In The First Circle Bookclub!
“When I say peacetime, I mean before Soviet power.”
One thing that gets mentioned a handful of times is “The Stalin Prize”. The official name for this was “The State Stalin Prize” and it got renamed to the USSR State Prize back in 1966 for various reasons. They pretty much stopped handing this out in 1991 for other various reasons (but it looks like Anatoliy O. Morozov got (another) one in 1998).
Now, there was another award that got recently mentioned in the news. This somewhat risable paragraph opens the story:
President Vladimir Putin likes to deny that he is taking Russia back to the USSR, but on Wednesday he dusted off another communist relic by restoring a labor medal introduced under Josef Stalin.
I found myself wondering “Is this the Stalin Prize?” As it turns out, it’s not. Putin brought back the “Hero Of Socialist Labour” prize (or, as it’s now called, “The Hero Of Labour” prize). From the Wiki: The first recipient of the award was Joseph Stalin, awarded by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in December 20, 1939, but he never wore the medal, as he did not feel worthy of the award.
Anyway, after the cut, we’ll have our list of chapters for the uncensored version (and the chapter names from the censored version, if different, in parenthesis after. All of these chapters seem to have been included in the original version).
You, yes you! What did you think? What scenes, phrases, thoughts stuck out for you?
49.Life Is Not a Novel (Life Is No Love Story – Chapter 44, in the Red Version)
50.The Old Maid
51.Fire and Hay
52.To the Resurrection of the Dead! (The Resurrection of the Dead)
54.Leisure Amusements (The Comedy Act)
55.Prince Igor (The Traitor Prince)
56.Winding Up the Twentieth (Winding Up the Twentieth Year)
57.Prisoners’ Petty Matters (Petty Prison Matters)
58.A Banquet of Friends (The Banquet Table)
59.The Buddha’s Smile (Buddha’s Smile)
60.But We Are Given Only One Conscience, Too (You Have Only One Conscience)
61.The Uncle at Tver (The Dinner Party)
63.The Diehard (The Die-Hard)
64.Entered Cities First (They Entered the City First)
65.A Duel Not by the Rules (A Duel Not According to the Rules – Chapter 60, in the Red Version)
Reading the story of the girls’ dormitory with the girls gossipping about boys and clothes was a familiar scene but to have that interrupted by the memories of how the Ivanoviches recruited her to spy on her friends turned a scene that could have been lifted from an episode (well, a particularly racy episode) of The Facts of Life into some weird horror novel… and back to The Facts of Life. I suppose I date myself with that reference. An episode of “Girls”, then.
The discussion of the essays and how they had to weed out the foreigners was creepy/funny enough, but when it came out that much of the paper discussed the theory of a scientist that was no longer held in high regard and how she now had to work around that unpleasant detail. (The fellow student who asked “Isn’t he one of ours?” paints one of the biggest problems with this issue. You’ve got to keep up not only with science, but with gossip!) Follow that with the discussion of which thesis topics are acceptable and which thesis topics are dangerous and you have a hilarious farce. Except, of course, this sort of thing actually happened.
Surely it doesn’t happen here.
Shchagov’s (internal) monologue about how he no longer recognized the country he spent four years defending sounds like something my grandfather would have said.
The fact that Shchagov and Nadya were terrified to talk to each other indicated a really strange dynamic between them… when Nadya said that her husband was in prison, it was a *HUGE* amount of intimacy she allowed. While it is probably often the case that sex between acquaintances is less intimate than two acquaintances telling the truth of their lives to each other (and certainly a useful trope in a novel), the culture they were in turned Nadya’s confession to a surprising place. Shchagov felt sorry for her but he didn’t, exactly, know why. Now they can finally share a bottle. He’s engaged, she’s married… and, already, they have a deeper relationship than the silly giggly ones being bragged about a few pages before.
The scene with Kagan in Leisure Amusements (The Comedy Act) where he explains how he managed to finagle a scientist job in the camps by lying about remote control torpedo boats… but then needing a torpedo expert, a marine expert, and a radio expert and then, impressively, staying the hell out of their way and thus becoming a fixture? Oh, that’s a good scene. I laughed, read it a second time, then laughed again.
When they talk about Krylov’s “The Crow And The Fox”, it’s a retelling of Aesop’s fable, but made a bit more Russian. In the original story, a crow with a bit of cheese lands on a perch and is seen by a fox. The fox wants to steal the cheese… hey. He’s a fox. So he goes to the crow and says “I’d love to hear your beautiful singing voice!” and the crow caws and drops the cheese which is then eaten by the fox. The moral: Don’t Trust Flatterers.
