Pomyalovsky‘s Molotov.

A couple of months ago I reported on Nikolai Pomyalovsky’s Мещанское счастье [Bourgeois happiness]; now I’m on the sequel, Молотов [Molotov]. Forewarned by my earlier experience, I decided to post about this one before it went off the rails; now, halfway through, the plot is about to kick in (a father is going to force his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love and doesn’t want to marry), so I figure it’s time. Pomyalovsky is excellent in his unique way, but plot is not his forte.

What he’s very good at is observing Russians and their society from an unusual angle and writing about it and them convincingly and entertainingly (in this he resembles Pisemsky). The book begins with a description of a large Petersburg apartment building and its inhabitants: the most important and richest people on the middle floors facing the street, the somewhat less important ones on the middle floors facing the courtyard, the poor but honest on the top floor, and the poor and dishonest (with their connections to nearby Haymarket Square) below street level. In one of the better apartments lives the Dorogov family that is the focus of the novel (along with Molotov, of course). There is a long passage explaining in detail how this comfortable bourgeois family took a century to arrive at its current status, having started with a man making bad shoes and a woman making bad pies; his description of the constant striving to squirrel away every spare kopeck and keep the children profitably occupied until they can be married off reminded me strongly of the recent TV series “Victorian Slum House” (which I highly recommend). What is particularly remarkable here is that he neither condemns nor idealizes any of this; he presents this middle stratum of society (minor bureaucrats, lesser administrators, doctors, the occasional artist or writer) as being just as important and interesting as any other, if mostly limited in their views and ambitions. It’s very refreshing after reading so many stories about aristocrats and serfs; Russian culture in general has been hostile to the petty bourgeoisie.

After that, Pomyalovsky focuses in on Nadya, one of the Dorogov daughters (she was mentioned in the earlier novel as a childhood friend of Molotov’s). She spent years at a boarding school for young ladies that is portrayed with a horrified intimacy that suggests the author had a sister or good friend who had done time in such an institution. The hypocrisy and brutality make the reader ache in sympathy (wealthy girls are treated with kid gloves, of course, while the poor are punished by being put in straitjackets and having to spend prolonged periods of time on beds in the “infirmary”); Nadya rejects it all spiritually but has no desire to be treated like the openly rebellious girls, so she keeps her head down, does her tedious classwork, and waits. Here is a passage from this section (the Russian, available at the link above, begins “Не диво, что Надя встала в стороне от этой жизни”):

No wonder Nadya stood aside from this life and waited impatiently for the time when she could return to her family. When she complained to her parents, they told her “There’s nothing to be done, you have to be patient”; needless to say, such admonitions did nothing to reconcile her with the people around her. She endured, kept to herself, behaved circumspectly, watched her every step so that she would not (god forbid) somehow wind up in a straitjacket, and she never did, but malicious people sensed that she was afraid of them and did not like them. “Well,” you ask, “why didn’t she make friends?” But think about it: how could she make them? The closed-in life, removed from society, the lack of those interests common to all mankind — these things created artificial, false, institutional characters.

For instance, in this environment there flourished what is called adoration. This is not friendship, not caprice, not children’s games or imitation of older people — it is a false development of the growing need to love, a development inevitable in a closed institution, and from this misfortune there is no salvation even by henlike decorum and manuscripts softened by a woman’s hand. They adored teachers and visitors. It might happen that a girl would be attracted to a father, brother, or other relative who visited her friend, and she would lavish all her caresses and love on her friend if she resembled her guest even a little. And they adored girls with a manly face, tall girls with loud voices and courageous characters. The adoring girl would keep on her breast a ribbon belonging to the one she adored, would kiss books and notebooks she had touched, would take delight in kissing her, would drink the water remaining in a glass she had drunk from, would write love letters and arrange to meet her in corridor or bedroom. If the adored girl did not return her love, she would weep, pine, suffer visibly and grow thin. Sometimes a girl would have twenty such followers.

The strangest thing of all was that the schoolmistresses themselves, while maintaining a henlike morality, made it possible for their favorites, most of whom had lent them money or had influential relatives, to see and talk with their adored teachers. And in this period of adoration many of the girls, wanting to seem interesting — and some of them from some diseased organic disposition — would eat chalk and coal, drink vinegar and ink, suck on plaster, bricks, and slate pencils… In all this there was very little that was divine or unearthly and a great deal that was purely institutional, created by a life set almost completely apart from society.

All this has been familiar stuff since, say, the 1920s, but it must have been fairly shocking in 1861.

Probably the most original and interesting character is Molotov’s artist friend Cherevanin, who is dissatisfied with himself and life and whom Molotov tries to talk into getting away from his worthless, drunken companions and leading a more orderly existence. At one point Molotov says “In our day it’s shameful to drink,” which leads to a discussion I found striking enough to translate at length (the Russian starts with “Покажи-ко ты мне хоть одного отсталого человека”; the passage after the break “О ком же заботиться, для кого хлопотать?”); it begins with Cherevanin speaking:

“Show me even one backward person.”

