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Throughout his work, Ilichevsky puts his broad erudition to good use, filling his books with learned discussions on topics ranging from geophysics to ornithology to the history of the Russian avant-garde and Islamic theology. In “The Persian,” one of the main characters is Hashem (any association with the Hebrew word for “God” is probably arbitrary), the son of an Iranian secret police officer who finds refuge from the Islamic Revolution in the Soviet Union. Later, after the fall of the USSR, he becomes the supervisor of a remote abandoned nature reserve in the Shirvan region of Azerbaijan. There he doubles as a Sufi sheik and a commander of a paramilitary unit named after the Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, an eccentric genius who served in 1921 as a commissar in the short-lived Soviet Republic in northern Iran.
Though the commercial success of Ilichevsky’s writing seems surprising given its unabashed intellectualism, baroque style and complex composition, the popularity of this writer’s books can be explained by the energetic pace of their narratives and the adventurous thrill of their plots. Usually, however, those plots are also a cover for deeper philosophical investigations into the relationship among humanity, history and nature. One of Ilichevsky’s key symbols is oil, which is both a precious commodity and a repository of the oldest forms of life.
Given the centrality of oil to the Russian economy and politics, it is not surprising that it fascinates the imagination of contemporary Russian writers. These include the pre-eminent postmodernist Viktor Pelevin, known to the English-speaking reader for such novels as “Homo Zapiens” (1999) and “The Helmet of Horror” (2005), as well as writers of pro-Putin agitprop, such as Marina Yudenich, whose fiction pretends to expose an American conspiracy against Russia, led by an oil tycoon (easily recognizable as Mikhail Khodorkovsky) as its agent. For Ilichevsky, who was born and raised in a town soaked in oil and its products, the substance carries personal significance, as well.
Ilichevsky left Sumgait with his parents in 1984, six years before violent anti-Armenian pogroms shattered to pieces the official Soviet concept of “Friendship of the Peoples.” “It became clear that one had to run away,” Ilichevsky told me during a conversation in March at the editorial office of Lechaim magazine in Moscow’s Maryina Roscha district, once one of the city’s biggest Jewish suburbs. Ilichevsky shares a modest office there with his landsman from Baku, the writer Afanasii Mamedov, and for a few hours we talked about the good and not-so-good old days in multicultural and multinational Soviet Azerbaijan.
“It was sheer horror,” Ilichevsky recalled of the anti-Armenian violence. “When I visited Sumgait the next summer, as a young man I simply wasn’t able to comprehend what happened.” The experience stayed with him. “I had to finish up with this story, and by writing ‘The Persian’ I have finally freed myself from it,” he said. “The Persian” is both a return to the idyllic state of happy childhood and a realization that one’s personal story stands at the intersection of deeper, “metaphysical, geo-political and geo-poetical meanings.”
Though Ilichevsky’s view of contemporary Russian life and politics is gloomy, he remains an optimist. His fiction is inspired by the ideas of the past, but today it resonates strikingly with the emerging culture of the Occupy movement. Unlike some critics who argue that the new opposition in Russia has neither a unified program nor leadership, and can therefore be disregarded as a mere nuisance, Ilichevsky believes that the lack of conventional organization and hierarchy is a great advantage. In the future, he argues, state authority will be replaced by “an intelligent union of autonomous personalities,” similar to the “horizontal anarchic structure” of the Internet.
Among Ilichevsky’s works in progress is a travelogue based on his recent trip to Israel, which he revisited after more than a decade. Fragments of the book that were published online reveal the same fascination with nature, a deep connection to the soil and a utopian belief in the power of anarchy. For Ilichevksy, it’s a unique mixture based on an unusual life, as well as an inheritance from adventurous and idealistic ancestors.
Mikhail Krutikov grew up in Moscow and now teaches Slavic and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He also writes a weekly review column for the Forverts.