The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel

by Ken Kalfus
The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel

by Ken Kalfus


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Russia, 1910. Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a remote railway station. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. They have been joined by a film company whose cinematographer, Nikolai Gribshin, is capturing the extraordinary scene and learning how to wield his camera as a political tool. At this historic moment he comes across two men — the scientist, Professor Vorobev, and the revolutionist, Joseph Stalin — who have radical, mysterious plans for the future. Soon they will accompany him on a long, cold march through an era of brutality and absurdity. The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a mesmerizing novel of ideas that brilliantly links the tragedy and comedy of the Russian Revolution with the global empire of images that occupies our imaginations today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060501396
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/03/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

ken kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short story collections Thirst, which won the Salon Book Award, and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date of Birth:

April 9, 1954

Place of Birth:

Bronx, New York


The New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University

Read an Excerpt

The Commissariat of Enlightenment
A Novel

Chapter One1910

The train jolted forward so abruptly that the three passengers in the first-class coach sensed that they had been propelled much farther than a few meters from the Tula station. One of the men (Gribshin) felt as if he had been thrust from the era in which he lived. The second man (Vorobev) perceived that he had been jerked out of a manner of thought that had become complacent after years of discovery; now he was poised at the brink of revelation. The third man (Khaitover), who had been resting with his eyes closed, now sprung them wide, as if he had been suddenly brought to life. The three men had not yet made each other's acquaintance.

The initial surge bunched the cars, they paused in repose as the engine strained against them, and then the couplings tensed, there was another, now-anticipated jolt, and the train pressed forward again. The station's cream-yellow bricks slid past the window, followed by railway sheds and equipment of uncertain purpose. Leafless nearby trees crossed more distant ones. Patches of white, remnants of the first snowfall, dotted the hard fields.

The third man, who after a lengthy, restless, and intermittently ruinous residence in Russia now called himself Grakham Khaitover, his name Cyrillicized into something outlandishly guttural, scarcely noticed the first man, Gribshin, who was young and Russian. Of the second man, sitting opposite him, Khaitover remarked only a faint chemical, fungal scent, indefinitely disturbing but not unpleasant. At this crucial moment — but why was it crucial? why had the fog into which he had dozed not yet cleared?— the odor seemed pregnant with a message he could not read.

The second man, Professor Vladimir Vorobev, ignored the first man as some clerk or student, destined to be banished to a green third-class car once the conductor checked his ticket. If Vorobev had been told that Gribshin would someday make a revolution, he would have shrugged and replied that he was a scientist completely uninterested in politics. This practiced denial would be developed into an argument of contemptuous disinterest by the time he reached Bulgaria, years later, after fleeing there with former elements of the White Army, and then modified again into one of innocent apolitical ignorance once he returned to the Ukraine at the end of the Civil War.

The revelation that had just come to Professor Vorobev had to do with the specific gravity of certain liquid substances, particularly glycerin in respect to distilled water, and then again in respect to the specific gravity of human blood. The other substance to be taken under consideration was potassium acetate, a compound typically used in fabric conditioner.

Tula's outlying settlements glided past, followed by snow-frosted small cottages, grain silos, the brown dome of a village church, and a tableau of peasants frozen in time, leaning away from their carts, against the direction of history. Professor Vorobev turned his attention toward the third man, Khaitover, who was clearly a foreigner. Khaitover was gangly and fair, with a small, yellow mustache. The professor noted the failings of his toilet: the wrinkled business suit; the light, uneven side whiskers; the scuffed shoes; the drowsy demeanor. As the train picked up speed, rocking through the countryside, the foreigner's head fell against the mud-specked window and his eyelids began to flicker.

Vorobev cleared his throat, as if in a lecture hall, and inquired:

"Sir, are you a pilgrim, or a journalist?"

Khaitover opened his eyes, but remained leaning against the window. The professor fairly glowed with the benevolence of his question. Khaitover responded in heavily accented, grammatically awry, snarly Russian.

"Do I look like a bloody pilgrim?"

"There are many pilgrims from abroad. Germany, England, America, India. Some have come on foot."

