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Wipe it Clean – the Metaphysics of Surface in the Twentieth Century Russian Novel

By Thomas Evans.


Revolutions – if they are to have any effect at all – must take place at surface-level. Their process is semiotic – a rapid series of corrections, erasures, scorings, amendments, deletions, paintjobs, whitewashings: all with the intended aim of overwriting what came before.

The Bolsheviks – before and after 1917 – understood the importance of spectacle: restrict access to information and the spectacle supplants the real. Trotsky and Kamanev scratched out of old photographs; the facades of public squares covered in portraits of Marx and Engels and Lenin; the grotesque theatre of the Moscow show trials; military parades through Red Square: it was in the realm of images that the revolution would be won or lost. 

If Russian literature – the traditional site of political debate – was to limn the revolutionary society in which it found itself, to understand its effects and diagnose its failings, it would therefore need to deal with the problem of surfaces, and their manipulation.


A society founded on the manipulation of images is a society founded on artifice. This has long been a touchstone of Russian writing. If Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls can be called the first Russian novel, then its entire literature derives from a tale of artful dissimulation.

Gogol tells the story of Chichikov, an amoral entrepreneur who proposes to buy the names of dead serfs still registered on the census and use them as collateral to build his fortune. The story involves a double pretence: Chichikov will exploit these fake serfs in order to transform himself into a fake aristocrat.

Gogol’s is a world founded in the space between the appearance of the thing and the thing itself. 1917 only widened the gap. “Reality,” wrote Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Ukrainian writer and resident of Stalinist Moscow, “has lost much of its constancy and invariability, events of recent years are rocking it, the way the waves do a boat; nearly every day the morning papers give waking up a new reality.”

What is it to live in a world where manipulated surfaces take the place of stable reality? This is the fundamental metaphysic of twentieth century Russian fiction. Surfaces are by their nature mutable, changing, liable to shifts in perspective. This makes them dangerously unstable: it takes little effort to doctor a photograph or transcribe a false confession or “disappear” an artist. One ruffle of the surface and reality is changed – a leader is forgotten, a suspect is guilty, an artist is dead.

Which raises the question – how did this wobbly metaphysic feed into the post-Imperial Russian novel?


For Krzhizhanovsky, it meant that reality had been lowered – or raised – to the level of fantasy. 

An image-bound reality is fluid, liable to slip and slide. Surfaces are colours, lines, sound and touch, and therefore indelibly linked to our perceptive capacities. So they are fragile – changing with the words we use, the dreams we have, our ideologies and hallucinations. In Autobiography of a Corpse Krzhizhanovsky writes that “sometimes, when I wipe my slightly dusty lenses with a piece of chamois, I have an odd feeling: what if along with the specks of dust that have settled on their glassy concavities I should wipe away all of space?” Reality as grease on a lens: a series of distorted images – this was his diagnosis of the Soviet city. Krzhizhanovsky located this power to reshuffle reality in the omnipotent hand of the censor and his “narrow rectangle with the ten letters inside: DO NOT PRINT”. After all, his own career was destroyed by the censors – he understood how easily reality could be wiped away.

For Krzhizhanovsky, in a world where surfaces were everything, and where everything could therefore be manipulated at a whim, the only literary response is fantastical. And the fantastical takes on a kind of fidelity. Magical realism, after all, no longer contains a contradiction when the real has become magical. His stories are bound worlds in which this new axiom is tested: what if time and space are grease on a lens or a blur of colour through a rain-sluiced window? How far can he construct an ordinary world and allow it to slide? At what point does a fiction implode? As Adam Thirlwell points out in his essay on Krzhizhanovsky in the NYRB, “His prose is a method for investigating how much unreality reality might bear.”

Mikhail Bulgakov.jpg

Mikhail Bulgakov, another silenced contemporary of Krzhizhanovsky and a fellow Muscovite, asked the same question, but his angle was broader. In his own fantasies, it is not reality that is tested – how far can surfaces be stretched before logic (or fiction) cannot hold them – but rather the inhabitants of this new reality.

