Farewell to the Queue

An era can be judged by street conversations.

"Look, there's a line."

"What're they giving out?"

"Just get on it, then we'll find out."

"How much should I get?"

"As much as they'll give you."

This touching dialogue from the Brezhnev era should be etched on the stern granite of Lenin's mausoleum—in memory of the great era of socialist paradise. And if anyone were to think seriously about a monument to that period, I would suggest that the empty mausoleum (should Lenin's body ever be finally consigned to the earth) be filled with those deficit, prestige items for which Soviet citizens suffered such torments standing in line. American Lee and Levi Strauss jeans, Camel and Marlboro cigarettes, "spike" heel and platform shoes, "stocking" boots, cervelat sausage and salami, Sony and Grundig tape recorders, French perfume, Turkish sheepskin coats, muskrat hats, and Bohemian crystal—I can just see it all, under glass like the eidos of real socialism, lying in the triumphant half dark of the mausoleum. Every year, the number of people wanting to catch a glimpse of Lenin's stand-in would increase, so that decades later the line would be a unique, living relic of bygone days... . But enough about bygone days. Here we are—in the new, post-Communist era:

"Look, there's beef. And no line."

"I haven't got enough money. Let's buy potatoes instead."

Not all that long ago, Soviet people couldn't even have imagined such a scene, and it proved tremendously difficult to come to terms with it. The ordeal of the free market turned out to be more frightening than the Gulag, and more burdensome than the bloody war years, because it forced people to part with the oneiric space of collective slumber, forced them to leave the ideally balanced Stalinist cosmos behind. The steel hands of the world's first proletarian government, which carried us from cradle to grave, cracked and fell off. Along with them went all the familiar socialist ways: free education and medical care, the absence of unemployment, the irrelevance of money, and finally, an entire system of distribution. It turned out to be particularly agonizing to part with the latter. It was the living flesh that inhabited the rigid ideological armature of the government, it lubricated and cushioned people from the Party nomenclature apparatchiks, and it stimulated the black market, which brought Soviet people all sorts of small pleasures. Then, suddenly, everything, everything turned to dust. And the queue? That fantastic, many-headed monster, the hallmark of socialism? Where has it gone, the monstrous Leviathan that wound entire cities in its motley coils? Where are the long hours of standing, the stirring shouts, the dramatic confrontations, the joyous trembling of the person at the head of the line?

In a catastrophically short time—just a couple of years—the line was dispersed and reborn as a crowd. It's probable that the queue is gone for good. Like everything epic that has plunged into the Lethe, it arouses interest. Not merely socio-ethnographic interest. One composer I know is seriously considering writing an opera titled The Queue in the style of a Russian epic: with mass scenes, choruses, a complex plot. Perhaps at the opening, many of the viewers, despite their own rich personal experience of standing in line, will ask the question: What was this thing after all, the queue?

Paradoxical as it may seem, the line was a purely Soviet phenomenon. Until the Bolsheviks came to power no such phenomenon had been observed in Russia. There are three events in Russian history that allow us to understand the phenomenon of the queue more fully. The first took place on May 18, 1896, on Khodynskoe Field near Moscow. In honor of the coronation of Nicholas II a public celebration was announced and it was promised that bags of gifts from the Tsar would be distributed. Each of these bags contained an enamel mug, a cloth, a link of sausage, a bottle of beer, some sugar, and spice cookies. Newspaper advertisements and word of mouth carried the news of the Tsar's gifts far beyond Moscow. The field was filled with people more than a day before the celebration. Night fell, and people kept arriving.

At dawn, according to the well-known writer and journalist Vladimir Giliarovsky, who witnessed the scene: "Khodynskoe Field resembled a huge barrel packed with herring, stretching all the way to the horizon, over which there hung a thick cloud of human breath." Whether by some sinister irony of fate or the stupidity of the organizers, the field was surrounded by ditches and fences that transformed it into an enormous trap: you could get in, but you couldn't get out. The booths where the gifts were to be distributed were clustered in one area. About six o'clock in the morning someone waved a hat. This was taken as a signal that the gifts were being handed out. The crowd moved toward the booths. A terrible crush ensued: people fell, they were trampled, they tumbled into the ditches, were crushed against fences. Giliarovsky, a man of extraordinary physical strength, known to bend horseshoes and coins with his bare hands, only just managed to break free of this hell, and fell into a deep faint. Altogether, more than two thousand people died on Khodynskoe Field.

