A Memoir, Ego-grafii series, Polirom, 2007, 272 pages
Translation rights sold to: Ad Marginem Press (Russian Federation), Ediciones Akal S.A. & Foca (Spain), Hacca (Italy), KX - Critique & Humanism Publishing House (Bulgaria)
Everything i am writing here originates from a two‑sided, not necessarily unique experience. It is the immediate experience of a citizen at home in the Soviet milieu, on the one hand, combined with a literary, culturally‑acquired experience, on the other. They jointly define me as a product made in the USSR. It is virtually impossible for me to distinguish between the two. My narrative perspective, however, is that of Homo sovieticus, an undeniable product of that land and its culture. I therefore propose to avoid making any direct use of the intellectual paraphernalia I have since acquired.
I am going to attempt a sort of archaeological approach to daily life in the former Soviet Union, with the object of arriving at a metaphor for Soviet culture and civilisation. The ensuing text, bearing the unavoidable marks of a “heretical genre”, aims at a puzzle‑like synthesis of topics, heroes, situations, memories, objects and key words. Although each piece of the resulting text‑puzzle can be read separately, the whole can only be perceived by methodically assembling the jigsaw. The resulting construct makes no claim to being an exact replica of Soviet culture as we knew it, in terms of objectivity and accuracy. Rather it is an exercise in subjective, personal archaeology, primarily concerned with tracing the contours of a culture, with capturing its overall “mood”, so to speak, its recurrent thought‑ and speech‑patterns, in short, with sketching the Soviet cultural mentality. This archaeological exercise neither offers a key intended to foster understanding, nor does it pass moral or value judgments. It is simply intended to induce a familiarisation of sorts, with a view to helping each and every one of us to comprehend what the Soviet Union actually was, and – more to the point – what its absence actually means.
Recounting the daily life of past times automatically poses all the risks associated with nostalgia – there is no doubt about that. Yet nostalgia as a concept clashes with the very idea of Homo sovieticus for the simple reason that nostalgia is a form of past‑oriented utopia, whereas he operates with future‑oriented utopias. Moreover, nostalgia as a form of homecoming is well nigh impossible since for us there is no such thing as home anymore. Thus, if there is any nostalgia to speak of, it is not of the kind that embarks upon a reconstruction of the past, but rather of the kind that resolves itself in the attempt to record memories from the past. As nostalgia, at least in theory, is not so unrelated to irony – both operate with the joint contemplation of the object and the subject – I take the liberty of combining the two, and thus look back with a mixture of nostalgia and irony.
From time to time I feel the urge to book a ticket back to the USSR, and each time I have to remind myself such things are not on sale anymore. There is no train, no plane and no road that can take one back to the USSR, for the simple reason that the Soviet Union no longer exists. The only way for me to visit my country is by resorting to memory. The following text is the narrative reminiscence of that incredible adventure.
What would the Soviet citizen drink ? (I)
There is a standard answer to this question: the Soviet citizen would drink anything, and lots of it too. For starters. The Soviet citizen would designate as drink any liquid possessing the capacity to contribute a shade of colour to daily life, or, more often than not, to reveal and enhance the hidden dispositions of the soul.
To begin with, we perhaps ought to define the authentic drinker as such. Anyone can achieve a fair command of drinking, to a certain extent and for certain reasons, or simply in order to be admitted to a certain tusovka/circle. I can tell you in all honesty that the genuine drinker – and the Soviet drinker in particular – transcends such causes. We might say that, by and large, he is not even remotely affected by any of them. Any Soviet drinker worthy of the name drinks all by himself from early in the morning and needs no reason whatsoever to do so.