In The Master and Margarita, atheist Moscow is visited by the devil and his entourage. The novel locates a grim paradox in the new Soviet reality – where facts are liable to shift and reverse and vanish, where reality is a hall of mirrors, why should it not be possible for the devil to be real? How can the fantastical contingency of Soviet power assert the cold logic of atheism? How far will Muscovites go before they believe in the occult?

Here the devil comes as a mocking challenge – you have allowed the fantastical into your lives: can you accept the most fantastical thing of all? The answer given by Bulgakov is scornful. Berlioz – a literary editor and so one of the creators of the new surface reality – cannot accept this intrusion, and literally loses his head. Bezdomny ends up in the madhouse. A Moscow audience screams at the horrors unleashed on the stage.

“The evil magic of any totalitarian regime,” Victor Pelevin writes in reference to Bulgakov, “is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control.” In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov fashioned a kind of release from this system through an interpolation of the inexplicable. Pelevin goes on: “If there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination.”

So Bulgakov – in the act of examining the ethical implications for citizens of a revolutionary society – simultaneously provides a balm: through an act of literary fantasy the old order of manipulated images is shown for what it is: a fiction. And as every Soviet citizen knew, fictions can be rewritten. 

Krzhizhanovsky and Bulgakov stayed in Moscow. They faced, each day, the absurdity of the city – a place of corrections and disappearances. Each founded their fiction on the new metaphysic: for Krzhizhanovsky, this was a questions of aesthetics – how much unreality can reality bear? Bulgakov on the other hand tested its ethical weak spots – how can man live in such reality?

But for those writers who left Russia, the challenge was different – how to preserve the past (and continuity) in a revolutionary society whose aim is wipe it away?


In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov tells the ruptured tale of Aleksey Kuropatkin. Kuropatkin, a friend of Nabokov’s father and a general in the Imperial Russian army, shows the young Nabokov a trick involving the use of matchsticks to depict a calm and stormy sea. Fifteen years later, during their escape from the Bolsheviks, Nabokov’s father is buttonholed by a peasant asking for a match to light his cigarette. The peasant is Kuropatkin. Nabokov goes on to remark:

What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme: those magic ones he had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished, and everything had fallen through, like my toy trains that, in the winter of 1904-05, in Wiesbaden, I had tried to run over the frozen puddles in the grounds of the Hotel Oranien.

Nabokov’s writing is replete with sense data: the “wisp of iridescence” in a glass marble, the “tulip-shaped reading lamps” in a model of the Nord-Express in a travel agency on Nevski Avenue. His fictions are alive with surfaces. But as with Krzhizhanovsky, there is something unstable, other-worldly, about these brimming descriptions. For Nabokov, surfaces are just that: first layers beneath which others reside.

Vladimir Nabokov

“Reality,” wrote Nabokov, is “an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable”. Beneath surfaces there is always something deeper. For Nabokov these deep layers – and therefore reality – were located on another temporal level in which present and past elide.  In Transparent Things he writes of “a thin veneer of immediate reality… spread over natural and artificial matter… through which the past shines!”

Beneath the multi-coloured, polymorphous world of the senses there lies a deeper world of correspondences, patterns, repetitions: moments in which the past surges into the present. It is this world that structures Nabokov’s fictions. His novels are full of doubles, doppelgangers, coincidences. Not only his fictions: Nabokov sensed a reassuring pattern underlying his life: “The anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.” This is his metaphysic – his own means of finding stability in a world of shifting impressions.

Nabokov understood that the primary effect of revolutionary societies operates at the surface: its goal is to wipe the slate clean and form a new present. Bend Sinister – his bluntest satire of Soviet Russia – brims with reflections and mirrors. Adam Krug – to whom we are introduced in the act of describing the reflected world in an “oblong puddle… like a fancy footprint” – is lost (and finally murdered) in a bureaucratic hall of mirrors.