“All the devotees of olden times are backward people,” answered the surprised Molotov.

“He’s poking into olden times! Listen, it’s our own age that created them — those olden times never existed, they’re new olden times… If our grandfathers came and looked at these olden times, they wouldn’t recognize them, they’d start to spit at them and wouldn’t have anything to do with them. It’s only in this age that you’ll find these olden times… What kind of olden times are they, anyway? They’re a novelty, a product of contemporary life, the latest hour, the present moment… And it turns out to be another empty word, of which there are so many in the world, a dialectical trick! Who has been left behind by the age?

“But aren’t there new people and a new life?”

“You think so?! Who on earth doesn’t know that? Everybody now alive was born in our age; they didn’t crawl out of graves or return from the other world, and they’re all living a new life. For example, up to this point nobody has lived as I’m living, and nobody had the outlook on life that I have. If you’re talking about drunkenness, well? That’s not something out of olden times, it’s new, progressive…”


“Who should we worry about and take trouble for? Aren’t we toiling on behalf of the future generation? That’s another dialectical trick, a point of lunacy, high-minded nonsense! We often hear the best people say they’re working for the future — isn’t that strange? I mean, we’re not going to be around then, are we? Is the future generation going to be grateful? But we won’t hear their gratitude, because our ears will be stopped by earth… But no, the future generation won’t even be grateful; it will call us names, because it will have gone beyond us, it will be squeezed in its strivings by people of the former age — that is, by people our age, who think like us. And everything we call backward was advanced in its day, fresh, bold, and it fought in its turn with long past routine of which not even the rumor has come down to us. Even those old men of bygone days were called by the flattering name of Voltaireans, even though they too just idled their lives away. And our time will pass! For all you know, the very youngest generation, the one that’s sitting on school benches now, might already be feeling some awkwardness in relation to us, and is cultivating a protest against you. Are they going to live just like you and me, nurse the same ideas? Is it going to move forward or not? And mark my words, when people your age are pushing sixty and you, with God’s help, have risen to a high rank, you’ll squeeze the younger generation, you will, really… It’s customary in this world that as soon as a son gets old enough to have a son himself, he starts to curse his father. Eternal moving forward makes old people feel full; we get so used to the good things we’ve already gotten that we lose our taste for them. We make use of all the goods that have been prepared for us, but we’re still unhappy; it’s just like our bellies — we fed them yesterday, but they don’t remember that, today they’re asking for bread again. People get what they’re after and they’re satisfied, but then, just look, new questions, new desires, new forces rise up, and the old life squeezes the younger generation, because a person can’t live two lives. And the new generation will get old in its turn, and will start constricting the strivings of our grandchildren. Our grandchildren will make our great-grandchildren cry, and so on to infinity. What absurdity! Let’s drink, shall we?”

“To the future generation?”

“To all generations, because they’re all the same. Is the younger one better than the older, or the older better than the younger? Is either of them happier, more moral, more reasonable? They’re all the same!”

It’s often the talkative cynics, like Prince Valkovsky in The Insulted and Injured and Baron Charlus in Proust, who are the most memorable characters.

Incidentally, I’ve picked up some random bits of Russian culture, like the wedding song “Исаие, ликуй” [Isaiah, rejoice] and Daziaro’s establishment publishing and selling art graphics; you can see a bunch of examples of the latter here, and they give a good idea of midcentury Petersburg.

Addendum. Remember what I said about Pomyalovsky presenting the middle stratum of society as being just as important and interesting as any other? He makes that very explicit in this passage. Molotov and Nadya have been talking about love, he insisting that it exists and she saying it exists in books but not in real life. Then she says:

Maybe there is love in the world, but only for the élite. You have to agree, Yegor Ivanych, that there, in the books, people don’t live the way we do, they don’t have our customs or our beliefs; most of them live without working, without worrying about their daily bread. They’re all landowners — there’s the landowner-hero and the landowner-poet. They have different strivings, different proprieties, the whole environment is different. They suffer and rejoice, believe and disbelieve differently from us. We don’t have duels, girls don’t go to balls or meetings, men don’t want to transform the world and they don’t suffer from not being able to do it. And we don’t have love, either. […] The barin [member of the gentry class] is described with noticeable sympathy, even if he’s a worthless person; education and circumstances are different, everything is on display; furthermore, the barin is always in the foreground, and the bureaucrats, priest’s wives, teachers, and merchants always turn out to be good-for-nothings, disgraceful people, they play a humiliating role, and — it’s funny — the story is often told in such a way that it’s their fault the barin is bad or suffers. Maybe the environment I was born in is disgraceful, but it’s not completely dead… One way or another, you have to seek out the good side of your own people. Otherwise, how can you live?

