Leonid Yuzefovich’s novella The Storm details the minutely calibrated network of emotions and ideology underlying daily life at a Soviet primary school in the Urals. An early work by Yuzefovich who gained prominence in the last two decades for his detective novels set in 19th century Russia, a period which he also researched and wrote about as a historian, The Storm eschews the grand scale of his more recent writings. Its characters are small people—children, retirees, and middle-aged provincial teachers—rather than powerful historical actors. It is an enchanting work, from its gemlike descriptions of objects and scenes to the narrator’s fondness for the world of the story and good humor toward its characters—even the novella’s villain, the rigid, hubristic road safety instructor Rodygin is redeemed by the end. And though it may seem humble and small next to Yuzefovich’s novels and even Horsemen of the Sands, its companion novella in a new Archipelago Books volume translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, The Storm is by no means slight. Beneath its veneer of gentle irony, Yuzefovich’s favorite subject—history—rumbles on. It is propelled by religion, superstition, the natural world and—most importantly in this supremely humanistic work—individual lives and actions. Beware the “smell of electricity” wafting through the story and remarked upon obliquely by its character: this novella is charged throughout and leaves a scorching impression.
The Storm opens with a scene of habitual classroom chaos that the sensible yet tender-hearted schoolteacher Nadezhda Stepanova is powerless to suppress. It is depicted through a cacophony of sounds that invoke the work’s title: The children “chatter, squirm, drop things, throw stuff back and forth, rip up pieces of paper, and roll their pens and pencils across their desks…the undifferentiated rumbling struck the ear with a combination of a savage harmony characteristic of a rain’s rumbling, or a waterfall’s” (11). Children, such descriptions imply, are a force of nature, agents of history, roiling and unstoppable. Any attempt to subdue them would be pure folly. Enter the despotic guest lecturer on traffic safety Rodygin whose first order of business is to whip the classroom into shape.
Through the application of scared-straight tactics—military drills and apocryphal claims about the penalties for drunk-driving in far-off places (in Turkey drunk drivers are forced to walk thirty kilometers with a police escort; in Singapore, put in jail together with their wives; in other countries, promptly executed)—Rodygin goes to battle with the unruly classroom. Numbers are another weapon in his arsenal and he uses them liberally: “‘Anyone who gets behind the wheel drunk in Singapore is arrested and put in jail for fifteen days.’ Rodygin cited the figure for clarity, though he had no idea what term was stipulated in that article of Singapore’s criminal code,” Yuzefovich writes (54). Rodygin’s insistence on the supreme “clarity” supplied by facts and figures, real or invented, recollects the Stalinist past where plans, quotas, and statistics took precedence over human lives. It will come as no surprise that Rodygin meets his match in the dynamic and disorderly group of students.
Two students are singled out and readers are given fleeting, exquisite access to their backstories and inner monologues. Both have intimate knowledge of topics about which Rodygin only claims expertise. There is Filimonov, “a little boy with large ears,” who has recently been hit by a motorcycle: the incident, which occurred outside of the Nature’s Gifts store, is related with a child’s naivety and appreciation for the grotesque. Schwartz, whose translation is clear and powerful throughout, is especially skilled at conveying the voices and thoughts of children: “Filimonov had been drinking tomato juice, a wonderful gift of nature at ten kopecks a glass, and the salt was free. When he went flying toward the grass and saw blood on his shirt, his first thought had been that the tomato juice was spilling out of him”(18). Then there is top-student Vekshina who, since her father’s arrest for drunk-driving and subsequent descent into alcoholism, fingers the latchkey around her neck like a talisman. Rodygin’s horror stories about penalties for drunk driving in Turkey affect her so viscerally that she begins to write her poor papa into them: “Sweat was running into his eyes, which he raised to the skies from time to time praying for rain,” she imagines. “Right behind him, mustached policemen in claret fezzes were riding huge motorcycles with curved horns that bellowed and glittered under the merciless Turkish sun” (37). As the two children’s humiliation before Rodygin and their peers becomes unbearable, a storm is brewing outside. Emotions and the forces of nature swirl together toward the novella’s cyclonic climax.
The fourth major character in the novella is the schoolteacher Nadezhda Stepanova who is wise to her environment—as hopeful for the children’s futures as she is resigned to her own. Tolerant and a bit of a pushover, she acts as a foil to the more flamboyant and commanding Rodygin, but also as the novella’s moral center. Many of The Storm’s most tender and effective moments are knotted into her thread of the narrative: when “poison-blue crystals” grown by ninth graders prompt the realization that a ruby in her ring “had not been hewn from mountain veins but also had been born in a glass beaker” (25); her intense sensory nostalgia of youthful pie-eating upon buying bird cherries from a cigarette-smoking granny: “The light crunch of crushed stems, the marble veins on the crust, and the fragrant violet pulp inside” (30); and her heartbreakingly modest fantasies of a peaceful old age in a northern boardinghouse for retired teachers “surrounded by taiga, prison camps, and timber lots” (32). And then there is her eerie belief that, through a copper wire tied around the finger of a corpse and threaded out of the grave, the soul can leave the body and ascend to heaven. “The more honestly you lived” she reflects, “the more electricity there was in your soul, and it was the same everywhere, on the earth, in the earth, and in the sky. So what was she to fear? Death?” (47)
The Storm is dated 1987 and its subtle morbidity and attention to the pulsing, hidden currents of the human environment bring to mind Yuzefovich’s western contemporary Don DeLillo. Just a few years earlier, DeLillo was composing White Noise, his novel about human anxiety in the face of looming environmental and technological threats. The novel’s tranquil, academic setting recalls Yuzefovich’s novella, as does its atmosphere of dread and imminent disaster. DeLillo once described his fiction as concerned with “living in dangerous times,” and the same could be said of The Storm: 1987 was a year of protests and demonstrations across the Baltic States and the Caucasus with the dissolution of the Soviet Union close at hand. It is possible to read the work as an allegory for this so-called “end of history,” with liberalization and individualism—the schoolchildren—triumphing over Rodygin’s drive toward uniformity and order. Like the Soviet republics, the children resist in diverse ways, some passively through inattention, and others violently, by the throwing of spitballs or more lethal tactics. One can understand the novella’s action, if one chooses, as the clash between political systems of the past and imminent future or of the East and West.
Yet, the genius of the work is that, at least while reading it—one does not. Instead, one is carried along by Yuzefovich’s voice and thoroughly immersed in the tense pleasure of the world he has created, which, far as it is for the centers of power, is by no means outside of history. The Storm may be a story about living in dangerous times, but that is not the most exceptional thing about it.
Yuzefovich, Leonid. Horsemen of the Sands. Translated by Marian Schwartz, Archipelago, 2018.