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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

“A Circle of Friends,” a story in the collection In Plain Russian: Stories , is set in the Kremlin on the night of June 21, 1941, a few hours before Germany invaded Russia. Joseph Stalin has cultivated an image as a tireless servant of his people, but actually his silhouette...

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“A Circle of Friends,” a story in the collection In Plain Russian: Stories, is set in the Kremlin on the night of June 21, 1941, a few hours before Germany invaded Russia. Joseph Stalin has cultivated an image as a tireless servant of his people, but actually his silhouette before a lighted office window is a foam-rubber dummy. His moustache and pipe are props intended to make him look avuncular. Stalin actually lives in a doorless, windowless room reached by crawling through a safe with a door at both ends. His need for the companionship of a woman is satisfied by periodic sexual encounters with a cleaning lady whose identity is not known and does not matter.

Entertaining a belief in the emotional health of gathering with a few close friends, Comrade Koba receives a group who, like Koba himself, are easily identified with officials of the Soviet Union in the early 1940’s. For example, Koba’s Ukrainian peasant friend is someone called Nikola Borshchev, that is, Nikita Khrushchev. The circle of friends undertakes to entertain Comrade Koba while controlling their fear that they will somehow displease him, Koba’s displeasure being irrational, unpredictable, and very dangerous.

Early in the evening, strain results from the absence of Comrade Zhbanov, whose wife is dying in a hospital. When Koba has mastered his anger, he turns to a crossword puzzle. Unable to come up with the name of a huge prehistoric animal, Koba telephones an important scientist who will know the necessary word, but he pretends he wants the word because he believes the reintroduction of the animal will lead to increased production of milk and meat for the Soviet people. Pleshivenko, the scientist, furnishes the word while falling all over himself in admiration of Koba’s genius in conceiving such an idea.

Further events in the evening follow the same pattern. When Koba utters high praise of Comrade Molokov, Molokov is terrified lest the praise somehow conceal irrational displeasure that will end in brutal vengeance. When Koba desires musical entertainment, Borshchev is made to dance to the piano accompaniment of Zhbanov, who has arrived, presumably from the hospital, and continues his music after being informed of his wife’s death. The evening grows late as people turn to card-playing and heavy drinking. Koba falls asleep. Word comes that Hitler, called “Dolph,” has invaded the country. At first no one dares wake him. When Koba is awakened and refuses to believe war has arrived, no one dares challenge him. Very late, Koba’s companions depart, after which he crawls through the safe with two doors to isolation. In his private room he confronts an ugly, true image of himself in a mirror. This he destroys with a pistol shot. The story soon concludes in an ironic disclaimer that the characters and incidents bear any relation to the actual.

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