It is a truism that Russian literature has been traditionally political: but it is still one that cannot be overlooked by any literary critic, or for that matter, any reader of Russian belles lettres. Both writer and bureaucrat in Russia, from opposite sides of the gulf that separates them, have been and are intensely concerned with the political and social message contained between the covers of the book. The typical Western bourgeois politician, more often than not, pays no attention to literary life and treats writers with a mixture of indulgence and indifference. It does not in general occur to governments that any danger is to be apprehended from literature. In the United States, even in the worst period of McCarthyism, highly political books circulated freely (while their authors—if they were foreigners—were denied entry visas, as if their bodily presence were more subversive than their ideas). Soviet writers and intellectuals today may derive a wry satisfaction from the tremendous importance which the State attaches to their work; their sense of mission is also heightened by the tense expectancy with which society listens to them. All this, however, is no compensation for the oppressive atmosphere, the dull-witted censorship, and often the cruel persecution to which they are subjected. Yet many of them are prepared to put themselves at risk in order to remain what they are, to say what they have to say, and to do what they feel they must.

When Vladimir Maximov’s novel Seven Days of Creation began to circulate in Samizdat in Moscow and Leningrad some two years ago, it created an unusual stir and controversy. footnote1 Maximov was acclaimed as a ‘new and better Solzhenitsyn’ by some; others denied him any literary merit at all and denounced the ideological content of his work as shockingly retrograde. Born in Leningrad in 1932, Maximov had a difficult childhood. An orphan—his parents had perished either in the purges or in the war—deprived of any family life, he was brought up in children’s homes and at an early age was sent out as an apprentice-worker. His first trade was that of a bricklayer or a mason. Some unusual spirit of adventure must have possessed him, because he moved from one construction site to another in various remote parts of the country. At one time he was even engaged in diamond digging in Taimyr, well above the Arctic Circle. From there he moved right across the continent to the South, to the district of Kuban. Here in the more congenial climate of the Black Sea, he settled down for a time and began writing at the age of 20. At that time Solzhenitsyn, 14 years his senior, was still serving his sentence of imprisonment and exile ‘in perpetuity’, which did not end until 1956. This was the year in which Maximov published his first collection of poems, followed in 1961 by a long short story included in a volume edited by Paustovsky. In 1964 he published a play. Thus his literary career began in a perfectly legal manner apparently untroubled by censorship.

In the same year (1962) in which Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in Novy Mir, with the special authorization of Khrushchev, Maximov published his novel Man Alive which was, in 1965, dramatized and performed by the Moscow Pushkin Theatre. From 1965 Maximov was a regular contributor to, and even member of the editorial board, of the literary magazine Oktyabr which, unlike Tvardovsky’s Novy Mir, was not harassed by the authorities. The truculent Kochetov, appointed as editor of Oktyabr in 1961, gathered around him a group of rather mediocre orthodox writers, of a conformist, patriotic-nationalistic outlook, relentlessly opposed to any kind of thaw. While the ‘liberals’ congregated around Novy Mir, the conservative die-hards identified with Oktyabr. Maximov’s collaboration with Oktyabr did not last long: in 1967 his writings and his name disappeared from its pages without any explanation. In 1968 he was rebuked by the Moscow writers’ organization for having signed one of many declarations in protest against the Galanskov-Ginzburg trial. In November 1969 he protested against the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Writers’ Union. Two years later he was himself expelled from that illustrious body directed—in Solzhenitsyn’s words—by ‘custodians of State Security’. Soon afterwards he was made a member of the pen Club in France. Earlier this year Maximov, together with Sakharov and four other intellectuals, warned against the disastrous effect which the accession of the ussr to the international copyright convention could have on the work of dissident authors. During the ‘popular’ outburst that was recently engineered against Sakharov, Maximov together with Academician Shafarevich and Alexander Galich, rallied to his support by putting forward his candidature for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such a record supports Solzhenitsyn’s opinion that Maximov is an ‘honest and courageous writer’.

