Thursday, August 22, 2019

Leonid Dobychin's Encounters with Lise and Other Stories

Leonid Dobychin's brilliant short stories offer richly illustrative descriptions of life in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.  They point out that Soviet citizens suffered from food shortages, food rationing, and food queues, as well as a lack of electricity and other basic services. They point to a culture of violence, social tensions, and disorder.  They show a society plagued by prostitutes, internal refugees, and disgruntled former soldiers`.  Indeed, Dobychin's prose exposes so many social ills it's a minor miracle that Soviet authorities allowed any of them to be published.

As in his other works, Dobychin style is elliptical. As Richard Bordan's introduction makes clear, Dobychin provides readers with cinematographic treatment of his characters and settings rather than sustained reflection or analysis.  Nevertheless, the characters' actions and dialogue provide strong evidence that post-revolutionary Russian society was deeply unstable, insecure, and vertiginous. Although the stories demonstrate the extent to which the Soviet regime had already overturned traditional Russian mores, they also show that Russians--and especially Russian peasants--remembered the Old Regime and even missed aspects of that regime.  In other words, while the Soviet government had won the Civil War, Soviet citizens missed concrete reminders of the Old Regime, including Tsarist buildings, as well as Old World values, including Christian ones.  Revolution therefore complicates the way many people view the relationship of the past to the present. So although Dobychin documents varied ways in which Soviet authorities tried to articulate the value of revolutionary reforms, the ostentatious of this propaganda testifies to the new bureaucracy's deep insecurity about the permanence of revolution. In other words, why was the government constantly spreading propaganda, renaming pre-revolutionary places, espousing rigid slogans, and inventing new Soviet words, if it wasn't so worried about the possibility of a successful counterrevolution? 

Dobychin also hints at the superficiality of revolutionary change by his mode of describing revolutionary change externally rather than internally.  By avoiding any discussion of complex internal changes among his characters, readers are left to believe that revolutionary change may really only be a matter of renamed things and places (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Garden, Victims Square, the October Club), new fashions (red neckties), new political terms (purges, collective farms, unions, district congresses, delegates), neologisms (Phys-Culture), etc.

Some quotations are below


"Haven't heard of any impending change of regime, have you?" asked Zolotukhina languidly, holding out her hand.


"Ah," he sighed, "the old days won't be back again."


"Under the guidance of the Communist Party, we'll aid the workers of Red Leningrad!"

"life without labor," had been written over the stage in the filling works' theater, "is theft, and without art is barbarism." 

"Damnation to you," he was painting a sign, "Mister Trotsky." 

"Away with Pessimism and Unbelief," said a little placard she was carrying;  'Poincare, take that in the kisser,' a flag flutter over her.


"Not a miracle, but science," he elucidated.  "There are no miracles."


"There's an article by Fishkina:  'Don't abuse portraits of the leaders.'"

They removed from offices the banners and garlands of colored paper:  "Imperialist predators tormenting China!  Get your filthy-bloody hands off a great oppressed nation!"

Favorite quotations

"After all, I'm not against the lowest classes.  I'm prepared to sympathize."

The court sentences the conspirators to capital punishment and petitions for its commutations to strict isolation:  Soviet power does not take vengeance. 

"Comrade Gusev brought to a near-resolution the tasks confronting the Party." 

They turned this way and that.  Behind was a cemetery, to the right--reformatory, in front--barracks.

"I made her an insulting proposition," heard Petrov, "she didn't consent." 

He was undergoing treatment for love, and a doctor examined him.

"You're an alien element," Prokhorova said, "but I like you." 

In the theater, as always, there was shooting. 

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