Excerpt from People in Nude (Liudi v golom, 2009) by Andrei Astvatsaturov, translated by Lucy Webster. Read the translator’s introduction to this extract here.
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Toys and Skulls
In 1976, I hardly struck anyone as manly. Apart from my grandmother. Grandmothers always slobber over their grandsons. Old people and children are actually quite similar. For example, they both need toys. The only difference is that children play with plastic toys, while old people would never allow themselves anything of the sort. Otherwise, they’d be put in a home for the demented. But they want to play all the same. That’s why older folk are appointed as office managers, factory directors, prime ministers and schoolteachers more often than young people. As a result, they tend to have better lives than children. More interesting lives. Only, the older folks’ toys are living. They walk, run, chat, smile, cry. Almost like real, plastic ones.
Like many people, I had two grandmothers. Well, one of them really slobbered over me. And she even brought me foreign-made, plastic Indians as a gift. In contrast, the other one had a very low opinion of my intellectual capabilities from the very beginning. When I was eighteen years old and already at university, she still doubted whether there was any point in sending me to the shop for some bread. Just in case I couldn’t handle it…
‘You are so unfocused,’ my grandmother complained, ‘Why can’t you be more like your cousin?’
My cousin was standing next to her. An all-round high achiever. She was just finishing school. Her face reflected a readiness to act the second her elders asked for something. Whereas my face didn’t express anything of the sort. And if it expressed anything, then it was pretty much the opposite: a readiness to tell everyone, especially my elders, where to go.
‘My God, how unfocused you are!’ my grandmother continued to sigh. This was a complete untruth. At university I displayed a level of ‘focus’ that would make any of the most boring high achievers jealous. But in school it was all quite different. Why? I don’t even know myself.
School annoyed me. The lessons were boring and dragged on into eternity. I didn’t even like the break times. It was too noisy. When you’re surrounded by everyone howling, jumping, and pushing one another for twenty minutes straight it gets really tedious.
‘Make friends with the quiet kids,’ my dad advised, ‘with the kids who behave themselves and study well. Then you’ll find school interesting.’
Now, after so many years have passed, it seems my dad cherished the thought of his son only speaking to the high achievers, even when I was in nursery. Dad’s imagination probably painted the following picture: his son, the primary school pupil, naturally, an all-round high achiever, comes home and does his homework. Then, towards the evening, his friends, also high achievers, come to visit him (that is, they come to visit me). Each one of them in a white shirt, in their ironed school uniforms, and no doubt accompanied by their parents, who are intelligent and kind. Dad sits us in a semi-circle around the little old turntable and we all start listening to Chopin’s mazurkas, or something in that vein. Musical taste needs to be acquired in the right way. You certainly need to build a classical repertoire, but nothing too hard to start with. Here, the main thing is to not go too far. Not Scriabin, not Schoenberg—seven-year-old children can find that a little boring—but Chopin. Chopin is what you need. It’s just right. After that, the adults go into the kitchen to drink tea and have serious conversations, while the children indulge in some innocent entertainment: they play chess or bingo.
Whenever I would make a friend and tell my parents about it, my dad immediately asked me how well they studied. I really tried to avoid giving a direct answer. If it came out that my friend was a good student, then my dad would get angry and say, ‘Well look at that! The boy studies well! His parents are probably happy with him. It’s just us that have ended up with such a dunce.’
And if my new friend was an average student, my dad would get even angrier and scream at my mum, ‘Look, Vera! Instead of making friends with the smart kids, he specifically picks out these underachievers and slackers.’
Dad was often displeased with me. For the most unexpected reasons. I remember, one time I had been left home alone. I was sitting playing at the table. I didn’t have many toys. Just the collection of grandma’s plastic Indians and two ranks of revolutionary sailors with their bayonets sticking out in front of them. My mum gave me those. In this scene, my Indians were in the fortress, which was made out of imported beer cans. These beer cans were quite a rarity in the seventies, and it never occurred to anybody to throw them away. For some reason, I gave the revolutionary sailors the role of the colonisers. They were tasked with storming the fortress. There weren’t that many variations on this plot. But, as a rule, the half-naked Indians won. Anyway, going back to my dad, he was always mad when I played Sailors and Indians and shouted, ‘You’ve left your crap on the floor again! You’d be better off doing something else! Read a book or listen to music. Chopin’s mazurkas…’
So, I could only play Indians when I was home alone. But this happened quite a lot, thank God. Mum and dad worked a lot.
