OCTOBER 6, 2019
A NOVEL ABOUT a Soviet military factory whose workers must eventually adjust to a post-Soviet way of life does not sound like a thrilling read. Yet there’s a very good reason why Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory (Zavod “Svoboda”) won Russia’s National Bestseller Prize in 2014 (Buksha is only the second of three women to do so since the prize’s founding in 2001) and was also a finalist for the Big Book Award. In the author’s hands, this unpromising raw material is skillfully transformed into a genuinely and unexpectedly compelling narrative. The Freedom Factory belongs to the faction genre, a combination of fact and fiction: the material comes from interviews of workers in a real-life factory built during Soviet times in what used to be Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. The workers’ lives are intertwined with that of the factory itself, as it and they move from the Soviet era to the heady chaos of the 1990s, and then to the more stable yet more circumscribed 2000s. Jumps between different points of view and the embedded dialogue become navigable because the reader’s attention is firmly held by the workers’ very human struggles, their disappointments, their small — and occasionally bigger — triumphs. The presence of the (fictionalized) author is subtly incorporated into the novel, sometimes through direct address, as when a character says of a former director, “his name was G. But you can’t write that down, because the names of people associated with the factory have to be encoded in Latin letters” (many characters are indeed referred to in this way, while others are not named).
Buksha’s eclectic style is deftly handled by her English translator, Anne O. Fisher, who maintains the original’s varying tone, in which lyrical descriptions like, “Today the ocean is tinged pink, multicolored […] and the air trembles from the heat,” shift into colloquial, often curse-laden dialogue, such as this response to a rather bloody infraction of work rules: “Are you out of your fucking minds, people? You want to end up in the morgue?” Some chapters are written in a markedly different mode — for example, the account of an excruciatingly boring production meeting in Soviet-speak-punctuated gibberish. Buksha renders this verbal register by simultaneously imitating and laying waste to meaningful utterances, and Fisher matches her ingenuity at every step: “The ficktinued insbrtyl in both sophisticution and shintity fug these vulstes wrrint greatly assist in the task.”
One of Buksha’s notable successes in The Freedom Factory is the way she draws readers into the characters’ lives. The novel’s episodic structure does not allow her to delve into their inner worlds; instead, à la Chekhov, she depicts their internal states by reference to crucial details, foregrounding particularly significant aspects of their existence. Thus, for example, readers remember F by his abortive attempt to go work in Antarctica and Tanya by the fact that she has a degree in philology, which at first sets her apart from the other workers. This sense of familiarity increases as characters reappear in subsequent chapters, fleshing out their trajectories over the years.
The Soviet legacy is a major theme in the novel. There is a multitude of references to committees and workers’ collectives, accounts of meeting astronomical production quotas for things like Mimosa rockets and “the first Soviet radar system for the merchant fleet,” and various aspects of Soviet realia, such as goods shortages, May Day parades, and shoddy yet miraculously serviceable ways to fix faulty equipment. Yet in The Freedom Factory these elements are part of a broader, more intimate terrain. Factory workers who appoint themselves “people’s quality control” when a store shortchanges customers on vodka become drawn into helping, and failing, a woman forced to have an abortion by her husband. A chapter featuring factory higher-ups being sent to collect trout becomes a disquisition on unrequited love. In another chapter, a character dreams about a beautiful day from his youth spent out in nature with his colleagues just before he is “about to wake up and return to [his] sixty-seven years.” A chapter titled “The Call,” haunting for its mix of humaneness and horror, tells of a factory director listening patiently, every night, to a silent phone call from X, “the designer of the Golden Globe” — the factory’s famous radiation-dispensing machine that has saved countless Soviet citizens from dying of cancer — because a stroke has left X unable to speak.
Indeed, quietly scattered throughout the novel are insights into the human condition that are not (post-)Soviet but rather more general. One of the factory higher-ups, Ivan Dmitriyevich, opines, “We want to feel nice, and good, so we do evil” — a statement reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s view of human beings as contradictory and prone to self-sabotage. At the same time, The Freedom Factory suggests there is a glimpse of hope amid the despair. As one character says, X’s work on the Golden Globe led him to the realization that “humanity […] is a cancer[.] It attacks itself, and even though it’s fighting, it’s doomed” — which does not, however, prevent him from spending “his whole life […] saving millions of lives.” These insights emerge in short exchanges between characters, and Buksha does not explore, but simply leaves them for readers to ponder.
