The Morning News has decided to play Reading Roulette with six Russian authors, shooting a new one into the American blogosphere each month. And because I can't get enough of translation, I’ll be writing about this year's selections — and linking to each one so you can read it yourself. This week, we consider Nikolai Klimontovich's remonstrative remembrance, "How to Crow Your Head Off."
“Given the slightest pretext,” writes Nikolai Klimontovich in the latest round of The Morning News’s Reading Roulette series, “the prison atmosphere always seems to assert itself in Russia whatever the situation: in elite holiday homes and boarding schools, orphanages, military barracks, even hospital wards. This type of organization seems to be inherent in the national character.”
It’s not endemic solely to Russia — Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Prison Experiment at Stanford implies that any group can internalize the roles of prisoner and guard. But the more corrupt a country is, the more easily it shifts into such a setup. Russia has a Corruption Perceptions Index rating of 2.4 out of 10, a number so dismally low that the New York Times summed it up in a headline: “For Russians, Corruption Is Just a Way of Life.” This “way of life” explains many aspects of Russia, from the astonishing number of car crashes in Moscow to, here in Nikolai’s story, the narrator's turn toward violence.
In "How to Crow Your Head Off," corruption enables a neighbor to shoot the family cat, in turn causing grandmother to bring in disease-ridden strays; corruption engenders the hierarchal structure of the hospital where the narrator is quarantined for ringworm; corruption becomes the best way to understand and master the school playground after he returns to society.
In the hospital, the narrator watches his fellow inmates from the sidelines: “Lousy Letuch ruled the roost, a bruiser ... He had a sidekick, a small — even smaller than me — but very strong lad of 11 called Vovan, who did all the dirty work for his boss.” (How strange that a story set in 1950s Russia can echo the bully and toadie archetypes of A Christmas Story.) And then, fresh out of the hospital and back at school, the narrator is cornered by “a nine-year-old bruiser, taller than me by a head, the spitting image of Letuch, with a couple of Vovans by his side.” What does he do? He recalls the moral corruption at the hospital and tries to fight it in his own way, with a Pyrrhic victory: “I hunched my shoulders, stuck out my head and charged with all my might.” He'd been singing before the fight, and he finishes the song with blood dribbling out of his nose.
Sixty-odd years later, the "bruisers" are manning the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin's watchful eye.
The Russian word for corruption is испорченный (prounounced “isporchenniy”) and stems from archaic Slavic words indicating spoilage or degeneration, while the word for official corruption, коррупция(pronounced “korruptsiya”), bears Latin roots. But the distinction between political corruption and individual corruption is a tricky one to make. The former, indeed, would not exist without the latter; it’s hard if not outright impossible to separate many political officials’ political dealings from their moral stances. When dissidents are punished for expressing their opinions, it's worth noting which opinions are scrutinized — and against whom.
Klimontovich was born in the early Fifties. He is not part of “the younger generation” (as he calls it) that came of age after the fall of the USSR. The younger generation was raised not by the rules of Brezhnev, but by the words of Gorbachev; not under totalitarianism, but with glasnost. But I imagine he feels some spark of recognition with the recent waves of rebellions and outspokenness in Russia, from Aleksey Navalny’svituperative critiques to the Pussy Riot closing statements. Bloody noses and all, they're still singing.
With thanks to Rachel C. for etymological advice.