In searching for Krylov, however, I couldn’t find his retelling, exactly, but I did find this.
Folks say foxy talk is bad
Happy words can make us sad.
Do we really hate them so?
Words are kindly. Words are smart.
But the gut speaks through the heart.
Hearts will sing…and heads will know.
Look! A crow sees chunks of cheese.
So she takes them to the trees.
And she sits there with her treat.
See! A fox can smell the cheese.
Now he’s coming through the trees.
There’s the crow, about to eat.
Foxy sees. And Foxy speaks.
“Such black feathers! Such white cheeks!
What a lovely pair of wings!”
“What red lips and what a beak!
If I wait here, she will speak.
I can’t wait until she sings!”
Now this crow is not so dumb
But she’s lonely. And he’s come
All this way to sit and hear.
So she smiles. And she caws.
Cheese falls into Foxy’s jaws–
Cheese and Foxy disappear.
And I suppose I can see where someone would add a lot of prison slang to that and, perhaps, a handful of phrases that one would hesitate to use in mixed company but… to be charged with corrupting morals? That’s… that’s beyond crazy.
The Trial of Prince Igor has a number of jokes that made little sense to me until I read his page on the wiki. His story would be known by any educated Russian, there were operas made devoted to him and, ahem, “On his campaign against the Cumans, a heroic poem was written which is the peak of old Russian poetry.”
The joke is that this Epic Character has been put on trial according to the New And Improved Soviet Court System. So that’s another 10 years.
The scene where Gleb broke down all of the procedures that Just Weren’t Being Followed in The Count of Monte Cristo was really funny… but it reminded me of this scene from the Gulag Archipelago (I’m adding the emphasis):
We read in Izvestiya for May 24, 1959, that Yulipa Rumyantseva was confined in the internal prison of a Nazi camp while they tried to find out from her the whereabouts of her husband, who had escaped from that same camp. She knew, but she refused to tell! For a reader who is not in the know this is a model of heroism. For a reader with a bitter Gulag past it’s a model of inefficient interrogation: Yuliya did not die under torture, and she was not driven insane. A month later she was simply released — still very much alive and kicking.
In Prisoners’ Petty Matters (Petty Prison Matters), I loved the rant on the importance of the half-Kopek coin. A Kopek was 1/100th of a Ruble. According to the wiki, From 1937-(Feb)1950, you’d get 5.3 Rubles for a US Dollar, which would make a Ruble worth about 18 cents… which would make a half-Kopek worth just a little less than a tenth of a penny. From March 1950-1960, you’d get 4 Rubles to the dollar, which would make a half-Kopek worth 1/8th of a cent.
That was when a dollar was worth a dollar, though.
The story of “The Buddha’s Smile” is probably the best example of Russian black humor to be found… well. There are probably a thousand stories that also communicate it but the upgrade of the prisons just in time for Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit, the Russian translators explaining that the prisoners were complaining about the treatment of “blacks in America”, to the downgrade of everything back to the way things were, to the prisoner who smuggled the Sermon on the Mount being forced to turn the other cheek after being struck… to the guards forgetting about the Buddha in the alcove.
Surely things like that wouldn’t fool us today.
Getting back to Innokenty Volodin felt like a surprise. How many threads had the story developed and picked up and walked through since we first called the embassy?
In times of general mistrust and treachery, kinshipp gives at least an initial hope that the man you are dealing with has not been thrown in your way for some underhanded purpose, that his route to you was a natural one.
The arguments about socialism vs… well… whatever it was that they were doing… are always interesting. Whether they are held in the camps or in the drawing room of a prominent prosecutor, the contradictions are, like, right there. The excuses given for the “whatever it was” version are interesting to me because I’ve heard them given as well. (Though, granted, not recently. The 90’s. The *EARLY* 90’s.)
The argument between Rubin and Sologdin is the eternal argument: The Progressive vs. The Reactionary. Easily recognized, though it’s always interesting to see when the argument is made based on what is considered to be “progress” and what others wish to go back to.
For next week, we’re going to be reading from Chapter 66 Going to the People (Chapter 61 in the Red Version) to Chapter 80 One Hundred Forty Seven Rubles (Chapter 74). It looks like Chapter 77, The Decision Taken was not included in the expurgated version.
What do you think?