I first encountered Rushian clashics five years ago, at a time when much less was being written about this issue than today. A colleague who taught Russian language and literature at the Arts Department of Comenius University once told me a bizarre anecdote about a student who, during an exam on the Russian classics, recounted a filthy story full of faecal humour and the most perverted obscenities, insisting arrogantly that it had been written by none other than Dostoevsky. Under normal circumstances my colleague would have dismissed this simply as the regular cheek of a student who hadn’t prepared for an exam and was trying to bluff, except that this particular student was one of the most conscientious ones in his year and had never before behaved in this manner.
I would have forgotten this story if, about a year later, I hadn’t read a newspaper report about a lorry apprehended by the customs police in Vyšné Nemecké, at the border crossing between Slovakia and Ukraine. It is a place where customs officers frequently come across lorries that carry cheap, Chinese-made copies of branded clothes (adidad, nikhe) but this time instead of fake clothes or perfumes the lorries contained books. Dostojevzski, Tolsztoi, Toorgenef – cheap imitations of lasting literary value for those who can’t afford to read real Russian classics because these are too demanding. A journalist friend told me he had met many people, especially in remote Slovak villages around Gemer and Novohrad, who kept some “Chehov” on their bookshelves and believed that, because they had read this cheap trash, they were entitled to make knowledgeable contributions to discussions on the great themes of the Russian classics such as God, love, immortality, crime, punishment and death. They would not be persuaded that the real Chekhov had an extra “k” in his name and that he had never written an obscene story about a Cossack whose most faithful companion was a horse. (I will spare you the details.) It is difficult to debate great existential questions with people brought up on such cheap imitations of the Russian classics or – as journalists have recently dubbed it, Rushian clashics – since, even though at first sight Rushian clashics may be reminiscent of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Turgenev in terms of their themes, their value diminishes after a second reading.
A few months after the discovery of the lorryful of fake Russian classics a friend who works for an NGO drew my attention to the inhuman conditions in which these fake classics are written. Authors who make their living by faking Russian classics allegedly participate in regular creative camps in remote parts of north-east China. First reports from these camps emerged early last year after an Amnesty International researcher had spent some time in one of these places, pretending to be an emeritus professor of Russian literature specialising in Goncharov.
People invited to these camps are mostly retired literature professors, preferably epileptics, who are forced to drink litres of vodka, set up anarchist cells, and argue about the existence of God in order to get as close as possible to the conditions under which real Russian classics were written. They are forced to gamble away the laughable fees they receive in the local casino, a faithful replica of the one in Baden-Baden where F.M. Dostoevsky squandered his royalties. When the old and exhausted writers can no longer write, a beautiful and cynical femme fatale is allegedly let loose among them, to break their hearts and squeeze their final novel out of them.
In a particularly piquant twist for the Slovak reader, a certain local man of letters was also said to have been involved in producing these literary forgeries. Out of respect for his family I will not mention the name of this literary hack, as he has suffered enough and recently died of pneumonia, brought about by nervous exhaustion. He was said to be a great imitator of Solzhenitsyn and Bunin. (The afterword to this publication contains an interview with this author, which may help the reader gain an insight into the thinking of someone who was forced by circumstances to fake real values and pretend to be a classic.)
This slender volume – an anthology of Rushian clashics – is presented not only as testimony of the bizarre cul-de-sacs that wild east capitalism has driven contemporary literature into but also – and especially – as a warning to future generations of writers.
- Ján Štrasserr
The Rebirth of the Orthodox Faith in our Town
When a bus carrying children from our primary school crashed into a concrete pole, instantly killing six out of twenty-six seventh-graders, and seven more children died in the course of the following few days, our town was shaken to the core. Balzetsovo is a small town, and not a single house remained where they didn’t mourn a son or a daughter, a nephew or a niece, a cousin or a neighbour. The entire town as well the surrounding villages attended the joint funeral. Mourners started pouring into the church of the Holiest Mother of God in the early hours. Petya Pockmarkin even set up a pumpkin seed stall outside the church until police chief Samson Samsonov chased him away. Thirteen white coffins were laid out in front of the iconostasis, and thirteen mothers standing before them had to be supported by relatives or they would have collapsed in a heap.
