Humor Under Duress, Soviet Style

In Trumplandia, Maybe We’d Better Get Used to Long Lines

In Trumplandia, Maybe We’d Better Get Used to Long Lines

The other day, I saw a great Futility Closet post on Soviet humor. What with Trumpf’s close ties to ex-KGB-head Vladimir Putin, we had better get used to Soviet style humor . So, here goes:

A man is walking along the road wearing only one boot. “Did you lose a boot?” a passerby asks sympathetically. “No, I found one,” the man answers happily.

What is it that doesn’t knock, growl or scratch the floor?
A machine made in the USSR for knocking, growling, and scratching the floor.

It is the middle of the night. There is a knock at the door. Everyone leaps out of bed. Papa goes shakily to the door. “It’s all right,” he says, coming back. “The building’s on fire.”

A shopper asks a food store clerk, “Are you all out of meat again?” “No, they’re out of meat in the store across the way. Here we’re out of fish.”

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union send people to the Moon?
They are afraid they won’t come back.

A man fell asleep on a bus. When someone stepped on his foot, he woke with a start and applauded. “What are you doing, citizen?” “I was dreaming I was at a meeting.”

“What is the difference between Pravda [Truth] and Izvestia [The News]?”
“There is no truth in The News, and no news in the Truth.”

“Bound for Hell”

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Yesterday, I posted an incident from Marina Tsvetaeva’s diary of how she was robbed in the streets of Moscow by a young Red Army soldier. Today, I would like to give you one of her most famous poems:

Bound for Hell

Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured,
Is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell—
We, who have sung the praises of the lord
With every fiber in us, every cell.

We, who did not manage to devote
Our nights to spinning, did not bend and sway
Above a cradle—in a flimsy boat,
Wrapped in a mantle, we’re now borne away.

Every morning, every day, we’d rise
And have the finest Chinese silks to wear;
And we’d strike up the songs of paradise
Around the campfire of a robbers’ lair,

We, careless seamstresses (our seams all ran,
Whether we sewed or not)—yet we have been
Such dancers, we have played the pipes of Pan:
The world was ours, each one of us a queen.

First, scarcely draped in tatters, and disheveled,
Then plaited with a starry diadem;
We’ve been in jails, at banquets we have reveled:
But the rewards of heaven, we’re lost to them,

Lost in nights of starlight, in the garden
Where apple trees from paradise are found.
No, be assured, my gentle girls, my ardent
And lovely sisters, hell is where we’re bound.

I’m still not finished writing about this incredible poet. Look for another post about her within a few days.

Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.

Does This Remind You of Anyone?

An Amazing Coincidence

An Amazing Coincidence

When I read Teffi’s essay on Rasputin in Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, couldn’t help comparing the dread Siberian starets to an American political figure in the news. Here are three instances, from which you can draw your own conclusions:

The Black Automobile

According to Teffi:

The “Black Automobile” remains a mystery to this day. Several nights running this car had roared across the vField of Mars, sped over the Palace Bridge, and disappeared into the unknown. Shots had been fired from inside the car. Passers-by had been wounded.

“It’s Rasputin’s doing,” people were saying, “Who else?”

Dealings with Women

Teffi was seated next to Rasputin, who tried to get her to have some wine:

Rasputin was drinking a great deal and very quickly. Suddenly he leaned towards me and whispered, “Why aren’t you drinking, eh? God will forgive you. Drink.”

He kept trying to get her to drink and to come to his place, but she wisely refused.

He “Sows Discord and Panic”

Finally, Teffi writes:

He profits from everything black, evil and incomprehensible. Everything that sows discord and panic. And there’s nothing he can’t explain to his own advantage when he needs to.

Now I could add that he tweets nasty, ad hominem attacks in the middle of the night, but that would be giving it away, wouldn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Serendipity: A Glimpse of Rasputin

 

Gregory Rasputin in Color

Gregory Rasputin in Color

The following beguiling sketch comes from Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya—perhaps better known as Teffi—whose essay on the Siberian “holy man” is reprinted in her Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me: The Best of Teffi, published by New York Review:

I had glimpsed Rasputin once before. In a train. He must have been on his way east, to visit his home village in Siberia. He was in a first-class compartment. With his entourage: a little man ho was something like a secretary to him, a woman of a certain age with her daughter, and Madame V—, a lady-in-waiting to the Tsaritsa.

