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Rybakov, Anatolii Naumovich

(1911–1998), novelist and screenwriter. Anatolii Rybakov was born into an educated family Chernigov (Ukr., Chernihiv); the family moved to Moscow when he was eight years old. He attended the local high school and, in his last two years, an experimental “commune-school” staffed by outstanding teachers, many of them Civil War veterans. After working as a loader and driver for a chemical plant, he enrolled in the Moscow Transportation Economic Institute in 1930. Arrested for “subversion” in 1933, he spent three years in Siberian exile before working as a transport engineer in places that did not require citizens to have an internal passport (having been exiled, he was not entitled to one). After serving in the army in World War II, he turned to literature, first writing the novella Kortik (The Dagger; 1948) for children, followed by a novel based on his work experience, Voditeli (The Drivers; 1950).

For nearly 30 years, Rybakov’s popularity rested primarily on his children’s books and their film and television adaptations. But in 1979, when emigration visas to Israel had dried up and Jewish refuseniks faced trial, he astonished the Soviet reading public with Tiazhelyi pesok (Heavy Sand), a novel about a Jewish family and its community from 1910 through the Nazi occupation. Soviet Yiddish writers had dealt with the Holocaust, but Rybakov’s account of the formation, resistance, and ultimate destruction of the ghetto was virtually unprecedented in Russian literature.

In 1987 Rybakov published Deti Arbata (Children of the Arbat), a major event in Soviet society’s reassessment of its past. Twice scheduled for publication (in 1966 and 1979), and twice withdrawn because of censorship, Arbat, the first volume of a trilogy, depicts its eponymous heroes and their political masters as they live through the 1930s and the war. With each suppression of the novel, Rybakov revised his manuscript, expanding particularly his absorbing portrayal of Stalin. While Jewish themes are peripheral to the story, Rybakov suggested that from 1934 onward, Soviet Jews were caught between Stalin’s cold, rationalized hostility toward Jews as a stiff-necked, combative people, and unmediated, primitive popular antisemitism.

Deti Arbata and its less successful sequels sold more than 20 million copies at home and abroad, and provided the basis for a 16-part television series. In his last years Rybakov founded and became president of the Russian PEN Center, and divided his time between Moscow and the West.

Suggested Reading

Maureen Perrie, “The Tsar, the Emperor, the Leader: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Anatolii Rybakov’s Stalin,” in Stalinism: Its Nature and Aftermath, ed. Nick Lampert and Gábor T. Rittersporn, pp. 77–100 (New York and London, 1992); Gary Rosenshield, “Socialist Realism and the Holocaust: Jewish Life and Death in Anatoly Rybakov’s Heavy Sand,PMLA 111.2 (1996): 240–255; Josephine Woll, “The Zek, the Vozhd, and the Tailor’s Son: Jewish Issues in Deti Arbata,Soviet Jewish Affairs 18.1 (1988): 55–59.