I just finished Viktor Astafyev’s 1989 novella Людочка — it took me twice as long as it should have, because it’s very grim and I kept having to take breaks from it. It’s been translated twice, by David Gillespie in Soviet Literature 8 (1990) and by Andrew Reynolds in The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing (1995). I wrote to Lisa/Lizok (who liked it as much as I did: “Lyudochka is utterly dark and depressing, but it’s also very, very good”) and said I wasn’t sure whether I’d post about it (“my Russ-lit posts aren’t very popular”), but she urged me to, so here I am. Warning: I’m going to thoroughly spoil the plot, so if you care about such things and want to read the story, you might want to do so first and bookmark the post for later.

Astafyev frames the story in traditional manner, as something somebody told him (“Мимоходом рассказанная, мимоходом услышанная история, лет уже пятнадцать назад” [A story told in passing and heard in passing, fifteen years ago now]), but after that the frame is forgotten and the narration plunges you into the tale of how Lyudochka was born in a dying village called Vychugan, didn’t do well in school and felt out of place after her widowed mother hooked up with a strong-and-silent guy (who is never named — he’s just “the stepfather”), and left for the city to try to earn a living. (From the references to Вэпэвэрзэ, i.e. ВПВРЗ = Вологодский паровозовагоноремонтный завод, I assume the city is Vologda.) She wanders into a hairdressing salon run by the aged Gavrilovna, who feels sorry for her (and guesses she won’t be too much trouble) and lets her stay with her while learning the trade (which she never gets very good at). Every day on her way to and from work Lyudochka walks through the VPVRZ Park, where a group of young hoodlums or wannabe hoodlums hang out, led by a guy called Артемка-мыло ‘Soapy Artyom’ for his foamy-looking hair. Once when she was cutting his hair she got tired of his constantly feeling her up and hit his head with the trimmer, drawing blood, after which he told his gang to leave her alone.

The central plot begins with the arrival of a criminal nicknamed Стрекач [Strekach]; Gillespie calls him Roach and Reynolds Botfly, I don’t know on what basis (I know стрекач only from the phrase дать стрекача ‘to take to one’s heels, run for it’; I can’t find anything that gives an insect meaning for the noun). He’s done time in a labor camp, carries a homemade switchblade, and takes over the gang, reducing Artyom to a mere henchman. One day he’s leaning against a bench and hollering “Ба-бу-бы-ы-ы-ы! Бабу хочу!” ‘I want a woman!’ (which reminded me of Uncle Teo yelling “Voglio una donna!” in Amarcord); at that moment Lyudochka comes by, and Strekach grabs her and starts tearing at her dress, ignoring Artyom’s timid remark that she’s local, somebody they know (“Здешняя. Мы ее знаем”). When she resists, he pushes her into the weeds behind the bench and brutally rapes her. When she manages to make her way back to Gavrilovna’s house, she tells the horrified old lady that she wants to go home to her mother.

When she does, her mother, though welcoming, shows no open sympathy; Astafyev says she’d had enough troubles of her own that she felt fate inscribed on every woman the word терпи ‘suffer, endure’ — пусть сама со своей ношей, со своей долей управляется, пусть горем и бедами испытывается, закаляется [let the girl deal with her burden, her lot in life, herself, let her experience grief and troubles and be hardened by them]. She tells Lyudochka that she and her man (she never calls him “husband” — that would be tempting fate) are planning to leave the ramshackle hut in the now-dead village and buy a new one elsewhere, and Lyudochka decides to return to the city the next day. There Gavrilovna tells her, very apologetically, that the gang has threatened they will burn her house down if there’s any trouble (the police got wind of the incident and brought Artyom in for questioning) and it would really be better if Lyudochka moved elsewhere — “just temporarily.” But she can’t find other lodgings and has to stay with Gavrilovna, who tells her at least to stay out of the park and avoid the «саранопалы» (which Reynolds renders “scum” — again, I have no idea how the word, used only by Astafyev, is formed). She won’t do that, though; she’s hoping to punish Strekach with a razor she carries with her, but she doesn’t see him. Then she (who has always laughed at religion, like a good Soviet girl) has an impulse to go to church and tells Gavrilovna she’d like to accompany her; the old lady indignantly refuses, saying (in one of the crucial lines of the story) that you have to be worthy of believing in God: “достойным веры в Бога надо быть.” This dooms the girl. Rejected by her mother and now by God, she hangs herself from the branch of a poplar tree in the park, trying to mouth a few half-remembered prayers before she dies.

