I took a gulp of lemonade, put down the glass, and took some cucumbers with sour cream from the salad dish. These were the first cucumbers of the year.
By the time I read the above quote about eating cucumbers, I was starting to wonder if anything, ever, was going to happen in USSR, Vladimir Kozlov’s exquisitely detailed but not exactly plotty autobiographical novel about an ordinary boy growing up in the late days of the Soviet Union.
The book’s protagonist, Igor, a seventh-grade boy, is moving through the ordinary, depressed, small events of childhood in the Belorussian town of Mogilev. His is a world in which, “Signs of a crumbling society were everywhere, but childhood forged on, largely structured around the daily schedule of school and activities such as clubs, sports, Pioneers and Komsomol (the mandatory youth and teenage communist organizations),” one of the book’s introductory writers explains. Another introductory writer mentions that Kozlov’s other fictional works are usually about “the quick, intuitive, and often misguided adjustments that ordinary Soviet people were forced to make on the spot in order to survive in their rapidly changing surroundings, even as they remained rooted in their small, customary ‘Soviet’ worlds…”.
That understanding, I think, is crucial to reading this book, which is about what life was like just before the cataclysmic change occurred—the book’s project is to establish that small, customary world, with great tenderness. A little boy drinking lemonade and eating cucumbers with sour cream, not understanding anything, is the essential counterpart to what’s occurring elsewhere in the scene: The adults are discussing the appointment of a new Soviet premier—Mikhail Gorbachev. And even they don’t understand what it will mean. One says, “‘It doesn’t matter who they appointed, everything will stay the same.'” Hindsight is hilarious.
With this project in mind, the child’s unimaginative viewpoint, which does not see the larger picture, is a brilliant POV from which to catalog the last days of the empire.
And what Igor does see—the smaller picture—of model cars, brands of jeans, first crushes, dads who drink too much, and bootlegged Western music is entertaining too. The narration had a habit of hopscotching from scene to scene, so I wasn’t always sure where, exactly, we were. Was the grandma’s house in a village, or in Mogilev proper? Does Igor’s friend Kolya live in the same building? How did they meet again? But the scenes themselves were so beautifully rendered that I was along for the ride.
An old woman in a quilted jacket was leaving the bus stop with her net bag. There was a red and blue carton of milk and a round loaf of black bread in the bag.
I know just what that looks like! I’m glad someone has written a tribute to it.