It was very hot and the compartment doors were wide open. Rasputin was presiding over tea—with a tin teapot, dried bread rings and lumps of sugar on the side. He was wearing a pink calico smock over his trousers, wiping his forehead and neck with an embroidered towel and talking rather peevishly, with a broad Siberian accent.

“Dearie! Go and fetch us some more hot water! Hot water, I said, go and get us some. The tea’s right stewed, but they didn’t even give us any hot water. And where is the strainer? Annushka! The strainer—where is it? Oh, what a muddler you are!”

I love the picture of the demonic starets wearing a pink smock.

The photograph above was published by The Daily Mail, along with other interesting color pictures of Rasputin and the Tsar.

Teffi’s essay on Rasputin made me think, and you shall find out later this week exactly what it made me think about.

The Journalist

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

I have only read two of her books so far, but they were both knockouts. First, there was Zinky Boys (1991), about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Now, added to that is Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997). Both books are descriptions of incredible suffering, and they are both powerful disincentives from enlisting in the Soviet military.

Svetlana Alexievich (b. 1948) is usually described as a Belorussian journalist, though she herself rejects the title: She has been known to edit the first person testimonials from one edition to the next, which is a big no-no for oral historians, but the mark of an imaginative writer. I do not mind, because I will accept 99-44/100% accuracy if it involves stylistic or other improvements.

Both Afghanistan and Chernobyl were unspeakable disasters that seemed to go on forever (the latter is still claiming victims), and you cannot hope for a better introduction to both than read Alexievich’s books.

In Voices from Chernobyl, the wife of one Soviet soldier who was involved in the cleanup says:

They say, “Chernobyl,” and they write, “Chernobyl.” But no one knows what it is. Something frightening opened up before us. Everything is different for us: we aren’t born the same, we don’t die the same. If you ask me, How do people die after Chernobyl? The person I loved more than anything, loved him so much that I couldn’t possibly have loved him more if I’d given birth to him myself—turned—before my eyes—into a monster. They’d taken out his lymph nodes, so they were gone and his circulation was disrupted, and then his nose kind of shifted, it grew three times bigger, and his eyes became different—they sort of drifted away, in different directions, there was a different light in them now, and I saw expressions in them I hadn’t seen, as if he was no longer himself but there was still someone in there looking out. Then one of the eyes closed completely.

I do not recommend reading the book on a full stomach. The same with Zinky Boys:

We were combing through a village. You fling open the door and throw in a grenade in case there’s a machine-gun waiting for you. Why take  a risk if a grenade could sort it out for you? I threw the grenade, went in and saw women, two little boys and a baby in some kind of box making do for a cot.

You have to find some kind of justification to stop yourself going mad. Suppose it’s true that the souls of the dead look down on us from above?

I know that we considered the Soviets to be our enemies, but these books describe scenes that one wouldn’t wish upon one’s worst enemy.

 

 

 

Tannu Tuva or Bust!

Very Nice, But There Were No Railroads in Tuva

Very Nice, But There Were No Railroads in Tuva

One of the things I remember most vividly from my stamp collecting days was the availability of postage stamps for non-countries. These were for real places on the map, but not for entities that had their own postal services. The one I remember most vividly is Tannu Tuva (formerly in the Soviet Union).

According to Wikipedia:

Tuva was a region in central Asia between Russia and Mongolia, which in 1921, under Russian instigation, became the Tuvan People’s Republic. A treaty between the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1926 affirmed the country’s independence, although no other countries formally recognized it. In 1944, it was annexed to the Soviet Union as part of the Tuvan Autonomous Oblast and in 1961 became the Tuva Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Its successor since 1992, the Tuvan Republic, is a member of the Russian Federation.

I remember reading a book in the 1990s about American physicist Richard Feynman’s failed attempts to visit Tuva, which were detailed in a book by Ralph Leighton entitled Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman’s Last Journey. Apparently he never got a visa approval before his final illness.

Some early Tuvan stamps may actually have been used postally, at least in the early days. Most, however, were issued in Moscow with picturesque settings to hard currency from capitalist collectors for Mother Russia. The stamp pictured above of a camel racing a railroad train was a bit fanciful, as there are no railroads in Tuva. Also, why wasn’t the text on the stamp in Cyrillic or even Mongolian letters?

I remember confronting an old family friend about his extensive collection of Tuvan postage stamps. A former postal employee, he became red in the face when told by a little boy that his Tuvan stamps were merely pretty paper.