The main characters:
Sergei Ilyich Tatarnikov: a dissolute and disaffected sixty-year-old historian.
Roza Crantz: a middle-aged academic, an art historian and culturologist, enthusiastic about the fall of Soviet Communism, ambitious, and keenly attuned to Western intellectual currents.
German Basmanov: a seasoned Party functionary who has adroitly exploited the transition to post-Soviet politics and business life. He has recently been named the director of the Russian branch of “Open Society.” (“Open Society” functions in the novel both as an undisguised reference to the role played in early post-Soviet Russia by George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and also as an emblem for the author’s polemics with the philosophy of Karl Popper.)
Note on names: The names borne by many secondary and tertiary characters in the novel are in Russian comically, satirically emblematic. One of these characters, Lyusya Svistopliasova, whose surname indicates riotous–in her case, often sexual–abandon, has been given a newly “anglicized” name in this translation (Lyuda Laiséncheskaya). Father Pavlinov’s surname is based on the Russian for “peacock.” Russians address and refer to one another formally by first name and patronymic:Tatarnikov is Sergei Ilyich; he will refer to his wife Zoya as Zoya Tarasovna. Russians also form a great variety of diminutives from first names (Roza– Rozochka, Sergei–Seryozha, Sonya–Sonechka); the use of diminutives by strangers and subordinates is considered presumptuous and insolent.
The scene: The bar of Moscow’s Dom uchenykh (“Scholars’ House”) during a morning break in a scholarly conference in the early 1990s. Tatarnikov has just learned from Crantz that Jacques Derrida has recently visited Moscow for a public dialogue titled “A Breath of Freedom” organized by Le Monde diplomatique. Crantz, Tatarnikov knows, has already been invited to Washington to give a six-month lecture series on post-Soviet art, and she is among the leading candidates for the first prize grant to be awarded by the Foundation for Thought on Critical Issues. Tatarnikov, Crantz understands perfectly well, would not even have been invited to the conference at Dom uchenykh if not for the influence of his friend Father Nikolai Pavlinov. Tatarnikov has proposed a round of vodka; Crantz has declined, but Tatarnikov proceeds to order a two-hundred-gram glass for himself.
The barmaid poured him vodka, and Sergei Ilyich took it up with an accustomed, firm grip that was even elegant in its way. The professor lifted the glass smoothly to his lips, looked at Crantz, winked at her for some reason, and poured the vodka straight down his throat. He didn’t wince, he didn’t grunt like a street drunkard, but smiled sheepishly. Don’t hold it against me, that smile said, yes, I like my vodka, there aren’t many pleasures left to me, but I do have this one. In other circumstances Crantz herself would gladly have joined him in a glass–she was no prig–but just now, looking at the historian Sergei Tatarnikov, a pathetic man with a glass in one hand and a perfectly idiotic grin on his haggard face, she found the very thought of liquor repulsive. Russian swinishness, she thought, in the flesh. After all that’s been said, after all that’s been written, people still just do not get it. They think that’s all about drunks lying in puddles, but it’s not: the true face of Russian swinishness isn’t the drunken tramps on the street or the beggars at train stations–it’s first and foremost the so-called intelligentsia. How could a bearer of high culture let himself go like that? What brought this old man to this state? Was it because he never sought anything new and accepted things exactly as they were? He’d lived a whole lifetime on a research-institute salary, made himself a warm little niche, not too drafty, not too cramped. He’d socialized with no one but half-dozing professors exactly like himself and produced one article per year. Times changed, he couldn’t handle real life, and so he gave up. What exactly was he good for, if the truth be told?
The aging man with the red nose sitting opposite Roza, with his limpid and sheepish eyes, lifted his empty glass and motioned to the barmaid.
“That’s enough, Sergei Ilyich, you’ve already drunk your two-hundred gram ration, more in fact–she filled that glass right to the brim. You’ve drunk a whole quarter-liter of vodka.”
“But Rozochka! I’m not a quarter-liter man, you know.”
“So what are you, then? A half-liter man?”
“Well, yes, a half-liter man is probably what I am. Not a quarter-liter, anyway.”
