The best Russian novel of the year has come from Estonia

Review of Harbin Moths
March 10, 2014
Harbin Moths is a work of historical fiction that takes place in the capital of Estonia – Revel (now Tallinn) and focuses on the fates, hopes and wanderings of émigrés, mainly intelligentsia, from Soviet Russia in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s. By the whim of fate they have ended up together in the Estonia of the time of the First Republic. They meet and develop elaborate plans of overthrowing the Bolsheviks, snort cocaine or even use morphine, visit brothels and engage in gossip. They act as if they are kings of the world, but one can sense an inexorable and imperceptible end on the horizon, a catastrophe that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.

Harbin Moths is a splendid look back at and re-creation of a time and place that has so far been little studied and written about. Ivanov deftly wields historical material without disrupting the texture of the narrative. The rich historical detail and atmosphere is not presented bluntly but described in a low-key, organic fashion. Ivanov’s historical researches are full of interesting trivia, such as a Nazi party that considered itself a defender of Orthodox Christian thought. As the novel describes an era spanning the 1920s to the onset of World War II, its protagonists do not yet realize the ultimate fate of fascism and they rave about it passionately.

Ivanov skillfully depicts the émigrés’ personalities: they talk incessantly about an end or a great beginning, but they cannot (or do not want to) find work. They are in a state of constant unease but they do not learn the language of the country that has taken them in. They are blind, ambitious and proud. They continually await something, but they are completely disoriented. This disorientation leads to founding ineffectual organizations, conspiratorial circles, involvement with suspicious men of affairs, as well as illness, fantasizing and a gradual but unstoppable fall: death, madness, escape – but no matter where one tries to escape to, one can never escape oneself.

Harbin Moths is truly one of the best novels of this year given its earnestness and tone, its wonderful language, the author’s careful research and his virtuosity in depicting the characters and atmosphere as well as an inner tension that can be read between the lines. It will certainly not pass unnoticed and will not be forgotten.

Reviewed by bookriot
Translated by Janina Surowiec and Christopher Culver