NOT long ago, Yelena S. Chizhova was engaged in what has become a standard winter pastime for Russia’s middle class: taking the sun at a giant resort hotel in Egypt. She and a girlfriend, who also grew up in St. Petersburg, joined the river of people flowing into the warehouse-size dining hall, its tables heaped with steaming meat and pastries.
And then something passed over them like a shadow. The women felt so uneasy that they had to step away for a moment, and Ms. Chizhova asked her friend what she was thinking about. But she did not need to ask. What the two women had in common was relatives who starved in the 872-day siege of Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, when army engineers set off explosives in the fields and shoveled corpses into the craters.
For a moment, Ms. Chizhova had the strange feeling that she was seeing the piles of food through the eyes of her dying relatives. Born in 1958, she learned the official version of the siege from Soviet textbooks, which cast it as a patriotic triumph. The truly terrible facts sifted down to her when she eavesdropped on her mother and great-grandmother, who lost most of their family in the siege, as they talked quietly over cups of tea.
These snatches of conversation are at the core of her novel, “Time of Women,” which won last year’s Russian Booker Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award. Ms. Chizhova tells the story of three elderly women raising a small girl in a communal apartment in the early 1960s, where the ordinary business of dishes and laundry is interrupted by memories of purges and famine.
It is an earthbound and frankly emotional novel, especially in a literary scene long dominated by the cerebral trickery of postmodernism. Ms. Chizhova is hoping that Russian artists are ready — finally — to address the good and evil of the Soviet past. Under Brezhnev, people averted their eyes from that past out of fear; under Vladimir V. Putin, she said, it was replaced by apathy. “For the vast majority of people, it simply is not interesting,” said Ms. Chizhova, 52, who smokes and talks with the energy of a coiled spring. “They do not have the feeling that history continues. It seems to them that in the 1990s, we just started over. As if we were all born then.”
But St. Petersburg is a city where blotting out history is difficult. Ms. Chizhova’s mother watched two brothers die of hunger while profiteers were taking fistfuls of gold jewelry in exchange for bread. Her father was forced into a detachment of irregular fighters who were sent against German tanks in groups of five, provided with only one rifle. Neither would have dreamed of explaining this to their daughter. But Ms. Chizhova’s great-grandmother was different; she turned over the memories absently, almost as if she was talking to herself. When Ms. Chizhova, then 5, recited a poem about cannibals in Africa, her great-grandmother explained matter-of-factly how the starving residents of Leningrad resorted to eating bodies.
“I would ask, ‘Where did they get it?’ ” Ms. Chizhova said. “For me it was like a fairy tale. She said some of them bought it in the market, thinking it was just meat. And then she would explain that when she worked in the hospital, they would store the bodies near the hospital gates, and by the time they went home in the evening, some of the soft parts were cut off.
“She would talk about that calmly,” she said. “And I heard it calmly.”
THOUGH the conversations stopped abruptly when Ms. Chizhova turned 6, they had already engraved something on her. When her teachers told her, “All Leningrad, like one person, stood in defense of the city,” her private thought was: It was a crime not to evacuate the children. And 40 years later, the insistent voices of old women began to declaim in Ms. Chizhova’s head, and she sat down to write a novel.
A slender 95 pages, told in a sometimes cryptic stream of conversation, “Time of Women” was not favored to win the Booker Prize, and some critics dripped contempt. Summing up the books of the year for the magazine Literaturnaya Rossiya, Kirill Ankudinov sneered at “literature sitting on grandmother’s trunk and becoming drunk on memories of how well people behaved under Brezhnev,” and Yevgeny Yermolin bemoaned the popularity of “cemetery erotica.”
There is no question that the past is exerting a pull on Russian art. All the novels short-listed for the prize vibrated with the feel of the 20th century, noted Elena Dyakova, a critic at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“AFTER the period of post-modernism, people are searching for some moral bearings, and it’s easiest to find that in the lives of your own grandmothers,” she said. “Theoretically, we consider that there are no decent people in Russia, but empirically, we can show that they used to exist, in any case.”
So it is with Ms. Chizhova’s fictional grandmothers, hardly dissident types, who find themselves at war with the Soviet system as they struggle to keep the girl, Sonia, who is mute, out of a state home for the handicapped. At a moment of despair, knowing too well the bleak life that awaits Sonia in state custody, one of them tries to prepare her.
“You may be locked up and we may not be allowed to see you,” the grandmother whispers fiercely to the girl. “You will have to manage alone. But you should know — wherever you are locked up — I am with you. Any day I am outside the fence. I will keep walking as long as God gives me life. You may not see me, but you should remember — my granny is there.”
Last month, Ms. Chizhova was still adjusting to her victory, raising her eyebrows when a stranger called to invite her to join his literary circle. (“Now that I have won a prize,” she remarked dryly, “it seems I have changed a great deal.”) As the Soviet Union began to fall, she bounced from an economics department — her thesis was on regulated costs in machine-tool building enterprises — to English instruction to the wobbly business world of the 1990s. The last bounce took place on a burning cruise ship off the coast of Turkey, when she spent six hours shut in her cabin, waiting to see if help would come.
“I sat by myself and tried to answer the question of what would be better — to explode or to throw myself into the sea,” said Ms. Chizhova, who is married and has two grown daughters. “I understood that I had done a lot in my life, but none of it was right. And when we were saved, I decided to throw it all away and sit and write.”
That was 1996. Since then she has written for six hours a day without weekends or vacations, producing five novels, three of them finalists for the Booker Prize. It is not surprising, given this, that she speaks about her work with moral urgency. History repeats itself in Russia, she said, the same evils appear in new guises, and failing to study it means repeating terrible mistakes. But her tone softens and blurs when she is asked whether her novel is political.
“If I am honest, I wrote it for those who died,” she said. “I wrote it for them. I was speaking with them. I always had the feeling that they were listening to me.”
By ELLEN BARRY-NYT (ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, March 5, 2010)