Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Trial Begins

The Trial Begins
Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky/Abram Tertz
PLOT SUMMARY: The text revolves around four main characters: Vladimir Petrovich Globov, the protagonist, Marina, Globov’s wife, Yury Karlinsky, the man who courts Marina, and Seryozha, Globov’s son. The novel opens with God himself decreeing that the author write about Globov, who is to be his protagonist. In the text, Globov, the city prosecutor, prosecutes a gynecologist named Rabinovich for illegally performing an abortion. At the same time, his wife, Marina, is courted by Karlinsky, who is a public defender. Marina is defined entirely by vanity - she is obsessed with maintaining her beauty. Karlinsky is defined by his obsession to possess Marina. The ensuing courtship, however, is not based on love but manipulation; Karlinsky calculates his every move in an attempt to deceive and acquire Marina. When he achieves his goal, however, he feels unsatisfied and unhappy.
     Meanwhile, Seryozha, dedicated to justice and communism, attempts to create a group, which he hopes will reform the current state of communism in the USSR. Only one student shows up to his meeting, Katya, and they plan together how they will create a better communist, truly soviet, state. Katya then speaks to Karlinsky about their ideas, and he tells her that their ideas are entirely Trotskyism; in other words, ideas of the enemy. She becomes paranoid, tears up their notebook of ideas, and reports her and Seryozha’s meetings in an attempt to save him from arrest. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect. Globov refuses to do anything about his son’s arrest despite the pleas of his mother to save him. The novel ends with an epilogue in which Rabinovich, Seryozha and the author are all in a labour camp together. 
ANALYSIS: The text serves, first and foremost, as an illustration of the severe repression in the Soviet Union. This is established immediately in the prologue when God decrees the author must write about his faithful servant Globov; however, God is referred to as khozyain, a term which was used to refer to Stalin, making it unclear whether it is God or Stalin who is commanding the author. Thus, immediately the author establishes the same power dynamic in the book as there is in the Soviet Union. In the text Globov is supposed to be the protagonist, yet he abandons his son. Meanwhile, Seryozha, who is actually quite loyal to communism and the idea of the Soviet Union, is supposedly one of the villains. This reversal of roles alludes to the upside-down state of the Soviet Union and further emphasizes the oppressive nature of the Soviet Union, since it imprisons Seryozha who is actually a staunch supporter of communism.

     Additionally, Sinyavsky’s use of language can be seen as a protest to this suppression. His language is not entirely realistic; in fact, he often includes fantastical illustrations of different scenes. Not unlike other authors we have read, Sinyavsky uses his writing to demonstrate that creativity and art cannot be suppressed and that, despite the Soviet Union’s best efforts, total homogeneity will not be achieved.  

“The music flowed. It oozed like oily, rainbow-patterned pudles. It rose. It roared and stormed off the stage into the body of the hall. Seryozha thought about the cloudburst in the streets outside and wriggled with pleasure. The music reproduced his private image of the Revolution. The flood drowned the whole of the bourgeoisie in a most convincing way.” (22)
“Every decent End consumes itself. You kill yourself trying to reach it, and by the time you get there it’s been turned inside out.” (72)
“Do you know what happens, Mother, when tanks go into attack? … Whatever’s in their way they crush it. Sometime even their own wounded. A tank simply cannot turn aside … It just has to crush and crush.” (81)
BIOGRAPHY: Andrei Sinyavsky, also known by his pseudonym Abram Tertz, was a Russian Jewish author born in 1925 who wrote several fictions and who wrote for the literary journal Novy Mir (New World). His fictional novels were never published in the Soviet Union and were instead smuggled to the West for publication. The Trial Begins was his first publication translated into English in 1960, followed by Fantastic Stories in 1963, and The Makepiece Experiment in 1965. 
     Both Sinyavsky and another Russian author, Yuly Daniel, were arrested in September of 1965 for spreading what the Soviet Union labeled allegedly anti-Soviet propaganda. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years of hard labour, while Daniel was sentenced to five. The trial was recorded and published in 1966 in On Trial, which led to a great amount of protest. Sinyavsky was released in 1971 and taught Russian literature in Paris until his death in 1997.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Andrey Donatovich Sinyavsky.” Encyclopædia 
Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Feb. 2019,
Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial, MQUP, 2001. 
The text focuses on several aspects of the text and features a detailed analysis of Globov. It also connects the text to Sinyavsky’s essay “On Socialist Realism.”
Maguire, Robert A. The Russian Review, vol. 21, no. 2, 1962, pp. 193–195. 
This review focuses on Sinyavsky’s use of irony. It compares his writing to the more classical writings which he criticizes.
Murav, Harriet. “Sinyavsky's Trial.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, no. 3, 1998, pp. 389–393. 
This article provides more context about Sinyavsky and his own trial.

Nepomnyashchy, Catharine Theimer. Abram Tertz and the Poetics of Crime. Yale University Press, 1995. 
This book dedicates a chapter to the interpretation of Sinyavsky’s famous essay “On Socialist Realism” and how its ideas manifest themselves in The Trial Begins. It puts a strong emphasis specifically on the language used.

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