Sergei Chavain’s Elnet reviewed

One of my many projects with Mari is a translation of Sergei Chavain’s novel Elnet into English. Portions of the translation will appear here in due time. In the meantime, this description of the novel by Ville Ropponen, from a review of the recent Finnish translation, may do much to introduce the work.

The novel Elnet by Sergei Chavain (1888–1937) depicts the Russian revolution in a Mari village of yesteryear and the conflict around Mari identity. The fate of two young men are intertwined in its plot. These characters are perfect opposites: Sakar is an unlettered hunter, a mischievous fellow who obeys no one and mocks the authorities, while Grigori Petrovič Vetkan is a village schoolteacher and part of the Mari nationalist intelligentsia.

Elnet is a classic — it is the first Mari novel. To be more precise, of the two dialects of the Mari language, Meadow Mari and Hill Mari, Chavain wrote the first thing worth mentioning. Elnet cannot counted among the best works of early revolutionary literature. In the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s many novels were written which depict the revolution and the transition to socialism. This is also the main theme of Chavain’s novel.

Elnet’s interest lies rather in its depict of the Mari and in a sort of dawning postcolonialist perspective. The Mari folktales and folksongs interspersed with the novel’s prose — such as the tale of the Bread Dough Hero — are fascinating. The social conditions depicted in Chavain’s novel are not so far from current conditions in Mari El, which since 2001 has been dominated by the racist governor Leonid Markelov, Kremlin-sanctioned oppression and Russification.

Love stories and racism

Elnet’s intirigues are rather unsurprising. In the years 1913–1918, on the banks of a major Mari river, the Elnet, events precede rather like in folk-tales.

In the beginning Sakar loves Čači, the daughter of a tar maker, with an unrequited love. Later in the novel Čači rises to become a third main character and a strong female presence.

Grigori Petrovič is taken with the Russian Tamara, the daughter of a regional governor who studies at university. Through this, we get a picture of a Russian bourgeois family. Tamara’s father says that he he would gladly give his daughter to Grigori Petrovič, if only he weren’t Mari.

Chavain depicts Russian racism in a striking fashion. The relationship of the Russians to the Mari is reminiscent of the concept of Orientalism initiated by Edward Said. To the Russians, the Mari are childlike, impulsive, uncultured savages. The school headmaster belittles Grigori Petrovič for speaking Mari and forbids the teaching of Mari history, ‘because the Mari don’t have any history.’

Chavain’s prose is a loose realism of sharp observations. The storytelling maintains a gentle humour, but for the most part its events are tragic. Chavain depicts his characters with feelings, though they don’t develop in a multidimensional way, but rather remain stock characters, as is common in socialist realism.

When Čači is married off against her will to the son of a rich man, Čužgan’s son Makar, she knocks her husband out on their wedding night and makes a getaway. Čači seeks help from Grigori Petrovič, and subsequently a relationship develops between them.

The drama involves love stories as well as social conflict. Among whistling forests, grain sprouts up and girls sing.

Grigori Petrovič plays a part in the opposition to the tsar. Russia under the tsar is a prison for the Mari. Grigori Petrovič dreams of being free from Russia, and he thinks that such freedom will come from the Left. The Bolsheviks want to help the Mari, so Grigori Petrovič believes.

Insurrections among the populace

The novel depicts Stolypin’s land reforms, under which village commons were divided among individual landowners. Chavain suggests that this gave large landowners the possibility to hoard up land and designate the best parts for themselves.

When the meadows along the Elnet were assigned to the boyar Pankrat Ivanyč in 1914, the Mari staged a rebellion. Police were called in to quell the revolt and shootings, arrests and home searches followed. It happens that Sakar is among the crowd in the meadows, and is arrested. He is persuaded to become a revolutionary.

Russia under the tsar is shown as a brutal dictatorship. The police beat suspects, they are cut down in the army, and prison conditions are inhuman. Russification and conversion to the Orthodox faith is the law.

Chavain depicts estate owners and the public authorities as greedy, deceitful and corrupt — their sons are lazy and libertine. The conflict between rich and poor is underlined a bit much. As a Communist Chavain opposes religion as well, whether Orthodoxy or the Mari indigenous religion, whose priests are shown as degenerate figures, although Chavain does depict the Maris’ firm connection to nature in a positive light.

Feeling cornered, Grigori Petrovič is driven to murder. ‘If we don’t kill, we will be killed’, he thinks. Strangely, murder is not shown a problem, and between the lines it even seems a good thing, because the victim is a bourgeois. Sakar is sent to the front in place of a rich man’s son as cannon fodder.

The novel breaks off with the violent year 1917. The formal scheme of a revolutionary romance drains some energy from a novel relatively interesting compared to others.

The fate of Mari literature’s founding father

Chavain wrote the first literary poem in the Mari language in 1905, having begun studies at the teachers’ seminary in Kazan three years before. For the most part Chavain is remembered as a dramatist. His first play, the ironical Wild Ducks (1912), about Russian bureaucracts, saw great acclaim. The play Akpatyr (1935) tells of the participation of the Mari in Pugachev’s rebellion.

Chavain prepared the first volume Elnet for publication in the spring of 1936, and the work appeared in Moscow. By 1937, the winds had shifted, and the novel’s second volume was not published. The second volume of Elnet lie for nearly two decades in the archives of the Center for Literature and Art. On the manuscript was written ‘Written in the language of the gypsies.’ In 1963 the writer V. B. Muravjev found it, and the work was published in both Mari and in Russian translation in 1966.

Chavain intended to write third and forth installments of Elnet as well. Judging from the publishing world and speeches of the time, the plot of Elnet was to move in a direction typical of socialist realism, with its main characters finding a place in Communist society.

Chavain had high hopes after the October Revolution, like some others among the Mari intelligensia. Things turned out differently. During Stalin’s persections the Mari intelligentsia were murdered almost to a man. Chavain was executed by firing squad in November 1937.

Ville Ropponen

Translated from the Finnish by Christopher Culver


1 Comment

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One response to “Sergei Chavain’s Elnet reviewed

  1. Christopher Culver

    Tide tekstym vozenam omyl. Finn jylme gych kusarenam gyna.

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