Book review: Hamid Ismailov ‘The Underground’


In The Underground, like his mixed-race hero, Hamid Ismailov is looking, above and below ground, for the answer to the question: what is 'Russianness'?


Maxim Edwards
13 May 2015

Hamid Ismailov’s latest work, The Underground, is the story of the Soviet underground in the final years of the USSR – both above and below the surface. The tunnels of the metro are Moscow’s very arteries, throat, skeleton, and womb: ‘I would venture that the best museum of Communism and the Soviets is the Moscow Metro,’ he writes.

The Underground
is the story of the precocious and perceptive Mbobo, his life from 1984 to 1992. The narrator is the ’26- or 28-year-old’ man he would be, if he were still alive. Mbobo is an ‘Olympian’ – the child of an African athlete who competed in the 1980 Olympics, and a half-Khakass, half-Russian limitchik (a temporary resident of Moscow’s suburbs from a far-flung corner of the Soviet Union). His mother’s waters broke in Paveletskaya Station, she collapsed in Novokuznetskaya, and Mbobo – officially Kirill – was born near the Oktyabrskaya Station, on the Moscow Metro’s famous Circle Line. Mbobo is ‘Moscow’s underground son.’

Like Mbobo, Moscow is a city estranged from its own existence. The promises and certainties of the subterranean Soviet palaces of the Moscow Metro are a refuge from a hostile and decaying society above. ‘The construction of such magnificent stations as Sokol amid the maggoty darkness was a subconscious hint,’ the author muses, ‘at fashioning the heavenly homeliness of life, albeit underground, in the very place where Hell is generally supposed to be.’

For Mbobo, Hell is very much above ground. It is this society, which the fatherless, mixed-race Mbobo must navigate, in a series of reflections signposted with the city’s metro stations. Like Mbobo, Moscow is a city estranged from its own existence. In the late Soviet era, everybody is out of his depth.  

Hamid Ismailov

The Kyrgyz-born writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov, who fled Uzbekistan in 1992, has long attempted to make sense of this period, and the collapse that followed. A writer-in-residence for the BBC from 2010 to 2014, Ismailov’s works blend a keen awareness of the cosmopolitanism of the Soviet project, with its feverish drive for modernisation.

The Railway (1997) tells the story of the people of Gilas, a fictional steppe settlement owing its existence to the ‘never-ending ladder, whose wooden rungs and iron rails stretched across the earth.’ In The Dead Lake, the young protagonist Yerzhan stops growing after diving into a contaminated lake located in a former nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan. As the girl he loves becomes a young woman, the forever-stunted Yerzhan becomes a talented musician, learning to play the violin and dombra at the feet of a Bulgarian teacher inhabiting a caravan on the steppe. Ismailov’s Soviet Union was always an eruption of steel, smoke, hope, and confusion.

In The Underground, translated into English by Carol Ermakova, Ismailov brings these explorations to Moscow, where he lived and worked for eight years. It also pays homage to the rich tapestry of Russian – and Soviet – literature, and the interplay between the two. The Underground’s structure is reminiscent of Yerofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line; and Ismailov delights in pan-Soviet literary references, from Abkhazia’s Fazil Iskander and Chuvashia’s Gennady Aygi to Odessa’s ‘Ilf and Petrov’ and Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin.

Ismailov sees himself as part of the Russian literary tradition (his prose has been compared to Bulgakov, Gogol, and Platonov), and has claimed that, ‘any writer who writes in Russian is a Russian writer.’ Lonely Mbobo, of mixed parentage, haunted by his demons and too creative for his own peace of mind, thus poses the question of who gets to speak for Russian literature. In a recurring theme, his stepfather, the intellectual (and violent alcoholic) ‘Uncle Gleb,’ lovingly refers to Mbobo as his ‘little Pushkin,’ referring to the poet’s famed Abyssinian ancestry. The nickname originated in kindergarten, and the fact that it stuck – as opposed to more predictable racist slurs – is his ‘most painful secret.’


Tales of any sort are an escape for Mbobo. He is fond of the Lenin Library, as its clientele – absorbed in their reading – pay him no attention. Racist assaults and familial indifference as he is traded among one ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ after another are just two features of his mean life. ‘No matter how far you descend,” says Mboto, ‘there are always steps leading lower,’ like a journey into the underworld of Khakass legends.

Mbobo, haunted by his demons, thus poses the question of who gets to speak for Russian literature.

The Underground is a novel about betrayal. Mbobo’s biological father is absent. Uncle Gleb ‘takes Mummy away from [him] with beatings, Uncle Nazar with hopes.’ His mother's and ‘uncles’’ meagre attempts to console him over society’s anti-black prejudices come to naught. Even a less antagonistic curiosity about Mbobo’s background is no less menacing. On a writers’ excursion to the Caucasus with Uncle Gleb, the party encounters Abkhaz militants descending from the mountains. In the ensuing standoff, Mbobo piques their interest. Mbobo notes that none of those famous writers ‘wrote anything about me’ and realises that ‘they used me, a black boy, as their white flag.’