And so, once again, I’d been left at home by myself with my Indians, revolutionary sailors and the beer cans. Back then, I was still wanting to try out the band of Teutonic knights from my ‘Alexander Nevskii’ collection that I’d just been given. And I was trying to determine whose side the knights would fight on—the Indians’ or the revolutionary sailors’. Eventually, I decided that the knights—a Russian-Teutonic war band—would treacherously attack both of them, and, in the face of this new danger, the Indians and the revolutionary sailors would unite. And at the very moment I’d just lined up the alliance in the battle square on the dining table, the phone rang.
I picked up the receiver and heard an old man’s voice say, ‘I’d like to speak to Vera, please!’
‘Mum isn’t home. She’s at the shop,’ I replied, and then I remembered the phrase I’d been taught. ‘Can I take a message?’
‘Tell her Balashov phoned. From Moscow. It’s very important,’ the voice told me.
Soon after, Dad came home from work. At that point, I’d finished playing and had managed to clear my ‘crap’ into the lower drawer of the desk. The Indians and sailors, as I had assumed from the start, had won.
‘Where’s your Mum?’ he asked me.
‘She went to the shop. She said they’d promised to give away chickens for 75 roubles in the shop on Toreza Street.’
Back then, I didn’t understand what ‘chickens for 75 roubles’ were and how they differed from other chickens. But I guessed that, with such a long name, it meant they weren’t just any chickens, but some kind of particularly good ones and so you had to go queue up for them for a long time.
‘I see…’ Dad said. ‘And what have you been doing?’
‘Homework,’ I lied. ‘They gave us exercises to do. And someone called from Moscow for mum…’
‘From Moscow? Who?’ Dad said, surprised.
‘It was…’ I gathered my thoughts together, ‘Basketshove.’
For some reason, dad went berserk. ‘It was Balashov! Do you hear me? BA-LA-SHOV! Nikolai Ivanovich Balashov. An associate member of the Academy of Sciences… got it?! You’re the basketshove!’
With these words he went into the kitchen to smoke and broke off our conversation.
It’s clear that even back then my dad had started to understand that he needed to go to more effort to influence the situation. The realization of his kids’ music club project had obviously been postponed for an undisclosed period of time. And yet my father still fostered the hope of inserting me into a circle of suitable children.
‘You need to hang around more with the high achievers,’ he kept telling me.
‘They’re all girls,’ I tried justifying myself. ‘I can’t be friends with girls!’
‘Well, you still talk to Nastia Dontsova for some reason,’ Dad retorted rationally, ‘but she’s incorrigible, she only gets Threes.’
I was in love with Nastia Dontsova. She was like the actress Belokhvostikova. A slim girl. A round face. Big, scared eyes. Very beautiful, dark blue. Straight, long hair. We lived in neighbouring buildings, often came home from school together and went around to each other’s homes. I was the only boy at Nastia’s birthday party. The rest were girls. There was a certain Vadik. But he was Nastia’s mum’s friend’s son. When we were little, these ‘Vadiks’ were unavoidable at our birthday parties. Vadik sat across from me at the end of the table and glared at everything from under his brows. I can’t remember what he looked like. I just remember his pale, sparse eyebrows on his round face. At some point, he came and sat next to me and started bragging about how his parents had bought him a new bike. In response, I told him that I also had a bike. Vadik thought for a minute and started digging around in his nose with his index finger. In any case, I moved away from him. For the most part, that was a boring birthday party. Nastia’s parents orchestrated a talent show and forced us to read school poems out loud. I was shy and stubbornly refused. Nastia’s parents didn’t like me. They clearly didn’t approve of mine and Nastia’s friendship. It was obvious they seemed to think their daughter was worthy of a boy who was having more success in the core subjects than me. My dad, by the way, also wasn’t best pleased. But he remembered that the heart rules the head and that it wasn’t worth pressuring me. Nastia… God bless her. In a few years he’ll find himself a smarter girl, from an educated family. We’ll go to the Philharmonic together. Listen to Chopin. But his choice in pals is a different kettle of fish. It’s important to be firm here.
