Creatures that Once Were Men

Gorky in exile

Ask the average fan of literary fiction to list their favourite Russian writers, and I suspect the answers would break down into three general categories.

You’d have the major nineteenth century writers, starting with Pushkin and Gogol and ending with Chekhov and Tolstoy, the Soviet believers and dissidents from Teffi, Platonov, and Bulgakov to Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, and the contemporary late- and post-Communists like Sorokin, Petrushevskaya, and Ulitskaya. But if you asked who the big names in Russian fiction were on the eve of the revolution, during the tumultuous decade between the Revolution of 1905 and Russia’s disastrous entry into World War I, I’m not sure you could count on getting an answer.

Which brings me to the point of this post: the thorough and rather bizarre erasure of Maxim Gorky from the Anglophone canon of twentieth century world literature.

It’s not much of an overstatement to say that Gorky, born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, was the most significant people of his generation. Gorky (“bitter” in Russian) spent his childhood and youth travelling aimlessly across the Russian Empire, working odd jobs up and down the Volga, the Black Sea coast, and the Caucasus mountains. In his twenties he began writing stories and polemics about the dislocated and restless underclass of peasants and proletarians who had been formally liberated with the abolition of serfdom, but not provided with the means to rise from poverty—the very demographic providing nascent support for the overlapping Marxist movements agitating for power.

Gorky had a sharp nose for politics, and by the end of the century he had adopted strong democratic Marxist and anti-Tsarist views. Between stints in prison, he befriended everyone from Chekhov and Tolstoy to Stanislavski and Lenin. He also published a volcanic stream of stories, plays, novels, and essays that earned him an international reputation as a writer of the first rank ( has thoughtfully archived some of his non-fiction from this period).

In ’05 he was finally imprisoned in Saint Petersburg’s infamous Peter and Paul Fortress, and when he got out he headed to the U.S. to fundraise for the Bolsheviks. This was the beginning of nearly twenty years in exile in Italy, first under the Tsar and then under Lenin (he became disgusted with the way the Bolsheviks wielded power once they had it) before being rehabilitated and returning to the Soviet Union under Stalin. He spent the last decade of his life championing a series of increasingly heinous causes, a willing apologist for the regime that would devour him just as it devoured so many old revolutionaries.

This is all very interesting as literary biography and historical morality play; but does all this pamphleteering actually hold up a hundred years down the line? Judging the question purely by book sales, it would seem that Gorky has fallen terminally from favour with readers. Only a handful of his books are still in print in English, and based on what my partner tells me he’s not that hot in Russia, either.

I wanted to see for myself what the (self-styled) “stormy petrel” of Russian literature was like as a writer, so I downloaded an electronic copy of Creatures That Once Were Men and Other Stories in an early twentieth century translation by J.M. Shirazi with an introduction by G.K. Chesterton from Project Gutenberg. Much as it’s a cliché to say so, I couldn’t put it down.

Alexander Bogdanov and Lenin play chess at Gorky’s home in Capri before the revolution.

Creatures That Once Were Men (1897) is set in a dosshouse managed by a retired army Captain named Aristid Kuvalda. Kuvalda runs his operation out of an old converted blacksmith’s shed on the property of a collapsing house rented out by Petunikoff, a prosperous local merchant. Kuvalda’s business model involves luring the down-at-heel in with his straight talk and comradely attitude before using his inhuman capacity for drink to keep them in a state of state of riotous poverty.

But Kuvalda has a human side, and his favourite tenant is a sensitive, scholarly teacher-come-journalist—the only one of his dissolute boarders Kuvalda feels is on his intellectual level. Despite his affection, the relationship is straightforwardly co-dependent. Whenever things start going well for the teacher, Kuvalda is always there to pour the drink that will ensure he never makes his way back into polite society. “‘In the majority of cases it is impossible to fight against fate,'” Kuvalda says, “as if trying to justify himself before someone.” It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is not the kind of story that has a hero.

The main drama of the novella turns on a conflict between Kuvalda and Petunikoff over the fate of the dosshouse the titular “creatures that once were men” call home. Petunikoff and his ambitious son want to tear it down to extend their candle factory, and Kuvalda cooks up a variety of ultimately frustrated schemes to keep it standing and under his control. You can see the tragedy coming a mile off, and by the end of the story the teacher is dead, Kuvalda has been arrested for assault, and Petunikoff is taking measurements for his new factory.

