Modern Martyrs

For MT
Until recently, Yury Arabov was primarily known to the general public as the screenwriter of several notable films by art-house director Alexander Sokurov, and, to a rather smaller audience, as a poet. In the past year, though, he gained visibility when NTV television broadcast two high-profile miniseries for which he wrote the scripts: adaptations of Nikolai Gogol's "Dead Souls" and Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago."

Now, Arabov has published a novel, "Flagellants," which is a lament for the death of the Russian intelligentsia -- and, according to the author, a reflection of his own conflicted feelings about being an artist in present-day Russia.

The title of the book refers to the medieval Christians who practiced an extreme form of mortification by whipping their own flesh. The book's main character, a musician named Yakov, resorts to a similar practice as self-punishment for what he considers the betrayal of his own talent.

Yakov is a member of that generation of the Russian intelligentsia which was shaped during Soviet times and faced significant challenges, both economic and philosophical, after the collapse of communism. The son of an opera singer who went blind after identifying too strongly with her character, Iolanta, Yakov plays the oboe in an orchestra until it is disbanded in the 1990s and its rehearsal space gets taken over by a martial-arts club. Yakov then finds a job with a mysterious company that seems to make money out of thin air, and where everything is focused on material gain.

"I wanted to write a novel about a betrayal of ideals on the part of the intelligentsia, including myself," Arabov said during an interview last week in his Moscow apartment. "Russia's slide into the pure pursuit of material gain really upsets me. My biggest discovery during perestroika was the greed of the Soviet or Russian people," he added.

"I grew up with the knowledge -- then promoted by Soviet propaganda -- that I was living in a very cultured country where people read more books than elsewhere," the writer said sadly. "But even if that was true back then, it has turned out that neither culture nor books can save people from submitting to crude materialistic values."

Arabov described "Flagellants," published earlier this year, as a sort of antithesis to his first novel, "Big Beat," a livelier and more optimistic work from 2003 that focused on childhood, youth and music. His new novel, in contrast, is "rather dark and depressing," he said.

Perhaps because of that dark tone, or perhaps because it explores ideas not often discussed in Russia's current literary mainstream, it was difficult to get "Flagellants" published. "Some popular literary magazines refused to publish it," Arabov recalled. "And I don't really know if that was because they considered the novel too weak, or because they didn't properly read it, or maybe because it fit neither the neo-conservative nor the liberal formats."

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
Arabov wrote the scripts for recent television adaptations of "Dead Souls" and "Doctor Zhivago."
Despite the book's overall pessimism, the writer said its ending could be interpreted as a sign of hope for the Russian intelligentsia, split between the urge to adhere to its ideals and the material temptations of the modern era. In his final monologue, Yakov, having buried himself alive alongside his dead mother, says: "There is only hope with us, the dead. We'll rise if we have to. We'll rise like grass when our time comes. We have nothing to lose and nothing to be scared of."

"Today, the members of the intelligentsia who don't want to focus on making money are being marginalized," the author explained. "Such people are not so few in number, and if they're able to survive, they'll turn into a significant cultural and social force."

Arabov believes the intelligentsia's main role should be to articulate the concerns of regular people to those in power. "If Russia survives, it may well be thanks to the intelligentsia, who, at some point, even if after a delay, will explain the situation in the country to the authorities," he said. "And the situation is very bad. If, in the two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, greed and opportunities for making money are the main driving force for people and serve as a surrogate for spiritual life, then people in the provinces don't even have that, and they are degrading."

The writer -- who spends half the year in the countryside, making only brief trips to Moscow -- added that the media aggravate the situation by actively promoting poor taste in popular culture. "Today's ideology is popular culture, which the authorities use to separate people from social and cultural life by showing endless criminal television series and comedy shows," he said.

For MT
Arabov's new novel is "Flagellants."
Arabov's own experiences with television have left him with mixed feelings. He said it was impossible for literary classics such as "Dead Souls" and "Doctor Zhivago" to be adequately rendered for television, but it was still worth trying, if only because television channels "should not broadcast only criminal series."

"As soon as I started working on the script of 'Doctor Zhivago' with [director] Alexander Proshkin, I realized that the novel's aesthetic side was impossible to render in the format of a mainstream television series," Arabov said. "What was possible? Rendering the plot of the novel, and talking about Russia's history in the 20th century. These were the two tasks I set for myself."

When "Doctor Zhivago" aired in May, some viewers criticized it for taking too many liberties with the book. But Arabov pointed out that his goal was to present his own interpretation of the novel, rather than an exact adaptation of it. "I am trying to write my own versions, rather than illustrations of the originals," he said.

Arabov was very critical of the way NTV had shown his miniseries, with frequent interruptions for commercials. "I couldn't watch a single part of 'Doctor Zhivago' on NTV, and I was surprised to find there were people who were able to sit through the entire film," he said, adding jokingly that such people deserved to be rewarded. "It's impossible to watch it on television because of the commercials. You can only watch it on DVD, and the same applies to 'Dead Souls.'"

Despite his disappointment at the way his work came out, the writer stressed that it was his conscious decision to work on projects for television, and that he wouldn't work on material he didn't feel connected to. "Even though I make a living by screenwriting, I only write what I love to write," he stated.

Before turning to television, Arabov achieved recognition as the screenwriter behind many of Sokurov's films, such as "Moloch," a drama about Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun that won Arabov the Best Screenplay prize at the 1999 Cannes film festival, and 2001's "Telets," which depicted the final days of Vladimir Lenin's life.

"Sokurov and I have had friendly relations for a long time," Arabov said. "We may have substantial differences on an aesthetic or philosophical level, but we've been working together for a very long time and this is what brings us closer together. He is tolerant of some parts of my personality, and, in return, I try to be tolerant of him and his interpretations of my scripts and the changes he makes."

Arabov said he regretted the fact that Sokurov had deleted some of the scenes he had written for "Telets" or filmed them differently from the way he had envisioned them. "But I know that the director is talented and unique, and I accept the changes," he said.

Talking about his future plans with Sokurov, Arabov mentioned a possible reinterpretation of Goethe's "Faust" that would move the story of a human's deal with the devil into modern times, but he stressed that the project was only at the discussion stages and the director is currently making another film for which Arabov did not write the script. "Cinema always involves uncertainty, as does working together on a project," he said. "But I'm thankful to Sokurov for what we've done together."

"Flagellants" (Flagellanty) is published by Vagrius. Vladimir Kozlov is a journalist, fiction author and filmmaker.