Another glass of vodka appeared, and Sergei Ilyich poured it down his throat–once again with dignity and decorum. He heeled over slightly to one side, then made an effort and righted himself. Sergei Ilyich now resembled an abandoned red-brick barracks with all its windows broken. A building like that mars the landscape, utterly useless, aggressive, a reminder of times that no one now cares to recall. It will undoubtedly be torn down to make room for sexy new edifices of glass and concrete. It stands today in a final flush of arrogance, curmudgeonly and unwanted, bristling with sharp, red corners, peering out the black holes of its window openings. Sergei Ilyich frowned, composing his thoughts to continue the conversation.
“Right, then. Derrida–what is he?” he asked defiantly. “An original philosopher or a mediocre compiler? A thinker or a typical boor?”
“How can you even say that? We’re talking about Derrida! A world-renowned figure!”
“That’s not saying much. Bill Clinton is world-renowned, too, and he’s a dunce. If a philosopher’s original, then let’s hear some simple, intelligible propositions. Then it’s a simple matter. Let’s say you had to explain Plato. That’s actually–hold your fire!–simple, because it’s definable. The cave, the eidos, the idea. Now can you say anything equally intelligible about Derrida or can’t you?”
“Of course, I can. Discourse, deconstruction, the paradigm.”
“What’s that you’re saying? No, no, no. A man like me needs something comprehensible. No esoteric language. The cave, the eidos, the idea!”
“Discourse, deconstruction, the paradigm.”
“Gobbledygook! Deconstruction! Destroying things is not like building, it takes no brains at all. Rozochka, look: Plato has the entire cosmos explained. And without nonsense, without hot air. No ‘discourse,’ no ‘paradigms’ about it!”
“But it was Plato who first came up with ‘paradigm.'”
“Don’t interrupt! Plato came up with all kinds of things!” Sergei Ilyich, losing the thread of their discussion, banged the table with his fist. “You’re just repeating what everyone else says. You act–no offense–but you act like a prostitute!”
“You’ve lost your mind! You alcoholic!”
Crantz’s near-sighted, somewhat protuberant eyes popped out even further than usual as she stared hard at Tatarnikov. Sergei Ilyich was surprised to find himself recalling Crantz’s nickname–“the google-eyed fat-ass.” He was suddenly both amused and embarrassed.
There was a pause.
“Oh, forgive an old fool,” Tatarnikov said at length. “It’s been an awful day.” He hesitated, but then said honestly: “I’ve been drinking since this morning. Had an argument with the wife. She has a point, you know, Rozochka, don’t go blaming her,” Sergei Ilyich added for some reason, although Crantz’s sympathies were entirely on the side of his wife. “Living with me is no picnic, either. You have to understand,” he went on, “the scary thing about an open society is that its aims are all too open. So open that you can’t even call them aims. And that’s a problem. You can’t have a society without an inward aim, a secret aim. Take my word for it as a historian: a society cannot cohere without some kind of aim. It just can’t. Why should it?”
“So I take it, Professor, that you don’t believe in altruism, or in enlightenment.”
“Enlightenment has completely comprehensible aims,” said the drunken Tatarnikov. “Absolutism and colonization. But what would you call what we’ve got?”
“A struggle against totalitarianism. The elimination of communist dictatorship. The aim is a society free of ideology. A banker helps an intellectual, the intellectual helps a farmer, the farmer helps a construction worker, and all without ideology. Life is organized by the laws of the market, that is, the laws of mutual respect and advantage.”
“So that’s what our aim is. Our aim is to put the investigators off the scent. ‘Without ideology’ means never tracking down the guilty.”
“Why must there be guilty parties?”
“I can foresee the difficulties a future historian will face. A historian is an investigator, understand? He’s supposed to notice everything. But how can you distinguish one from another now? A sausage maker, an oil executive, a general–and all of them equally open, so open that you can’t make out a single thing. If, God forbid, something were to happen, there’s no one to answer for it, everyone’s as alike as boots, there’s no one to take the heat. Now in Plato’s republic, everything is clear: if something happens, the culprit’s found in no time. The pool of suspects, so to speak, is obvious. Just like it is with the wife and me,” Tatarnikov returned to the topic that was troubling him. “Why is it so easy to understand Zoya Tarasovna’s position? Because apart from me, there’s no other possible culprit in our family.”
“What is it that you think could ‘happen,’ Sergei Ilyich,” asked Rosa Crantz, who had an approximate idea of what was likely to happen.
