Alexander Ilichevsky is a former student of one of Moscow’s top mathematical high schools, and he looks the part. Polite and soft-spoken, with a solid build and boyish features, the Russian author is most noticeable for his careful turns of phrase and his preference for precise definitions. After graduating from boarding school no. 18, affiliated with Moscow University and originally designated for talented children from the Soviet provinces, Ilichevsky studied theoretical physics at the renowned Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. He later continued his graduate studies at the Weizmann Institute, in Rehovot, Israel, and worked as a software developer for Intel in California’s Silicon Valley. So far, so exemplary for a bright and diligent Russian Jew.
But in 1998, Ilichevsky left his parents in San Francisco and returned to Moscow to embark on a new career in literature. While still in California he had begun writing poetry — his first collection was published in 1996 — and he felt that he had been “wasting his most interesting time” working on computer programs. A dozen books later, Ilichevsky has been published by Russia’s most important presses and has been presented with the country’s most prestigious literary awards. These include the Russian Booker Prize, which he won in 2007 for his novel “Matisse,” and second place in the 2010 Big Book competition for “The Persian.” Both works are being brought out in 2013 in German and French, though they have yet to be translated into English. His latest novel, “The Anarchists,” has just been published in Russian.
Along with the two earlier works, as well as “The Mathematician,” which came out in 2011, “The Anarchist,” completes a tetralogy of novels. Each book tells the story of a man who overcomes an existential personal crisis by abandoning his “normal” lifestyle to join a real or imaginary community of people choosing to exist outside of established social norms. In “Matisse,” Ilichevsky traces the transformation of a successful theoretical physicist into a homeless vagabond, while “The Mathematician” follows a Russian-born Princeton University mathematics professor through a mental crisis that takes him from a San Francisco pizza parlor and lands him at the Tian Shan mountains on the border between Kazakhstan and China. In “The Anarchists,” Ilichevsky skillfully imitates the realist style of 19th-century Russian novels, beginning with a portrayal of idyllic country life, but also shows how that life deteriorates and eventually collapses under the pressures of contemporary Russia.
Ilichevsky draws on his own life story for his fiction, as well as on a fascinating family history. He was born in 1970 and raised in the industrial town of Sumgait, near the city of Baku in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. In the mid-19th century, Baku became the world’s first center of oil production, attracting people and capital from all over the world. At the same time, the czarist regime used the remote region as a place of exile for so-called undesirables. These included members of such religious sects as the subbotniki, or gery, a movement started in the mid-19th century in the villages of central Russia. Influenced by the Old Testament, ethnically Russian peasants who had never seen a Jew in their lives refused to worship icons, rejected the Christian dogma of the Trinity, and began to observe the Sabbath and kashrut. In the southern parts of today’s Azerbaijan, near the Iranian border, they built several prosperous villages where they could practice their faith, and where they stayed until 1991, when they were forced out by the newly independent and virulently nationalist Azerbaijan.
Ilichevsky has ancestors among Ashkenazi Jews who came to the Caspian shores both before and after the Russian revolution, and among the Russian gery. In Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s, his strictly observant maternal gery great-grandfather found refuge from anti-religious persecution among his co-religionists in Azerbaijan. Another paternal great-grandfather, less pious but ethnically Jewish, left Baku in 1914 and traveled through Iran and China to Japan. In 1920 he finally landed in California, where he indicated the name of his American contact as Mr. Neft, meaning “oil.” At a June panel discussion in New York as part of the Read Russia literary initiative, Ilichevsky recalled how his grandmother’s unusual dialect and talent for creating neologisms “led me to how I write today.”
This rich and diverse family background supplies Ilichevsky with a wealth of material for his fiction, particularly in “The Persian,” a 650-page intellectual thriller situated around the Caspian Sea at the turn of the millennium. In the novel, an Ilichevsky-like narrator comes back to his native Baku from California to reconnect with a childhood spent around the oil fields, and to discover the universal ancestor of all life on earth, which he believes is hidden somewhere in the depths of the Caspian oil repository. The book’s adventurous plot includes such highlights as the assassination of Osama bin Laden by American forces in the remote Pakistani mountains, depicted by Ilichevsky in vivid detail two years before the actual event.