Sons of the Soviet Apocalypse: Viktor Astaf'ev's 'The Damned and the Dead.'(Critical Essay)

By Ellis, Frank | The Modern Language Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Sons of the Soviet Apocalypse: Viktor Astaf'ev's 'The Damned and the Dead.'(Critical Essay)


Ellis, Frank, The Modern Language Review


In war a nation reveals to itself and to the world the essence of its nationhood, that primordial, enduring self, the will to survive. For Soviet Russia this will to survive culminated in the costly victory at Stalingrad, the beginning of the end of the Nazi empire in Eastern Europe. Well before Vasilii Grossman bore witness to the role of Russian nationalism in Life and Fate (Zhizn'i sud'ba, 1988), (1) Viktor Kravchenko had identified it as a decisive factor in the miracle on the Volga: 'At the core of a nation there is a hard, eternal and unconquerable element--it was this that was bared in Stalingrad, that survived blood-letting and disaster on a horrifying scale. It had nothing to do with Karl Marx and Stalin.' (2) War, especially the total wars of the last century, is, then, the time of absolute trial: in Churchillian rhetoric, the time of 'blood, sweat, and tears'. Not surprisingly, the two Apocalypses in the Bible, the Book of Daniel (7) and the Revelation of St John the Divine in, respectively, the Old and New Testaments, are, given the place of the Last Judgement in Western religion, a ready and endlessly adaptable source of themes and imagery, to which even the hardened atheist can repair in search of an interpretative framework when confronted with total war and other calamities.

Apocalypticism is pervasive in all genres of war literature. (3) Some of Siegfried Sassoon's most powerful poems invoke the end of the world and final judgement, e.g. 'The Investiture' (1917), 'To the Warmongers' (1917), 'In the Church of St Ouen' (1917), 'Enemies' (1917), '"They"' (1916), 'Christ and the Soldier' (1916), 'The Redeemer' (1915-16), and 'Golgotha' (1916). (4) Among British writers in World War Two there was a brief resurgence of interest in the apocalyptic theme in art centred round a number of writers known, collectively, as the New Apocalypse. The movement's main theorist was the Scottish poet J. F. Hendry, who edited two collections of prose and poems. According to Hendry, the New Apocalypse was 'concerned with the study of living, the collapse of social forms and the emergence of new and more organic ones'. (5) Unlike English literature in the seventeenth century, when thoughts about the Day of Judgement amid religious fervour and political turmoil were discussed with deadly seriousness, the New Apocalypse appears somewhat artificial and contrived, too theoretical and removed from the invaders and the invaded of continental Europe.

Among German writers responding to the Kriegserlebnis of two World Wars, the apocalyptic theme exerts a powerful influence. Thus, Ernst Junger, the highly decorated veteran of World War One, has taken the idea of national survival even further than Grossman and Kravchenko, asserting that 'War is always something holy, God's judgement over two ideas.' (6) Much more than a divine judgement, war, for Junger, is an opportunity, a release from the straitjacket of civilization and comfort. Junger, to take a line from Kipling's 'For All We Have and Are' (1914), believed that there was 'no law except the sword', fully endorsing the Nietzschean aphorism taken from Heraclitus that war is the father of all things. Even Erich Maria Remarque, the author of Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), probably the most famous anti-war novel based on World War One's 'lost generation' (verlorene Generation), cannot entirely escape the primeval influence of war. Even as he depicts its apparent senselessness, Remarque is nevertheless fascinated by man's willingness to wage war and to submit to its cannibalistic determinism, to become, in the words of Willi Heinrich's title, 'the willing flesh' . (7)

Returning to Russian literature, history, and thought, we find that they are deeply imbued with apocalyptic themes, perhaps inconceivable without them: they inhere in the response of the early Russian chroniclers to the Tatar conquest; (8) they form the basis of the doctrine of the Third Rome; they are central to the religious fervour occasioned by the Nikonian reforms of the seventeenth century; they inspire Dostoevsky's legend of the Grand Inquisitor and the idea of Russia's divine mission. …

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