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CITIES AND YEARS by Konstantin Fedin (1924)

ISBN 0-8101-1066-0

Cities and Years

Konstantin Fedin

They have some beers in a restaurant, and the student expounds on various topics. He says that, despite appearances, there is such a profound feeling of impatience among the German people that a volcanolike explosion is inevitable.”


From “Cities and Years” CHAPTER ABOUT 1914

Fedin, Konstantin Aleksandrovich. Born 24 February (12 February, Old Style) 1892 in Saratov. His father was a merchant, running a stationary store. At a young age, in addition to attending school, Fedin began to learn the violin. In 1901, he entered the Commercial Academy. In 1905, together with his entire class, he participated in a student’s strike. In 1907, he ran off to Moscow where he pawned his violin. His father, however, tracked him down and dragged him home. He made another attempt to escape–in a boat along the Volga–but this plot was foiled, too.

Rather then go to work in his father’s store, Fedin continued his studies at the Commercial Academy in Kozlov. It was here that he developed a love of literature and started writing. His first story, written in 1910, was Sluchai c Vasiliem Porfirevich (“Incident with Vasili Porfirevich”), an imitation of Gogol’s Overcoat.

In 1911, he went on to study economics at the Moscow Commercial Institute. He continued writing and in 1913 his first published work, Melochi (“Trifles”) appeared in the Petersburg journal New Satirycon. Upon seeing his words in print for the first time, Fedin recalls being so happy that he skipped and sang.

In the spring of 1914 he went to Nuremburg to study German. At the outbreak of World War I, he tried to high-tail it back to Russia, but he was seized in Dresden. He and other Russians were held by the Germans as civilian hostages until the conclusion of the Brest Treaty. So, in the autumn of 1918 Fedin returned to Moscow, where he worked for a while in the People’s Commisariate of Education.

In 1924, Fedin finished his masterful novel Goroda i Gody (“Cities and Years”), one of the first Soviet novels, portraying the path of the intelligentisa during the Revolution and Civil War. It was also a work of stylistic and structural novelties.

In the novel, a spineless Russian intellectual, Andrei Startsov, is interred in Germany at the start of World War I. He falls in love with a German girl, Mari, who helps him in an escape attempt. He is perceptive in his observations of the cruelty and contradictions of German militarism, and back in Russia after the war, he struggles to find his place in Revolutionary society. He wants to join the new exciting world, but is frozen by his intellectual detachment and proves unable to make any contribution, to take any action.

He was, in short:

…a man who, with anguish, waited for life to accept him. To his very last moment, he took not a single step, but waited for the wind to bring him to the shore he hoped to reach.

Forgetting his promises to send for Mari, Andrei drifts into another affair and gets another girl pregnant. He also helps a personal acquaintance, now a counterrevolutionary, escape Soviet justice. He has a chance to turn in this enemy of the people, but fearing that he himself would have a man’s blood–even a guilty man’s blood–on his hand, he fails to take action. For this betrayal of the Soviet cause, his best friend kills Andrei.

Fedin called Cities and Years an “emotional sequence” and told it with a non-sequential narrative line, starting with the end. If arranged in the proper time sequence, the order of chapters would be: 4, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 2, 9, and 1. The novel is also filled with frequent lyrical digressions.

In the 1930s, the German translation of Cities and Years had the honor of being among those books burned on Nazi bonfires.

In that same year, Fedin traveled through Norway, Holland, Denmark, and Germany. Then, in 1931, he fell ill with pulmonary tuberculosis and went to Switzerland for treatment. He then spent the years 1933 and 1934 in Italy and France. These trips provided material for his next two novels, Pokhishcheniye Evropy (“The Rape of Europe”) (1934) and Sanatori Arktur (“The Arktur Sanitorium”) (1940). In The Rape of Europe, members of a bourgeois Dutch family bicker among themselves as they try to hold onto a timber concession in the Soviet Union. In the end, the Soviet Union is strong enough to kick them out, reducing them to the status of timber brokers. The tale is told through the eyes of a Communist journalist, who abscounds with the wife of one of the Dutchmen. The Arktur Sanitorium depicts patients in a Swiss health sanitorium.

Fedin returned to novels and undertook a triology consisting of Perviye Radosti (“First Joys”) (1946), Neobyknovennoye Leto (“No Ordinary Summer”) (1948), and Koster (“The Bonfire”) (1961), offering a chronicle of Russian life between 1910 and 1941. The first of these, First Joys, is a broad, realistic novel set in Saratov on the Volga on the eve of World War I. It shows the actions of a young, budding revolutionary (Izvekov) and an older revolutionary factory worker (Ragozin), as well as various other strata of pre-revolutionary Russia.