Может быть, и есть любовь на свете, […] да только для избранных. Согласитесь, Егор Иваныч, что там, в книгах, люди живут не по-нашему, там не те обычаи, не те убеждения; большею частию живут без труда, без заботы о насущном хлебе. Там всё помещики – и герой-помещик и поэт-помещик. У них не те стремления, не те приличия, обстановка совсем не та. Страдают и веселятся, верят и не верят не по-нашему. У нас нет дуэлей, девицы не бывают на балах или в собраниях, мужчины не хотят преобразовать мир и от неудач в этом деле не страдают. У нас и любви нет. […] Барина описывают с заметной к нему любовью, хотя бы он был и дрянной человек; и воспитание и обстоятельства разные, все поставлено на вид; притом барин всегда на первом плане, а чиновники, попадьи, учителя, купцы всегда выходят негодными людьми, безобразными личностями, играют унизительную роль, и, смешно, часто так рассказано дело, что они и виноваты в том, что барин худ или страдает. Пусть безобразна среда, в которой родилась я, все же она не совсем мертвая… Так или иначе, а надо отыскать добрую сторону в своих людях. Без того жить нельзя!..


  1. I wonder what ‘henlike morality’ is?

  2. I do too! I did a lot of looking, in both my physical books and online, and couldn’t find anything relevant. It may be a personal usage of the author’s, but of course if someone knows something about it, that would be great. (I mean, I don’t know much about poultry, but I don’t think of them as especially moral.)

  3. It’s reference to anecdote about the institution told several sentences earlier in the same paragraph.

    Начальница была так высоконравственна, что в великом посту приказала отдельно развести кур от петухов, хотя потом и сердилась, зачем это нет к пасхе домашних яиц.

    The headmistress possessed such high sense of morality that during Lent she ordered to separate hens from roosters, though later she became angry that there were no eggs for Easter.


    Victorian madness apparently reached contemporary Russia as well.

  4. Hah, that’s right, I’d forgotten that bit!

  5. Hens don’t need roosters to produce eggs (only to produce fertile ones!)

  6. Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!

  7. marie-lucie says

    Hens don’t need roosters to produce eggs (only to produce fertile ones!)

    Yes, but unless given hormone-laden food, they don’t keep laying indefinitely. Perhaps the hens in question would have stopped laying anyway.

  8. «Барина описывают с заметной к нему любовью» means “the gentleman is described with noticeable sympathy”, i.e. love/sympathy is shown by the author, not other characters.

  9. Argh, what a dumb error — thanks, I’ve corrected it!

  10. marie-lucie says

    a boarding school for young ladies

    My mother’s mother attended one of those, run by nuns as was often the case in those days. It took in both (relatively) wealthy and poor girls, but not on an equal basis: the poor girls had to be the servants of the rich girls, helping them to dress, brushing and styling their hair, and similar personal services. My grandmother remained a devout Catholic all her life (despite marrying a Protestant against the wishes of her family), but she promised herself that she would never send her children to a Catholic school. So my mother and her brother, also lifelong Catholics, went to public schools. (I heard of families where some children went to Catholic schools and later left the Church, while their siblings who went to public schools remained lifelong Catholics).

  11. run by nuns

    Yesterday I found out that only the totally cloistered type of sisters are technically nuns, and that those who teach, or do other sorts of outside work, are simply sisters (in religion). This of course does not affect colloquial usage.

  12. @John Cowan: That terminology only applied in official Catholic dogma during the time the 1917 Code of Canon Law was in effect. The distinction was invented at that time to try to address some controversies about the status of female religious. The terminological distinction was certainly never observed in normal usage, and it was abandoned when the 1983 Code of Canon Law came into effect. (Unlike in most legal jurisdictions, the new version of the catholic canon law completely supersedes the old. The “nun”/”sister” distinction is not mentioned in the current code, so it is no longer in effect; the older rule is automatically repealed, even though the matter is not mentioned in the new code.)

  13. God forbid a code should be promulgated that doesn’t mention the Pope, or he would be superseded.

    Thanks for the heads-up. A new fact one day, an exploded superstition the next.

    “Here today and gone tomorrow isn’t good enough for us in this modern age. Here today and gone today is the pidgin we pluck.” —John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)

  14. David Marjanović says

    Unlike in most legal jurisdictions, the new version of the catholic canon law completely supersedes the old.

    Ha, like codes of biological nomenclature. 🙂

    A new fact one day, an exploded superstition the next.

    heute heilig, morgen Frevel, übermorgen blanker Hohn – “sacred today, sacrilege tomorrow, patent mockery the day after”.

  15. I approve of the general message (though the last line is perhaps too rote-punk) and I’m grateful for the lyrics on the screen, because I would never in a million years have been able to decipher them just from the singing.

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