Magazine article Russian Life

Yuri Nagibin: Born April 3, 1920

Magazine article Russian Life

Yuri Nagibin: Born April 3, 1920

Article excerpt

YURI NAGIBIN led an incredibly hard +life, although, by Soviet standards, from the outside his life may have looked charmed. He was never sent to the Gulag, he returned from the World War II front in one piece, and, despite having a Jewish patronymic (Markovich), he was never targeted during the late-Stalin-era anti-Semitic "struggle against cosmopolitanism." Furthermore, later in life, his fiction was both honored by the authorities and genuinely loved and read by ordinary people, a balancing act that few achieved.

On closer inspection, a deep sense of dissatisfaction belied this facade of success.

The tragic string of events that shaped Nagibin's life extends to before his birth, when his father, a nobleman who took part in a 1920 peasant uprising in Kursk Province, was put to death. His pregnant mother had no desire to bring a child into this cruel and hungry time, not even to continue the family line. According to her own account, "I tried jumping off all sorts of cupboards so that I would miscarry. But my son was born anyway. Only when they brought him to me to be fed did I begin to feel any tenderness for him."

Nagibin was adopted by Mark Levental, a lawyer, and only found out who his biological father was many years later. One can imagine what sort of emotional turmoil was provoked by learning that his family history was not at all what he had thought. Meanwhile, his relationship with his adoptive father was far from simple. In 1927, Levental was exiled to the Komi Republic in the country's far north, where he lived until his death in 1952. One year after his father was sent into exile, Nagibin's mother remarried.

Nagibin made several trips to see Levental in his place of exile and was devastated by his death. His diary contains the following entry:

   Now it's happened, what I've always
   been waiting for as the most awful
   thing that could happen, but I did
   wait for it. Maybe in order to know
   the full extent of my baseness, or not
   even baseness, but rather egotistical
   naivete. Still, I never thought that it
   would be so hard, and I don't have
   what it takes to be a true egotist. In the
   morning, when the sun burst through
   the blinds, and the room felt like in
   childhood, the telegram arrived. "Your
   father died last night." Like a blow to
   the face with a dirty broom in front of
   everyone--a staggering feeling in its
   crude nakedness. How dare they
   use the word "died"?

   And again, a feeling awful
   because of its inescapableness:
   a mistake was made along the
   way, and there had still been time
   to fix it, the dreadful mistake of
   suddenly letting the life of a loved
   one go. True, selfless love can
   keep a loved one, a dear one, on
   the Earth, no matter how much he
   might want to die. If I had gone, if
   he had known that I love him as
   I now know it, some mysterious
   forces would have held him in life,
   despite his sclerotic brain, despite
   his ailing, weary heart. I betrayed
   him. He unconsciously sensed that
   and gave up on life. The rest was
   formalities; sanatoriums and hospitals
   can't save someone who has
   decided to die.

Nagibin found his calling rather early in life. After briefly studying medicine, he transferred to the film institute and began writing screenplays and, before long, prose fiction. He wrote prolifically all his life and was popular--both widely published and widely read. But in his heart he knew how much of what he wrote was what the authorities expected of him, idiotic articles glorifying the Stalin era and those that followed. As he wrote in his diary: "For me, hackwork has replaced vodka. It is almost as effective an escape from myself, but causes great harm. If my loved ones understood this, they would have waged the same sort of selfless war against my time at the desk as they did against my time at the bottle. Both destroy the person. But hackwork is more lethal. …

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