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Aleksandr Kuprin: Яма (Yama: The Pit; The Pit)

In The Duel, Kuprin’s crusade was against the army. In this book it is against prostitution, specifically against how the prostitutes are exploited and ill-treated. The novel is set primarily in the Yama district of a Southern Russian city, probably Odessa, which used to be the stagecoach drivers’ collection point but is now the red light district. Brothels are divided into three categories – the top category for the well-to-do, a middle category and, finally, the cheap category for sailors and other less well-off customers. Much of this novel is set in the brothel of Anna Markovna, a middle category brothel. We follow the stories of the prostitutes, their customers and the assorted people they have to deal with – the housekeeper, Emma Edwardovna, who will later own the brothel, the police, the doctor.

There is no real plot but merely vignettes, stories of some of the individuals. We see, in particular, how they have a hard life, often abandoned, pregnant, by lovers or even dumped by their parents. All of them have a story to tell and all of them have suffered. Of course, they try to break out. Liubka, for example, is taken in by a student, who wants to treat her as a sister. He does not and, before long, she is back in the brothel. Jenny gets syphilis. The women have weekly check-ups but she manages to conceal hers. Bitter at her treatment, she is determined to infect as many men as possible (though draws the line at the young student who is in love with her) before killing herself. One young woman, whom we meet early on, is really a socialist revolutionary and eventually moves on to Moscow where her plans misfire. Emma Edwardovna and the police give them all a hard time.

The men are particularly criticised. The second volume (there are three) started with the tale of Horizon (which may or may not be his real name) who seduces and often marries young women before selling them to a brothel. Kuprin is particularly critical of him. Only the journalist, Platonov, who does try to help the women, comes out unscathed but he disappears from the book. The police chief is corrupt, most of the men are condemned as hypocrites, having their two roubles’ worth of fun while ignoring their families back home and Kuprin even gives us a postscript telling men to sleep on a hard bed with coarse bed linen, with lots of fresh air, getting up early, cold showers and an early marriage. However, despite this, he does tell a very sympathetic tale, his heart is clearly in the right place and he never sinks down to the mawkish.

Publishing history

First published in 1915 by Marksa, St Petersburg
First English translation in 1929 by Bernard Guilbert Guerney