Vorobev offered Khaitover his card, obliging the foreigner, grimacing, to dig one out of his own billfold, which itself had to be excavated from an inside jacket pocket. His living dependent on more than a single occupation, Khaitover carried a variety of cards. He made a selection and gave it to the professor. He kept his shoulder jammed against the window.

The first man, who at twenty years of age was still called Gribshin, attended the exchange with vague interest. The impulsion forward had left him chiefly occupied with an inventory of the physiological effects induced by accelerated time travel: a retrograde churning of your stomach contents, a searing of your nostril hairs, a sharpening of vision that brought the landscape into almost unbearable relief. You rarely experienced these effects in ordinary life, when you traveled into the future a single moment at a time. Gribshin wondered what new world he found himself in.

Vorobev squinted through his pince-nez, studying both the English and Russian sides of Khaitover's visiting card. The professor was a squat man with a round, sweaty face onto which a glossy black mustache seemed to have been clumsily pasted.

"The Imperial. I'm not familiar with it. Is it an important publication? What class of person is likely to purchase it?"

Khaitover replied, "The newspaperless class; that is, that class of people who do not have a newspaper and are desirous of reading one."

He hardly knew more about the paper he wrote for than how much it paid by the column inch. He had been away from England a long time, barren years in which he had ceased to be a young man as he sought to pry his fortune from this impossible empire and its limitless, valueless steppes, its inaccessible forests, its untappable mineral veins; its teeming, unfished rivers, its lazy and superstitious natives — this hyperborean Congo. Or perhaps he had just been born, like today's newspaper, which had arisen from dust and telegraphic sparks in only twenty-four hours. Or he was only tired: he had just been involved in some very complicated speculative business having nothing to do with journalism.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment
A Novel
. Copyright (c) by Ken Kalfus . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Andrea Barrett

“Inventive, unusual, humorous, ... deeply intelligent, The Commissariat of Enlightenment beautifully illuminates the hazardous powers of image, icon, and relic.”

Jonathan Franzen

“Kalfus is an ironist in the best late-modern Central European style: wry, humane, precise, and beautifully smitten with ideas.”

Reading Group Guide


"Gribshin realized with a jolt that it was not true, as it was said, that nothing lasted forever; everything did, in the papers and now the moving pictures...."
During the first decades of the twentieth century both technology and social movements radically transformed the world and the people in it. Ken Kalfus's provocative novel looks at those changes and their startling implications through the compelling life of an opportunistic young man, Nikolai Gribshin, and the deaths of two great men, Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

When we first meet Gribshin in 1910, he has begun a journey of personal and professional enlightenment. His destination is a railway station, Astapovo; his job is to transport movie equipment to the rural train stop where a poignant domestic drama is unfolding around the dying novelist, Leo Tolstoy. With reporters from around the globe, Gribshin is quickly swept into the one of the world's first media feeding frenzies and makes a startling intellectual discovery: with a camera, even a novice filmmaker can create history as well as record it. Whether it is quintessentially criminal or simply brilliant, this idea will set the direction of his career and catapult him into the center of a revolution.

But other people, and other strange doings, are occurring in the surreal, Fellini-esque setting of Astapovo. The mysterious Professor Vorobev wants to preserve Tolstoy's body with an amazing scientific advance. A shadowy British expatriate named Khaitover hopes to obtain exclusive rights to Tolstoy's image in a grand marketing scheme. Lenin, his wife Krupskaya, and the sinister"Caucasian," Stalin, are lurking in the background. A raped, traumatized girl (who may also symbolize a raped, traumatized nation) is about to give birth in a peasant's roadhouse. And in one visually rich scene after another, author Kalfus presents ideas that make the reader stop, think, and come to some illuminating conclusions.

In the second half of the novel, set after the Revolution, Gribshin, now calling himself Astapov, has become a political functionary in The Commissariat of Enlightenment, the Bolshevik's grandly named ministry of propaganda. He is zealously immersed in the tough business of quelling unrest and creating a new nation. His tool is the camera, and film has become a powerful political means of education -- or brainwashing. Personally, he's had one messy affair and entered into an arranged, political marriage. And while living conditions are harsh, the times are exciting. Quash religious beliefs? He's up to the task. Promote revolutionary principles? He's a master. But Astapov soon faces ethical dilemmas as intellectual freedom and political stability make uncomfortable bedfellows; as the images of the old society are replaced by the icons of the new one; as ideals give way to expediency. At this juncture, Astapov's vision for the new order once again leads him into the orbit of Professor Vorobev, Lenin, Stalin, and a chilling plan for the triumph of the State...all it takes is a massive deceit, betrayal, and murder.

