April 22, 2009
A Lenin's Birthday Story
Special Earth Day Issue April 22, 2009
This short story was written when I still lived in Ukraine in the early 1990s. It was intended to be a chapter in a fact-based novel, as yet unpublished. Although the Communist Party had been officially disbanded, it still maintained a firm grip on the country, using every means of manipulation available. Proponents of leftist ideologies around the world share one common trait: they always demand to be included, but once you let them in, they force everybody else out, while refusing to leave themselves.
The telephone rang.
"Can you be in the Writers Union office at three?" said Rabenko's gruff voice. "We'd like to publish your short stories."
Rabenko's gruffness was surely an occupational disability: as chairman of the local Writers Union, he was required to give fiery motivational speeches at Party meetings, entertain local apparatchiks at drinking parties, and swallow copious amounts of vodka -- all of which he did enthusiastically, as a professional duty as well as a personal hobby. The former flywheel in the Party's propaganda engine, the Writers Union was now supposedly independent, although its functions remained unchanged. The axis was still connected to the same gears.
It was April 22 -- a date carved into every Soviet brain as Lenin's birthday -- the joyful spring holiday. This year, for the first time in almost seven decades, it was not marked by Lenin songs on the radio, Lenin plays in the local theater, Lenin movies on TV, Lenin poems recited by schoolchildren, and Lenin posters on the facades of buildings. Even members of the Writers Union seemed to be no longer required to contort their wits composing Lenin elegies.
It had been raining heavily since the previous night, but the offer was too intriguing for me to stay home. Even if I owned a car, fuel shortages that had struck the country that spring would make it impossible to drive. A reliable source had told me that former Party apparatchiks had sold most of the state-owned gasoline at heavily discounted prices to phony corporations, who in turn resold it abroad at market prices, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. As a result, the streets were almost empty of traffic. Most of the city buses had no fuel to leave the depot, and the few that did were horribly overcrowded. Fortunately, the Writers Union was only five bus stops away. Unfortunately, my umbrella didn't survive the ride.
At a quarter past three I entered Rabenko's office in the back of the Regional Children's Library, water dripping from my coat and the tip of my broken umbrella onto the decrepit parquetry. Rabenko's short, bulky figure rose from the desk to greet me, his Stalinesque mustache stretched above a welcoming smile. Underneath a formal striped jacket he wore a Ukrainian collarless shirt embroidered with red-and-black crisscross patterns -- a flavor-of-the-year tribute to the surge of populist nationalism.
Behind the chairman's desk gaped the empty rectangular shape of a much cleaner wall where a poster of Lenin used to hang, with an obligatory thematic quote by the people's leader: "Down with unpartisan litterateurs! Literature must become part of the general cause of the proletariat."
Rabenko responded to my glance with a shrug. "Change is in the air," he said, opening a pack of cheap, locally made cigarettes.
Rabenko's only known literary work was an award-winning novel, The Hand-Made Sea. It glorified the achievement of the Soviet people in building, under the guidance of the Party and the government, a hydroelectric power station on the Dnieper River. This project created an artificial reservoir that flooded dozens of villages and later proved to be an environmental disaster. While no one would buy or read his book voluntarily, all local libraries and bookstores had been stacked with it. The needs of agitation and propaganda in the USSR always trumped the demands of the market. Up until the end of Party rule, state-run publishers kept churning out copies of Rabenko's book. It was usually included in gift packages to Party and Union officials and various delegations visiting the area. The delegates would later put it on display in their offices and never touch it again.
As we shook hands I noticed that the back of Rabenko's hand was tattooed with the word "Misha" in big, crude letters. I didn't know he had the tattoo, perhaps because he never before offered me a handshake. It also occurred to me that if he were to add to it his last name and office phone number, he would have an indestructible business card.
"The country is going through revolutionary changes, and we are changing with it," Rabenko beamed, striking a match. "Surely you've heard about the radical changes in our local literary journal."
"As a young promising writer, you might be interested to know that we can now publish local authors without special approval from above." Rabenko motioned at the ceiling.
"Surely you don't mean an approval from heaven," I said.
"You know what I mean. There's no more censorship. Thank God."
"I didn't know you suffered from censorship," I said, as I landed on a shaky plywood chair.
"No one was spared," Rabenko mumbled evasively, taking a series of short, vigorous drags from a cigarette that refused to burn.
"I don't recall you using biblical references either," I said.
"That's what censorship did to us -- we forgot our roots! Writers weren't allowed to refer to Christianity, which historically underlies our language and culture. Every scribe had a tiny censor planted in his brain. But not anymore. Thank God."
