Another Life of Soviet History

By Nancy Pellegrino

Yuri Trifonov, one of the most important Soviet writers of the 1960s and 1970s, frequently turned to the everyday life of urban residents in his prose.  Trifonov explored topics such as how the past informed the present, how to live an authentic life, and the moral compromises frequently required by Soviet citizens.

In his 1976 novella, Another Life, Sergei Afanasievich serves as the key focal point for understanding Soviet society, as it closely follows the thoughts of his wife, Olga Vasilievna, throughout events from their early relationship and marriage to the months after he widows her. Despite Olga and her mother-in-law’s competition to be closer with Sergei and their drastic personality differences, they both share a lack of capability to understand him and possess contending beliefs about history and society compared to his views. This difference separates him from his domestic life and contributes to Sergei being more absorbed and weakened by his work, though he has no raise in position or pay to show for it. In some regards, readers may pity Sergei; he fiercely resents submission and compliance, securing his position at the bottom of the ladder in the Soviet workplace. His insatiable desire to understand history and how it connects everyone and everything to the past and even to the future creates conflict in several relationships throughout the plot. Because the narration closely reflects the thought process of the depressive and jealous Olga and her imperfect recollection of the past, the view the reader has of Sergei is often unreliable and incomplete. Therefore, the majority of Sergei’s thoughts and development are revealed through dialogue.

            The narrator introduces the reader to Sergei first as a young and passionate historian. However, the passage of time and support from his family did not lead Sergei to success at work or in finishing his dissertation about the tsarist secret police. Even after Sergei’s death, Olga struggles to make meaning of his work, “to her they were just series of names, dates, villages, counties, towns, code names, occupations, addresses. What could anyone do with it all? She did not understand,” and could not grasp the significance of history or appreciate the work it produced (Trifonov 129). Olga is a biologist and regards history as the linear process of reading and writing about events that will end up in the archives. This is a fundamentally different view of history compared to that of her husband. They occasionally discussed, to her astonishment, that Sergei perceives history as intertwined threads able to transcend death and time and connect everyone to everything. He describes the, “thread of human continuity function as a channel through which certain indestructible elements were transmitted between the generations,” and sees history as the work of following these threads in order to make sense of everything and potentially predict where the threads of the future will go (114). Similar to Olga, Alexandra Prokofievna, a long-time supporter of the Communist Party and Soviet ideology, calls her son’s lifetime of unconventional ideas delusional. Sergei tries to criticize his mother’s obedient and uninspired ways of thinking by his response, “whereas over the same period you, Mother dear, have remained totally undisturbed by a single new idea,” (178). Sergei reveals his distaste for the stagnation in the Soviet Union and begins to argue with his mother about the possibility of anything after death, an idea adamantly struck down by the staunch atheism that was prominent in the Soviet Union. Sergei begins to confide less and less in his wife and mother about his work and whereabouts as he transitions from researching the February Revolution to the uncertainty of parapsychology.

In addition to those closest to him not being able to understand him, Sergei runs into similar situations at the institute and in daily conversation. When interviewing an old informer, his drunken and uneducated grandson interrupts Sergei, “We learned all about history in school… there’s only one history, and we don’t need it anymore,” and to which he replies, “history isn’t mine it belongs to you, too, and to your grandfather. It belongs to everybody,” (142-143). This emphasizes Sergei’s idea of history as the entirety of truths that is accessible to everyone, contradicting the Soviet government’s view of a future based strictly on their selective propaganda rather than on evidence from the past. Sergei goes even further to challenge the selectiveness of Soviet history when remarking, “I wonder who decides what’s expedient and what isn’t? The academic council-by a majority vote?” (95) during a debate about historical expediency with a colleague. He is also unable to abandon his truths of history and is unwilling to do special favors to boost his position, which were common at the time. Sergei’s suborn adherence to his understanding of history results in the permanent delay of his dissertation and eventually, the reason for his resignation at the institute. He only wants to pursue the “truths” and the future of contradictory sciences, which were viewed very negatively by many in the Soviet Union. With his death being accompanied by his unfinished dissertation and lack of progress in parapsychology, Trifonov’s novella Another Life ultimately deems Sergei Afanasievich as a character unfit for success in Soviet life.

Nancy Pellegrino is a second year student majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Diplomacy and Global Politics

This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.