Valery Yakovlevich Tarsis
PLOT SUMMARY: In this autobiographical novel, Tarsis describes his time in a Moscow mental hospital as a result of publishing his novel The Bluebottle, which was critical of the Soviet Union overseas. Tarsis reinvents himself as Valentine Almazov, a protagonist who was confined to the fictionalized Kanatchikov asylum for the same crimes Tarsis himself was. The story follows Almazov as he experiences his imprisonment, and how it reflects the censorship of day-to-day life in the Soviet Union.
Almazov also tells the stories of the other “patients” in Ward 7. Except for a single patient who is described as an actual lunatic, the other patients fall into three groups: individuals who attempted suicide, those who attempted to contact a foreign embassy, and young adults who did not fit into Soviet society. Through the stories of other patients, Tarsis tells a critical tale of life in the Soviet Union and communism.
ANALYSIS: A recurring theme in Ward 7 is the complacency of the “patients” - i.e., prisoners - of the Kanatchikov asylum. Some of the characters that Almazov meets rebel against their imprisonment, but the large majority find some safety or solace in the mental hospital. Many characters describe a new freedom in being called a “lunatic”: now the patients are free to say and read what they wish. The idea of imprisonment in a mental asylum being freeing points to the theme in Ward 7, and broader Russian literature, of life in the Soviet Union government as a form of incarceration.
Interestingly, the line between the author, Valeriy Tarsis, and his supposedly separate protagonist, Valentine Almazov, is very blurry in Ward 7. At one point, another character mentions reading Almazov’s novel that was the impetus for Almazov’s imprisonment in Ward 7. She refers to “Rimma,” a character from Tarsis’s The Bluebottle, the novel that was the impetus for his own time in Kashchenko Mental Hospital. This shows the extent to which the novel is autobiographical, and speaks to the larger trend in the works that we have read of authors writing stories that are technically fictional, but so close to the experiences they have lived. It also suggests that, like other authors we have read, Tarsis struggles to separate himself from the story, and from Almazov, because it is so intensely personal.
“‘Go and sit down, try to rest,’ said the doctor. ‘Try to keep your strength, you’ll need it. But don’t think of staging a protest - going on a hunger strike or writing to complain - it won’t get you anywhere in our country, no one will pay you the slightest attention. Even the Turks and the Greeks were moved when Nazin Hikmet and Glesos went on hunger strike, but here they’d only laugh at you. They’re made of stone, they aren’t human, they’re nothing but hangment…’” (43)
“‘Russia is a peculiar country,’ the bald stranger was saying in his curiously dry, rustling voice. ‘Birthday party one day, funeral the next - that’s the whole of our history. We sprint forwards, then we race back. We put on seven-league boots after Peter the Great. St. Petersburg created the greatest aristocratic culture in the world. We produced giants - Dostoevsky, Rozanov. Then we cut our own throats. What’s left of it all? A comic scene out of The Small Devil - that’s a great book, by the way, and so are Fallen Leaves and the Advent of the Boor. It’s the small devils who have us in their power. That's what Dostoevsky foresaw as well. You remember, there's not a single devil of any stature, not the ghost of a Lucifer in The Possessed. And you remember Verkhovensky confessing: ‘We’re not socialists, we’re a fraud!’ Yes, the Russian way of life has gone down the drain and so has Russian literature.’” (45)
“‘Babadjan is worried about Ward 7.’
‘So he should be. The day will come when it will be the first H.Q. in the battle for freedom. Our bells are already ringing on the other shore. I believe the hour is not far off when the bells of Moscow will ring as well.’
The nurse on duty took Almazov back to his ward. Again it was night and insomnia and bad dreams… And this is all I can say now.” (159)
BIOGRAPHY: Valery Yakovlevich Tarsis (sometimes transliterated as Valeriy or Valeriǐ) was a Soviet dissident writer born in Kiev in 1906. He graduated from the University of Rostov on Don, and began his career in literature at the Moscow State Publishing House as an editor. Tarsis published several short stories and novellas, which were well-received by Soviet society. His writing was interrupted by his time as a captain in the war, and when he returned to writing, Tarsis increasingly condemned the Soviet system, frustrated by the censorship in publishing.
In 1962, Tarsis’s first novel, The Bluebottle, was published in England under a pseudonym. The novel was highly critical of the censorship of writers and artists by the Soviets, and as a result, Tarsis was committed to Kashchenko Mental Hospital for nearly a year. This led Tarsis to write his most-well known work, Ward 7, an autobiographical novel telling the story of a writer in a Russian asylum published, in 1965. After his eventual release from the asylum, Tarsis left the Soviet Union and settled in Switzerland. Valery Tarsis passed away in 1983 at the age of seventy-six.
Brown, Katya. Translator’s Note. Ward 7; an Autobiographical Novel. By Valeriy Tarsis. Brown. Dutton, 1965, pp. 5–8.
“Valery Tarsis Is Dead; Soviet Emigre Novelist.” The New York Times, 4 Mar. 1983, p. 23.
Alekseeva, Ljudmila. “Part V: The Movement for Human Rights.” Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights, Wesleyan University Press, 1987, pp. 265–398.
This section of this book provides an understanding of the human rights abuses under Soviet government and the ways in which individuals and masses rebelled and protested the human rights violations. It describes many artists and writers who were confined to mental hospitals as a result of producing art that was viewed as critical towards the government.
Bukovsky, Vladimir. “Notes From Soviet Asylums.” National Review, vol. 24, no. 22, June 1972, pp. 633–636. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nch&AN=17319563&site=ehost-live.
This article gives a brief overview of the “Special Psychiatric Hospitals” that the Soviet Union used as prisoners for political dissidents, including writers like Valeryiy Tarsis. It also includes insightful excerpts from primary sources discussing the imprisonment of Soviets in insane asylums for political reasons.
Reich, Rebecca. “Thinking Differently: The Case of Dissidents.” State of Madness: Psychiatry, Literature, and Dissent after Stalin, Northern Illinois University Press, 2018, pp. 60–100.
This chapter explains the ways in which political dissidents were silenced by mental asylums in the Soviet Union. This selection particularly includes the responses from the Western world and how the global opinion of Soviet psychiatry was affected by the misuse of asylums on individuals who did not have a medical need to be kept in an asylum.