Soviet Sad Sack

Yuri Olesha’s short novel Envy first appeared in the Soviet literary magazine Red Virgin Soil in the latter part of 1927, a perilous season in the history of the socialist republic. As Stalin consolidated power, the Party-controlled press warned of military intervention by Great Britain and its anti-Communist allies. The liberal New Economic Program was terminated, diminishing the supplies of goods to the cities. The regime intensified its propaganda efforts. Bolshevik critics lashed out at the artistic avant-garde, which had flourished earlier in the decade. Late that autumn Stalin would crush the opposition at the 15th Party Congress and expel Trotsky from the Party—and fire the editor of Red Virgin Soil, Aleksandr Voronsky. For a few more years nonconformist artists would keep on with their creative work until they ran into the wall of socialist realism.

We can imagine that summer of 1927 as having been very fine in Moscow, as “bright and breezy” as the day of the soccer match that occupies several chapters in Envy. Food and other necessities were in short supply, but privations might not have mattered much to an up-and-coming, nondoctrinaire, twenty-eight-year-old writer on the staff of the Whistle, the widely read newspaper of the Railway Workers’ Union. Its staff was illustrious: Olesha shared its pages with Mikhail Bulgakov and his fellow Odessans Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf, and Yevgeny Petrov.

In his work at the Whistle, Olesha found plenty of satirical targets among the low-level officials he held responsible for the incompetence and indignities that plagued Soviet life (without implicating Party leaders, who were presumed to be struggling against them as well). He turned the familiar knave on his head when he created Envy‘s Andrei Babichev, the trade director of the Food Industry Trust, a good-natured, happily corpulent, go-getting apparatchik. Andrei has devised a thirty-five-kopek sausage, a boon for the sausage-eating masses. His next project is a giant communal dining hall, to be called the Two Bits. These laughably materialistic enterprises, echoing Bolshevik promises reported in papers like the Whistle, become facets in a many-sided farce that obliquely sends up early Soviet mores and ambitions while also warning of the danger to the individual conscience from a mechanizing, corporate twentieth century.

Olesha’s Andrei would be an unreservedly positive figure if he were not seen through the jaundiced eyes of the book’s narrator, Nikolai Kavalerov, a spiteful young intellectual whom Andrei has rescued after finding him drunk in the street. The apparatchik takes him back to his flat and generously installs him on the divan in his living room. From this position during the next several weeks, the wretched, self-loathing Nikolai observes what he considers Andrei’s gross habits and intimate human failings—the most damning of which to Nikolai is the mole on his back. Nikolai mocks the optimism of the Revolution and bitterly envies Andrei’s professional success. He makes himself angrier by imagining the insults Andrei would hurl at him if the blameless Andrei would in fact insult …

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