The event itself is extraordinarily metaphorical and significant: a huge crowd accumulates in an enclosed space, consumes food in a frenzy, and crushes itself before the eyes of the young Tsar! It should be noted that the mass revolutionary movement began in Russia after the Khodynskoe tragedy. It is no exaggeration to say that a new type of object or metaphorical subject was born into Russian history that morning on Khodynskoe Field: the collective body. This body grew with each year, acquiring energy. Its actions against the Tsarist regime became more and more aggressive and decisive. The authorities tried to conduct negotiations with this body; they bribed it, surrounded it with troops, and finally shot at it, as happened on Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, when an enormous crowd in St. Petersburg set out toward the Winter Palace with a petition for the Tsar. In 1914 those same authorities tried to use its energy for military purposes, directing it against an external enemy. But the collective body's response was rather sluggish; in foreign fields, far away from the Motherland, it lost its energy, entropied. Having dissolved into molecules by 1917, it overran the capital only to gather itself into a raging fist and strike a crippling blow to the powers that be. The last two years of the Civil War didn't stop it, and by 1920 the collective body had come to power for good, inaugurating the era of the "Uprising Masses," which displayed to the world at large its astonishing ethics and aesthetics.

It was after the victory of the collective body that the phenomenon of the queue appeared in Russia with all its classic attributes: numeration (the person's number in line was usually written on the hand); the periodic roll call and ruthless elimination of anyone who stepped away for a moment; a strict hierarchy (those standing behind were supposed to obey those standing in front); the quantity of goods allotted per person (this was also decided collectively), etc.

The time of interminable lines began. People stood in line for everything—for bread, sugar, nails, news of an arrested husband, tickets to Swan Lake, furniture, Komsomol vacation tours. In communal apartments people waited in line for the toilet. In overcrowded prisons people queued up for a turn to lie down and sleep. According to statistics, Soviet citizens spent a third of each day standing in lines.

"We go to the lines like we go to our jobs!" my grandmother used to joke. The Russian word sluzhba, job or service, implies not only work (in an office, a factory, or, before the Revolution, for the gentry) but a church service. And in the Russian Orthodox Church there are no pews, people stand during the service.

"I stood through an all-nighter."*

"I stood three hours for butter."

The ambiguity of such dialogues is obvious. No, it was not only for butter and nails that people stood in endless lines. The queue was a quasi surrogate for church. Through the act of standing up, standing up for, through, and in and on lines [i.e., in all senses of the word "to stand"trans.] regularly for several hours, people participated in a sort of ritual, after which, instead of the Eucharist and absolution of their sins, they received foodstuffs and manufactured goods.

The collective body was steadily ritualized by queues. It was taught order and obedience, and rendered maximally governable. At mass demonstrations, show trials, Party congresses, and soccer games the collective body was allowed to express the orgiastic side of its nature: it applauded stormily and raged, it shuddered with countless orgasms. But on ordinary workdays the line awaited it. Gray and boring, but inescapable, the line dissected the body into pieces, pacified and disciplined it, gave people time to think about the advantages of socialism and about the class struggle; and in the end they were rewarded with food and goods.

In essence, during the Stalin years the populace engaged in a daily rehearsal for the Line of all Lines, in which virtually the entire collective body would stretch itself out and in so doing mark the end of the stormy era of the "Uprising Masses." The occasion for such a line arose on March 5, 1953, when the heart of the People's Father and Great Empiricist of the Masses stopped beating.

For three days, Stalin's body lay on view in its coffin in the House of Unions in central Moscow so the people could say farewell. The enormous line to see Stalin stretched through half of the capital. Muscovites and pilgrims from cities and villages all over the country came in an endless stream. Russia had never seen such a queue.

