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Grigory Pasko: A Small Journey in Russia, Part 2

(see part 1 of this series here) Sketches from a Small Journey in Russia Part 2: Moscow-Petushki By Grigory Pasko, journalist Pokrov – 113th kilometer “…And so in these gaps I saw city lights, many lights and the vanishing station sign ‘Pokrov’. Pokrov! City of Petushki Rayon!” The drunk Erofeev was rejoicing about Pokrov because only three stops remained to his beloved Petushki. To a person who isn’t drunk, Pokrov will seem, at best, a not very pleasantt place. The fact is that it is stretched out along the federal highway Moscow – Vladimir. That is, the residential houses (mostly wooden) and buildings (including administrative) are situated along both sides of a wide road, along which cars and trucks hurtle along at great speed. Why at great speed even within a population center [where the speed limit is supposed to be 60 kilometers per hour—Trans.]? Because even long ago the great Nikolai Gogol already wrote: “What Russian doesn’t like to ride fast!” We stopped on the road leading to the church. In Russia, all roads – even the bad ones – lead to a church. In order to get to the town market, we had to very apprehensively try and make our way across the Vladimir Tract (or the “Gorkovka”, or the “Pekinka” [the Gorky Highway or Beijing Highway—Trans.] – federal highway M-7 has many different names…). At the market, there’s mud under your feet, and goods in a veritable rainbow of colors in the stalls. Pensioner Mikhail Ivanovich trades in clematises – three hundred rubles apiece. He didn’t immediately agree to be interviewed. Says he’s not exactly a “local”, but only moved here when he retired. But he likes it here – it’s calm and peaceful, unlike Moscow, which is where he lived before. What he doesn’t like about modern Russian life is the youth and the fact that there’s “not enough order”. He’s already made his choice for the next president – former KGB lieutenant-general Sergei Borisovich Ivanov. Why him? Because “he’s a friend of Putin’s and he speaks without looking at a piece of paper.” When I was asking questions of another person nearby, Mikhail Ivanovich came up timidly and said: “Taking advantage of the situation, I’d like to tell you about my invention – a tidal power generating station”. And promptly started to tell me all about it, although I warned him right from the start that I don’t know the least thing about power stations, tidal or otherwise. We agreed that the inventor’s daughter would send me his thoughts on the subject by email.

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Pensioner Mikhail Ivanovich – inventor of a tidal power generating station and head of clematis beds at a dacha allotment (photo by Grigory Pasko).

I continued my stroll through the market. A family of Belarusians was trading in some sort of trifles. They say that coming here to make money is lucrative. Across from them in a makeshift stall sat a father and son trading in fishing gear. The father refused to give an interview, explaining: if any one of the high and mighty of this world sees him and hears his words, then he may be deprived of a place to trade at this and other markets. “That’s the way the power is in our country – it doesn’t like criticism and it seeks vengeance…”. Later many more refused to be interviewed precisely for this reason: “You’re going to show me, but I’ve got to live here…” And those Pokrovians who did agree said that they like everything about this life and that they’re going to vote for Ivanov. …I thought to myself: why is it that nearly all of them are telling me that they’re living well and that tomorrow is going to be even better? What signs of a bright future have they glimpsed in this decidedly bleak present of theirs? What is it that compels them to think this way? And once again I recalled Erofeev: “My tomorrow is bright. Yes. Our tomorrow is brighter than our yesterday and our today. But who is ready to vouch that our day after tomorrow isn’t going to be worse than our day before yesterday”. Many Russians want to elect Putin president for a third term. Many have chosen themselves another underwriter of their happiness tomorrow – KGB general Ivanov. They have subconsciously made themselves a choice for yesterday, because they don’t know how it is to live in any other future besides a Soviet one. And nobody has ever told them or is telling them about this. “What do you watch?”, I asked them. “TV channels one and two”, they replied. And I understood: they’re incapable of electing anybody besides Putins and Ivanovs. They simply don’t know there even are other people in Russia. They get their brains stuffed with stupid televised propaganda, and unlearn how to use their minds. Nobody instils good taste in them or teaches them that the most important thing in the world is to follow your conscience and be true to yourself. Indeed, they are being actively persuaded that just the opposite is true. “Admit at least, Venya [a diminutive form of Venedikt, by which Erofeev calls himself in his book—Trans.], that your soul is more ample than that mind of yours. And besides, what need have you of a mind anyway, when you’ve got a conscience and on top of that even good taste? Conscience and good taste – this is already so much that brains become absolutely superfluous.” But what happens when you no longer have even good taste or a conscience left? What if they too become superfluous? What then? Omutishche – Leonovo Erofeev the writer passed through these villages on a suburban electric train. It’s not so easy to find them in a car, though, because you need to turn off the Vladimir Highway and try to work your way blindly along unmarked forest roads. We got lost, but eventually we got there. The name of the village where the railroad station Omutishche is located is actually Starye Omutishchi. It’s a village like any other. As you enter it, there’s a huge summer café by the road, in which there isn’t a single person – not even the owner. He’s gone off someplace, and has left some strange character to keep an eye on things – this person’s appearance alone is enough to scare away any potential customers. Standing next to one of the two small stores standing right next to one another and sporting the same name – “Products” – was an elderly woman selling potatoes. I started up a conversation with her. Anna Sergeyevna was in tears within three minutes. Turns out she had lived a long time in Kirghizia [the old name for today’s Kyrgyzstan—Trans.]. And then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, she was forced to leave the place she called home. “The Kirghizes didn’t even give a piece of bread to us Russians and treated us very badly”, she told me. So badly that even many years later Anna Sergeyevna breaks into tears when she remembers. In short, she can’t speak without crying. She recommends that I pay a visit to the librarian, Yevgenia Grigorievna Mishina. It’s not that far a walk… Riverside Street… Wooden house with a sign saying “Library”… Across the street, librarian Mishina’s house. Yevgenia Grigorievna was at home, making a batch of apple jam. A very nice, kindly, pleasant woman. We ended up having a long conversation about many topics. She even brought up Khodorkovsky. Today’s power doesn’t exactly thrill her. About the elections she says: “Who is there to choose from, anyway?” She likes young people, but doesn’t like their consumerist “I want it all and I want it now” attitude. We spoke about the history of the village, about the author Erofeev and his creativity. About how there’s no work in the village, the fields stand vacant and untilled, the people travel to Moscow and to Orekhovo-Zuyevo to earn money. …As we passed the café on our way out of the village, I noticed that there still wasn’t a soul there. Rumbling by on the tracks parallel to the road was a green electric commuter train – exactly the same kind as the one Venya Erofeev rode to visit his beloved in Petushki.

