Dmitry Bykov

LIVE SOULS (Russian title: ZhD)

A novel, 600 pp. In Russian

world rights (FTM)


Winner of the “National Bestseller” Prize


Dmitry novel Live Souls (which he called, after Gogol, “a poem”) is a veritable encyclopedia of present-day Russian life. There is hardly any aspect of it that has not been touched upon in the novel. The fantastic element, like in Gogol and, serves to bring all these aspects into sharper relief. For all its futuristic settings the novel is amazingly true to present-day life painting an accurate picture of today’s Russia and its possible near future.

Bykov, who is a brilliant and prolific essayist, maintains that well-written fiction and well-written non-fiction can both be fine literature and should not be separated. The two are fused in his works. The novel is even more interesting for its lyrical, philosophical and journalistic digressions than for its plot, which is original and fast-moving while his grotesquely depicted characters are perfectly recognizable types.

The settings are Russia’s not-so-distant future when her oil and gas become of no use to other countries because of the new source of energy discovered there: the Flogiston. Its deposits abound in the West but are completely absent in Russia and the Arab world. The West turns away from Russia that is now of no interest to them whatsoever. Having nothing to sell and left to its own devices Russia gets increasingly bogged down in a low-key national strife depleting the country’s already meager resources even more.

According to Bykov, since the seventh century Russia has been moving in a vicious circle consisting of revolution – tyranny – thaw – chaos – a new revolution, which is repeated again and again in Russian history. And behind both the disasters and the apparent achievements there is an opposition of two forces tearing Russia apart: the “Varangians” (or “Northerners”) and the “Khazars” (or “Southerners”), both invaders of Russian territory alternatively taking the upper hand and overthrowing the other. There is also the original population of meek and tolerant natives, the keepers of folk wisdom, who seem to be indifferent to the goings-on and in general too adaptable for their own good. They submissively provide food for the army. They do their best to survive. They speak their own secret language by which they recognize one another in the crowd. They are alternatively preserved as an ethnic minority or exterminated during severe food shortages.

The Varangians are nationalistic-minded patriots of various persuasions and supporters of state power, while the Khazars are western-minded liberals and supporters of the market economy. The activities of the belligerent and totalitarian-minded Varangians lead to the destruction of everything and everyone, including themselves. However the cunning Khazars also cause much dislocation, demoralization and eventual decline. Both parties accuse one another of seizing the territories originally belonging to them.

The country is ruled by the Varangian elite who secretly worships Odin and dream of the day when they could bring humanity to happiness with an iron hand. Their main opponents and enemies are the civilized Khazars, which notion is applied to the West as well. The war is financially supported by corrupt tycoons for whom it is simply a gamble with big stakes.

In the army stupidity is considered to be a virtue. Bureaucracy reaches Kafkaesque dimensions and depravity is horrendous. The same dislocation is in the minds. The cruelly imposed official ideology is based on ridiculous Slavic–Pagan–Nazi beliefs. The army is a barracks-like, semi-ecclesiastic system led by Red Commissars and actually ruled by the KGB.

Both warring armies are chaotically moving about the Central Russian plains, numerous deserters from both armies are hiding in the forests visiting their homes by night, and the crazy guerillas are blowing up trains.

The Varangian ideologists call upon their officers to weed out the army by liquidating the unworthy soldiers and leaving only the worthy ones, who invariably turn out to be sadists and perverts. Daily shootings of their own people are intended to raise the morale. Varangians behave as colonizers: they loot and destroy all around.

The Khazar ideologists are more sophisticated but they, too, end up with chaos and social disaster. They appear on the scene in times of social crisis and make the next revolution. They believe that on the debris of the destroyed old world there is a hope of building up a new, healthy country. But like true colonizers they could not care less about the future of the colonized territories. Khazars allegedly fight for liberating the land from the invaders while in actual fact they only fight for power and domination.

Meanwhile the local population does their best to survive in these impossible conditions observing some mysterious folk laws and rituals known only to them.


The action is based on constant peregrinations of four couples trying to escape from the Varangian-Khazar oppression, those “live souls” after whom this “poem in prose” has been named. These eternal wanderers are supposed to break the vicious circle of the sick Russian history so that something new in principle could be started.

Major Volokhov, a former historian and an erudite, is leading his partisan detachment around Russia, like Moses, in order to retrain them into freedom-loving individuals, who will start a new nation. However, they run away from him one by one and settle down in various villages on the way. Volokhov’s love is a Khazar girl Zhenka, who is a political commissar in the Khazar army. She is expecting Volokhov’s baby but mixed marriages are against the law. The legends of each tribe have it that the offspring of mixed marriages may produce an anti-Christ and cause great disaster, so they have to be prevented by all means.

Borozdin, the Varangian governor of a distant Siberian tribal area, is fleeing with his pregnant mistress Asha, a native, to escape the vengeance of her kin, who believe that women of their tribe must not marry Varangians lest a monster is born. In the end Asha gives birth to a perfectly normal baby.

The homeless native Vasily Ivanovich flees from the Moscow purges in the company of a teenage girl Anya, who is taking care of the old man, who is outwardly helpless and a bit dumb while in actual fact being a famous keeper of folk wisdom and chronicler of native history.

Captain Gromov, formerly a poet and philologist, is on his long-awaited leave from the army traveling to Moscow to reunite with his beloved Masha. They travel separately towards a certain safe place, known only to the natives, where they can properly unite and have children who will start a new race of free people. Their roads pass through two crucial Russian locations: the eternally prosperous village of Zhadrunovo and the eternally squalid village of Degunino: “Zh“ and “D”, the two key points in the war theater connected by a circular railway (one more symbol of a vicious circle). All the events of the war are invariably connected with these two points in space representing the vicious circle, which the “live souls” are desperately trying to break from.

In the end the reader is left with a vague hope for a positive change and attaining a new meaning of life. The story drifts “beyond the looking glass” where all logic is irrelevant”.


The press on Bykov’s ZhD


“The most politically incorrect book of the new millennium.” – Vagrius


ZhD can be called a unique ‘journalistic epic’ and a most remarkable ideological thriller.” – Kommersant


“The novel is certainly a magnum opus presenting everything Bykov thinks and feels about Russia, and his thoughts are abundant.” – Novaya Gazeta


ZhD is a veritable encyclopedia of Russian life despite the fact that the action takes place in the near future. This is, without a doubt, a very important book, the best Bykov has written so far.” – GAZETA


ZhD is an epic novel about the humankind rather than human individuals. The war he describes is not really over the territory but over the right to establish a new order, a new ideology.” – Booknik


ZhD is a poem in the Homeric sense, an original myth aiming to inspire the nation to seek its self-identity. … Bykov selects Gogol as his precursor and his ‘Live Souls’ hark back to Gogol’s unfinished poem-myth.” – Oktyabr


“Bykov offers answers to practically all the fundamental Russian questions. … A masterful epic novel with Gogolean wealth of verbal expressiveness and symbolism.” – Book Review


ZhD is an anti-liberal and at the same time anti-totalitarian novel. Bykov is equally critical of the powers that be and the reformers, depicting both in a grotesque manner.” – Ex-libris