О, самое бессильное и позорное время в жизни моего народа – время от рассвета до открытия магазинов! [Oh, the most powerless and shameful time in my people’s life – the time from dawn to the shops’ opening!]
Moscow-Petushki, by Venedikt Erofeev
Moscow-Petushki (more commonly known in English as Moscow to the End of the Line) is a rambling, postmodernist novel by Venedikt Erofeev. Written in 1970 but only published in the USSR in 1989, Moscow-Petushki tells the story of a Russian intellectual (and alcoholic) making the 80 mile (125 km) trip from Moscow to the small town of Petushki. From the moment the novel’s main character (Venichka) wakes up and drunkenly laments the wait until the shops open, readers are led through a simultaneously hilarious and depressing glimpse into Soviet life.
Reading this book is like entering into a sad, surreal world. If you’ve ever been in Russia, you’ll get the unsettling feeling that you’ve seen Venichka many, many times. While the story is certainly humorous in places, overall Erofeev manages to make reader uncomfortably aware of the necessity of alcoholism in the lives of the Soviet people.
While it probably won’t show up in your local bookstore, Moscow to the End of the Line is available online in both English and Russian. If you can read Russian, I’d suggest giving this book a try in its original language. While some vocabulary or references may be unfamiliar, its pretty simple and not too long. After you read the book, check out this hilarious/tragic documentary on Youtube centered around Erofeev (Russian language, but with English subtitle).
Petushki? Why Not?, by Two American Girls
Russians have a saying: Moscow and Russia are two different countries.
After half an hour on the train, Rhea and I were inclined to agree. After leaving Kursky Vokzal, Moscow quickly drops away and reveals the real Russia. Trees, the occasional small village, and tottering old babushki walking along dirt paths to places only known to themselves. In a nod to Moscow-Petushki’s main character Venichka, we ate some snacks and had a drink while we whiled away the two and a half hour ride.
Why did we choose to head to Petushki that day in 2011? To be quite honest, I don’t really remember. I think Rhea had read the book and decided the town was worth a look. Probably, we had nothing better to do.
We finally arrived and stepped out to a pretty typical view in a country train station:
There wasn’t much to see: several run-down buildings housing cafes and shops, decaying Ladas, and people wandering home from their trips. Despite the light rain falling, Rhea and I set out to see what the town had to offer. We set off in a random direction and ended up making a large loop around the whole city. To be honest, Petushki isn’t much more than some small wooden houses, the typical House of Culture, and a small shopping center — not that Erofeev or Venichka promised anything of the sort. Having made our loop, we sat down for lunch, marveling at the country prices.
Eventually we made our way home, neither drunk, beaten, or anything else out of the ordinary. I suppose that’s all we could have asked for — to leave the alcoholism and prosaic depression to the books as much as possible.