Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
In 1999, a relatively unknown politician with a background in the secret service was appointed Prime Minister of Russia. His name was Vladimir Putin. Apparently, this was terrible news for expats of the Moscow clubbing scene. Before Putin, speaking English and being from the West was enough to get into any club and score a drunk dyev. After Putin, the best clubs only allowed elites who’d spend hundreds of dollars on champagne, and the hottest girls only went home with oligarchs. I visited Russia a couple of years later, during the summer of 2001, and while I didn’t go clubbing I did see men in black leather jackets getting into places without waiting in line (they were mafia), cars with blue lights driving where other cars were not allowed to go (they were VIPs), and scantily-dressed girls lurking in the lobby of my hotel (they were prostitutes). This was when Russia lost its way, and the period is beautifully captured in Guillermo Erades’s Back to Moscow, a novel that explores the Mysterious Russian Soul through an expat’s obsession with Russian women.
From the eyes of Martin, a Literature PhD candidate from an unspecified Western country, we witness the disintegration of an entire society, the social and sexual revolution that followed, and the events of terror that allowed Russia to climb back up to the powerful place it holds now. It was a time when Moscow was “wild and fucking honest,” and Martin dives into it. He’s supposed to be doing academic research, but he’d rather read Chekhov and go hunting for girls with his expat friends. And since reality imitates art as often as the other way around, Martin combines his “research projects” by understanding the women he dates through the examples of the heroines he’s studying: Tatyana of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Sonya from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Liza of Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, and Olga from Chekhov’s Duschechka. Thus by being a work of fiction that explores the best of classic Russian literature, Back to Moscow penetrates the Russian mentality more than a work of nonfiction ever could. And an easy way to understand that mentality is through a few key Russian words that Martin learns from his women.
The first word that introduces Martin to Russian thought is babnik. A babnik is a man who likes women and who women like. Martin is such a babnik. While he’s in Moscow, Martin is with Lena, Polina, Vika, Tatyana, and many other dyevs. And it’s his experiences with these women that allow Martin to understand the “thing that makes Russians avoid superficial joy and choose to pursue deeper, sadder feelings—something the makes them chase the resonance and aesthetic value of melancholy.”
Then there’s sostradaniye. We can translate sostradaniye as compassion, but since it derives from the word for suffering, stradaniye, in Russian it more accurately means “co-suffering.” Russians don’t have compassion for each other, they suffer with each other. In the Russian way of looking at the world, suffering is an inevitable part of life, and so the best we can do is suffer together.
Toska is a word rich in meaning. Deep spiritual sorrow. Beautiful, self-inflicted pain. Sadness, melancholy, longing. (In his introduction to Evgeny Onegin, Nabaokov warns that “no single English word renders all the shades of toska.) Rather than happiness, Russians pursue toska. That’s why Martin’s favorite dyev Lena says, “There’s so much more to life than being happy.”
But perhaps the most important term to understand is sudba. It means fate, destiny, but in a distinctly Russian way. All events in life are “either ne sudba, when they didn’t happen and therefore were not meant to be, or sudba, which implied a supernatural predestination against which simple human will was powerless.” Everything in life comes down to sudba. It’s why Russian are so fatalistic.
And yet Martin believes we can choose our fate. Or at least he does when he first arrives in Moscow—a tragedy toward the end of his stay might prove otherwise. Because sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and choice has nothing to do with it. It’s subda.
But whether we can choose our fate or not, Martin understands that “even tragic events that cause unbearable pain become, with time, nothing more than sad memories.” We move on, with time eroding both joy and suffering. And that’s a deep insight. So while I suspect some people might consider Back to Moscow superficial for the way Martin treats women, and may even dismiss the novel as misogynist, those people are confused. Because that’s not how art is to be judged. Art can only be judged on whether it moves us or not. And Back to Moscow is definitely, beautifully, tragically moving.