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.
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.