In a State Department store in Tambov, a central Russian town, in 1929, Ivan Prisypkin (otherwise known as Pierre Skripkin), a former Party member, former worker, and now the fiancé of Elzevir Davidovna Renaissance, accompanies her mother, Rosalie Pavlovna, and a neighboring house owner, Oleg Bard, on a shopping spree in preparation for the wedding. Salespeople are hawking their wares, and Prisypkin is buying everything because his house must be like a horn of plenty and his future children must be brought up to be refined. His future mother-in-law worries about splurging, while Bard supports Prisypkin’s extravagance, pointing out, clearly in jest, that the triumph of the victorious proletarian class must be symbolized by a ravishing, elegant, and class-conscious wedding. Prisypkin comes face-to-face with Zoya Beryozkina, his former girlfriend, who demands an explanation for the shopping spree and, more important, for his abandoning her. “Our love is liquidated,” he proclaims, using a current official phrase mockingly, while Rosalie calls her a pregnant slut. A militiaman finally breaks up the confrontation.
In a hostel for young workers, there is lively talk about Prisypkin’s impending wedding and about the thorough change of his behavior. One of the workers, looking for his boots, is told that Prisypkin took them—for the last time, he swore—to impress his fiancé. They all criticize Prisypkin’s betrayal of his class, making fun of his awkward attempts to act like a member of high society. They also make fun of his mother-in-law, saying that her breasts weigh eighty pounds each. Some workers, however, chastise their colleagues for jealousy, noting that most of them would do the same thing if they had a chance.
Prisypkin shows up in brand-new shoes and tosses back the pair of worn-out boots he “borrowed.” The workers turn their backs to him, making all kinds of derisive gestures and performing mocking dances. Bard advises Prisypkin to ignore these vulgar manifestations, complaining that a man of great talent has no elbow room in Russia, what with capitalist encirclement and the building of socialism happening simultaneously in one country (again mocking common official phrases). Instead, he ought to learn more refined dances, such as the foxtrot, and endeavor to rise above the riffraff. As the workers continue to harass Prisypkin, he angrily retorts that they all are fighting for a better life, after all. By bettering himself materially, he now firmly believes, he will raise the living standards of the whole proletariat. At that moment a voice announces that Zoya tried to kill herself.
Undeterred, Prisypkin proceeds with the wedding, assisted ably by Bard. The festivities take place with all the pomp of the rich. The wedding guests frolic, utter snide remarks, and act according to their nature. When the ushers try to calm them, a fire starts, and many guests perish in the fire. The firemen find only charred corpses, with one person unaccounted for.
The scene shifts to an undetermined place fifty years later. In 1979, much is changed. There is an amphitheater set in modernistic surroundings. All persons are nameless, clad in sterile white attire, communicating with each other in a manner typical of a futuristic society. They are puzzled by a discovery of a frozen male body, and they have no idea who it might be. All they can see, after an X-ray examination, is that he had calloused hands. They decide to thaw out the body. It turns out that it is Prisypkin, the only person who survived the wedding fire fifty years before. Doused by plenty of water, he was able to survive half a century in a frozen state.
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is bewildered by the people around him and by the state in which he finds himself. He is filthy. His corner is like a pigsty, littered with cigarette butts and overturned bottles, recalling a carousing wedding celebration. The only person he can vaguely recognize now is Zoya, who survived her suicide attempt. She brings him some books he requested, but he rejects them as crude propaganda, wanting something “to pluck at his heartstrings.” He finally finds something to his liking, while Zoya remarks that she might have died for this skunk.
Because of enormous public curiosity about the discovery, Prisypkin is placed in a zoo cage. The spectacle is replete with musicians, spectators, and many reporters. When the cage is opened to view, the zoo director explains that they found two bugs on the thawed-out body—Bedbugus normalis and Bourgeoisius vulgaris. The only difference is that the first gorges on a single human being, while the latter gorges on all of humanity. While the proletariat is writhing and scratching itself to rid itself of filth, its parasites build their nests and make their homes in the dirt. Prisypkin is used as an exhibit of the bygone era of filth. The era and the Bourgeoisius vulgaris are totally extinct. The signs on the cage—Caution: It Spits! No Unauthorized Entry! and Watch Your Ears: It Curses!—delight the crowd.
When Prisypkin looks at the audience, he expresses his bewilderment and asks heart-rending questions, such as why is he alone and why is he suffering, calling upon the spectators to join him. To forestall possible harm to them, especially to children, the cage is covered again and the director calms the spectators by explaining that the insect (Prisypkin) is tired and is having hallucinations because of the lights. He will recover tomorrow and they can come and view him again.