Olga Grushin

"The Dream Life of Sukhanov"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUL 5, 2007)

"Below, the Moscow River moved its slow, dense, brown waters, and from their depths emerged a flimsy upside down city that existed only at night, created by a thousand shimmering intertwinings of streetlights, headlights, floodlights. The walls, the churches, the bell towers of the underwater city trembled with a desire to break free, to float away with the current, to leave the oppressing, crowded, dangerous Moscow far, far behind: but the night held them firmly, and they stayed forever tethered to their places by infinite golden chains of reflection."

The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

In 1985 Soviet Russia, middle-aged Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov is a highly successful man. As the editor-in-chief of the leading art magazine Art of the World, his editorial control reflects acceptable Soviet taste. It would not be true to say, however, that Sukhanov can make or break an artist; Sukhanov must serve the Soviet state, and his opinions are always carefully correct and modeled along political lines. Sukhanov has done his job well, and this is reflected by his chauffeur driven car, plenty of rich food, and his large, plush Moscow apartment. When the book begins, Sukhanov and his beautiful wife, Nina attend the opening of an exhibition honoring Nina’s famous father, artist Pyotr Alekseevich Malinin.  It’s Malinin’s eightieth birthday, and he is considered one of the greatest painters of Soviet Realism.

Sukhanov dreads the evening--partially because he dislikes his father-in-law and partially because he dislikes Malinin’s art. But the evening, which he expects to be the usual, tedious and stressful situation, instead heralds in a series of bizarre surreal events.  At the exhibition, he’s faced with an angry young girl who tells him that Malinin’s paintings are “trite.” When Sukhanov warns her not to be so free and careless with her opinion, he’s shocked by her retort that the “times are changing.” This unpleasant moment is followed by several other disturbing events; he meets Lev Belkin, a friend from his past, and their chance encounter embarrasses and troubles Sukhanov. He would much rather forget the past and the compromises he’s made in order to be successful. Meeting Belkin is a painful reminder.

Sukhanov’s normally ordered existence never recovers after the evening at the art exhibition.  It’s as if suddenly his life doesn’t quite fit him anymore, and that somehow he’s slightly out-of-step with the bureaucrat he has become. He begins to realize that he hardly knows Nina, and that his two children both see him as an object of contempt for widely different reasons. When a man appears at Sukhanov’s apartment, and announces he’s a cousin, Sukhanov’s life assumes a surreal dimension. And this dream-like element gradually takes over Sukhanov’s life. As his life begins to melt away, he’s forced to confront his guilt, face the past and accept the decisions he’s made.  He begins a nightmarish, surrealistic journey towards the truth: “Something was happening to him—something strange, something, in fact, extremely unsettling—something that he was unable to explain, much less stop or control.”

Author Olga Grushin gradually peels back the layers of Sukhanov’s past to reveal his long-buried memories. Childhood secrets, the painful truth about the death of his father, and his decision to abandon art and embrace expediency are all revealed as Sukhanov’s life assumes surrealistic dimensions.  Ironically, as an artist, Sukhanov has had to suppress his admiration for Surrealism, and now as an important art critic, his official stance is mired in propaganda:

Surrealism can thus be rightfully called a betrayer of the people, locked as it is in deadly opposition to all humanistic values and traditions. It cherishes madness and cultivates decadent indifference towards social good. Its sickening visions strive to drive a healthy man into the realm of fantasy, distracting him from the noble goal of combating world capitalism. Therefore as a movement, it has nothing of value to offer to the mature artistic perceptions of the Soviet people. 

As someone who has devoted a great deal of his career to stomping out the “decadent” and dangerous influence of Surrealism, it’s particularly clever that Grushin chooses Surrealism as an implement of Sukhanov’s downfall and ultimately his redemption.  But then again, Sukhanov’s life of lies is rather surreal even before the evening at the art exhibition. It is, after all, rather surreal to live a safe, comfortable life of lies, and to parrot beliefs that are in total opposition to the ideas buried somewhere in your head.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is exquisitely written, and as the novel moves back and forth in time, Grushin constructs events in Sukhanov’s present existence that act as portals to his past.  While on one level, this is the story of the disintegration of one man’s carefully constructed life of lies, Sukhanov also serves as a symbol of the Soviet system. The disintegration of his life mirrors the collapse of the Soviet state, and while he’s a model--a convert if you will--of Soviet ideas, everything he’s carefully constructed is about to fall apart. But Grushin treats all her subjects with humanity. Sukhanov, a man whose imagination is crushed by conformity and fear, is a seen as a product of Stalin’s brutal rule. There is no blame here, only the realization that some choices are never simple, and the future is brittle and impossible to predict.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews

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About the Author:

Olga GrushinAuthor name was born in Moscow in 197. In 1976 her father found himself at odds with the state, and her family moved to Prague. After returning to Moscow, she studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at Moscow State University. In 1989, she was given a full scholarship to Emory University, and became the first Russian citizen to enroll in and complete a four-year American college program, graduating summa cum laude in 1993.

Since coming to the United States, she has been an interpreter for President Jimmy Carter, a cocktail waitress in a jazz bar, a translator at the World Bank, a research analyst at a leading Washington law firm, and, most recently, an editor at Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Her short fiction has appeared in Partisan Review, The Massachusetts Review, Confrontation and Art Times. Olga has been awarded the 2007 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta magazine.

Grushin is a citizen of both Russia and the United States, Grushin lives near Washington, DC, with her husband and son.

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