The personal, human experience foregrounded in the novel stands in sharp contrast to the collectivist demands of Soviet ideology. What’s more, Buksha contrasts the false ideology of collectivity with the actual factory collective. Certainly, the fact that the factory is named Freedom is highly ironic in the Soviet context. At the same time, there is a genuine camaraderie among the characters that transcends ideological parameters. While there are some squabbles, most like and respect each other, and stick up for each other; for instance, Inga, the factory lawyer, wins concessions from management for the women working in a dangerous part of the enterprise. To a large degree, the factory collective is a salve against the authorities. As a worker opines, while the regime was mired in falsehoods,“[w]e still had this kind of little island where there were absolutely no lies[.] Maybe it was because of the people. It was definitely the people.” After Chernobyl, the collective literally works to counteract the regime’s thoughtless cruelty. While the authorities continue to authorize shipments of “radioactive food from Belorussia and Ukraine,” the workers come together to speedily manufacture a large number of radiation detectors to avert disaster. As one of the characters says, “They’re not thinking. It’s our job to think.”
The Freedom Factory makes reference to several historical and political events, and these too Buksha filters through characters’ individual lives. The opening chapter contains a personal account of one of the most significant events in Soviet history, the Great Patriotic War (World War II), by a worker who, along with others, saved the factory from an accidental fire while it was being shelled by German artillery. The Blockade — Leningrad’s two-and-a-half year siege by the Germans — is referenced in a kind of shorthand through biographical details of those who lived through it: “[H]e was little and they were leaving Leningrad by barge […] on the eve of the 900 days.”
The later portions of the novel depict one of the most monumental events of the late 20th century: the fall of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, as demand for consumer goods soars during Russia’s transition to a market economy, the military factory switches to civilian manufacturing, producing things like radios and chocolate, but is eventually barely able to function; its fortunes turn around in the 2000s, although the extent of its success is not altogether clear. Given the significance of the transition for ex-Soviet citizens, Buksha devotes several chapters to the period. Yet in keeping with the focus on personal experience, sociopolitical events serve only as the background against which the characters’ lives play out. The statement, “We elected our very own president, the kind of president we wanted! We didn’t let the country go back to communism!” — a reference to post-Soviet Russia’s first democratic election, which brought Boris Yeltsin to power — is given in a near-parenthetic fashion in the more personal context of electing a new factory director. The emphasis is always on the effect the changes have on the characters, rather than on the changes themselves. As the factory experiences a mass exodus of workers when it, like many state enterprises, becomes unable to pay them for months, Tanya (degree in philology) wonders about herself, “Who is she?” This echoes the thoughts of many citizens who watched their country and way of life fall apart around them. In a show of camaraderie and support, Tanya helps organize “a movie night at the factory. For everyone who’s stayed.” The workers’ nostalgia for more stable times leads them to watch, raptly, a film about the factory’s past, despite their aversion to Soviet propaganda. Elsewhere, a factory director decides to stand his ground against the mafia, an integral part of the business community in post-Soviet Russia, in a chapter that proceeds from his frightened dream-state point of view.
Given the subject matter, Western readers especially may not expect The Freedom Factory to be funny. Yet the novel contains several instances of that specifically (post-)Soviet variety of self-deprecating laughter-through-tears. One of the many examples is the chief engineer’s assessment of suitable renters of factory premises when the factory needs extra income to climb out of debt: “Training courses for killers? Fabulous[.] Printing counterfeit documents? Make yourself at home. Accounting? You collect on accounts receivable? Hmm … nope, we’ll have to part ways.” Adding to the fun are Buksha’s non-representational, sometimes childlike drawings. (Buksha is no novice when it comes to art: she has also written a biography of Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich.) The Freedom Factory grabs its readers early on and carries them sadly, humorously, and always humanly to the end.