Yuri Olesha
Yuri Olesha; drawing by David Levine

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 him.

Nikolai’s black fantasies drive this novel and give it its weirdness, frustrating readers looking for a direct political interpretation. Envy’s most vivid scenes and dialogues don’t actually occur—Nikolai invents them. For example, Andrei goes to a communal apartment house as part of his work for the Food Industry Trust, and he’s thrown out by housewives angry with their miserable domestic situation. He is speechless. “He has no imagination.” It’s Nikolai who derisively tells the reader (not Andrei) that Andrei should have used that moment to promote his project, the Two Bits. He tells us what Andrei should have said to the housewives:

You, young wife, you cook your husband soup. You sacrifice half your day to a puddle of soup! We’re going to transform your puddles into shimmering seas, we’re going to ladle out cabbage soup by the ocean, pour kasha by the wheelbarrow, the blancmange is going to advance like a glacier! Listen, housewives, wait, this is what we’re promising you: the tile floor bathed in sunlight, the copper kettles burnished, the saucers lily-white, the milk as heavy as quicksilver, and the smells rising from the soup so heavenly they’ll be the envy of the flowers on your tables.

Nikolai describes (through Olesha; that is, through the lyrical translation of Marian Schwartz) this vision of a radiant future more memorably than he does the grim present. Time and again we see and don’t see the real Andrei; we’re confused by Nikolai’s sarcastic mutterings which distort what the trade director has done and said, inflating his importance as well as his carnality. Andrei Babichev is an image distorted by Soviet propaganda and the new Soviet language, which meant to accommodate both revolutionary politics and the new communal and mechanized way of life. The resulting portrait brings to mind the fractured and reflected human figures within early-twentieth-century Russian paintings like Pavel Filonov’s Victory at Eternity and Kasimir Malevich’s pre-war Cubist masterpiece, The Knife Grinder, in which their individual deformations appear to emerge from the radical changes in the contemporary landscape.


Olesha further disorients the reader once he introduces another character, Andrei’s subversive brother Ivan Ba-bichev. Nikolai meets him on the street after glimpsing his reflection in a mirror, a literary trick practiced by Nabokov (though executed here with not quite the same dexterity). Nikolai quickly identifies Ivan as “my friend, teacher, and consoler.” Ivan is an alternate Nikolai in antiquated clothes, notably a bowler hat. As with his brother Andrei, his apparent presence isn’t necessarily consistent with reality. If Andrei’s portrait is the result of propaganda and bombast as well as of Nikolai’s malice, Ivan’s is the product of rumors and hearsay: he’s a poet, a dreamer, an inventor of a robot, and a rabble-rouser who breaks up weddings and stalks his brother at official functions. The rumors say that he’s been interrogated by the GPU.

It is Nikolai’s shiftlessness and his inability to adapt to the optimism of the new age that make him envy and hate Andrei. Ivan is hardly more productive as a Soviet citizen, yet he’s a malcontent with convictions, attached to the ways of the past. He is said to have told the police that he leads an underground political movement whose goal is the preservation of “pity, tenderness, pride, jealousy, love—in short, nearly all the emotions that comprise the soul of man of the era now coming to a close.” The imaginary organization appears to be concerned less with opposition than with conservation: people like his friend Nikolai must be saved because they are the repositories of classic human emotions. In Nikolai’s case, the emotional essence is envy, the bane of the classless society.

The era’s governing image is the social machine that would give rise to people without envy, the emotionless, mechanized man, according to the strictures laid down by the American efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), whose mathematical streamlining of the industrial workplace became integral to Marxist-Leninist practice. Given the communalization of personal life, exemplified by dining halls like the Two Bits, Taylorism was expected to regulate the most ordinary human relations and emotions. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel We, men and women of the future shout at pro-government demonstrations, “Long Live the Numbers!” and pursue “mathematical faultless happiness.” The protagonist of We, D-503, believes that in the perfect Taylorist world, envy would be eradicated from the human psyche. We was too obvious a crack at the Bolshevik regime. It was banned in the Soviet Union, but a Russian-language edition was published abroad in 1927. The similarities in style and imagery suggest that Olesha drew inspiration from a smuggled copy.

From the start, from a delightful rhapsody in the loo in which Andrei sings to the glory of his evacuatory functions, Envy carries itself like a satirical novel, but the reader may find it hard to locate precisely the object of the satire. Even after we realize that Andrei is being maligned by the unreliable narrator, the apparatchik comes off as a buffoon, and the satire stings. Andrei’s protégé, the young soccer player Volodya, who is a model new man, is no more than another dumb jock, with a mouth that’s “a full, gleaming gearbox of teeth.” He’s on his way to full mechanization, leaving behind his disgustingly human mentor. Yet Nikolai Kavalerov and Ivan Babichev are unappealing losers and neurotics, even more ridiculous than the apparatchik.

