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An Ode to Non-Conformity: A Review of Moscow to the End of the Line

Bradley Jardine By Bradley Jardine Published on September 22, 2017
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Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line (originally Moscow-Petushki) is a “poem in prose form,” following a rogue intellectual’s drunken train journey into rural Russia, where his wife and child are waiting. Written in the late 1960s and banned by the Soviet authorities until 1989, the book was circulated in the Soviet underground press before gaining international notoriety for its gleeful non-conformity.

At the beginning of the novel, an intoxicated man named Venya (also Venichka), a fictionalized version of the author, has been fired from his job laying telephone cables. We find out that the reason for this was Venya’s decision to design a system of individualized charts showing the volume of alcohol each of his colleagues had consumed at work. He boasts that the charts “looked variously like the Himalayas, the Tyrol, oil derricks, or even the Kremlin wall…”

Much of the novel follows a string of detached monologues like these as Venya interacts with other passengers on the train, ranging from the philosophical to the nonsensical. The book’s stream of consciousness style grows increasingly unhinged as the alcohol flows.

Some contend this is less about deliberate stylizing than the mysterious author’s state of mind during the writing process. Rumors abound that Erofeev wrote the novel in a single sitting after betting two bottles of vodka that he could write a book in one day. Another story has it that Erofeev appeared at a Moscow party with a short, badly dressed companion who introduced himself to guests as “the hero of Moscow to the End of the Line.” The man supposedly drank himself into a volatile state while Erofeev sat in silence, observing his behavior.

But these stories, though interesting, likely belong to the realm of fantasy. The truth is that little is publicly known about the book’s author. He appears to have been born outside Moscow in 1933 and spent his life working across the Soviet Union as a railroad worker, janitor, and cable fitter before turning his hand to creative pursuits. He published very little during his lifetime, all of which was only illegally available, before dying of throat cancer in 1990.

Political ideas are also woven into the fabric of the novel. Venya’s spiral into a state of complete incoherence, although primarily intended for comic effect, also serves as a metaphor for the lived experience of Soviet life becoming utterly dislocated from the promises of its propaganda. The brutality of the state also haunts the author’s prose. This is most apparent toward the end of the novel as Venya falls asleep and begins to hallucinate:

From far off, over where the fog is swirled, those two lanky figures from Mukhina’s huge sculpture emerged, the worker with his hammer and the peasant woman with her sickle, and they came right up to me, both with smirks on their faces. And the worker hit me on the head with his hammer and then the peasant woman gave it to me in the balls with her sickle.

The sculpture is Moscow’s famous Mosfilm logo, brought to life to reveal the terrifying disciplinary power of the communist state.

The book’s dissident nature can also be gleaned from the book’s setting: A train. Throughout the story, Venya drunkenly provides monologues to the other passengers about Petushki, painting it in highly idealized tones. But as alcohol starts to drip from the pages, and the narrator’s delirium spills out of the prose, it becomes unclear whether either the family or the town even existence.

This postmodernist trope is also evident during the book’s conclusion. Venya wakes up in Moscow, where he is chased through the streets by four thugs (thought to represent Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin) who bash his head against the Kremlin wall. Just like the Soviet Union’s bright communist future is never reached, neither is Petushki. The lies are intoxicating, but the physicality of state violence brings reality swiftly back to the fore. Ultimately, Venya is a symbol of the Soviet Union’s lost generations: “Where is that happiness which they write about in the newspapers?” he wonders sadly.

Alcohol is an interesting literary tool, giving the author a deconstructive effect. Erofeev puts this to great use, creating fascinating monologues on the Soviet Union’s perception of life in America:

I like the fact that my compatriots have such vacant and protruding eyes” Venya says. “They fill me with virtuous pride. You can imagine what eyes are like in the capitalist world – filled with distrust, worry, and torment. That’s what they’re like in the land of ready cash. How different from the eyes of my people! Their steady state is completely devoid of all tension.

The postmodernist theme of unreliable narrators is also used to comic effect throughout, with the narrative cutting off into incoherent rants. Venya discusses Russian literature, often mixing up important references with references to Marxist literature, showing the extent to which Soviet propaganda infiltrated the minds of even its most unruly citizens.

But Erofeev’s writing is at its most vibrant when his protagonist simply entertains passengers with wild, sweeping statements about other cultures:

All the Italians ever do is just sing and draw. I mean, one Italian will stand and sing and next to him another will be drawing the one who’s singing. And nearby will be a third Italian, singing about the one who is drawing.

Moscow to the End of the Line is both anything and nothing at all. For some, it may simply be the same foul-mouthed, vaguely coherent nonsense of a Saturday night in the local pub. But for others it’s a sharp political satire, or an ode to non-conformity. Like many other great works of art, it’s open to interpretation. 

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Bradley Jardine is a journalist based in Moscow, Russia. He has written extensively on the politics of the former Soviet Union and is an avid reader of literature from the wider Communist Bloc.

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