His cigarette still refused to burn. Cursing under his breath, Rabenko poked it with a surprisingly long nail, extracting a shapeless form that resembled a bonsai tree. "Whatever happened to quality control?" he scorned dramatically. "There's no supervision anywhere. This country just can't function without a strong hand. I mean, I'm all for freedom," he added hastily. "If I were to choose between quality control and freedom, I wouldn't hesitate a moment. Would you?"
He threw the deflated cigarette into the wastebasket.
"We can't have both. Something's got to give. No state censorship also means no state financing. We can now print anything, only we have no money for it. How can we continue to serve the people if we can't pay the editors, the printers, and the authors?"
"You can start serving the people by printing what the people want to read," I said, glancing at the rain splashing against the office window. "I never got paid for writing my stories, but that didn't stop me. You too can get a job and continue doing your journal on a volunteer basis."
"Volunteer basis?" Rabenko slammed the top of his desk, sending papers flying in the air. "We've had seventy years of volunteer basis! No more slave labor! People must get paid."
"I can't help you with that," I shrugged.
"Yes you can." His mustache now framed a wily smile. "I hear that you're running an American-Ukrainian joint venture. I also hear that it's customary among American businesses to fund cultural projects."
So this was why he really wanted to see me -- a publication in exchange for other people's money. I suppressed a snicker. His assumption was based on an overblown rumor about my friendship with a California man, whom I was helping in a low-budget, shot-in-the-dark attempt to set up the manufacturing of hemp-based clothing in Ukraine on behalf of Bay Area cannabis entrepreneurs. Our efforts were failing miserably because just about every government official with whom we met fancied a cut on the deal in one way or another, or wanted a spouse employed at a no-show job in a business that couldn't take off due to their unrealistic demands. Former Communists all, they had always believed that capitalism was a dishonest and greedy system. Now that capitalism had become the declared law of the land, they stayed abreast of the times by being as dishonest and greedy as humanly possible.
"I thought you wanted to talk about my short stories," I reminded him.
"I was just about to mention that. We are all great admirers of your talent. Now, what's so funny about my proposal?"
"You asked me for a subsidy. That is funny."
State-subsidized publishing had been the ultimate gold mine for the local Writers Union bosses who ran it like a family business, publishing each other's works and keeping outsiders at a distance. Suddenly bereft of guaranteed government support, they remembered me, an outsider, who they believed had access to an alternative, capitalist gold mine.
For this, he dragged me out of my home in the pouring rain. But now that I was already here, I decided to make it worth my while. I would savor the moment and let him praise my literary talent for as long as I pleased, before telling him that I was broke. In the absence of other means of revenge, poetic justice would be the next best thing.
"The entire Writers Union collective likes your work," Rabenko said, inspecting his long and not very clean nails. "We believe that your latest stories would add brilliance to the next issue of our journal."
"Well, thank you," I said. "But where did you read them if they've never been published?"
"We have ways." Rabenko handed me a plastic folder containing faint photocopies -- a fifth generation or so -- taken from my typewritten pages.
Back in the day I indeed had been giving away carbon copies of my stories to people who would read them. But I had never seen such a full collection before. Either my writings had become part of the underground circulation called samizdat, or they'd been pulled out of my hypothetical KGB file. It could be both; I may never know the truth.
"We are in awe of your talent," Rabenko went on. "Anyone in the Union will tell you that. There's one condition, though. You write in Russian and we are a Ukrainian-language publication, so your stories must be translated."
"I can rewrite them in Ukrainian," I agreed. "I know the language."
"Of course you can. But still, as your captive fan, I'd like to try it myself."
"No problem," I said. "Hope you'll get paid union wages too. But I also have one condition. As my captive fan, you must remember my parodies about Lenin." I picked a few pages from the file. "I want them to be published first."
Truth be told, the Lenin parodies had already been published in New York, but Rabenko didn't need to know that. They were short pieces, a few paragraphs each. In the deliberately awkward lingo of socialist realism, I described how Lenin and his comrades in the Politburo visited the Moscow zoo because Lenin loved animals, or sneaked out of the Kremlin to beat up capitalist pigs on Red Square, or gave away free light bulbs to the toiling masses, who would wrap them in rags and preserve them in wooden chests for the next generations. The stories were rewarding and funny for people like me, but insulting to true believers like Rabenko.
"I'd love my Lenin stories to be translated by an award-winning author and the chairman of the Writers Union," I said matter-of-factly. "Professor Shtik would be my second choice, but I'm afraid he may print them under his own name again."
