After the Kahanate, he no longer had any doubts about what kind of Russia the ZhD would build in place of the old. Willingly or unwillingly, they would end up becoming the oppressors, then reproducing the same old model. Although--it's not the ninth century anymore, after all--maybe they wouldn't try for total annihilation?! But Volokhov was precisely not convinced that they wouldn't try for it. Several times they had already come close to victory--and their decisiveness really frightened him. Actually, if everything could be limited to culture--Volokhov, reluctantly, would have agreed to yield the country; no one was about to ask him anything, but he carried on an unending internal dialogue with an imaginary ZhD opponent. Yes, he said, yes, I would yield it. Take it. In the end, the people, quite possibly, would be better off without it--and more importantly, I'm sure it would recreate it all from nothing, and better. After all, all of our so-called literature, all our Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys, and our diagnosist-agnostic Chekhovs--they're all nothing but the result of the conqueror's sense of guilt towards the conquered, and that is why even their best pages are so wearisome, why it is impossible in Russian prose to breathe in the air after the rain, or to look upon an evening landscape, or to eat a ripe, sun-warmed strawberry, without being tormented by guilt. Let it be. Perhaps the liberated people will write a new poetry on liberated land, the kind that your Pasternak and Mandelstam had barely started writing ... After all, you had almost had your government structure here, you almost renounced the idea of the Kahanate! And what do you start doing first? What our poor Shmelev, whose son was killed by order of your Countrywoman, said in The Sun of the Dead: no, this is no Russian wrath, no Russian method! You could have oppressed, but that would have left the deed half done--there are different kinds of oppression, there is, after all, such a thing as beneficial colonization and acculturation--but you would do something quite different, do not make me, O, do not make me say it out loud! Somehow I just know that oppression would not be enough for you. You will want to rupture the circle, because you have grown tired of always changing places. You will not come to enslave us. You will come so that we would no longer exist at all...- Dmitrii Bykov, ZhD
Key: ZhD = yids; Kahanate = Israel
Similarly antisemitic rants occupy about a quarter of this massive and noisy novel, which won several awards in Russia in 2006 and made a substantial splash in its (rather inbred) literary world. Unfortunately, even if we do not take this feature of the narrative into consideration, the book is not very good. It is not even halfway decent. Bykov, astonishingly for such a picky critic, is almost entirely deprived of a sense of literary taste: dick jokes, folky stylizations, and hermetically isolated bits of faux-edgy cultural satire crowd all the plot out of the novel, so that we do not really know what happens to the characters even if we somehow, by some miracle, are persuaded to care. In short, ZhD is a monumentally pretentious failure by any reasonable standard.
But what of its antisemitism? (You probably have never heard of the book and don't care about how good it is, but must surely be surprised that a novel which levels anti-Jewish accusations only slightly below the blood-libel level can garner so much praise and attention.) ZhD is centered on the idea that two occupying forces are struggling for Russian territory, and have been for a thousand years, to the detriment of the meek and impotent "native population." The first are the Varangians, who stand in for "siloviki," fascism, authoritarianism, and everything the West associates with Stalinist Russia; the second are the Khazars, i.e. Jews, who stand for liberalism, moral corruption, possessive individualism, and everything the Russians once associated with the decaying capitalist West. (This dichotomy is by now so elderly and tired that it has itself become a subject of satire. Witness Pelevin's latest novel, T: "Some said that Fedor Kuzmich was a simple man of the people, a mouzhik. Others believed that he was once the two-headed Emperor Peter-Paul, but later, after the great spiritual war, he chopped off one head and became a hermit--although which head he had chopped off, the liberal one or the authoritarian one, was kept hidden so as not to tempt the people. The elder taught that Russia was a chunk of ice floating to heaven, on which the yids would light fires and stamp their feet, so the ice would crack and the people would drown while the yids waited alongside in their boats.")
The dubious symmetry involved in this binary conception of Russian history seems to provide Bykov with a get-out-of-jail-free card for the extremism of his views; after all, he can point to an equally caricatured portrayal of Russian authoritarianism and antisemitism for every such instance of his own. Unfortunately for him, the novel does not sustain this strategy. Bykov's fascists are made of the thinnest possible straw, so that not even dyed-in-the-wool Kremlin apologists could possibly recognize themselves in them; the Jews, on the other hand, though much more incoherent, are also more lifelike. Bykov goes so far as to give them the (slightly altered) names of people he doesn't like. (To be fair, one of the fascists has a real-life analogue too.)
The kicker, of course, is that Bykov is himself a Jew, as he once declared on national television. What does this change? As a fairly skeptical-bordering-on-self-hating Jew myself, I can understand the impulse to pick away at the clannishness and whininess of one's own people--but in fact Bykov's work does not do even that particularly well, and it certainly never reaches the bar set by Mandelstam or Woody Allen. Like much literary antisemitism, it is bad literature, not because it is bad politics, but because it is bad satire. (This is why I like Céline despite his career as a Nazi propagandist.) The idea that the Jews are, or have at any historical moment been, the oppressors of Russians--even through such indirect methods as capitalism, revolution, and moral degradation, not to mention outright massacre--is so ludicrous and so pointless, as satire, that it serves no useful literary purpose.
Bykov tries very hard to catch potential objectors on the hook of "political correctness" (even the cover declares the book to be the most politically incorrect novel of the year), and it is hard for a critic that calls him an antisemite not to look like a po-faced try-hard in that light. The moral case against his book is ambiguous enough that it holds little rhetorical value. No; my objection to the garbage that fills this novel is that it is bad writing, and only secondarily that it is ethically suspect. It is hard to say this, but even a book full of screeching yentas and greasy landlords would have been truer to life.