Review: The Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov

‘It was easy to fall into Karabas, as easy as falling down a hole, but it was hard, to put it bluntly, to get out again.’
~Oleg Pavlov, Captain of the Steppe

Plot summary

“In the beginning of this short novel, Captain Khabarov, commander of Sixth Company in Karabas, Kazakhstan, embarks on a seemingly straightforward mission: he will order his men to plant, rather than eat, their meager potato rations.

Come autumn, there will be plenty for everyone, and their harsh lives at this remote outpost will become slightly more bearable. Trouble is, this ‘surplus’ turns out to be the property of the army, and unauthorized consumption of state assets is tantamount to treason.

Khabarov’s unit is attached to a Soviet prison camp located deep within the bare plains of Central Asia. For the conscripted soldiers and prisoners sent there, the steppe is a hopeless wasteland. For the state, the steppe provides a fertile environment for social re-education and—more important still—access to mineral resources.

Captain of the Steppe (1994) is the first of three semi-autobiographical novels that are based largely on the author’s experience as a prison camp guard in Kazakhstan. The first installment, published when Pavlov was only twenty-four, was very well received by Russian critics and promised a successful literary career.” More on Words without Borders

On Oleg Pavlov

“Oleg Pavlov (born in 1970) is a prominent Russian writer, winner of the Russian Booker Prize.

Born in Moscow, he served in the Interior Ministry troops near the city of Karaganda. The events that Pavlov portrays in his stories and novels were inspired by his own experiences as a prison camp guard.

During his service, Pavlov suffered a head injury, was hospitalised, and spent over a month in a psychiatric ward. This allowed him to be released from the army before the end of the mandatory two-year military service. He went on to study at the Institute of Literature in Moscow.

Pavlov is also the author of articles on literature, historical and social aspects of life in Russia, as well as numerous essays. In his 2003 book ‘The Russian Man in the 20th Century’ he writes about Russian life, not only based on his personal experience, but also on numerous letters received by the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Foundation in the early 1990s and given to him by the famous Russian writer and dissident and his wife, Natalia.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • The absurd length of potatoes
  • One man’s struggle with and against the system
  • What happened in Karabas stays in Karabas, right?
Review
Prison Museum in Signet. Photo: young shanahan (CC BY 2.0)
Prison Museum in Signet. Photo: young shanahan (CC BY 2.0)

If you liked Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin, you are almost sure to like The Captain of the Steppe as well. The setting is rather similar: one man standing up against the absurd measures of a ridiculous system. The one visioning about becoming a cosmonaut, the other wishing to secure food for his men.

Also, if you find interest in the military circles of the Soviet Union, check out The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969) by Vladimir Voinovich. Voinovich describes with vividness what was there before Pavlov was even born. He takes satire and slapstick humor to such an unprecedented level that one cannot stop laughing. He ridicules Stalin to such a level that I’m wondering how on earth Voinovich survived the Soviet Union, even though Stalin was already dead by the time of the writing. Satire and caricatures have never been popular under authoritarian or totalitarian systems.

In comparison to the main character in Omon RaChonkin – the ‘Russian Švejk‘ – is a simple peasant and not far from a clever idiot drafted into the Red Army shortly before the outbreak of World War II. All kinds of machineries and characters are sent to break him but he perseveres and never stops to see the forest for the trees. Let me stop here, though, and continue with good ol’ Pavlov and his Captain far away in Kazakhstan.

Whereas Chonkin is unable to grasp the big picture and is thus immune to the efforts to make him a proper Soviet soldier by various political officers, Captain Khabarov is a man of the world. He sees the forest and has empathy for the enlisted men under his supervision.

Pavlov’s tale on one man’s struggle to secure potatoes happens on a much more sinister and down-to-earth level and the entire setting is sad. Nobody is spared and even the weather conditions are terrifying. Because the setting is so hopeless, there is humor, charm and beauty in the misery of others, all made blurry with the help of alcohol that the characters seem to consume in great portions.

There are a number of excellent works of literature on prison and military life, both from the perspective of the employees and “clients”. Check out Sergei Dovlatov‘s The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (1982) or Anton Chekhov‘s Sakhalin, out of which the latter was based on Chekhov’s journey to Sakhalin in 1890. I would also recommend Hans Fallada‘s Strafgefangener Zelle 32. Tagebuch 22. Juni – 2. September 1924 (in German).

As I said, whatever happened in Karabas, stays in Karabas. If you care to find out how the whole potato ordeal ended, Pavlov‘s novel comes highly recommended. I wish to spare you from any spoilers. Enjoy the read and check out Chonkin as well. There is the guy for you.

More information
– Richard Bernstein: Soviet Author’s Humor Has a Bitter Aftertaste, published in The New York Times on 28 November 1989, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Peter Gordon: Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov, published in the Asian Review of Books on 21 September 2013, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Phoebe Taplin: The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov – the dehumanisation of a Soviet soldier, published in the Guardian on 21 August 2014, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Christopher Tauchen: Oleg Pavlov’s “Captain of the Steppe”, published in Words without Borders in the May 2013 issue, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Jacqueline Thompson: Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov, published in The Literateur on 21 June 2013, link retrieved on 15 January 2017

Other novels and stories by Pavlov
  • The Matiushin Case (1997)
  • Requiem for a Soldier (2002)
  • Asystole (2010)
  • Elementics. The Path of Clouds and Wind (2013)

“The zeks [camp prisoners] and the soldiers lived here for years, seeing out their terms, which meant military service for some and imprisonment for others.”
~Oleg Pavlov, Captain of the Steppe

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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