READING IN SOVIET LINES by Eugene Yelchin and M.T. Anderson
A good third of our waking lives my family spent standing in lines. In the Soviet Union where we lived, the goods were scarce. We stood in lines for everything — food, clothing, furniture, light bulbs — you name it. Waiting took hours. Often, by switching shifts between my father and my mother, waiting took days. Living in Leningrad with its harsh weather, we stood in lines in blizzards, snowfall, showers, and that notorious Arctic drizzle that pierces your face and hands like needles.
The unwritten rules of standing in Soviet lines would be incomprehensible to an outsider. Not knowing the rules could mean losing your place. When — which was often — we stood in several lines for different goods simultaneously, we had to shuttle back and forth between the lines. To keep your place in every line you had to “register” on the unofficial lists created on the spot. “Registering,” meant writing your number in line on the palm of your hand. I remember my parents’ hands with four digit numbers etched in ballpoint into their skin blue with cold.
But standing in lines meant much more than waiting to purchase consumer goods. It was a way of life, in which at any given moment your fate could be altered beyond recall. A stranger standing in front of you or standing behind you could become your life-long friend or your life-long enemy. In lines, Soviet citizens flirted and fought, gossiped, spied on one another. They met their future or their former spouses. Their grown children. They ran into their long-lost Red Army comrades. After Stalin’s death, when political prisoners began to return to the cities from the Gulag, they would come across their former interrogators and torturers standing in line beside them. Life in Soviet lines was complicated.
No wonder our government enjoyed boasting that the Soviet Union had the largest readership in the world. With so much time to kill while standing in lines, reading was a widespread activity. Not that books themselves were easy to acquire. As with everything else in the Soviet Union, books were scarce. Good books, that is. Books in the officially approved socialist realism style with titles like Cement or How the Steel Was Tempered were readily available. Those books were printed and reprinted by the millions. At best mediocre, their authors conjured loyal heroes ever ready to self-sacrifice for the Communist cause. My father was a Communist, albeit a reluctant one, and he had never insisted that I had read socialist realism books. Instead, he introduced me to adventure.
What adventure books did I read standing in lines? I read The Three Musketeers and the Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas, Treasure Island and Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivanhoe and Rob Roy by Walter Scott, The Headless Horseman by Thomas Mayne Reid, The Diamonds Thieves by Louis Henri Boussenard, King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard, Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.
With drunken, often brutal goings-on taking place around me in lines, I read and reread those adventure books, clinging to each sentence as a drowned man clings to the life ring tossed overboard. The adventure books were illustrated, and I used to study each illustration until the lines began to cross and double in my weary eyes. Years later when I was visiting my Russian friend living in Minneapolis, I discovered on his bookshelf a complete set of Thomas Mayne Reid’s novels that he was able to bring from Russia. Six volumes, gold stamped red covers –– my dad had the same set exactly. How my hands shook when I opened the first volume! Forty years later, I remembered every chapter and every line crosshatching every illustration.
Surely standing in Soviet lines did me some good. I became a compulsive reader. From the adventure books I moved on to the Russian classics, then to the translations of the foreign books. Some of the translators were our best authors prohibited from publishing their works and instead making their living in translations. To me, Shakespeare’s verse was never as moving again as when I read it in translation— or should I say revision? — by our great poet Boris Pasternak.
Later, I discovered books that I could not read in lines. I read them in my room instead — the curtains drawn, the door bolted and locked. These books were the works of our dissident writers, books banned from publication, books smuggled from the West.
Reading books saved me from going mad in the Soviet Union, or worse — from conforming to its fascist regime. The rich, colorful life that flowed between the covers of a great book in which the lies were exposed, the tyrants were toppled, and justice triumphed replaced the drab and vicious reality that surrounded me for nearly thirty years. The moral code of the three musketeers, much more reliable than the lies the Communist Party had fed us, took hold of me for the rest of my life. And for that alone I would always be grateful to standing in Soviet lines.
Eugene Yelchin is a Russian-American artist best known as an illustrator and writer of books for children. Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a middle grade novel that he wrote and illustrated received Newbery Honor and has been translated into ten languages. His illustrations for The Rooster Prince of Breslov received a National Jewish Book Award. His middle grade novel The Haunting of Falcon House received the Golden Kite Award. Won Ton, A Cat Tale Told In Haiku that he illustrated received over forty awards. Yelchin received the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators Tomie DePaola Illustration Award. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, co-authored with M.T. Anderson, will be released in September 2018. His Cold War middle grade thriller Spy Runner will be released in February 2019. Yelchin lives with his wife and children in Topanga, California. Visit him at eugeneyelchinbooks.com
Eugene’s story of his early reading is a little more harrowing – and interesting – than mine. He lived in one of the most beautiful and artistically vivid cities in the world, but under a regime that radically restricted knowledge.