No Ordinary Summer begins in 1919 when a Russian soldier escapes from a German prisoner of war camp and makes it back to Russia, which is caught up in the Civil War. Also returning are Izvekov and Ragozin, who meet up with old friends and enemies. As Aleksei Tolstoy did in his novel Bread, here Fedin alters history somewhat to make Stalin, not Trotsky, the hero of the Battle of Tsaritsyn. The novel also features a nonpolitical writer trying to maintain his artistic freedom and express his sympathies for the suffering, no matter what side they are on. And in the third book of the trilogy, The Bonfire, a positive hero rushes to the defense of the motherland when the Nazis invade Russia.

Konstantin Fedin died in Moscow on 15 July 1977.

Cities and Years

The cities are Berlin and Moscow, the years those of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the theme enduring: what role should the intelligentsia play in the inevitable revolution looming over society? Konstantin Fedin’s intense exploration of war and its aftermath focuses on Andrei Startsov, an intellectual who must wrestle with his ambivalence toward the convulsions in his homeland and with his love for the rebellious and fiercely independent Marie. A respectful confrontation with the giants of nineteenth-century Russian literature–Tolstoy above all–and an experiment in narrative technique reminiscent of Joyce or Dos Passos, Cities and Years reflects the sensibility of the modernist Serapion Brotherhood to which Fedin belonged.

June 1993

Northwestern University Press

5 1/8 x 7 3/4, 462 pp.

Trade Paper

ISBN 0-8101-1066-0


Andrei and Kurt are in sunny Erlangen for a summer holiday. Kurt takes Andrei to an anatomical museum. There they see various body parts and organs preserved in jars. There are also fetuses in all states of development. And, most prominently, is the severed head of Karl Ebersoks, a murderer, the last person to undergo a public execution in Nuremburg. Andrei becomes somewhat vexed, saying they should be out on carousels and in the sun, not in a museum visiting the dead.

All is festive in Erlangen, with rides, game booths, attractions, and hawkers selling: suspenders that can lift weights without loosing their stretch; dainty parasols; ice-cold lemonade; etc., etc. Parrots squawk and intelligent donkeys bray; organ grinders, orchestras, pianos, and violins play. But above all this rises the sound of human voices because of the human compulsion to drown out everything else, not only with sales pitches, but also with laughter and declarations of love.

And for love, what better contraption than the carousel? Lovers sitting close to one another in their chariots, spinning in and out of darkness on this enchanted centrifuge of love.


While wandering around the fair, Andrei and Kurt observe a very popular game booth. People throw balls at representations of the heads of famous executed criminals. Particularly popular with the players is the head of that well-known murderer, bandit, and torturer of women, Karl Ebersoks. Andrei is aghast. A passing student, overhearing Andrei’s negative reaction, counters that it’s a marvelous sport, combining physical exercise with a moral and patriotic lesson.

They have some beers in a restaurant, and the student expounds on various topics. He says that, despite appearances, there is such a profound feeling of impatience among the German people that a volcanolike explosion is inevitable.

The student begins to flirt with a young woman on the other side of the restaurant by tossing paper streamers at her. He pauses in his flirtation to note that this holiday is known as a gynecological holiday because, every year, a few months after the holiday, many women show up at the clinic for abortions. Andrei and Kurt don’t believe him. But the student insists that he is right and that tonight even he will achieve his goal with the young woman on the other end of the streamers.

Andrei and Kurt decide that the student is a little nuts and leave him. But, sure enough, later that night, they see the student locked in an ardent embrace with the young woman.



The Brest-Litovsk peace has been signed, and Andrei is getting ready to return to Russia. He and Mari have a tearful farewell. Andrei promises to get himself settled and send for Mari within two months. Hennig advises Andrei to forget Mari, saying that there with be other towns, other girls. But, Hennig concedes, he and Andrei disagree about politics and probably disagree about women, too.

Hennig shows Andrei an announcement in the paper. It is from a German soldier who lost his leg in the war. Because of his injury, he has been abandoned by his bride and is now seeking as he new life’s partner a woman who herself has a lost or wounded leg.

Before leaving, Andrei picks up from the floor a faded flower…a gift from Mari.

Andrei is put on a train with Lependin and many other Russian soldiers being sent back to Russia. Lependin and the soldiers begin boasting about their various regions. Also on the train is a civilian muzhik named Kisel. He is burly but sick. He comes from around Minsk and complains that his land was destroyed. A fellow with high cheekbones says they shouldn’t feel sorry for Kisel, because Kisel’s talking about private land. Besides, Kisel went to work for the Germans, hoping to make some money. Things have changed in Russia, the high-cheekboned fellow says. The only worthwhile land use, he points out, is one that benefits all the peasant. The soldiers nod in agreement.

