Vladimir Sharov’s dense and voluminous novel, the winner of the 2014 Russian Booker Prize and a runner-up of the Big Book Award of the same year, is in many ways similar in its themes, ideas and obsessions with the much shorter The Rehearsals. The former actually could serve as a good appetizer for the sprawling smorgasbord offered by Return to Egypt. Here are some of the topics explored in the book: the Russian Schism, the Old Believers and their offshoot Beguny, the Great Flood, the Exodus, the Apocalypse, Christian eschatology, Nikolai Gogol’s life and work, Dante and The Divine Comedy, the Emancipation Reform of 1861, the Narodniks, the Bolsheviks, the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s repressions and prison camps, kolkhozes, the painter A. A. Ivanov and his masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People, the Islamic ornaments of the Tash Hauli Palace, palindromes, the noosphere of Vladimir Vernadsky, agronomy, a theory of the evolution of inanimate objects. What is remarkable, all this wealth of facts, narratives, exegeses, and mystical insights is presented as a vast mosaic composed by the author himself using as “tiles” the fragments of the letters exchanged by Nikolai Gogol’s 20th-century descendants over the period of thirty-seven years.
The reader’s minimum for a partial understanding of this opus is a good knowledge of Gogol’s play The Government Inspector, also known as The Inspector General, his poem in prose Dead Souls (the first volume and what is left of the second whose complete manuscript was burned by the writer shortly before his death), Dante’s The Divine Comedy and the biblical Book of Exodus. At least a fleeting acquaintance with Russian history from the mid-17th century and up to the 1960s is also desirable. For the full appreciation, however, you really have to be a specialist in Russian history and culture as the scope of Sharov’s literary allusions and historical references is breathtaking. I can imagine an English edition of the book, published by a university press, with a good hundred pages crammed with detailed annotations.
The main correspondent in the letter exchange taking place from 1931 to 1968 is Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (the Second), the famous author’s great-grandnephew whose bloodline originates from Yelizaveta Bykova, one of the writer’s younger sisters. (Since Gogol didn’t have any children, all the descendants stem from his siblings). On most occasions, the author’s full namesake is referred to as simply Kolya, which is a diminutive of Nikolai. The other participants of the correspondence are his numerous relatives, the most active of those being his first and second cousins once removed, whom he prefers to call uncles. We’re talking about the closely-knit clan of Gogols connected via the network of mail communications, who share stories, ideas and revelations with topics ranging from personal anecdotes to ambitious theological theories. The major obsession of the Gogols is the failure of their great ancestor to complete the poem Dead Souls. Modelled on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Gogol’s work was also supposed to have three parts corresponding to Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. As we know, only the first part, which depicts Hell, is available in its entirety. Just several chapters remain of Gogol’s Purgatory, and Paradise was never written. The mystics of the Gogol clan see in this the root of all the calamities that have been besetting Russia and its people. They believe that if Gogol had succeeded in finishing the trilogy, Russian history would have been different. Hence the ambitious plan: to finish Gogol’s poem. Kolya is chosen as the most appropriate candidate for the task. The writing of Gogol’s Purgatory and Paradise will be the culmination of the long-standing preoccupation of the writer’s descendants with his texts that has taken a variety of whimsical shapes.
One such idiosyncratic display of this fixation, Kolya learns from Uncle Artemy, was the annual staging of Gogol’s plays or excerpts from Dead Souls at the estate owned by Artemy’s grandmother. The amateur performances happened regularly for more than a decade until the area with the estate was included in the frontline zone in 1916 and everybody had to leave. All the actors were recruited from Gogol’s descendants, of course. The 1916 production of The Government Inspector was to be the most radical of all, but since it was interrupted at the preliminary stage, all we’ve been left with are Uncle Evgeny’s detailed notes on the pre-production analysis of the play conducted by the director Blotsky. The director’s bold vision, which unsettles the actors, is actually based on Gogol’s own metaphysical reinterpretation of his own play that found its expression in the posthumously published metaplay The Dénouement of the “Government Inspector”. Gogol wanted a new production of The Government Inspector which would not end with the famous silent scene (the town officials bamboozled by the roguish Khlestakov whom they have taken for the inspector general frozen aghast as they learn that the real inspector has arrived), but with The Dénouement, in which “the first comical actor” explains to his audience — actors and theatre connoisseurs — the true meaning of the play. According to “the first comical actor”, the corrupt town officials are the metaphorical representations of human vices, and the inspector general who arrives at the end of the play is the personification of consciousness. Blotsky goes even further in his interpretation, viewing the inspector as the formidable judge who has visited humanity to punish them for their sins. Therefore, the final silent scene should be played as a live tableau of eschatological consternation. The motionless actors should convey the unspeakable horror in the face of the inevitable Last Judgement. Blotsky regards the silent scene not only the key element of the whole production, but also as the companion piece to A. A. Ivanov’s sweeping canvas The Appearance of Christ Before the People. He sees both pieces as some kind of multimedia diptych: the painting represents the beginning of the divine revelation to mankind, whereas Gogol’s tableau shows the end of human history: the frozen figures stand for sinners who will not be saved.
