The Dream Life of Sukhanov

ISBN: 0399152989
ISBN 13: 9780399152986
By: Olga Grushin

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About this book

A brilliantly crafted novel about one man's betrayal of his talent, his friends, and his principles-a work of demon energy, startling imagery, and utter originality. At fifty-six, Anatoly Sukhanov has everything a man could want. Nearly twenty-five years ago, he traded his precarious existence as a brilliant underground artist for the perks and comforts of a high-ranking Soviet apparatchik. Once he created art; now he censors it. His past is a shadow, repressed to the point of nonexistence. But a series of increasingly bizarre events transforms his perfect world into a nightmare. Buried dreams return to haunt him, his life begins to unravel, new political alignments in the Kremlin threaten to undo him, and little by little, he finds himself losing everything he sold his soul to gain. Told in dream sequences that may be true, in real time that may be nightmares, in shifting time frames and voices, Olga Grushin's novel is a highly sophisticated, often surreal exploration of self-dissolution, faithlessness, and transformation.

Reader's Thoughts


The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005, 2007) by Olga GrushinI don’t know about you, but as I grow older, I rarely read a book with the total abandonment I used to experience as a child or a teenager. Olga Grushin, a young(ish) American writer who emigrated from Russia at eighteen, must have some special powers in order to cast this spell with both her novels, The Line and The Dream Life of Sukhanov. The first thing that separates Grushin’s novels from those written by her American contemporaries is that, unlike them, she is still interested in something called “the human condition.” I am always puzzled by the fact that, while apparently political, most (relatively) young American writers, don’t integrate this interest into something one might call “our universal condition.” But then, how could they, when those of them who are in academia, are taught to run away from notions of the “universal” as if they were plague? On the other hand, many writers who integrate a contemporary political experience into their writings—usually poets—do this in such a righteous, sloganeering way that one is instantly tempted to become apolitical. I am thinking here of the numerous bad poems simmering with righteous indignation at W. Bush that I had to listen to during endless poetry readings. All this to say that it may take a writer who has actually lived in a country where one couldn’t run away from politics, where every gesture ended up being political whether one was aware of it or not, to write in a mature way about the individual versus the collective, the singular versus the universal, fate versus will, and the relationship between the individual destiny and history. One cannot deal with such subjects when one has that nihilist ironic tone many contemporary American writers feel obligated to exhibit.The historical background of The Dream Life of Sukhanov is that of Russia between the 1930s and the 1980s. The protagonist is the director of the main arts magazine in Moscow, and son-in-law of the most famous painter of day. Both titles implied a privileged position under communism, since one couldn’t get them without bowing to the Communist Party, and they came with numerous perks: access to special stores of the nomenklatura, a private chauffeur, etc. Little by little, the reader is drawn into the hero’s dream life, and finds out that he had grown up in poverty and fear, having witnessed the killings of the Stalinist era and his father’s suicide. As a young man he fell in love with surrealism, and despised the official rhetoric and the socialist realist paintings depicting optimist laborers singing the beauty of their tractors. And then, one day he had to choose between continuing to be a poor, unrecognized painter, faithful to his ideals, and selling out to those in power in order to provide for his family. At the heart of the novel is the choice, or rather, the question: what would you do if you had to choose? Sukhanov has to choose between killing the artist in himself and collaborating with the regime, on one hand, and keeping his artistic integrity, but having to survive by doing hard, low paid jobs, on the other hand. But choosing the latter also means committing suicide as an artist, since he wouldn’t be able to exhibit his paintings, and what good is a painting without a viewer? In appearance, the novel gives us the story of a man who has betrayed his youth, but the closer we get to the end, the more we realize that the novel doesn’t have any easy answers, and that whatever the man would have chosen, he would have failed. At the end of the novel, a character introduced in the very first pages reappears: Sukhanov’s friend, Belkin, who had taken the opposite path, that of artistic honesty and everyday misery. Belkin, who is poor and whose wife has left him, finally gets his first show when he is in his mid-fifties, but then he realizes that he is a mediocre painter. Until his world suddenly unravels, Sukhanov is rich, happily married to a gorgeous woman, respected (or rather, feared) by those in his profession. In the end, his entire world falls apart, and although as readers we know that he is justly punished, the author doesn’t give us a straight answer regarding the better choice. As Sukhanov’s wife says during their younger (and poorer) days, “There is more than one way to lose one’s soul.” This is an extremely mature novel, and it is amazing that a writer who left Russia at such a young age can recreate so well not only the people’s daily lives and the country’s atmosphere, but the existential choices communism imposed on people. As rooted as the novel is in a particular time and place, this very anchoring makes it universal insofar as in many ways we are all products of our choices. Last but not least, Olga Grushin is a great stylist, and her paragraphs on art are among the best in the novel.


