A typical Mikhail Zoshchenko story is a four-to six-page sketch about a seemingly unimportant event in the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens. Most of his stories take place in Leningrad, and most of his characters come from the lower-middle class—managers, clerks, workers, artists—and the intelligentsia of both sexes, although peasants often appear as well. The episodes usually involve an exaggerated conflict in which the characters reveal their thoughts and attitudes about everyday reality. This dramatic conflict is presented in humorous tones that endear the characters to the reader; its resolution makes the reader chuckle, sometimes laugh aloud, but it seldom leaves him bitter, angry, or demanding decisive action.
This outward innocence, however, quickly dissipates after a closer look at the characters and their vexing problems. The reader realizes that the author does not always mean what he says and does not say what he means, and that much more lurks beneath the surface. In the story “Spi skorei” (“Get on with the Sleeping”), for example, a traveler has difficulties finding a suitable room in which to sleep, and when he does, his problems begin to unfold: A window is broken and a cat jumps in because it mistakes the room for a rubbish dump, a pool of water lies in the middle of the floor, there is no light (“you’re not thinking of painting pictures in it?” he is asked both innocently and sarcastically by the innkeeper), the traveler has to use a tablecloth for a blanket and slides down the bed as if it were an iceberg, and, finally, the room is infested with bedbugs and fleas. At the end of the story, a woman’s passport is returned to him by mistake. This comedy of errors, neglect, and incompetence is mitigated by the traveler’s last words that the passport’s owner “proved to be a nice woman, and we got to know each other rather well. So that my stay at the hotel had some pleasant consequences after all.”
The inconveniences portrayed in Zoshchenko’s tale are not tragic but rather amusing, and the author’s habit of soothing conclusions—whatever their motives—tends to smooth over the rough edges. In “Melkii sluchai iz lichnoi zhizni” (“A Personal Episode”), the protagonist, after realizing that women no longer notice him, tries everything to become attractive again, only to discover that he has grown old. It is all lies and Western nonsense, anyway, he consoles himself. “Semeinyi kuporos” (“The Marriage Bond”) shows a young wife who leaves her husband following a fight; after failing to find a suitable place to live, she returns to him. The author again moralizes, “There is no doubt, though, that this question of living accommodation strengthens and stabilizes our family life. The marriage bond is rather strong nowadays. In fact very strong.”
The husband in the story “Rasskaz o tom, kak zhena ne razreshila muzhu umeret’” (“Hen-Pecked”) falls ill and is about to die, but his wife will not let him die, as they have no money for a funeral. He goes out and begs for money and, after several outings, regains his health. “Perhaps, as he went outside the first time, he got so heated from excitement and exertion, that all his disease came out through perspiration.” In another story, “Bogataia zhizn’” (“The Lucky Draw”), a married couple win a huge sum in a lottery but become very unhappy because they have nothing to do afterward. In “Administrativnyi vostorg” (“Power-Drunk”), an assistant chief of the local police is so overzealous in his off-duty efforts to punish a poor woman who allowed her pig to roam the streets that he arrests his own wife because she interceded for the woman.
In story after story Zoshchenko makes seemingly insignificant events so important to his characters that they find in them the moving force of their lives. The reader, however—usually a person who has been exposed to such chicanery at one time or another—cannot help but understand that there is something basically wrong with one’s life when such trivial events, against which one feels so helpless, are often repeated in various forms, that such occurrences are not really trifles, and that the primary aim of Zoshchenko’s satire is not only to amuse or to exercise social criticism but also to point, rather subtly, at the philosophical meaning of existence.
Zoshchenko’s reputation primarily as a social satirist is still perpetuated by both the connoisseurs of his stories and the Soviet authorities who condemn him, the former saying that Zoshchenko’s criticism of the Soviet reality is justified and the latter that it is too harsh and ideologically motivated, even if sugarcoated with humor. There is no doubt that such an interpretation of his approach to reality is possible. Bureaucrats in particular are singled out for scorn. In “Koshka i liudi” (“The Stove”), a committee in charge of maintenance for an apartment building refuses to repair a fuming stove, pretending that nothing is wrong, even though one of them falls unconscious from the fumes. In “Bania” (“The Bathhouse”), checks for clothing are issued after the clothes are taken away, wrong clothes are returned, and there are not enough buckets. In the story “Butylka” (“Bottle”), a bottle lies broken on the street and nobody picks it up. When a janitor sweeps it aside, he is told by the militiaman to remove it altogether. “And, you know,” the author chimes in, “the most remarkable thing is the fact that the militiaman ordered the glass to be swept up.”
In perhaps Zoshchenko’s harshest criticism of bureaucracy, “Kamennoe serdtse” (“A Heart of Stone”), a director demands of his business manager a truck for his personal needs. When the manager tells him that no truck is available, the director threatens to fire him, but the manager retorts, “Now, if you were a product of the old order, an attitude like that toward your subordinate would be understandable, but you are a man of the proletarian batch, and where you got a general’s tone like that I simply can’t understand.” Nevertheless, the director succeeds in getting rid of the stubborn manager. The not-so-subtle implication here is that the revolution has changed little and that vulgarity (poshlost’) is as strong as ever. In all such stories, the bureaucrats, who seem to run the country, are satirized for their unjustified domination and mistreatment of their fellow men.
Seen through such a prism, Zoshchenko’s attitude toward social problems in his country two decades after the revolution can be seen as direct criticism. In fact, Zhdanov used exactly such an interpretation to attack Zoshchenko in 1946 for his alleged anti-Soviet writings. Singling out one of the stories written for children, “Prikliucheniia obeziany” (“The Adventures of a...
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