Obituary: Nikolai Zadornov

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The Independent Online
Nikolai Pavlovich Zadornov, writer, born Penza 22 November 1909, died Riga 19 June 1992.

IN THE ERA of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Nikolai Zadornov was one of the few novelists who contrived to publish historical novels, more than 20 of them, staying away in his subject matter from the gloomy world of Soviet politics.

Zadornov was a historical writer whose interest lay mainly in the 19th-century history of the Far East, its assimilation by the Russians, and the related heroic exploits by Russian explorers. Born in Russia, in Penza, in 1909, he started his adult life as an actor in Vladivostok, where his interest in the region's history was born. Later he was a reporter in local Far East newspapers and in 1939 he moved to Moscow to join the government newspaper Izvestia as a literary editor.

He started serious research and writing in the mid-1930s but the first part of his first historical novel, the two-volume Amur, the Father, appeared early in 1941. The publication of the second volume was postponed by the Second World War, in which Zadornov worked as a war correspondent. This second part appeared in 1946, nearly simultaneously with his new two-volume novel, The Distant Land (1946-49). The next novel was Towards the Ocean (1949), which was republished 20 years later, completely revised and with a different title, The First Discovery. Under Khrushchev, two historical novels by Zadornov appeared on the same subject - the two-volume Captain Nevelskoy (1956-58) and the two-volume War for the Ocean (1960-62).

Zadornov's second field of interest, which he dug deep, was the development of the Far East by Russian peasant settlers. His best historical novel remains Tsunami (1971), about expeditions made to Japan in 1845-55 by the prominent statesman and diplomat Admiral Count Efim Putiatin, later a naval attache in London. His books dealing with contemporary matters were much less successful. But his travel diary, The Blue Hour (1968), was very successful and the Russian press called him the Russian Jack London. His six-volume Complete Works appeared in Moscow in 1976-79. He was a member of the Writers' Union in Moscow, although he lived in Riga, the capital of Latvia. He appeared a great deal on Russian and Latvian television between the 1960s and 1980s.

Throughout the period from Stalin to Brezhnev, Zadornov maintained an output that made him a rouble millionaire. The Stalin Prize for Literature in 1952 alone gave him 150,000 roubles when the exchange rate was pounds 1 to a rouble, but his earnings and his pension shrank sharply under Gorbachev. Russian 'patriots' and various groups of right-wingers tried to adopt him and depict him as 'suffering as a lonely Russian surrounded by enemies' when last September Latvia became a foreign country relative to the former Soviet Union.

According to his son and close Russian and Latvian friends he kept writing to the end and was apparently glad that Communism had fallen in Latvia and later in Russia, and that he was suddenly able to stop being careful to exercise self-censorship; but he was already very ill. His main novels have been published in translation in England, the US, China and Japan. Sadly, he missed the broadcast of a television film about Admiral Putiatin's mission in Japan, which will take place later this year. His son, the writer Mikhail Zadornov, wrote the script.