Once again, as on Khodynskoe Field, the collective body was surrounded, this time by army trucks. On the last night a stampede began. Tears pouring from their eyes as they mourned their Leader, the crowd flattened people against the trucks, trampled them underfoot. No one knows exactly how many people perished that night, but corpses were taken away by the truckload.

The goal of the Stalinist era was achieved—the collective body organized itself into the Line of Lines, stood through it, and, having made a traditional sacrifice to the deceased leader, dissolved into obedient molecules. Stalin tranquilized the Russian people. The period of the "Tranquil Masses" began.

During the motley era of Khrushchev's Thaw, the ritual of standing in lines acquired definitive features, having cleansed itself of arbitrary individualism and non-canonic collective movements. During the reign of Brezhnev—the northern Buddha, as some called him—the line had already become a genuine trademark of developed socialism and occupied an honored place next to such profoundly symbolic phenomena as St. Basil's Cathedral, Russian caviar, the Russian soul, Lenin's mausoleum, and the Soviet military threat.

Like semiprecious stones polished by time, ritual phrases shone in all their sacred purity. No line could do without them:

"Comrades, who's last in line?"

"What are they giving out?"

"How much a head?"

"You weren't standing here!"

"I've been standing since five this morning!"

In the 1970s, the carefree days of "stagnation," people no longer stood for butter and sugar, which were in adequate supply thanks to the wise policies of détente and cheap Soviet oil. Instead, they waited in line for "imports": American jeans, German shoes, Italian knitwear. They waited happily, with humor, in a familial atmosphere that was even rather cozy. After an hour of togetherness waiting in line, the man in front of you in a leather cap with a tanned, friendly face might tell you stories of his dangerous work as a geologist in the far north, about a bear hunt that almost turned tragic, about the ecological problems of the northern rivers, about fantastical sunsets in the taiga and songs around the campfire with a guitar. The woman standing behind you, dressed in a colorful sweater, her eyes slightly swollen from tears, would begin with the standard phrase: "All men are the same," and then tell you about her divorce (which finally went through the day before yesterday) from her alcoholic husband, who shamelessly drank up her mother's life savings (an invalid of labor!) and her father's too (a hero of the battle of Stalingrad!). All of this seamlessly flowed into the roll call carried out by some decently dressed, slightly nervous pensioner, most likely a former lieutenant-colonel. An hour later, having paid the government a trivial sum, you joyfully hid the desired foreign-label item in your briefcase....

But, unfortunately, Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.

The twilight 80s arrived. The empire crawled slowly toward collapse. Every year, the provision of the collective body with essential goods worsened. The many-headed caterpillar no longer wound its way waiting for Levi Strauss and Salamander shoes but for sausage and butter.

The hysterical era of perestroika began. The jokes and soulful confessions once heard in line dwindled. A morose readiness for new hardship appeared on faces. People expected endless queues, four-figure numbers on their hands, days and days of standing. Old people recalled the war years, the siege of Leningrad and its daily 125-gram bread ration, they shared their survival experiences. But what came crashing down on the collective body in the beginning of the 1990s turned out to be scarier than the Leningrad blockade.

It was the atom bomb of a market economy.

After its raucous explosion, people standing in lines discovered three terrible truths:

1. Money is real. 2. The people standing next to you in line have different abilities. 3. There are not three kinds of sausage, but thirty-three. Or even 333. The queue shuddered and began to waver. Entrepreneurial citizens who wanted to open their own stores and sell sausage, rather than stand in line for it, immediately left its ranks. They were followed by those active citizens who wanted to make money in the stores of the new sausage entrepreneurs.

Those who remained continued to wait heroically. When the new stores opened, not with 333, but only ten types of sausage, the line split up into ten small lines. It turned out that people could choose their sausage. The Soviet line couldn't handle the ordeal of choice. When another novelty like Snickers or Bounty appeared on store shelves, queues rapidly shortened. The massive influx of German beer, Royal liquor, and women's stockings simply did it in, and the line caved.