The ambition for the 1916 production considerably overshadows Blotsky’s previous direction of the same play just a year before. In that staging Khlestakov represented the Russian nation as the chosen people during the Exodus, his hometown stood for the Promised Land, and the Town of N, in which he was stranded and managed to pass off as the government inspector before the officials, symbolised one of the stops in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. It’s just one of scores and scores of occasions when the members of the Gogol clan invoke this powerful biblical plot.
The mythical story of the Hebrews fleeing the Egyptian captivity, crossing the Red Sea and wandering for forty years in the desert led by Prophet Moses is the master narrative for the Gogols against which they constantly compare, parse and reconceptualise the last three hundred years in the history of Russia. In this respect Kolya’s historiosophical versions of the second and third volumes of Dead Souls are no exception: the myth of the Exodus underpins both of them, just like Dante’s Commedia, which is the other equally significant master narrative.
Kolya never accomplishes his task, however. All he manages to do is write a short synopsis of Purgatory and Paradise before being accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag. By this time his father, an NKVD officer, has already been serving time in a prison camp. The content of the Synopsis is recreated in the series of the letters written by Kolya to Uncle Artemy in 1955-1956 after Gogol’s namesake has been released from the camp and settled in the town of Staritsa located on the Volga river. As we know from the poem’s first part, it’s picaresque protagonist Pavel Chichikov purchases from a bunch of grotesque landowners around four hundred dead serfs, registering them as if they were alive. The motivation of the original Gogol character for this bizarre transaction is carrying through the fraudulent scheme of taking a loan against the non-existent serfs and making off with the money. However, in Kolya’s interpretation, the figure of Chichikov gains unexpected metaphysical dimensions. Gogol the Second believes that, in reality, Chichikov intended to populate with his dead souls a specially designated territory within the Russian Empire so that they would build the City of God on earth.
In the Synopsis, Chichikov rises from the depth of Hell, and goes through the circles of the Purgatory to become a Moses-like figure that is destined to liberate the chosen people (the adherents of the Old Belief who rejected Patriarch Nikon‘s liturgical reforms of 1653) from the tyranny of the Antichrist (the Romanov dynasty) and to lead them to the Heavenly Jerusalem where eternal bliss and happiness will reign. The worldly manifestation of this metaphysical enterprise is Chichikov’s mission to restore the hierarchy of the Ancient Orthodox Church to which he devotes all his wits and industriousness after taking the vows as an Old Believer monk. In the course of his adventure-packed peregrinations that take him to Austria, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Palestine, Chichikov succeeds in his ambitious plan despite the imminent persecution of Tsar Nicholas I: the Old Believer bishopric is established in Belaya Krinitsa with the consent of Ferdinand I of Austria, the first bishops get ordained, and Chichikov is among them. Thanks to his missionary activity hundreds of thousands of priestless Old Believers return to the fold of the Popovtsy, the Old Believer faction with ecclesiastical structure. Closer to the end of his life and his great mission, Chichikov accepts the Narodniks, anti-tsarist revolutionary intellectuals and activists, as the welcome addition to the chosen people marching under his guidance across the Sinai desert towards the Heavenly Jerusalem. Within the discourse of the Exodus, Chichikov regards the revolutionaries as those Egyptians who have found belief in God, rejected the tyranny of the Pharaoh and joined the Israelites in their flight from Egypt. At the end of his spiritual and earthly journey, Chichikov realises that the socialist revolution which will overthrow the monarchy associated with the Antichrist is that long-awaited event which will inaugurate the emergence of Paradise on earth. This Paradise will be known as Communism, and the Heavenly City will be created “out of space aether and Edison’s electricity”.