Unlike Bulgakov and Krzhizhanovsky, Nabokov was not fated to live in this new world. To Nabokov the new instability was inextricably bound with the loss of the past: Petersburg, family, Russia, childhood. It is this aspect of revolutionary society – not its day-to-day cruelty but its attitude to what came before – that repulsed him. So it is no surprise that he seeks to defeat the surface-obsessions of the revolution through acts of memory, the supreme achievement of which “is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past”. Memory saves what revolution seeks to destroy. Look hard enough at surfaces and memory will do the rest: it will push through and find the correspondences – the themes of matches, butterflies, letters, marbles, tramcars, wagon-lits, tutors, doppelgangers, hidden schemes – in which reality resides. It will prove that – contrary to appearances – the past is not dead: it is there, just beneath the surface.

It is no stretch to see this particular response to the chaos of surfaces as the result of exile and of the – often occluded – tragedy of his life. Nabokov – severed from his life in Russia and his childhood, living in poverty in Berlin and Paris, experiencing the assassination of his father in Berlin in 1922 and the murder of his brother Sergei in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1945 – found a kind of solace in the unifying effect of memory. After all, the life of the exile is a kind of doubling: you are your own doppelgänger, the Russian aristocrat in a pokey Berlin boarding-house, the European writer in a furnished room in Ithaca, NY. Nabokov locates a stable reality beneath the clutter of change: memory finds themes. Matches reappear fifteen years apart and those fifteen years vanish. “When we met the pace of life altered at once, all its atoms were recombined, and we lived in another, lighter time-medium, which was measured not by the lengthy separations but by those few meetings of which a short, supposedly frivolous life was artificially formed.” The narrator of ‘Spring in Fialta’ is speaking of Nina, a woman who, at various intervals, “hurriedly appeared in the margins of my life, without influencing in the least its basic text”, but he might have been speaking for Nabokov – these chance reoccurrences in nature create a new space and time – in which the past and present elide in repeatable moments. A space impervious to revolution.

His passions, too, are passions of patterning. To Nabokov, lepidopterology was not simply the collecting of bright spots of beauty on the wings of butterflies: it was the pleasure of taxonomy, of locating stable patterns beneath transience. The invention of chess problems is the act of a patterning mind. His novels are intricate traps set for the inattentive reader: nothing is left to chance.


But there’s a sad irony to all this. Nabokov’s own works carry the strongest warning against the metaphysic that underpins them. Consciously or not, Nabokov casts doubt on himself. His fictions are traps, not for the reader, but for his own optimism.

The novels and short stories are full of characters – often exiles, cruel, pathetic doppelgängers of Nabokov himself – who find themselves driven mad by their taste for correspondences. His exiles push through the trauma of fleeting reality –their lives of escape, the tawdriness of émigré dosshouses, drinking shops and dingy passport offices – into something more unsettling.

Humbert Humbert – a pan-European exile – interprets his desire for Lolita as one instance of a repetition introduced into his life by the premature death of a childhood love by typhus in Corfu. Hermann – a Russian of German descent in Czechoslovakia – believes he has located his own doppelgänger in a Prague park and decides to use this uncanny resemblance to commit the perfect murder (the murder fails: it transpires there is no resemblance whatsoever). Hugh Person takes a melancholy trip back to Switzerland, seeking out memories and repetitions of an earlier trip with the wife he has killed, and dies in a fire (a death which is itself the last instance of a pattern repeated through the novel). Kinbote reads his own story into Shade’s poem. The son of Signs and Symbols is driven to suicide by a “referential mania” under which “the patient imagines everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence”. In ‘Spring in Fialta’ the correspondences wrongly perceived by the protagonist are smaller, sadder: the motif of a woman reappearing through a life (remembered over the course of an afternoon) which is miscast as an indication of mutual love. It is not, however, and the pattern is brought to a premature end that evening, when she is killed in a road accident. 