The entire town, petrified by despair, waited to hear what the Venerable Archistavros* Ferapont would have to say and what words he would choose to comfort our despair-riven hearts. Thousands of eyes were fixed on the priest as he entered the temple, accompanied by Deacon Mit’ka.
Father Ferapont blessed the worshippers and started to speak in his sonorous, velvety bass: “Today, as we stand above these thirteen coffins there is only one question on all our minds: why? The question why has been sounding in the universe since the birth of mankind. Why did it happen? Why did these thirteen innocent souls have to die before they had a proper taste of life? Why did the flower of their life fade before it had a chance to come into bud, to blossom and bear fruit? Why? There is only one answer…” Father Ferapont paused and the entire congregation fell silent and pricked up its ears. “The Lord needed thirteen little angels in heaven! That is why he let the bus hit the concrete pole, that is why he let it burn, and let some of the children suffocate in the smoke and others burn alive. Why did he not summon them in some less cruel manner? – a doubter and pagan might ask. Well, a believer’s heart will respond: he did so in order to teach us a lesson and demonstrate through these children the horrors that unbelievers will suffer in hell as they are devoured by the flames just like they were.”
If Father Ferapont’s intention was to make the bereaved forget their grief for a moment, it would be only fair to admit that he succeeded. Instead of grief, most of the mourners succumbed to other emotions. At first people were disconcerted, then astonished and, finally, furious. The audience listened to Father Ferapont in a state of shock, many with their mouths wide open. Even the desperate wailing of mothers ceased. But Father Ferapont wasn’t quite finished. He began to muse aloud on why the Lord summoned just the children and on the kind of angels He might have needed. Sashka Belabanov had a beautiful singing voice, Father Ferapont speculated, so it was likely that the heavenly choir had a shortage of tenors and that is why it was necessary to kill Sashka and expedite him to heaven without delay. And Pet’ka Razumikhin, who lay beside him, had come second in the district cross-country running race, meaning heaven was short of fleet-footed messengers. And since in addition to running, Pet’ka had also won a bronze medal in a maths competition, they must have needed a messenger who could guarantee fast delivery of the latest tally of redemptions from St James to St Peter.
Long after the funeral people were still talking about Father Feramont’s sermon. And precious few good things they had to say about it. The teacher Kozlov said, literally, that Father Feramont was a prick. Volodya Bezpiatnikov, the father of little Lizaveta who had died in the accident, said that there was no God and he would never set foot in the church again. Several other Balzetsovo citizens concurred. Following Father Ferapont’s sermon the turnout at services went down rapidly. Father Ferapont attributed this to the workings of the devil in Balzetsovo.
Two months later another tragedy was visited upon Balzetsovo. Miners in the Belopolskaya mine hit a methane pocket, which ignited and exploded. Seven miners on the site were incinerated alive, including Volodya Bezpiatnikov who had lost his daughter in the bus accident and said there was no God. Only three of the miners’ families let Father Feramont bury their loved ones and not many people attended the funeral.
Father Ferapont’s mighty voice preached: “God has punished these seven people for their human pride. Did the Lord give man paws like a mole? No! And yet, man has tempted God by grubbing around the earth like a mole, by trying to fly like a bird, and dive like a fish. But the Lord will punish people for their pride, just as he had meted out a punishment to these seven unbelievers who thought they were moles.”
If Father Ferapont’s first funeral oration hardly counted as a success, the second one was an outright disaster. That night someone even threw a brick through Father Ferapont’s window and poisoned his dog Aglaya. “The Devil has conspired against us, but we have to persevere,” Father Ferapont said to Deacon Mit’ka the evening after they had glazed the broken window. Father Ferapont laboured under the obsessive delusion he shared with most artists – the belief that the more people they piss off, the more certain it was that they were on the right path.
