Sunday, January 8, 2012

Freedom’s Just Another Word: Ivan D.’s Big Liberty

Publisher Ad Marginem’s “autobiographical novel” description on the back of Dmitrii Dobrodeev’s Большая svoboda Ивана Д. (Ivan D.’s Big Liberty) feels utterly superfluous: with many dateline-ish chapter starts, real-life figures, and historical events worked into the story of a man who leaves the Soviet Union, first for Hungary, then for West Germany, the book has the feel of a documentary novel that could only have been written by someone who lived “it.” Which Dobrodeev has done, living in Germany and the Czech Republic since 1989. And Dobrodeev, like Ivan D., worked at Radio Liberty. Dobrodeev said in an interview with Echo of Moscow that about 90 percent of the book is true, with a “documentary basis,” and that he included his own experiences in his Ivan D., a composite figure for his generation.

I’ve written more than once that I’m not a fan of finding real people in contemporary fiction… but Dobrodeev somehow makes the device work, including people like 1991 coup plotter Genadii Yanaev, a pre-LDPR Vladimir Zhirnivoskii, and journalist Andrei Babitskii in Ivan D. Honestly, I’m surprised the book worked for me at all: it’s told in very spare, nearly affectless language and combines a good dose of abstraction (условность) with its facts. Still, Ivan D. is that odd case of a book that fascinated even when it was a crashing bore. Perhaps that’s what Dobrodeev intended: life west of the old Iron Curtain may sound romantic or exciting, particularly when spy agencies are involved and there’s freedom, but it can also be pretty dull. Emigration, we’re told, isn’t развлечение; the old cliché “fun and games” works well here.

Ivan D. is a man with mixed feelings about the Soviet Union. He hates that he was невыездной (not allowed to travel) for years, unable to use his talents, and living in relative poverty. But he also dislikes the changes of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which he thinks demean Russia’s history. Toward the end of the book Ivan D. visits Moscow as a Radio Liberty correspondent during the events of October 1993, seeing the Russian White House after it was bombed by the government. He comes away thinking what happened was грязно, dirty, and that it marks the end of historical Russia. At least the Soviet Union valued brotherhood and solidarity.

Ivan D.’s stated preference is for personal freedom, something he takes advantage of in his life in Germany after (of course!) he’s spent time in a remote location offering analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the German government. Ivan D. also hears Russian writers read (Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Erofeev are among those mentioned), has odd dreams that probably indicate his freest thoughts, and eventually moves in with a Russian woman. They live like, well, libertines, with lots of alcohol and rumors of orgies. Their lifestyle is a magnification of norms at their workplace; that Radio Liberty group is quite a bunch.

Throughout all this, Ivan sometimes feels his self (“я”) disintegrating and he has a tendency to forget who he is and where he’s from. He’s also disturbed when a veteran co-worker from the station is buried in Germany, among alien souls (“среди чужих душ”). Ivan doesn’t feel right anywhere, though a reunion with his wife in his old Moscow apartment at the end of the book gives him the chance to see his daughter and smell old smells. In some ways, I think Ivan D. feels freest there. The book’s chapters end with a vibe of “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Dobrodeev clinches that by supplementing the chapters with a few addenda, Radio Liberty correspondence about Ivan D. Indeed, the more things change the more they stay the same.

I’m not sure how much I liked Ivan D.’s Big Liberty—Dobrodeev’s style isn’t a favorite but I appreciate his portrayals of people and a time and think he combines abstraction and concreteness to very good effect—and I would only recommend it with the caution that it’s a rather peculiar book that’s not likely to appeal to everyone. (Of course I could say that about just about everything I read but I won’t expand on that right now…)

All that said, the novel was an interesting counterpoint to my own experiences during the era, when I traveled to Russia and eventually moved there: I heard the bombing of the Russian White House in October ’93 and complaints from people who wanted firmer control than Yeltsin’s. As I wrote this post, I realized that the book probably succeeded for me more than I initially thought. Dobrodeev’s story about an abstract, albeit self-referential, Ivan without a country manages to convey a lot about the sad and sometimes humorous messiness and contradictions of cultural, political, and personal freedoms during and directly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For more: Ad Marginem has links to reviews.

Level for nonnative readers of Russian: 2.5/5.0. Not especially difficult. Short sentences. Simple syntax.

Up next: A St. Petersburg extravaganza, beginning with two Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories, then Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. I must admit these works have been a bit of a shock to the system after Ivan D.


  1. Given that it's so autobiographical, do you think it would have worked better as a factual series of reminiscences of that era? Or does the fiction element add to it?

    I'm also fascinated with this era, I lived in Moscow in the mid 90s after the putsch.

    And I adore bely's Petersburg, especially the wonderful language, so am looking forward to your review.

  2. I would love to read this book, but I can't find an ebook from a reputable site. Do you know of a site selling the book? Thanks!

  3. Thanks, cat and Anthony, for your comments!

    @Anthony: I bought my book from It was on the sale page.

    @cat: It was funny to read your questions because I asked myself the same things as I read the book! I read the book more as a documentary novel than as an autobiographical novel. I think there are two reasons: the "real" people in the book broaden the focus beyond Ivan D. and Dobrodeev's use of abstraction, including calling his main character Ivan D. I do think the fiction element adds to the book: I liked the combination of known material (e.g. the October Events), devices, and material that could have been fact or fiction. In the end, though, I do wonder what I might have thought of the book without my interest in the era...

    Petersburg is very different from how I remembered it... I last read it back in the '80s, so I guess that's not surprising! The language is definitely a lot of fun, though I find that I can't read more than about 15-20 pages a day. The first chapter was very slow reading for me but things are starting to pick up. I'm glad I'm reading it this time right after a bit of Gogol.

  4. Lisa, thanks for that review.
    I don't know D., from what you write it sounds more like 'A Short and Happy Life of Ivan D.' - in reference to his return to the old apartment. Maybe the title is a pun on Hemingway?

    October 93 is almost forgotten, but many do think it was a turn for the bad in the post-Soviet period, a possibility lost.

    I have often thought, shall we ever see a War and Peace coming out of 89-93? For the moment it feels as though the material has only been developed by Ilf-Petrovs of our time.

  5. Thank you, Alexander, for the comment! I haven't read the Hemingway story but will have to take a look... I don't think I'd say that Ivan D. was happy visiting the old apartment, particularly given the smelly подъезд, неловкое молчание, stories of economic realities, and other painful factors. But there are also familiar things--including the requisite дерматин on the door--and a real, if difficult, conversation with his wife. It made an interesting choice for closing the chapter portion of the book.

    I'd need to go back through the whole book to confirm this, but it felt as if the last chapter was more expansive (albeit still quite spare), with more memories of Ivan D.'s past life and detail (e.g. setting) than I remember finding in other chapters. It's also possible that I simply responded, emotionally, because he finally had a talk with his wife, whom he hadn't seen in years.

    I wonder, too, about a big novel about '89-'93. It's an interesting thought, particularly since I've read several books--this one, Makanin's Ispug, and Iuzefovich's Zhuravli i karliki--with mentions of the October Events. It's interesting to hear that you think memories of October '93 are pretty much lost: I suppose so much else has happened (e.g. terrorist attacks) that it is relatively easy to forget.