It’s been a rollercoaster of a week in the United States, and has culminated, at last, in the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency. The streets in my LA neighborhood resound with blaring car horns and cheers of joy. The pent-up nervousness was palpable; the sense of relief is hard to describe. For those who wished to see Donald Trump defeated quickly and decisively, Tuesday night was a disappointment. One commentator compared the feeling of watching the national map turn red on the major news networks to the chilling sentiment Osip Mandelstam expressed in his infamous, fatal Stalin Epigram: “We live without sensing the country beneath us.” A strong reaction. My own was best captured by the words of a fellow Odessan, the satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky: “You want everything all at once, but you get nothing, gradually.”
It was gradual, alright, but today we got something. It’s just too bad that Zhvanetsky wasn’t here to crack wise about it. He passed away yesterday, at the age of 86.
I said “fellow Odessan” up there, but what I should have said was “the Odessan,” or maybe: “Odessa incarnate.” No one since Babel was a purer product of the city, a purer expression of its sardonic yet sentimental, warm yet pugnacious character. My first words on this planet were “Mama Anna,” but considering how often my mother spoke of and quoted Mikhail Mikhailovich, I’m surprised they weren’t: “Like Zhvanetsky says…”
Born in Odessa in 1934 and trained as a mechanical engineer, he took a job at the port in the 1950s, where he met one of his lifelong collaborators, Viktor Ilchenko. The two of them began to perfrom skits and monologues at a student theater, where they met another mechanic, Roman Kartsev — at which point the greatest comic trio of the late Soviet period was complete. I picture the moment: the clouds parting, the angels singing… But it was probably just a couple of chuckles at first, followed by a few belly laughs. Soon enough, though, one sixth of the world’s landmass was in stitches. The trio found work and steady support at the Leningrad theater of the older Soviet comedian Arkady Raikin, whom Zhvanetsky supplied with a steady stream of monologues.
Indeed, Zhvanetsky remained mostly behind the scenes, ceding the spotlight first to Raikin, then to Kartsev and Ilchenko. By the 1980s, however, he was taking the stage — short, plump, bald, toting a beat-up briefcase full of tattered pages, but so witty, so devilishly charming, so irresistible… Like a mix of Wallace Shawn and Tony Soprano. Could you imagine a more Odessan combo?
What accounted for Zhvanetsky’s popularity? His exposure of the absurdity of Soviet life, with its food shortages, its censorship, its hypocrisy, its systemic antisemitism? Sure. But it was also the intimacy of his viewpoint, the particularity of his observations, which struck nearly every Russian-speaker of his generation exactly where they lived. He was a kitchen-table existentialist, as well as a great artist of the word. No one had a sharper ear for the speech- and thought-patterns of Soviet citizens. Perhaps his only peer in this regard was Vladimir Vysotsky, another lover of Odessa. Their output, taken together, can serve as the Encyclopedia Sovietica.
Of course it’s also much more than that. The lessons of Vysotsky’s songs and Zhvanetsky’s monologues are easy to swallow but hard to digest. It isn’t just the cruel contradictions of Soviet life they expose, it’s the inescapable contradictions of human nature. There’s more than a dash of Kafka and Beckett in Zhvanetsky’s most famous, seemingly transparent skit. In it, Kartsev — in his mouthwateringly perfect Odessan accent — complains to an unseen interlocutor about the crayfish on offer at the local market: Yesterday, the crayfish were big, I mean BIG — but for five rubles. Today they’re for three — but small… Boy, but they’re small… You shoulda seen the ones yesterday — huge beasts! But for five. Today they’re itty-bitty, just nothing… On the other hand, only three rubles… Not that he has any money at all, mind you. But only three rubles. So small, though… Now yesterday…
What’s the target here? Shortages? Yes. A worker’s poverty in a workers’ paradise? Yes. But also the human condition. You want everything all at once, but you get nothing, gradually… Which doesn’t mean you should stop wanting, complaining, or laughing. That’s our condition’s saving grace.
One of my favorite Zhvanetsky monologues concerns another human contradiction that’s been much on my mind lately: the way our desire for freedom often depends on the perception of strong opposition. Now that the majority of my fellow citizens have rendered a final verdict on the last four years, I hope they will not fall silent. There is a lot to talk about.
Shut Our Mouths, Then We’ll Talk
“But you won’t let me.”
“That’s not true. You can say anything you want.”
“Why would you forbid me to speak?”
“We wouldn’t. Speak your mind.”
“How can I speak my mind when it’s forbidden?”
“Nothing’s forbidden. Speak.”
“I distinctly remember your forbidding me to speak…”
“That was then. Now you can talk all you like.”
“Sure, ‘talk all you like’ — that’s what you say now, but I remember…”
“Have you got anything besides memories to share?”
“Oh, so now there’s a ban on memories?”
“As I was saying… When I was banned from speaking, I liked to talk.”
“Listen, can you say something — anything — without mentioning bans?”
“So you’re saying I can’t mention bans?”
“Ah, now you’re talking! Your ban on bans is so goddamned stupid. You think you can gag me, do you? Well, I won’t stay gagged!”
“Take him away.”
“My voice will be heard! You won’t shut me up. Our mouths are wide open. Free speech will break out through clenched teeth, pull apart the bars of any cage… It will raise the banner of freedom the whole world over!”
“That’s a different story…”