An amazing book. The main character used to be a surrealist artist in Russia. The author echoes this by writing it in a surrealist fashion. Looking back on reading this book makes me wish I was still reading it.

Cliff Thompson

On the book club list. Just started it; always been fascinated by Stalinist culture, but have only read history; this looks like my first foray into the life inside the cultural elites...And now, I have finished it. Very disappointed. What could have been an interesting story about the mid-life crisis of a Soviet cultural bureaucrat who'd traded his creative potential for a place of privilege ended up being an overheated melodrama. Or, it could have been abstracted a bit and been an engaging work on the tension between following a calling and fitting in, or whether an artist has an obligation to use their talents or follow their muse (or even has a choice in the matter). Clearly Grushin was trying to accomplish something along those lines, but every event was portentious, every second significant; there were no casual glances - it was so pressurized that in quiet moments I heard a Hammond organ in the background, and in the heated ones a pipe organ playing the opening bars of the Tocatta in D-minor, and the whole house fell down under the weight of the paint... Well, at least Grushin tried, I will give her credit for that; this is not an easy sort of story to write well. And she shared the "critical moment" when Sukhanov decided to sell his soul; I was afraid that he would be found dying in the snow, muttering "Rosebud, rosebud..." and we readers would be left standing around wondering WTF?!?!?!

Erma Odrach

This is a story of a 56-year-old man, who 25 years earlier traded his life as an underground artist for that of a high-ranking Soviet agent. He ends up betraying his family, his friends and himself. The novel is set in present-day Moscow (1985), then flashes to the past and is full of dream sequences. I thought it was well-written, but I didn't like how it constantly moved from the first to second person.

Nathan Cervantes

While I felt the author did a number of clever/interesting things in this novel, I think overall it tends to drag out its prose a bit more than it needs to and tends to make bold claims without fully justifying them. Of the things I found interesting, I thought Grushin's use of color references and transitions did an effective job of continually recalling the artist's outlook to the reader's attention while also highlighting the sometimes surreal nature of human experience (and by extension the value of abstract art), and illustrating the power of the dream state while calling the Sukhanov's sanity into question. Additionally, Grushin gives the English reader (who is unlikely to be Russian) a sense of the geography and environment of Moscow without ever assuming a familiarity or getting bogged down in details, and likewise, her command of Russian history for narratological use makes the story approachable and compelling even for people who didn't grow up in the Cold War era or who don't have a working knowledge of Soviet history. An issue I had though was with the central premise of the book; that artistic integrity should always take precedence over practical considerations, even when those considerations include poverty and exile. From the way the argument is presented, I would venture a guess that Grushin herself has never been poor; wondering how you're gonna pay your electric bill or keep a roof over your head is hard enough when you're making those decisions for yourself, but exponentially harder when you're making them for a family, and that's provided you don't have an authoritarian government actively working against you. Which isn't to say one should just give in and sell out when adversity arises, but society doesn't reward you for being a martyr until after you're dead, and sometimes working with the system to get at least some of what you want is the more practical and responsible course of action. For Grushin, however, the argument seems to be a yes or no moral decision, where one can answer firmly and immovably in favor of free artistic expression, consequences be damned. In the end, this doesn't greatly damage her otherwise effective novel, but I think it could have been substantially better if she had acknowledged the full complexity of the situation she presents.


Wow! Another npr recommendation that was so beautifully written taking you places in the mind you may not have even known you had.


This novel at its core is a story of man in his 50s having to confront the decisions that he made as a younger man and how they shaped the course of his life. Sukhanov essentially had two paths that he could have taken. On one path he pursues his passions but will inevitably struggle economically and will be outcasted to a certain extent. The other path requires him to give up, even forsake, that which he is most talented and passionate about, but in exchange he will live quite comfortably. Having a beautiful wife and anticipating future children, Sukhanov "sells out"...a decision he makes for the benefit of his family, but ironically contributes to alienate him from each one of them later on.This novel comments a lot on the power of art and the individual, but also examines the relationship between politics and art. To top it off, Sukhanov's first passion, surrealist art, is the very form that his nightmares and delusions take later in his life that cause him to question everything he knows. One can easily empathize with Sukhanov; he is a likable protagonist and we can share the distress of facing our own dilemmas. I also appreciate that Grushin doesn't automatically steer us down one path or the other. There is another character in the book that essentially represents the fate of the other path, and it's not one that we would want either.


