Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
I. Grekova’s good-humored but pessimistic novella, Ladies’ Hairdresser, uses the Socialist Realist tradition of focusing on the workplace and work relationships as the core of the individual’s life. In the Soviet tradition, work is the very best part of life, and there is no such thing as an undignified or boring job. The narrator, Marya Vladimirovna (more formally, “Professor Kovaleva,” when she is pulling rank), appears to belong to the elite of Soviet society: She is the head of a computer institute and (like the author) a recognized mathematician. Yet she lives, almost literally, in a pigsty. When she calls her lazy, good-humored sons “pigs,” they slyly and literally agree with her, quoting from a standard reference work: “‘Female pigs are not as irritable as males, but are just as courageous. Though their small fangs cannot inflict serious wounds they are no less dangerous than hogs, since they will not let go of the object of their wrath....’” At work, Marya is surrounded by coworkers of whom she is very fond, but who are of no help whatsoever.
One evening, exhausted and exasperated, she goes out to have her hair done. Even though the wait will be a minimum of two hours, for a “sheepskin” permanent wave, Marya is prepared to sit patiently. Always keenly interested in people, she makes delicate psychological observations of the other customers, speculating about their lives, based on scraps of conversation and details of their appearance. For the reader, she is an expert guide to the nitty-gritty of Soviet life.
An apprentice hairdresser, Vitaly calls challengingly for his next customer, with the warning: “I am...capable of disfiguring you.” Marya is game even for that. Thus she becomes acquainted with a member of her own society who might as well be from another world.
Vitaly would seem to be a natural, though somewhat fey, Socialist hero: He approaches his work with tremendous seriousness, as though it were an abstruse branch of science. For a time, he dresses the hair of Marya’s secretary free of charge, in part as a favor to Marya, in part because the young woman’s beautiful, honey-colored hair has an “interesting texture.” His work is so exquisite that the bewildered mathematician is moved to poetry to do it justice. On the job, Vitaly’s professionalism, indeed genius, is frustrated by everything: his superiors, his clients, his coworkers, and the system itself, with its production quotas, complaint books, and graft (which must be paid even to keep a humble hairdressing job). The novel ends with the surprising announcement that this supreme artist of hairdressing has taken a job as an apprentice metalworker. After all of his tribulations, the young man himself is overjoyed at going into a new field (though one wonders whether his devotion will not be frustrated all over again—as are Marya’s best efforts, in her more privileged arena). The irreplaceable loss to the women of Russia is left unremarked.