Alistair Ian Blyth

from Card Catalogue


Dostoevsky, The Village of Stepanchikovo and its Denizens

Pavel Semyonych Obnoskin, a young man who in keeping with his name* has a ‘threadbare’ (potertoe) sort of face and attire that is chic, but also somehow shabby, and which smacks of mauvais goût, is describe as having cockroach moustaches' (tarakan’i usy) and a wispy failure of a goatee. The narrator takes this cockroach-like facial hair to be part of a deliberate attempt on Obnoskin's part to strike the pose of being independent and even perhaps a ‘freethinker.’

The mental image conjured up by the descriptior of Obnoskin is uncanny in its likeness to the actual image of the young Lenin captured in the photograph taken on 1 January 1891, when he was twenty-one years old. In half-profile, he peers beady-eyed from the egg-shaped photograph. Through some subconscious process of association I cannot help but think he has the look of having pupated, of having only just emerged from the chrysalis: the sleek cranial dome to be found in every portrait and statue and bust and poster and medal and badge and banner and flag is here still partly sheathed in the faint fuzz preliminary to full baldness; conversely, the fuzz of the wispy moustache and goatee is preliminary to the shaggier, bristlier growth that is a visual requisite of the Party’s standard iconography. It is an image with which I am all too familiar from the photographic plate to be found in the first of the forty or more volumes of the Collected Works published by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism and then exported for translation to all the ‘friendly’ socialist nations, in one of which I have the misfortune to reside. By the second volume and the photographic portrait of 1897, in which he is shown resting his elbow behind two books whose spines are turned away from the viewer, the bald dome, having sloughed off its fuzz, may be said to be fully hatched; the moustache and goatee have attained the hispidity of the classic hagiographic image. The format of the volumes is the same the world over: nutty, cockroach-brown hardcovers; the name Lenin embossed in gilt majuscules; a circular medallion containing his profile in low relief. Close the book, close your eyes, and in the darkness run your fingertips over the granular roughness until, producing a slight shudder, they come to rest on that chitinous smoothness.

* In Russian, the word obnoski means ‘frayed, tattered clothes’ — Translator’s note.

† It is interesting that Osip Mandelstam uses the same cockroach comparison in his Stalin epigram (‘We live, not feeling the ground beneath us’) of November 1933, which led to his arrest and subsequent death in the labour camps of far-eastern Siberia: Tarakan’i smejuxcia usišča (His cockroach moustaches chortle)—Translator’s note.