From Oil, Blizzard, and Other Merry Gods
Translated from the Russian by Jasmine Alexander-Greene
When the last visitors depart, and the Mausoleum’s doors are locked, Vladimir Ilyich lies still for another minute just to be safe, then stretches, opens his eyes, and rises.Briskly springing from his bier, he smooths out his suit, adjusts his fabulous tie in British Parliamentary style (the one with polka dots) and, rubbing his hands together, speaks energetically into the black void of his abode:
“Nadezhda Konstantinovna, shall we have a bit of tea?”
At that moment, from out of the half-darkness appears a woman dressed and made-up in such a manner as to maximally resemble Madame Krupskaya. Despite her high wages and considerable work experience, to this day she remains unable to overcome the disquiet of those first minutes, and for some time her eyes retain a frightened expression.
“What kind of tea, Vladimir Ilyich?” she asks, her voice professionally affectionate.
“Let’s try English, strong!” Vladimir Ilyich replies cheerfully and takes a seat at the tea table.
Vladimir Ilyich is keen on drinking tea; he drinks it for hours with relish. The vozhdlikes everything Russian: potbellied samovars, baranki, lump sugar and aromatic pryaniki—but Vladimir Ilyich doesn’t care much for Russian tea.
“It’s not tea—it’s shit, shit and stupidity. What’s good is English tea. It’s about time for every educated man to learn this,” he proclaims, settling down comfortably at the table with Nadezhda Konstantinovna.
Nevertheless, Nadezhda Konstantinova asks Vladimir Ilyich every day what kind of tea he prefers—it isspecified in her training manual.
After tea Krupskaya usually sits in the corner and reads a French novel, while Vladimir Ilyich plays chess with a soldier and often, lost in thought, begins to pontificate: “Trotsky collected his fair share ofFrench rubbish like that. Better you read something more worthwhile, Nadezhda Konstantinovna. Tolstoy, for example.”
And he makes a brilliant move.
Nadezhda Konstantinovna’s training recommends that she reply to this with a sad sigh, conveying both “you’re strict, Vladimir Ilyich, you find fault with everything” and “why climb into such a godforsaken thicket; I’m reading for love; love is better.”
The soldier playing chess with Lenin is usually very focused, even cheerless. When a joint meeting of all the Kremlin’s military personnel was called to decide who would serve the vozhd, nobody wanted to take on these additional obligations, even for the higher pay it would bring.So they drew straws. Sergeant Myshkin, who’d drawn the short straw that doomed him to be Vladimir Ilyich’s chess partner, was distraught—he had no knack whatsoever for this game and had feared corpses since childhood. Major Filin, his immediate supervisor, clapped the sergeant merrily on the shoulder:“Cast aside your fears, officer! We’ll teach you to play—and as for the smell, there are so many air fresheners hung throughout the place, you won’t notice a thing!”
For a month the sergeant studied intensively in chess club, was relieved of regular duties, and now received a salary five times greater than before. Now, playing with Ilyich in silence, wholly cowed, he tried not to look at him or think about anything except the game. He would have long ago sought a way to quit the job, but his wife would not let him—their second child was on the way and they needed the money. Lenin himself did not care who he played with—in life he’d gaily grabbed his opponents by the button and made fools of them, making an exception only for Trotsky: “He was a swine of course, and a whore, but oh, how he played! A tactical genius! But where is he now?”
When recalling Trotsky, Vladimir Ilyich began to languish, which often culminated in a kind of unpleasant discomfiture. The vozhd would abandon all his usual pursuits and circle around inside the museum, peering anxiously into the half-darkness around him. Once he paced like this for the entire day and toward evening stole up to one of the security guards and suddenly seized him by the neck, shouting shrilly: “You bastard! You’re offending Krupskaya! You’re the one who ice-axed Trotsky! I know everything, everything! Your collectivization is shit, shit and stupidity; you’ve pillaged the country, you uncultured swine!”
They barely managed to drag Vladimir Ilyich away, and the soldier was granted a week’s leave. There were several such incidents. A police taser always came in handy.
One day Vladimir Ilyich succeeded in escaping—not for long, but all the same. Yes, in all those eighty-four years Lenin only once ventured beyond the mausoleum. Of course he asked for the liberty every day; sometimes he even cried, and often flew into a rage, calling the head of security a brute and dullard, but all was in vain—no one would let him out. Lenin resorted to cunning: he claimed he had claustrophobia and muscle spasms and constant headaches, that it was critical to breathe fresh air; a doctor would come, examine the patient, say his usual “But you’re dead, old chap; fat chance you have of being sick. You’re faking it, dear fellow”—and leave, and always Vladimir Ilyich would hear these words as if for the first time and would become terribly upset; he would sink into the doldrums, no longer pining for the outdoors. But then one day he pulled off an escape.
