Excerpt from June (Июнь, 2017) by Dmitry Bykov, translated by Huw Davies. Read the translator’s introduction to this extract here.
For rights enquiries, contact Anna Plotnikova (AST).
Someone had forced her to make the allegation, he rightly surmised – but whose toes had he trodden on, that they should want to do that?
“Comrades,” said Draganov in a high-pitched, scoffing voice, stepping out onto the podium. “I asked you to gather here today so that we could respond as a matter of urgency to a complaint brought by Komsomol member Miss Krapivina, the widow… or rather, the girlfriend of our student Nikolai Tuzeyev, who was killed in battle near Suoyarvi. Miss Krapivina was subjected to crude harassment by one of our students, one of our comrades” – he paused, just long enough for everyone to wonder, in horror: It wasn’t me, was it?! No, don’t be daft – not guilty even in thought, let alone deed! – “Mikhail Gvirtsman.”
There was a sharp intake of breath around the auditorium – or rather, the release of it, in a collective sigh of relief: no-one imagined Gvirtsman could have done anything violent, and consequently, there was no cause for alarm. Misha started smiling with embarrassment, blushed, and suppressed a desire to take a bow. A fellow called Soifert even winked at him. This might all come to nothing, it really might.
“I am not going to ask Komsomol member Krapivina to share details of the circumstances. Take my word for it, they took place, I have studied the situation. We shall listen to what Comrade Gvirtsman has to say, and he will set it all out to us in person. I propose that we then express our views on the essence of the matter.”
“How can we talk about the essence?” people shouted out from their seats. “We didn’t see anything!”
“Gvirtsman should be encouraged!” someone shouted from their seat in a facetious voice. “He doesn’t pay women enough attention, it’s rude!”
“I should like to call upon you to take this matter seriously,” Draganov intoned, as if preparing for this kangaroo court to turn into a farce at any moment. “Comrade Krapivina feels she has been insulted!”
“Let’s hear Krapivina’s side of the story!” a clamour of voices demanded.
“I don’t know, comrades, whether she would feel comfortable… Are you willing to speak, Comrade Krapivina?” Draganov asked with assiduous courtesy.
“Yes, I am,” Valya said, and she got to her feet. “I’d prefer not to come up to the front though!”
“Of course,” Draganov nodded, “of course.”
“On the third,” said Valya, then she fell silent. “Of this… of the present…year,” she went on, “we were at Klara Nechaev’s place. Everyone had had a bit to drink. No-one was drinking heavily though.”
A murmur of approval rippled around the auditorium once again.
“Always the way, when there isn’t enough alcohol,” the same wit as before shouted out.
“A few individuals were out of control, though, and then Gvirtsman,” Valya said, and then she fell silent again. “While people were dancing…he took the liberty…there has never been anything between us at all. I haven’t let anyone so much as…as you know. But Gvirtsman, all of a sudden…he didn’t give me any warning about anything.”
“What was he playing at!” a female voice cried out – Sasha Brodskaya, Misha reckoned.
“And then it happened,” Valya muttered, dragging it out for dramatic effect. “He tried to kiss me, I pulled away. He tried to hug me, I pulled back further. People noticed, it caught their attention. I don’t know what they must have thought of me. I wanted to give him a slap, but I stopped myself. He got the message without that being necessary. And since I think that it’s immoral, I’d like to see him censured. Censured by everyone.”
“She’s an outright deviationist if you ask me,” Poletaev whispered to Misha, leaning back over his chair.
“Well comrades, you have now heard the whole story and you may express your views,” Draganov suggested.
After raising her hand like a schoolgirl and not waiting to be given permission, Golubeva stood up, all red in the face; she moved jerkily, the whiff of her breath as foul as ever. Misha was convinced she was about to speak out in his defence, and he felt ashamed at having thought about her bad breath.
“I can hear people sniggering right now,” Golubeva started saying, scarcely able to hold back her sobs. “And yet, comrades, I don’t know what there is to laugh about. It stems from the medieval law book, this disrespect for women, and all this talk about how if a woman says ‘no’, she really means ‘yes’. Regrettably, I see these phenomena here among us, too. Here, where we ought, one would think, to be experiencing a new way of life, in the twenty-third year of the revolution, we are witnessing the most unbridled horseplay. It’s not even a petty bourgeois phenomenon, it’s lumpenism, comrades. And the idea that a so-called poet should take the liberty of… I for one never saw that coming. But if you think about it, comrades, I did see it coming. I ought to have seen it coming, because I keep seeing manifestations of this sort of thing. I know that a lot of girls are simply too ashamed to make allegations. But as I see it, there is nothing to be ashamed of!”