“Could be anything . . . ” The drunk Tatarnikov gave free rein to his imagination. “You, for example, might write a denunciation of an adversary of yours. What do you think? Nothing simpler. Or Krotov and Tushinsky could have a falling out over Siberian oil1 and one of them ends up poisoning the other. These things happen in history–how could they not? Most likely, though, Basmanov will get the jump on all of them. Take a good look at that man, Rozochka! Soon as those oil derricks start getting privatized, there’ll be no stopping him! Who knows how much he’ll steal for himself! But I can guarantee you that no criminal investigation is going to come up with a damn thing. Imagine me under oath having to recall later who did what, who acted how? I’d get completely mixed up. Everyone’s in favor of freedom.”
“Maybe everything will turn out all right. Try taking it easy.”
“Maybe it will. But I have my doubts. If it comes to divvying up oil wells, every last partner will suddenly be expendable.” The historian was powerless now. “That’s the way open societies usually end up closed, Rozochka. Here, I’ll draw you a diagram . . .” Presently Sergei Ilyich spilled his coffee grounds out onto the plastic tabletop and started drawing a diagram in them with his spoon. “Let’s just sketch out a sort of map of the world. Here’s Europe. Look what an interesting pattern emerges.” He spread his coffee grounds further across the table and continued drawing in them. “Here’s West Germany, and here’s West Berlin . . . That was a closed society, walled in. Well, it was, wasn’t it? Down comes the wall, and that society opens up. It’s open now. Right. Look what happens next. It merges with another open society, and even with a third.”
Perhaps Tatarnikov had no gift for drawing, or perhaps he had had too much to drink, but his diagram refused to jell. In short order he managed to smear the entire tabletop in an attempt to map France, strayed off the edge and dropped his spoon to the floor.
“You know,” Tatarnikov wheezed, bending to the floor for the spoon and turning red from the effort, “I’m not fit for debates like this one. Progressive ideas are a young man’s game. A young generation arrives, calls for progress, twenty years fly by, and the next young generation arrives, and it, too, wants progress. Then it’s the next one’s turn–give us progress. And the next one’s, and that one, too, must have fresh progress.”
I wonder if he’ll stop himself or not, thought Crantz. My God, he’s got himself worked up. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t have the faintest idea, our poor pensioner. You don’t get it, do you, you old fool? Why do you suppose Father Nikolai brought you here in the first place? He’s just casting around for someone to write his presentations for him when they elect him chairman of Open Society, someone who’ll feed him crib sheets. The historian’s got it all figured out, only he’s got it all wrong. Basmanov won’t stay long at Open Society, it’s not enough for him, it will cramp his style. What’s he want with an oil well in Siberia, either? You dusty old bookworm. There was already talk in the hallways today that Basmanov’s going to end up the speaker of Parliament. That’s why everyone gathered in such a rush for this meeting. They can sense that something even bigger is at issue, that today’s meeting is a kind of dry run–you have to be seen, you have to rub shoulders with the right people, and maybe they’ll bring you aboard for the real show. That’s where all this is leading: the new Duma. That’s what’s on the table today: the portfolios of the next Duma committee chairs. Open Society is just a springboard as far as Basmanov is concerned. What else does he need it for? After all, the president of British Petroleum had been quite clear today: The very fact that a figure with the political stature of German Basmanov is overseeing our program of joint cultural endeavors gives us ample cause for complete confidence in their success. There you have it. All of this is nothing but election campaigning for Basmanov; he’s on his way to higher things, higher and higher! People are already speculating about who will take over Open Society from him–and it’s no surprise that the smart money’s on Father Nikolai Pavlinov. Distributing grants is just the thing for a priest, right up his alley. That’s what the real score is, while this alcoholic goes on diagramming things on the table. Can’t stop himself. He’s a historian, but he can’t even see the simplest historical realities. But Tatarnikov had, in fact, stopped drawing. Embarrassed, he inspected the table he had smeared end to end, then spread wide his ruddy hands.
“If you look around, though, where are all the old progressives today? Long since collecting their pensions, that’s where. Now you’ll object that that’s exactly what makes the world go round, that’s why it moves forward. But I tell you this: to each will be given according to his faith: anyone who believed in progress will be shunted into retirement by other progressives. As for me, I spent my whole life sitting on a Russian oven with my glass of vodka–no one’s going to dispatch me any further than that oven. You’re how old? Forty-three? So maybe you have another eight or nine years to go, then it’s your pension, grandkids–where’s the progress in that? You want to know where progress is good? The Côte d’Azur, Biarritz . . . You hear lots of good things about Los Angeles . . . New York, of course, is a progressive place. Now where’s your apartment? Mnevniki, isn’t it?2 There’s no progress in Mnevniki. Sure, there are decent supplies now: you can get kefir, you can get your ryazhenka.3 But there’s no progress. So what we have here, Rozochka, is a certain division of duties: some people serve the cause of progress, others reap its benefits. You, I see, are happy to serve, but old coots like me are happier lying around on our ovens. No offense, but I’d rather lie down for a ruble then run myself ragged for two.”
