Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Aviator

The Aviator
Eugene Germanovich Vodolazkin
St. Petersburg + Solovki Prison Camp

PLOT SUMMARY: Innokenty Petrovich Platonov wakes up in a hospital in St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union with no memories of his past and no knowledge of the present. After discovering a bottle of pills which list the current year (1999), Innokenty gathers that he is 99 years old despite his biological age being around thirty. His doctor, Geiger, refuses to tell him anything about his past but encourages him to write his thoughts in a journal as memories come back to him. He eventually pieces together important pieces of his life, such as his father’s death, his love affair with a girl named Anastasia, and his arrest that lead to his time in a gulag on the Solovki Islands. His story takes shape as he remembers he had the choice to either die in the prison camp or partake in a scientific study where his body would be cryogenically frozen.

     Miraculously, after thawing decades later, he finds Anastasia still alive, though close to death at a hospital. While visiting her, he meets her great-granddaughter, Nastya. He becomes a well-known celebrity throughout Russia, where he is invited to meet famous politicians, become a sponsor for various products, and appear in TV interviews. After bonding over taking care of Anastasia, he falls in love with Nastya and they soon learn that she is pregnant. He continues to record his memories in a digital journal where Geiger and Nastya begin to record their own thoughts alongside him. Suddenly, his health takes a turn for the worse and he begins having issues with his short-term memory, fine motor skills, and muscles. Geiger determines that his brain cells are dying rapidly for no obvious reason. Desperate to make the most of however much time he has left, he marries Nastya and partakes on a mission to record as much of his life story as possible. In a last-ditch effort to find the cause of his illness, Geiger sends him to Germany for medical tests. Instead of staying in Germany and waiting for test results, he makes a last-minute decision to fly back to Russia. However, his plane’s landing gear won’t extend and the novel ends without the plane ever landing. It is unknown whether Innokenty returns home safely or dies as a consequence of the landing.

ANALYSIS: The Aviator places significant emphasis on themes of memory and historical narratives. Vodolazkin establishes contrast between personal experiences and notable historical events. Throughout the novel, as his memories are gradually restored to him, Innokenty is forced to reckon with the past: both by recounting personal joys and tragedies, and by tracing Russian history in an attempt to understand everything that happened between the freezing of his body and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He also aims to confront his trauma that stems from the time he spent in captivity in a gulag, although he never succeeds at leaving it behind completely. Innokenty’s recurring nightmares and obsessive graveyard visits throughout the novel demonstrate the persistent, inescapable aftereffects incarceration has on individuals.

     The novel’s title establishes Innokenty’s role as someone who is able to see from above, having experienced the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet prison system, and now post-soviet Russia. Like an aviator in flight, his perspective is much wider than the average person’s. The temporal layers present in the novel add to the feeling of an expanded perspective as Innokenty switches between flashbacks, experiences in modern Russia, and reflections. One might expect him to attempt to explain horrors he experienced in Soviet Russia from a researched historical perspective or by examining notable events. However, despite passionately studying the past, Innokenty devotes much of his journal to describing everyday experiences—smells, sounds, the evolution of the Russian language—rather than world history. He is convinced that describing these small details is equally valuable, and that this is what is important for his child to understand about him. His story, not the story of Russia as a whole, is what he wants to pass down. By describing Innokenty’s experiences journeying through time, Vodolazkin is able to raise thought-provoking questions about what events are notable, what history has to tell us, and how we want to be remembered. 


“A person is not a cat and cannot land on four paws wherever thrown. A person is placed in a certain historical time for some reason. What happens when someone loses that?” (65)

“Maybe I really was resurrected in order that all of us grasp once again what happened to us in those terrifying years when I lived” (176)

“When I was a little girl, I heard that if you swat a mosquito at the scene of the crime, the skin won’t itch. I think that’s an exaggeration, with a moral: punishment should follow crime. In the same place, at the same time. Blood atonement, as they say.” (218)

BIOGRAPHY: Eugene Germanovich Vodolazkin (Yevgeny Vodolazkin) is a prize-winning author who only started writing in his 40s. He was born in Kiev in 1964 and eventually made his way to St. Petersburg, where he now lives with his family. His studies of medieval Russian history and folklore, as well as his Orthodox faith, have influenced his writing. In 1990, he was offered a job in the Department of Old Russian Literature (known as the Pushkin House) by his academic mentor, Dmitry Likhachyov. His wife, Tatiana Rudy, was offered a job there as well. Likhachyov, who survived imprisonment in the Soviet Union’s first gulag on the Solovki Islands, was a big influence in Vodolazkin’s life and they shared many of the same beliefs. Vodolazkin has worked at the Pushkin House for over 30 years, keeping the position as his day job while branching out into writing his own novels. As a result of his success as an author, he now writes a regular newspaper column, and has even faced some of Russian most popular television interviewers.

     Solovyov and Larionov, his debut novel, was published in Russia in 2009. Despite only being his debut, his writing was highly acclaimed: Solovyov and Larionov was shortlisted for the Andrei Bely Prize and Russia's National Big Book Award. However, he achieved even greater success after publishing his second novel, Laurus, in 2012. Laurus was a bestseller with over 200,000 copies sold, and it went on to win the National Big Book Award and the Yasnaya Polyana Award. Currently, three of his novels are available in English: Solovyov and Larionov, Laurus, and The Aviator. A fourth novel, Brisbane, is presently being translated. For Vodolazkin, writing is a “way to immortalise his own personal history, before death wipes away all memory,” (Amos) and he encourages others to do the same.


Amos, Howard. “Yevgeny Vodolazkin: Russia's Prize-Winning Novelist on Orthodoxy, Death and Playing with Time.” The Calvert Journal,

“Eugene Vodolazkin.” Los Angeles Review of Books,

“'Laurus' (‘Лавр’): Evgeny Vodolazkin in Conversation with Josie Von Zitzewitz.” Pushkin House,

Vergara, José. “The Flower and the Forest: An Interview with Evgeny Vodolazkin.” Words Without Borders,

Vodolazkin, E. G., and Lisa C. Hayden. The Aviator . Oneworld Publications, 2018.


Maguire, Muireann. “Institutional Gothic in the Novels of Vladimir Sharov and Evgenii Vodolazkin.” Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol. 61, no. 4, 2019, pp. 420–438., doi:10.1080/00085006.2019.1648986.
Maguire analyzes elements of the institutional Gothic subgenre present in The Aviator. She argues that Vodolazkin employs Gothic tropes such as manipulating time frames, unjust involuntary confinement, and hospital ward spaces to scrutinize Russia’s recent past and explore historical trauma.

Stepanian, Karen. “Metaphysics and Physics.” Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 52, no. 1, 2016, pp. 67–90., doi:10.1080/10611975.2016.1169096.
In this article, Stepanian remarks on the revival of metaphysical themes within recently published works of Russian literature. She hones in on Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus (2012) to examine its portrayal of faith, transformation, and love.

Williams, Rowan. “Holy Folly and the Problem of Representing Holiness: Some Literary Perspectives.” Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies, vol. 1 no. 1, 2018, pp. 3-15. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/joc.2018.0001.
Williams examines several literary depictions of “holy folly” within Russian works, including creative representations of holy fools within Vodolazkin’s Laurus. He uses these works to comment on the paradoxical nature of holy folly and, in turn, of faith.

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