Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘The Competent Authority’ by Iegor Gran

17 April 2024

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews The Competent Authority by Iegor Gran, translated by Ruth Driver [hardback, £22, 224pp, ISBN-9781914495557, Mountain Leopard Press, London, 2023]

In 1966, two Soviet writers were put on trial for what they had written. In this fictionalized account of the events leading up to the capture and conviction of Sinyavsky and Daniel, Iegor Gran has pulled off a literary stunt worthy of the man at the centre of the whole sorry saga – his own father, Andrei Sinyavsky. Seen from the point of view of The Competent Authority of the title (otherwise more familiar as the KGB), Gran casts his satirical eye on the trial that fundamentally changed the intelligentsia’s relationship with the Soviet state in the years to its collapse in 1991. His story is underpinned by the most meticulous research, covering documents from the court proceedings as well as contemporary accounts of everyday Soviet life, but told with a satirical spin that leaves you in a constant state of wonderment: can it really have happened like this?  And the most probable answer is, yes, it can.

Gran’s tale starts in February 1959, when the French literary journal l’Esprit published an article written by a Soviet author, who, the editor explained in a short paragraph, didn’t want to be named for obvious reasons.

At the weekly meeting at the KGB’s Lubyanka headquarters in Moscow, investigator Lieutenant-Colonel Pakhmonov, passed round a thick book-sized journal with a large red ‘E’ stamped on it:  “This was sent to us by our contacts in Paris. Beginning on p. 335 is an article that is causing quite a stir in intellectual circles there. It was apparently written here, by one of us, anonymously, and taken out to France in secret. It’s called On Socialist Realism.  All yours, Ivanov.” 

So begins Iegor Gran’s tale of the search to uncover the true identity of the author. It soon emerged that the author was a certain Abram Tertz. A couple of years later, another unauthorised publication, another nom de plume – this time someone going by the name of Nikolai Arzhak had had the audacity to publish a short story in the Polish émigré journal Kultura in Paris. This is the story of the investigation that uncovered the true identities of Soviet writers Tertz and Arzhak and led to the arrest and conviction of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel under Article 70 (anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda) in February 1966.  

It had taken “all yours” Lieutenant-Colonel Ivanov an unprecedented seven years to deliver.  

Whilst in many ways a love-letter to his parents, Andrei Sinyavsky and Maria Rozanova, it is very much The Competent Authority that is the object of Gran’s satire. Gran has an affection for its bumbling but patriotic foot soldiers, still naively looking to Lenin as a role model, and he draws a picture of their domestic lives and loves that serves as a vivid counterpoint to that of his own parents. Appearing in the very first pages as nine-month-old “Iegorushka” and “Sinyavsky junior,” Gran places himself squarely at the epicentre of events in 1965 when Sinyavsky senior was finally rumbled. Maria Rozanova is depicted with filial pride as she toys psychologically with the two goons, Lieutenant Ivanov and Captain Nikonovich, who have come to search the flat for compromising anti-Soviet materials, bringing her the news of her husband’s detention: 

The woman can scarcely stifle a giggle: “What a relief! Thank you, Captain.  I was worried you see.  He should have come home after his lecture, at midday. He’s three hours late. It’s never a good sign when your husband is three hours late. You can’t imagine how worried I was. What if he had been in an accident? What if he had gone home with another woman…? You don’t ever go home with another woman besides your wife, do you captain?” She says this with such a mixture of sincerity and baffling impudence that the captain feels himself completely decomposing.

The ways in which life and work disrupt the loyal servants of the competent authority’s hold on certainty is skillfully conveyed.  There’s Ivanov (who really did exist) and his dutiful wife, Larissa (more of an invention?), trying for a baby as they gain the material trappings of a comfortable Soviet life. Then there’s Grishkin who’s fallen for the wiles of one of their own informants – codename ‘Aurora Borealis’ – and has hit the bottle. He is on a downward slide, comes to work unshaven and is finally sent to his career graveyard in Novocherkassk, a backwater in Southern Russia with a locomotive plant. It’s 1962 and Grishkin is never heard of again: in Gran’s telling, a workers’ strike at the factory over prices and wages – “in the country of triumphant socialism!” – threatens to destabilize the town. Tanks and troops are brought in overnight to quell the rebellion. The massacre that is unleashed – twenty-five workers dead, another thirty wounded – is a scandal that must be hushed up. Thus does Gran embroider his fictionalized tale with real events that rocked the Soviet state but were kept secret, especially from its own citizens. It wasn’t until 2020, that Andrei Konchalovsky made his feature film, Dear Comrades, about the events of June 1962 in Novocherkassk, making the story known to a wide audience for the first time. Gran’s talent is for placing his KGB protagonists at the centre of epoch-defining events in the Soviet Union, revealing layer upon layer of secrecy, all of which played a part in the over-arching story of the competent authority and his father’s cat-and-mouse game with it. 

There are marvellous vignettes of everyday Soviet life in the capital: the burgeoning appetite for jazz and the competent authority’s futile efforts to stamp on it; their pursuit of X-ray plates, with jazz tunes scratched on to the ‘bones’. There is the seemingly unquenchable contraband trade in blue jeans, the problem of foreigners selling their dollars on the black market, and even a death sentence for Yan Rokotov, one of the number of fartsovshchiki, or traders in foreign currency. There is the acute humiliation at the American trade expo at Sokolniki, where Soviet citizens can’t seem to get enough of the consumer goods on display, the first exhibition of Picasso’s works in Moscow, and in 1961 Gagarin’s flight into space – the pride of every true Soviet citizen.  

