Peter Blackstock On:
Poverty | The Galosh by Mikhail Zoshchenko
I first came across the stories of the Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko (1894-1958) when was spending a year in Russia in 2006. I’d chosen to study the language at university, dreaming nerdy dreams of tackling Dostoevsky, Tolstoy et al in the original, but hadn’t quite reckoned with the reality of spending nine cold months in a Russian provincial town where the winter never seemed to end (one January day the mercury dipped to -40°C). But one of the advantages of being in a place far from English speakers was that even just out of boredom I ended up trying to start reading literature in the original – and one of the first stories I read and felt I truly “got” was Zoshchenko’s Бедность, “Poverty”. “Poverty” (1925) deals with the process of the electrification of the Soviet Union as seen through one family. Lenin had famously declared: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” and the story’s satirical humor is surprisingly direct and even feels anti-Soviet to a modern reader. “The Galosh” (1926) inhabits a lighter mode and is more driven by humor but is nonetheless subversive. Despite what we might see as an anti-authoritarian tendency, Zoshchenko was extremely popular in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 30s, selling huge numbers of books and winning the Order of the Red Banner of Labor in 1939. His simple prose style was deliberate, he wanted his stories to be easily intelligible to a proletarian audience (as well as to cold Englishmen trying to read Russian short stories). The form of the stories draws from the Russian “anekdot”, a narrative joke, and Gogol’ is another clear influence. Zoshchenko was part of a literary group, the Serapion Brothers, whose members included the great satirist Evgeny Zamyatin, whose dystopian novel We prefigured Huxley’s Brave New World. Despite his firm belief that art should be separate from politics, and his gentle mocking of the vagaries of the Soviet system, Zoshchenko was not a counter-revolutionary. But by 1946, the mood had changed; Stalin denounced Zoshchenko and he was expelled from the Writers Union, together with Anna Akhmatova. His reputation was never rehabilitated and he died in poverty. The light that he shone on the small details of Soviet life, sometimes beautiful, often frustrating, was one that ultimately proved too illuminating.