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Green “elektrichka” commuter trains are ubiquitous in suburbs throughout the former USSR (from http://railroads.narod.ru).

Petushki. The station platform “Petushki – this is a place where the birds never stop singing day or night, where the jasmine remains in bloom all summer and all winter… Even for those who don’t dry up during the week, the view is endless and clear…”. Thus wrote Erofeev about Petushki. God almighty, what a dismally bleak and depressing place this is, this Petushki! After only half an hour, I was already feeling so gloomy I needed a drink. Or to get drunk. So as not to see these wretched old people at the primitive market; these perpetually smelly and drunk bums; these drunk muzhiks; these giant puddles in deep potholes on the roads; this garbage and this mud… Yet the people just walked by and seemed not to notice any of it. Like they didn’t notice the man urinating in public in Pavlovsky Posad. Like they don’t notice the bums and the plain drunkards. Like they don’t notice the homeless and the unemployed, the orphans and the cripples… They’ve gotten used to it! “The sunset was flaming, and the horses were shuddering, and where is that happiness about which they write in the newspapers?…” I think I know exactly why it was that Erofeev perpetually wanted to stay drunk in THAT country. I think I know exactly why it is that many Russians prefer to remain perpetually drunk in THIS country. Because THAT country and THIS country are in essence one and the same. And nothing has changed in the past forty years. A pleasant looking young person came up to me on the Petushki railroad station platform. He inquired as to what it was that I was filming here. I told him. Then he unexpectedly volunteered to assist me. I agreed. You see, I had immediately understood who he was. You could smell the five years he’d spent at the FSB Academy on him from a mile away. In fact, I even told him as much afterwards, and he just nodded his head silently in agreement. He actually turned out to be not a bad assistant; he even organized several interviews with local inhabitants for me. In parting, he advised me: “Don’t go around asking people about the elections, because the pre-election campaign hasn’t started yet.” “And it most likely never will”, I retorted. He looked me over carefully and asked if my name would appear in the credits of the film I was making. I said “I hope so”, and thought to myself about how my name is already in the credits of the history of the KGB. Piling on the absurdity What happened next can only be described as a theatre of the absurd. Or, as Sergey Dovlatov wrote, a “piling on of absurdity”. My driver and I spent a long time desperately trying to find the Petushki House of Culture, at which, we had been told, there is a memorial tablet dedicated to the writer Erofeev (the actual tablet turned out to be a dark, unimpressive, poorly-made little board displayed in the Rooster Museum [“Petushki” means “Little Roosters” in Russian—Trans.] amongst various and sundry rooster-related exhibits). We finally found the House of Culture on the fourth try: it turns out that police posts had blocked the way leading to it. There were a lot of police around. A crowd of people was clustered on the square in front of the House of Culture. A portly little man in a white shirt was bustling about particularly vigorously. “Who’s that?”, I asked the natives. “Why, that’s Alexey Dmitrievich Sereda, the head of the Rayon”, replied a woman all dressed up in her holiday finery. “And what’s the occasion?”, I inquired. “We’re here to greet the participants in the Moscow to Vladimir auto race” was the answer.