The most familiar drinks in the USSR were vodka, wine, and beer, not to mention Troynoy Odekolon and the Chipok concoction. It is, of course, beyond the scope of our present study to furnish information on the actual drinking procedure. Nor are we here concerned with the amounts of the aforesaid substances ingested. Back home, traditional drinks were partaken of in lavish quantities and on a regular basis, just like out there, for that matter. The only difference had to do with the packaging and the wide selection on offer. It was the unofficial industry turning out a wide range of improvised drinks that truly boomed in “the boundless land of my birth”. The Soviet citizen took his fate in his own hands. Sensing that the state denied him a satisfactory range of alcoholic beverages, he decided to carve out a drinking destiny for himself. An initial alcoholic samizdat thus came into being. It was orally circulated and observed scrupulously to the letter. Building communism without alcohol is like practising capitalism without advertising. While advertising is the engine of the market economy in capitalism, the driving force of communism was drinking. It is noteworthy that the Soviet state used to provide its citizens with the raw materials required for the quick and inexpensive production of the most ingenious concoctions. Since the resulting variety was simply staggering, one is at a loss as to where to begin.
Well then… Let’s start with beer. Drinking beer just for the sake of drinking beer is a complete waste of time. With the rare exceptions of having it with friends over some tarakana (i.e. smoked salt fish ; on entering any beer place in the Soviet Union one could recognise the familiar odour of fish). Drinking beer in a variety of combinations is, on the other hand, a pursuit more instructive by far – the future appears much brighter, and one experiences a sensation akin to growing wings.
Have you ever heard of Yorsh, one of the most popular drinks in the USSR ? Well, in the USSR mixing vodka into your beer is like adding salt to your soup. In the classic Yorsh, the ratio of 50g of vodka to 500g of beer is commonly observed. However, the proportions are known to fluctuate, depending on a variety of factors (climatic, psychosomatic, ideological etc.). Consequently, a combination based on a ratio of 250g to 250g is quite a frequent occurrence.
For those interested in some of the finer points governing such admixtures, we have a number of more nuanced recipes. One of them is the Rembrandt (also known as Here Come the Thrushes) : the vodka is poured into the beer, taking precautions to avoid mixing the two. If the vodka settles neatly on the bottom and all mixing has been successfully avoided, we are in the presence of a genuine Rembrandt. If this isn’t the case, then we’re stuck with a forged Rembrandt. A proportion of 50g of vodka to 200g of beer characterises an early Rembrandt, while a proportion of 200g of vodka to 100g of beer is the hallmark of a late Rembrandt.
Of further interest is the technique of Chasing the Bear into his Den. It is a simple enough technique : you take a pint of beer and drink it down in small gulps. The space vacated by each gulp is immediately replenished with vodka. The procedure is repeated until the initial amount of beer has been completely replaced with pure vodka. Chasing the Bear out of his Den is basically the same thing, the only difference being that beer has to replace the vodka. Another technique worth knowing about is Vodolaz. It involves the following steps : you drop a small glass of vodka into a pint of beer. The glass has to remain in an upright position. The pint is downed in one gulp, making sure the vodka is swallowed at the very end. In other words, as the Soviet saying goes, beer without vodka is like a wedding party without music. We should by all means mention here the Chipok. It is basically a Yorsh, that is, a mixture of vodka and beer, in which the pint is tightly covered with the palm of the hand prior to being vigorously knocked against the knee, with the aim of “fizzing up” the mixture. You don’t want to know the effect…
In praise of the Soviet tualet
Dedicated to Ilya Kabakov
There is hardly any space more conducive to intimacy in the life of the Soviet citizen than the tualet. (Allow me, as a token of my boundless respect for the convenience as such, as well as for the word designating it, to persist in employing the original Soviet term whenever referring to it in the present chapter : tualet.) It is, perhaps, the word that connotes the highest degree of intimacy in the vocabulary of any Soviet citizen. The tualet is where you alone and no one else but you go to solve those particular problems which no other person or agency can tackle in your stead. And I mean nobody – neither your father nor mother, neither your wife nor friend, not even the First Secretary himself can take your place in paying the mandatory visit you owe to the tualet. Your experience of the place is bound to mark you for life. The intimate relationship with the location and your perception thereof will be perpetuated in every nook and cranny of your inner self. Our individual awareness of the space in question went into the making of our national being. The Soviet tualet is part of an acquired commonwealth of experience, defining an essential trait of our spirit.
