiction utopia, My Brother Alexey’s Journey* (probably intended to demonstrate the future social benefits of his principles of agricultural economy) is set in 1984, the same year immortalized in George Orwell’s dystopian novel (published in 1949). While there is absolutely no evidence that Orwell was aware of Chayanov’s novella, he did read and review the first English translation of Evgeny Zamyatin’s science-fiction novel We (written 1921), which may have been influenced, or partially inspired, by My Brother Alexey’s Journey.
Three of Chayanov’s stories – “Venediktov,” “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin, or, The Last Love Affair of a Moscow Architect,” and “The Venetian Mirror, or, The Extraordinary Adventures Of The Glass Man” – are available in my translation in a collection of Russian twentieth-century ghost stories called Red Spectres. Two still await publication: a love story about a ghost, and a picaresque trans-European adventure starring two accidental mermaids and a magician. All five are indulgently intertextual, erratically citing Hoffmann, Pushkin, Karamzin, Catullus, and the occasional authority on agronomy. For me, the great charm of these stories is their robust pastiche of a genre I love – the late Romantic fantastic. Chayanov intermingles an abundance of characters and tropes beloved of the early nineteenth century: mermaids, mirrors, mesmerists, and card-playing demons who worship Satan in London gentlemen’s clubs. E.T.A. Hoffmann is acknowledged as “the great master” (in the dedication of “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin”), but Chayanov’s eclectic knowledge of Russian and European culture is reflected in the multiplicity of his influences. Théophile Gautier’s eponymous opium-hazed artist in the short story “Onuphrius” (1832) could be refracted in the beautiful female spectre, conjured by tobacco smoke blown from a charmed pipe, who enchants the naïve diarist-narrator in “Julia, or Trysts At Novodevichy Convent” (1928). Alexey, the hero of “The Venetian Mirror” (1923), whose double escapes from an antique looking-glass to cause havoc around Moscow and even kidnap his wife, joins a long Romantic tradition of mirror-doubles – but Chayanov may have been inspired by the comparably malign runaway reflection in the 1913 German silent film The Student of Prague, directed by another now little-read author, Hanns Heinz Ewers. Ewers’s film inspired Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic treatise The Double (1914). We can only imagine what Rank or Freud would have said about Chayanov’s fiction had they enjoyed the opportunity to read it – doubtless, a great deal.
In Yuli Kagarlitskii’s phrase, Chayanov “belonged to the flower of the Russian democratic intelligentsia.”** This was a uniquely cosmopolitan and intellectually dowered generation whom Stalin and the Communist Party did their best to exterminate or exile. Chayanov’s fascination with urban topography and architecture, his knowledge of European languages, his passion for engravings and his aspirations to write historical fiction (even during his first arrest he began a novel about the medieval Slav prince Yuri Suzdalskii), all bespeak the breadth of his interests and his apparently inexhaustible energy. His second wife and staunch supporter Olga Gurevich was a theatre historian, whose career was also destroyed by the Soviet regime. Chayanov’s imaginary universe was almost ludicrously antithetical to the political environment of his own time: his entire oeuvre is an anomalous outcropping against the realistic trend of Soviet literature. The rediscovery and translation of his fiction is hard to justify by economic principles, but remains deeply enjoyable for all lovers of the eccentric and eclectic.
* Chayanov’s unfinished sci-fi novella, My Brother Alexey’s Journey Into the Land of Peasant Utopia (first published in Moscow in 1920 under a pseudonym) was published in an English translation as a slightly eccentric addendum to the late Professor R.E.F. Smith’s 1977 book The Russian Peasant, 1920 and 1984.
**Yuli I. Kagarlitskii, Slavic Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 634-642 [link]
images: (1) photo of Chayanov, 1921; (2) original 1924 cover illustration by Natalia Ushakova (who gave “Venediktov” to Bulgakov); (3) & (4) recent woodcuts by Grigory Babich for a Chayanov edition via book designer Alina Vekshina; (5) unpublished 1928 illustration by Kravchenko via nasledie-rus.ru; (6) photo of Chayanov
This is a guest post by Russian literary scholar Muireann Maguire, who blogs about literature as Russian Dinosaur.