Gran weaves into his story a totally believable social and political backdrop as a way of giving context to the years between the publication of On Socialist Realism in February 1959 and the unmasking of Abram Tertz seven years later. 

Like figures in a shadow-play, Gran also describes the competent authority’s network of informants – Lieutenant Ivanov himself runs around thirty of them, handing out tickets to the Kirov ballet or shopping vouchers for the department store Voentorg as inducements or rewards. There is ‘Pinecone’ the physicist, ‘Aurora Borealis’ – “a woman of easy virtue – (…), a Mata Hari for all occasions: “All of Moscow’s depraved intelligentsia have had a go with her.” If only she hadn’t tried it on one of their own too. And then there is ‘Monocle’ – “a dandy, an architect by training, a specialist on Asia (…) an excellent asset, cynical and manipulative, who takes pleasure in feeling and exerting his power.” He is in the first line of assets sent off fishing for information about who could possibly be behind the name of Abram Tertz.

The perfect opportunity presents itself in June 1960. Boris Pasternak’s manuscript of Dr. Zhivago had been smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1957, much to the consternation of the Soviet authorities and if that wasn’t bad enough, the Nobel Committee had only gone and drawn international attention to it by awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature just a year later. Thank goodness Pasternak himself had seen sense and declined to accept the prize, but the whole business had been an annoying embarrassment for the competent authority. And then he goes and dies! How to limit the damage of what will no doubt be a huge gathering of literary acolytes, rushing to pay their respects at the writer’s funeral in Peredelkino, the writer’s colony where Pasternak lived. Gran describes the occasion with a certain glee:

Later on, perched up in a tree above the head of an English journalist who is shooting questions at everyone. Lieutenant Ivanov pulls himself together. Let us not get discouraged. He counts and counts again, gets muddled, starts over. The ocean of heads is constantly moving.

Monocle spots his mate Andrei in the crowd. He’s with Yuli, a translator, a charming Bohemian type. No wonder they’re in the first rows, those two freaks. Andrei used to correspond with Pasternak, if Monocle remembers rightly, and he’s quite proud of it too, even if he doesn’t blow his trumpet about it. Yuli writes poetry as well. He knows hundreds of lines of Pasternak’s verse. Monocle knows quite a few himself. Just last summer, in the middle of the Zhivago scandal, he was able to attract a fair bit of feminine attention, swaggering and crooning as he recited “My sister – Life.”

Sinyavsky and Daniel – hiding in plain sight, both from Lieutenant Ivanov’s untutored gaze and from Monocle, in his black armbands and American checked shirt, whose big round glasses gave him his codename, but didn’t let him see what was under his nose. 

In another account of a little-known Soviet disaster kept under wraps by the competent authority, Gran sends Lieutenant Ivanov on an ad hoc secret mission to Uzbekistan. This time it really is Secret, even from Larissa. As described by Gran, “His mission consists in analyzing the anti-Soviet discourse said to be circulating in Uzbekistan and to participate in ‘dismantling those defeatist humours’.”  

It turns out that the desert is burning:

Ten miles away from Pamuk, a gas well has caught fire. And it’s not a tiny flicker. A flame seventy metres high, like a gigantic blowtorch, rises from the centre. In a fifty-metre radius around it, the desert is burning, literally: little bursts of flame keep popping up from the ground all over the place.

The Dean of the University of Sverdlovsk provides the solution: 

Extinguishing a gas torch with a nuclear device – as simple as building a bridge!  And we won’t stop there while we’re at it! In his filing boxes he has another grandiose project: reversing the flow of the River Lena over thousands of kilometres. A few clever explosions, and you’ll be able to create a sufficient fall between the levels to bring water from Siberia to the deserts of Central Asia. With all the sunshine here, if you add water, imagine the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables you’ll harvest!

A nuclear device was set off in the desert of Uzbekistan in 1963?  To extinguish a gas torch?  And it’s true! 

Gran’s skill at threading the narrative through with cultural observations, his descriptions of material culture of the period – the Soviet false eyelashes that look like “exploded car tyres,” the tinned sultanka and verkhogliad fish in tomato sauce, filched from a Crimean fish factory, but no-one knows what they are, the merits of Krokodil satirical magazine over Pravda

“Don’t throw away your old issues of Krokodil, Mama,” Ivanov replies as he examines the bubbles under the wallpaper in the hallway. “We’ll need them to redo the walls.” Krokodil’s smooth paper is better quality than Pravda’s. Impregnated with glue, it will be perfect for the base layer. It’s what you use instead of plaster and primer, which you can’t get hold of anywhere.” (…) in Leningrad, there’s just been a delivery of Polish wallpaper at the local branch of Voentorg. The father of a friend could get hold of some.

Gran’s singular achievement in The Competent Authority is to reanimate a period of Soviet history that in many ways was defined by the Sinyavsky-Daniel Trial.  The trial is widely regarded as marking the end of Khrushchev’s Thaw and the beginning of greater political repression under Leonid Brezhnev.  It kick-started the Soviet dissident movement and, as such, its significance cannot be overstated. By comparison to what might have been the fate of Sinyavsky and Daniel in Putin’s Russia, their sentences seem ‘vegetarian’ in the extreme: Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp, Daniel to five. Sinyavsky was released after five years and was allowed to leave with his family for France two years later. Iegorushka was nine years old.  

Andrei Sinyavsky famously quipped that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” In The Competent Authority, Iegor Gran’s satirical novel of his father’s danse macabre with the Soviet authorities, you begin to appreciate what those differences were.