It happened like this. That evening, Vladimir Ilyich felt sick and decided to dictate an article to Nadezhda Konstantinovna instead of writing it himself. The vozhd settled comfortably on his red bier, propped himself up on an elbow, and, munching a baranka, began: “Stalin is not suited for the post of general secretary due to his personal qualities. He is rude, power-hungry, and transsexual to boot. I spied extra-large women’s underwear in his desk-drawer. Such a man cannot stand at the helm of our party; he will inevitably commit mistakes and follies. He is also a brute, and I hate him. When I was dying, he rejoiced. He rejoiced when I was dying. Rejoice he did, when I was dying. I was dying my whole life long, and Stalin was an ignoramus, and a schemer, and a very cunning personage. Stalin must be excluded from all affairs and exiled to the grave.”
Krupskaya, who’d heard it all before, took notes indifferently, only from time to time asking for clarification: “What, Vladimir Ilyich? A corruption of policy?” With its stream of lispedr’s and l’s, Lenin’s speech rippled monotonously across the silence of the crypt. The soldier on watch by the entrance hadn’t slept all night. Now he could no longer hold out and dozed off, slumping against a wall. Lenin realized this was his chance.
“I’m slipping out to the lavatory, Nadezhda Konstantinovna. I’ll be quick,” said the vozhd, leaping down from the bier. He headed for the exit.
Krupskaya yawned lazily, nodded her head, and burrowed into her novel.
The door through which visitors enter usually isn’t locked, reflecting trust in the soldiers’ vigilance. Lenin knew this. Faster, faster. Turn right. Straight, upstairs. Turn left. A leftward slant, Comrade Trotsky. The last straightway, damn these steps, why are there so many of them. My heart can’t take it now. My head is throbbing. My head really, really aches, it always aches, my dear Nadezhda Konstantinovna. Have pity on me; you can see how my head hurts so. Do not be afraid, we will have our way with Stalin. The congress is coming up; don’t you forget to pass on the letters, and that my head hurts so much, and most importantly, that Stalin has become too brazen. What a pig! An animal. He’s the one who put in all these steps, I’m sure of it! I can’t believe he died. No, Stalin is clever; he could have made some bargain. That’s it! The door. Why won’t it open? They locked it! The vermin! But I know it’s not locked! Ah, pull. That’s it, excuse me. Freedom. Doors open just in one direction by conscious design.
Above Red Square stretched a dark, unbearably beautiful sky with huge, soothingly twinkling stars. Not a person to be seen. Vladimir Ilyich gulped in the fresh air, exhaled, and fell to his knees. After gathering his breath, he rose and wandered away from the sepulchre.
Lenin strolled for about an hour. He only walked along the walls,so he’d be able to dive behind any of the great blue firs growing along the Kremlin’s perimeter in the event anything happened. Lenin took time to inspect the array of state tombs of honor which stretched out near the mausoleum. Longest of all, of course, he stood before the tomb of Stalin. At first Vladimir Ilyich giggled contentedly and even danced a jig, but suddenly he grew sad when a wheezy old crow alit on the headstone. “You’re a fool, Nadezhda Konstantinovna,” Lenin told it, clasped his coat tighter around himself, and moved on. Quite cold, it was.
After deciding to venture away from the wall for a bit, Vladimir Ilyich encountered a lone romantic couple wending their way across the emptiness of Red Square and asked them the nearest place to buy bread and milk. The lovers guffawed and begged him to pose with them for a photo. Lenin was offended and retreated into darkness once more.
They caught the mummy around 2 a.m. Vladimir Ilyich’s escape had caused an uproar; the servicemen had called the president and the director of the FSB. A military prosecutor had already dressed down the soldier who had fallen asleep at his post. The Kremlin’s commandant shouted at all unfortunate enough to be within his reach.
They discovered the vozhd near the tombs of the heads of Soviet state, to which he had returned after growing bored with wandering aimlessly across the cobblestones. Lenin was discovered by FSB K-9s. The animals bayed and whined, following the vozhd’s trail. Their searchlights illuminated the grey figure sheltered behind a blue fir; security called for soldiers, who formed a half-ring and began closing in slowly, eyes fixed vigilantly ahead. The enormous old crow flapped lazily past, above the military personnel. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stood by the wall, wailing.
Read Ivan Shipnigov’s “Lenin’s Mausoleum” translated by Jasmine Alexander-Greene in the print edition of The Arkansas International 7.
Ivan Shipnigov (b. 1987) is a Russian writer and journalist. He studied philology at Moscow State University and has worked as editor for the Bauman Moscow State Technical University newspaper since 2015. Oil, Blizzard, and Other Merry Gods (Нефть, метель, и другие веселые боги, 2016) is his debut work.
Jasmine Alexander-Greene (b. 1998) is a translator and blogger based in Durham, NC.