I cannot approximate with any degree of accuracy the experience a citizen of a Western capitalist state may have in repairing to the convenience under discussion, yet on my very first visit to a country of that description, the first thing to cause me a nagging feeling of discomfort were the toilets. What made me uneasy was not their squalor, since compared to their opposite numbers in the Soviet Union they were a genuine paradise of cleanliness, nor was it any encroachment on privacy, since most of them were scrupulously partitioned to fend off the inquisitive looks of fellow patrons. I nonetheless resented their absolute inability to conjure up the state of intimacy I expected of such a place. For the Soviet citizen that is an unacceptable failure. The tualet ought to be the epitome of collective intimacy in its purest form. The Soviet citizen is afflicted with instant constipation when confronted with the capitalist boudoir that passes for a toilet, for the simple reason that such a space fails to elicit any intimate response from him. Consequently, there are no memories of western toilets one could dwell on. And the absence of memories signals the absence of intimacy.
So what is so special about that particular place of perdition ? Well, I’ll try to let you in on a few things, the sort of things not commonly shared with others, as each of us tends to keep them to ourselves. Intimate memories are hard to put into words. Such things are the stuff one holds onto in order to remember and enjoy privately. Few attempt to narrate them, and of those few, only a very small fraction are reasonably successful in the attempt. Nonetheless, let me give it a try.
I ought to start by telling you that there are basically two types of Soviet tualet, which every Soviet citizen either loves or hates. All the same, regardless of the particular sentiment you entertain, you do relate intimately to both of them. The former type of tualet is the one in the komunal’ka. This is where you first encounter it and also where you come to experience your first moments of intimacy with that kind of space. The komunal’ka tualet is a space to be shared. It belongs equally to every one living in the house. That is to say, it is an area of shared intimacy, by no means limited to the intimate use of one’s own family. It’s where tyotya Klava also comes, as well as dyadya Volodya, just like the beautiful Marusya, and that pain in the neck Lyonya, as well as all the other twenty people living in the house. That place indiscriminately respects, services and puts up with each and every one of them. The tualet is essentially unbiased. One may occasionally hurt its feelings, yet it will never retaliate in kind.
Going to any tualet is an art in itself, yet going to the one in the komunal’ka should be counted among our most authentic rites of passage. This is where you become a sort of stalker/guide taking charge of your entire being. When going there you ought to know that, although you are alone, the neighbours are watching you. At any given time, there is bound to be at least one of them watching and passing judgement. “There he goes again. Bound to spend another half an hour in there…” “Reading novels, he is, or doing who knows what”. Indeed, when you go to the tualet, if you the treat the place with the respect it deserves, there are two items that you should take along. Your book and your roll of toilet paper. Toilet paper is never to be found in the tualet proper. It belongs in your room, where it is given pride of place. And it is to be used sparingly. Yet you should not assume that, having forgotten to take your roll of toilet paper, you are bound to end up in an embarrassing situation. Not at all. You’ll find in there, tucked in a nook, either a copy of last year’s Pravda, which will automatically double as reading matter should you feel thus inclined, or a sheaf of conveniently‑sized sheets, neatly cut out of the Konsomol’skaya Pravda by means of a pair of scissors. Tyotya Klava will see to it.
As for the book, there are no restrictions whatsoever governing your choice of reading matter. It’s entirely up to you. You have the freedom to read any book that might take your fancy. The tualet is the perfect reading room, as well as the place that ought to be credited with turning out the largest number of Soviet intellectuals, the most remarkable of them too. You should not succumb to the common misconception that our education is by and large the merit of the Soviet school, or of libraries such as “Nadezhda Krupskaya” or “V.I. Lenin”, or of some Lomonosov University or other. Granted, they did play a worthy part in our education. The tualet, however, beats by a long chalk any such educational and cultural establishments as far as our intellectual development is concerned. Therefore, whenever we express our gratitude towards the people and institutions that shape and educate us, we should not forget to give due thanks to this veritable sanctuary of Soviet culture – the tualet.
