Benedict Erofeev: Москва — Петушки (UK: Moscow Circles; US: Moscow to the End of the Line)
This book was first published in samizdat in 1970, before being published in an Israeli journal, AMI, in 1973 and then in France in 1977. It was only published in Russian after perestroika and only appeared in proper book form in 1989. You can see why the Soviets did not like it as it hardly paints a positive picture of the Soviet Union. We tend to think of Russian novels as gloomy and, while this novel certainly has its gloominess, it shows that Russians are also very good at satire
Our hero is called Benny Erofeev. Is this autobiographical? We do know that the real Benedict Erofeev, like the fictional one, worked as a cable layer at Sheremetevo International Airport. The following is a story by the writer, Nikolai Bokov. (Apart from a story in New Writing and Writers: No. 13, Boskov’s work is not available in English though it is available in French.)
I invited Erofeev to a party in Moscow. He turned up in the company of a short man, ill-dressed, who introduced himself as ‘the hero of Erofeev’s Moscow Circles’. Throughout the evening Erofeev sat silent, while his ‘hero’ became ever more voluble. At the end of the evening, they left, Erofeev still silent and sober, his ‘hero’ noisy and drunk.
Whether our hero is the author or fictional version of the author is probably not important. It is a wonderful and very funny story whatever the case. Benny wants two things in this book. He wants to see the Kremlin and he wants to get to Petushki, a small town about seventy kilometres from Moscow, where his girlfriend lives. He has tried many times to see the Kremlin when in Moscow but somehow always misses it. He has crossed Moscow North to South and East to West but somehow never quite finds it, ending up, instead at the Kursk station. Indeed, on this particular occasion, he had wandered much of the night near the Kremlin but has still not found it. He was not, as he says, particularly drunk, having only had a glass of Bison Grass vodka, a glass of coriander vodka, two pints of beer, some egg liqueur straight from the bottle, two glasses of Hunter’s vodka and probably something else, though he cannot remember what. The day on which this novel is set, a Friday, is the day he goes and visits his girlfriend in Petushki and he has every intention of doing so on this Friday. All he has to do is get to the station, get on the train and get off at Petushki, a seemingly straightforward task. However, Benny has one problem. He is, despite his protestations, a serious alcoholic. Indeed, virtually the only times that he is not drinking some form of alcohol in this book is when he has passed out from drinking too much alcohol.
After missing the Kremlin and also having missed Kursk station, and having a few more drinks, he sleeps it off in the hallway of a block of flats. He then goes and buys some presents. The presents, of course, consist of alcohol (First, there were two bottles of Kuban vodka at 2 roubles 62 each, that’s 5.24. Then I got two quarter-litres of Russian vodka, a rouble 64 each, which makes it 5.24 plus 3.28, that’s 8 roubles 52 kopecks. And there was also something red. I’ll remember in a moment. Oh, yes, fortified rosé at a rouble 37.) This will be the thirteenth visit to his girlfriend in Petushki. They met at a party (somebody’s birthday party) which he went to as there were serious quantities of alcohol available. At the party there were two men and three squint-eyed things, each one drunker than the next. One of the squint-eyed things, i.e. women, had read one of his books (she thought it was absolute rubbish). He seemed to lose consciousness and, when he awoke, he was alone with her. She took off some unnecessary garment. He is not entirely sure what happened next but they now repeat it every Friday.
This day is not a very good day, as he has been fired. He works laying cables at Sheremetevo International Airport. The team arrives in the morning, plays poker, gets seriously drunk, gets out some cables, gets more drunk and then they go home, where they drink some more. When they arrive the next day. The cable has been damaged as it has been left out in the wet so they have to throw it away. They then get drunk again. He had been appointed foreman and decides to bring some order to the team. This does not mean order to their work but order to their drinking. He envisages drinking only wine one day and beer the next. He decides to do detailed charts of their drinking habits (we get copies of them). One of the things they have to do is send off socialist pledges once a month. An example of these pledges is in honour of the glorious anniversary we will struggle to ensure that every sixth worker takes a correspondence course in a higher educational institution. However, one of the workers inadvertently sends off the charts with the pledges. There is an investigation and Benny is fired. He does not seem too concerned.
But now he is off to Petushki. The journey gives him a chance to reflect on and comment on a variety of matters, from his drinking habits and how to drink (he thinks the younger generation really do not know how to drink) to a philosophical investigation of hiccups and farting. He gives us some cocktail recipes, which include anti-perspirant, nail varnish and shampoo. He meets some others on the train. They steal his drink when he is in the corridor but he forgives them and they all drink together and tell strange stories. He tells us of his travels in places such as Paris (which almost certainly did not happen). He tells us how to get out of paying for a ticket and the consequences of doing so. He even discusses the finer points of Roman law and history with the ticket inspector. But, of course, he does not get to Petushki.
This is an absolutely hilarious book and if it is anything close to the truth, it is a wonder that the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did. Every character, male and female, is a serious drinker to the extent that you wonder why they have not all died of cirrhosis of the liver long since. It is obvious that, for some people, drinking – seriously drinking – was the only way to survive the Soviet Union, so that is what they did. Whether you are an alcoholic or teetotaller, you cannot fail to find this book thoroughly enjoyable.
First published 1977 by Albin Michel (note that it was first published in in the Israeli journal AMI in 1973)
First English publication by Taplinger in 1980