In each of these stories the protagonist is driven to despair or death either by an excessive need to find an underlying pattern, or else by the sudden realisation that, in fact, there is no pattern there at all. The revolution has its revenge.

It is an ambiguous message. Whatever beauty and reassurance Nabokov found in his memories – however much they provided stability beneath the authoritarian manipulation of surfaces, the disruption of exile, the chaos of uprooting – his fiction twists this truth and sends out a darker message: that the search for correspondence is perhaps a sign of madness, an illusion, and the exile’s fate is a doomed one – a life spent scrabbling to find meaning in matchsticks, when perhaps they are only matchsticks.


The vanishing of Soviet power at the end of the century did nothing to undo the primacy of the image. Indeed, the first decades of post-Soviet Russia coincided with a period of intense image-proliferation. Never have citizens been bombarded by so much surface: broadcast into their living rooms, carried in their hands. Yet the Russian state has proved itself proficient at keeping a firm grip on the sources of these images. We all live in a world of surfaces, today. In Russia, the state retains a central role in their manipulation and distribution.

Vladislav Surkov

The Putin regime came with its own metaphysic and its own demiurge: Vladislav Surkov. PR-man and political technologist, avant-garde artiste and Kremlin apparatchik, a devotee of Baudrillard and his claim that “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none” – Surkov is the postmodernist midwife of the new Russia. Like those who preceded him, he understood early on that – in a world in which images have freed themselves from their originals – power depends upon getting those images in the right order. Eduard Limonov writes that Surkov has “turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theatre, where he experiments with old and new political models”. Surkov operates a few levels above this – he has allegedly published a novel, Almost Zero, under a pseudonym, in which he satirises the cynicism and violence of his own methods.

Those methods involve the infection of a given narrative – the behaviour of NGOs in Russia, the conflict in Ukraine – with disinformation and contradiction. This act of de-familiarisation blurs the poles of the debate, hiding the role of government and destabilising opposition to the state. The archetypal Surkovian dispute is one in which both sides are creations of Surkov. He forms the NGO and the far-right youth groups fighting it. He bets on every horse in a regional dispute. He writes the novel and the preface decrying it. His is a Baudrillardian politics – iStalinism. 

Just as Bulgakov tested the implications of surface-obsession in Stalinist USSR, so Victor Pelevin has sought to understand and diagnose the new Russia. His nineties novels foreshadowed the coming hyperreality of  Surkov and Putin. In Generation P, the archetypal new Russian is an ad-man, Babylen Tatarsky. He discovers that Russian politicians are holograms created by ad executives, and comes to the realisation that “the entire history of parliamentarianism in Russia amounted to one simple fact – the only thing the word was good for was advertising Parliament cigarettes”. The new emblem for the surface-fetish of Russia is no longer the censor but the PR-man: a shallow, cynical, boozed-out seller of ad space.

It is in his short stories that Pelevin seeks out a form of redemption. Unlike Bulgakov – who located this redemption in fantasy – he reaches toward the spiritual world. His stories are punctured with holes and windows that open into a parallel universes: Upper World, Inner Mongolia. Pelevin locates occult exits in the ethnic hinterlands of the Russian empire: the frozen north, the Asian east. His solution is spiritual: the solvent of the Buddhist retreat. His characters do not fight the new system, they do not show others a way out. Instead, they open the window, look out, and jump. In this sense – in their final failure to push through the surface – they are themselves failures. Entertaining, bitingly satirical, but failures nonetheless.

Which leaves us with the unthinkable – that perhaps the Russian writer who best categorises and diagnoses the system is its creator, Vladislav Surkov. His is the final victory of image over reality. The system writing itself. Russian fiction as another co-opted sign, another manipulated surface. And in a world of images, there is no place for exile – we are all Russians now.


Thomas Evans

Thomas Evans is a lawyer and writer with a background in philosophy and European fiction. He was raised in south Birmingham, mourns Paradise Circus, and is currently editing the final draft of his first novel, Still Life.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 6th, 2017.