Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
The longest piece in this collection, a sort of science fiction novella called "Memories of the Future," is suffused with regret, in hindsight, about the events of 1917. Its hero, Max Shterer, born before the revolution to a provincial landowning family, spends decades developing a time travel machine. Cataclysmic political events are little more to Shterer than obstacles to his time travel plans. He's nearly finished building the device when he gets drafted into the war. He takes the first opportunity to be captured and gives "himself up to the Germans for safe-keeping": this gives him ample time to think about his machine while pacing the grounds of the prison camp, and protects him from premature death by a bullet before he can carry out his scheme.
Meanwhile, back in Russia, the Bolsheviks stage a coup. For Shterer, this is a nuisance: he can't collect the inheritance his father recently left him, which Shterer planned to invest in his machine. When he returns to Russia from the German prison, his country's poverty and chaos register merely as further impediments to his work. Shterer finally gets money to complete his machine when he pitches his invention to some formerly rich Muscovites desperate to get back to prerevolutionary years. "To at least 1861, or ten years before that," requests a former czarist general, referring to the year that serfs were freed. Shterer takes the last of their money and finishes his machine, but the white Russians never get a return on their investment. Shterer takes the maiden--and only--voyage alone.
He makes it all the way to 1957, but what exactly he sees there Krzhizhanovsky pointedly leaves out of the story. All we know is that Shterer sees something shockingly bleak. Something that makes him reflect, for the first time, about the events of the past. He turns his time machine around and heads back toward the years of revolution and civil war--years that he paid so little attention to when he was living through them. On his way to the past, however, his machine is destroyed, and he finds himself deposited back in the late 1920s, not long after he originally departed. He returns to his own era to walk the streets of Moscow in a daze, wandering toward a bench where a prostitute is sitting. She assumes--incorrectly--that "the approaching male shape" must be a potential customer.
"From out of town?"
The figure nodded. The woman whistled....
"What do you want from Moscow? The good old days?"
The figure turned toward the question.
"Yes." And after a second's pause: "The good old years. Since I didn't understand, I'll have to go through them again and again until..."
The man's voice and intonation were exceedingly serious and intent. The woman peered at him uneasily: could be a lunatic.
A slight wind came up. In an effort to redirect the conversation, she said, "The night's nearly gone."
The man, his outline becoming gradually clearer in the half-light, leaned lower to the ground.
"I know a night about which you could never say that."
This bore little resemblance to an offer to go to bed.
The novella's mix of science and satire takes unusual form. Like the hero of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, Shterer narrates his experience of time travel to a group of rapt fellow intellectuals; he lingers on the mechanics of his machine but unlike Wells's hero doesn't actually get around to telling his listeners about what he's seen in the future. Krzhizhanovsky, an admirer of Wells, seems curiously uninterested in using the premise of time travel to imagine the world of the future. The novella is clearly not the kind of Russian utopian science fiction that was popular in the years before and just after the revolution, when leftist writers like the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov, the author of Red Star (1908), projected their ideal of a technologically advanced communist society into the distant future. But neither is it a futuristic satire in the vein of Zamyatin's We. Krzhizhanovsky does not intend "Memories of the Future" as a corrective to the problems he observes in Bolshevik society; there are no satirical extrapolations from the present, no details about what exactly awaits his countrymen. It is an expression of pure pessimism that suggests correctives are useless.