By John Helmer, Moscow
When it comes to laughing at satire and caricature, tastes change. Laughable drunkenness in one generation is as hilarious as the comedians Yury Nikulin, Georgiy Vitsin, and Yevgeny Morgunov were on the Soviet screen together. Nowadays the display of alcoholism is sad – take the Russian movie actor Gerard Depardieu, for example. Likewise, it hasn’t encouraged the current generation of book readers that Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin used to make Vladimir Lenin laugh; and that when they were students, Lenin’s brother Alexander and sister Anna used to visit the writer in his old age at home in Tver. Russian interpreters these days warn against reading the old man because the social conditions he made fun of have long ceased to exist.
Sure, that’s a warning you needed to bear in mind if you’ve spent the New Year holiday reading History of a Town (История одного города). This is about an average Russian place called Glupov (Глупов, literally Sillyville) between 1725 and 1855. One of the memorable governors of the town is Pyotr Petrovich Ferdyshchenko (Пётр Петрович Фердыщенко), whose previous army career stopped short of bravery on the battlefield, or an exalted rank off it.
While Ferdyshchenko was running Glupov, there were the usual calamities. So it was a comfort for him to spend time with women he wasn’t married to.
He also made it a practice to inspect parts of the town, leaving behind orders that from the instant of his departure everything should flourish, all problems mended, obstreperousness silenced. If the occasional Glupov local complained too loudly that it wasn’t so, Ferdyshchenko would put him in jail. Glupov was also a case of Russian democracy before its time. With his subordinates in the town administration Ferdyshchenko made a habit of speaking in the familiar second-person address, ty (ты). When speaking to the boss, they would speak similarly.
It’s possibly because beach sand kept getting stuck in the pages, and a tropical fly upset concentration, that Glupov seemed unrecognizable, obsolete, unfunny too. Probably it’s because Russia’s governance today has remedied the jokes of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s time, not to mention Lenin’s.
So what is there to come back to work for, before the holiday starts again in May? Rosneft, Norilsk Nickel and Rusal share prices are up 25% on optimism for the future. Abrau-Durso is breaking MICEX exchange records, sating the unlimited thirst for champagne. Iskander Makhmudov and Vladimir Yakunin will shortly own the private monopoly of everything electric or on rails that transports passengers, above or below ground, in the Moscow area. Gennady Timchenko will have the monopoly for carrying oil barrels to port, and bring salmon and pollock back from port to the dining table. Depardieu and Oleg Deripaska will be tutoring each other on the latest in tax compliance.
“The sole object of my literary work,” wrote Saltykov-Shchedrin nearing his end, “was unfailingly to protest against the greed, hypocrisy, falsehood, theft, treachery, and stupidity of modern Russians”. That sort of thing was bound to attract censorship in the 19th century when there was truth in it. As a consequence Saltykov-Shchedrin is the writer who is credited with teaching Russians forever afterwards how to read between the lines.
Not that the skill is needed today when modern Russia is much the wiser.