It’s decided not to bury her in the village because it’s about to be turned into a collective farm and the cemetery will be plowed over, so there’s a hasty interment in “the standard city cemetery, among the standard grave markers” [На городском стандартном кладбище, среди стандартных могильных знаков], after which the little group of mourners (mother and stepfather, plus her fellow workers from the hairdressing salon) gather at Gavrilovna’s for the funeral banquet [поминки]. While the others are eating and getting drunk, the stepfather quietly slips out and goes to the park. He soon finds the gang, identifies Strekach, and rips the crucifix from his neck (“Бога-то хоть не лапайте, людям оставьте!” [At least don’t paw God, leave him to (decent) people!]. The astonished and indignant Strekach starts to pull his knife, but the stepfather, who has done serious time in the gulag and “never been on his knees before anyone,” pulls it out of his hand, throws it in the weeds, drags the howling, ineffectually resisting Strekach to the filthy industrial drainage ditch running through the park, and hurls him in. When the gang tries to block his path as he leaves, the stepfather looks at them and growls like a wild animal, and they realize he’s on an entirely different level from their local hooligans (I quote Reynolds’ translation):

Пакостные, мелкие урки, играющие в вольность, колупающие от жизненного древа липучую жвачку, проходящие в знакомых окрестностях подготовительный период для настоящих дел, для всамделишного ухода в преступный мир или для того, чтобы, перебесившись, отыграв затянувшееся детство, махнуть рукой на рисковые предприятия, вернуться в обыденный мир отцов и дедов, к повседневному труду, к унылому размножению, сейчас вот уловили они хилыми извилинками в голове, что существование среди таких деятелей, как это страшилище, — житуха ох какая нефартовая, ox какая суровая и, пожалуй что, пусть она идет свом порядком.

These nasty, petty little criminals were just playing at what it would be like to enjoy total freedom to do anything, scratching from the tree of life a sticky gum, a little piece of the action, enjoying a learning period in familiar surroundings before entering for real the world of crime, or even perhaps before eventually deciding, having got the madness out of their systems and having finished mucking around in a belated childhood, to give up as a bad job all this risky business, and return to the boring, everyday world of their fathers and grandfathers, to daily toil and cheerless reproduction. And now they’d understood in a single second, they’d understood with the pathetic convolutions of their tiny minds, that existence alongside such operators as this terrifying creature was the harshest, not the coolest of lives, and that it would be better therefore to leave such a life well alone.

The story ends with an ironic passage about how the police, unable to prove anything, left the whole mess out of their official reports. It’s brilliantly written and has echoes of Anna Karenina (Anna’s attempt to pray before her suicide) and Farewell to Matyora (the dying village, the cleaning of the house before Easter), and Astafyev has earned his place in the company of Tolstoy and Rasputin. There are lots of difficult words from dialect and criminal slang, but anyone who can read Russian at a decent level should give it a try. You won’t soon forget it.


  1. You won’t soon forget it.

    That’s exactly why I’m glad you decided to write about “Lyudochka,” Languagehat! I hope your post will inspire others to read it. I, too, found “Lyudochka” unforgettable and though I didn’t remember all the details you mentioned, the story’s darkness and atmosphere have stayed with me in an almost physical way.

    And how strange about the translations of Стрекач! I wonder if the translators both went for insects because of “стрекоза”?

  2. My assumption would be that саранопалы is a distortion of Sardanapalus.

  3. January First-of-May says

    I wonder if the translators both went for insects because of “стрекоза”?

    I’d rather guess стрекотать “to chitter”, but both could be relevant, or it could be something else entirely.

    I’m not actually sure what стрекач itself means, if anything, as I also only know it from the phrase; for all I know it might be a dialectal term for a grasshopper or something.

  4. Is there some idiom in the Russian (like analogizing sap to money*) that led to the odd translation “scratching from the tree of life a sticky gum”? Or is the stickiness meant to convey sweetness and desirability, like maple syrup?

    * Just last week, I re-watched the episode “You Got to Have Luck” of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, from which I first (at age five) learned (from John Cassavetes) that dough was slang for “money.” (I am actually surprised by how well I remember most of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which I saw once, almost forty years ago. In contrast, ten years ago, when I re-watched all the episodes of The Twilight Zone,** which I watched more frequently as a kid, I found that I didn’t remember anything about most of the episodes, even some which I am sure I had seen more than once in childhood.)