In contrast, as a kid, I lived in a small, boring New England town that could not have been more quiet; it was mainly apple orchards. Perhaps as a result, I read everything I could get my hands on: everything that could convince me the world was a fascinating and bizarre place. A lot of this reading led directly to the book Eugene and I just did together, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge.
First of all, in my boring New England town, I read a lot of fantasy novels. Those books are often about kids from dull villages who look up toward the distant mountains and wonder what’s beyond them, wonder whether they’ll ever see the shining turrets of the cities by the coast. That was me as a kid, and as I read those books lying tummy-down on the living room floor, I hoped that someday I would be able to travel to new places and see how the world really worked. I loved all those stories of wizards and dragons, tunnels and trolls, hidden treasures and ancient curses.
Of course, I had a few questions about those created worlds. For one thing, none of the heroes ever came from within the kingdoms of evil. Back in the 80s, the kingdoms of evil in fantasy novels were all the same: parched, barren, dangerous, malodorous. The goblins who served the Evil One (whoever the Evil One was) were always just faceless goons who lived to be killed by the heroes. These goblins had no opinions, no hopes, no wishes. They might as well have been born with dotted lines across their necks, labeled, “Heroes: perforate here.”
But I wanted to know how they lived, what they dreamed of, how they fell in love. If a goblin goon was an overly tender-hearted, vulnerable kid like me, how did he make it through life? I saw the movie Labyrinth, with its goblin city devised by Muppets creator Jim Henson and painter Brian Froud (whose book Faeries was a big influence on Holly Black, Tony DiTerlezzi, me, and many other writers of our generation); I saw their incredible work on The Dark Crystal, with its blasted court of lizardy, vulture-like wizards, and I was fascinated. But I was tired of those settings being only places heroes wandered into … I wanted to know what it was like to grow up in one of those places and to know it as your home.
Hence the set-up of Brangwain Spurge: a novel that looks like it’s going to follow the usual trajectory of an elfin hero heading into the land of evil … but turns out sort of differently.
In the meantime, my love for weird tales of travel had moved on from Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to real travelogues written by ancient scholars journeying into the unknown, filled with weird details. Herodotus’s Histories, for example (which is the one book I would take to a desert island, other than a book called How To Survive and Get Off a Desert Island), contains murder mysteries, a heist story, accounts of odd cult practices, fables of wealth, of power, and of death, and tips on how to deal with the annual invasion of flying snakes. Xuenzang’s Great T’ang Records of the Western Regions contains not only moving descriptions of the Silk Road kingdoms that lay between China and India, but also complains about how the deserts are full of ghosts (dim forms, cries in the night, distant phantom armies on the march). Marco Polo, going the opposite direction, is impressed with how Indian wizards can make the air dark during battles. Sir John Mandeville, who never heard a lie he didn’t love, populates the world with dog people, undead flying heads, people with only one giant foot, and guys with their faces in their backs.
When Eugene suggested to me that we work on a book in which the pictures didn’t illustrate the text, but actually contradicted it, I thought of all those travelers. Who knows what they were really seeing? Clearly, they got it wrong because of their previous misconceptions about the world. So I thought we could write and draw the story of an elf who travels into the land of goblins, but can’t really see it for what it is – because he has been trained to think of the whole country as a simmering cauldron of evil.
Back in the 80s, when I was reading fantasy novels, there was in fact a place Americans called “the evil empire”: the Russia that Eugene was living in and trying to leave. And oddly, without us even thinking about it, as he and I were working on this book, a third category of fiction started to color our book: Cold War spy novels about the Soviet Union and the West. Both he and I are fascinated by those stories. As a kid, I tended to like the more extreme versions, with lots of gadgetry. (James Bond type stuff, though I was always a little wary of Bond himself, who struck me as kind of skeezy.) As an adult, I preferred authors like John LeCarre, who write about spycraft as it was actually practiced – or nonfiction books about particularly strange moments in espionage history. I guess I was interested in the difference between how people appear and how they really are. All of us have secrets. How and why do we hide them?
So those are the reading strands that came together as Eugene and I were writing The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge: fantasies, ancient travelogues, and spy novels. And part of why I loved writing it was that it rekindled my love of reading those books when I was little – in my boring New England town – lying belly-down on the living room floor.
M.T. Anderson is the author of Feed, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; the National Book Award–winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and its sequel, The Kingdom on the Waves, both New York Times bestsellers and Michael L. Printz Honor Books; Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad; Landscape with Invisible Hand; and many other books for children and young adults. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts.