Poverty

by Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1925
from Scenes from the Bathhouse: And Other Stories of Communist Russia

( Photo by Vesnyana )

Nowadays, brothers, what is the most fashionable word there is, eh?

Nowadays, the most fashionable word that can be is, of course, electrification.

I won’t argue that it isn’t a matter of immense importance to light up Soviet Russia with electricity. Nevertheless, even this matter has its shady side. I am not saying, comrades, that it costs a lot. It costs nothing more expensive than money. That’s not what I’m talking about.

This is what I mean.

I lived, comrades, in a very large house. The whole house was using kerosene. Some had kerosene lamps with, some without a glass, and some had nothing – just a priest’s candle flickering away. Real hardship!

And then they started installing electric lights. Soon after the Revolution.

The house delegate installed them first. Well, he installed and installed. He’s a quite man and doesn’t let his tongue give him away. But still he walks a bit strangely, and he’s always thoughtfully blowing his nose.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t let his tongue give him away.

And then our dear little landlady, Elizaveta Ignat’evna Prokhorov, declared to us that she too wants to put in electric lights in our half-dark apartment.

“Everybody,” she says, “is installing them. Even the delegate,” she says, “has installed them. Why should we be more backward than other people? All the more so,” she says, “since it’s economical. Cheaper than kerosene.”

You don’t say! We too began to install.

We installed them, turned them on – my fathers! Muck and filth all around.

The way it was before, you’d go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, drink a bit of tea, and go to bed. And nothing of this kind was visible as long as you used kerosene. But now when we turned on the lights, we see, here someon’s old bedroom slipper lying around, there the wallpaper torn in shreds and hanging down, there a bedbug running away at a trot, trying to save himself from the light, here a rag of who-knows-what, there a gob of spit, here a cigar butt, there a flea hopping.

Holy fathers! You wanted to cry for help. Sad to look on such a spectacle.

Take the couch that stood in our room, for example. I used to think, it’s all right, it’s a couch. It’s a good couch. I often sat on it evenings. And now I was burning electricity – holy fathers! What a couch! Everything’s sticking out, hanging down, spilling out from inside. I can’t sit down on such a couch – my soul cries out.

So, I think, I don’t live very well, do I? Better get out of the house. I begin to develop a negative attitude. My work falls from my hands.

I see the landlady, Elizaveta Ignat’evna, is also going around mournfully, muttering to herself, fussing around in the kitchen.

“What,” I ask, “is bothering you, landlady?”

She waves her hand.

“My dear man,” she says, “I never thought I was living so badly.”

I looked at her fixings – and it really wasn’t what you’d call luxurious: in fact, her furniture was painful. And all around, disorder, strewings, litter, rubbish. And all this flooded with bright light and staring you in the eye.

I began coming home kind of depressed.

I come in, I turn on the light, stare at the bulb, and hop into the sack.

After giving it a good deal of thought, I got my pay. I bought some whitewash and started to work. I shook out the bed, killed off the bedbugs, painted over the woodwork, banged the couch back together, decorated, decontaminated – my spirit sings and rejoices.

In general, everything was going well, very well indeed.

But out landlady, Elizaveta Ignat’evna, took another course. She cut the installation wires in her room.

“My dear man,” she says, “I don’t want to live in the light. I don’t want,” she says, “my modest circumstances to be lit up for the bedbugs to laugh at.”

I begged and argued with her – no good. She held her own.

“I don’t want,” she says, “to live with that light. I have no money to make repairs.”

I tell her: “Why, I’ll do the reparis for you myself for next to nothing.”

She doesn’t want that.

“With those bright lights of yours,” she says, “I have to keep busy from morning to night with cleaning and washing. I’ll manage,” she says, “without the light, as I managed before.”

The delegate also tried to convince her. And even quarreled with her. He called her an outmoded petit bourgeois. It didn’t work. She refused.

Well, let her have it the way she wants. Personally, I live in the electric light and I’m quite satisfied with it.

The way I look at it, the light scratches away all our litter and removes the rubbish.

( Photo by Dmitry Plotnikoff )

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2 thoughts on “Poverty

  1. Jo Moon says:

    The only thing I can’t quite work out in this story is why they couldn’t see all the dirt and mess during daylight hours?!

    • Otrazhenie says:

      Good point, Jo. Dirty windows? Or houses built in such a way, that sun rays can hardly get inside through the windows? If you ever visit my native city St Petersburg in Russia, go for a little walk in the old part of town and you’ll find a few old houses that feel always dark and damp inside, even during daylight hours. And it might not be just the dirt and mess, but the general shabbiness of old furniture and fittings in poor houses. No matter how well you clean them, they still look shabby and old.

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