    ** On Saturday nights, around 1982, The Twilight Zone was on first, followed immediately by Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Even then, those were the only two anthology series from the “golden age of television” that were still frequently shown in syndicated reruns. And that was less than two decades after the two shows went off the air. My daughter had a hard time believing that there could have been so many such shows in the 1950s and early 1960s that are utterly forgotten today, so I looked up a few other show names online: Fireside Theatre, a.k.a. Jane Wyman Presents; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents; Cavalcade of America; Climax!; Crown Theatre with Gloria Swanson; The DuPont Show of the Week [or Month]; Schlitz Playhouse of Stars; Ford [Television] Theatre; The Joseph Cotten Show; The Philco[-Goodyear] Television Playhouse; Your Jeweler’s Showcase; Letter to Loretta; Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre (the last of the type, I believe—the only anthology show, except ones that just showed unsold pilots during the summer months, remaining on the air after the end of The Twilight Zone). Not that I have ever seen any of them myself; I just known that in 1982, my own parents told me that there had been lots of anthology shows on television when they were young. I wonder how many of them are cheaply available in syndication, or how many even survive.

  5. I don’t think “липуч[ая] жвачк[а]” means gum. It is true, chewing gum is translaeted into Russian as жвачка, but it is the chewing part, not gum. The expression is very strange and doesn’t make much sense to me.

    It is wrong to judge on the basis of a single paragraph, but I didn’t like the one quoted in OP. It has unmotivated (IMHO, obviously) jumps between registers, which would be ok if done on purpose, but it just seems random.

    Пакостные, мелкие урки [just a bit lower than standard literary speech] играющие в вольность [elevated] колупающие [lower than usual literary register] от жизненного древа [elevated, archaizing] липучую жвачку … на рисковые предприятия [standard literary Russian] вернуться в обыденный мир отцов и дедов, к повседневному труду [this is more fitting for a political boilerplate not in belle lettres] к унылому размножению [now that wouldn’t be told by a polititian, standard literary] сейчас вот уловили они хилыми извилинками в голове, что существование среди таких деятелей, как это страшилище [standard literary, but хилыми извилинками is at the lower end (obviously on purpose, to show their low intellect), деятелей is ironic put down from an elevated speech and страшилище is a bit archaic, but with ironic bent; it all would be ok, but they just don’t mesh together] житуха ох какая нефартовая [lower register, argot] ox какая суровая и, пожалуй что, пусть она идет свом порядком [standard literary].

    Again, it might have been all ok if the parts fit together, but here they don’t.

    Стрекач. I agree with Sardanapal.

  6. Стрекач.

    Excellent! How did you do that?

    As for his style, I would indeed urge you to read an entire work by Astafyev and not judge him on one paragraph. He’s doing a lot of things simultaneously, and he’s an excellent writer.

  7. How did you do that? — just googled.

    Sorry, but it didn’t work for me on a larger scale as well. And I have a lot of respect for Astaf’ev. Cursed and killed («Прокляты и убиты») is something that had to be written and he did it. But as literature, not my cup of tea. No biggie, there are plenty of things to be read.

  8. Стрекать=кусать (applies to insects and stinging weeds like nettle), to sting

    I think you omitted a very important scene. It’s not only the rape that finally pushes Lyudochka to commit suicide, it’s when the урки come to her and announce that from now on she will serve their sexual needs on demand, because, as they put it, “Your mouse-trap has been prised open, now you have to welcome the mouse in there”. Only after this happens, Lyudochka hangs herself.
    And I have to ask you for a personal favour. Please, PLEASE never ever write or say “he spent time in a gulag”. It is extremely cringeworthy. GULAG is an acronym meaning the government agency in charge of the prison camps. Certainly the guy did not spend his time in a government agency but in a prison camp per se, and moreover, by the time of which Astafiev writes, GULAG was no longer about.

  9. I think you omitted a very important scene.

    I was giving a summary, not a blow-by-blow retelling, and I was focusing on what seemed to me vital in terms of Astafyev’s central concerns, especially the religious element, but of course you’re right that that’s an important plot point.

    And I have to ask you for a personal favour. Please, PLEASE never ever write or say “he spent time in a gulag”. It is extremely cringeworthy.

    Oh, give me a break. Yes, it would have been more accurate if I’d written “in a gulag camp,” but what I wrote is common English usage, and the word is part of the English language (in fact, more so than Russian; Wikipedia: “The word Gulag was not often used in Russian, either officially or colloquially; the predominant terms were the camps (лагеря, lagerya) and the zone (зона, zona), usually singular, for the labor camp system and for the individual camps.”

    moreover, by the time of which Astafiev writes, GULAG was no longer about.