The collapse of the line was much more painful for the collective Soviet body than the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the loss of the queue people lost an important therapeutic ritual of self-acknowledgment which had been honed and polished over the course of decades and had become a daily necessity, like drugs for an addict. Then, suddenly, there were no drugs. The collective body experienced a terrible withdrawal: furious demonstrations under red flags began, evolving into desperate clashes with the police, the ridiculous attempt at the first coup, newspapers shrieking about an "American occupation of Russia," the mass conversion of former communists to Russian Orthodoxy, and the creation of Committees for National Salvation from the Antichrist to Coca-Cola, etc. But all of this could not compensate for the loss of the line—the absinthian agony was too painful. The collective body grew smaller every day and, like some living Blob in a horror film, it frantically tried to figure out what else to transform itself into.

Its last incarnation was the Supreme Soviet of Russia. On September 21, 1993, Yeltsin dissolved the Collective Body. Hollywood-style convulsions began: red-brown goo oozed over the white marble of Moscow's White House, crowd scenes sprang up, the area of the film shoot was solidly cordoned off. Soon, as the genre requires to terrify the viewer, the blob broke through the cordon. It dribbled into trucks and set off to capture the television station, probably wanting to burble to the whole world: Give us back our Queue!

On October 4 the third and last signal event in the life of the Collective Body took place. Several tank salvos put an end to its history. The wounded blob/monster was evacuated from the burned White House; the evacuation took the form of that very same queue. Not a small one either. Watching the holdout members of the Supreme Soviet file out of the White House, one's heart sank. The era of the "Great Standing Masses" was departing, departing forever. Every departure, especially under the barrel of a gun and with hands raised, provokes nostalgia. You start remembering things. But not the number on your hand, not the elbows in your ribs, not the hysterical cries: "Only three per person!" You remember other things. Pleasant things.

1971. The beginning of summer. Moscow is awash in poplar down. I'm fifteen years old. There's an extraordinary event near our apartment on Lenin Prospect: the neighborhood store, Fish, has black caviar. There's a small line, about a two-hour wait. I'm standing in it. My parents are away, on the Black Sea. I have a ton of money—forty rubles. For half this sum I can buy a kilo of caviar and treat my girlfriend Masha. About an hour and a half later I reach the counter, but some corpulent caviarphiles push me out of the line. One more minute and the death sentence will sound: "Boy," someone will say, "you weren't standing here." But I'm saved by our neighbor, nicknamed Pear for the extraordinary shape of her body, which widens down below. With two swerves of her enormous ass she shoves the people at the head of the line and pushes me back to the counter.

"One kilo!" I exhale, thrusting forward my fist with the crumpled twenty rubles.

"Our norm is half a kilo!" the sweaty salesgirl brays at my face.

"Give him a fucking kilo, goddammit!" Pear shouts for the whole store to hear; turning to the line, she adds for appearance sake, a placating explanation: "They've got a regular infirmary at home! Everyone's sick!" The salesgirl belligerently tosses two greasy paper packages at my chest. Each contains half a kilo of black caviar. Hugging them, I make my way out of the store and on to the street, turn the corner, and go up to Masha's window. It's open. A breeze flutters the curtain.

"Masha," I call.

Masha appears. She's wearing a sleeveless dress of light, silvery silk. I show her my trophies. Smiling, she taps a finger to her temple.

Soon we are sitting on the windowsill. Between us in a porcelain soup bowl is a mountain of black caviar. We eat it by the spoonful, wash it down with warm lemon soda, and kiss with salty lips....

Where is it all?

Where is the poplar down? Where is Masha? Where is the caviar?

Farewell to the Line.

Comrades, who's last in the queue?

*The same sentence could be translated as "I stayed through the all-night mass," or "I stood in line all night."

Copyright Vladimir Sorokin. Published as an afterword to a new edition of The Queue (New York Review Books). Translation copyright 2008 by Jamey Gambrell. All rights reserved.