‘You’d make your father really happy,’ he said to me once over lunch, ‘if you made friends with Alyosha Petrenko. Verochka!’ he turned to Mum, ‘he was collecting leaves with Alyosha at the tram stop. I couldn’t get enough! Two such wonderful boys!’
Lyosha Petrenko was an all-round high achiever and his photo had been hanging on the school noticeboard since year one. ‘Collecting leaves…’ Dad remembered those stupid ‘leaves’ all year long. He had picked me up from school that day. At the tram stop we bumped into Lyosha Petrenko and his mum, an older woman wearing a light, autumn coat and an expression of inspired boredom on her face. It was a warm October. There hadn’t been a tram for a while. The adults struck up a conversation about something while Lyosha and I stood and looked at each other.
Lyosha’s Mum said, ‘Go into the trees and play until the tram comes, children.’
‘Play what?’ Lyosha asked eagerly.
‘Well, collect leaves. They’re so beautiful here—yellow, red. Do you remember, Alyosha, how we memorised Pasternak’s poem about the golden autumn? Run, children, see who can make the most beautiful bouquet.’
If Vitia Andreev or Vadik Kirillov from my class had been there, we would have found something to do. We would have played tig or thrown acorns. But Lyosha went straight to where his mum told him. I had to go with him. And also pick stupid yellow leaves up off the ground to make my dad happy. Since then, I’ve never been able to forget the expression of total joy and tranquillity on his face.
But this was the only episode. After that, I painstakingly started avoiding Lyosha. And Lyosha himself wasn’t longing for a friendship with me: I still hung around with the average kids all the same. Lyosha annoyed me. He sat up straight in lessons, like a stick, carefully folded his arms on his desk and stared at the teacher with his round, unblinking eyes. He had a small head with a short haircut and a really thin neck. Lyosha somehow reminded me of a skull that I used to play with when I was three years old. But when compared to the skull, he lost. This skull was stored in a green box at my grandmother’s house. My Aunt Alia, an artist, had pulled it out from somewhere to draw it, so I was told. Whenever I went to my grandmother’s, the first thing I would do was go into the living room where the green box was, get the skull out and start playing with it.
‘Skull, skull,’ I would say to it. ‘Hello, Mr Skull.’
I would carefully push my fingers into the empty eye sockets. It seemed like the skull understood me.
‘Alia!’ my grandmother snapped. ‘Now, take that skull away and stop scaring the child!’
The skull was taken away and I started to cry. The skull was much better than any of my classmates. Especially those like Lyosha Petrenko. The skull lived its own independent life. He was quiet when I spoke with him and he listened attentively. While Lyosha would wade in every time, not letting me finish, squealing with laughter. And I didn’t want to be friends with him, not one bit.
Where Does Manure Come From?
Three months passed. The warm May of 1977 was upon us. We, the year one pupils, were looking forward to the fast-approaching summer and the long holiday that awaited us.
‘The summer,’ Valentina Stepanovna reminded us in our last classes of the year, ‘should be spent usefully. You will be relaxing. But for others, this time of year is a time for hard work. For example, for those working on the kolkhozes and sovkhozes, our collective and state farms. They have a lot of work to do. Who knows what the kolkhozniks do during the summer?’
Vitia Andreev raised his hand. Vitia was an underachiever and was always quiet. So, Valentina Stepanovna was overjoyed.
Vitia got up from behind his desk, gathered his thoughts and announced, ‘In the summer the kolkhozniks and sovkhozniks collect the harvest.’
Valentina Stepanovna hit the roof.
‘And what exactly are “sovkhozniks”?! There’s no such word in the Russian language! And the harvest is not collected in the summer! Children! When do we collect the harvest?’
‘In the autumn,’ the high achiever, Olia Semichastnykh, cried out.
