Episode 13: Communists Take a Bath

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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.

Having made it through a few more serious episodes, we’re now going to take another look at the lighter side of Communism, through the eyes of famous Soviet author Mikhail Zoshchenko.    You might call Zoshchenko the Seinfeld of 1920s Russia— he loved to poke fun at the little details of daily life, and the silly behavior of common people who didn’t quite understand what they were doing, or just weren’t quite competent at their jobs.    Most of his stories are not overtly political, but if you read between the lines, you can often spot an embedded critique of the Communist system and its effects on people’s daily lives.   Today we’ll be looking at a few selections from his classic short story collection “Scenes from the Bathhouse”, as translated by Sidney Monas.

Perhaps Zoshchenko’s most famous story is the title story of that collection, “The Bathhouse”, where he describes the challenges of visiting a rather poorly run public bathhouse.   Here’s an excerpt:

Last Saturday I went to one of our bathhouses… and they gave me two tickets.  One for my linen, the other for my hat and coat.   But where is a naked man going to put tickets?  To say it straight— no place.  No pockets.  Look around— all stomach and legs…  Can’t tie them to your beard.   Well, I tied a ticket to each leg so as not to lose them both at once.
All right.  So I’m standing.  I’m holding the bucket in one hand and I’m washing myself.  But all around me everyone’s scrubbing clothes like mad.   One is washing his trousers, another’s rubbing his drawers, a third’s wringing something out.   You no sooner get yourself all washed up than you’re dirty again.   They’re splattering me, the bastards…
I go back to the locker room.   I give them one ticket, they give me my linen.  I look.  Everything’s mine, but the trousers aren’t mine.   “Citizens, “ I say, “Mine didn’t have a hole here.  Mine had a hole over there. “  But the attendant says, “We aren’t here”, he says, “just to watch for your holes.”

You can see that even though he’s not explicitly making a political critique, there are a lot of possible interpretations here about the society of his day.    A similarly absurd situation occurs in another story of his, “The Overshoe”, where he has to deal with an overly bureaucratic lost-and-found office after losing an overshoe on a trolley:

“Is it possible, brothers,” I say, “to get my overshoe back?   I lost it in the trolley.   “Possible”, they say.  “What kind of overshoe?”  “Oh,” I say, “the ordinary kind, number twelve.”   “We have,” they say, “twleve thousand number twelves.   Describe its features.”…  “The back, of course, is a bit torn.  There’s no lining on the inside.  The lining wore out…  The toe looks as thought it was cut clean off, but it’s still hanging on.”…
And right away they bring back my overshoe.  Naturally, I was beside myself with joy.  Really touched…  “Now it’s found, I thank you.”  “No,” they say, “respected comrade, we cannot give it to you.  We,” they say, “don’t know; maybe it wasn't you who lost it… Bring us some certification that you really did lose the shoe.”

In the end, the narrator finally succeeds in convincing the office to let him reclaim his old, worn overshoe, thanks to a written declaration he gets signed by his building manager, but in the intervening week he has lost his other overshoe.    In the story “Kitten and People”, he describes a similar situation that doesn’t end quite as well, when he tries to get some needed repairs approved by his building cooperative:

“The stove I have works very badly.  Sitting around it, my whole family is always stifling from the fumes.   And that housing cooperative of devils refuses to make any repairs.  They’re economizing.  On current expenses…. “Nothing wrong,” they say.  “One can live.”  
“Comrades,” I say, “it’s downright shameful to utter words like that… even our kitten stifled from the fumes….” … “In that case,” they say, “we’ll set up an experiment now and have a look whether your stove is really stifling.”…
We warmed up the stove.   We deposited ourselves around it.  We sit.  We sniff…. Naturally, the fumes soon begin to spread through the room.   The chairman took a sniff, and he says:  “Not a thing.  Don’t smell a thing.”…   The kitten comes.  Sits herself down on the bed.  Sits calmly… she’s already gotten a bit used to it…
Suddenly, the treasurer rocks on the bed and says, “You know, I’ve got to hurry, I’ve got business to attend to.”  And he goes over to the window and breathes through the chink.  And he’s turning green and swaying on his feet.

Eventually the chairman is taken away by an ambulance, but still refuses to acknowledge an issue with the stove.   It’s interesting to note that this story is getting dangerously close to a political point, mocking the widespread “economization” initiative promoted by the government at that time.

In some of Zoshchenko’s stories, though, he takes more direct aim at the incompetence of low-level Communist bureaucrats and the way they gain power.   In “A Metropolitan Deal”, he discusses the efforts of a village to elect a local chairman to replace the rich “parasite” previously in charge.   This is indirectly referring to the public jealousy and resentment over the growth of rich “kulaks”, successful business owners, in the 1920s— you may recall, from Episode 1, the violent rage the government would unleash against them a few years later.   But that’s not the focus here, it’s just on selecting the new chair.

