Monday, January 16, 2012

Nothing Heavier Than a Purse

In some ways the Soviet Union became a cultural wasteland after the brief twilight of experimental enthusiasm that came to an abrupt end with the collapse of NEP and the advent of collectivism and industrialization. The deleterious effects of totalitarianism and socialist realism were impossible everywhere manifest. And yet the Bolshevism continued to encounter some of the world's most brilliant thinkers and artists right up until the empire's dissolution in 1991. Like Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, aka Abram Terz, was one of the world's best minds. His brilliance had aesthetic, moral, and critical dimensions. A novelist, anthropologist, literary critic in the broadest sense of the word, and dissenter, Sinyavsky was famously tried and then jailed in labor campus for publishing his daring work in the West. His notes from prison, entitled A Voice from the Chorus, rank among the best works of philosophical resistance the modern world has ever produced. His censored thoughts are fragmented, perhaps even discordant, but generally related to freedom (or its absence), love, criminality, violence, language, God, ontology, literature, and Russian identity. Sinyavsky's greatest talent is to listen closely to his neighbors, for truth, it turns out, can be found everywhere, even, or perhaps especially, in the Soviet Union's prisons. Indeed, truth is intimately related to form. Thus, the best critics should be analyzing prisoner-told tales and peasant folklore with as much care as they do one of Tolstoy's massive tomes. Most of the quotes below were first uttered by prisoners, but it was Sinyavasky who knew enough to take them seriously, and to hear complexity in even the most brutally straightforward jokes, threats, laments, or epigrams.

Love and Women

She has a house in Rostov and a husband who doesn't drink.

Don't expect a picnic, what have I got but a soul and a prick?

But mathematics I loved terribly, like a wife.

Only whores like a man who smokes in bed.

The girls really loved me: I always let them have a puff on my cigarette.

They were all sorry later that I didn't fall in love with them.

She was more than I could have expected for the likes of myself. But pretty easy she was with everybody, as it turned out.

Nothing but beautiful words should be coming out of her mouth. But she swears like a trooper.

I looked at the dame and saw she was a real doll. But right then I had no times for dames or the flicks because I was on the run.

I added her to my collection.

Is this your girl? God knows! My wife writes and says she is.

If a woman has given a man her heart she will give him her purse. (From Balzac).

Ah wives. Wives. They may have the kindness to lie with you every now and again.

I was lucky to get quite a good husband, I do admit. I'd even agree now, she writes, to having one half as good. True, he was a pretty heavy drinker.

All the same, women enjoy great popularity in this world!

I don't know what a woman is. And my life is over. You may laugh, but it's a fact.

If you want to understand women read the Decameron, and then you'll know what kind of birds they are!

Women of the Madame Bovary type are more to my taste.

Our cashier girl has pink knickers. I saw them in a dream!

Life and Philosophy

When I first heard of death I didn't want to live.

We long to be not ourselves. That is what matters most.

Strange that every time I wake up I turn out to be myself.

We came into this world to understand certain things: very few, but exceedingly important things.

To understand it to go mad.

Me? Interested in a cat? I haven't even got it in my soul to live.

Oh! I did laugh in 1959: a man fell in a hole and then his wife fell in after him.

It is always interesting to speculate how a man will behave after his life has collapsed in ruins.

Man is engaged in a constant process of dying, and yet does nothing but dream of reaching a point where he will really begin to live.

To go through life is not as easy as crossing a field. (Russian proverb).

Sometimes you feel as if you must be reading a book, and that once you have finished it and looked around -- life will be over.

Andrei, what do you think of dragons? I mean, where did they all go?

In the past people did not cling to life as much, and it was easier to breathe.


The fortune teller looked at the water and said: "He will live, but it would be better if he didn't."

What I am grateful to the lord for is that I never killed anyone in the whole of my life. And the number of opportunities I had!

Even in his sleep he was all the time trying to prove that he was not guilty.

I managed all this without a mother or a father!

In school me and my brother managed two and a half classes between us.

There used to be more fun in the camp in the old days. Someone was always being beaten up or hanged. Every day there was a special event.

One thief to another, smugly: "I've never held anything heavier than a purse in my hand!"


Art is insolent because it is so clear. Or rather, it is insolent to make itself clear. First it sticks a knife into a table and then says: there you are -- that's what I am like.

The hardiest of all man's creations art turns even death, its enemy, into an ally.

In ancient times death centered around the two extreme poles of human life.

Art, I think, does nothing but turn matter into spirit and vice versa.

A diffident man cannot allow himself to work badly, in slipshod fashion--as a genius can.

Art is thus the intermediary between generations.

Life is more significant than we think, oh yes, more significant than we think.

God and Religion

Oh yes, God exists alright. If anybody says there's no God I'll poke his eyes out.

And at that moment my prayer failed to reach God, because I couldn't take my eyes off that dirty Jew. (Said at Christmas).

The Soviet State

Apropos of the "Declaration of Human Rights" a gaurd in charge of the work-party said: "You don't understand. It's not for you. It's for Negroes.

The doctor was there in his white coat and I said: "I'm going blind." "It's just mania," he said.

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