The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspire his long-awaited revolution. And there’s another man in the neighbourhood, known as the Caucasian – Stalin – who is intrigued by the new art of film-making, seeing its potential for truth-telling and, more importantly, for truth-creation…

This was Ken Kalfus’ first novel, published in 2003, although he had previously published collections of short stories. Kalfus lived in Moscow for some years in, I think, the ’90s and a lot of his work is about the USSR in one way or another. Regular visitors will know that I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read, and so won’t be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed this. And how nice of him to write a novel that fits so neatly into my Russian Revolution challenge!*

The book is in two parts, subtitled Pre- and Post-. Gribshin emerges quickly as the main character, and the major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making. Given our current obsession with “fake news”, it feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published.

Comrade Astapov had gone soft, unsteeled by the violence and death he had witnessed. Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them: Velimir Krikalev, the looter summarily executed at the outside wall of a foundry in Tsaritsyn; Sonya Khlebnikova, the red-haired girl who perished unfed in some unheated barracks in Kaluga; Anton Gribshin, who froze to death the previous winter on the Arbat while searching for bread.

The first part, Pre-, deals with the death of Tolstoy, though the great man is something of a bit player in his own demise. Instead, we see the media vultures circling, all wanting to get an angle on the story and to tell it in the way that suits their agenda. Meantime, Tolstoy’s family and literary agent are engaged in a battle to gain control of his literary legacy. Spurred on by hints from the Caucasian, Gribshin begins to recognise the power of the camera to present a story that may contain no direct lies, but which nevertheless presents a false narrative. As always with Kalfus, there’s a lot of humour – the scenes between Lenin and Stalin are particularly enjoyable, with Lenin spouting Marxist theory every time he speaks while Stalin the thug is more attracted to direct, violent action. But there’s also a lot of real insight into both the way humans behave and the history and politics of the period.

The second part, Post-, jumps forward to after the Revolution when the new USSR was in the process of being created. Gribshin is now working in the new Commissariat of Enlightenment – the State’s propaganda machine, where he is is responsible for making films showing events as the leaders want them to be interpreted. Kalfus shows us the reality of life at this period: the widespread starvation as the peasants withhold food from the cities; the ongoing civil war and its attendant atrocities; the State’s attempt to weaken the peasantry through the destruction of religion. Finally, this section takes us to another death-bed, this time Lenin’s, where all Gribshin’s learned propaganda skills are merged with Vorobev’s embalming skills to complete the creation of the cult of Lenin, a quasi-religion in its own right, complete with its own rituals and iconography.

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

Ken Kalfus

If that all makes it sound like heavyweight politics, then I’ve done it a disservice. The actual Russian stuff is secondary to the examination of the art of propaganda and myth-making, and the story is told with a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes. The final chapter (which I won’t detail) showcases all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in storytelling, finding a unique way to show the reader how propaganda continued to be used to re-create the foundational myths to suit the requirements of different leaders of the USSR and beyond, as the twentieth century advanced.

I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs. But more than that, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an excellent story, excellently told.

*Actually, this isn’t mere coincidence. It was partly reading Kalfus’ short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies that initially sparked my interest in learning more about the period, and I’ve been saving this one as a reward to myself for all the mammoth history-reading I’ve done.

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23 thoughts on “The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

  1. Oh, this sounds absolutely fascinating, FictionFan! I do think the way the truth – whatever that is – is ‘spun’ is really interesting. And the propaganda machine of the USSR is fascinating not just from a sociological standpoint, but also from the perspective of history. So glad you enjoyed it.


    • I’ve always been interested in propaganda, and especially since I did a course on textual analysis a few years back, focusing on how use of language can reinforce unspoken prejudices and so on. And Kalfus is such an intelligent writer – he knows his stuff about the USSR and always approaches it from intriguing angles…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds interesting. It’s surprising how often really good writers and thinkers pick up on something which is just around the corner. The way in which “facts” are being manipulated at present both disgusts and frightens me.


    • Absolutely, and I reckon Kalfus is one of the more intelligent and insightful authors around at the moment. It’s horrific at the moment – I listened to the debate in parliament this afternoon followed by the talking heads, who within minutes were manipulating what had actually been said to suit whatever their own agenda happened to be…


  3. Oh, how nice to start a new week out with a five-star review! This isn’t my cup of tea, but that’s due more to my lack of interest in the subject matter than to your excellent review. Maybe I should start with a short story instead??


    • I loved his short story collection Coup de Foudre, and though there were some of them that had a political edge too, most of them from memory were more just about “humanity”. He’s one of my all-time favourites now – I’ve loved everything I’ve read of him. Just wish he was more prolific!


    • Everything Kalfus writes feels totally fresh and original, and brimming with intelligence. He’s one of my top favourite authors – I’ve loved everything of his I’ve read. Just wish he was more prolific! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m pleased this author wrote a book to fit into your challenge too. I must give this author a try before too long. I think with all the false news and manipulation that is happening nowadays it just goes to show that fact is at least as strange as fiction all too often!


    • It was nice of him, wasn’t it? 😉 It’s horrendous these days – thank goodness for the BBC! It has its biases too, of course, but at least they don’t just report made up rubbish (very often). I love Kalfus – his short stories are always great too. I just wish he would write more quickly!


  5. Being overcommitted with other genres in my reading, this is the first of your Russian titles that has excited my curiosity thanks to your interesting review. Will read if it crosses my path..


    • Well, if I had to pick just one to recommend, this would probably be it – I’m on a mission to convert everyone to Ken Kalfus! I think he’s one of the best writers around at the moment, always with something interesting to say but wrapped up in an excellent story rather than just hitting the reader over the head with his “point”. Hope you manage to get to it sometime! 😀


  6. So this question is going to really expose how little of history I actually know or understand, but were all these famous Russians alive at the same time? It seems like all the big names are in this book together, but were they all from the same time period?


    • Ha! I’d have been in exactly the same boat before my Russian challenge, and now I’m feeling all smug because I know! Yes, but they were all different ages at the time, which is why it seems odd. Tolstoy was ancient when he died in 1910, which is when the first part of the book is set, and Stalin was a young man while Lenin was just approaching middle-age. Lenin died fairly young, in his ’50s, in I think 1924, whereas Stalin lived to well into his ’70s, and therefore was still alive into the 1950s.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs.” Ha! The more things change, the more they stay the same, as they say. 😀


  8. This review got me thinking about how film and mythmaking still go together because everyone with a cell phone is now a camera operator. Think of all the video we’ve seen that started mid-whatever was happening and how we formed conclusions as a result. These videos fly around social media. If I hadn’t noticed that, you definitely would have had me at “a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive…”


    • Yes, propaganda has become something we all do now – maybe it always was in different ways, but now when things can so easily go viral, it gets harder and harder to get to the truth. Haha – he had a lot of fun with the embalming stuff – the idea of poor old Lenin still being on show nearly a hundred years later has to be the definition of macabre… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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