Lyudmila Ulitskaya: “The Fugitive”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website. Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s “The Fugitive” (tr. from the Russian by Bela Shayevich) was originally published in the May 12, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

In Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s “The Fugitive,” an old woman talks about Soviet Russia:

“Listen lodger,” she says, “that new Stalin they have today, they praise him so highly, he’ll be even worse than the old one [. . .] . The old one took everything, and now this one is picking at the leftovers. Oh they liberated us from everything, those dearies. First they freed me from my land, then from my husband, my children, my cow, my chickens. Now they’ll liberate me from vodka, and I’ll finally be free.”

Ulitskaya is famous in Russia. She is a well published author, and also the recipient of a premier literary prize, the Russian Booker Prize. She is famous enough in the west to have two of her novels reviewed in Goodreads, and five of her books for sale on Amazon.  Her work emphasizes social ideals, such as the “reconciliation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” as Wikipedia says. “The Fugitive” shows an artist who is pursued by the police for speaking his mind, but whose spirit is not broken. While he is in hiding, country life and country people bring him to a new, purer sense of art, one that embodies respect for the simpler things in life.

As always, I am interested in The New Yorker’s commitment to publishing literature in translation. In this particular case, the interview with Ulitskaya in “This Week in Fiction” is an important adjunct to the story. Ulitskaya says that Russians suffered “trauma” from Soviet life, and that it is important to acknowledge it. She particularly mentions the separation from nature that Soviet life enforced.

In addition, she talks about her relationship with the recently freed-from-prison oligarch, Boris Khordokovsky, who has urged Ulitskaya to use her fame to develop a relationship with the Ukrainian intelligentsia. I think “The Fugitive” should be read, in part, with the current Russian intervention in Ukraine in mind, particularly because Ulitskaya senses “the symptoms of return of Soviet power.”

It is significant that this story has appeared in The New Yorker right at the time as Vladimir Putin has been able to annex the Crimea, and perhaps is fomenting civil war in Ukraine. This is not the first time Russia has tried to break Ukraine; in the early thirties, Stalin forced a famine upon Ukraine to bring it to heel; some say that millions in the Ukraine died as a result — an ironic and horrible result, given that Ukraine is the breadbasket of Russia.

At this point, though, the story’s question is not whether Russia is seeking to re-establish some of its former imperial power, but how one deals with such power. In the midst of this current turmoil, “The Fugitive” remembers the brutal past and remarks upon how precious individual freedom is, to anyone, but particularly to the artist — the freedom to speak your mind, for instance, as well as the freedom to find your identity in something beyond the state and its impositions.

Turning to “The Fugitive,” it’s the mid-seventies and the Soviet Union has not fallen yet. Death has not been an uncommon result of life in this state.  The main character, Boris, does not want to have children, because “giving birth in this inhumane and shameless state — into a meaningless life of poverty and filth — should not be done.” In this story, prison is both a topic and a reality.

Boris, an artist, is wanted by the police, initially because he had published some anti-Soviet drawings abroad. His drawings had featured sausage, bologna, and hot dogs as their central satiric device. One morning the police show up at Boris’s apartment, and he makes his getaway out the back door, with a few necessaries, and “all the money there was in the house.”

By fleeing to the countryside, he manages to evade the police for four years. While there, he experiences a kind of rebirth as he gets to know country life and country people, what one character calls not an anti-Soviet life but an “a-soviet” life.

When the Soviet authorities finally catch up with Boris, they actually throw him in jail for “pornography,” when what he was really doing was merely drawing people as they are, drawing them nude, out of respect. The thing that may have confused the police is that these nude women are aged. It is as if the police had so little respect for life, they could not see respect when they encountered it.

The fact that the story takes place in the seventies seems to stand as a reminder. Even though Boris enjoys a sort of pleasant life in Moscow, he ends up in hiding, and then in prison, for speaking his mind. Ulitskaya, in a rather understated way, reminds us how recently it was that the Soviet state could listen in on your kitchen conversations, as well as try to throw you in jail for speaking your mind, not to mention throwing you in jail for showing respect to three old ladies.

Boris himself was interesting to get to know. But I am unsettled by Ulitskaya’s recipe for standing up to a Soviet-style state: Does Ulitskaya warn the artists and thinkers in Ukraine that they must preserve themselves apart from the deadening power of the state, as well as stand up to the state?

