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the Complete Review
the complete review - various

The Secret History
of my Sojourn in Russia

Jaroslav Hašek

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To purchase The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia

Title: The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia
Author: Jaroslav Hašek
Genre: Various
Written: (1921) (Eng. 2017)
Length: 251 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia - US
The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia - UK
The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia - Canada
Aventures de l'armée rouge - France
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Charles S. Kraszewski
  • A translation of the 1985 collection, Tajemství mého pobytu v Rusku
  • These pieces were first published between 1916 and 1921
  • Several of these pieces were first published in German and Russian

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing bits and pieces, and offering some interesting insights into the period

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 27/8/2018 Kathryn Murphy

  From the Reviews:
  • "His signature juxtaposition of absurd anecdotes with official narratives of glorious victories and heroic leaders is much in evidence, as are parodies of military and bureaucratic logistics: acquiring provisions, exchanging currency, numbering soldiers, arranging journeys by rail, foot and sea. (...) However reliant on local anecdote, Hašek’s writing always inhabits a polyglot and plural culture." - Kathryn Murphy, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Czech author Jaroslav Hašek was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, but was captured -- apparently not particularly unwillingly -- by Russian forces in the fall of 1915. After a short time as prisoner of war, he joined the Czechoslovak Legion, and then the Red Army proper; he served for a while as one of the administrators of Bugulma, in Tatarstan, when it fell to those forces. The fifty-two pieces in The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia collect his writing -- stories and non-fiction -- written and published during and about his six Russian years.
       (Translator Charles S. Kraszewski's detailed and lengthy Introduction provides a good background of Hašek and his Russian years, and the pieces are also well-annotated, with footnotes providing information about their first publication as well as people and events referred to in them.)
       The book is divided into two sections, fiction and non (or rather: 'Propaganda, Proclamations, Letters'), practically all first published in newspapers; the only longer (twenty-page) piece was originally also published piecemeal, serialized over several weeks.
       The collection begins with the amusing 'How it Happened that I Met Up with the Translator of my Obituary', as Hašek reports that, while he was away from (what was, by the time he returned,) Czechoslovakia, he had apparently been repeatedly written off:

      During the course of my stay in Russia, which lasted some five or six years, from time to time I was killed and/or executed by various organisations and individuals
     When I returned to the fatherland, I found out that I had been hanged thrice, shot to death twice, and quartered once at the hands of savage Kyrgyz rebels on the shore of Lake Kale-Yshela. Finally and definitively, I had been run through with a knife during a wild skirmish with drunken sailors in a certain
      Finally and definitively, I had been run through with a knife during a wild skirmish with drunken sailors in a certain Odessa tavern. Of all these variants, this one seems most likely to me.
       This treating the absurd so coolly is Hašek's preferred approach, and it is generally quite amusing. In the centerpiece of the collection, a series of nine stories describing his time in Bugulma, death sentences are pronounced -- and then calmly ignored (often over tea). Hašek gets a brief shock when he's led to the graves of three locals -- but even that turns out to be only for show. Demands are set high -- the illiterate locals are given three days to learn how to read ! -- but a more rational recognition of the realities of the place and situation sees to it that little lasting harm is done.
       Similarly, when in charge in Bugulma, Hašek figures that the best way to see to it that what will be used at as the barracks gets cleaned is by enlisting the nuns from the local convent (since they had; "nothing to do except pray and spread nasty gossip about one another") -- but his demand that fifty maids from the convent be set "at the disposition of the Petrograd Cavalry Regiment" is, unsurprisingly, misunderstood. Here too, however, everything is eventually cleared up (and virtue maintained ...) to everyone's satisfaction. Like most of the Bugulma stories, this episode is apparently at least loosely based on Hašek's actual experiences -- though throughout he does seem to have exaggerated his own position and authority.
       If the Bugulma-stories tend to show the most harmless side of the horrors of war -- despite lots of jostling for power and various contending forces, things remain very peaceful; even getting the locals to hand over their weapons is easily and peacefully accomplished -- some of the piece do show harder realities. The speculator-tale, 'On Grocer Bulakulin, Thief of Ufa', has an unrepentant speculator get his due, for example.
       As Kraszewski explains in his Introduction, Hašek was an ardent nationalist, strongly opposed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Able to fully embrace active opposition once abroad, many of the non-fiction pieces are heated, hostile calls to action and propaganda. The most successful anti-Austrian piece, however, is the 1917 story 'Neck Size', in which Hašek describe a house search conducted by the State Police in 1914. Rather than raging angrily, Hašek adopts his usual neutral, bemused tone -- even as he describes a completely over the top search, tearing the whole place apart, right down to them taking the family dog away and then returning him shaved (in case any secret messages were written on his bare skin -- apparently a popular technique in ancient Greece).
       Hašek nicely introduces these oppressive forces:
     It fell to our lot to be born into an age in which, in Austria, everything was decided by the sword, the noose, and the polcie. Commissar Sl#237;va was swarthy, with black hair, while Klabiček was pale and blond. They always went together, and between them formed a kind of living yellow and black flag. To this Commissar Klabiček added a ginger moustache beneath his nose, and thus the tricolour of the German Reich was complete.
       The non-fiction pieces haven't aged nearly as well as the stories, but do also offer interesting insights into the conditions and specifically Czech political struggles of those times.
       A bit of a loose collection, The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia isn't really polished, and perhaps over-full: a smaller selection, of the Bugulma-stories and a few more stand-outs by themselves, would have made for a stronger book. But there's something to be said for having all this material -- and the detailed Introduction -- together. If not exactly a secret history, it does illuminate a fascinating and less well-known part of Hašek's life, as well some interesting history of the times.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 May 2018

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The Secret History of my Sojourn in Russia: Jaroslav Hašek: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Jaroslav Hašek lived 1883 to 1923. His novel The Good Soldier Švejk is among the best-known and loved works of Czech literature.

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