The Naked Pioneer Girl, by Mikhail Kononov

Pioneer Girl cvr

Mikhail Kononov’s Russian-language novel, translated by Andrew Bromfield, is more magical than social realism as it charts the life of 14-year old Maria Ivanovna Mukhina, known as Midge, an invaluable member of the Red Army during the siege of Leningrad.  She is so young that she is still in the Young Pioneers, not yet old enough to be accepted into the Komsomol, and her language and outlook are those of a typical teenager, by turns petulant, sarcastic, irritated, good-natured.  Yet she has had to grow quickly beyond her years.  In spite of her youth, while she is ostensibly a member of a machine gun unit her main role is to provide certain comforts to her male comrades (officers mostly).  This she does to the permanent detriment of her knicker elastic which is always breaking, the production of elastic not being a priority in the war economy.

To describe it as a novel charting Midge’s wartime adventures would be putting it strongly because the book is short on adventure, much of it consisting of her stream of consciousness.  The bulk of the narrative is told in a dense style that eventually becomes wearing.  Midge leavens her routine with dreams in which she flies in the form of a seagull on secret missions over Moscow at the behest of Marshal Zhukov (or General Zukov as he is called by Kononov ‘in the name of consciously adopted artistic licence’, which gives an inkling of his teasing approach), trips which are reminiscent of the night flight in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  These episodes offer scant relief to her or the reader from the monotony of her daytime existence.

The extended interiority means that it is a relief when the action opens out, such as going back to Midge’s life with her grandmother and recounting how she came to be in her present situation.  Similarly scenes in which Midge and some comrades are briefly captured by Germans in the forest but kill them by means of Midge’s initiative, followed by one in which Zhukov arrives and personally shoots every third man in a group to punish them for having retreated, which is synonymous with cowardice, have a huge impact because of the contrast.  Even more unsettling is the graphic episode of a grandmother murdering and butchering her small granddaughter, a scene Midge sees in her dream (showing that they are not actually dreams at all but a form of clairvoyance).  She dismisses the vision of cannibalism as rubbish, because she believes wholeheartedly in the propaganda of Leningrad’s invincibility and sang froid, to the extent of endorsing what she considers the party line that anyone expressing pessimism or even fainting from hunger must be a counter-revolutionary attempting to sabotage the city’s defences.

In her habitual misreading of the situation based on ignorance – she thinks that Hitler’s name is Füeller and she has little knowledge of what lies outside her own small world – Midge is as much a pawn in Kononov’s scheme as she is in the Red Army’s hierarchy, and he utilises her to satirise Soviet society, portraying her as a kind of holy fool.  Midge is always optimistic whatever is thrown at her, with trust in the rightness of the system after having absorbed its ideology wholeheartedly.  She prizes the collective over bourgeois individualism even as she is called ‘the faithful little wife of the unit’.  It’s a touching naivety but her sexual exploitation, and as an officer comments one for which she is not even paid, is employed by Kononov to show the hypocrisy of a supposedly egalitarian system and the callous way its soldiers were used during those desperate times, one that gave no concession to youth.  Midge’s abuse uncomfortably evokes the mistreatment of Korean ‘comfort women’ by the Imperial Japanese Army during the same period.  The difference is that Midge is a willing volunteer in her own casual oppression.

The reference to Bulgakov is an interesting one because Kononov has much more creative freedom than did his predecessors who laboured (or didn’t, depending how in or out of favour with the regime they were) in a tightly regulated environment, yet for all its explicitness this does not feel as transgressive as The Master and Margarita.  When the stakes aren’t as high the achievement is less, though perhaps it is no accident that Kononov now lives in Germany.  He makes the point that for all its emphasis on comradeship and collective support, the regime was characterised by a paranoid disdain for what it saw as petit-bourgeois individualism that expressed itself as contempt for personal rights and a profligacy in sacrificing lives for the Motherland, notwithstanding which totalitarianism can still engender fervent adulation in those who know no better.  It’s hardly a novel insight, even the implication that such blind loyalty is fit only for children.

The final few pages dealing with Midge shift gears and become lyrical in a surprising and shocking conclusion which is both in keeping with the previous fantastic tone yet with compassion towards her for all she has suffered.  A short coda suggests that the story has its origin in real events, however far it has wandered from the bald facts.  Unfortunately, despite empathy with Midge, one reaches the end with relief, and tempted to echo her favourite expression, used on any occasion – ‘Bloody hell’s bells!”  Kononov is daring, satirising the ‘sacred’ mythology that surrounds the siege of Leningrad (where he was born in 1948), and The Naked Pioneer Girl’s iconoclasm may be more engaging for a Russian audience, but while keeping this going for 250 pages is no mean feat, it comes over as rather crass.  It’s all a long way from Lidiya Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary.

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