The Embezzlers.

I’ve finished Kataev’s Растратчики (The Embezzlers — see this post), and once again I’m reminded of the vast difference between knowing about something and actually experiencing that thing. I had known of the book for decades as a famous NEP novel, a satire of Soviet bureaucracy in which two bozos steal money and travel, and that indeed is what it is, but that tells you nothing about the experience of reading the book, any more than knowing someone is a hockey fan who works at a coffee shop tells you anything about what it’s like hanging out with them. It starts out pretty much the way you expect (chief accountant Filipp Stepanovich Prokhorov goes to work, the messenger Nikita mentions a spate of recent embezzlements, Filipp Stepanovich and the cashier Vanechka go to the bank to get cash for the payroll, and the suspicious Nikita follows them to make sure he gets paid before they take off with the money), but then it descends into a maelstrom of drunkenness and madness. Filipp Stepanovich and Vanechka wind up on a train to Leningrad with a pair of adventuresome women (when I read “Здрасте, – ответила Изабелла, – с Новым годом! К Ленинграду подъезжаем” [“Hello,” answered Isabella, “Happy New Year! We’re going to Leningrad”] I immediately thought of Ирония судьбы [The Irony of Fate]) and wind up being fleeced in an increasingly wild series of venues, culminating in a club where actors and actresses playing imperial personages in a film about the downfall of Nicholas II pretend to be their characters for paying customers — the kicker is that many of them actually were the generals and courtiers they’re playing, and were initially afraid to get involved but were seduced by the high pay. This part was reminiscent of Двенадцать стульев [The Twelve Chairs] minus Ostap Bender, and as soon as that occurred to me I remembered that Kataev was the brother of Petrov (real name Evgeny Kataev) of Ilf and Petrov, the authors of that greatest of Soviet satirical-picaresque novels.

After they finally extricate themselves from the clutches of Isabella and Leningrad, they wind up getting off another train at the provincial town of Kalinov because Vanechka remembers the town he grew up in is near there (there’s a lyrical patch of reminiscence straight out of “Oblomov’s Dream”); it’s cold and there’s no vodka to be had in Kalinov, but they find a cabman who’s willing to drive them to Vanechka’s house where he’s sure they’ll find plenty of moonshine, which they do. At this point it swerves into a more and more nightmarish version of Gogol (who is namechecked in chapter 9), with touches of Dostoevsky (Vanechka tries to hang himself); they skip town just ahead of the police and wind up on yet another train, getting off at Kharkov because a fellow traveler tells them they should buy tickets there for the Caucasus. However, they discover they have barely enough to get them back to Moscow (and the increasingly befuddled and miserable Filipp Stepanovich has to sell his fur coat even to manage that); by this point I was thinking of a more recent and more hellish novel of alcoholic train travel, Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва — Петушки [Moscow-Petushki]. They even return to Moscow via Kursk Station.

It’s not a perfect novel — it lurches from one chronotope and style to another in a somewhat undisciplined manner — but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I’m currently reading Leskov’s famous Левша [The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea]; after that, who knows? Maybe more Strugatskys (I hear good things about За миллиард лет до конца света [Definitely Maybe]). As always, I follow my nose.


  1. Billion years before the end of times (Definitely maybe) is a very good SF, but not a great humanistic novel. It is driven, as a lot of SF, by the fantastic element that is being worked out in a very palatable whodunit fashion, but somewhat lacks in emotional engagement. I am not trying to talk you out of reading it; except for very early “comminist” novels, the whole Strugatsky’s oeuvre is well worth reading, but my first go to suggestion would be Хромая судьба/Гадкие лебеди. It seems that Хромая судьба is not translated into English. Not that it can be a problem for Mr. LH himself, but really?

  2. Гадкие лебеди has been extensively discussed here in 2012. This whole sub-genre seems to have lost its footing today, a colossus of thought erected on an eroded foundation of the general sci-fi ground. When the old Soviet Union was still fresh in memories, people realized that scifi was a necessary and respected trade-off between a need to express something profound and a tighter censor control over the ostensibly more serious genres. But the past is forgotten and the inherent contradiction with the cheesy flavor of scifi is in the way again. Perhaps the old censors were right when they didn’t pay attention to it!

    I have a feeling that less profound / less grownup / more “sci” works of the Strugatsky brothers (like “Monday” or “Island”) survived the ravages of time better.