Professor Shtik was a local "academician" and member of the Writers Union who had made state-funded trips to Iowa to research American proletarian poetry. A few years back, through a mutual acquaintance, he had found out that I'd been playing with translations of American poetry. He asked me if I wanted a professional review of my work, so I gave him a few copies. A month later I discovered that they were published in a national magazine under Shtik's name, presented as American proletarian poetry.
"Once I see my Lenin stories published we'll talk about the others," I said nonchalantly. I never knew that messing with Communist bureaucrats could be so much fun.
"Well..." Rabenko's eyes became shifty, but he quickly refocused them on the tip of a new cigarette he was lighting up. He used the pause to contemplate an escape route. "With all due respect, don't you think that satirizing Lenin may be somewhat, uh, beyond its expiration date? The people are fed up with negativism and divisiveness. We need something positive, which can unite us all. Lenin is no longer an idol. There's no point in beating a dead horse."
"The horse was alive and kicking when I wrote those stories," I said. "One kick and I could be in Siberia. You wouldn't publish my stories then, would you?"
"That would've been unwise," Rabenko sighed tragically. "You understand, of course, that censorship wouldn't have allowed it anyway."
"So, let's see. It's unwise to beat a live horse. It's unwise to beat a dead horse. Is there a horse-beating schedule somewhere that I can check and see if there ever was a window of opportunity that I missed?"
"There's no honor in ridiculing the weak and the unprotected. If you really want to prove your mettle, try ridiculing the capitalists and the free marketers. The so-called democrats are on a roll now; it takes guts to oppose them publicly. And the people may like that."
In that day and age, the term democrats described everyone who opposed communism, even if they were for the restoration of the Romanov dynasty.
Just then the door creaked and a man walked into the room, shaking off water from his black woolen coat. The drops were few; he must have been traveling by car.
"How can you talk about democrats in such nasty weather?" he chuckled.. His head was full of thick, almost entirely gray hair, although he was barely over forty. The warm scarf was carefully arranged so as to leave the diagonally striped necktie visible for observation. It may have defeated the purpose of wearing a warm scarf in bad weather, but it served the more important function of emphasizing his social status. This was the typical appearance of a former Party apparatchik.
"When it pours like this, all loyal citizens ought to be drunk by noon, and it's already three thirty," he declared, winking at me as he threw his coat onto the chair. "Where's your proletarian awareness, Rabenko? So many years of Party membership wasted! Must we hang a special sign here, obliging the Writers Union to serve vodka when it rains? Or did you hide your shot glasses when you saw me coming?"
The gray-haired man guffawed at his own joke, but his laughter stopped as abruptly as it started. "I just was on Lenin Square," he informed us authoritatively. "Everything is back to normal. Lenin's statue has been cleaned, the birthday flowers are in place, and the hunger strikers are gone, along with their tent. See - even democrats understand that when it rains like this, everybody must get under the roof and drink vodka. Only you, Rabenko, don't seem to understand. We have many reasons to celebrate. Come on, I know you keep a bottle in your desk, don't try to stop the inevitable!"
Having overheard part of Rabenko's speech about democrats, he mistook me for an insider -- and I wasn't going to disillusion him.
"I was just telling this young author of the changes in our journal," said Rabenko, dragging out words while his eyes shifted chaotically. I could appreciate the increasing complexity of his predicament. Now, in addition to persuading me to give up on Lenin stories, he also needed to warn the visitor that I was not an insider, all the while making an appearance that we were the best of friends -- so as not to lose the chance of exploiting the perceived gold mine he thought I represented. He must have realized the impossibility of accomplishing this while continuing to act like a normal human being. I almost admired the Union leader's perseverance, but I wasn't going to help him.
"We were discussing the prospects of publishing my Lenin stories in his journal," I said, picking up where he left off. "Comrade Rabenko seems to think that stories about the leader of the world proletariat are not suitable for our times, and I was saying that there's never a bad time for a good Lenin story, since the subject matter is timeless. What do you think, comrade? In fact, what happened to the Lenin poster on this wall?" I pointed at the empty rectangle over Rabenko's desk. "Who authorized the removal?"
My insolence had the desired effect. Rabenko froze with a gaping mouth as the guest roared at the top of his lungs: "Are you out of your mind, Rabenko? A young author brings you Lenin stories -- is this not what our efforts are all about? And you refuse to print them?"
I gave Rabenko the I-told-you-so look. He meekly protested but the gray-haired man wouldn't listen and shook my hand with a firm grip.
"Kravchenko. Anatoly Kravchenko."
I shook his hand, silently welcoming a new clueless entertainer to my improvised reality show.