The Synopsis is by far the longest embedded narrative in Sharov’s novel: distributed over ten letters to Uncle Artemy, it takes almost ninety pages of the book. It makes for a fun and erudite read, but it’s hardly possible to take it as seriously as its author does. Kolya’s relatives expected the full namesake of the great writer to create a commensurate piece of literature imbued with transformative spiritual force. Not only does he fail to do that, for he never writes the complete book, but judging by the summary of the plot in the Synopsis we can see that even in the complete form his work would be laughably naive and, at best, would just reflect the delusions of 19th-century Russian socialist thinkers. The 20th-century communist era turned out to be anything but Paradise on earth. By embracing the ephemerous and unrealistic ideals of the revolution, Chichikov leads his followers back to the Egyptian slavery. The Dantesque ascension to Paradise via Purgatory proves to be a meandering re-descent into Hell, the Inferno of the Civil War, the Red Terror, collectivisation, and the Gulag. Kolya’s relatives who have the opportunity to read the Synopsis have a mixed reaction to it. Some even suggest that it should be burned like the second part of Gogol’s Dead Souls. Others prefer to view it as a playground for their own historiosophical musings and use it to come up with diverse interpretations of Gogol’s literary heritage and the course of Russian history as seen through the prism of the Exodus myth.
There is no lack of all kinds of mystical theories and quirky hermeneutic methodologies professed by Gogol’s descendants and their close friends. The encapsulated summaries of these as well as fragmentary applications to biblical narratives, Gogol’s texts, and important historical events keep cropping up in the correspondence and can be seen as an important part of Kolya’s growth and development as an independent thinker. For example, the protagonist’s friend and long-time correspondent Isakiev is the founder of palindrome philosophy. A prominent representative of the association of poets-palindromists, Isakiev gained notoriety for composing a 100-page play-palindrome about the Great Flood titled, appropriately enough, Potop (The Flood). The play was about to be staged in a theatre of his hometown Gomel when he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of labour camps. The indictment boiled down to the following: “the aim of a work that can be read equally from left to right and right to left is to persuade our people that the course of history is reversible and that Soviet Russia soon will become again the Romanov monarchy.” Upon his release, Isakiev has already formed his specific Weltanschauung in which everything is subject to palindromic interpretation and he readily shares his revelations with Kolya. In Isakiev’s mysticism different places, events, objects and entities smoothly lock together into pairs forming a palindromic whole. The Tower of Babel and Dante’s funnel of Hell are such a pair. The emancipation of serfs by Alexander II and the October Revolution constitute a historical palindrome in which the former corresponds to the Exodus and the latter to the return to Egypt. Needless to say, Egypt and the Promised Land also make up a palindrome along which Russian people keep shuttling back and forth. Isakiev believes that the palindrome is the true voice of language because of the inherent randomness of its formation and its total independence from the speaker’s intent. He sees the future in the utopian palindromic language, which “will not be shattered even by the Apocalypse”.
