Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov (translated by Harold Shukman)

‘A man is still alive as long as he breathes and hopes, and at the age of twenty-two, life is all hope.’

Arbat, Moscow, 1930s. Sasha Pankratov is an engineering student and a member of the Young Communist League. Sasha and his friends are of the generation born in hope, after the Russian Revolution.  But Sasha is accused of subversion and arrested (surely a mistake, for he has done nothing wrong).   Imprisonment is followed by exile just as Joseph Stalin moves towards his Reign of Terror.

This is the story of Sasha and his friends, young adults, as Stalin tightens his grip on the USSR.  Sasha may not have done anything wrong, but he underestimates the threat posed by Stalin’s increasing paranoia.  Suspicion and distrust pervade society, freedom (in all its forms) is sacrificed.

The story unfolds through the views of Sasha, of his mother, of his friends in Moscow, and of Stalin.  We see the difficulty of everyday life in Moscow, the hardships of prison and exile.

For me, the two most memorable aspects of this novel are the depiction of Stalin and of Sasha’s life in exile.  Sasha tries to help the villagers, by alerting them to the fact that a machinery part needs replacement, only to be accused of sabotage when the part breaks.  Sigh.  He will survive, but what will happen next?

‘You could kill a man, but you could never break him.’

Now that I have finished ‘Children of the Arbat’ I wish I had access to the remaining books in the Arbat Tetralogy.  I would like to know what happens next.

The book was not available to Soviet readers until 1987 because of its depiction of Stalin.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith