The Silver Crest by Kornei Chukovsky (Facebook group reading challenge)

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In English language school stories, a common trope is for a character to be accused of something they haven’t done, and for the culprit then either to be found out or be shamed into owning up, and Our Hero/Heroine to be vindicated and the dishonourable baddie, hanging their head in shame, to be punished, preferably expelled.   (Well, except in What Katy Did At School, where Katy sanctimoniously decides to “live it down”, and Bella gets away with it all.)   In this book, a true story written by a Soviet era children’s author about his boyhood in late Tsarist era Odessa, that doesn’t happen – because he’s the illegitimate son of a peasant washerwoman mother and a Jewish father, and the wrongful accusation is just an excuse to kick him out of a good school that’s being purged of perceived undesirables.  However, he eventually triumphs over the system by completing his secondary and university education via correspondence courses.   It’s very different from the sort of school story that Anglophone readers are used to.  And it makes no mention of the alternative version of events, which is that Chukovsky and his mate, the future Zionist leader Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were both expelled from school for their political activities … which might have been more interesting, if rather less appealing to readers in Soviet times.   Odessa is a fascinating place: I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to go there again (I went in 2008), but I’d certainly like to.

It’s only a short book, and doesn’t go into much detail. The reading group challenge for February was to read a children’s book originally written in another language.  I wanted something Russian that wasn’t going to cost me a fortune, and this was recommended.  Yes, I do know that Odessa is now in Ukraine, and also that the transliteration from Ukrainian is Odesa.  I’ve been there!   But it’s still mainly Russian-speaking, so I’m sticking with “Odessa”, and the book is actually subtitled “A Russian boyhood”.  There are tantalising glimpses into the fascinating multicultural society of Odessa in the 1890s: several characters have Greek names or German names, and there’s a reference to the main character’s mother, a Ukrainian peasant woman, having hidden a Jewish neighbour during a pogrom; but it is a fairly short and simplistic book, although it would probably be difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the history of the Russian Empire.

The author, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, was born Nikolai Vasilyevich Korneychukov. I don’t know where the patronymic came from: it wasn’t from the name of his natural father.  In this book, which is the story of his own youth, he says that he didn’t at that time know who his father was.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not.  He spent some time working in London as a correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, and then, back in the Russian Empire, was imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Romanovs.  In Soviet times, he was based near Moscow, became a very well-known children’s author, and used his position to help other authors, including Anna Akhmatova for whom his daughter worked as a secretary, who were being persecuted by the regime.

His mother had been a maid for his father’s wealthy family in St Petersburg. Due to the differences in class and religion, they never officially married, and she eventually moved, with Nikolai/Kornei and his older sister, to Odessa.   The book, as I keep saying, is quite short, but it does give us an idea of what life was like for poor people in the Odessa of the 1890s.  It doesn’t go on about evil-oppressive-capitalist/imperialist systems, and in some ways is reminiscent of the kind of memoirs you often get about British working-class life – we never had two ha’pennies to rub together but everyone pulled together and kids could play out in the streets kind of thing.  What’s never mentioned is how Kornei came to be attending the gymnasium, i.e. the top level of secondary schools, from which pupils would generally go on to university.  The only likely explanation is that his father was paying, which does make it rather unlikely that he didn’t even know who his father was.  I suppose it would have spoilt the whole mood of the book if we’d been told that this poor family were getting financial support from a wealthy middle-class source!  I may have this all wrong, but I doubt there’d have been free places, and I can’t see that his mother could have made enough for the school fees by taking in washing.

His mother’s extremely proud of the fact that he’s at this school – and has the silver crest of the school on his cap. She’s desperate for him to get on in life.  This doesn’t happen in British school stories (I know I’m putting a very British interpretation on this, but the idea of the reading group challenge was that we’ve all read loads of British children’s books, and are looking at something different!)  In those, it’s very rare for someone from a working-class background to attend a top school, or to be shown aiming to get on in life – which is incredibly annoying, because pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was a big idea in the 19th century, but never made its way into school stories, which were generally written between around 1900 and 1960.  And it’s interesting that they’re working within the system of Imperial Russia: there’s no sense of wanting to change the system, only of wanting to work with it.