‘Correct, in the autumn,’ Valentina Stepanovna said, praising her. ‘Well done, Olienka.’ Then, she threw Andreev a menacing look, ‘Sit down, Andreev. Children! Olia is correct. The harvest is collected in the autumn. And in the summer the kolkhozniks scrape the hay into stacks so that it dries out, and they stock up on fertilizer, manure. And what’s manure?’
Everyone was confused. I understood what the word ‘manure’ meant, but I decided not to put my hand up. All the synonyms for this word seemed rude to me. My classmates also kept quiet.
Misha Starostin grinned, winked at me and raised his hand. Valentina Stepanovna flushed red, ‘Put your hand down now, Starostin!’
‘Nothing! I said put your hand down! Let Lyosha Petrenko tell us what “manure” is.’
The star pupil, Lyosha Petrenko, stood up and, all red and stammering, said, ‘manure is a kind of poop!’
We all burst out laughing. Lyosha tried to go on but his words were drowned out by our giggling.
‘Quiet!’ Valentina Stepanovna called us to order. ‘There’s nothing to laugh at. Continue, Alyosha! What you’re saying is correct.’
‘Manure comes from the animals,’ said Lyosha. ‘And the kolkhozniks use it to fertilize the fields.’
Valentina Stepanovna let Lyosha take his seat and began to say something herself, but I didn’t hear her. I turned around to Starostin.
‘Mishka! Listen… I don’t get it, how do they stock up on it?’
‘Well… the manure.’
‘Manure is shit!’ Starostin said with authority. ‘Shite… that’s what they call it in our courtyard.’
‘I don’t need you to tell me that.’
‘But how do they stockpile it?’
‘I don’t know…’ Here, Starostin began to think. ‘Did you give them a poo sample before the first day of school?’
‘That’s probably what it’s like on the kolkhoz. They sit on the toilets all summer. Not everyone, obviously. Just certain people. The fat ones. Like our Stepanovna. They sit there and poop. But they don’t flush it away. Then they collect a whole box from everyone. They pour it out onto a big pile and then onto a dump truck…’
While I was listening to Starostin, my imagination painted a very strange scene for me of kolkhozniks sitting on the toilets in rows with their trousers around their ankles. This image seemed dubious to me. The kolkhozes (so we were told) were the command ships of communism. And sitting on the pot for the whole day wasn’t right, not Lenin-like. I decided to share my doubts with Starostin.
‘What was it Petrenko said about animals? That the manure comes from them.’
‘Petrenko’s an idiot!’ Starostin got mad. ‘How can animals give anything away? They don’t even have hands, and they’re stupid.’
Professors and Students
When I was studying at school, and I wasn’t the best at studying, my dad often said to me, ‘If you carry on like this, I’m going to hand you over to the cattle farmer. You’ll be forced to drive the oxen and poke around in the bull’s arse.’
This prospect didn’t sit well with me, but I carried on studying badly, nonetheless.
To be honest, I didn’t really shine in nursery either.
The nursery teacher, Klavdia Stepanna, used this plump, rosy-cheeked boy, who went by the name of Anton Koptiuk, as an example for me.
Anton Koptiuk has eaten his porridge faster than everyone. Anton Koptiuk has learned some poems about Lenin. Anton Koptiuk has fixed the plastic hula hoop. Anton Koptiuk lives with a hamster, which Anton Koptiuk looks after. Anton Koptiuk’s brother has given the nursery two rubber balls. And what have you done?
The only thing left for me to do was shrink under the stern gaze of the nursery teacher.
I felt guilty.
I didn’t like porridge. I wasn’t interested in poems about Lenin, or plastic hula hoops. I hated hamsters. And, deep down, I thought Anton Koptiuk was an idiot.
A girl called Natasha Tarasova, whom I presented with a plastic poodle on International Women’s Day, occupied all of my thoughts. But I only really loved the singer Taisia Kalinchenko.
For two months, my interest in Natasha Tarasova made me very vacant and clumsy.
But I didn’t have to go poking around in a bull’s arse because I wasn’t handed over to the cattle farmer after all.
And who would’ve even taken me in there anyway once they had seen the fifth line in my passport?