"What did you say about the protesters on Lenin Square?" I asked him, feigning ignorance. "I didn't see it in the local news."
"Of course it won't be in the local news! Not if the editors want to keep their jobs." Pleased to have a grateful listener, Kravchenko assumed the posture of a stand-up comedian. "Last week these two crazy chicks set up a tent in front of the Lenin statue. Right in the middle of the lawn. Granted, the weather was nice and all. So why not go camping at the river like two cultured individuals? No, they wanted to do it on Lenin Square, like a couple of freaking savages. A hunger strike -- who are they kidding! Surely they had vodka and smoked kielbasa under the pillows! A week in a tent in front of Lenin -- can you imagine such beastliness? Sitting around their nihilistic signs all day -- and we can only guess what the bitches did in the tent at night," he snorted.
Rabenko issued a series of deliberate coughs, but the guest was too full of himself to notice.
"What were their demands?" I asked quickly, over Rabenko's coughing.
Kravchenko let out a nervous giggle. "To remove the Lenin statue from the square. Can you even imagine that?"
"It's unimaginable," I nodded.
"They also had some crude signs demanding that the city and regional administrations resign since they're all Party appointees," he continued, enjoying himself. "As if anyone else is capable of ruling this country! We belong in high positions! And if not us, then who, I ask? These clowns? A lunatic asylum - that's where they belong! We would've sent them there already if it weren't for democracy!" His lips twisted with derision. "A freak show - that's what democracy is. Tents on Lenin Square! A circus! Would a normal person go on a hunger strike and live in a tent? You wouldn't, right? And I wouldn't -- unless I'm piss-drunk!" he hooted. "And they think they can run this country for us. Freaks, there's no better word! The way I see it, democracy is a freakish system, so it's the freaks who want it. But in the real world, extremists must be kept apart from normal people. Camps! We shouldn't dismantle the labor camps! We may need them sooner than we think."
"I'm sure you found out who those extremists were," I said.
"We knew it before the day was over! One is a museum consultant, wife of a known radical nationalist -- no surprise there. But the other one is a school teacher! God have mercy, a teacher! In the good old days she'd be kicked out of school with an old broom! But we now have democracy, so our children are in the hands of lunatics! The bitches have read too many history books and went cuckoo. That's what happens, Rabenko, when one reads too many books and drinks too little vodka!" He winked playfully at the Writers Union boss, who by now had the complexion of a broiled lobster.
"And listen to this -- they actually have families! Those husbands, what sort of men are they? Instead of giving their women a spanking, they stayed home with the kids. The losers showed up last night when the rain started, to keep the bitches warm. I don't know what they did in their little tent, but a few hours later they were all gone. A cuddle in the puddle is not their thing, I guess."
"Thank God for bad weather -- where would this country be without it," I said, standing between the two comrades, effectively blocking Rabenko's subtle hand gestures.
"But trouble never travels alone," Kravchenko went on, oblivious to Rabenko's twitches. "As soon as they were gone, some hooligan hurled plastic bags with red paint at the statue. A youngish fellow, they say. Big nose, big ears. The police saw him from the far end of the square. They were too far away to run after him. And do you know why they were standing at the far end of the square? Our local environmentalist genius Vinnik had told them the monument was radioactive. It's nonsense, of course -- but last week the bastard brought a Geiger counter to the statue and it started clicking! He told them Lenin had absorbed fallout from Chernobyl and was now poisoning the environment. A schoolchild would tell you this is garbage, but our police are not the brightest lightbulbs in the room, if you get my drift. We told them that granite is just naturally slightly more radioactive, nothing dangerous, but I guess they don't trust us after what happened in Chernobyl. So the idiots watched from afar because they were worried about their family jewels, and missed the criminal. We told them we'd twist their balls so hard, they won't have to worry about radiation anymore. Then we made them wipe off the paint from the statue before it set. The bottom of the coat, the pants, and especially the shoes. They worked all the way until dawn."
"You made the police shine Lenin's shoes?" I laughed.
"What do you think? The Police Commissioner himself was roused in the middle of the night and stood there in the rain to make sure Lenin was clean before the people wake up!" Kravchenko chuckled along with me. "They couldn't get the paint out of the small pores in the stone, so it still looks a little like brown blood stains, but at least it's not bright red and you wouldn't notice it if you didn't know what happened. And no one will know. It won't be in the news, that's for sure. It took a whopping sixty liters of gas to clean it!"
"Wait, isn't there a gas shortage?" I asked nervously, remembering the wait at the bus stop, the ride in a crowded bus, and the busted umbrella. "Where did you get sixty liters of gas in the middle of the night?"
