Alice Bialsky On:
The Extra by Anatoly Kuznetsov
Ever since I can remember myself, above the closet in my room lay a wooden suitcase with an ivory handle, bound with leather belts. I was very curious about this suitcase, since I imagined it contained secret treasures, like a pirate’s treasure chest. I obviously asked my family members about the contents of the suitcase, but I never received clear answers—which only piqued my curiosity even more. Even when I was left alone in the house, I couldn’t nudge the suitcase from its place, and couldn’t even lift the top to peek inside. When I grew up, I was finally granted permission to open it. Mom lowered the suitcase from the closet and opened the locks with a tiny key. Eager and thrilled by the thought that I was about to witness something magical, I moved the locks and opened the top. I was deeply disappointed. There was nothing but newspaper clippings inside—writings that were once officially published by authors who later defected from the USSR to the West, rendering their stories banned. The names of these authors weren’t mentioned afterwards, their books were removed from the shops and libraries, their names erased even from the list of credits in movies whose screenplays they had written. As Bulgakov, author of “The Master and Margarita,” once wrote: “no documents—no person.” Among the authors of “the suitcase,” I found Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Aksyonov, Viktor Nekrasov, Sinyavsky, Voinovich. In the same suitcase, in a separate folder, I found the story “The Extra,” by Anatoly Kuznetsov, carefully cut out of the Russian literary magazine “New World.” I read it while sitting on the floor beside the open suitcase, and the story has remained with me to this very day. It’s an example of great literature, full of the eternal tragedy of Russian life, a story that stands tall beside “The Overcoat” by Gogol and “”Poor Folk” by Dostoyevsky.
Anatoly Kuznetsov passed away at the age of forty-nine. For most of his life, he was a Soviet writer, and only in the last ten years of his life, after fleeing to the U.K., he had become a dissident writer. Prior to defecting, Kuznetsov had published books that were printed in millions of copies without any particular censorship issues. But that was before he brought his new manuscript to the publishing house—the documentary novel “Babi Yar,” about the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis in occupied Kiev. It constituted the first attempt in Russian literature of literary writing that was based on testimonies alone. Kuznetsov relied on the entries in his personal journal, which he wrote at the young age of fourteen, when he was a firsthand witness of the tragedy of Babi Yar. No one had dared write about the Holocaust in that fashion in the USSR before him. From the very beginning, the truth had been the greatest threat to the Communist regime. The trials and tribulations he endured against the censorship—the novel was first published in the USSR in a very distorted version and later was completely withdrawn from circulation—had led him to believe he would never be able to publish his writings there again, giving rise to his decision to defect to the West. “The Extra” is another wonderful opportunity to remember a great Russian writer, who has sadly been forgotten in recent years.