Tr. from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden
Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, scholars have drawn attention to the importance of history in Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions. The current regime creates an uninterrupted narrative of Russian greatness from the Middle Ages through Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union up to the present, always positioning Russia against a decadent West. Eugene Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, powerfully demonstrates the constructed nature of historical narratives and shows the dangers of a single dominating story. The Ukrainian-born Vodolazkin’s novels often draw on the author’s academic work on medieval East Slavic literature. His most famous novel, Laurus (2012), is a “non-historical novel” set in fifteenth century Russia that was originally composed in a combination of modern Russian and Old East Slavic, demonstrating the author’s interest in recreations of historical reality.
A History of the Island adopts the medieval genre of the chronicle to describe the long history of a fictional island, allegorically representing Russian and world history more broadly. Like real-life documents composed in this genre, the long chronicle begins from the Biblical creation of the world, then to medieval dynastic struggles and civil wars to revolutions, the emergence of totalitarianism, and the introduction of liberal democracy and capitalism, before the monarchy is once again reinstated. Like Laurus, the premodern genre is faithfully stylized and gradually interwoven with details from more contemporary sources, moving from biblical language (“In the thirty-ninth year of his reign, Prince Feodor presented himself to the Lord.”) to a collage of old and new centuries later (“The ballots were counted for three days and three nights. Valdemar was elected as the country’s president.”). The persistence of the chronicle despite the belated advent of modernity to the Island creates a sense of cyclical time—autocracy and struggles for political power continually reemerge—in contrast with the linear progression we associate with history. Looming large in the minds of the citizens is a prophecy of final doom by Agafon the Forward-Looking, recurring in moments of political instability. The prophecy describes “opening to the world” followed by periods of isolation as a cyclical motif in the Island’s history, a clear analogy with Russian history, and foresees a final confrontation between the righteous and God atop a mountain that will save the nation from “smoke and darkness.” As one critic has noted, time itself is the main protagonist of the novel.
The chronicle is composed by a series of monks handing the document off to one another. More than once, the authors, failing to remain fully objective and anonymous as the genre entails, disagree with one another on the “truth” of some events. In this way, Vodolazkin dramatizes the process of history as created and not merely recorded. Chapters 9-13, spanning multiple centuries, are omitted, their excision ordered by a minister attempting to remove references to the Island’s occupation by a neighboring empire and preserve its image of sovereignty. Fans of Russian literature and history will recognize subtle allusions to the vagueness of late Soviet platitudes, the promises of political stability and economic prosperity from Putin’s first term in office, and venomous snakes hidden in modes of transportation.
The chronicle’s history is supplemented with notes from Prince Parfeny and Princess Ksenia, the Island’s current rulers who are, miraculously, 347 years old. Their magically extended lifespans allow them to remain living anachronisms and points of stability for the citizens of the Island. Much like Charles Kinbote’s notes to John Shade’s poem in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the royal couple’s notes eventually drift away from contributing additional insights or alternative versions of the narrated events to scenes from their daily lives, including their time working as consultants for a French film director shooting their biopic, his own “history of the Island.” The magical realist inclusion of this extraordinarily long-living couple introduces personal time as a third way of experiencing history, at once responding to the large-scale events around them and recovering some of their individuality beyond their office. The chronicle concludes with the couple’s death in a volcanic eruption, which is interpreted as a noble sacrifice to save the Island by the chronicler in accordance with Agafon’s prophecy. Their last entry, however, is the royal family’s touching return to their aunt’s house after three centuries of absence—“Feet sense the seams of the slabs and lead in the proper direction. They have their own memory.” Even “the makers of history” have their private experiences of time.
The insights of a trained scholar of medieval literature and history are invaluable given the “neo-medieval” aesthetics of the current Putin regime: the justification of the war in Ukraine through reference to a common premodern history, the assault on the rights of women and queer folks under the banner of “eliminating Western influence,” and even the use of a medieval battle cry in a recent pro-Kremlin rally. While current ideological demands define medieval Rus’ as the source of “authentic Russianness,” Vodolazkin’s novel, inspired by his own research into the subject, shows that the time period was as unstable and fluctuating as the present, rejecting the notion of a stable premodern past. Whereas Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, deemed almost prophetic by some, posits a merging of medieval past and technological future in its vision of a revived tsarist autocracy, A History of the Island focuses on history as a genre in its own right, one that is ultimately unstable and reflective of the ideological ends of the present. Though the original novel was published two years before the invasion, the history of the imaginary island, echoing those of medieval Rus’, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation, becomes an ever more poignant allegory for these histories and the real discontinuities they present.
Though describing an imaginary island, A History of the Island is most akin to the genre of historiographic metafiction, a term coined by theorist Linda Hutcheon to describe genre-bending historical fiction that questions the process of how history is made. Novels such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children blend historical fact and fiction, often including elements from magical realism, fantasy, and science fiction, to destabilize totalizing historical narratives through self-reflection and the incorporation of alternative narratives, often from historically marginalized and disenfranchised social groups. A History of the Island takes the opposite approach through its inclusion of the royal couple’s commentary, the perspective of the most privileged. The opening “publisher’s note” self-reflexively claims that “any word from the royal couple is the word of history itself.” The text that follows shows that the word “history” is in scare quotes, referring to the genre of history rather than ultimate truth. While the couple does have a special long durée perspective on historical time by virtue of their age, their perspective and their participation in the fictionalized biopic only further destabilizes the text’s multiple narratives.
The English title of A History of the Island already signals through the indefinite article “a” that this is one history among many. The French filmmaker’s biopic has its own historical project, attempting to make the Middle Ages more palatable to a contemporary audience and joining the various “anonymous” chroniclers in vying for facticity. Hayden’s masterful translation captures the very real discontinuities between the multiple stories that are abruptly collated into one. For instance, as an addendum to Chapter Four, which recounts Prince Yustin’s reign, the monk Prokopy the Nasal breaks his vow of anonymity to pen an alternative version of the account, describing the monarch as “a brainless adulterer, bribe-taker, and usurper.” Though Prince Parfeny, commenting on the addendum, admits that this proliferation of different narratives “creates an unfavorable impression,” he implies that a medieval historian’s “view from above” is a fiction, instead consisting of a mix of “views from the side” that are made to seem objective.
The novel’s use of the genre of the medieval chronicle and Vodolazkin’s philological insights into the instability of actual chronicles counteracts the current Putin regime’s claims to a singular historical narrative that justifies the horrors of the ongoing “special operation.” History is never merely a dispassionate and objective account of “what really happened.” It is always shaped by the ideological demands of the present. Beyond a simple allegorical reading, A History of the Island reminds readers in a darkly entertaining way to question the foundational assumptions in any project of history-building.
Venya Gushchin is a poet, literary translator, and PhD Candidate studying Russian poetry at Columbia University. His writings have appeared in Cardinal Points, KinoKultura, Jacket2, and elsewhere. Most recently, his translation of Yevsey Tseytlin’s Rereading Silence was published by Bagriy & Company.
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