Book Notes: Shamil Idiatullin’s The City of Brezhnev

Refusing to get hopelessly stuck on Bykov, I decided to read a novel by another important Russian writer, Shamil Idiatullin. He usually writes in the genre of “ethnopolitical biopunk fan thriller with elements of fantasy and young adult fiction.” I have no idea what that is and no desire to find out.

But The City of Brezhnev (2017) is hardcore realism, which is exactly what I like. It’s set in the USSR of the early 1980s and shows the hopelessness, the violence, and the misery of those late Soviet times very well. This is important because young people in Russia idealize the USSR. The propaganda tells them it was great. Stupid TV shows cutesify it. How are they supposed to know? How is anybody supposed to know what we experienced if we won’t talk about it? Idiatullin decided to talk about it, and did it with heartbreaking honesty.

The novel reads breathlessly, and the ending is devastating. Even Bykov’s novels about Stalinism don’t have such bleak endings. If we were to compare Bykov and Idiatullin, I’d say that Bykov is more talented but Idiatullin is less of a highbrow author and more accessible to readers. As a result, he’s less aseptic and delivers his hits more into the feels than into the brain.

It’s an excellent novel. A male Bildungsroman that follows the Buckley formula – because they all do – but even the genre I detest didn’t spoil the novel for me. Idiatullin is older than I am and he remembers the USSR better than I do, and by God, he hates that bastard. The novel’s 700 pages (it looks like the standard book length in Russia these days but I’m not complaining) flew by in no time.

I’m very glad that Bykov wasn’t a fluke. Idiatullin is the second Russian writer I’ve attempted, and both are great. Obviously, I research books in detail before starting to read and discard duds. But the greatness of a national literature isn’t defined by an absence of duds. They are always more numerous than the good books. The problem is when there are no gems in a rubbish heap, and that’s exactly what the literature in Russian was since the 1930s. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly bad.

In 2020 Idiatullin published another realist novel, and Bykov hated it. I’m curious but it will have to wait until I get to the end of my lineup of Russian books I need to read. Then, I’ll do today’s Ukrainian literature.

P.S. By the way, the novel features a teenage boy who kills an adult attacker in self-defense, and it’s clear from the novel that only total Soviet bastards would judge the boy for it. Just saying.

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