  3. The Strugatskis are decent writers, but their work is just too deeply immersed in and preoccupied by the daily socio-cultural realities of 60s and 70s Soviet Union. Every plot development and character turns out to have some obvious real-life counterpart; their speculative worlds were always encrusted in and weighed down by their actual lived-in world. There’s an illustrative contrast with Liu Cixin whose major work is deeply rooted in the Cultural Revolution, a period incomprehensible to foreigners even more than the Soviet Union of that time. But his huge popularity abroad is I think attributable to Cixin being more skilled at the speculative worldbuilding which is the lifeblood of sci fi, allowing him to both honor and transcend the setting, and center moral-ethnical dilemmas that are universal. I just wanna be clear I’m saying this as a fan of the brothers – but if anything I find their stuff more interesting as a chronicle of the endlessly swirling intellectual and political currents in the Soviet Union than as any kind of straight science fiction.

  4. I disagree with all of you; I think the Strugatskys are among the greatest sf writers anywhere, with more strictly literary quality than almost anyone but people like Gene Wolfe, and I think their increasingly dark later work is better than popular books like Понедельник начинается в субботу (Monday Begins on Saturday). There’s no accounting for taste, of course, and I’m not saying I’m right, but that’s my taste, and people who share it have highly recommended За миллиард лет до конца света. After that it’ll be Град обреченный (The Doomed City) and Волны гасят ветер (The Time Wanderers), both of which are sitting enticingly on my shelf, but I’m not going to gobble them all up at once — I need something to look forward to!

  5. Island

    aka Prisoners of Power in English translation isn’t just SF adventure novel, it’s very political piece.

    It predicts Russian-Ukrainian war*, for example.

    *of course, they are more likely to have based the disastrous invasion of Khonti on Winter War. still, it’s very amusing to recognize familiar propaganda motives in a book written fifty years ago.

  6. Yes, I read Обитаемый остров recently and was very impressed.

  7. I think their increasingly dark later work is better

    we must have discussed it so many times by now! Back when I just got you hooked on Strugatsky’s for the first time, ( ), Sashura also wrote that the earliest work of the Kemmerer cycle, the “Island”, was his favorite. Although obviously the latter works draw on the same foundation.

    Some people are more drawn to the more rich anthropological / observational facets and some to the more philosophical but obviously it can’t be good without some balance, if it is too one-sided, as you know for yourself e.g. from the disappointment with the “Stalker” movie which clearly shifted to the dark / poignant side way too far…

    I had a strange experience with Обитаемый остров earlier this week, driving all night through across the frozen desert, with the scenes from the novel floating one after another in my mind. I couldn’t quite figure out which fleeting association awakened the first of them, but then they just kept bringing one another to the surface of the mind, instead of the usual tango tunes and Castellano lyrics 🙂 and I sure had a reason to thank the brothers for making my road easier.

  8. Yes! And thank you for getting me hooked!

  9. I disagree with all of you; I think the Strugatskys are among the greatest sf writers anywhere, with more strictly literary quality than almost anyone…

    It’s OK to disagree with me, it is even necessary, there is not much fun in agreement, so I am disagreeing with you that you are disagreeing with me.

    That reminds me of a story to which I personally was an eyewitness. A Prominent Scientist of Russian extraction came to give a seminar and answered the questions at the end. To one of the questions he answered “No” and then proceeded with more or less extended explanation. At the end, the person who asked the question was confused “Why did you say no, if the rest was the explanation that it is correct?”. The Prominent Scientist of Russian extraction answered “I didn’t know what the answer would be and said ‘no’ in case it was something stupid”. Despite me being a direct witness, all quotes are actually paraphrases, obviously.

  10. Great story.

  11. John Cowan says

    Scene: a bank. An assistant vice-president (not a very high-ranking position in a bank, perhaps 20% of all employees) picks up the phone. “What? … No. … No. … No. … No. … Yes. … No. … No. … NO!” and hangs up. His boss calls him into his office.

    “Who was that?”


    “Jones?! That crook! …. Why did you say yes to him, then?”

    “I had to. He asked me if I could hear him.”

  12. David Marjanović says

    “I didn’t know what the answer would be and said ‘no’ in case it was something stupid”

    A strange attitude for a scientist, but well suited for a politician…

  13. John Cowan says

    Lots of scientists are politicians. Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” He adds a footnote:

    Perhaps the adjective “elderly” requires definition. In physics, mathematics, and astronautics it means over thirty; in the other disciplines, senile decay is sometimes postponed to the forties. There are, of course, glorious exceptions; but as every researcher just out of college knows, scientists of over fifty are good for nothing but board meetings, and should at all costs be kept out of the laboratory!

  14. David Marjanović says

    How do you get from that to “politicians”? The board meetings?