The novel was an immediate sensation in Russia, Olesha’s fame spreading to Russian-language readers abroad (in Paris two years later, Nina Ber-berova wondered whether Nabokov would ever reach the stature of an “émigré Olesha”). The novel received praise from several leading Communist literary journals and, according to Andrew MacAndrew, a previous translator of Olesha’s work, Pravda trumpeted that it exposed “the envy of small despicable people, the petty bourgeois flushed from their lairs by the revolution; those who are trying to initiate a ‘conspiracy of feelings’ against the majestic reorganization of our national economy and our daily life.” The Party reading is perfectly sensible: the novel’s five principal characters can be said to represent the Marxist-Leninist progression of history from romantic Ivan to the alienated intellectual Nikolai, the Party vanguard Andrei, the new proletarian Volodya, and, at the end of history, the beautiful, universally prized Valya, Ivan’s daughter. Valya is drawn nearly as an abstraction, as perfect and distant as the final Communist state itself.

Olesha continued to win Party favor with his novel-length fable Three Fat Men, about a successful proletarian revolution in a storybook land; it was later filmed four times. Buoyed by his success, Olesha rewrote Envy as a play, The Conspiracy of Feelings, which was staged at Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theater in 1929 and ran in repertory for two years. But by now the book was getting another look. Was Andrei really the “positive hero” required by revolutionary culture? Didn’t these avant-garde tricks emphasize literary form over ideological content? And doesn’t Envy surreptitiously side with Nikolai Kavalerov in his struggle against social progress?


No. Yes. Yes, especially. Nikolai is the mad, miserable true hero of Envy: the Underground Man, so close to our black hearts. Nikolai is wretched; so are we. Nikolai is debased; so are we. Nikolai is daily humiliated by the success of people who are more talented than he is, and also luckier, more energetic, more warm-hearted, more forward-looking; so are we. The early readers’ sympathy for Olesha’s sad sack (and the resentment he directs toward a prominent Soviet official) indeed ran contrary to a regime that cast itself as a republic of heroes. Nikolai’s recalcitrance, essentially a matter of human psychology, would eventually doom the Soviet experiment and compromise other social engineering projects of the machine age, whoever owned the means of production.

In this respect, Envy reworked familiar contemporary themes. Virtually all Soviet writers of that time, confronted with a radically remapped world, were recording what the literary critic Marc Slonim called an “unending dialogue between man and the epoch.” Virtually all searched for a definition of the new Soviet man. Doubts about the creation of such a man could be tolerated in 1927. Not a Party member, Olesha considered himself a reliable fellow traveler, a poputchik. (He identified himself with Nikolai Kavalerov, whose name suggests a cavalier, another kind of fellow traveler.) His absurdist spoof recalls Dead Souls, which lampooned universal human conceits while neither directly condemning serfdom nor envisioning an end to it.

The later criticism of Envy was insufficient to land Olesha in jail, but it appears to have cooled his career in the early 1930s. The novel and his short stories were allowed to go out of print and he found unobtrusive work in the cinema and as a critic, particularly for Literaturnaya gazeta. He joined Isaac Babel at the infamous 1934 First Congress of Soviet Writers, where they each half-defended their falloff in literary production, and half-apologized for it. In his speech at the congress, striking a plaintive note, Olesha confessed that he was uninspired by the themes demanded by socialist realism.

While Babel was executed, Voronsky died in the camps, and Zamyatin was exiled, Olesha managed to survive the purges and the Great Patriotic War, spending some of those years making films and writing radio propaganda in Turkmenistan. After Stalin’s death Envy and his collections of short stories were reissued. Olesha died in Moscow in 1960, suffering a heart attack as he proofread an article he had written about Ernest Hemingway. His nostalgic and apolitical unfinished memoir about the literary life, No Day Without a Line, was published in the USSR in 1965.

The 1920s vision of a Taylorized world no longer provokes much foreboding. In ways that could not have been predicted even thirty years ago, computers and robotics are eliminating the most mechanically repetitive jobs in the developed countries and seem destined to do so elsewhere. Yet other agents continue to work against the “conspiracy of feelings” that define us as individuals. Envy shows us Nikolai Kavalerov’s world as he might also have seen our own: as fractured, inhuman, and false.

This Issue

June 10, 2004