“Brothers!” someone shrieked.  “This is no election…  We need to choose advanced-type comrades…  Someone who’ll know his way around in the city— that’s the kind we need…  Who’d know everything through and through….”   “Right!” they shrieked in the crowd.  “Some advanced types we need…  That’s the way it’s done around here.”…  
“How about Leshka Konovalov?”  someone said timidly.  He’s the only one who’s come from the city  He’s— a metropolitan deal.”  “Leshka!” they shrieked in the crowd.  “Step out, Leshka.  Tell the group.” …
“Well now, said Leshka, a bit confused.   “Me you can choose… I scratched around the city for about two years.  Me you can choose….”  “Speak. Leshka!  Report to the group!” the crowd shrieked once again.  
“I can speak”, said Leshka.  “Why not speak,when I know it all.  Unlike you call, I’m a cultured man.  For two years I shook loose from the grayness of country life.   In the second place, my tongue is very fluent— I can make speeches.   Nowadays that isn’t just a pound of steam.”   “You’re right Leshka,” they said in the crowd.  “Without a tongue a man’s a sheep.  Only the tongue makes men.”
“That’s just it,” Leshka confirmed.  “…The tongue makes knowledge.   Of course, one needs to know— the law code, statues, decrees.  All his I know… I’m sitting in my cell, and they come running up to you.  Explain, Leshka, looks here, what does this note added on to the decree mean.”

Someone in the crowd picks up on the mention of the “cell”, and they soon discover that Leshka gained all his metropolitan sophistication while in jail for theft.   In the end they choose not to put him in charge, though the clear implication is that he would have been fine if he didn’t slip up and mention his cell.    Similarly, in another of Zoshchenko’s tales, “An Instructive Story”, he takes even more direct aim at poorly chosen leaders and fat, lazy bureaucrats: 

So, once, in a certain administration, a certain rather large worker named Ch was employed.   In the course of twenty years he occupied solid positions in the administration… at one time he was the head of the local committee.   They he was moved to the position of administrative director.  Then he was made the boss of something else…  
Of course, Ch was not an engineer or technician…  And even in general, it seems, his education was rather on the weak side.   Anything special, he did not know how to do.  He didn’t even have a very good handwriting….
This is what happened at the last meeting. … He had made a burning and passionate speech:  “The workers, that is… labor… they’re working… alertness… solidarity…”…  And suddenly, just think, a certain worker gets up, one of the motormen…
“Now that we’ve hear the convincing speech of Comrade Ch, I would like to ask him— well, what is it he wanted to say?…  What does Ch contribute to our work?….  The point is that he doesn’t know how to do anything.  He only makes empty speeches.    But just think, in twenty years we’ve outgrown this…”
The chairman got a little scared.  He didn’t know how he was supposed to react to all this.

Don’t worry too much about poor Comrade Ch though— after he admits that he doesn’t know anything and never claimed to, the meeting ends with everyone laughing together and still friends.

In a darker turn, though  there are a few cases where Zoshchenko directly attacks the low-level corruption that common citizens had to face at every turn, as in the story “A Weak Container.”

Nowadays, bribes aren’t taken.  Formerly, it was impossible to move a step without either giving or taking….
Lately, we’ve been dispatching goods from the freight station…  The weigher, an employee of the highest and most noble type, spouts numbers rapidly, takes notes, applies the weights, pastes labels, and issues explanations.     
Only suddenly we notice that, for all the beauty of his work, the weigher is very demanding about the rules.   He watches the interests of his fellow citizens and the state very closely…  to every third or fourth person, he refuses to accept their freight.  The container is a bit loose— he won’t take it…  “Instead of feeling badly, reinforce your container.  There’s a man loafing somewhere around here with some nails…” 

Eventually, a frustrated customer tries to solve the problem the traditional way, before the narrator finally gets to the heart of the issue:

He flushes, remembers something long forgotten… and digs out five rubles’ worth of money in single ruble notes.  And he wants to give them to the weigher.   Then the weigher turns purple at the sight of the money.  He yells:  “Is this how you get it?  A bribe you want to give me, you four-eyed horse?”
Of course, the one in glasses grasps right away the complete shamefulness of his position…  The weigher says:  “For shame!  Bribes are not taken here…”…
I approach the worker and ask him in any case to reinforce my dubious container.   He asks me for eight rubles.   I say:  “You’re kidding.  Eight rubles,” I say, “for three nails?”  He says to me in an intimate tone… “put yourself in my delicate position— I have to share up with this crocodile.”…”you share up with the weigher?”

With all this direct and indirect criticism of various aspects of 1920s Soviet society, it’s a bit surprising that Zoshchenko didn’t end up arrested or killed like so many of his fellow writers in the following years.    There were certainly many Soviet critics who considered his work offensive and denounced him, but he was saved by his large number of fans, even among Communist officials, who considered his writings hilarious.    One aspect that helped was Zoshchenko’s instinctive focus on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy:  he never criticized the upper leadership or the system itself, so he could be said to be merely mocking local incompetence & poor implementation of the new systems.   He also tended to put words in the mouth of seemingly clueless or buffoonish characters, so he could often claim any controversial statements were not his own.   

During the Stalinist period of the 1930s, however, Zoshchenko apparently got nervous about his future, and tried to please officials by writing some orthodox propaganda for the government.   Most notoriously, he contributed to the essay collection “The White Sea Canal”, which praised Stalin’s wasteful and inefficient canal project that cost the lives of thousands of Gulag prisoners.    This may have helped him avoid arrest during the mass purges of the 1930s, but his irreverent attitude towards Communism could not be tolerated forever.   Finally in 1946 he was denounced and expelled from the Soviet Writer’s Union, and did not publish any more major stories after that.   But his hilarious writings from the 1920s will be sure to live on for a long time to come.

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

If you need a lighthearted break from the grim retelling of Communist history in our other episodes, be sure to check out Michail Zoshchenko’s “Scenes from the Bathhouse”, as well as his other short story collections available in translation.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.