Museum of the Revolution
Writer, critic and TV presenter of a popular cultural affairs programme, Alexander Arkhangelsky’s new novel Museum of the Revolution is set in a Russia of the near future, where the current incumbent of the Kremlin has been unseated because of an ill-advised skirmish over Arctic gas extraction rights.
The novel comes at a time when the protest movement in Russia is gathering pace and the ruling elite seek new means of legitimating and entrenching their power. In recent months Vladimir Putin has called for a single “canonical” version of Russian history to be taught in schools. Arkhangelsky demonstrates, through his novel, the impossibility of such a monolithic view.
He lightly sketches the current political backdrop to the novel and doesn’t mention Putin directly, not out of coyness or faint-heartedness but because he is primarily interested in the larger sweep of Russian history, choosing to feature major tropes throughout the book, such as Russians’ relationship to their own history, the co-option of historical narrative for political ends, the relationship between intellectuals and power, the rapprochement of church and state and the issue of loyalty; both politically and personally.
The main protagonist of the novel, 45-year-old historian Pavel Salarev, personifies to a great extent the contemporary trend of the subjugation of academia to the whims of power and the monied elite. Having trained in computer literacy, and gaining a headstart through the assistance of a benevolent Swedish colleague during the twilight of the Soviet era, his work consists primarily of performing private commissions. He oversees vanity projects for patrons, such as the wife of the Azerbaijan Ambassador in Zurich, for whom he creates a family museum and the interactive museum that he creates for the shadowy oligarch Mikhail Roitman.
Salarev is treated as somewhat of an oddity. Roitman drags him along behind him a though he were some sort of court jester. The locals of the Priutino Estate where the majority of the novel’s action is set view him as a representative of a distant and forgotten era, an” intellectual” called upon to explain all unknown phenomena including trivia. He cannot seem to escape this role, even, comically during the Socratic exchange with his proctologist.
The museum estate of Priutina, a non-virtual setting where Salarev chooses to be based, is a farmstead formerly owned by members of the Czarist nobility and later seized by the revolutionaries, which has passed back to the descendants of its former owners. It operates essentially as a symbol of Russia itself. Much of the novel is taken up with the tensions between the Museum estate and the gated community being built on its borders, whose owners want to turn Priutino and its territory into a “Winter Safari” theme park.
Pavel Salarev is a likeable figure, he is energetic, hard-working and open to the opportunities that life throws up, he embraces change and significantly is perhaps too pragmatic; how far he is willing to stray away from base principles is underscored by one of the story’s subplots in the series of random phone calls that leads to an affair and subsequently to the break-up of his marriage.
He mirrors the other main character in the book the director of the estate, Teodor Shomer also a strong and vital character, but like Salarev is bought and owned by others. Shomer pays for government protection of the Priutino estate by writing declarations of loyalty to the government administration and condemning the activities of oppositionally –minded cultural figures. The priest of the local church is similarly under the subjugation of the powers that be.
The writing is rich and the narrative serpentine, though compelling. Almost in echo of Salarev’s and Roitman’s virtual “Flashback” project , the tense of the storytelling constantly changes and regresses, often disorientating the reader. Narrative is pliable Arkhangeskii seems to be saying, historical narrative particularly so. The novel starts and ends with random misconnected phone calls, disembodied voices from the ether with misdirected appeals. This embodies the tone of the novel’s identification of a deep crisis of identity within Russian political and cultural life.
By Simon Knapper