If, like me, you just barely followed the Crimean crisis of 2014, you might not have realized that a significant number of Ukrainians actually wanted to be annexed by Russia. To hear the media tell it, the takeover was a whim of Vladimir Putin, and overlooking the finer details of the crisis fits nicely with the narrative of Putin as a lost American cowboy of lore: he who rides horses shirtless, kicks ass, and generally does as he pleases.
But on a deeper level, our country’s longstanding fear of the Soviet Union made it hard to believe that anyone living in a democracy would want to return to an authoritarian state. It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that pops up again and again in the American psyche, our naïve idea that—at least until Iraq—democracy and capitalism were the answers to all the world’s woes.
All of which makes Alexei Nikitin’s novel Y.T. particularly timely. Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson—a first for Nikitin—the novel oscillates between 1984 and 2004 in Kiev, and captures with nuance the psychology of someone who has lived through the shift from an authoritarian state to a democratic one. The result is much more confusing, complex, and contradictory than you might imagine. And while the novel is funny, sad, thought-provoking, and satirical, it suffers from the same lack of identity that plagues its narrator.
For the narrator, at least, the loss of selfhood in Kiev is made perfectly understandable. From the very first line (“My email address is email@example.com.”), Nikitin’s take on the classic novel starter makes clear that his narrator has complicated notions of his own identity. Istemi isn’t even his real name (it’s Alexander Davidov), but the name of an ancient ruler who “no one even remembers.”
For someone evidently well-versed in history, there is the pervasive sense that Davidov exists outside of time, or is caught up in an unreliable memory, or is living in a dream state that’s actually just post-USSR capitalism. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to believe myself,” he says. “I don’t believe what I don’t remember.”
Perhaps it’s because Davidov has never fully recovered from the events of 1984, when he and four classmates were arrested and interrogated for weeks because of a game they’d created. (Nikitin is light on details, but it seems like a high-concept version of Risk—where players divide up territories and make moves to conquer them—and calls to mind the post-War World II buildup by the Americans and Russians.)
The first half of the novel switches back and forth in staccato chapters between 1984 and 2004, toggling the origination of the game and subsequent interrogations with the present-day drama that kicked off in the opening chapter with an email suggesting the game had begun once again.
The irony is that Davidov in 2004 seems more afraid of some unseen force than of his imprisonment in 1984, which he describes as “a laugh…as long as my grasp of the absurdity of the situation did not give way to an uneasy sense of reality.” Even meetings with his American boss, for whom Davidov does marketing for “American fizzy drinks” (as capitalist as capitalism can be) seem worse than his time in the army following his arrest and expulsion from university: “Every time I attend one of those meetings, I recalled with a shudder of nostalgia my army political indoctrination of eighteen years before.”
This “shudder of nostalgia” captures the uneasy reverence Davidov has for life—or at the very least, for his sense of self—under a repressive state regime. There’s a feeling that one knew who one was back then, if only by virtue of who one was not. Though a lack of freedom made life better-lived as a game, at least in 1984 Davidov knew where he stood, and could even feel like he was fooling everyone. Now, he feels like the fool, adrift in what might be a game, but also might not. While there are suggestions that the renewed game could put Davidov in real-life danger, Nikitin is, again, frustratingly blurry on the details.
There’s a parallel to be made between the events of Y.T. and the Arab Spring, as well as its antecedent, Occupy. While the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond ousted dictators, in retrospect Occupy seems little more than a symbolic gesture. When a people are truly, transparently repressed against their consent, at least they know who the bad guy is, and the goals of social action can be defined in kind. In a society where political domination is much more subtle, real change might be harder to come by. Without one overwhelming, identifiable evil, the multiplicity of other causes stretches social movements thin.
The shortcomings of Occupy and newborn democracies (including Ukraine’s) speak to Davidov’s disillusionment with Ukraine’s new political climate, where he might have hoped things would be better, but found instead that domination takes many forms, like his boss who “looked like a hamburger: plump buns, spirit of democracy, big smile on display.” The Americans, he says, “fattened us on a diet of political correctedness that our innermost beings rejected.”
As Davidov becomes more and more “overcome by a sense of unreality,” the novel takes on an almost Pynchonian chaos. Key characters and plot points start appearing out of nowhere, while the story gets stuck in 2004. Whereas the first part of the book invokes suspense and mystery, the latter finds Davidov all of a sudden heading to Yalta, Kerouac-style, with “a one-legged Chechen, his wife, and her sister.” It feels like a different book, albeit one still trying desperately to hold on to concept it constructed in its first sixty pages. The satire mostly disappears, replaced by a surreal brand of nihilism that calls to mind Tom McCarthy’s narrator in Remainder, who, after receiving a fortune, begins fastidiously constructing an alternate universe for himself.
Yet despite the plot making little-to-no sense and the disjointed styles, I found myself more than willing to go on whatever journey Nikitin wanted to take. Delving into Davidov’s increasingly bizarre psyche alone makes this slim novel well worth your time. And though Nikitin’s prose can occasionally sound cringe-worthy (“But that’s how experience is; everyone has their own”), there are flashes of specificity that creep up on you. The following passage, for instance, takes a borderline sentimental sentence and then swiftly anchors it with a surprising and achingly beautiful image:
Looking at the letters now, I felt something in the world change forever—some axis shifted, the stream of time changed course, even the sky abruptly changed color. Somewhere close at hand horns began to sound impatiently.
Even in this passage, Davidov can’t help but be nostalgic.
Y.T. by Alexei Nikitin
April 12, 2016