A new translation of stories by Zoschenko, a satirist who deftly took whacks at the Soviet regime before the hammer came down on such writing in the 1930s.
Zoschenko (1895–1958) was the perfect comic writer for a peculiar time in the history of Russia. In 1921, realizing that redistribution of wealth couldn’t happen without actual wealth to redistribute, Lenin launched his New Economic Policy (NEP), which promoted state-controlled capitalism. NEP was tangled up in contradictions—one of which being that it permitted a slew of satirical magazines that criticized the government, and Zoschenko ruled those roosts in his heyday . The stories are all brief—rarely more than a few pages long—and send up the perplexing new economic order with quick, simple jabs. In “Host Accountancy,” an accountant laments rising costs at a dinner party, then tallies up how much his guests cost him—prompting all of them to leave. In “Electrification,” the residents of a building finally get electrical wiring installed—only to realize the lights reveal their abject poverty. Zoschenko’s Soviet Russia is full of people living on top of one another in apartments (in “Crisis,” a man takes up residence in a bathroom), dealing with thievery (both from petty criminals and the “Nepmen,” or state-sponsored capitalists) and navigating Soviet bureaucracy (in “The Cross,” a man needs a pass both to enter and leave a building). Zoschenko was a populist writer—translator Hicks argues that he was one of the country’s most widely read authors of the ’20s—and, like most popular scribes, had a formula. Much like a stand-up comic, he’d introduce a familiar topic (say, long waiting lines), segue into a shaggy-dog story, then drive home the ironic twist in the final couple of paragraphs. Zoschenko’s shtick is obvious, but though these stories are primarily of historical interest, his humor occasionally survives eight decades and a communist regime.
Amusing, but mainly for Russian history- and literature-lovers.