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Alexey Sereda – head of Petushki Rayon (photo by Grigory Pasko).

At first I thought that the woman had made a smart and clever joke: in this mud and depressiveness, in these potholes and puddles, in this godforsaken hick town, a sudden whiff of the immortal creation of Ilf and Petrov. You remember, in “The Golden Calf”, they also mentioned an auto race [Click here for a translation of the chapter in question, and compare with the reality Grigory Pasko describes below—RA]. Now Sereda approaches the microphone, and, after a choral performance of the song “O Petushki, My Petushki!”, he greets the participants in the auto race in the following words: “…In our wonderful town… we give you little roosters… In honor of the auto race under the slogan ‘We will strike a blow at impassable roads’…” And on he went, in the same spirit, with the same pathos, against a background of orchestral music. Of course, the hero of “The Golden Calf”, Ostap Bender, was way more eloquent in his manner of speaking than Petushki’s Sereda. And besides, the timeless phrase of the “Great Combinator” Ostap sounded much better: “I am pleased, comrades,” declared Ostap when replying to the welcoming speech, “to disturb the patriarchal quiet of the town of Udoyev with an automobile siren. An automobile, comrades, is not a luxury, but a means of locomotion. The iron steed is coming to take the place of the peasant’s horse. We will establish the serial production of Soviet automobiles. We will strike a blow with an auto race at impassable roads and disorderliness”.

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Vladimir Lenin – inventor of the October coup and head of a socialist state (photo by Grigory Pasko).

Raving madness! Theatre of the absurd of some kind! Déjà vu! It seemed to me that I could almost see the two jocular figures of the writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov standing watching all this from behind a nearby statue of a small, nay, positively dwarf-like Lenin. Now it was they, and not Venya Erofeev, who were celebrating the triumph of their creation. These were already their heroes, not Venya’s, who were standing on the square presenting each other with multi-colored roosters, belting out the song “O Petushki, My Petushki!” inside a tight cordon of police uniforms and cars, enviously looking on the all the “Land Cruisers”, “Porsche Cayennes”, “Land Rovers”, and BMWs that might as well have just driven in from another planet. Everybody around was rejoicing and singing. A fat policewoman, her flabby form impressively squeezed into a uniform shirt with epaulets, was having her photo taken against the backdrop of a “Porsche Cayenne”… Children were riding around on their bicycles… Lively music was playing… And in all this you could feel some kind of insincerity, a sense that everybody here was just taking part in one big charade, as if though the entire event was being performed in order to fulfill a plan to greet the participants of it didn’t really matter what – be it an auto race, or maybe the completion of the harvest, or whatever. …Erofeev would definitely have gotten drunk right there and then.

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Participants in the auto race (photo by Grigory Pasko).

And suddenly I saw HIM. He was coming across the whole length of the square, not paying the slightest attention to either the songs of praise, or the cops, or Sereda with his minions, or the mighty SUVs… He was walking, unsteadily, in a camouflage uniform for some reason (although half of Russia wears them, by the way)… I simply had to come up and talk to him. But when he started to speak, I was unable to immediately aim my video camera correctly, which is why the first few seconds came out blurry. Oh, how he spoke! Without even pausing to take a breath, and in the finest tradition of rich Russian obscenity. He said: “That’s THEM that’s having a holiday. It’s not US that’s having a holiday! I get three and a half thousand rubles a month – what the fuck kind of holiday can I have? Yeah, yesterday me and my buddies had ourselves a drink – to the holiday! For Paratrooper’s and St. Elijah’s Day. But this – it’s not our holiday. These guys, they’re a bunch of shitheads, fuck ’em all…” He indicated with his finger in the direction of Rayon head Sereda and in general at the whole crowd milling about on the square… Then he waved them all away with a gesture of his sinewy and suntanned hand and sauntered off. I don’t know what will happen with him – with this muzhik and with the whole Russian narod for that matter. Maybe he, like Venya, is going to get stabbed with an awl in the entrance to somebody’s house. Or maybe he’ll die without any help from the vodka and the sheer boredom. Or maybe, just to spite everybody (including himself!), he’ll just keep right on living and vegetating away in his boredom, amongst these potholes on the roads, and the puddles that haven’t dried out since the times of Saltykov-Shchedrin and his satirical “History of One Town” [1869-1870—Trans.], and the marasmatic Soviet songs and the myriad ubiquitous policemen… And he’ll call all this “a normal life”, in which the only thing you have to do is vote for those who are indicated to you, or better yet, not vote for anyone at all, because “they’re all a bunch of shitheads, fuck ‘em all.”