By John Ebon.
Reported by Antonina W. Bouis, Jean-Claude Bouis
and James 0. Jackson/Moscow
Traditional, even conventional in style and structure, Arbat is set in 1934, a year of relative calm in the turbulent early history of the Soviet Union. The 'children" are a group of Komsomol (League of Communist Youth) members who live and work in the Arbat, then a lively, bohemian district. One of them is Sasha Pankratov, an idealistic student at Moscow's Institute of Transport. As the novel begins, he is expelled for what appears to be relatively trivial offenses against party discipline: composing humorous antiworker verses for a school newspaper, criticizing an instructor and refusing to join in a witchhunt against the institute's discredited deputy director. Eventually arrested by the NKvD (secret police), Pankratov is taken to Moscow's Butyrki prison, where he is interrogated in scenes reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984. Despite the persistence of his interrogator, Pankratov refuses to confess to involvement in a counterrevolutionary plot and is sentenced to three years of internal exile in Siberia.
The second half of the novel records his Siberian adventures, as well as the experiences of his family and Komsomol colleagues in Moscow. Clearly, though, the main reason for the intense interest of Soviet readers is the author's portrait of Stalin. Rybakov, who never met the dictator, sometimes departs from the historical record, presumably for dramatic effect. For example, Stalin in the novel appears to be sentimentally fond of his father, a shoemaker, whereas the evidence shows he hated his real father, an alcoholic who beat him mercilessly. Nonetheless, Soviet experts who have read the book generally applaud the psychological accuracy ofRybakov's portrait.