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Yuz Aleshkovsky: Николай Николаевич (Nikolai Nikolaevich)

Yuz Aleshkovsky wrote several novels and other works but they were unpublishable in the Soviet Union for two reasons. Firstly they mocked the Soviet system. Secondly, they were riddled with obscenities. Russian obscenities are known as Мат (Mat), which comes from the Russian word Мать meaning mother, as one of the key obscenities is Ёб твою мать (Fuck your mother). Many Russians use this language on a regular basis and Nikolai Nikolaevich, the narrator of this novel, certainly does. The translator points out that English simply has no precise equivalent for the richness of Russian mat.. Nevertheless, this book is riddled with the standard ones.

At the start of the book Nikolai Nikolaevich has been released from prison, aged nineteen. Initially, to earn a living he starts pickpocketing people on the bus, However, his aunt warns him that they are really clamping down on theft and anyone caught will face a long prison sentence. Fortunately, her neighbour, Kimza, offers him a job working in a scientific laboratory. It will be fairly simple, carrying chemicals and helping set up experiments.

However, he still carries on in his old ways, stealing the wallet from the Head of Personnel. There is no money in it, but lots of denunciations, including a long list against Kimza. He informs Kimza who is, of course, grateful, and who tells him about his work. In particular, he needs a donor and Nikolai is just the man for the job. It is very easy, requiring only a short time every day and well paid. All he has to do is masturbate. They are collecting sperm for the experiment and Nikolai is ideally suited. Indeed, when he starts he seems to perfect for their needs.

Nikolai at first succeeds without problem but when he has problems, other solutions have to be found and are. It seems (possibly) that the person is to create a new breed of human to populate outer space and Nikolai seems to the ideal progenitor.

Lysenkoism was a now discredited science which opposed genetics and science-based agriculture. It won the support of not only the Soviet authorities but also of Stalin himself. As Kimza and Co are using genetic they, they are soon in trouble, as the Lysenkoists move in and Kimza and colleagues and Nikolai are moved out. Nikolai, ever inventive, manages to more or less survive but loses his easy job.

It is easy to see why this book would never have been published in the Soviet Union. Nikolai swears like a trooper, masturbation is the key theme (All of Soviet and world science is nothing but jacking off…And Marxism-Leninism? It’s obvious onanism, says one character), and is described in some detail and the Soviet system is mercilessly mocked.

Much of it is very funny. One experiment, for example, is to see whether reading books can turn Nikolai on and, if so, what books. We get a very detailed list (from Kon-Tiki to Othello) of what turns him on and what does not turn him on (Socialist Realism and Anna Karenina). A different take on Russian literature of the era. Though the book was published in 1980, it was written in 1970.

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)