What do you mean, for two?, Crantz wanted to shout at him, but for some reason she didn’t feel like shouting. Obviously, though, she wasn’t in it for anything like two rubles, but for an incomparably more convincing figure: it was all about connections, about having a good name in circles she cared about, and a great deal else that didn’t readily come to mind. So what if it came to a divvying up of portfolios, so what? If intellectuals approached the situation rationally, in a businesslike way, they, too, stood to gain considerably. The thing to do was to exploit the moment skillfully and gain some international stature. Yes, for now she was here, but tomorrow it would be the Sorbonne. So what if Basmanov had set his sights on Parliament, and Father Nikolai had set his on Open Society? She had an aim, too: participation in world culture, not the worst aim you could have. Why, just last year Jacques Derrida had told her–her, personally: any time you find yourself in Paris, come see me right away. But try getting all that through to Tatarnikov, the drunken boor! He wouldn’t hear her, wouldn’t understand, and then he’d say something vile. Something like, “So you think Derrida’s going to pay you a pension? You think if he ran into you again he’d even recognize you?” And what was she supposed to say to that? What could she say to that drunkard that would put him in his place?
And the longer the culturologist pondered Jacques Derrida and her pension, the more bitter her thoughts became. Plato–the hell with him, he’d been dead for ages, but Derrida was alive and kicking, more was expected of him. Derrida wouldn’t give you so much as a glass of water in your old age, wouldn’t even spring for a suppository. And what about truth and progress? Well, what was truth? Yes, obviously, Derrida was no Christ, one couldn’t see him going to the cross for his beliefs–for that matter, he had no beliefs worth hauling him up on a cross for: he was sitting on a beach somewhere eating Breton oysters and washing them down with a nice chilled wine. What was truth? If it even exists somewhere, that truth, thought the Russian enlightener in despair and anguish, then in all likelihood it resides in us, in the Russian intelligentsia, which has adopted Western values on faith and serves them fanatically, religiously. We live in poverty and obscurity, but we are passionately, selflessly devoted to a single idea: Western European civilization! Oh, that magical concept! In our eyes, it’s tantamount to honor, conscience, freedom, and human rights! To serve civilization and progress, and if necessary, even to die for them! Russia is the existential outpost of Western civilization! So what if he betrays me, that faithless Derrida! So what if he abandons me? So what if he doesn’t even recognize me and walks right past me on a Parisian street and disappears behind the doors of an expensive restaurant? So what if he goes on heedlessly eating his oysters? So what? It’s going to be me–me, not him–who bears the truth of the struggle for progressive ideals. Even if everyone forgets that? Even if everyone turns away?
Suddenly she remembered Lyuda Laiséncheskaya, a cunning young schemer, a crass beauty with outrageously long legs, a parvenu and intriguer. An uneducated, utterly uneducated wanton girl. After colliding with Roza Crantz in the hall at their institute, Lyuda Laiséncheskaya had said to her: “Rozochka, you look so glum. Is it your period? Or on the contrary–are your periods over forever? Rozochka, don’t go and fade on us!” It was inconceivable that Lyuda Laiséncheskaya could be another bearer of the truth of existential progress. Just then it dawned on Crantz that Laiséncheskaya would undoubtedly be the first winner of a prize grant from the Foundation for Thought on Critical Issues. Oh, of course, of course that was why Yasha Shaizenshtein had told her the other day, “That Laiséncheskaya’s remarkable! The girl’s really developing!” At the time, all Roza could do in response was to stare at him wide-eyed with wonder. Of course, Yasha, the joker, for whom nothing on earth was sacred, said: “Don’t bug your eyes out like that, they’ll pop one day!” And Roza immediately recalled her cruel nickname: the google-eyed fat-ass! Laiséncheskaya herself must have come up with that–who else could it have been? Little bitch!