“Down with shame!” the wit called out – but no-one laughed: things had taken a serious turn.
“If I may,” said Kruglov, a serious young man with round cheeks, who looked like the poet Anton Delvig – apathetic, but potentially sharp. “The way I see it, comrades,” he said, running his hand through his hair, “we have somewhat, er, strayed into a sphere that is not ours to explore. One can go back as far as Engels, who warned against putting people’s private lives up for scrutiny.”
“Where did he say that?” someone asked from their seat. Misha suspected that Engels had not made any such warning and that such an idea had never even occurred to him – he couldn’t possibly have imagined an event like this, twenty-three years into the dictatorship of the proletariat – but Kruglov could cite most of the useful quotations, and if really pressed, he would have been able to invent the requisite passage.
“In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Kruglov declared, rapping out every syllable. “He directly states that matters from people’s private lives should not be examined at public gatherings. Morality is not something that is formulated based on a majority share of the vote. I was not, so to speak, present at the time, I was not in the room, so to speak. It seems to me that comrade Krapivina would have been well-advised to discuss the situation with Gvirtsman in person, perhaps even given him the slap that she so pusillanimously refrained from giving him, and then we wouldn’t need to be wasting time today denouncing a kiss – a kiss that, as far as one can tell, didn’t even take place anyway.”
Kruglov was a popular fellow, and a few of the students even applauded his contribution. You could see from the look on his face that he could get away with being like that, that he had been given permission; one can always tell when someone feels they have permission to do as they please, even if that permission was given to them by no-one but themselves. And after that, the whole thing might have fizzled out, because that was the outcome Draganov himself wanted – Misha could tell. He was already getting ready to summarize the proceedings, give him a reprimand, call on everyone to redouble their efforts to behave appropriately, and so on and so forth. But at that moment Nikitin stood up, and set in motion a chain of events which, even now, Misha could not recall without feeling a sense of revulsion.
He could never have expected such a thing of Nikitin (he was no Golubeva, after all). Nikitin was a twitchy, feeble, hunched fellow, with clammy hands and a nervous tic. Everyone disliked him, but they did so the way people dislike a significant phenomenon, one that leaves you with no choice but to put up with it. He was writing something, a work that was eternally unfinished, but, it was rumoured, remarkable. He had read Joyce. Misha had once read a bit of Joyce in an edition of International Literature and understood that it was art for the top ten thousand, and, in the grand scheme of things – of no real use to anyone. Nikitin was always coming out with stupid utterances, but making them sound deep and meaningful. Misha’s attitude towards him was one of forbearance. Nikitin was sort of a prime candidate to fail in every subject, the most vulnerable and pitiful of all the students on campus, but that pity was the very thing that protected him better than any special patronage would have done. It was as if everyone was afraid of crushing him completely. And so it was inconceivable that a blow should be struck by Nikitin – who was he to talk?! – although Misha immediately saw the flawless logic of it: Nikitin had to deflect attention away from himself and, at any cost, make someone else the odd one out.
And so, adjusting his spectacles incessantly with his clammy thumb and forefinger, he began by saying that “it is all well and good to have a laugh, but the reason for doing so, in this case, is no laughing matter. I shall not go into the women’s issue now, private matters, all that horseplay. But there is a category of people among us who are always sneering. I have personally heard our Comrade Gvirtsman, I have heard him on several occasions, making fun of students who are, probably, less well-informed. What can one expect, Gvirtsman has lived in Moscow, he’s the son of a doctor, I believe, he had the opportunity to study at an excellent school. But the point of our institution is to teach those who are less knowledgeable and have not had such good schooling, and when has Gvirtsman ever educated anyone? To whom has he offered help? I have only heard him, among a crowd of other equally condescending alumni of Moscow schools, making fun of provincials, including Comrade Tuzeyev, who is no longer with us. And it may be,” at this point Nikitin glanced up and looked straight at Misha, and it was the look of a triumphant cobra just before it launches itself at its prey – “it may be that Comrade Tuzeyev’s verse was indeed slightly less than perfect. Not like that of Gvirtsman, for instance, who has mastered the technical aspects of poetry. He has mastered them, let us admit that. Let’s give him his due. But he has nothing to say, for he has seen nothing of life and has no wish to do so. And when Tuzeyev, whose verse, I repeat, was, sure, less than perfect, stepped forward and signed up as a volunteer – there was more poetry in that one act alone than in all the slick and highly literary works of Gvirtsman and his supporters.” (What supporters, thought Misha, what on earth is this drivel? Is he referring to Boris?!) “Why was it, after all, that Gvirtsman allowed himself to commit such a brazenly boorish – if we’re frank about it – act? The only reason he did so was that he genuinely does consider himself to be on a higher plane – above the law, the collective, Tuzeyev, Krapivina… And that mockery, that separateness, that narrow circle – how can all that be tolerated? Why is it that someone, on the basis of being personally fortuitous, as a birth-right, I would dare say, can, in this country…”
And on he droned.
