Grigory Mamayev

About Boris Kornev’s book ‘The Real Four’ ( “Historical Illustration’, SPb, 2011)

In modern Russian the word “real” has acquired a special meaning: “exceptional”, “fully compliant”, “standing firmly on its feet”, “exemplary”. Everyone has heard the public expression “real guys”, that is to say, the guys you can look up to, the guys who won’t let you down, those who do not come away from the Code of concepts…

So why is Boris Kornev’s story called “The Real Four”? What meaning does the word “real” have here? Can it have the same modern meaning originated after the 90-s? Are they the four “real guys”?

However, the plot of the story ends in the mid-eighties, when the epoch of the “real guys” hadn’t started yet… In fact, this story did not end but was cut off on the verge of a new “real” era. So why did the author enter the horrendous anachronisms in the title?

By the way, the characters of the story, four Leningrad boys born in the 50s, whose fate is traced by the author from their childhood to maturity, doesn’t resemble much the same “guys”, the Russian “Rogue element” of the 90s. No, they don’t resemble them at all!.. The story characters (even those with bad luck) are the outstanding personalities, the spiritual cream of the late Soviet society, the best people of their time. Well, maybe not the best people, but such people, who clearly stand above the average level — with their mind, spiritual power and education…

Here are those four:a scientist, later a Communist party official Sergey Bogdanov;a KGB officer Yury Lisochkin;an eminent dissident Vladimir Spivak;a criminal figure Pyotr Philippov.

Each of those four people is lucky in his own way, however, it is easy to notice that the luck of the first and second pairs extends in different directions.How do these four such different characters team up into one narrative? It is quite simple and natural in Kornev’s style, without a slight artificiality: they are from the same form at school They all come from the same Leningrad school – an elite school with intensive study of the French language. I will explain to those who were born after the Soviet era: in those days schools like that were considered elite not because their students were the children of the elite but because the future elite of the country was being formed in them. Whether the teachers succeeded to do so was a different matter, they did with the story characters: each of them, as has been mentioned before,  reached a certain degree in one of the four main segments of the Soviet society that determined the movement of the society – the party nomenclature, the state security, confidently gaining momentum dissidence and the criminal world which was still powerful in the 80s, but would soon stand on the crest of the “great criminal revolution”.

It is not difficult to realize it is not exactly easy to have four completely different characters in one story, even if they used to sit next to each other at the school desk. You must also note that Boris Kornev doesn’t try to artificially bring together his characters, — on the contrary, he tends to scatter them away, to put them in different directions, and if they meet sometimes, it is seen not so much as the will of the author, but as the internal logic of the story, not depending on the writer.

I would like to say more: Kornev is doing everything for his characters not to look like “the four”, like inseparable friends in the style of the Musketeers of Dumas. He strongly emphasizes the uniqueness of each of them, he sends his characters into different parts of the country (and even of the world), he builds up quite unlike fates for them, finally, he denies the very existence of their friendship… But everything is in vain. The characters still meet, as if against the will of the author, showing the reader that no matter what,  they are the real four, and not the nominally existing four.

So what do they have in common? Perhaps the answer will seem overly pompous: the characters of the “Real Four” are united with the destiny of Russia, the history of Russia. This is true and it can’t be otherwise: because of their unique features, the “four” Bogdanov-Lisochkin-Spivak-Philippov cannot help but stand out from the faceless mass of people which is inherently out-of-history and does not change from century to century. People of even slight significance always remain in the history: their fates uncontrollably pour into the historic stream and having poured into it, they start influencing its development. Those people are the epoch signs, their life is both created by the epoch and creates it at the same time.

“The Real Four” are the creators of the epoch, even if they have not reached a particularly high rank, but in their places, these people have enough power to partly influence the course of the historical time. This is why they are interesting to the author, this is why they are interesting to the reader. The author identifies four areas that he thinks are principal for those decades; Party, Security, Opposition, Crime. Those directions used to determine the country’s history at the time. Anyone who wanted to participate in the fate of Russia, had to fit into one of those; that was what made you a real person instead of a faceless shadow. (Here is another interpretation of the story title). At the moment we do not judge or estimate whether the CPSU and dissidence affected the country in a beneficial way, what the role of the KGB in the society life was and whether the influence of the criminal group on the people and society was permissible. Following Boris Kornev, we just acknowledge the fact: the power in the late Soviet Russia was grouped in these areas and only by them.

Although such arguments clarify the status of the characters, they do not affect the essence of the book, for Kornev’s novel is deeper than these historical compositions.

…Remember your childhood and imagine the following situation: you are a student and in one of the most important subjects in the term you are predicted the grade far from the highest. What are you going to do? Will you grab the textbooks to catch up with everything? Or will you give up?

For our “real four” neither of these plans is acceptable. As the real passionaries (it is them who make the real elite of the society), they decide to take “direct actions”: at night they get into the staff room to steal the form register. It is a true musketeer act! Perhaps it can even be admired, if one is not too fussy. For example, Pavka Korchagin did put tobacco in the dough for the Easter cakes and tortured the priest’s dog – the rebellious spirit manifests itself in childhood!

However, the act of the form register theft turned into a curse for the four of them, a grievous mortal sin that lay down on them for life. Their DT teacher happened to have caught them at a crime scene. Trying to escape, the four boys tried to leave through the open window (on the third floor!), from the window sill to a tree and from there to the ground. One of the boys fell off the tree and hung on its branch… The teacher tried to save him but he didn’t keep himself, fell to the concrete piles and died.

