Challenging Russia’s materialist worldview

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus was a finalist for WORLD’s 2015-2016 Book of the Year for fiction. It is a long, sprawling novel, translated from the Russian by Lisa Hayden. Russians have given Laurus literary honors because, among other things, it challenges the materialist worldview of Stalin and Putin.

The big novel’s main character, Arseny—born in 1440 in rural Russia, orphaned at a young age by the plague, and raised by his folk-healer grandfather—radiates otherworldliness. He bears the weight of two dead souls and is on a lifelong pilgrimage of redemption that brings him to a variety of Russian locales and eventually—suffering and meditating—all the way to Jerusalem and back.

The author and his translator burrow into a worldview so intrinsically and pervasively seeped into the Russian soul that decades of Soviet propaganda and miseducation could not erase it. Vodolazkin and Hayden meld past, present, and future, deliberately folding in antiquated language, anachronisms, contemporary jargon (plus some vulgarities and obscenities), and several sexual references.

That jumble leaves Laurus not for everyone, but its emphasis on self-sacrifice makes it stand out amid the worship of self-realization that dominates much of today’s fiction. Set largely in medieval times, Laurus doesn’t portray humans as animals or machines. Back then the distinction between Christianity and superstition was often unclear, but people knew that humans have souls that never die.