Nikolai Nikolaevich.

I just finished one of the two great samizdat hits of 1970, Yuz Aleshkovsky‘s Николай Николаевич [Nikolai Nikolaevich]. It was passed around and eagerly copied by people with typewriters, even memorized and endlessly quoted; finally, in 1980, after the author emigrated to the US, it was published by Ardis (which rescued so much Russian literature from official oblivion). I had previously revered Aleshkovsky for his immortal song about the Gulag “Товарищ Сталин, вы большой ученый” (“Comrade Stalin, you are a great scholar”; the text is here, and you can read Boris Dralyuk’s lively translation, as well as hear Aleshkovsky sing it, here); of course, I was immediately grabbed by the second line, “В языкознаньи знаете Вы толк” [you know linguistics well]. I had wanted to read his famous first novel for a long time, but it’s a good thing I didn’t try back in the pre-internet days, because I wouldn’t have been able to make my way through its astonishing prose, so dense with idiom, slang, and profanity that even now I have to google something in every paragraph that you won’t find in dictionaries. Andrei Bitov wrote about it here; he describes the new language that arose after the Revolution, used by writers like Zoshchenko and Dobychin but driven underground by Stalin, who separated literature from the living language. He says Aleshkovsky used this living language first in his songs and then in the novel: “советский язык прошел свое литературное развитие от песни до рыцарского романа, и советская литература наконец родилась!” [the Soviet language passed through its literary development from song to chivalric romance, and Soviet literature at last was born!].

So what’s it about? The titular Nikolai, a young pickpocket who has done time and is now working the tram and trolley lines of Moscow, is warned by his aunt that Beria is raising the penalties drastically, so he’d better take up some other line of work. She gets him a job in a biological institute, where after he refuses to push brooms around he is given work as a sperm donor, and once the researcher who hired him, Kimza, realizes the superhuman power of his sperm he starts living the good life (he naturally demands an increase in pay and regular vodka rations). He also falls in love with the lab assistant Vlada; unfortunately, Kimza is also in love with her, and she is married to a third man. Then the Lysenkoists stage a coup, firing the director and destroying the experiments as anti-Soviet (they are accused of “Morganism,” which Nikolai thinks involves necrophilia in a morgue), and things look pretty dicey, but they turn out well after Stalin dies. It’s short and delightful, and there’s an English translation by Duffield White (available in Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage: Two Novels) that the author was consulted on, so it should be reliable; if you have a TLS subscription or haven’t hit the paywall, you can read Dralyuk’s review here (“Joseph Brodsky once noted that Aleshkovsky had a Mozartian ear for the Russian language”).

A couple of random things I enjoyed: the международный урка [international hoodlum] who serves as a mentor to Nikolai is said to know “три языка […] и четыре ‘фени’: польский, немецкий и финляндский” [three languages and four criminal jargons: Polish, German, and Finnish], and at one point Nikolai masturbates while reading Далеко от Москвы (Far from Moscow), a well-known “production novel” from 1948 in which conflicts are artificial, “the most important technological ideas always occur to the various characters simultaneously,” and Gulag labor is presented as free workers’ heroic sacrifices for the building of communism. Also, I should warn the prospective reader that there is a new “upgrade” edition of the novel Aleshkovsky produced a few years ago that is apparently completely rewritten; I read the original, which is also the basis for the translation.

Next I’ll be reading the other great samizdat hit of 1970, a true classic of Russian literature, Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki. I first read it over two decades ago, and it bowled me over (as it does everyone); there was a lot that zipped right by me then, and I’m looking forward to re-experiencing it now that I have a lot more Russian and Russian literature under my belt (it’s full of literary allusions). The two books have a good bit in common, featuring a young man on the fringes of society madly in love and drinking heavily, but Aleshkovsky’s book is a comedy and Erofeev’s a tragedy (furthermore, as best I can remember, it doesn’t have any actual curse words in it, though a lot of cursing is implied). I plan to read it in tandem with the acclaimed new critical biography Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The outsider; see this post of Lizok’s), and I expect I will report on it when I’m done.


  1. Gotta say “production novel” sounded at first like a euphemism, given its immediate context.

  2. Heh. So it does!

  3. I imagine Thomas Morgan’s name was chosen from among western geneticists primarily for the sake of the joke about the morgue. However, the mention of a “Morganism” does make me wonder what that might refer to. In the earlier part of his career, Morgan was a fairly outspoken critic of Darwinian evolution and did not believe that the Darwinian selection pressures could adequately explain speciation. However, after he discovered the chromosomal basis for the Mendelian inheritance of mutations around 1915, he changed his view. So in different eras of his career, Morgan espoused very different ideas about the nature of evolution.