    Spare me. In the first place, you have no idea what time he was writing about; even assuming it was in fact based on a real incident, he says “fifteen years ago” is when he heard the story, not when it happened. And in the second place, yes, the Gulag as an institution was officially closed in 1960, but nobody but a fool would take that as anything but a paper change. The camps kept functioning right up to the time of Gorbachev. Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.

  10. But as literature, not my cup of tea.

    Ah well, we have different literary tastes. No biggie, as you say!

  11. January First-of-May says

    Стрекать=кусать (applies to insects and stinging weeds like nettle), to sting

    Whence стрекательная клетка “cnidocyte”, one of the few other instances of this root that I was previously aware of. (I didn’t mention it before because I didn’t think it was relevant, and because I wasn’t sure what did the root mean in this context.)

  12. @languagehat: It might have been a paper change in 1960, when the GULAG agency formally ceased to exist. However, since Stalin’s death in 1953, the number of people in prison camps, labor camps, and internal colonies had fallen substantially. Especially after 1956, under Khrushchev’s regime, the MVD had no problem locking up, exiling, and sometimes execting people who were deemed to be actual trouble-makers, but they largely stopped imprisoning people just to fill arbitrary quotas and to keep the rest of the population terrified. However, I’m not sure whether there was a re-increase in the camp and exile populations after the 1964 Brezhnev coup.

  13. Yes, of course, but none of that is relevant to the issue of whether it’s important to talk about the man in the story having been in the “camps” rather than the “gulag”; that’s the kind of nitpicking that annoys me no end. (As it does to hear kids today say “to no end,” which means something entirely different to me.)

  14. I agree with you about the gulag terminology, of course. It does occur to me now, however, that people interested in the Soviet system do tend to be careful to use the temporally correct acronyms for the secret police agencies. (While was composing my own previous comment, I had to stop and think for a few seconds before typing “MVD.” And now it seems like that was wrong, and the name changed to “KGB” in 1954.) On the other hand, the secret police officers remained “Chekists,” which emphasized the continuity of the various agencies in spite pf the name changes and nominal changes in jurisdiction and oversight. I guess there is no reason to expect that the way we refer to the Stalinist security organs should be consistent, rather than riddled with contingent oddities.

  15. Yes, that’s an annoying mess. I tend to think of the early version as the Cheka and later avatars as the KGB, and don’t worry my head about the chronological details.

  16. Not sure how you measure post popularity but I always like the Russ-lit posts a lot!

  17. Thanks! I just meant they tend to get a lot fewer comments than posts on, say, English usage; it’s always good to hear people like them. You have just made future Russ-lit posts a smidgen more frequent!

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    I enjoy these posts; it’s more that I am more or less totally unqualified to actually comment on them. On other topics, I lack this insight.

  19. I agree, too. I don’t think it’s just that they are Russian; it’s easier to comment off the cuff on linguistics, and in general on materials which are easy to access on the internet. In any case, Hat, I like your writing, even if I don’t know what it’s about.

  20. It occurred to me last night (as I was lying there unable to sleep) that the Strekach/stepfather story line is parallel to the plot of the 1983 Makanin story Антилидер [Antileader] (i.e., someone who can’t stand leaders), about a guy named Tolya Kurenkov, who is generally mild and calm but every so often becomes enraged by men he sees as affluent or popular and violently attacks them. This gets him in trouble, but it’s not so bad until he winds up hitting someone with a table leg in a street fight (he himself can’t explain how he got into it) and is arrested and sent to jail in Siberia. There he’s dealing not with ordinary Soviet citizens but with hardened criminals, and when he gets into trouble with one of them, he winds up dead (much as in the grim Kolyma stories of Shalamov). It’s a good, powerful story line, and I’m sure there are other examples.

  21. put me down with DE and Y (and the others who’ve said similar things)!

    i think it’s unlikely i’ll learn a slavic language anytime soon, and russian isn’t at the top of my list, but your tastes of untranslated wonders make me wish the world had more time in it – and the tastes of translated wonders make me despair (in the best way!) of reading everything i want to that’s already around in the languages i do have!

  22. Excellent! And yes, I feel that sweet-and-sour despair myself.

  23. I know minimal Russian (barely enough to try to pronounce the words) but I read your articles on Russian literature with great interest. One reason is the window it opens on life in Russia in various periods. It is also an opportunity to read the Russian speakers’ comments “from the horse’s mouth”. Keep it up!

  24. It occurs to me that the “саранопалы” that puzzled me (translated “scum”) is probably a euphemistically distorted “сранопалы” (‘shit-fingers’), though that gets no Google hits and is presumably invented by Astafyev.

  25. Oh, all right, then, I give in!

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