Welcome to the wild, unhinged, mental, and quite brilliant world of Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow Stations.
The Russian writer (whose surname is also written as Erofeyev, Yerofeev, and Erofeev – there seems to be a tremendous amount of confusion about this) penned it in 1969, but it was first published 20 years later as a warning to the population about heavy drinking.
Yerofeyev (who had no qualms about consuming brake fluid and perfume) died in 1990 of throat cancer aged only 51, having been something of a failed and ignored writer until late in his life.
Prior to his death, Moscow Stations gained some recognition (and notoriety) – it was even adapted into a play. This coverage led to interest across the rest of the world, leading to further play adaptations in London (Tom Courtenay starred) and publications of the book.
The BBC even produced a documentary about Yerofeyev shortly before his death, during the course of which he used a primitive voice box to communicate.
He wasn’t a prolific writer (being too drunk for that), but this obscure work is a short and sharp ode to the “sloth and corruption of feudal communism.”
If that type of thing bores you, then you can view Moscow Stations as frequently hilarious tale about one very drunk man’s erratic trek across Moscow.
On the Way to Kursk Station
On a wet and dismal evening in Nottingham, I wandered into a (soon afterwards, defunct) book store and purchased two copies of this rare book for £6. That was September 2003 – I now guard my copy quite carefully and will lend it to no one!
At 130 pages in our Faber and Faber (no less) edition, Yerofeyev takes the spirit of Nikolai Gogol and injects a lot of harsh alcohol and witty humour. The story (which he classes as a “poem”) is semi-autobiographical to some extent, although it can be considered a work of fiction. Chapters are labelled by where the protagonist is hurtling to in Russia.
It opens with his alter-ego, Venya, wandering near Kursk Station, drunk, hungover, and complaining about how he’s never been able to find the Kremlin.
Everybody says: the Kremlin, the Kremlin. They all go on about it, but I’ve never seen it. The number of times (thousands) I’ve been drunk or hungover, traipsing around Moscow, north-south, east-west, end to end, straight through or any old way – and I’ve never seen the Kremlin.
Having been recently fired, Venya is mightly annoyed – this has fueled the bender he’s indulging in. Although it’s entirely his fault he’s been let go, he doesn’t seem eager to acknowledge this, which is when it becomes apparent his preoccupation with alcohol is a severe problem.
He had been a cable layer for railroads, but his superiors were forwarded bizarre graphs he’d drawn up for his (and his colleagues’) drinking schedule whilst on the job – he called them Individual Graphs. Here are several:
Apparently, Alexei Blindyaev ratted out Venya’s habit by posting the reports in the same envelope as the company’s latest socialist pledge. Venya concedes it may have been a drunken error on Blindyaev’s part (considering his report was in there as well), but the result was numerous firings.
Out of a job, Venya meanders aimlessly before eventually deciding to take the metro to see his son, who he’s become estranged from. This is the plot kicking in, as Venya’s eccentric, drink fueled ranting and philosophising takes centre stage.
Reutovo to Nikolskoe
I should highlight at this point Yerofeyev’s flamboyant writing style. Written in first person, it’s extroverted, wild, and borderline hysterical. You can imagine Venya speaking in a high pitched shriek, rather than deep, brooding, and incomprehensible Russian (his voice was described as mellifluous in the introduction).
Indeed, it’s unique stuff and the closest comparison I can think of is Herman Melville’s tone of voice in Moby-Dick.
It’s also at this stage (26 pages in) you realise there isn’t going to be much of a plot. This is, essentially, the Russian equivalent of Withnail and I. Coincidentally, this film’s writer and director (Bruce Robinson) was living Yerofeyev’s exact same drunken existence in London during the late 1960s.
There are comparisons to Gogol (see Petersberg Tales on my other blog) here, in how the story lampoons Russian politics and political structures. You can see why Moscow Stations wasn’t published until 1989 – it’s sharply critical of the communist state.
What the author makes abundantly clear is as follows: Venya is, in no other terms, a highly intelligent man who has been driven to an idiotic working existence and mindless heavy drinking. From this comes a sense of borderline madness, peppered with relentless shots of vodka and peculiar philosophising.
I had a drink, but not like I had at Karacharovo, no, this time there was no nausea or sandwiches. I drank straight from the bottle, tossing my head back like a concert pianist, aware of great things just beginning, and those still to come…
Nikolskoe to Saltykovskaya
Not that the man is overly delusional – he’s aware of the condition he’s in: “So when did you first notice you were an idiot, Venya?” he asks himself.
I’ll tell you when. It was when I heard two polar opposite reproaches being flung at me simultaneously: that I was boring and frivolous. Because if a man’s intelligent and boring, he won’t stoop to frivolity. And if he’s frivolous and intelligent – well, he won’t allow himself to be boring. But I, numbskull that I am, somehow managed to achieve both.
At this point, as the chapters rapidly rush buy, you get the sense of scale of Moscow – it’s like clattering along the old metro line. Into Kuchino to Zheleznodorozhnaya (the latter is apparently so obscure a place you can’t find anything illuminating online about it) and Venya reminisces about his redheaded girlfriend. She said this to him:
I’ve read one of your things. And you know what? I’d never have believed you could get so much crap into a hundred and fifty pages. It’s beyond the powers of man.