Seven Days of Creation is a long novel divided into six chapters—one for each day of the week. ‘Sunday’, the finale, consists of one sentence only. It is an ambitious work covering the period from the Revolution and Civil War till the 1960s. Each chapter is self-contained, and yet the book is skilfully constructed to form a whole. The character providing the main link of the story is Pyotr Vassilevich Lashkov, and Seven Days of Creation narrates the saga of his family down to the third generation. Lashkov, now a retired railway-worker, has lived practically all his life in the important but faceless railway junction of Uzlovsk. It is through his dreams and somewhat complicated and confused flashbacks that we learn about his past. A faithful Bolshevik, enjoying the complete confidence of the party, he rose to a comparatively high position in its hierarchy and became a commissar of the Red Army and head of the district railway network. ‘He had been building his universe, stone by stone, slowly but surely . . . . Law and order reigned in this universe . . . . Life was divided into a “Yes” and a “No”. “Yes” comprised himself and his idea of what was around him; “No”—all that was contrary to it. He carried this universe, like a monolith, within himself, and nothing could shake it.’ What Maximov wants to show is that this universe is false, that it falls to pieces. In order to achieve this Maximov confronts Lashkov with his own world, Maximov’s own version of reality—a highly distorted one, as it proves. According to the author, the only true and everlasting ‘universe’ in which Lashkov can find peace and salvation is that of religion and mysticism.

As a theme this is, of course, neither new nor original. To bring his story to this predetermined and archaic denouement, Maximov adopts a method which greatly facilitates his task: he takes as his hero a man who has gone through all 70 years of his life blindfolded, seeing nothing, understanding nothing, questioning nothing, and sometimes even feeling nothing. Then, all of a sudden, almost at his journey’s end, ‘two or three minute incidents’, ‘two or three accidental encounters’ shake the universe of certainty which Lashkov has put together with so much care. He suddenly notices that his daughter has been drinking; accidentally he stumbles into a murky service of a religious sect conducted by an old railway mechanic. From now on events move faster and unexpected encounters multiply. It also becomes obvious that in the end, both unhappy daughter and disillusioned father will see The Light. Sure enough, in the last paragraph of the novel Pyotr Lashkov begins moving towards the rays of the rising sun, his grandchild in his arms: ‘He moved forward and he Knew. He Knew and he Believed.’ Then comes Sunday, ‘The Seventh Day—the day of hope and resurrection . . . ’

Between the confused and clumsy opening of the story and its primitive and melodramatic finale, Maximov paints on a large canvas his picture of post-revolutionary Russia; and he uses very dark colours indeed. The rare glimmers of brightness derive almost exclusively from those who possess The Light within them. Only they know where they are going—the others are like leaves tossed about by the cruel winds of Soviet life. To present various aspects of this life Maximov resorts to a simple literary device: in his old age Pyotr Lashkov tries to re-establish a long lost contact with members of his family. Maximov takes him on a tour that confronts him—and us—with a picture of life and death so gruesome, so full of black despondency that both reason and feelings revolt.

In the porter’s lodge, where his elder brother now lives in poverty and loneliness, Pyotr ‘attentively watched a cobweb, spun across the right corner of the window, where a moth, obviously at the end of its strength, moved convulsively to free itself. The cobweb vibrated, holding its prey ever tighter. Caught in the deadly net the dusty wings finally stopped fluttering.’ The brothers face each other after an interval of forty years. As in all other Russian encounters, a bottle of vodka unties their tongues and Vassily pours forth the tale of the bright hopes with which as a young communist he had returned from the Civil War. Why were they dashed? Who or what ruined them? Who or what ruined him? ‘You, who belong to the party, explain to me . . . ’ he challenges Pyotr. Later on in the chapter Vassily himself is absorbed in catching a fly under a glass: ‘The fly was finally caught and kept buzzing inside, hitting the glass walls. Wickedly and even with some feeling of sensuous vindictiveness, Lashkov thought: ‘Go on, now, go on, turn, you dirty beast’. The fly, exhausted, fell, then pulled itself up, and again began its vain search for a way out.’ Through such conventionally sombre symbols, in which the book abounds, Maximov intensifies the mood of absolute hopelessness which permeates Seven Days of Creation. Everybody, the whole of the vast country, is caught in a filthy terrifying net, in a trap, which strangles it—and there is no way out. Perhaps in 1905 and 1917 Pyotr Lashkov and his comrades had tried to build a better society. They might have been well-meaning, but they failed abysmally because they were blind and did not see where the root of the evil in the world lay. Who were they to set out to improve the world? In the name of their puny, earthly conception of justice they meted out punishment, and so everything disintegrated ‘because at the beginning was sin, and from each punishment a new sin is born’.