The book starts with young Kornei, who reckons that he’s always near the top of his class – boasting is a definite no-no in English language school stories, so there’s another cultural difference – trying to help his friends cheat in a test. There’s no suggestion that cheating is wrong: he’s just being a good friend by trying to stop his mates from getting bad marks and consequently getting into trouble.  It backfires.  So he’s got a bad reputation with the teachers, and he does actually deserve it.  But then he’s blamed for egging on another boy to try to hide his bad marks from his parents.  It doesn’t actually seem like that much of a big deal, but apparently it was.   And he’s expelled.  A teacher symbolically rips the silver crest off his cap.

He naively assumes that the truth will out and he will be vindicated. He initially expects that the real culprit will own up.  But there’s no way.  This boy is from an influential family who are very ambitious for him.  There’s no way he’s going to chance getting into trouble at school – and it’s his mum who explains this to Korney.  Then he assumes that his friends, who know the truth, will speak up for him.  They don’t.  Then, eventually, someone tells him that it wouldn’t achieve anything even if they did – he and several other boys from “undesirable” backgrounds are being kicked out because the authorities want to purge top schools of unsuitable elements, and the incident with the other boy hiding his bad marks is just an excuse.

There were certainly moves in late Imperial Russia to make sure that the gymnasia were turning out boys who’d promote … the phrase “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” belongs to the reign of Nicholas I rather than that of Nicholas II, but that sort of idea. As the book points out, it was part of the very reactionary attitude taken by the government during the reign of Alexander III.  After the assassination of the “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II in 1881, and, really, before that, going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4.  I’m resisting the temptation to write a long essay on Imperial Russia, because this isn’t really a history book!   So I don’t find it hard to believe that boys would have been expelled for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual schooling or with bad behaviour.

Was it a class war thing? The authorities were paranoid about any hint of revolutionary activity.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the real truth of it was the alternative version of events, which is never even hinted at this book – that Chukovsky was running a satirical student magazine with his friend Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, later better known as the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and that that was the reason he was expelled.  But, then again, the decree of 1887, referred to in the book, did say that working-class children should be kicked out of top schools because they should be encouraged to stay within their milieu rather than thinking about university.

Could it have been partly a religious/cultural thing, as well?  This was the era of the May Laws.  His father isn’t mentioned in the book, and there’s no suggestion that the authorities, or even Kornei himself, knew anything about him, and it’s made clear that Kornei and his mother and sister are Orthodox Christians, insofar as they bother with religion at all – but could the Jewish connection have been a factor too?

Whatever the exact truth of it, he was expelled from school for socio-political reasons. And, whilst this honestly doesn’t come across as being propaganda, in the end we are left feeling that our hero has been the victim of an unfair and oppressive system.   But he doesn’t go off and join a revolutionary movement.  Instead, he beats the system – and, yes, he does beat the system! – by gaining his secondary school and university qualifications via a correspondence course.  And the book ends with a note saying that he hopes the reader will love all his friends and family, but also that he hopes they’ll hate all the baddies – the headmaster, the school inspector, etc, and, interestingly, that there are still people like them around.

As a story, and it is meant as a children’s book, this isn’t bad.  There’s plenty of stuff about japes he gets up to with his mates, nasty teachers, girls he fancies, and so on.  As a history book, it doesn’t tell us that much, but it does give us some glimpses into a time in which the author had grown up but which is now gone, and into the absolutely fascinating culture of late 19th century Odessa and its very diverse population.  It really is a very, very interesting city, and I’m glad to have had the chance to visit it in 2008.

It doesn’t tell us much of the politics of Odessa … once I realised when and where the book was set, I was expecting more about politics and revolutionary activities, especially as the book was written in the 1930s. The original, 1938, edition, apparently opened by quoting the part of Stalin’s constitution that stated that all children had the right to an education, including at university level, paid for by the state, so there were very strong political overtones there.  I didn’t really sense any suggestion that most people had much interest in politics … although I gather that the 1938 version was much more political than the later version which was translated into English and which I read.   And the idea of the self-made man who beat the system is really more redolent of Victorian Lancashire than of Tsarist Odessa.  Very Samuel Smiles … and he does actually mention reading books by Samuel Smiles.  He taught himself English, and he seems to be a great admirer of Britain – which, again, has strong overtones of Victorian Liberalism, which I wouldn’t quite have expected from a book written in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  But Chukovsky wasn’t a typical Soviet author, and this isn’t a typical book of any sort of genre – it’s very different, and, whilst it’s only short, is worth a read, and a lot of thinking about.