Where have you seen a Jewish cattle farmer?
Apart from in the Bible.
As a result, I ended up in the philology faculty at Leningrad State University.
Getting in there in 1986 was just as hard for a Jew as getting into the fields.
But I managed it on the second try.
I studied well at university: presumably, my dad’s threats played some kind of role here. I began to think, ponder things, which I had never done before.
I liked the professors, especially the older ones in their suits and ties. The ones who were a bit younger sometimes wore jumpers. They gave off a whiff of otherworldly, biblical wisdom and academic ideals. Next to them, the students looked stupid and out of place. But only at first glance.
I somehow became witness to a conversation between my teacher, the famous philologist Zakhar Isaakovich Plavskin, and this one girl who had turned up for an exam with him in an open-backed dress with a deep neckline. You know, so she could make an impression and make the old professor more aware of her appearance and less focused on the exam question. That’s what the girls always do. And I really pity them. Nothing looks as helpless and unprotected as a half-naked female body. Aggressive and filled with stress. But being helpless and unprotected instantly turns into a shield of power and aggression. A vicious circle from which a man can never break free. It’s easier to just not look and think about something irrelevant. For example, about Shakespeare’s jealous Moor who smothers his Desdemona. The girl, as I now recall, had drawn Othello as her topic.
‘Have you read Othello?’ Plavskin asked.
‘Yes, I’ve read it…’
‘You sound unsure. Tell me, what nationality was Othello?’
‘What do you mean?’ the girl was taken aback. ‘Everyone knows what his nationality was. He was English!’
Plavskin gave a heavy sigh and said reproachfully, ‘Young lady! You have not read it at all. Tell me the truth.’
‘Why? I’ve… read it all.’
‘You’ve read it, you say, but you do not even remember his name!’
‘His name is Othello,’ the girl shrugged her shoulders.
‘Othello, Moor of Venice!’ Plavskin said with a bit of energy before repeating himself for added emphasis. ‘Moor of Venice!’
‘Oh, sorry,’ the girl smiled coquettishly, ‘I was too hasty. Othello is Italian. Of course, he’s Italian. He’s from Venice.’
‘That’s nothing,’ Plavskin said to me once the girl had closed the door to the lecture hall. ‘I’ve got another story like that…’
In this ‘other story’ it was Dante that took centre stage. Plavskin recounted it in the minutest of detail.
The Dante story took place at the beginning of the 1950s. Plavskin, still a young assistant in the History of Foreign Literature department, was leading another exam for the ‘History of Medieval and Renaissance Literature’ course. A student came and sat down to answer the questions. The student read out the topic on the paper, ‘Dante’, and went silent.
‘Do you know the topic, comrade?’ Plavskin said patiently.
‘I know it.’
‘Then tell me about it.’
‘What’s there to tell?’ the student was surprised.
‘What do you mean what is there to tell?’ It was Plavskin’s turn to be surprised, already losing his patience. ‘Tell me about the topic. Have you read Dante?’
‘I’ve read him. I just don’t know what there is to say about him.’
It’s important to note that Zakhar Isaakovich Plavskin was a man of rare kindness. But during exams he always exhibited astounding liberalism. He usually prompted the students with dates and names, asked them leading questions, and as a result, they went away satisfied, happy, and with top marks, or, in rare cases, almost top marks.
‘Fine,’ he nodded to the student. ‘I’ll ask you the questions and you answer them. Agreed?’
The student shook his head sadly in response.
‘Tell me,’ Plavskin began, ‘who did Dante put in the final circle of hell?’
(As we all know, it was the betrayers: Judas, Brutus and Cassius.)
‘I don’t know that,’ the student responded immediately in a crisp voice, giving the impression that, of course, he knows the rest, but has just forgotten this little fact.
‘Very well,’ Plavskin sighed. ‘I will tell you who he put there, and you tell me why. First, he put Judas there. Why Judas in particular?’
The student thought for a moment. Then, he swallowed anxiously and composed himself somewhat. Casting a wary glance at Plavskin’s semitic nose, he announced in a half whisper, like an aside made by an actor during a play, ‘Because Judas was a Jew!’