The second important tualet in our lives, as well as in the great Soviet civilisation, is the public tualet. This is an altogether different space, a different world we might say, where existence acquires a dramatically new meaning. At this level, experience is more intense, more carnal, more biologically focused. This is where the tualet penetrates your being through every pore. While in the first case collective experience was only assumed, remote, cognitively implied, yet not palpably manifest, in this second case collective experience is overwhelmingly immediate.
All over the country, from Kamchatka to Vilnius, from institutions such as schools to factories and plants, you will see whitewashed structures bearing on opposite corners, in large characters, the letters M and Æ (Men and Women, respectively). The classical design does away with doors, in favour of an L‑shaped wall sheltering the entrance and screening off the interior. Not that anyone would be even remotely curious to attempt viewing the interior in question. In the Soviet public tualet voyeurism is as good as non‑existent. This is not a place where people watch each other. Watching is sooner avoided, even resisted. Everyone’s eyes are on the lookout for the comfort provided by blind spots. In spite of all that, something strange happens. You start watching yourself through the eyes of others. You see yourself as seen by the others, you see yourself through their eyes, as it were. This is far more disturbing and gives way to a weird feeling you can’t exactly put your finger on.
On entering the premises, you had to act with great determination, walk briskly and watch your step. On occasions a certain degree of astuteness was required in order to accomplish the task you’d taken upon yourself. Sometimes you’d have to put it off, or even give it up altogether. You and the public tualet were pitted against each other in fierce combat, yet you had to respect it, for it was the place you couldn’t imagine life without. And gradually, the combat, the odour, the tualet’s very mode of existence came to be part of you.
In there, running along a wall, there was a length of gutter, sloping down at an imperceptible gradient (in the Men’s section, that is), into which water would be allowed to drip at very irregular intervals. If at all. That was the pissing area. On the opposite side there was a row of holes in the floor. I mean holes as in “black hole”. Each hole was flanked by sole‑shaped footrests in high relief. Everything in plain view. The protruding sole‑patterned footrests were designed as an encouragement for you to take the “eagle” position over the pit and thus aim with optimum accuracy. Now I can’t explain why, but the crux of the matter is that the Soviet citizen, although trained to aim accurately by the target practice routine to which he was subjected from his first years in school, would systematically fail to hit the pit at this particular location. The Soviet citizen’s crap simply refused to enter the hole and vanish into the Void, into that great Nothingness. It demanded greater respect than that, it yearned to abide among us and tell us that it, too, existed, just as we existed. And, mysteriously, it was invariably successful in its endeavours. It stayed above, among us. Of course, there’s no need for me to tell you that such decadent gimmicks as toilet paper were unheard of, and taps with running water were few and far between. One had to fight tooth and nail in order to survive the public tualet, and the theatre of combat was the tualet itself. You wanted to purge yourself of your excrement and cast the dregs of your being into the Void, but the excrement in question would put up a fight of incredible fierceness. The battle as such and the battlefield itself gradually came to be taken for granted. And if by reductio ad absurdum you found yourself in a tualet fitted with a pedestal (seat), then planting your feet on the pedestal was in the nature of things. The established matrix governing positions and hierarchies was not to be tampered with.
This most intimate space of the Soviet being doubled as the archive of the most authentic messages transmitted by the Soviet citizen to the great Soviet people at large. They were the kind of messages whereby the unsophisticated citizen communicated with the whole world. The messages were inscribed upon the inner walls of the tualet, which had long since ceased to be white. They would be written using whatever happened to be available, from chalk to ball‑point pen to faeces. As a rule, the messages dealt with fundamental topics, from love, e.g. ÌÀØÀ + ÂÎÂÀ = ËțÁÎÂÜ (Masha + Vova = love), to the most exquisite forms of profanity. It is at the level of profanity that the Soviet people’s innermost dispositions and highest aspirations find their truest expression. I would venture to say that in the Soviet Russian language there are a maximum of ten words and phrases synthetically expressing the Soviet personality and civilization in their entirety. Those words and phrases are not to be found in Lenin’s Complete Works, neither in Marx’s Capital, and still less in the syrupy writings of American Kremlinologists. They’re to be found exclusively upon the walls of the tualet.
