Aleksei Ivanov

The Fighting Rivers Historical novel. Ripol Classic. Moscow 2023. 684 pages

Russia at the beginning of the 20th century is a rapidly developing country with a huge advanced river fleet, almost entirely in private hands. This entire complex economic massif was practically blown up by the tragedy of 1917. Not only smaller armored personnel carriers and armored trains fight in the civil war, but also armed ships: tugboats that have been converted into gunboats; ships of the line used as transport ships; barges converted into floating battle batteries. Then in 1918 these river fleets were confiscated by the „constituents“ in Samara, by Trotsky in Nizhny Novgorod, by the rebels in Izhevsk, by the Chekists in Perm.

A technical revolution is also raging in the world as steam engines begin to compete with diesel engines. The Russian confrontation between the Reds and Whites is permeated by a fierce struggle between the leaders of oil production - the British concern Shell and the Russian company of the Nobel brothers. War is being waged by people, technology and capital. In the bloody and burning storm, the river boatmen are sometimes on the side of the Reds, sometimes on the side of the Whites, and are forced to shoot at those who are actually comrades in the real main occupation of their lives. They must sink steamers - glory and pride of river navigation. How does one maintain a moral conscience in the midst of such a catastrophe? How do you save those you love, who have confided in you? How to protect progress indifferent to social struggles? There, on the decks of the river steamers, the captains search for an honest path to the future. There the so-called little man shows greater strength than his huge and mighty ship.

The main plot happens within one and a half years only, during the odyssey of the smuggler „Levshino“, who in the battles on the Kama River in 1918-1919 has enough time to fight for the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and for himself. Everything begins in Perm, everything will end in Perm. On the one hand brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. On the other hand, society is extremely atomized, guild and friendship ties make every effort, but there is no longer any class or regional solidarity between people. And in fact nobody has any ideology. Those who went to war voluntarily fight either because war can bring glory and career prospects, or because there can be looting and killing. The rest, including many military leaders, fight simply because of the circumstances: they were mobilized, ordered to command the fleet, and sent to the front with their ship. The population is not completely mute, they scold, but are weak-willed.

A novel about a seemingly distant war. But under the magnifying glass of Ivanov‘s prose we see a truth hidden deep within that extends to contemporary Russia.

Despite the outwardly cruelty of the novel, it is full of emotions and human experiences. Partly because of this, but also because of the volume, the number of characters, the appeal of historical figures from Admiral Kolchak to Larisa Reisner, the novel inevitably begs to be compared to „War and Peace“ and „The Quiet Don“. Surely there will be readers who will flip through „Peace and Love“ and readers who will rush to get through „War and Battles“ as quickly as possible. Only neither Tolstoy nor Sholokhov had such fabulous descriptions of steel colossuses, their engines, their movement through the water. There was no admiration for the entrepreneurs of that time. Progress is not technology, progress is a state of mind. It doesn‘t work without people - without entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors and also not without those who work with the machines - like Ivan Nerechtin, and those who care about the safety of technology - like Khamzat Mammadov. And not without those who are willing to give their lives so that the world can go on and their loved ones can go on. Because progress, as Ivanov writes, is belief in the future.