As a story, it’s pretty entertaining. But there is a quality of recklessness in the prose that makes it difficult to categorize. Chekhov dealt with very similar material in his novella Peasants, published the same year, but with Chekhov you always know where you stand: namely, outside the action. Chekhov never had to live in a dosshouse, so he could write about people who did with an artist’s sympathy, attending to the details, distilling the pathos, applying the famous humanist eye for which he is so rightly loved. With Gorky it’s all electricity, uncertainty, and violence—the claustrophobia and hatred, the filth and hangovers, the sick lust and animal cunning.

Which is to say that it is artless: too raw to have depth, too disgusted to be subtle.

This artlessness manifests itself everywhere. The story opens with a fairly standard nineteenth century description of place and character (would you be surprised to learn that Kuvalda has “a crooked red nose” and “large and wolf-like yellow teeth”?), and it closes with a description of the heavens that doubles as an invocation of apocalypse:

In the lowering gray clouds, which hid the sky, there was something hard and merciless, as if they had gathered together to wash all the dirt off the face of this unfortunate, suffering, and sorrowful earth.

The “meaning” of the story is apparent from the first page; it is affirmed in every repetition of the phrase “creatures that once were men” (it crops up three times in twice as many lines at one point). Absolutism and capitalism have so thoroughly crushed the humanity of these characters that they can hardly be considered human anymore, and if you’re horrified by how they behave, look to the conditions that have created them. Historically speaking it’s hard to argue with as an assessment of Russia under Nicholas II, but it makes for rather heavy-handed fiction.

And yet obvious as it might be, I am thrilled by Gorky’s prose. He has an incredible sense for the morbidly comic that manifests itself on every page (“We are not good people, merchant!” one of Kuvalda’s tenants responds indignantly when Petunikoff addresses him as such), and his knack for unlocking his characters’ essential characteristics is uncanny. He understands that contradictory beliefs and moral inconsistency are the rule rather than the exception. He knows that sweaty labour and the din the industrial age can be as beautiful as a moonlit night on open water.

Given the politics that inevitably shapes who we read and who we forget, it is not particularly surprising that Gorky has fallen out of favour. And few writers are guilty of such an obscene betrayal of the humble worker as he: his championing of the senseless blood-letting that underwrote the construction of the Baltic-White Sea Canal alone lends a poetic justice to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. But a hundred and fifty years on from his birth, it seems unquestionable to me that Gorky’s prose animates some of the most terrifying questions around what it means to be a writer engaged with politics and active in the struggle to make the world more dignified and less cruel.

So perhaps it would be fitting to end with a once-famous passage that follows the climax of Creatures that Once Were Men:

Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror, and went back into the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At the door facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand and a large bag on his back, a horrible old man in rags and tatters, which covered his bony figure. He bent under the weight of his burden, and lowered his head on his breast, as if he wished to attack the merchant.

“What are you? Who are you?” shouted Petunikoff.

“A man…” he answered in a hoarse voice. This hoarseness pleased and tranquillized Petunikoff, he even smiled.

“A man! And are there really men like you?” Stepping aside he let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:

“Men are of various kinds…as God wills…There are worse than me…still worse…Yes…”

Watching Nadezhda Repyeva’s Eugene Onegin


Last night, Irina and I went to the opera. More specifically, we went to the Erik Sapaev Mari State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet to see Nadezhda Repyeva’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name.

Yoshkar-Ola only has about a quarter of a million people, but if you are so inclined you can see a different opera, classical music, or theatre performance any night of the week, for the price of a couple of lunches at a nice cafeteria. Within the downtown core alone there is the Theatre of Opera and Ballet, the Shketan National Mari Drama Theatre, the Konstantinov Academic Russian Drama Theatre, the Republican Puppet Theatre, and the Theatre for Young Audiences. Most of these host touring productions from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and some local companies take their shows to the capitals and abroad. It’s fair to say that Russians take their art pretty seriously.      

Coming from Toronto, where even a dedicated opera-goer can only see a dozen or so professional productions a year, it has been hard to adjust to the sheer number of options for evening entertainment. And given that we’ve also been plumbing the labyrinthine bureaucracy required to get a work permit, negotiating contracts with my employer, and trying to find an apartment, I didn’t have time to prepare for the upcoming show as I normally would, by reading the synopsis and perhaps taking a look at the score. This meant that for the first time in probably a decade, I was attending an opera I’d never seen based on a poem I’d never read with no translated surtitles to fall back on.