Formally, only one of the thieves had to answer for what happened, it was Petya Philippov who got on trial and was sent to the colony for minors (where he started his difficult climbing in the hierarchy of thieves) three other boys managed to clear their names. But only in other people’s eyes! Their fate judged them differently: the school favourite teacher’s death became their joint sin and collective fault that knocked them out of the normal track for ever. At the first glance, the life of these three was not broken and was even quite successful but now all their actions bear the stamp of a certain lack of grace and futility. They enter adulthood with this stamp, they build up their careers but at the same time they still look like flies trying to get through the glass; the fly thinks it is flying forward but in fact it stays in the same place.

You can even take a look at the text of the story as an unfolded metaphor: the older generation – in the person of the DT teacher – tries to save the young who took the wrong path but it dies without coping with the challenge, and the youngsters have blood on their fingers…

Here in brackets I could attract your attention to a curious author’s trick: the two characters who managed to leave the staff room, in the future found themselves outside the Soviet system, they jumped out of it like from a school window (the criminal and the dissident). The two boys who couldn’t leave the staff room in the future stayed in the system blending into its unshakable foundations (the party careerist and the KGB officer). This fact might not be of great importance but once again it shows the high craftsmanship of Boris Kornev who consciously or unconsciously subordinated even minor details to the general plan.

The overall plan looks like this: the four not very bad guys who grew into not very bad men (this also refers to Philippov-the-criminal as he is a sufferer, fighter and savior in the novel) take the helm of the great country, not at the very top but, as I.Solonevish said, serving as “staff-captains” as “the army is held in place by staff-captains”.

With all his apparent lapidary style, Boris Kornev is able to infect the readers with sympathy for his characters: we really feel with all the four… But these four, carrying the burden of sin, the burden of murder (for they all are equally responsible for the old teacher’s death!) become responsible for the death of the whole era. Graceless passionaries – they don’t create but ruin or don’t prevent the destruction… Or do they create?

The action of the novel ends at the moment of the start of Gorbachev’s epoch. The new world is born. That’s the world which wouldn’t have been born if there hadn’t been people like Bogdanov, Lisochkin, Spivak and Philippov in the Soviet Union. We are not going to evaluate this world: a lot has been written about it, by Boris Kornev as well (story “Tandem”, for instance). But “The Real Four” keeps eloquently quiet about it: by the author’s will his characters freeze on the verge of the new era, and the reader can feel this is not the end!.. Our imagination immediately starts to think out frantically of the further course of the narrative for the author. And this is natural! The four characters are so vital, so real that their further pathways stand up in front of our eyes: Spivak’s triumphant return from abroad in the laurels of a fighting hero; Philippov’s exit from the underground and his becoming head of a big group and gradually gaining a more secular appearance; we can see Bogdanov in Yeltsin’s administration with a pack of shares in his pocket and Lisochkin as head of the joint Russian-Syrian enterprise… (Other options are possible). What seemed the end and collapse in the novel has become a new beginning in life.

And there is a quite understandable desire to say to the author, “What happened after? We need continuation!” There is no doubt. If Kornev had wanted he could have written a sequel, which would have eclipsed the beginning – say, some new “Tandem” – and surely would have turned the fate of his characters far more interestingly than I have done it.

…Boris Kornev has an excellent story called “Chapter One”: a man has been trying to write a book all his life but only in his old age he finds the strength to sit down at the typewriter; he sits down, puts a blank piece of paper in his typewriter, types the words “Chapter One” and… dies. His novel starts where the text ends.

Truly “The Real Four” is the “chapter one” of some huge book existing outside the text, the book which has not yet been finished, for the real four still live and work, and will not leave the Russian stage soon.

But do you need to finish “chapter two”, “chapter three”, “chapter fifty eight”?..

All the power of the story is just in its vagueness, the sudden stop-shot before the decisive twist of the plot. We can’t help remembering Hemingway with his maxim, “If a writer knows enough what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

Kornev throws away the continuation of the story which has not yet been written, because he knows that in this form the continuation will effect of the reader mostly.

Strictly speaking, we do not immediately recognize our contemporaries in the characters of the story. When we start reading, we agree to the introductory conditions and transfer ourselves into the 60s and we do not know what it will end with. Later, as we are carried away with the twists of the characters’ fates, we do not think about how the plot of the story is correlated with our time. It is not until the last pages of the story that we clearly see that it was about us!.. About our friends, neighbours as well as those who are always on the telly!..  This is when the story ends. So our imagination receives a powerful impulse, our thoughts of contemporary life receive a new depth. This decisive provocation for the reader to work, to think is the main value of “The Real Four”.

To this end, the story of the death of the old teacher who tried to save the boy but never managed to do it, suddenly acquires a special, truly archetypical value. For the four boys it was practically a murder of a father. What is more, it was a murder without repentance and without redemption, for all the suffering borne by Spivak is not redemption but only the natural consequences of the sin. The father’s blood is still on the hands of the four, and those hands are holding the power wheel today even tighter than in the Soviet times and those people are taking the posts higher that “staff-captains”…

However, what we are talking about now is “Chapter Two”, and Boris Kornev has not written it.