: "The St. Petersburg Times", Issue #1223(89)
: Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Chukovsky Shows Little Has Changed

The communist system, as George Orwell noted, was not just different from the rest of the world. It was upside down and back to front. Take Soviet literature. Official works seemed to be written for teenagers. Socialist realist writers produced simple, highly accessible prose and poetry, with two-dimensional characters and easily discernible moral lessons.

But when you think about it, the Soviet Union was a vast kindergarten. People were not supposed to question the rules, but divide into boy-girl pairs and march into a bright future. Building communism was like assembling a nationwide Lego set using instructions provided by Marxism-Leninism.

Children's literature, meanwhile, sparkled. A refuge of nonconformists, it provided leeway for artistic expression, although some writers, such as poet Daniil Kharms, did not escape persecution.

Children's literature also produced the most subversive writing in the Soviet Union. Its criticism of Soviet reality was far more subtle than conventional dissident literature, which often operated on the same socialist realist plane.

Widely read children's poet Kornei Chukovsky excelled in mordant satire of the Soviet regime veiled by a naive facade. His "Big Bad Cockroach" depicts a red mustachioed insect terrorizing the animal kingdom. Perhaps the only reason Chukovsky wasn't shot outright was because the caricature was too brazen. Just recognizing Josef Stalin in the self-important cockroach would have spelled a death sentence for his accusers as well.

The famous "Moidodyr," which literally means "wash till you make holes," tells the story of a walking washstand that cleans up the young narrator when he refuses to wash himself. It pokes fun at the communist social transformation project, whereby the state sets out to turn individuals into a healthy, altruistic and happy community.

Like the Bible, which some believe to contain references to all events, Chukovsky seems to have a poem for every turn of Russian history, even very recent ones.

His "Mukha-Tsokotukha" (Buzzing Dung-Fly) can be read as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on post-Soviet Russia. The "gilt-bellied" dung-fly happens upon a coin while walking in the field, very much like Mother Russia with its oil wealth. The dung-fly uses its good fortune to pay for a consumption spree for her close friends.

The good times, however, are interrupted by the appearance of a spider, who - like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs of the 1990s - intends to suck out our heroine's lifeblood. She is rescued by a youthful gnat, who slays the spider and declares his wish to marry the dung-fly. The "gnat in shining armor" is obviously President Vladimir Putin, whose remarkable love affair with Russia may last well past the end of his second term in 2008.

Finally, Chukovsky's "Krokodil" works well as a parody on the recent anti-Georgian blitz. The protagonist, a foreign-born crocodile, walks the streets of St. Petersburg speaking Turkish, and is taunted by the locals, including a policeman. Because he harms the interests of the natives, the crocodile is sent back to Africa in an airplane.

One problem is that Chukovsky, who died in the 1970s, wrote his poems not only before the collapse of communism; many he wrote before the Revolution. This is not unheard of, however. The German Expressionists, too, seemed to foresee the horrors of World War I in their pre-war art. In Chukovsky's case it also means that, for all the outward changes of the past century, underneath it all Russia has changed very little.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist

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