The Dream LIfe of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin raises the question of whether any book should be called a “first novel.” This fanciful, lyrical, and somewhat odd book is the work of an accomplished writer who surely had written many more pages than were finally included in The Dream Life of Sukhanov when it was publishedOur hero, if we may call him that, is Anatoly Sukhanov, a Soviet bureaucrat of the arts who gave up painting for criticism and has become, at the novel’s beginning, editor of an important arts journal that struggles mightily to ignore Russian painters like Chagall and celebrate lesser talents who focus on art as a manifestation of class struggle.We’re not meant to like Sukhanov, though he isn’t a mean man. He’s a narrow-minded, unimaginative fellow who outclimbed his talent and has alienated his wife, son and daughter with his relentless self-preoccupation and sense of personal importance.Grushin moderates this negative effect with prose that dances along, sometimes overwritten, in the manner of her great Russian predecessors. Gogol and Nabokov come to mind. Beyond that, Grushin embeds her narrative in a series of dream sequences that let Sukhanov wander in the first person (sometimes remembering the poignant disappointments of his earlier life, his father’s suicide, his mother’s impoverishment), and provide a more full picture of the soul he left behind when he signed on as a Party arbiter, more committed to truth than beauty.In the fifties and early sixties, Sukhanov succumbed to fear of the State, fear of life as a poor painter, and fear that he couldn’t get along without ultimately garnering a fine apartment, a staff, a car and driver, and a dacha outside Moscow.So this is a story about his life falling apart almost from the first page. Bit by bit he loses his family, his job, his stature, and his illusions. He’s crushed the way so many characters in Russian literature are crushed; it’s what we have come to expect, isn’t it? The hero of our times is no hero at all; he’s a schmuck; he needs to wake up.His son, daughter, and wife, Nina, are critical to Sukhanov’s awakening, but none plays a greater role than his long-abandoned best friend, Lev Belkin, who didn’t have Grushin’s talents as a painter but had more persistence--a nobody of a painter, but one who remained true to his earliest visions and aspirations.Grushin deftly moves from the reality of Sukhanov’s demise to the possibilities of a revival still smoldering somewhere in his much neglected Russian soul. Here we are in a realm of dreamy magic realism, perhaps not entirely persuasive, but inspired by the colors and phantasmagoria of Chagall, who lurks in the background of the entire novel.The question I personally would ask is whether a man who has been locked up within the “system” for decades can emerge as a free spirit in his fifties. Grushin wants us to believe in this possibility. I’m not so sure.

Nora Malone

Best book I've read in a long time. Olga Grushin is my new favorite contemporary writer.

Richard Simpson

Since reading Dostoyevsky at the age of fourteen, this book came closest to the profound effect I experienced then, though now I am thirty years of age. Grushin deals with a universal dilemma in all societies, that we accept the status quo in order to survive, which necessarily means the loss of our dreams. Yet dreams may come with a price, and so does art. Additionally there is something undeniably Russian in this work, its cold tragedy, and mortal genius. The colour schemes and figurative language hold a fecundity rarely encountered in modern literature - the old masters have been done proud. A work of art.

Lee Razer

Anatoly Sukhanov is a Soviet apparatchik, editor of Moscow's Art of the World magazine and author of such Party-approved works as "Surrealism and other Western "Isms" as Manifestations of Capitalist Insolvency". As the novel begins, in a Soviet Union shortly after the ascension of Gorbachev, he is simply another soulless Soviet official ready to be mocked and condemned by another Russian novelist. As the novel unfolds, however, that is not what happens. As glasnost begins to thaw the political environment around him, Sukhanov's past, which he has long frozen out of his consciousness, also thaws and bubbles up first through his dreams, then takes over his waking life as he suffers what appears to be a nervous breakdown. Grushin's novel ultimately raises interesting questions. In a totalitarian society, is it more admirable to stay true to yourself, or to do what you must to provide for those you love? If it is admirable to risk severe hardship for your ideals, does that remain the case when your family shares your fate with you? And what cost can those choices exact?A very good book, especially if you have an interest in art and Russia.

Amanda Anthony

This book is about a man in a mid-life crisis, but it's better than that. The writing is vivid and beautiful - beautiful vocabulary, lovely descriptions. I loved how she shifted the voice from third person to first person when we went in Sukhanov's mind. It also was interesting because it gave a look into post-Stalin era and pre-fall of Communism Russia. Very very good.

