“The Story of a Life,” by Konstantin Paustovsky, is a front-row seat to Russian history


Soviet-era literature tends to be split into two categories: censor-endorsed “official” writing, and dissident works printed only abroad or in secret. The conformist writing is dismissed as craven propaganda while the rebels are haloed in bravery and self-sacrifice. On the dissident side are the classics: Pasternak, Brodsky, Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn. On the official side are a lot of writers whose names you probably don’t know; if they were ever translated into English, their books are now long out of print.

But this stark distinction doesn’t do justice to the complexities of writing under Soviet censorship. Many gifted writers occupied a gray area and learned to practice their art without falling too far afoul of the authorities. This was a dangerous dance that required adroitness, experience and another kind of courage. Especially during the Khrushchev Thaw (a loosening of censorship from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, after Joseph Stalin’s death), many admirable writers achieved this feat.

One of the best of these was Konstantin Paustovsky, whose magnum opus, the autobiographical “The Story of a Life,” has now been reissued in a fine new translation by historian Douglas Smith. By the time of his death in 1968, Paustovsky was one of the Soviet Union’s most beloved writers, attracting spectators eager to catch a glimpse of him at work in his countryside writing shed. He was popular abroad, too. Marlene Dietrich, during a Soviet concert tour in 1964, knelt at the author’s feet in homage. Though Paustovsky was nominated in 1965 for the Nobel Prize, the U.S.S.R. made it clear to the committee that his selection would be unacceptable.

Paustovsky was lucky to be alive. As “The Story of a Life” attests, he had preternatural good luck at a time when one was fortunate to die of natural causes. He avoided conscription in World War I because he was shortsighted. While having lunch one day, he read the newspaper used to wrap his cheese and saw that both his soldier brothers had died on the same day. During the Russian civil war, he managed to avoid being conscripted for more than a few days by any of the armies that fought for control of Kyiv. And when he fled those armies, he was never hit, even as bullets flew at his train traveling south to the relative safety of Odessa. His tales of escape have a new potency now that Kyiv, Odessa and so many other Ukrainian cities are again under attack.

As the Soviets tightened censorship in the 1920s, Paustovsky’s novel “Shining Clouds” (1929) was said by one critic to have the potential “to disorganize the class consciousness of the proletarian reader,” and he was blacklisted, but he was never shot or sent to the Gulag like so many of his fellow writers and artists. This survival was not earned by betrayal: Unlike many of his peers, he never joined the Communist Party or denounced another writer. Instead, he defended persecuted writers and refused to obliterate the names of those who had been purged, such as his friend Isaac Babel.

But Paustovsky faced criticism from persecuted writers, too. Varlam Shalamov, the author of the greatest work of Gulag literature, “Kolyma Tales,” criticized him for writing about Soviet construction projects without referring to the role of Gulag laborers. This was a fair point, though such a mention would have rendered Paustovsky’s work unpublishable and perhaps meant his own trip to the Gulag. Navigating Soviet censorship required compromise.

Most of “The Story of a Life” was written in the more permissive post-Stalin years. Paustovsky held his ground on many important questions, as Smith explains in his introduction, but there was surely some self-censorship involved. (Later volumes, not yet retranslated, were published closer to the end of the 1960s, when Paustovsky had to make greater concessions to the censors.) The book includes a few lapses into Soviet invective, which are all the more jarring because they are so out of tune with the rest of the text. But with “The Story of a Life,” Paustovsky imbued Soviet literature with tender curiosity about ordinary people and loving care for the natural world. He captured all the beauty, turbulence and injustice of his youth, and the strange blend of horrific violence and intoxicating hope that arrived with the revolution.

Born in Moscow but raised in Kyiv, Paustovsky came from a mixed family characteristic of Ukraine at the time. His maternal grandmother was an impoverished Polish noblewoman, while his father was a descendant of a 17th-century Zaporozhian Cossack leader who just last year was declared the patron saint of the Ukrainian armed forces. Paustovsky’s paternal grandfather, who drove carts of goods from central Ukraine to Crimea, served in the Russo-Turkish War. After being captured, he returned with a Turkish wife who converted to Christianity. Their daughter wept over the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national bard, and adored the Ukrainian operas at Kyiv’s opera house.

At that same opera house, a teenage Paustovsky witnessed the assassination of reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, a crucial step in the lead-up to revolution. The killer was a former schoolmate of Paustovsky’s; they had pulled boyish pranks together at their Kyiv gymnasium, along with the future writer Mikhail Bulgakov. “The Story of a Life” is fascinating in part because Paustovsky was so often in the immediate vicinity of history being made. He offers pungent portraits of short-lived political figures he encountered, such as Alexander Kerensky and other leaders of the February Revolution, which preceded the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917. He was in Moscow during the October Revolution, and some of the book’s most memorable passages describe his hiding with neighbors as Bolsheviks and Kadets fought in the streets. At moments it seemed they might be burned alive, and he barely escaped execution when the Bolsheviks mistook him for a Kadet.

But part of the charm of this book is Paustovsky’s inveterate lyricism in the face of cataclysm. He was so in love with nature, with beauty, with the small joys and tragedies of ordinary life that he was distractible even during the most momentous events. Street battles didn’t stop him from registering the broken branches of lime trees. When he saw Vladimir Lenin speak at Lefortovo Barracks in Moscow, he was more interested in the story of a recruit he met in the crowd, a peasant whose lovely young wife had died in childbirth. Paustovsky supported the Bolsheviks, or at least said he did, but he abhorred violence and preferred poetry to propaganda. When he befriended the staff of a botanical garden on the outskirts of Moscow and returned home with a bouquet, he took pleasure in handing out free flowers to his fellow tram passengers — a truly Paustovskian approach to the redistribution of resources.

I first read “The Story of a Life” in 2014, after the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv and the first outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine. At the time I was transfixed by Paustovsky’s account of the relentless succession of wars that began in 1914, many of which he witnessed from Ukraine. His descriptions of the polluted, miserable industrial town of Yuzovka — now Donetsk, one of the centers of the separatist uprising of 2014 — seemed eerily prescient.

On this reading, as Russia continues to attack Ukraine’s capital, I was especially moved by his odes to Kyiv’s natural beauty: galaxies of purple and white lilacs, windswept heaps of dried petals on the sidewalks, and poplar fluff that swirls “like the surf upon the Black Sea.” Paustovsky’s enchanted nostalgia underscores the cruel senselessness of war — then as now. During World War I, an elderly Jewish man asked Paustovsky and his companions an eternal question: “Do you happen to know who benefits from this misfortune?” No one could answer.

Sophie Pinkham, the author of “Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine,” is working on a cultural history of the Russian and Eastern European forest.

By Konstantin Paustovsky. Translated from the Russian by Douglas Smith.

New York Review Books Classics. 779 pp. $24.95

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