Is some turning aside from the state a necessary thing? Is art that only criticizes the state and doesn’t celebrate humanity “bologna”? Is Boris a stand-in for the Ukrainian artist, or even, Ukraine itself?

The story is interesting in and of itself, apart from Ukraine. But given what is happening in Ukraine, “The Fugitive” is also Ulitskaya speaking to Ukraine.

6 thoughts on “Lyudmila Ulitskaya: “The Fugitive””

  1. Betsy says:

    In a 2001 book review, the New York times explained that Ulitskaya is “a Moscow geneticist who lost her scientific credentials in the 1970′s as a punishment for translating a banned novel”. http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/02/11/reviews/010211.11lordlt.html

    Ulitaksaya published a provocative op-ed piece in The Guardian in February of this year in which she says, “Many people seriously believe that everything we are told about what happened in Russian history is completely true and that everything that is happening in Russia today is completely true and that the Russian authorities are guilty of no errors, crimes or historical sins. What is happening feels like an unwritten chapter from Orwell: we are right, we are always right, we are right in everything, and whoever questions the correctness of this indomitable unfailing power is cursed.”
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/06/russia-today-lost-chapter-orwell

    Another Guardian piece, an interview entitled “Why I’m not afraid of Vladimir Putin” appeared in 2011.
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/17/lyudmila-ulitskaya-dissident-putin-interview

    I also recommend this on-line article by Vica Miller. Miller is a Russian transplant to New York, as is also apparently Lyudmila Ulitskaya – who spends her time between Moscow and New York. http://www.asymptotejournal.com/article.php?
    cat=Special_Feature&id=68&curr_index=31&curPage=Special_Feature

    But finally, I want to mention a very negative review of Ulitskaya’s best seller (Daniel Stein, Interpreter) that appeared in The Washington Post.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-world-daniel-stein-interpreter-reviewed/2011/03/17/AFVSZtgG_story.html

    Although I may be mistaken, Ulitskaya seems to have disappeared from the New York Times.

    This is an interesting writer. I hope more discussion of her work and her influence will follow here.

  2. Ken says:

    I found this interesting as history or cultural anthropology but not really as literature. No subtext in the fiction itself (although Betsy found one in applying the tale to the current situation in Ukraine) and far too prosaic in style. It also seems part of something larger perhaps. It was enjoyable, though, and the scene of the three old ladies bathing and talking is really magical and refreshing.

  3. mehbe says:

    I thought it was a pretty wonderful story, but in ways I can’t really describe (or it may be that I am too lazy to attempt it).

    But here are a couple of thoughts…

    Maybe because I grew up long ago in a rural environment (in the Plains of the US) and in a social realm that wasn’t very connected to urban life, there’s much in the story that resonates for me. There’s also an underlying bleakness of outlook that I find weirdly compelling, and very Russian.

  4. Betsy says:

    Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya wrote: “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest. if you want to go on working as a journalist, it’s total servility to Putin.” (Sylvia Lawson. Demanding the Impossible: About Resistance. Google Books. p 3 )

    Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006. Although five men were sentenced today for her murder, it is not known who ordered her killed. It is widely thought she was taken down for her free thinking.

    Ulitskaya’s story is not investigative reporting, but it clearly challenges the governmental status quo is Russia. While her story, “The Fugitive”, might seem mild to us, its author is clearly outspoken.

  5. Madwomanintheattic says:

    Yes, the political import, and yes the immediacy of the story, but there is a piece missing in the comments so far- about the gorgeous folk (perhaps essentially Russian) humor of the piece; the mother-in-law who loves and protects and finally misses the son-in-law who loves her; bologna as subversive medium; rotten eggs as protest ammunition; old women who cackle and drink, never wash and celebrate their own set of Mariolatrous holidays; the clumsy policemen worthy of Dogberry; Boris’s lusty lovers; and the stoicism with which he shaves off his beard, leaves on his mustache, and goes out the back door into hiding. Nothing stops his drawing, even a lack of appropriate paper; but look how the subject matter changes once he has left the realm of the political for the scale of the human. I disagree with Ken that this is not literature. I think it’s brilliant. Against the frightening background, a stalwart man, an artist, finds his material, keeps on drawing, keeps on living.

  6. Betsy says:

    Great stuff, Madwoman. Your observations on the humor of the piece are an essential take. Once I read what you had to say, I could see it. Also, that he never stops drawing – despite the lack of paper, is a key bit. Your last sentence captures the story perfectly.

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