“Bastards!” she suddenly blurted out, “Scheming bastards!” She was surprised to hear herself shouting now. “Intriguing little bastards!”
And the drunken professor Tatarnikov ordered another glass of vodka for himself and put his arms around her plump shoulders. And Crantz immediately began telling him everything, from the beginning. She told him about Father Nikolai Pavlinov, the ecumenist and careerist, who was evidently sleeping with Laiséncheskaya–this so-called priest!–which was why he sent her to deliver lectures at the Vatican, and about the director of the Institute for “thought on critical issues” Yasha Shaizenshtein, who obviously wanted to sleep with Laiséncheskaya, too, and to that end was prepared to compromise on his principles, and about Golda Stern, her closest female friend, who was of no account whatever as a co-author but still insisted on fifty percent of every honorarium. She very nearly told him about the fashionable thinker Boris Kuzin, who had spent a night with Roza and then called his wife the next morning, the coward, and lied to her that he had been visiting the artist Struyev until very late and had decided to spend the night there, and then asked her solicitously what he should buy her for breakfast, some yogurt or diet cottage cheese. Diet cottage cheese! Oh, men, oh, the whole wretched lot of them! Oh, the typical wretched Moscow philistine, humiliated by his kitchen, his salary, and his wife! “Sergei Ilyich, do you have any idea!” was all Roza Crantz could say.
“Scum!” Sergei Tatarnikov concluded, and then asked softly: “Rozochka, what do you say to sharing a round with me? Just a hundred grams?”
“Hypocrites!” the culturologist moaned, and the historian smoothly slid a glass to her elbow.
“Well, as far as Nikolai is concerned, I know the whole story. The blame, Rozochka, lies with our horrible socialist childhood. The man grew up in poverty and hunger, and now he can’t possibly get his fill. He eats quite often, you might even say he eats constantly, but he’s never satisfied. He’s a holy-minded priest, of course, but he’s drawn to progress, to the fruits of civilization. And here you go: civilization! You wanted it, here it is, take it, feel it!”
“Traitors!” Roza said, and downed her vodka in one gulp. Meanwhile the historian shouted in the deserted bar:
“They’ve made their beds, now they can lie in ’em! Should have thought it through before it was too late! Mount machine guns at the windows and maintain perimeter defense! Bursts of fire, bursts of fire, keep their heads down, the whores!” In Tatarnikov’s voice, too, there was a note of genuine passion and unfeigned grief. He imagined his wife Zoya Tarasovna banging a dinner plate in irritation and saying, “We’ve got thinkers everywhere now, but there’s no one to bring any potatoes home, is there, Herr Professor?” And after imagining Zoya Tarasovna and then his daughter Sonechka, saying to him with an indulgent smile, “Seryozha, you’re drunk again,” he shouted: “Bursts of fire! Point-blank!” And the drunken historian pounded the table with his fist.
Sergei Tatarnikov shouted, and Roza Crantz stared at his toothless mouth, her eyes bulging.
In the meantime, the conference session had concluded and the doors to the meeting room now opened up, releasing a crowd of intellectuals exhausted from their debates. German Basmanov, too, emerged from the doors and glanced around, quickly taking in the whole scene. Upon seeing Tatarnikov sitting with Roza Crantz, he smiled, his crowns gleaming. That’s all very well for them, the lazy things. Middle of the day, and they’re already three sheets to the wind. Meanwhile, of course, we’ve got enough work on our hands for an army.
There was, in fact, a great deal of work to do.
1Krotov and Tushinsky (fictional characters) are rival leaders of Russia’s so-called democratic opposition.
2Mnevniki (Khoroshevo-Mnevniki) is a real neighborhood in the North-Western district of Moscow. Originally a fishing village, the name Mnevniki derives from the old Russian name for burbot, ryba-mni, which the villagers supplied to the tsar. During the Soviet-era childhood of Sergei Tatarnikov, Mnevniki was regarded as a godforsaken, impoverished residential ghetto for the proletariat. To be assigned an apartment in the shabby and dreary Khrushchev-era high-rises of Mnevniki was regarded as exile from Moscow proper to a remote reservation.
3Kefir is fermented cow’s milk, sometimes mildly fermented. Ryazhenka is fermented baked milk.
From Uchebnik risovaniia (Moscow: OGI, 2006). Copyright 2006 Maxim Kantor. Translation copyright 2007 by Timothy D. Sergay. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.