Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
After listening to the last two episodes, you might have started to find this topic a bit depressing. So to shift gears today, we’ll be looking at something a bit more lighthearted. One of the ironies of Communist literature is that despite the system’s total stifling of the human spirit, there is quite a bit of humor to be found. Naturally, it is a rather dark humor, in the vein of Kafka or Camus. But in such systems, this humor formed an important safety valve, a kind of coping mechanism in many cases. Living in such a world of bizarre double-speak and daily hypocrisy, it’s hard not to find oddities that, under more pleasant circumstances, would be easy to laugh at. Today, we are going to discuss one classic embodiment of this form of humor, the samizdat novel “Nobody, or The Disgospel According to Maria Dementnaya”.
“Nobody” is an example of what is known as “samizdat” literature. This means it is a non-Stateapproved writing, which was passed around the Soviet Union and illegally retyped or recopied.
It’s actually pretty amazing that such works existed— in the time period from the 1960s to
1980s, although things weren’t quite as bad as in the Stalin years, being caught with antiCommunist literature or illegally using a photocopier could still cost you your home, your livelihood, and your freedom. Yet Soviet dissidents risked all this to create and share literature that defied the authorities.
Nobody, our focus for today, was apparently written around 1966, and smuggled out of the Soviet Union. An anonymous French translation then made it into the hands of English translator April FitzLyon, who rendered it into English for us. Its original author is unclear. It appears that there was only a single English-language edition published of this book. I happened to pick up my copy at random when browsing in a used bookstore— otherwise I probably would have never heard of it. There is surprisingly little further information online; I found one review at Goodreads, and a few used copies can be bought at Amazon, but not much more. Not even a Wikipedia page, though there is a brief mention on the page of its translator, FitzLyon. But that’s a shame, because this is great book. As the blurb on the cover states, it’s “a deeply tragic novel which also succeeds in being extremely funny.”
The novel centers around a former academic named Petatorov, who couldn’t take the hypocrisy of continuing to build his life around loyalty to the Communist party, and long ago left his job and his wife. Now he wanders around Moscow living from day to day, begging and doing odd jobs to earn just enough to eat. He prefers this physical poverty to the mental torture of supporting the Communist system. Here’s how he describes his decision to a surprised friend, who is working as a journalist:
“The toady is dead. Long live the madman! I’m as free as a bird. Consequently— I’m a pauper… it’s amazing! I read my favorite books and drink port. I am sailing on an ice-flow, shouting to the people left behind: “Greetings, rats and mice! Ha Ha!’ And you’re one of them too. Oh Lord! Stop soiling lavatory paper with words, give it back to the people— clean!”
My favorite part of the book, though, is the description of the new husband, Brandov, who Petatorov’s ex-wife has married. His is a rather unintelligent and bland man, but a caring and successful provider for his family. He works for the government, in the Applause Section, where his job is to attend official speeches and loudly clap. A slight exaggeration of the offices that existed in real life, but a spot-on spoof of the many useless and unproductive government positions that are created for loyal bureaucrats. Here’s how Brandov thinks about his job:
“Brandov loved being at work: people treated him with warmth and respect, behind his back they would say, “He’s one of us, a real clapper!” Brandov gave a cursory glance at his beloved wall-newspaper ‘For All Out Clapping’, to which he contributed, and to which he sent in cartoons. For that issue too he had drawn a caricature of Pendyulin who, at a meeting, had missed a foreman’s signal and had started to applaud later than was indicated in the scenario. Pendyulin was represented with huge ears and little tiny hands. The inscription under the drawing read, ‘You must clap with your hands, not with your ears.’… On the walls hung diagrams and placards, aids to improve applauding skill: disembodied hands, clapping at a certain angle and at a certain force; incorrect, erroneous ways of clapping, crossed out with a red cross.”
Later it’s revealed that Brandov has to take down this cartoon, because his caricatured coworker has just earned a Ph.D. in applause. Not as much of an exaggeration as we would hope— academia in Communist countries is totally subordinated to the nation’s political goals. Aside from the quality of his clapping, Brandov is also preoccupied with his department’s rivalry with the Public Criers, a nearby department whose work is sometimes seen as more important than his. But one of the highlights of the book comes when Brandov reveals a new initiative, one that will drive his career to a new pinnacle:
“The organization of our work has not been sufficiently thought out. In response to the leadership’s appeals, I have joined in the fight to economize state funds. In order to improve our work I propose the following: to use apes as applauders, but especially— for exclamations of approval… I am convinced that the apes will carry out with credit the work entrusted to them. The training and purchase of a fresh batch of apes will soon pay for itself.”
In order to get this new project started, Brandov invites his family to join him on a trip to the zoo. Petatorov also happens to be there, observing many ironic metaphors for aspects of Soviet society among the animals on display. But of course, Brandov is focused on his task, closely studying the primates to find those best suited for this project.
“‘Those wouldn’t do”’ he muttered. ‘They’re too small, it would be too obvious… but they don’t shout badly, you can hear a ring of triumph. No, no, we must have chimpanzees, or ourangoutangs— bigger ones. It will be easy to make them up… But their arses, their arses are good! If one were to clap on them, one monkey could do the work of five…’ The man began slapping his buttocks. ‘Splendid!… A lot of work will have to be put into them,’ the welldressed visitor was saying to himself. ‘They’re not well-grounded in ideology. We’ll manage it, we’ll give them ideological education, we’ve managed harder cases then that. Ah, what splendid arses! Pity it’s unethical— just imagine, if a delegate suddenly started jumping up and slapping his arse. What would our dear foreign guests think! … I’ll put them in little suits— Pavlov’s Reflexes— I’ll go out and get some advice— we’ll work it all out, and full steam ahead in the name of the radiant future. You’ll be promoted to senior clapper, Brandov!”
Sadly, the book doesn’t get around to describing the final result of Brandov’s experiments.
As you can see, while still reflecting many of the tragedies of living in the Soviet Union, this novel can be quite hilarious at times. If you’re interested in learning more about Communism but need a break from heavy-handed exposes like those we discussed in the last two episodes, we think you’ll really enjoy the samizdat novel Nobody.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.