Carl Brush

I have this hankering to learn languages. Problem is, I’m not so good at it. It’s a little like Salieri in Amadeus, born with the desire and some ability to compose music, but unable to reach the moutaintops he can see so clearly and forced to watch an unworthy twit scramble up easily ahead of him. So I’m even more in awe of writers who not only author fine works of literature in English, but do so in English as their second or third language. Conrad and Nabakov are the only two that pop into my mind, but now we have a third candidate--Olga Grushin, a young lady of enormous promise, whose early schooling was in Czechoslovakia, so English may well be a third language for her, yet The Dream Life Of Sukhanov became a 2006 New York Times notable. Maybe if I started writing in French. . . Grushin has great command of her imagery: The [street] lamps glowed like tangerine baloons let loose in the soft haze, and in their light the eithteenth-century facade of the old Moscow university shown brightly, as dramatic an familiar as the stage sset of some stately, stale play. And on the same page. . ....the elegant perfume of tonight...numerous layers of other fading scents which had accumulated over time in the so many sweet, barely discernible ghosts of past outings. This last passage indicates how important olfactory matters are to Grushin. The text is full of the smells of her characters and their surroundings. Probably no one I’ve read outside of Louise Erdrich creates environments so full of smells. The novel as whole is a fascinating exploration of the disintegration of a man and a system of thought, politics and art. Without giving too much of the plot away, I can say that the protagonist’s career parallels the rise and fall of socialistic realism in Russia. There’s a great deal of talk about the corruption of surrealistic art, about the necessity of art to serve society rather than mock or alienate it. The action of the book centers around the betrayal of passion and principle--both for an artist and for a society--that such attitudes involve. As the title announces, we’re inside the protagonist’s mind a great deal, some of the time in memory, some in dreams. Grushin deftly slips back and forth from third to first person so that we’re carried from observing a fantasy or memory to participating in it. Sometimes, it gets tedious. Oh, now we’ve had the present action which we predictably will trigger a memory, which just as predictably will trigger a dream. Yet, sequences build revelations and discoveries which create significant impact for the denouement. As the dream life builds, Sukhanov’s outer life deteriorates. It would be unkind to reveal the ways and reasons for the disintegration to those who might want to read the novel, so I’ll just state the fact of it and let be. Skillful as Sukhanov is, however, it added up to a disappointment for me. For one thing it took some effort to stick with it. Nothing that I would call a crisis occurred until after the first 150 pages. I don’t think I’m limited to shoot ‘em up’s, but I do like things to happen in a book. Also, the process of event-to-memory-to-dream sequence got transparent after a while. Too, Sukhanov is not a sympathetic character. He’s unlikable be design, which is fine, but I often didn’t even find him interesting. I was often more interested in his family than him and glad for interludes that included them so I could get out his mind. All in all, a good try at a tough task, but without thrilling results.

Parrish Lantern

I've called this “A proper Russian Novel” and by this I mean that Olga Grushin has invested in the character of Sukhanov, all the angst and pathos, all the weakness and hubris that I remember reading in all those great Russian novels. Sukhanov goes on an epic journey of rediscovery, he is constantly assailed by images from his past, haunted by all those ideals he repressed for the sake of a career in the USSR. Yet things change, and it’s in this change, Sukhanov is left to question his choices….


Second installment of "Novel on the Globe" course. I really enjoyed this novel and would give it four and a half stars if the website so allowed me. Following in the tradition of most Russian novels, I feel like I could read this novel a few more times and still not entirely obtain all the symbolism and meaning behind it. There are certainly layers upon layers within this text.The story revolves around the middle-aged character Sukhanov during glasnost period Moscow. At first, we learn that Sukhanov lives a very comfortable, upper-class lifestyle that is anything but an example of socialist-communist life. He has obtained this position by being the editor of a Soviet-art publication. As the story unravels, so does Sukhanov's life and mind. Marked by many flashbacks, commentary on art, russia, and soviet life, Grushkin develops a story that essentially questions the importance of artistic integrity versus towing party-lines to obtain a life of comfort and stability. Don't worry she leaves the answer up to you.Weaving together Sukhanov's perception and his memory with strange transitions between 1st and 3rd person narrative, the novel unfolds into a story that at times can be as surreal and maybe confusing for the average reader. Nevertheless, "The Dream Life..." finds its greatest strength in being able to weave together such surreal elements within the structure of a relatively linear narrative. Overall, probably one of the better contemporary novels I have ever read. Mind you, I am not very well-read in contemporary fiction. Plus, I really like the topic of art and culture...this book examines that a lot.Highly suggested, however, dont expect a highly surrealist and unstructured novel but rather one that utilizes these elements within the confines of a linear narrative.Imagine a less fantastical Bulgakov with a hint of Gogol...

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