The biggest betrayal, though, is that Mbobo will never grow up. Childhood incomprehension – though by no means childish, as Mbobo is astute beyond his years – will become that of an adult as society becomes ever more incomprehensible after 1991. This country, notes Uncle Gleb in a manuscript, ‘already [has] too many poet street sweepers’ to make sense of it.'

The collapse of the Soviet Union heralded one of the steepest declines in living standards in modern history; Moscow’s metaphorical return to the underground is a way to make sense of the promises of the past, and find illicit pleasures to cope with the present. His ‘new uncle,’ Nazar – once a policeman – now engages in property speculation, and the intellectual Uncle Gleb (formerly editor of the Friendship of Nations journal) is made destitute.

The promises of the Moscow Metro begin to fit their subterranean surroundings – as archaeological relics. In a bitter twist of fate, Mbobo has the good fortune to be away from an aunt’s flat during a vicious armed robbery  ̶  he was at school, studying the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union.


Ismailov's novel, then, is a deep examination of the confusions of Soviet and post-Soviet ‘Russianness.’ Race is a recurring theme, but The Underground addresses it in the context of the Soviet emancipatory programme and its discontents – an ‘affirmative action empire’ that has few analogies in the Anglo-American or Western European experience.

Mbobo’s experiences were partly based on the experiences of Ismailov’s daughter growing up in Moscow; and the novel is even on the school curriculum of the Samara region, to teach values of tolerance. Ismailov’s novels are a testament to Soviet cosmopolitanism, peopled with Abkhaz, Chuvash, Khakass, and Shor characters. The ‘Olympians’ are one chapter in the USSR’s engagement with post-colonial Africa, which eventually fell into bitterness. Many streets across Russia, though, still bear the name of the martyred Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. The phrase ‘and you are lynching Negroes’ has entered Russian speech as a prime example of whataboutism, a hypothetical response to any American criticism of Soviet policies.  

Ismailov’s novels are a testament to Soviet cosmopolitanism, peopled with Abkhaz, Chuvash, Khakass, and Shor characters.

‘By now, everybody was trying to become Russian,’ concluded Mbobo, Kirill, or ‘little Pushkin’ in 1990. Two boys from the North Caucasus come to live with his ‘aunt.’ Roma, Tatar, and Ukrainian schoolmates invite Mbobo to join a ‘Russian defence movement,’ the better to ‘beat up the blacks.’ ‘Not like you,’ they hastily add, ‘the bastards from the Caucasus’ (that is, like the two boys living with Mbobo). Mbobo has been assaulted, harassed, and mocked for his background, but only now, in the twilight years of the Soviet Union – and the concurrent rise in Russian nationalism – is he asked directly whether he belongs to Russkiy Mir, the Russian world.

Geoffrey Hosking once wrote that the Russians were the standard bearers of the Soviet Union, but were rendered anonymous by their duty. What was to be done when that standard fell? What is raised in its place, and who gets to claim it? Russians were the ‘unmarked,’ the normative among the Soviet citizenry. Indisputably, the societal culture of the Soviet experience worked to ethnic Russians’ advantage, most obviously in linguistic terms.

Whether or not Russians were ‘first among equals,’ Ismailov’s picture of the Soviet experience reaffirms the place of the non-Slavic Soviet citizens who constructed and lived it. In The Underground, they could not be more central.

Whose loss?

While its symbolism will be familiar to readers of Ismailov’s other work, The Underground is an intricate portrait of an all too foreign loss: the disappearance of one’s country. The characters it brings to this discussion are too often treated as peripheral in Western understandings of the Soviet period. ‘I think,’ the ‘little Pushkin’ concludes, ‘that the Russians keep Pushkin as a mascot only because he played neither the clown nor the holy fool, and in that respect he was unprecedented: ideal, as no Russian could be. Maybe that’s why [I became] a mascot – an unprecedented Russian because I cannot play a part either.’

‘The Underground’ is an intricate portrait of an all too foreign loss: the disappearance of one’s country.

Thus, Mbobo’s short life ends on the tracks of the Moscow Metro in 1992, after his last surrogate ‘aunt’ leaves Moscow for Krasnodar; and him to the streets. The disturbing fate of his Dagestani friend Zulya is no less cruel. ‘As the heir of Russian literature,’ he reflects, ‘I knew that every gain eventually becomes a loss, starting from [Gogol’s] The Overcoat to [Platonov’s] Soul.

A 1935 article lauded the Moscow Metro as the very pinnacle of Soviet achievement, recounting an anecdote in which an old man is taken by his daughter into an underground station. Thinking it to be the tsar’s palace, he instinctively removes his hat. When taken to ride a train, he realises that it represents a common edifice built by and for the working man, and puts his hat back on, symbolising a triumph of ideology over superstition. ‘The old man stayed in Moscow, and every day he rode the underground’ – Mbobo may have taken his place.

He will never again visit the surface, and travelling through those subterranean Soviet palaces can ask a question on many Russians’ minds: Whose victory was this? And if not our victory, then whose loss?

Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground is published by Restless Books (e-book). It will be released in paperback in September 2016.

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