The train stops at a station which is crowded with Russians heading back to Russia and Germans heading back to Germany. The fellow with high cheekbones comments approvingly on how all the soldiers are fraternizing with one another. He then goes on to move among the soldiers, talking with and reasoning with them all.

A person who lives alone, by himself, is not long for this world. The people have begun to live in peace, in harmony, with equal rights. We don’t need such loners

That night, confused and desperate, Kisel falls to his knees and begs advice, where should he go? No one answers expect for Lependin, who notes that Kisel is sick and will die soon and yet he is occupying a space on the train that might otherwise go to some soldier returning home. There is no good place to die these days, Lependin says, so Kisel might as well die here. Kisel sadly gathers his things and leaves. The high-cheekboned fellow says that there is no longer any place in society for an individualist such as Kisel.The train passes into Russia, and the soldiers react with excited expectation. A train load of German soldiers heading back to Germany passes by. Andrei watches a German soldier leap out the window in order to remain on Russian soil.

Andrei sees a group of three blind soldiers and suddenly remembers the blind Italian soldiers in the Park of Seven Ponds and his meeting with Mari. And again, just like back that, Andrei is separated from Mari by the road.

A German Teacher’s View

“Moscow is striking with its wildness, which many travelers are inclined to consider beauty. All the contradictions of Russian life, all the chaos of the world view of the Russian people are revealed in the architecture of the gloomy and naive Kremlin. The Italian Middle Ages mingled with late Byzantium. It’s not easy to decipher this mixture, owing to the Mongolian splendor of the decorations and superstructures. Currently, this monument of barbaric life is surrounded by an Asiatic bazaar and European houses, built according to the German style and by German engineers. Moscow is the native element of the Russian, but the civilized foreigner is pained by the city because of the disharmony of its parts and the irritating splendor of its buildings.”

When Kurt was in school, his geography teacher described Moscow as a wild, painful confusion of style. And certainly it was strange and foreign, but it was so fascinating that Kurt couldn’t help but wander around daily, discovering new lanes and back entrances.

Kurt is working with a group of artists in Moscow, painting a two-story poster of a blue-skinned man. They stand on ladders above the painting to view it. Kurt’s comments, in German, are horribly distorted by the translator. In the same building, printing presses are churning out leaflets. As the artists eat, Kurt comments that even the soup tastes of duplicating ink. “What an amazing people,” Kurt says about the Russians. “They write so much.” But in all the hub-bub, Kurt sees a great, healthy purpose.

Andrei returns to Moscow. He passes the German embassy. On the roof, a man lowers the black-white-and-red German flag. He rips off the black and white stripes, then hoists back up the remaining red stripe so that a red banner is flying over the German embassy. As the German ambassador tries to leave the building he is confronted by a group of former German soldier-prisoners. They announce that they have decided to form a Soviet of Soldier Deputies of Germany and that the Soviet will take over the business of the German Embassy. The man who ripped up the flag throws the black and white remnants at the feet of the ambassador. Andrei sees that the flag-ripper is Kurt! They embrace each other happily.

Kurt says that if not for his experiences in the war, his view of the world might not have changed. But the horrible music of war, the view through barbed wire, the view from underneath has cleared his head. The old glue which used to hold things together is no good. Now, everything must be broken apart in order to start anew.

Kurt apologizes to Andrei for his ignorant behavior on the tram car back in Nuremberg. Andrei says that he himself has not changed, that he still hates war. Kurt says there are different kinds of war, and that evil and war can only be defeated with war.

Andrei and Kurt renew their vow of friendship until death. Somewhat distractedly, Andrei says he wishes he were back in Germany. Kurt thinks this melancholy is just the result of Andrei having nothing to do. Kurt says he’s being send to Semidol to help evacuate former German prisons and form a Soviet out of them. He invites Andrei to come along, and Andrei agrees.

Andrei tells Kurt all about Mari. Now Kurt understands why Andrei wants to be back in Germany. Kurt sees that the most important thing in Andrei’s life is now love. In his own life, Kurt says, the most important thing is now hate.



CITIES AND YEARS by Konstantin Fedin (1924)

ISBN 0-8101-1066-0

Cities and Years Konstantin Fedin

They have some beers in a restaurant, and the student expounds on various topics. He says that, despite appearances, there is such a profound feeling of impatience among the German people that a volcanolike explosion is inevitable.”


From “Cities and Years” CHAPTER ABOUT 1914

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