I should like to add something else. You are, of course, familiar with Proust. What I want to tell you is that for the Soviet citizen nothing can play the part of Proust’s madeleines more appropriately than the tualet. That is how the tualet functions for us. The familiar odour of faeces, urine and vast amounts of chlorine, sometimes bringing spontaneous tears to your eyes, the familiar sight of white walls streaked with piss, footprints and vulgar inscriptions, the familiar rush of chilly air piercing you in winter are liable, even today, to stir in the Soviet citizen the most sordid, yet most cherished, memories. It is the tualet that conjures up the most secret memories, thereby enabling you to revisit your own life.
From the kukhnya to the ocheredi
Coming from western countries, my friends, who are a highly educated and academically inclined lot, are quick to point out to me, by way of reproach, that we in the USSR were unable to construct a civil society. I stand rebuked. Indeed, we did fail to construct a civil society even remotely akin to western civil society, yet I very much doubt that we needed it in the first place, since Soviet society marched to a different beat, with altogether different mechanisms coming into play in the process. We had an altogether different set of social gatherings to serve as “civil society”, and I do assure you that in our daily life they were ideally suited for the part.
The area primarily serving the purpose of bringing people together in club‑like structures to foster social dialogue, political debate, analysis, attitude and – it goes without saying – heavy drinking, was the kukhnya/kitchen. (The relationship between communism and the kitchen is a reality which all communist countries seem to share.) In the beginning we would assemble in komunal’ka kitchens. Subsequently the state provided us with apartments, each boasting its own separate kitchen. Why we needed kitchens in the first place was not for cooking, but for organising the aforesaid gatherings of Soviet “civil society”. The Party simply had to make such facilities available. We would get together, discuss, and immediately start drinking. The gathering as such was prompted by the rhetorical question commonly bandied about among friends : “Don’t you think drinking something might be the expedient thing to do under the circumstances ?” And we would all agree that, indeed, it was the expedient thing to do, and we would file into the kitchen, and the discussion would flow just as “immediately”.
Such gatherings were usually frequented by close friends, yet it was not uncommon for less familiar guests to join them. We took the liberty of discussing almost everything. We would discuss the position of our leaders with respect to foreign or domestic politics, and would even go so far as to question our intervention in Afghanistan. We would exchange information on who had managed to get hold of what books, what music they’d been listening to or acquired, what was the evolution of Sakharov’s condition, and what Radio Free Europe was saying. We would consider new methods for improving the system, and rather than raise ideological issues, we would object primarily to the State’s inability to provide us with consumer goods. The State, in its way, would tolerate us, would listen, and would provide us with an amount of goods sufficient to keep ideology‑related doubts within reasonable limits. In our hearts we all knew that we were ideologically superior to the class‑enemy, and our standard bearers, Marx and Lenin, couldn’t possibly be wrong. Granted, the Party did commit the odd faux pas, some of our leaders would make occasional mistakes, yet all this meant was that we could go back to the direction traced by the first revolutionaries. This point was also duly subjected to debate in the kitchen, the place where Soviet “civil society” was wont to gather.
Things did not stop there, however. The State would provide us with a further opportunity for assembly, which the citizens of a capitalist country could never have imagined, namely the ocheredi/queue. Queuing was a mode of existence, a hypostasis of any communist entity, the ultimate communist awareness of being, we might say. Those lacking such awareness have no idea what life is all about. The Soviet people were not altogether devoid of Russian inclinations, and thus they would often come to discuss such metaphysical matters as “Does God exist ?” or “What is the meaning of life ?” Various answers to those questions would be attempted in the kitchen. The vodka would flow, answers were quick to follow suit, and we would reach our conclusions. God, it was obvious, did not exist, since Soviet science had convincingly demonstrated His non‑existence. As for life itself, it was even more obvious that man only lived once, for the purpose of queuing. Consequently we would go on queuing.
