Research Institute Blues (April 2012)

Sergei Soloukh’s most recent novel Igra v iashchik is difficult. Not only because of the intense attention to detail in the microcosmic world of the closed technical research institute, but also because of the narrative structure, which is weaved out by samizdat/tamizdat texts and the narrative of the person reading them. There is the main plot of the story concerning the ‘hopes and fears’ or ‘trials and tribulations’ of young researchers in the 1980s. But then there are the subplots, and indeed, subtexts, which seem to consist of samizdat parodies of classic Russian and Soviet children’s literature (Gaidar’s Chuk i Gek comes in for particularly harsh treatment here).

There is almost the sense that the laborious prose, which Soloukh devotes to his locations, objects, characters, is a reflection and or testament to the era itself. It’s late 1982 and everything is tedious. Indeed, this tediousness would seem to be the reason why the samizdat parodies take on such ridiculous and occasionally bawdy directions. The cult of reading, with all its underground escapism as the characters travel far from the edge of Moscow into the centre to acquire books from men in anoraks, is both mocked and exalted in Soloukh’s rendering of the last generation of the Soviet technical intelligentsia.

It is also interesting in relation to one of my potential but now indefinitely sidelined ideas about images of NII (nauchno-issledovatel’skie instituty) as sites of ‘dissent’ and ‘loyalty’. This was hopefully going to prove especially relevant when the new film about Lev Landau is released, but I think it’s too different from my other material at the moment to make sense in the broader picture of my work. (Especially as I saw a presentation on 1960s NII in literature by Muirrean Maguire over the weekend at BASEES that was miles better than anything I’d come up with, as well as a presentation on a new project by Victoria Donovan looking at the ZATO Obninsk.)

The spiritual release that is hinted at in Soloukh’s novel, but never quite attained by any of the characters except, perhaps, Roman Podtsepa and his family, had been the focus of a 2006 NII text, the film 977 (directed by Nikolai Khomeriki). This film concentrates on the mysterious happenings in an psychiatric-technical institute during the 1970s, whereby the new and flashy specialist from Moscow seems to get his provincial ‘comeuppance’ as he struggles to understand the Solaris-like world tucked away in the forest. Much like the erasure of barriers between the guards and prisoners in late-Soviet gulag literature (Dovlatov obviously springs to mind), here the experiment subjects and specialists coalesce into a single group of lost souls, held by and against their will in a remote location. Ivan is trying to figure out a problem (kept from the viewer) using suitably threatening but unexplained scientific equipment, but his equipment jams on the number 977 every time a particular girl enters his chamber, who promptly disappears from the locked room when he goes to check on her afterwards. His obscure project, representative of scientific hubris, gradually leads him down the rabbit hole of madness.

Perhaps I chucked these texts because there is no clear-cut dissent in them (and being short on time and space, one needs to focus), rather an internal reorientation of priorities by the conditions of the NII. In any case, they are fascinating and should hopefully provide base material for work at a later stage.

To wrap up, it should be said that whilst these texts focus on closed NII, there is little attention in fact paid to their ‘closedness’ generally. It is more hinted at then commented upon in comparison to the numerous memoir texts, documentary novels and history books that I’ve read on the subject, which certainly ‘fetishise’ the closedness to a certain degree. This is probably a reflection of the attraction to this idea but the comparative lack of concrete knowledge about these installations.

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