Quite often the mystical leanings of the Gogol clan and its immediate circle find confirmation and even elaboration in visual arts. There are several artists among Kolya’s relatives, and many of his numerous uncles and aunts take a lively interest in different art forms. When paintings or drawings are described in the novel, it is not done for mere ekphrastic embellishment, but as another means of revealing the arcane dimension hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated. The image is never what it seems; it persistently baulks at surrendering its true meaning to a cursory glance. You really have to take your time and zoom in to see what lies beneath the superficial details. In this respect, Sharov’s ideas are close to those expressed by Julio Cortázar in his short story The Devil’s Drool, on which Antonioni later based his cult classic Blowout. The case in point is the graphic works of Valentin Stanitsin, or Uncle Valya as Kolya refers to him in the letters. Trained as a miniaturist, Valentin is fascinated by the elaborate carvings on the wooden columns of Alla-Kuli-Khan’s Tash Hauli Palace in Khiva, a city in Khorezm Region of Uzbekistan where he works in the regional museum. His fascination with the Islamic non-figurative patterns gives rise to a powerful allegory on how interpretation turns historical events into subjective, ideologically charged narratives. In fulfilment of a commission, Valentin prepares graphic sketches for the columns of the new city council building using the Tash Hauli ornaments as his inspiration. He manages to complete the ornaments for two columns before the whole project is suspended. When seen from a distance, the patterns in these drawings do not much differ from the Islamic floral ornaments; however, if one takes a magnifying glass and looks closely, they will see that the fancy curlicues are made up of tiny human figures ascending through space and time: on one column those are the forebears, participants and inheritors of the French Revolution, and on the other, obviously, of the October Revolution in Russia. Thus the neutral non-figurative patterns are transformed into ideological statements. But that’s only part of the story. With time, Valentin’s art evolves from the dialectical-materialist representation of the triumph of revolution to the depiction of abstruse mystical entities. Now he applies the lessons learnt from the carvings on the columns of the khan’s palace to the design of the posts of the metaphysical gates that, as some believe, lead to the City of the Antichrist. Each gatepost is associated with either of the two sepulchral orders: the Khodynka and Trubnaya Brotherhoods. These secret societies were born out of two mystically related tragedies: the stampedes which resulted in many deaths among the participants of the festivities following the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 on Khodynka Field, and, fifty-seven years later, among the mourners who were pushing through Trubnaya Square to pay last respects to the body of Stalin lying in state in the House of the Unions in the centre of Moscow. The Khodynka Brotherhood maintains that the hundreds of deaths during the coronation festivities were the prediction of the tragic fate of the whole Empire, while the Trubnaya brothers believe that the people trampled in Moscow in March of 1953, in blatantly pharaonic fashion, were claimed by the dead Soviet leader as his retinue in the afterlife. Many also believe that the tragedies symbolise for the Russians two stops during their journey away from the Promised Land and back to Egypt. Just like Valentin’s floral patterns for the columns of the city council in Khiva, his ornaments for the mystical gateposts upon close inspection transform into minuscule human figures. This time those are not prophets and ideologues of revolution, but common people jostling in throngs to witness two historic events that will claim some of them as the due sacrifice.
After about three days, Uncle Valya brings a couple of new drawings. Both depict a sequence of his favourite elm columns supporting the portico of the Khivan Khan’s harem. They are adorned from top to bottom with a fancy floral ornament. The lianas thick as a hand, which gird the tree, and other stems with buds and half-blown flowers tangle with the clusters of ripe grapes, the fresh sprouts twist and twist making up a spiral.
Only when looking through a magnifying glass, it becomes clear that these are not meticulously drawn vignettes. On the even columns, queues of people not yet crushed by the crowd meander and twist around the trays with bread rolls and sausages, around the large oak barrels with fresh beer brought by horse carts; on the odd ones, folks in the equally peaceful manner flow to Trubnaya Square through boulevards, side-streets and communicating courtyards. It’s the mourners who flock from different parts of the city to bid farewell to Joseph Stalin. […] Already in Trubnaya Square, and especially in Neglinnaya Street […] Uncle Valya depicts how the people are squashed together by an incredible force and now, as it should be, this united people’s body flows to the House of the Unions.
In Return to Egypt, hidden meanings and enciphered revelations are not limited to fictitious artworks. What is more, sometimes well-known real pieces of art prove to harbour equally astonishing secrets. While copying A. A. Ivanov’s sketches of the already mentioned The Appearance of Christ before the People, Valentin’s course mates at the art school Vkhutemas notice that blended with the foliage of the tree, hidden in plain sight, there lurks a group of dead people risen from the graves, which leads to the sensational conclusion that the Russian painter at some point changed his mind and instead of the apparition of the messiah ended up depicting the Second Coming and the Last Judgement.