Smitten, Venya fell head over heals for the girl he dubs the “ginger bitch” – indeed, he considers her to be a “devil”. It’s clear from the book she has possession of their son, with Venya likely too drunk to be much of a doting father. The man seems to be intermittently aggravated by this, as evidenced by this journey out to see them.
Kilometre 33 to Elektrougli (with hiccups)
Amongst his rambling, there’s a steady and consistent theme – his perpetual drinking. He can barely go a page without informing you how many grammes he just hit home.
Clattering along drunk on the metro, he turns his attention to the nature of hiccuping when intoxicated. This forms one of the many bizarre, homespun scientific analyses he conducts and rants about in the book.
To commence our investigtion of hiccups, we must first call them forth: either an sich, in the terminology of Immanuel Kant, which means from ourselves, or else from some other person, but for our own purposes, which is für sich, as Kant terms it.
With this cleared up, Venya explains how exactly you go about reaching a state of terminal hiccups.
Drink some sort of strong spirit, say Starka, or Trapper’s or Hunter’s vodka, for two hours non-stop. Drink it in tumberfuls, one every half-hour, if possible without any snacks. If you find that difficult, you can allow yourself a bite to eat, but something really unpretentious: bread that’s seen betters days, sprats, spiced or plain, or sprats in tomato sauce.
After this you’re supposed to stop for an hour, let your muscles go limp, and await the hiccups. They will then commence.
If you’re not a complete idiot, you’d better stop being amazed and get down to business: write down at what intervals your hiccup deigns to visit you – in seconds, of course: 8 – 13 – 7 – 3 – 18. Naturally, you’ll try to establish some sort of periodicity here, even very roughly; idiot or not, you’ll have a stab at working out some ridiculous formula or other, to predict the length of the next interval. Try, by all means. Feel free. But life will topple all your half-arsed constructions. 17 – 3 – 4 – 17 – 1 – 20 – 3 – 4 – 7 – 7 – 7 – 18…
This brief section concludes with Venya acknowledging not even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would have been able to solve this one. Meanwhile, the metro rumbles on.
On the run from Elektrougli to Kilometre 43, we’re introduced to the world’s most dangerous cocktails. He begins this chapter by having a go at atheists.
Yes, drink more, eat less. That’s the best remedy for self-conceit and facile atheism. I mean, just look at a hiccuping atheist: grim-faced, unable to concentrate, ugly and tormented. Spurn him, the hell with him, and watch me when I hiccup, trusting in Divine Providence, without an antagonistic thought in my head; for I believe that He is good, and I too am there good and blessed.
It’s at this point we’re introduced to his creations. Now, most of us think of cocktails as sugary alcoholic beverages which can be consumed far too easily. Where I’m from (England), this leads to our citizens on holiday in Europe debasing themselves in public with stupid behaviour.
For Yerofeev, cocktails involved brake fluid and whatever else he could get his hands on. Venya does not shy away from some of the more depraved concoctions imaginable. Canaan Balsam and Spirit of Geneva involved methylated spirits, clear varnish, and spirit varnish. Other creations are more frightening:
The Tear of a Komsomol Girl
- Lavender water
- Forest Water eau-de-Cologne
- Nail varnish
- Zhiguli beer
- Sadko the Wealthy Guest shampoo
- Anti-dandruff solution
- Brake fluid
Yerofeev suggests of the second, “Let it marinade for a week in some cigar tobacco, then serve.” Presumably, he scrawled these out as an attempt to shock and entertain, but his alarming drinking habits certainly did involve perfume and other harsh substances, so perhaps they’re authentic. He recommends:
Your Dog’s Giblets is served. Drink it in big gulps, when the first stars appear. After two glasses of this, I tell you, a person becomes so inspired that you can walk up to within five feet of them and spit right in their moosh for a whole half-hour, and they won’t utter a word.
Khrapunovo to Yesino
Drunk on the metro, Venya enters into a conversation with an elderly man called Mitrich and his grandson, who’s also called Mitrich (clearly a popular name). Upon being introduced, the grandson laughs like an idiot.
It’s a bizarre sound – so bloody obnoxious I can’t give you a proper idea of it. He doesn’t speak, more like squeals, and not out of his mouth, either, because that’s always squinting, and starts round the back of his head somewhere. No, he actually speaks out of his left nostril, with a terrific effort, as if his right nostril was having to hold his left one up.
It turns out these two were planning to rob Venya, which commences the paranoid and violent second stage of Moscow Stations. They’re joined by a character called Black Moustache, who engages the trio in conversation about Russian culture.
Schiller, Kupin, Maxim Gorky, Gogol, and Modest Mussorgsky are discussed before the topic turns to politics and social democrats.
Listen, all Russia’s best people, all the people she really needed, they all drank like fish. But the “superfluous men”, the silly buggers, no, they didn’t drink. When Onegin was staying at the Larins’ he drank nothing but cranberry juice, and that gave him the shits. Meanwhile all Onegin’s decent contemporaries were giving birth to the “science of revolution” and the Decembrist plot.