‘Excuse me?’ Plavskin asked again. ‘I’m sorry, who was a Jew? I didn’t hear you properly…’
‘Judas was a Jew!’ the student said. This time loudly, more sure of himself. ‘That’s why Dante put him in hell. Well, for being a Jew.’
Plavskin almost lost the gift of speech. Or rather, he looked as if he had. Professors, particularly in Russian higher education institutes, convince everyone, starting with themselves, that it is a blatant, illegitimate understanding if you don’t adhere to the university’s ideals and standards. But they shouldn’t think so. Individuals are interesting because they are unpredictable, because they shy away from all standards and prescriptions. Because they are who they are. Because they are alone, naked, wandering the naked earth, equal only to themselves. And living without looking back at whatever Dante happens to be there.
Plavskin eventually came round, noisily drew in some air and said, ‘Young man! It might interest you to know that Christ was also a Jew… in a certain way, you know. But, for some reason, Dante did not put him in hell. Strange, no?’
‘Well then, I don’t know,’ the student muttered, ‘there’s no other reason.’
‘No other reason?! Judas betrayed Christ!’
‘What are you talking about?!’ the student cried out. ‘THE Jesus Christ? That’s it! Judas! I remember now. My grandma told me about it when I was little. Judas, yes. That’s the one! That piece of… Sorry, professor,’ he caught himself, ‘I lost my temper… I, honestly, forgot. Please forgive me…’
The student was being deadly serious. Plavskin gave him a ‘satisfactory’, a Three, but advised him to think about changing his specialism, nonetheless.
The Public Library
During my third year at university, I trained myself to go to the public library.
The first time I was there I felt awkward. Everyone around me, every single one of them, looked like a serious academic.
I was no match for them; a worthless little student, who had illegally snuck into their holiest of holy sites.
I was even too shy to go to the snack-bar presuming that only REAL library members had the right to this privilege. Then I settled in. As the months went by, the reading rooms of the Public Library, much like their visitors, lost their saintly aura.
I realised that there were actually a lot of really strange people among the members.
Some of them behaved aggressively. Every now and then they would shout at the books or start talking loudly to each other.
Others anxiously paced through the library corridors, gesticulating violently.
Then this old-timer started turning up; his head was eternally pressed to his chest. Vitia Andreev, who was studying in the history faculty, once told me that he went by the nickname ‘Penguin’. ‘Penguin’ walked with a bouncy step, smiling blissfully, sniffling, and then, once he had sat down behind his books, he would fall asleep and start snoring loudly.
Old, greying Casanovas also started showing up. They would come to the library purely to gawp at the young women as they studied. They rarely sat in the reading rooms: they spent most of their time in the smoking room, the snack-bar, sometimes in the canteen.
I remember one of them. His appearance gave off the air of a retired actor from the ‘big and little theatres’: a double-breasted suit with a bow tie, a high forehead, a greying thatch of hair, a firm voice.
One time, I was standing in the smoking room with my acquaintance, Arkasha Barenbaum.
We were smoking and discussing Michel Foucault.
Arkasha was doing most of the talking, while I listened respectfully.
At some point the door opened and the head of this greying ‘actor’ popped up.
His eyes cautiously scanned the room. Besides Arkasha and I, there were two older ladies in there.
Having been unsuccessful in finding an object worthy of his attention, the greying man removed his head and closed the door behind him.
‘Did you see that guy?’ I asked Arkasha, who had already moved on from the historic ideas of Foucault and was gradually changing the topic to Lacan’s psychoanalysis.
‘Which guy?’ Arkasha perked up. ‘I didn’t notice anyone.’
‘Yeah, he comes here alone,’ I grumbled. ‘People are here studying the sciences while he, the old prick, is busy chatting up the girls.’
Arkasha was looking at me attentively. Then, he raised his index finger and said didactically, “With his hoof he knocks, digs up the Earth, the Elderly Spermatozoid…”
They say a famous philologist wrote this parody of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman. It’s possible he wasn’t talking about actors at all, but about elderly scientists.
Translated by Lucy Webster Read Lucy’s blog post about her translation here