The conceit of artworks as vehicles conveying secret messages is taken to the extremes, which seem absurd and parodic even within the framework of Sharov’s outlandish world, in the apocryphal story about the subversive character of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings. This anecdote is hilarious and horrible at the same time, for in all its grotesquerie it perfectly encapsulates the mundanity of the bloodthirsty paranoia in whose thrall the Soviet regime indulged in imprisoning, torturing and executing thousands of its innocent victims. The fact that Malevich, in reality, was arrested, interrogated and held in custody two times — first in 1927, on charges of being a German spy and second in 1930, for anti-Soviet propaganda — gives us the chilling realisation that Sharov’s apocryph is not totally inconceivable.
Uncle Valya writes that when the famous artist Kazimir Malevich, who taught him and Kolodezev in Vkhutemas, was arrested in 1926, he testified during the interrogation that his paintings sold to the West over the last six years — from 1918 to 1924 — were in fact coded messages. The addressee was the English intelligence service MI5 for which he had been employed as a freelance operative since 1912. In the works one way or another related to figurative painting, the information about the Soviet Army and the industrial capabilities of the state was encoded in the colour, individual details and their relative placement on the canvas. As for the abstract art, to be more specific, Black Square recently smuggled out by the private collector Gornfeld: that was an analysis of the general situation in the country carried out by order of MI5.
As Kolya gets exposed to more of the various philosophical and religious ideas bandied about by the host of his learned correspondents, he comes to the realisation that there is only one schismatic denomination in Russia whose principles and practices promise true salvation in the face of the repeated victories of the Antichrist and the never-ending cycles of the Egyptian enslavement. Confident in this belief he moves to Kazakhstan, where his ill father has already settled in the house of a member of the mysterious Beguny sect. Later, having buried his father and having been joined by his erstwhile sweetheart and distant relative Sonya, Kolya will decide to spend the rest of his life there, more than twenty-five years.
The Beguny or Stranniki (Wanderers) are the branch of the priestless Old Believers who decided to sever all ties with the official authorities of the Russian Empire, considering them to be the incarnation of the Antichrist. They refused to pay taxes, avoided conscription and instead of state-issued passports carried their own, which were just pieces of paper with pithy religious slogans like “The Lord is the protector of my life: who am I to be afraid of?” The only effective way of resisting the enormous power of the Antichrist for them was a perpetual flight from the powers that be and their servants, so most of them did not have a permanent domicile and kept wandering all their lives. The Beguny who maintained such a peripatetic lifestyle were called mirootrechentsi (those who have renounced the world). However, there emerged among the Wanderers a large faction that actually stayed in one place. The houses of the so-called strannopiimtsy (the hospitable ones) were offered as temporary shelters to those Beguny who followed the practice of wandering. Quite often the latter were concealed in specially designed hiding places.
It is in such a house that Kolya’s father and later Kolya himself find shelter and solace. In the Beguny’s parlance, the house-shelter is called a ship and its owner the helmsman. The last name of the helmsman who welcomes the two descendants of Gogol in his solitary abode lost amid the sun-scorched takyr (the Central Asian equivalent of the salt flat) somewhere in Kazakhstan is Kapralov. He has inherited the last name from the previous owner of the house who also received it through the hereditary chain stretching all the way back to the original house owner. Kapralov believes that the wandering Beguny weave with their footsteps the giant net that God will use shortly before the Last Judgement to catch the pure and the repentant part of humanity. He will deposit the saved ones into the new arc, which will come to a stop at Mount Moriah where the One and Only Temple of One and Only God will be built. It will be the earthly prototype of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The metaphor of a ship applied to Kapralov’s house is miraculously reified in a strange episode that could be viewed as either a mystical journey or a collective hallucination. In a letter to Uncle Peter, Kolya recounts how one day a mini-version of the Great Flood hits the steppe in which the house is located and in order to survive the deluge, Kapralov, Kolya and Sonya quickly transform the adobe hut into a navigable ship. The helmsman is sure that the hour of the final battle between the forces of good and evil is near, explaining to his tenants that their ship is going to join the fleet of similar floating houses of the Beguny somewhere near Chelyabinsk. The next day, however, the waters recede and the crew of the newly-minted arc find themselves not on a mountain, but in the same steppe just a couple of kilometres away from their original location.
