Monday, July 9, 2012

On Edge by the River: Alexander Ilichevsky’s Anarchists

Alexander Ilichevsky’s Анархисты (The Anarchists) was a lovely reading surprise, a novel that blends, fairly successfully, classical and contemporary themes and stylistics. Though I can quote my own post from 2010 about Ilichevsky’s Booker-winning Matisse and say The Anarchists is also “an ambitious, lumpy novel that uses complex, often poetic imagery and language to present social, existential, and metaphysical angles on post-Soviet Russia,” I found in The Anarchists a more even and more satisfying novel than Matisse.

The Anarchists focuses on Petr Solomin, an aspiring artist who left his Moscow life as a businessman to paint on the Oka River, in the Kaluga oblast’. Solomin’s name is rooted in Russian words related to “straw” and he idolizes Isaac Levitan, who died in 1900 but appears in the book as a character. Solomin wants to understand Levitan’s perspectives. Solomin lives with a woman named Katya, whom he meets early in the book, when she gives him a ride in Moscow. And quite a ride it is: Katya, whose beauty is compared to Greta Garbo’s, is a flaky driver. Solomin has to bring her home with him; she turns out to have an addiction. Their acquaintances in the country include two doctors, an Orthodox priest, super-rich newlyweds, and a schoolteacher who’s a specialist in Yevgeny Onegin.

The Anarchists focuses primarily on Solomin’s various sufferings—with himself, with Katya and her addiction, with a Bazarov-like young doctor, and with the rest of the world—and Ilichevsky generally paces the book nicely. The first half of the book is a bit slower and background-heavy than the second, with tangents that take us back in history, telling the story of a local anarchist and natural history expeditions—for those of you keeping track, the Tunguska event gets another mention here and may soon win a tag of its own on the blog. We see the contemporary characters interact with nature, too, particularly the river. There are also heavy, deep, and real conversations among the doctors and the priest: they talk about philosophy and, yes, gossip about Solomin and Katya. Some of this talk feels playful, on the verge of parody.

Ilichevsky folds in lots of literary predecessors, including the afore-mentioned Yevgeny Onegin, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin, a Chekhovesque gun, Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, and the ever-dreaded-but-popular superfluous man. Many of the book’s themes come together when Solomin tells Dr. Dubrovin that all the escapees to the provinces are anarchists because they want autonomy. Solomin also admits to being a superfluous man. We already know his difficulties with Russian society: he loves Eurotravel and fancies the idea of getting lost or disappearing amidst spirits in the woods. Which he does.

How I imagined it: 
Levitan’s Тишина (Silence)
For me, it’s the river that anchors the novel, connecting themes—art, science, nature—and historical eras, and offering landscapes (often with people) for Ilichevsky to describe. And describe he does, beginning the novel with summaries of seasons on the Oka and ending it with the river reflecting a female face. I think the river, both because of its constancy and because of Ilichevsky’s descriptions, contributed most to my rather indescribable enjoyment of The Anarchists.

Rarely do I use words like “beguiling” to describe a novel… but “beguiling” fits my experience with The Anarchists. I loved the book’s contrasts and combinations: the feel of simultaneously reading the present and the past, the feel of rural leisure and urban urgency, and the feel of ancient settings inhabited by contemporary people. Yes, The Anarchists is lumpy, but I think the lumps and tangents give the book much of its organic energy. Ilichevsky pulls so many elements into his novel that it’s tempting to call him an anarchist, too, but he’s careful with his material, which he seems to love very much. Perhaps that gave him the strength to pull back from offering too much about, say, expeditions, anarchists, or Levitan himself. The result is a curiously timeless composite of past and present that mixes post-Soviet alienation with language, straw hats, rural doctors, river banks, bicycles, and literary motifs that took me back to alienated characters from Russian classics, particularly Chekhov and Turgenev.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Anarchists from Read Russia, where Ilichevsky was a participant. The usual.

Up Next: Vladimir Makanin’s Two Sisters and Kandinsky, another book that combines classic and contemporary…

Image Credit: Isaac Levitan’s Молчание (Silence), 1898, via


  1. This sounds great - now I want to read it, too!

    1. I enjoyed it... I was a little skeptical after my failure to read Перс and my mixed feelings about Matisse but Ilichevsky's combination of elements worked much better for me this time.

  2. Replies
    1. What I said to Ani! And I'll add that I thought the book fit my lazy summer pace when the weather was hot... which isn't to say I wouldn't have liked the book in the winter!

  3. Just saw copies of it in the new Russian section of the flagship Waterstone's bookstore on Piccadilly - a wonderful new resource to have in London.

    1. Yes, that new Russian department at Waterstones sounds great! Enjoy!