The final disaster hit our small town in late August. One fine day the vagrant Artyom Dzhumpilov-Scabbymugin spotted Ninochka, the sunshine of our small town, a maiden of incomparable beauty, walking from the church with her grandmother, old Anfisa. Many a young man in Balzetsovo had dreamt about Ninochka before falling asleep. Twice they had tried to lure her to Moscow with offers of a modelling career, promising her every worldly treasure, invoking the catwalks of Paris and Milan, but Ninochka’s heart craved neither glory nor admiration. She was quite happy in our Balzetsovo with her grandmother Anfisa. She loved children and worked as a teacher in the nursery school. She was a joy to behold as she sat in the meadow with her charges singing songs about peace and our motherland. The minute Dzhumpilov-Scabbymugin saw her in the setting sun, Artyom’s lonely heart ached with longing. Artyom was an orphan, a vagrant and a virgin.
A day later, in the early evening, as Ninochka walked home from choir practice, he lay in wait for her and dragged her off the road down to the ditch between the willow trees by the river. There he grabbed her by the hair and pushed her head underwater. In vain did Ninotchka resist, Artyom held her there until she stopped thrashing about and her body went still. He pulled her out of the water, rolled up her wet skirt and took his stinking, long- unwashed member out of his trousers. He drew Ninochka’s panties aside and hardly had he inserted his member twice into the lily-white Ninochka before it was all over. The vagrant Artyom plonked himself down next to the stiff Ninochka, panting heavily. Little birds sang in the willow trees, a gentle breeze blew and the water continued to splash. Artyom wondered if the brief moment of pleasure had been worth it. No, it hadn’t. He felt deceived. He grew angry with Ninochka for having got him into this mess for a few seconds’ pleasure and lashed out at her. At that moment Ninochka stirred. Artyom got scared. Ninochka’s body convulsed, she retched and vomited up some of the filthy water. Artyom heard her irregular breathing. Artyom had once been in prison, for shoplifting a pair of US-made shoes. Every day he was slashed with a penknife and had salt rubbed into his wounds. And every other day the brute Genya shoved his enormous sledgehammer up his arse, making him bleed. He felt no desire to go back. He got to his feet, went down to the brook and found a large round stone. Ninochka watched him, trembling. She tried to run away but her feet refused to obey her. Artyom lashed out at her but missed. Ninochka pleaded with him not to kill her, promising not to tell anyone, but Artyom knew that women made promises only to break them and that they couldn’t be trusted. The second time round he didn’t miss and hit Ninochka above the eye. He hit her again to be on the safe side, then again… and again… and again. And since he knew that another opportunity of intercourse with such a beauty might not come anytime soon, he took advantage of her body once more before leaving. This time it took longer and that sealed his fate as Grigory Stalagubov, a muscular giant, who came down to fish in the river, caught him in the act.
Artyom was detained and immediately confessed everything. He wept and claimed he had been possessed by the devil. To the amazement of the whole town Ninochka’s grandmother Alisa decided to ask Father Feramont to give Ninochka’s mangled body a church funeral. People tried to talk her out of it, advising that she should forget all about God if He allowed Ninochka, the light of old Anfisa’s life, to die such a horrendous death, but Anfisa was adamant. And whatever people may have thought of Father Ferapont, everyone loved Ninochka and the whole town planned to attend her funeral.
On the eve of the funeral Father Ferapont stood by the stove preparing his favourite dish of karmakaz out of fresh ryubashka and oshchinka** from Kazan’. Deacon Mit’ka sat beside him listening to Father Ferapont. “Do you know, Mit’ka, what my sermon tomorrow will be about?” Father Ferapont asked suddenly. Mit’ka knew that Father Ferapont wasn’t expecting a reply so he just sat there in silence. “Do you know what I will say at the funeral of the slain Nina Vasilievna? My sermon will be about the sinfulness of beauty that had filled Nina Vasilievna. I will say in my sermon that although she was holy, her beauty had filled her with temptation and vanity and so the Lord had to punish her and kill the devil in her. If she hadn’t flaunted her beauty so much she might still be alive. Although I’m holy and spend all my days in prayer, she often distracted me with her beauty and tried, the she-devil that she was, to lure me away from prayers and seduce me to commit the sin of self-abuse. Although I am a holy person, at the sight of Nina Vasilievna impure thoughts entered my mind on more than one occasion. Every young man ought to light a candle in the church in gratitude to the Lord for delivering him from temptation. Mit’ka, that man Artyom was the Lord’s messenger. This is what my sermon at tomorrow’s funeral will be about.”