Innovative and darkly humorous, Ken Kalfus's novel not only brilliantly portrays Russian history, it suggests the birth of our own image-dominated culture. In The Commissariat of Enlightenment, the power of the image uses a nascent film industry to become a force that shapes the world -- but whether that world will be dominated by Golden Arches or an enlightened humanity, readers must decide for themselves.

Questions for Discussion
  1. Beginnings and endings in literary works are significant. Let's look at how this book begins. Three men on a train get jolted. Look at each element. Why a train? Why three men? How does each one react? What does this first paragraph reveal about the rest of the novel?

  2. Some of the events in this novel actually happened. Some events could have happened. Some could happen only in the realm of the imagination. Which events are real history? Which are fantastical?

  3. If a photo, film, or videotape is represented as being of a real event, we tend to believe what we see. But Gribsin says, "Deceit was ingrained in cinematographic reporting, as it was in every kind of storytelling." How does Gribshin, who works for a newsreel company, falsify reporting with his camera? What famous photo, film, or TV broadcast has shaped your own "eyewitness" to history? Are contemporary television news images free of deceit? Have you ever felt yourself being manipulated by a TV news program, yet unable to shake off its enduring images? What are the differences between propaganda in dictatorship and propaganda in a free country?

  4. Shakespeare said, "What's in a name?" For Russian revolutionaries (and actors, of course) evidently a great deal. Many Russian leaders, i.e., Stalin and Lenin, changed their names, as did the novel's protagonist Gribshin. Why do you think Gribshin chose Astapov? What are some motives to change one's name? Think of celebrities with one-word names -- what kind of effect does this have on their image?

  5. Discuss Gribshin. What is his background? What are his ideals? Is he a good person? What are his moral failings? What kind of relationships does he have? Does he change over the course of the novel?

  6. The sketch of Tolstoy that Khaitover wants to put on a tea tin, the religious icons in the Russian home and church, and Lenin's body on display -- what do these things have in common? What images, or symbols, are immediately recognizable throughout the world today and what do they reveal about our values? We learn of Khaitover's eventual triumph toward the end of the novel. What image does he finally succeed in making a worldwide commodity?

  7. In the novel, when Astapov stops Levin's play, he thinks: "For a revolution to be victorious, to change the manner of human thought, it would have to make sense out of history's disorder. Enlightenment's principal task was to create the story, this monument to the future. A steady hand would carve it from the misshapen, stupid stone of Russian culture, specifically its myth, religion, and folk wisdom." Do you believe that culture shapes our icons, or that icons shape our culture? As The Commissariat of Enlightenment, Astopov's answer would be the latter. Are there Commissariats of Enlightenment in today's world? What kind of society are they trying to shape?

  8. Why do you think Yelena made her film "for women's education"? What does Astapov consider so dangerous or wrong about her film? How is it in opposition to the films he makes? Whose kind of films are made by Hollywood today? Where might you see a Yelena-like film?

  9. Dr. Vorobev and his embalming discovery are perhaps the most macabre and fantastical elements in the novel. Or are they? Lenin was preserved and displayed in real life. What was the purpose of doing so?

  10. The final pages of the novel are told from Lenin's point of view -- after he's pronounced dead. Did the embalming process make his death incomplete? If he appears alive, is he in some respects living? If we can see someone sing, dance, or talk on film after they are dead, does the film blur the distinction between life and death? What is the impact of this psychologically?

  11. This novel can be called "a novel of ideas." If you had to pick just one major idea, what you think is the most important "point" of the novel, what would it be?
About the Author: Ken Kalfus was born in New York and has lived in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade, and Moscow. He is the author of the story collections Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, both of which were New York Times Notable Books. A finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and a winner of the Salon Book Award, his fiction has appeared in Harper's, Bomb, the North American Review, and the Voice Literary Supplement. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.

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