  4. I imagine Thomas Morgan’s name was chosen from among western geneticists primarily for the sake of the joke about the morgue.

    Actually, вейсманизм-морганизм ‘Weismannism-Morganism’ was the actual term used by Lysenkoists to attack supporters of scientific genetics; of course, Aleshkovsky chose the Morgan part for the joke.

  5. Just a heads-up on a typo or two: missing close-paren after the link to Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage: Two Novels or nearby; and is the gloss of финляндский as Russian intentional? Burn after reading if wished, of course.

  6. Every time I hear Nikolai Nikolaevich I think about

    Immortalized in that unforgettable scene in Good Soldier Schweik:

    The right-hand man gazed reproachfully at his superior officer.

    “If you only knew, sir, the things you said to him yesterday…”

    He bent down toward the police sergeant’s ear and whispered :

    “You told him that the Czechs and the Russians was brothers, that the Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevitch would get to Bohemia by next week, that Austria wouldn’t hold out, and that when he came up for trial he was to deny everything and just get them muddled up with some cock-and-bull story so as to keep things going until the Cossacks came and set him free. And then you said the Emperor was a knock-kneed old buffer who was going to peg out before very long and that the Kaiser was a skunk and that you’d send him some money so as he could have an easier time in prison, and a lot more things like that.”

    The right-hand man moved away from the police sergeant and continued :

    “I can remember all that because at first I wasn’t very tight. Afterward I got a bit squiffy myself, so the Lord alone knows what you said then.”

    The police sergeant looked at his right-hand man.

    “And I can remember,” he declared, “that you said we was no match for Russia, and then, right in front of the old woman, you yelled : ‘Three cheers for Russia !’ ”

    ”You do come out with some choice language, I must say,” demurred the police sergeant. “And where did you get the fat-headed idea from that Nikolay Nikolayevitch was going to be King of the Czechs?””

  7. Just a heads-up on a typo or two

    Many thanks; I’ve fixed them. I can tell you exactly how the “Russian” thing happened — as I was translating I was thinking “He says four but then only names three… oh, of course, the fourth is Russian.” From my brain straight to my fingers.

  8. международный урка
    Obviously Russian hoodla are believed to be descended from orcs.

  9. I’ll be watching for news on your Erofeev reading, Langugehat, and hope you enjoy the biography even half as much as I did!

  10. I’ve gotten to the second footnote in the biography, and it fills me with trust (and satisfies my copyeditor’s soul): “Одни мемуаристы называют Ерофеева Венечкой, другие – Веничкой. Мы при цитировании сохраняем эту разность.” [Some memoirists call Erofeev Venechka, others Venichka. In quoting them, we preserve this difference.]

  11. SFReader, I’m curious where that Schweik translation came from – in the original it’s Вахмистр and ефрейтор and here it’s police sergeant and right-hand man?

  12. In the Švejk Czech original (I found an online text at “The police sergeant looked at his right-hand man” is Strážmistr pohleděl na závodčího.
    Strážmistr (etymologically of course “guard-master”/ “wachtmeister” is “police constable” in Fronek’s dictionary, which works for the modern police usage as the initial rank, but used to mean higher grades in earlier organisations, explicitly equated with the foreign term “sergeant” in some cases: the Czech Wikipedia article has:
    “V českém četnictvu byla hodnost strážmistr používána již v polovině devatenáctého století[1] a interpretována jako ekvivalent zahraniční hodnosti seržant” (“In the Czech gendarmerie, the rank of sergeant was used as early as the middle of the nineteenth century [1] and interpreted as the equivalent of the foreign rank of sergeant”). Fronek’s dictionary gives závodčí as “corporal of the guard”.

  13. I’ve gotten to the second footnote in the biography, and it fills me with trust (and satisfies my copyeditor’s soul)

    I loved the footnotes in that book!

  14. >>in the original it’s Вахмистр and ефрейтор
    I’m a real idiot – by “the original” I meant the Russian translation

  15. Russians culturally appropriated Švejk!

  16. A bit of nitpicking – “Dmitry Bykov wrote about it” – you actually link to a text by Andrej Bitov

  17. Good catch, I fixed it! (I’d been reading things by a lot of writers, and those two got mixed up in my brain.)

  18. Aleshkovsky

    Скончался 21 марта 2022 года в Тампе (Флорида, США).

    Юз Алешко́вский

  19. Oh, hell. Thanks for the news.

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