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Obituary: Anatoli Rybakov

ONE OF the most compelling aspects of the last years of the Soviet Union was the erosion of authority and credibility of the Communist Party, a process initiated and fostered by the party itself. Some 18 months after Gorbachev's accession to the leadership, his ideological adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, was given the Politburo's assent to switch off the red light in intellectual and cultural life, and to leave it on amber, rather than green. Henceforth, it should be writers and their editors who would, for the most part, decide what to publish.

The first rays of light were fatefully cast on the history of the party itself. Mikhail Shatrov published plays about the revolution, in which Kerensky, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin appeared as dramatis personae, arguing and debating the events and the actions for which they were held responsible, and were given words to speak that in no way echoed the accepted orthodoxy. But the literary event that opened the flood gates must be credited to Anatoli Rybakov.

Some 20 years earlier, in 1966, he had completed Children of the Arbat, a novel in which Stalin himself is one of the main fictionalised characters. The book had been intended as a reinforcement of the de-stalinisation process, begun by Khrushchev in 1956, but it had been an early victim of the move towards the policy pursued by Brezhnev, which was to leave things unsaid, rather than grasp uncomfortable nettles.

As late as September 1986, Rybakov did not know if permission would be given for his book to appear. By the spring of 1987, however, the new policy was coming into place, and Children of the Arbat fitted the bill perfectly: a partly autobiographical, partly fictional account of the early 1930s, its hero, the author himself, is arrested in order to serve as a tiny link in a huge plot contrived by Stalin and his henchmen, which would culminate in the show trials, purges and mass terror to come. The book received a tumultuously enthusiastic response from the Soviet illuminati, and the historians began holding round-table discussions in which the general view was expressed that "we cannot leave the writing of our history to the novelists".

And following Rybakov, indeed, from early 1988 a steady widening of the entrance to taboo topics took place. More truthful commentary was now made on such figures as Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others, who were officially rehabilitated, and on Trotsky, whose ideas were now revealed in at least a neutral light, and finally on Lenin who was at last acknowledged as the architect not of a "radiant future", but of all the miseries endured by the Soviet people since the revolution.

Anatoli Naumovich Rybakov was born in 1911 in Chernigov, in present-day Ukraine. His father, Ngum Aronov, was an engineer of Jewish origin. In 1919 the family moved to Moscow where on completing his secondary education Anatoli worked for two years in factory labour as a stevedore and driver. He entered the Moscow Transport Institute in 1929.

In his final year he was arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to three years internal exile in Siberia. Released on 5 November 1935, he was prohibited from living in any large city and spent from 1936 to 1941 working as an auto- mechanic and driver, and even as a ballroom-dancing teacher, in places such as Ufa, Kalinin and Ryazan. Mobilised as a private in June 1941, four years later, as a major in charge of transport in the 4th Guards Rifle Corps, he was with the first Red Army units to enter Berlin.

It was while he was still in Germany with the occupying forces at Reichenbach that he began writing. Owing more to Maxim Gorky than to any of the innovative writers of the Soviet period, such as Babel or Bulgakov, Rybakov's manner, both in style and content, was all but indistinguishable from the many other adherents to Socialist Realism spawned by the Great Patriotic War: straightforward language and structure, familiar everyday themes, positive heroes and an optimistic outlook for mankind. Some of his best writing undoubtedly stems from the patchwork of his personal experience and working life.

His first novel, Kortik ("The Dirk"), appeared in 1948 at the height of the "anti-cosmopolitan", i.e. anti-Semitic, campaign, and Aronov was not a name to bear if one wished for literary success or to avoid trouble. Fortunately, his mother's name, Rybakov, was wholly Russian, and henceforth that was the only name by which he would be known.

Kortik established him at once as a writer of children's adventure stories, and it was followed by a number of equally successful books, notably Voditeli ("The Drivers", 1950), for which he won the Stalin Prize; Ekaterina Voronina (1955); Bronzovaya Ptitsa ("The Bronze Bird", 1956), the sequel to Kortik; Priklyuchenie Krosha ("Krosh's Adventures", 1960); Leto v Sosnyakakh ("Summer in Sosnyaki", 1964), which contains hints of an anti-Stalinist undercurrent; Kanikuly Krosha ("Krosh on Holiday", 1966); Neizvestnyi soldat ("The Unknown Soldier", 1970, the final part of the Krosh trilogy); Vystrel ("The Shot", 1975, ending the Kortik trilogy).

It was not until 1978, however, that the West heard of him. His novel Tyazhelyi Pesok ("Heavy Sand"), despite evidence of the persistent disguise of tricky subjects was a fairly successful attempt to depict the life of a Jewish family in north- western Ukraine, ranging from the turn of the century to the Holocaust.

Although it was not the first Soviet book to touch on this topic, appearing as it did in a conservative journal, Oktyahr, it suggested that the Brezhnev regime wished to send a signal that the Soviet Union was the homeland of Russia's Jews, they had shared the same fate, endured the same sufferings, and that they had no need to leave a great power to go in search of national fulfilment in a tiny country - Switzerland serving as the surrogate for Israel in this case.

As with Children of the Arbat a decade later, "Heavy Sand" was meant to serve a useful purpose for the regime. But although many still regard it as Rybakov's best work, it was hopelessly late in coming. By 1978 Soviet Jews had been voting with their feet for nearly a decade.

Children of the Arbat, however, succeeded brilliantly, too brilliantly if one recognises, as one should, the massively corrosive effect of glasnost on the entire structure of the regime. The sequel, Tridtsat 'pyat' I Drugie Gody, published in the West in 1992 as Fear), suffered from the literary weaknesses of Children of the Arbat, and came very much as a left-over from the heady days of perestroika.

The true story of Stalinism and the purges, as well as many other crimes of the past, had by now been well documented, as the historians had got down to their proper jobs. Anatoli Rybakov's moment had come in the late 1980s. He had been elected president of Memorial, an organisation largely of writers and intellectuals, dedicated to the collection of documents and memorabilia of the Stalin era, and the planning of a great monument to the dictator's victims, which has yet to materialise. As a speaker at a number of Western universities, even in his eighties his tough, feisty character and manifestly genuine commitment to the cause of freedom in his country, earned him enthusiastic responses from audiences.

Anatoli Naumovich Aronov (Anatoli Rybakov), writer: born Chernigov, Ukraine 14 January 1911; married; died New York 23 December 1998.