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Yuz Aleshkovsky: Маскировка (Camouflage)

If you have already read Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich), which was published jointly with this book in both English and Russian, you will know that Aleshkovsky’s modus operandi is obscenity. While there are not perhaps as many swear words in this book as in Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich), there are certainly a fair amount. Moreover, the theme moves from masturbation to homosexual anal rape or, rather, the theme remains the mocking of the Soviet system and its lies and deceits but masturbation is no longer the key subject.

The book is set in the fictitious town of Staroporokhov (it means Old Dusty). It is narrated by Fyodor Milashkin (a camouflager of the eighth (highest) rank), who is apparently talking to his brother, Grisha, a Soviet general. The town is the centre for Soviet nuclear activity but all of this has to be disguised when the US spy satellites fly overhead (at least once a day) and that is Milashkin’s job.

He and his fellow camouflagers have to pretend to be normal Soviet citizens going about normal Soviet activities, so that the satellites (and also the CIA spies who come to the town) do not suspect what is going on. Of course, what this means in practice is that they have to make the sacrifice of drinking large amounts of vodka and being drunk (and disorderly). It is partially a sacrifice. Milashkin, because of his drinking, is not fit for sex with his wife and they have not had sex for six months.

It is not just the behaviour of the camouflagers that is involved. There is, for example, a large swimming pool which doubles as a swimming pool and also the source of cooling water for the nuclear reactors. The football stadium is just above where the Party Committee in charge of assembling the first hydrogen bombs is located. The spies cannot hear the work over the cheers of the football fans. The main meeting room is just below the cemetery though, because of the usual corruption, the roof was not very strong, with disastrous but highly amusing consequences. Atom bombs are moved around in lorries marked MEAT.

One day, Milashkin got seriously drunk and when he awoke (by the statue of Lenin) he was almost naked in the main square, with police examining him. It turns out that he had been anally raped and, as he later discovered, so had other members of his brigade. The police had visited his house and found that his son had samizdat literature so father is now branded as both homosexual and subversive and the son is in prison.

You will not be surprised to know that the homosexual rape has an explanation which, inevitably, is more amusing than serious. Milashkin discovers the culprit by pretending to be dead drunk by Lenin’s statue.

However, Aleshkovsky is not limited in his mockery to the drunken Russian male. The whole issue comes to the attention of the powers-that-be and soon we have all the senior Russian officials of the era – Brezhnev, Kosygin, Andropov, Suslov, Kirilenko and Podgorny – discussing the matter and what to do about it. They are also worried about another matter – the fact that they are falling behind the United States in technology, not in space or computer technology but in another, far more mundane area.

Inevitably, Aleshkovsky lashes out at Soviet officialdom, poking fun at them individually and collectively as they struggle with the issue in Staroporokhov.

However, things get worse for Milashkin, as the 1980 Olympics are to be held in the Soviet Union and some will even be held in Staroporokhov. This Staroporokhov has to change somewhat, as regards the nuclear activities but there are two other key issues. Firstly, clearly the streets cannot be littered with drunks so Milashkin and friends will have to go dry or move away. Secondly, all the best food is to be kept for the visitors, leaving little for the locals. Naturally, they are not happy about this.

It is a very funny book, far less scatological than Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich). The drinking culture is the focus but Aleshkovsky spreads his satire far and wide. The two books certainly make a change from the standard Russian exile literature.

Publishing history

First published by Ardis in 1980
First English publication by Dalkey Archive Press in 2016
Translated by Terry Myers and Nataliya Gavrilova (Dalkey Archive edition)
Translated by Susanne Fusso (Columbia University Press edition)