This chapter allows Yerofeyev to voice his frustrations about the form of communism foisted upon the nation, a concept removed from what Karl Marx had envisioned. Communism certainly has not been deployed properly anywhere in the world, with its principle of ensuring better living for everyone having fallen flat on its face, particularly in Soviet-era Russia.
And you see what happens? The whole country’s shrouded in a dark pall of ignorance, total pauperisation! Have you read Karl Marx? Total! In other words, people drink more and more. The Social Democrat’s despair grows in proportion, it’s no longer the Laffite or the Veuve Cliquout, that somehow managed to awaken Herzen. No, no, every thinking person in Russia now drinks without coming up for air, agonising about the peasants. Not all the bells in London can rouse them, nobody in Russia can lift their head, lying there suffering in their own vomit!
Drezna to Kilometre 85
It’s at this stage Yerefeyev’s tone of voice makes a complete shift away from the playful approach of earlier. The real political drive of the story takes off.
The writer once described his book as “100 pages of funny stuff and 10 pages of sad stuff.” Encompassing literature, history, politics, philosophy, and the nature of life, with a “sombre fatalism” (as described by the excellent introduction by Stephen Mulrine, who translated the book into English) throughout.
Yerofeyev’s father had been arrested in 1938 for criticising Soviet rulers, a frame of mind which stuck with the writer. When going through compulsory military training as a young man, the Major in charge told the students “the most important thing a man could possess was a straight back.” Yerefeyev’s response to this was: “Those were Hermann Goering’s words and they hanged him in 1946!”
Being the pedantic git I am, Goering actually committed suicide by cyanide before he could be executed, but the writer’s comment displayed his wit was in place from a young age.
The characters involved in the drunken discussion on the tram (such as Black Moustache) were based on Yerofeyev’s close friends. This helped fuel his work with material from his peers, helping to shape the nature of the story. It’s whilst in the depths of these discussions that they’re interrupted by a dreaded ticket inspector.
To tell you the truth, nobody’s that bothered about inspectors on the Petushki line, because nobody’s got a ticket anyway. I mean, if some drunken renegade actually has bought a ticket, well, of course, he’ll feel uneasy when the ticket inspector appears. When he’s asked for his ticket, he won’t look at anybody, neither the inspector, not the other passengers – he’ll be wishing the ground would open up and swallow him. And the inspector’ll peer at his ticket with distaste and give the man a really withering look, as if he were vermin. As for the other passengers, the travelling public, they’ll be staring at this “fare dodger” with their big beautiful eyes, as if to say: “What an arsehole! His conscience is bothering him, no wonder, the Jew-faced git!
Petushki. The Sadovy Ring Road
The final section of Venya’s journey becomes a paranoid and violent nightmare. Alighting from the metro and leaving behind his drunken travelling companions, he stumbles into the night expecting to meet and greet his son.
Being out of his mind, he’s missed his intended stop. Eventually, he works this out. To his amazement, he finds he has finally stumbled across the Kremlin, although by this time he’s being chased by a group of hoodlums.
The Kremlin was shining before me in all its splendour. And even though I could hear my pursuers clattering along behind me, I was still able to think: Here I am, I’ve criss-crossed Moscow God knows how many times, drunk and sober, and I’ve never once clapped eyes on the Kremlin. When I went looking for it, I always wound up at Kursk Station. And now I’ve seen it – when it’s Kursk Station I need more than anything.
The intrepid Venya meets with a grisly end, stabbed in the neck by his assailants (as Mulrine points out, this mirrors the author’s eventual death from throat cancer). This brutal finale concludes Moscow Stations – a highly peculiar but undoubtedly brilliant story which is in need of some more literture fans.
The book had, around six years ago, been extremely obscure and commanded prices of several hundred pounds on some sites. Now, after a brief scan on eBay, it’s clearly much more readily available.
It’s absolutely worth it. Whilst Yerofeyev succumbed to alcoholism, which ruined his chances of being a prolific writer (he lost one manuscript for another book on a train whilst drunk – it’s never been found), he was also greatly restricted by the era he lived in.
A brief spell of fame and recognition before he died seemed to quickly dissipate, and he’s now a forgotten author. This is a shame as Moscow Stations is a comic classic – bizarre yet hilarious and keenly intelligent, it’s a meandering tale of one man’s oppression by the state he lives under.
Venya’s sense of anguish is palpable throughout, it’s just successfully drowned out by Hunter’s vodka to the extent he’s able to stumble through life making jaunty aphorisms, innuendo, and whatever else enters his damaged mind.
I do hope it can be picked up again by the literary world so it can populate more bookshelves – it’s worthy of modern classic status and should be seen as a fine accompaniment to Gogol’s work.
Whilst not as devastatingly brilliant as his contemporaries (most notably Alexandr Solzhenitsyn), it nonetheless showcases a pickled mind and a terrific sense of fun. It’s the Russian equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson or Jack Kerouac, so let us hope it can gain this status over the coming years.