Sixty-two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Russian novelist Yuri Olesha’s dubious protagonist Nikolai Kavalerov peers into a street mirror only to see someone else, a grotesque parody of himself, coming out of it. Olesha was not envisioning the fall of communism in his novel Envy. Quite the contrary. Yet the metaphor for Russian history contained in this moment is extraordinarily prescient. Shortly after Kavalerov’s vision in the mirror, the narrative shifts from the first person to the third and then, Olesha writes, “the narrator fell silent.” Despite this warning, the “narrator” continues for another twenty pages. Who is telling this story? Who is in control of the plot, the characters, the most basic structures out of which meaning can emerge?

In 1989, Russia looked briefly into the mirror of its past, but the...

 

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