For a while, Misha listened and tried to make sense of what he heard, but after a while he understood only that there was a general desire to drown him, and that a quiet dislike of him that went way, way back, and that he had always sensed, had finally come crawling to the surface; hadn’t there been times when he had felt people eyeing him with hostility, and whispers being exchanged, as clammy as Nikitin’s fingers. And he could not understand why he had to put up with all that, but now he suddenly got it. The Queen of Spades stands for the resentment that we secretly harbour against others. That was what that whole, strange tale had been about – a story that was so un-Pushkinlike, really, one that had come out of nowhere. It had always seemed to him to be no more than a bagatelle, but Pushkin had felt a secret resentment being harboured against him his entire life. Everyone looked on him disapprovingly, in the expectation that, one day, this golden boy, this idle roisterer, would eventually implode. That was what Valya Krapivina had accomplished: she had dragged all this up to the surface. For all it mattered, Misha might just as well not have kissed her – or indeed done anything at all; they would merely have seized upon the way he tied his shoelaces, and claimed there was something untoward about it.
“That,” Nikitin concluded, “that is what I wanted to say, and it is no joke.”
And it was then that Goltsov came crawling out.
Oh, Goltsov. The funniest part was that for a moment, Misha felt a little surge of hope. The thought occurred to him that it was clammy, faded, unstable types, who needed to deflect the blow away from them, that had problems such as a secret resentment of others, and that Goltsov was different, straightforward and strong, and he would come to his defence. He would say what needed to be said. And Misha attempted to smile at him, but, fortunately as it turned out, Goltsov was looking the other way.
He started speaking in his customary manner straight away, nipping all hope in the bud. Needless to say, there was nothing humane in what he said. The novelty lay in the fact that he and Nikitin were acting in tandem. They had probably plotted this in advance, and the result really was an effective one-two combination: one of them laid down the theoretical groundwork, the other delivered the blow with proletarian fury. The only thing that made no sense was how Misha, of all people, had managed to rub them up the wrong way: he had never gone anywhere near Nikitin, and had barely even noticed Goltsov. Apparently, though, they had somehow sensed that the less there was of Misha around the faculty, the more there would be of them. Goltsov simply swung his axe, proletarian style.
“I, comrades, am not going to enter into all that puff and fluff, from the classics and all that,” and he nodded in the direction of Kruglov.
Goltsov had clearly had the cheek to rehearse this in advance and construct the required image: this sort of thing could not have just come into being by itself, without artifice! Even the most natural garden is the culmination of a gardener’s efforts, over many years, to cultivate it.
“I am not going to dissect the arguments and identify all the right ones, but I will say this. Nikitin is spot on. He is spot on, comrades, in that what we are dealing with here is a straight-up insult. And it is not Krapivina that has been insulted, comrades, it is us. And I sensed there was something rotten right from the start, because Gvirtsman is not part of the collective, and because, when the volunteers set off for the war, he was doing his thing, sniggering in the corner, back then too! Even now, look at him, he can’t look you in the eye. Right now, he can’t look the collective in the eye and he can’t say anything! Because he doesn’t even know how to speak, all he does is equivocate and sneer, and it’s the same in his poems. Now I may not be an overly sophisticated fellow” – at this point he went into a sort of trance, and Misha could distinctly feel the pleasure, a pleasure not far short of ecstasy, with which Goltsov was working himself up – “I’m of the simple sort, like Krapivina over there, and, comrades, I feel her pain. But it is high time we got rid of this lordly attitude, you know, this scornful contempt! It has only just come to the surface, but it has always been there. And I will even go so far as to say, albeit some may take offence, comrades, there’s no harm in that – I will say that the more there is of this cultural sophistication, all this high-brow sparkle, at the top, the more common-as-muck, brutish boorishness there is lower down, comrades! Boorishness of the very worst kind, plain and simple. And I propose that we purge the ranks once and for all, because it is an oversight on our part, we need to admit to ourselves that we are guilty of an oversight. Yes.”
Goltsov would have gone on talking for a lot longer, but at that point Misha sensed that the situation had changed drastically, that he really was doomed and that he had only himself to blame. He had tolerated what was happening for too long and had raised no objections. And when Goltsov got back onto the subject of his glossy veneer and lordliness for a third time, Misha leapt from his seat like a coiled spring, and started shouting: “Comrades, what the hell is all this?! Are you listening to this nonsense he’s spouting?”