Surtitles—those little scrawls of electronic text that provide a translation of the libretto—have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to imagine, against all reason, that they’ve always been around. But like the black trash bag and commercial asbestos mining, they are in fact a Canadian innovation.

First used during a Canadian Opera Company performance of Elektra in 1983, surtitles were quickly adopted around the world as an essential tool for making the multilingual opera canon more accessible to audiences. But the convenience came at a cost: instead of focussing one’s attention on the singers and dancers, the details of the staging, the complexity of the mise-en-scène, or the music itself, the translated text encourages you to constantly flick your eyes up to make sure you’re following what’s being said.

Which is usually something like this:

—Always flying on the wings of my desire

—Love that throbs like the entire universe

—On the wings of my desire

or this:

—Great is your gift, ye gods! I recognise it and am grateful!…But the grief which accompanies your gift is past all bearing!

The quality of libretti varies greatly between periods and between composers, but even the best surtitles are usually pretty functional. The point isn’t to communicate the riches of the prose, but to make sure the audience knows who’s fucking who, who’s about to get fucked over, and why this dwarf is so excited about the pile of gold he just found.

For people like me, who spend their lives working with words rather than music, having the script flashing above the stage in large letters only compounds the temptation to see all this plot nonsense as being the point of the show. As if anyone would actually pay to sit around for three hours watching a handful of actors explain with excruciating slowness how very, very unhappy they are if there wasn’t something else going on as well.  

The best libretti (and Tchaikovsky’s Onegin is widely considered a classic) only communicate a very small amount of information. And some of the most enduring operas—Don Giovanni comes to mind—simply do not make sense purely on a narrative level. One doesn’t need to have a degree in musicology to understand that the way a text is sung can fundamentally change and even invert its meaning, or to see that the way a character like Donna Elvira sings is essential to understanding her character. But the omnipresent surtitles make a different case: they tell us that in order to really get what’s happening here, you need to read along.

Which is why it felt so liberating to take my seat and watch the curtain go up and the house lights dim without any expectation of understanding what I was about to see.  


As Irina explained to me as we walked home after the show, Eugene Onegin is about two sisters, Olga and Tatiana Larina, who are courted by two young noblemen, Vladimir Lensky and the eponymous Onegin. The couples are mirrors of each other: Olga and Lensky are cheerful and dumb, while Tatiana and Onegin are subtle and brooding. Tatiana, who has fallen heavily under the influence of Romance novels, declares her passion for Onegin but is callously rebuffed.

A ball is held at the Larin estate in honour of Tatiana’s name day, where Onegin overhears the locals gossiping about how he’s probably going to end up marrying her. In a fit of pique, he flirts so outrageously with Olga that Lensky challenges him to a duel. The next morning Lensky sings a beautiful (and, at least in Russia, famous) aria about love and fate. Onegin shows up late and gives Lensky lots of excuses to call the whole thing off. Lensky is pushed into going ahead with it by his grizzled second, and promptly gets himself killed.

Onegin, heartbroken that he has murdered his friend, takes off travelling. Years later, he returns to Russia only to discover that Tatiana, now grown into a cultured and aristocratic beauty, is married a sweet old Prince. Onegin falls in love with her and tries to win her back in the most absurd ways, but to no avail—Tatiana still loves Onegin, but she refuses to be unfaithful to her husband. The End.

Obviously, I was able to glean some of this just by watching what was unfolding onstage (when someone throws down their glove in a 19th century drama, it’s pretty easy to guess what’s happening). What really surprised me was the extent to which the removal of any kind of literary cues accentuated every other dimension of the performance.

Vladimir Korolev’s set design and Tatiana Izycheva’s costumes became essential for understanding the characters and their motivations, and small gestures attained great significance, as when Tatiana (played by Elvira Guryeva) suggestively grasps the quill she is using to write to Onegin (played by Alexander Sheypak) as she sings the “Letter Aria.” Most importantly, I was forced to pay much greater attention to the music, which in turn got me noticing things about the characters I might otherwise have missed.