Deacon Mit’ka listened and listened to Father Ferapont, and although he was no great thinker, Mit’ka had an inkling that this funeral oration by Father Feramont was likely to bring about the end of the orthodox faith in Balzetsovo. He guessed that before Father Feramont even finished speaking the congregation would pounce on him and the deacon and kick both of them to death, that they would topple the iconostasis and trample on the holy icons, that they would spit on the Holy Mother of God and burn the icon of the Redeemer. He knew this and he couldn’t let it happen. While Father Ferapont stood by the stove with his back to Mit’ka cooking his karmakaz and talking about the devil that took on the guise of Ninochka’s innocent face, Deacon Mit’ka picked up a kitchen knife lying on the table and stabbed Father Ferapont through the kidney. At last Father Ferapont stopped talking, turned around and gave the deacon a surprised look. Swish: the deacon cut Father Ferapont’s throat. A second mouth opened, in Father Ferapont’s throat. The mouth gaped as if Father Ferapont wanted to say something but instead of a voice only blood gushed out. Father Ferapoint collapsed on the floor, blood spurting from his throat onto the deacon’s feet. The karmakaz on the stove boiled over and the hot mush spilled over the rim, splashing into the puddle of blood on the floor, but the deacon just stood above the soulless Father Ferapont wondering if this sacrifice was sufficient to avert the demise of the orthodox faith in the town. He wasn’t so sure. However hard he tried, he couldn’t rid himself of the nagging thought that a greater sacrifice was needed to save the orthodox faith in Balzetsovo.
And although Father Ferapont was a prize prick, the deacon liked him in his own way. Standing above his corpse, Mit’ka felt ever greater remorse over having sullied his hands with human blood. Did he have the right to take a life – even the life of a moron like Father Ferapont, even for the sake of preserving the faith? He went over to the church and said a prayer before the iconostasis but he couldn’t shake off the remorse and guilt. And so Mit’ka climbed the steeple and looked out of the window. He feasted his eyes on the view of the river. He feasted his eyes on the view of the rooftops of Balzetsovo and the birch groves, and hanged himself on the clapper of the big bell whose irregular, double tolling announced to Balzetsovo the rebirth of the orthodox faith in our town.
* Needless to say, the author has made up all the church practices and titles.
** No such things exist. The author invented these ingredients. He is so stupid and lazy he couldn’t even be bothered to google a common recipe for a folksy Russian national dish.
DANIEL MAJLING (1980), Slovakia’s most successful comic book author. He works as dramaturg at the Slovak National Theatre. His first foray into comics was with the stories featuring the asocial cynic Rudo (2015), which went viral. He debuted as a fiction writer in 2017 with a collection of “fake” stories, Ruzká klazika (2017, Rushian Clashics), voted Book of the Year and shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera, winning the readers’ prize. His writing typically relies on spoofery, frequent allusions to works of world literature and philosophy, and a sarcastic view of the world that sometimes verges on the cynical. He lives in Bratislava and his stories are set in the remote Slovak countryside of the Gemer region, around which he has spun idiosyncratic, original myths of his own.
JULIA and PETER SHERWOOD are based in London and work as freelance translators from and into a number of Central and East European languages. Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and spent more than 20 years in the NGO sector in London before turning to freelance translation some ten years ago. She is editor-at-large for Slovakia with the online journal Asymptote. Peter Sherwood’s first translations from the Hungarian appeared fifty years ago, but he was an academic for over forty years before retiring and devoting himself more or less full-time to translating. Their joint book-length translations into English include works by Balla, Daniela Kapitáňová, Uršuľa Kovalyk, Peter Krištúfek, Pavel Vilikovský (from the Slovak), Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki (Polish) and Petra Procházková (Czech). Peter’s translations from the Hungarian include works by Béla Hamvas, Noémi Szécsi, Antal Szerb, and Miklós Vámos. For more information, see juliaandpetersherwood.com