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.
Kalfus's two well-received short story collections (Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies) set a high standard for his first novel, a sweeping, quasihistorical fiction spanning two tumultuous decades in Russia. From the opening scenes at Leo Tolstoy's deathbed (and the surrounding media circus) to the rise of Stalin, the narrative unfolds with Kalfus's signature mix of carefully researched history, subtle social commentary and leaping, imaginative storytelling. Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. This knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from postrevolution chaos toward the Soviet state and its bureaucracies, one of which is the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the powerful agency in charge of propaganda. The cinematographer's fate merges with that of Comrade Astapov, director of the massive Red agitprop campaign. Those who resist the commissariat include a church congregation that refuses to give up its faith, an experimental theater director, and a resilient young woman who makes an abstract, pornographic film in the name of sexual education for women. Unforgettable re-creations of embalmer and scientist Vladimir Vorobev (who mummified Lenin), Joseph Stalin and Countess Tolstoy anchor the plethora of plot developments, which involve many minor and major characters with double identities and secret agendas that demand patience and close attention from the reader. Told in supple, witty and gritty prose, the story exhibits all the vigorous intelligence and vision readers have come to expect from Kalfus.