What did people queue for ? Now, this is the wrong way of asking the question. You pose such questions in terms of Americans, since in principle they queue up during sales in order to consume things they do not actually need, but only believe they do. As far as the Soviet citizen is concerned, the question simply doesn’t make sense. The queue was a datum, a privilege obtained in the process of class struggle, and therefore we queued. Far from being just a means to an end, the queue was, first and foremost, a raison d’etre. In due time, quite naturally, you did come to find out what you’d been queuing for – as it was not uncommon for people to join a queue in the hope of making some worthwhile purchase only to find out in the end that they had been queuing outside the city information bureau.
There is such a thing as a genuine queue culture, including its own specialised vocabulary. For all their liberty and all their civil society they were unable to create the kind of affluence brought about by this our social institution. “Who’s the person after you ?” “Are you the last one in the queue ?” “Would you be so kind as to keep my place for me in the queue ?” “I’ll be back in a moment” “Hey, young man, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” “What are they selling here ?” And so on and so forth. At this point, I do not propose to explain the wealth of meaning implied by such utterances. Those who know are not ignorant of the matter, and those who do not will never find out. I could list countless phrases and situations which are truly remarkable. This is where new acquaintances were made, ideas and opinions took shape, group solidarity either came into existence or came to nothing. This is where I witnessed the power of the proletariat as well as its anger. This is where I learned what “being of one accord” and “together for better and worse” really meant. However, this is also where I witnessed the rage and triumph of the individualist spirit in action. This is where I learned the meaning of class conscience – the class conscience of the queue. It is a force capable of changing the world from its very foundations. The more is the pity that those capitalists managed to manufacture goods in such quantities as to exceed our capacity to queue. Mass production dealt a fatal blow to queue production, and in the process, we were transformed from superior‑conscience proletarians into pathetic consumers. The dictatorship of mass‑produced goods was stronger than the dictatorship of the queue. And thus, Soviet civil society relinquished their positions in order to watch the commercial break on television.
Translated by Florin Bican
“Born in USSR is a gripping and intellectually useful book. There are brilliant jokes in rich abundance, Ilf and Petrov are almost everywhere, and, generally, each layer of Soviet life is deconstructed into numerous facts and significant little stories, remarkably narrated by the debuting author. Beyond this appetising programme there are also very profound reflections, for instance, the analysis of the ratio between freedom and interdictions displays critical acumen and accuracy.”
(Daniel Cristea - Enache, Ziarul de duminica)
“This work owes its obvious freshness, in terms of the Romanian market, to a few tremendously banal truths, truths which were, however, repressed by the post‑communist cultural industry. Hold onto your seats : there was life under communism too ; there were people who laughed and danced under communism too ! And acknowledging this is not the same as forgetting the horrors of totalitarianism ! On the contrary : the work makes a significant contribution to the reinforcement of critical resistance to another hegemonic ideology : the projection of communism (and the East) as a new ‘Middle Ages’, a world of darkness, evil and savagery, a sort of primitive phase of humanity. Beyond these preconceptions, which continue to nurture some careers, Vasile Ernu’s work contributes to the development of a differential way of thinking, capable of conceiving far more complex things than Black and White, an exercise in the preservation and fructification of his own history while not ignoring its horrors. Vasile Ernu’s sympathy for ‘communism’, in fact his simple dialogue with the daily life of his own past, an invitation to make uninhibited comparisons, is dangerous only for dogmatic anticommunism, so provincial and predictable, peculiar to a culture at the periphery of capitalism, preoccupied with the internalisation of dominant ideologies, the Europe‑centred and capitalism‑centred ones. "
(Ovidiu Tichindeleanu, Observator cultural)
“Born in the USSR is a miniature encyclopaedia of daily life in the Soviet Union, a life not wholly lacking in enjoyable aspects. Some were creations of the regime, the pioneers’ camps, for instance ; others were created by the ‘Soviet people’ in the context imposed by the regime, like the picnics following the May Day parades and, finally, through a bizarre transformation of a phenomenon into its opposite, there were theoretically negative situations that morphed into pretexts for having fun : queuing up at the food shops and the discussions that took place there. Vasile Ernu talks ironically and gently about the small pleasures of the Soviet people.”
(Florin Constantiniu, Dosarele Istoriei)