Lensky (played by Alexander Stolbov) was probably the best example of this. When Lensky and Onegin first appear, it is clear that we are being presented with a binary: the nice, charming, open hearted lover, and his somewhat more sarcastic, slightly sinister friend. Izycheva’s decision to dress Lensky in creamy, unbuttoned tails and Onegin in a severely cut, high-collared topcoat certainly helped make this point. And for the most part, Stolbov’s sunny tenor underscores this. So it is all the more surprising when, in the aria that opens the second act, Lensky reveals his hidden depths in the “Kuda, kuda vy udalilis” aria.

The plot encourages us to see Lensky’s open-heartedness as a foil for Onegin’s jaded self-awareness: Lensky doesn’t question that happiness is still possible in the stultifying world of the decayed rural aristocracy, while Onegin, a precursor of the great 19th century Russian tradition of the superfluous man, refuses to accept it. One of the reasons Pushkin’s Onegin has such a long history of being beloved by adolescents is that this feeling of alienation tends to ring true at a certain point in life.

But this straightforward typology, established so effectively in the first act, is drawn into question by the sensitivity and depth of Lensky’s aria in the second. Lensky’s apparent lack of intellectual sophistication is revealed to exist alongside a deep emotional sensitivity, a sensitivity that Onegin completely fails to match even at his most passionate moments. Lensky, the happy innocent, at first appears shallow next to the worldly cynicism of Onegin. But while Lensky may have died stupidly for a point of honour, he at least died in a way that was consistent with his life, fully aware of what he was doing. In the final account he is less deceived than Onegin, who, sure of his own superiority over the world he is trapped in, still becomes its victim.       

In this way, the removal of the literary dimension of the opera rendered its emotional tectonics more legible. More than simply characters, Tatiana, Lensky, and Onegin became dramatic principles. And the relations between these principles, the way they were destabilized and re-conceived by the shifting energy of music and action (by action I mean that actual physical movements of bodies around the stage) opened up the possibility for experiencing certain emotional realizations about the pressures and tensions of the world being portrayed on stage.

This is not to say that I learned anything—who goes to the opera to learn things?—but I came out of it having not only been moved, but having been an active participant in the movement. And isn’t this feeling of movement, the exercise of spiritual muscles, the final purpose to which art is directed?

An Advertisement for McDonald’s in the Kazan Airport

The first thing I saw after getting off the plane in Kazan was an advertisement for McDonald’s. A quarter pounder with cheese looked smugly out from a banner hanging above the baggage carousel. I was bleary-eyed and vaguely depressed after a full day in transit from Toronto, and nothing captured the unreality of arriving in the Middle Volga quite like this reminder of where I’d just come from.

It wasn’t a surprise, of course. I’d just spent two hours waiting for a connecting flight in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, and aside from the fact that the signs were written in Cyrillic, the ads and shops could have been the ads and shops in Frankfurt, or Toronto, or any other airport in the world. It just felt a little on the nose for it to be the first thing I saw out of the gate.  

It’s a bit of a truism to say that in the twenty-first century, every place is increasingly like every other place. We don’t talk about globalization for the same reason we don’t talk about the money economy: it’s just a stupid, obvious fact, nowhere more undeniable than in the anonymous hubs that serve international travel. But for some reason—perhaps because airports are linked, at least in my mind, to the promise of the new—I found myself taking the quarter pounder personally. I had just spent eighteen hours in the air, to be greeted by this? How far do you have to travel to not have to see the same shitty ads for the same shitty burgers?

Naturally, I thought of Trude.

Trude is one of the fifty-five places described in Italo Calvino’s experimental novel Invisible Cities. Framed as a series of dialogues between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, Invisible Cities is ostensibly a record of Marco Polo’s travels to the far-flung reaches of the Great Khan’s empire, but the places he describes under headings like “Trading Cities” or “Cities and the Dead” aren’t anymore historical than Marco Polo and the Great Khan’s philosophical debates. The Italian traveller’s descriptions are fundamentally existential: the novel is an exercise in fantasy that explores the paradoxical diversity and sameness of human life. In the last section, under the title “Continuous Cities,” he tells the story of an eerily familiar urban landscape.  

If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, with the same little greenish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we swung around the same flower beds in the same squares.

Marco Polo questions why he bothered coming to Trude in the first place, only to receive the following answer from his unnamed hosts.

