Ullstein Verlag, Berlin
Zakharov publishers, Moscow
ART Editorial Group, Bucharest.
Is love different for Germans, the French and Americans? If we are to believe Russian authors, then the answer is ‘yes.’ Twenty years after the scandalous publication of Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, when Tolstoy published Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s heroine was immediately proclaimed “the Russian Emma.” But what does the middle-class, adulterous Emma Bovary, who prefers to engross herself in romantic novels, and whose boring country life led her to take lovers, have in common with Anna Karenina? As far as Anna is concerned, life is impossible without Vronsky, and she has to endure the suffering caused by the enforced separation from her son, her lover’s coldness and the sense of her own sins. But she cannot do anything about it. She is a victim of the destructive power of love. It is this power that casts her under the wheels of the train.
Everything changed with the October Revolution. But did love change too? Steel workers and textile-factory girls fell in love the proletarian way and walked hand-in-hand into the dawn of Communism—well, at least in literature. In real life, which was no longer permeated by middle-class prejudices and the exaggerated manners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these women dragged their drunken idiots of husbands out of the gutter and helped them home. This was how Soviet writers came to the conclusion that love means having compassion for someone.
The 1990s—the years of chaos, decadence, big money and big crime—found entirely new ways to put love to the test. And this time it was the women who took the initiative. They declared that love was an invention that men had come up with so that they wouldn’t have to pay for it. After all, what had the rat race for designer cloths, fancy cars, luxury trips, plastic surgery and the constant worries about losing their powerful sugar daddies gotten the wives of the so-called “new” Russians? Nothing, according to Vladimir Spektr. Here it is typifying that Anna—the heroine in Spektr’s story in this anthology—does not throw herself under a train, but does in her unfaithful husband, and that she cannot remember what her first lover looked like, but she can remember the designer names of his clothes.
All calculations to the contrary, love is still around, working its passionate, mad, destructive and comforting charms. Even in war-torn Chechnya. Anna Politkovskaya, the author and journalist who was murdered in 2006, has a touching tale of two invalids in the ruins of bombed-out Grozny. It is a story of love in an apartment that measures nine and a half square yards, has all its windows blown out, does not have electricity, nor a crust of bread, and no future. Svetlyana Alexievich has a no less poignant tale of the love between an Armenian and an Azerbaidzhani that takes place at the time of the Baku massacre in the early 1990s. It is a modernized version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Batty Old Lyalya,” a sixty-year-old “retiree” in Alla Bossart’s story of the same name can hardly be considered “retiring,” because she can still fall in love again and again: as long as there is love, there is life. Sanka, the main character in Vladimir Sorokin’s story cannot come to grips with the death of his beloved, and goes to the cemetery to open her grave. Irina Vassilkova’s Elena almost falls in love with the half-grown Ninochka, whom her husband is so enthusiastic about photographing, and this feeling of desire reminds her of her own bygone passion.
It is senseless to ask why the thirteen-year-old Bronka in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s tale falls in love with the sixty-nine-year-old next-door neighbor. Why the main character in Alexander Churgin’s story cannot decide between two women, and lies to them both. Why the husband in Dina Rubina’s tale feels relief after thirty-five years of happy marriage when his wife dies, and discovers that love can encapsulate you like a fly in amber.
Hopefully science will never find some complicated chemical formula that will explain the mental disturbance which is known as love. “If you are not acquainted with this most wonderful of all feelings, … then you are unfortunately a poor primitive being, little different from a snail or a tree fungus,” says Dmitrij Gortshev in his satirical contribution to this volume. But whether love à la Russe is really so different for the Germans, or the Chinese (Viktor Erofeev), is a question that the readers will have to answer for themselves after reading the book.
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