I must have asked the wrong question because Kravchenko's eyes suddenly emptied. "There's enough of everything if it's for the right cause. No one touches Lenin! He will always be there; and as long as he's there, we'll be there too."
"And yet, sixty liters?" I was too upset to keep up the pretense. "That's two full car tanks. Come on, you used only six liters, admit it. Then you added a zero to the report and split the difference. Happens all the time, especially on rainy nights. Where would we be without bad weather? I bet you wished the guy had smeared Lenin from head to toe; you could've stolen ten times as much gas. Long live Lenin!"
The gray-haired apparatchik looked me over as if seeing me for the first time. His face lost all its previously human expression and turned into the immovable arrogant mask of a high-level bureaucrat.
"Vandalism doesn't reflect well on your democracy, pal," he said indignantly. "Today it's paint, tomorrow it's explosives. Today they attack a monument because of Lenin's politics, tomorrow they may attack real people who share Lenin's views."
"Didn't Lenin attack real people who didn't share his views?" I said. "Didn't he order the execution of thousands of hostages?"
"Such were the times," Kravchenko said solemnly. "You can't make a revolution with clean hands. But no matter what your politics are, it was also an attack on our people's artistic and cultural heritage."
"If it's art, put it in a museum," I said. "Unless, of course, the intention is to rub it in people's faces..."
"You wouldn't argue that this statue represents 70 years of our people's history and culture, would you?" Kravchenko protested resentfully. "As a writer, you can't be in favor of vandalizing cultural heritage. You must agree; there has to be a tough punishment for crimes against people's culture."
"Wasn't the 1917 takeover of the Winter Palace by a mob of drunken sailors acting on Lenin's orders a crime against cultural heritage?" I asked. "And after they finished vandalizing the Winter Palace, didn't they vandalize the entire country - including historical monuments and churches, let alone literature and the arts? How tough do you think the penalty should be for that kind of vandalism? Surely a little red paint doesn't even begin to measure up."
Kravchenko pointed an indignant finger at me and snapped at Rabenko: "Who is this man?"
"I've been trying to tell you," pleaded Rabenko, who seemed to be feverishly racking his brains for the right words. "He is a talented young author, but his political orientation is... uh... somewhat uncertain... But we are a democratic organization... a big tent... where everybody has a right to individual expression. We're not closed... I mean, we're open to..."
"Open, closed..." Kravchenko barked with disdain. "Are you running a whorehouse or a literary organization?"
Rabenko desperately pulled on his mustache, destroying its classic Stalin-like appearance. "I didn't have time to introduce you," he said. "Kravchenko is the newly appointed editor-in-chief of the People's Truth newspaper."
"I figured he had something to with creative fiction," I said.
"Rabenko, damn you!" Now it was Kravchenko's turn to transform into a broiled lobster. "Is this a mutiny? Why are you sucking up to this... this nobody?"
"The chairman is sucking up to me," I explained quietly, "because my American capitalist venture was about to give his journal a big subsidy. But he can forget about that now. You just talked me out of it."
I turned around, facing the cowering Rabenko. "I can't believe I was about to give you ten thousand dollars. But your comrade just told me the people's Party has enough of everything if it's for the right cause. If they care so much about people's culture, why don't they finance your cultural project? I hear they hit the jackpot shipping the people's fuel across the border."
I grabbed my broken umbrella and walked out into the cold, unwelcoming rain. Instead of heading back to my cold apartment in the leaky housing project, I decided to check on the damage to Lenin's statue. Soon the sky began to clear up. I felt like celebrating -- I didn't know how exactly -- but in a bizarre way it had a connection to Lenin's birthday. I strolled towards Lenin Square, holding, like a bouquet of flowers, the shapeless crushed umbrella, and cherished the vivid mental image of the two Party stooges blaming each other for the lost opportunity to milk my non-existent capitalist business.
* * *
I never received another call from the Writers Union. A year later, I moved to the United States. On November 28, 2008, almost 16 years after the events described, the Lenin monument was officially removed from the square, which no longer bears Lenin's name. The plan was to transport it to a less prominent location, but when the crane attempted to lift the statue, it crumbled like an empty cape, following the fate of the country Lenin had created. Here is a video of it.
Lenin's birthday is still openly celebrated by groups of old-guard veterans, who occasionally manage to get younger people involved. However, this year has seen an increase in attacks on Lenin statues in both Russia and Ukraine, the most notable one being the hole in Lenin's backside blown off with explosives in St. Petersburg on April 1, the international Fools Day.
Oleg Atbashian is proprietor of The People's Cube.