Discovering Zoshchenko

Some say there are only three Russian writers that the Western reader is familiar with: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Meanwhile, the gold reserves of Russian literature include dozens of names. We are launching a series dedicated to famous Russian authors who remain largely unknown in the West. One such author from the 20th century is Mikhail Zoshchenko.

The relationship between English and Russian literature - before the emergence of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov - was strictly one way (west to east). Russia's greatest poets, Pushkin and Lermontov, both in their youth imitated Byron, but when the author of Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev, told William Thackeray that the Russians had a writer just as good (Gogol), the Englishman laughed. Later, Turgenev would write that "the author of Vanity Fair is himself infected with the vice he so mocks".

I fear that the name of one of the most famous successors to the Gogolian tradition in Soviet literature, Mikhail Zoshchenko (1894-1958), is not too well know to the English.

He wrote most of his best stories in the 1920s when the ideals of the revolution were replaced by petit bourgeois values. Zoshchenko's stories resemble vignettes or anecdotes: short, in simple language, often paradoxical and always very funny.

He peopled his "Soviet universe" with amusing puppets, as in Gogol. These puppets lack an internal world thus allowing Zoshchenko to make fun of them without feeling compassion.

Although if we had seen in them beings like ourselves, we would have been horrified: all of their energies go into struggling for at least some semblance of a normal (petit bourgeois) existence. But they always lose and never despair: the Soviet absurd is the natural order of things.

The totalitarian world of Zoshchenko could not be further from Orwell's world, where love rises up against the power of slogans and critical thinking encroaches on total control. Zoshchenko's world is devoid of slogans, love and critical thinking. His heroes come together and part owing to primitive everyday circumstances, while the slogans in their speech come through only as parody. In this world there is no room for ideology, for it is dominated by a single total power - the power of a crust of bread and a roof over one's head. If history plays any part - the Pushkin Jubilee, say - it affects the inhabitants of this world in only one way: they are evicted from their miraculously obtained cubbyhole, which, it turns out, the poet himself once "graced with his insufferable genius".

Even so Zoshchenko was almost a favourite of the Soviet elite who viewed his satire in ideological terms - as a denunciation of "Philistinism" and the "birthmarks of the old world". By the end of the war, however, Stalin saw in Zoshchenko's fiction not only the rank-and-file "positive heroes", but even that most human of human beings, Lenin, assumed the features of an amusing marionette. Stalin signalled a crackdown.

In 1946, Zoshchenko was labelled a vulgar and loathsome proponent of rotten non-progressive, trivial and apolitical ideas. Zoshchenko (with poet Anna Akhmatova) was expelled by special decree from literature and deprived of his "worker's" ration card. Publishers, journals and theatres began cancelling their contracts and demanding that advances be returned.

The writer was making ends meet with translations; he sold all his things and even tried to earn money working for a shoemaker. In an effort to absolve himself, Zoshchenko wrote a letter to Stalin that is painful reading:

Dear Iosif Vissarionovich!

I have never been an anti-Soviet person. In 1918 I volunteered for the Red Army and spent six months fighting against the White Guard forces.

I have never been satisfied with my satirical position in literature. I have always tried to portray the positive sides of life. This wasn't easy to do, however; it was as hard for me as it is for a comic actor to play heroic roles...

Please believe me when I say that I am not looking for any improvement in my fate. And if I am writing to you, then it is solely for the purpose of somewhat easing my pain. I was never a literary scoundrel or a base man, or a man who worked for the good of landowners and bankers. That is an error. I assure you.

But Stalin never thought Zoshchenko was working for the good of landowners and bankers. It was enough that the writer's attitude did not coincide not only with the Communist one, but with any other spirit: "Life in my negligible view is constructed more simply, it is offensive and not for cultivated people." And where Byron scorns people from the height of certain ideals, in Zoshchenko's world the idealists are the first to be broken, turning into boors at best, and at worst outright troglodytes. Zoshchenko insults not so much the power of tyrants as the overall power of matter over spirit, an "anatomical dependence".

After Stalin's death in 1953 Zoshchenko's situation very slightly improved. But then in May 1954 a group of English students asked to meet him and Akhmatova. They naively asked if they agreed with the Central Committee's inquisitional resolution against them. Akhmatova proudly said "yes" (her son was then a prisoner in the Gulag), while Zoshchenko said that he disagreed with certain things.

A new wave of persecution threw him into a deep depression which, in essence, drove him into his grave.

Alexander Melikhov, writer and columnist

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