After settling in Kazakhstan and being exposed to the Beguny’s beliefs ardently espoused by the helmsman, Kolya never returns to the idea of completing Dead Souls. It is obvious that he doesn’t believe anymore in the conceit that finishing his famous ancestor’s masterpiece might save the Russians from the never-ending cycles of oppression and authoritarian rule. What he chooses instead is the individual salvation sought through pious living and regular animal sacrifice harking back to the biblical times. Near the house, there is a vast caldera, a bowl-shaped depression formed by the inward collapse of a volcano, which is regarded by Kapralov and Kolya as an analogue of Dante’s Inferno. The sacrificial animal is a scapegoat laden with gurdjans (leather sacks) stuffed with rocks symbolising the sins of the ship dwellers as well as those of other people. The poor beast is led down the terraced slopes of the caldera to the sulphur lake at the bottom signifying the waters of the Cocytus, and is left to die from starvation and exhaustion as the heavy burden prevents it from climbing back to the surface. As opposed to Dante’s Inferno, and in keeping with the specific character of the Soviet version of Hell, Kapralov has divided the depression into fourteen circles instead of nine, corresponding to the number of sections and subsections in Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Penal Code used against those suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. With time, the corpses of the goats strew the slopes of the caldera, creating a ghastly spectacle that, as if in conformity with Isakiev’s bizarre theory, makes up a palindrome with the macabre sight of another group of dead animals that were sacrificed to the improvement of the Soviet infrastructure:
The path descends to the Cocytus, — the last road of the scapegoats. Their sulfur-coated mummies lie along it, bringing to mind the bones of a million and a half camels, bleached by wind and rain, which frame each kilometre of the railroad to Karaganda like a decorative border.
While living in Kazakhstan, Kolya continues correspondence with the other Gogols. The excerpts from the letters appearing closer to the end of the book reveal a particular agitation among the Gogol clan with regard to the meaning of the Soviet period in Russian history within the Exodus narrative. There is unanimous agreement that the Soviet project proved to be a return to Egypt for the Russian nation. However, the opinions on the true nature of Egypt as well as on the aftermath of the journey back across the Red Sea vary. For Uncle Svyatoslav, Egypt is akin to the Heavenly Jerusalem which descended upon the earth. He views it as a man-made paradise that sprang up in the middle of the desert thanks to the collective labour of workers, and Lenin, the architect of the Soviet version of Egypt, is comparable if not superior to Jesus Christ. For Uncle Ferentz and Uncle Artemy coming back to Egypt can only mean a voluntary return to slavery. Lenin for them is just another cruel pharaoh, which is corroborated by the fact that his body was turned into a mummy after death. As Artemy succinctly puts it:
The Plagues of Egypt — locusts, droughts, rivers of blood — were beyond count. We built hundreds of Pithoms and Ramseses, learnt again to deify the pharaoh, to erect tombs, and, when he departed to the world of eternal rest, to mummify his body. The latter proved to be the toughest of all. For more than twenty years lasted the fight with the mould on the skin of God Ra’s son, but we defeated it.
The brief excerpts of the letters merge into a continuous but dissonant chorus, each voice trying to come up with the persuasive explanation of the dire straits of the chosen people, splitting hairs over the symbolic meaning of historical personages and major events, mostly tragic, within the whole theological model pieced together from sacred and secular texts, pseudo-science, philosophy and superstition, which increasingly begins to resemble a drawn-out round of some kind of Glass Bead Game, a virtuosic but utterly useless juggling with ready-made concepts that does not necessarily yield anything new.
Perhaps the greatest revelation for Kolya comes from the allegorical anecdote told him by a certain Yevtikheyev who used to serve time in the same labour camp as his father and Kapralov. In fulfilment of Kapralov’s request, Kolya visits Yevtikheyev in a nursery home in Ust-Kamenogorsk. The story dates back to the old man’s childhood when his mother would tell him of the flooding of the Nile as if it was taking place in their Cossack village. Herein lies a valuable if bitter lesson for Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (the Second) as well as his relatives: if they had become reconciled with the fact that regaining the Promised Land was a chimaera and stopped their futile hermeneutic speculation that had been consuming too much of their time and effort, they would have regained at least peace and serenity, which in earthly Egypt might be the next best thing to the eternal repose in the Heavenly Jerusalem. There is even something soothing in the sound made by the River Nile at night. Yevtikheyev and his mother learnt how to listen to it, so the others could have too.