  15. I don’t think he meant anything underhanded. Some very smart people come to believe that anything non-obvious and unexpected in their area of expertise (that is, something they didn’t think of) is wrong. More polite of them keep this opinion to themselves, less polite say “no” before thinking. At least, that’s my interpretation. Probably, that’s the same thing that JC says.

  16. John Cowan says

    Yes, the board meetings. Not the whole truth, of course: Michel Eugène Chevreul, who began as a color scientist and went on to be an organic chemist specializing in fatty acids (his name is one of those inscribed on the Eiffel Tower), took up gerontology (though the word had not yet been coined) at the age of 102.

  17. I thought it was great fun when I read it a while back and saw the parallels with Ilf and Petrov too – inevitable, perhaps, but maybe a sign of the times.

    As for “Definitely Maybe”, I loved it too – it was the first Strugatsky I read and I thought (as I so often do with Soviet writing) that the authors were doing a good job at critiquing the regime under the guise of Sci Fi. My post is here, if a link is permissable, although there might be slight spoilers….

  18. Thanks for the link — I’ll read it when I’ve finished the novel!

  19. Dmitry Pruss says

    Need help from sci fi aficionados. A time loop story where the memories of residents of a factory town are erased nightly to re-run a marketing research experiment (except one guy falls asleep in his basement and escapes the reset). The whole town turns out to be an artificial, miniature model on a workbench in some research lab…

    It isn’t Groundhog Day or any of the several prominent time loop plots easily identifiable in a search, and I don’t remember enough specifics to build a successful search query 🙁 I remember that the model town was imperfect, like the back wall of the guy’s unfinished basement became a plain copper wall, or the fields outside of town lost detail as one went further away, and after a mile became a plain plastic surface. I also remember that one of the days featured a marketing campaign full of ethnic phobias and intimidation, kind of like we witness for real lately

  20. The Tunnel under the World by Frederick Pohl, published in the January 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction.

    Russian translation – Tunnel’ pod mirom. Sbornik anglo-amerikanskoy fantastiki, Mir Publishers, Moscow, 1965.

  21. SF Reader for the win! But Dmitry’s description also shares a lot of story elements with the movie Dark CIty. Uh – spoilers for Dark City I guess – much like in the above, the town the story takes place in turns out to be fake. Each day at midnight aliens with telekinetic abilities physically rearrange the town, and alter the memories of its residents, hoping to figure out how human individuality works (as the aliens, true to schlocky sci-fi form, possess only collective consciousness). But all of this is revealed very late in the film , most of which follows the tropes and conventions of film noir. But yeah – highly recommended, now that I’ve gone and spoiled the central mystery that the movie patiently unfolds over 2 hours.

  22. I’m pretty sure I saw Dark City when it came out, but I barely remember any of that. Ah, the joys of aging! Старость не радость…

  23. Thank you for the find!!! Should I say, hats off?

    (Speaking of the exclamation marks … a couple days ago I read an essay on proper English usage by a Russian expat in the UK, where she implores the fellow Russians to stop using exclamation marks altogether. She says it marks irony or double-meaning, and only makes the English reader question your sincerity :/ Is there any truth to that? )

  24. No!!!

  25. David Marjanović says

    OF COURSE NOT!!!1!11!!!eleventyeleven!!

    …Exclamation marks are less often used in English than in German (even though they’re less used in German now than 30 years ago), so they’re a bit more likely to be perceived as over-the-top emotional, and the most common context in which people actually write like that is when they don’t mean it. But “stop using them altogether” is not good advice; they exist for a reason.

  26. Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

  27. John Cowan says

    Actually no. When Iñigo (it’s not S. Morgenstern’s fault his American translator and publisher can’t get names right) is just thinking the phrase, there are no exclamation points. When he confronts Count Rugen, he says it out loud, puncuated as follows: “Hello, my name is Iñigo Montoya; you killed my father; prepare to die.” Rugen runs away. When Iñigo catches up, all he can get out is “Hello, my name is Iñi-” before Rugen stabs him in the belly. So the second time he says it in full, he has to whisper because he has a major abdominal wound and two lesser ones in the left arm, and it’s full of ellipsis marks and Morgenstern doesn’t even capitalize “hello”.

    The third time, Iñigo is speaking out load with ellipses, but manages to capitalize “Hello”. The fourth, fifth, and sixth time he says it in a normal voice. The seventh time, he says “Hello!” and then shouts the whole thing in caps and small caps with an exclamation point at the end.

    And then he starts to cut Rugen’s heart out, but Rugen drops dead of fear before he can finish.

  28. @Dmitry Pruss: In general, the best place to go for identification of science fiction (and fantasy stories) is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange. Story identification is the most common kind of question there, and many much more obscure works than “Tunnel Under the World” get located quite quickly.

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