“You can resume your flight whenever you like…but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”

Calvino wrote that in 1972, long before there was a McDonald’s anywhere near the Kazan Airport. I wondered what he would have written had he lived to see the fall of Communism.

I mentioned the advertisement to my partner while we were waiting for the train into the city. She was born and raised in nearby Yoshkar-Ola during the brutal economic shock therapy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we were planning on spending a year in her hometown so she could finish a book and I could learn Russian. At this point, she has spent roughly equal parts of her life in the Middle Volga and in the West, so I was interested in what, if any, insight she had into the matter. 

“Yeah, I noticed that, too,” she said. “The advertisement was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of McDonald’s in Tatarstan.”

As the train started off through the golden-green fields stretching south and east toward the Kama River, I was reminded of my mother’s complaint, frequently voiced in the early nineties, that the first Westerners into Russia after perestroika were fast food moguls. She’s hardly a communist, but she does have a pronounced anti-materialist and anti-American streak. Nothing in her mind exemplifies the degeneration of Western culture so much as McDonald’s. Whatever the moral failings of the Soviet project may have been, at least they were able to keep the fucking Big Macs out.

When Calvino describes Trude, he is, of course describing the end of history as the victory of neoliberal capitalism. And as we all know, this is exactly what is supposed to have happened in the early nineties with the fall of the USSR. What better epitomizes the soulless, homogenizing grind of the global market than McDonald’s, with its grotesque production-line approach to food, its childish combination of salt, sugar, and fat, its hideous labour practices, and its frontline assault on the environment? The Big Mac index has become an international standard for measuring purchasing-power parity, for Christ’s sake. It would be easy to take the advertisement for McDonald’s in the Kazan airport as evidence that whatever politic differences exist between Americans and Canadians and Russians, where it matters—on the level of consumption, on the level of material culture—we’re all living in Trude.

But after we arrived in Yoshkar-Ola and started settling into life in the Mari El Republic, this simplistic picture of victorious capitalism was troubled by another anecdote related to fast-food. As it turns out, there is a McDonald’s in Yoshkar-Ola; it stands on a prominent corner off the central park, not far from where Victoria Boulevard meets May Day Street. The building wouldn’t look out of place in any North American city but for one minor detail: the iconic M sign seems lower than it should be. There is, as my partner explained, a reason for this. When the McDonald’s was first built, people complained the towering M distracted from the monumental pillar commemorating Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War that dominates the entrance to the park. The sign was shortened to a more modest height so as to show proper respect for the fallen.

To fear Trude is to fear the erasure of particularity, the swallowing of cultures and cuisines and languages into a vast yeasty similitude. Trude doesn’t grow, it spreads. Its horror lies in its bland mindlessness, the fact that it seems impossible to blame any individual person for it. But while it is good and right to criticize the destructive spread of capitalism across every inch of the globe, it has become increasingly clear that we are not, in fact, facing an apocalyptic flattening out of difference. Eating Big Macs has not made Russians (or Tatars, or the Mari) any more like Americans. If anything, the world is less stable and more prone to political and cultural divergence than it was when that first McDonald’s opened its doors in Kazan back in 1999.

For Trude to be fully realized it must overcome time itself; it must become mythical (which is to say, completely outside of history), because history reminds us that the world we live in is the product of decisions and inventions, the often myopic exercise of power by agents who are always, finally, constrained. And what has been made can, of course, be made anew. The extent to which people are outraged that a fast food restaurant could detract from the dignity of a memorial, or remember that the arrival of McDonald’s in Tatarstan happened at a specific moment in time, for specific political, social, and economic reasons, is the extent to which Trude can be kept at bay. 

There’s an old joke a former editor of mine used to tell about visiting Jerusalem. If you go for one week, you’ll want to write a feature essay about it. If you go for two weeks, you’ll want to write a book. But if you stay for a month, you’ll start to understand just how complicated the place is. You’ll realize you’d need to do years of research before writing a word. I’ve only been in Russia for a week, so it’s entirely possible I’m going off half-cocked; but regardless of the shops stocked with products I recognize and the streets filled with selfie-taking teens, I’m starting to grasp that underneath the patina of familiarity lies a world of difference, of cultural particularity and historical complexity I will, in the coming year, only begin to comprehend.