Val Vinokur has just published “The Essential Fictions,” a newly translated collection of the works of Odessan Jewish writer Isaac Babel. This story was originally published with the following subtitle: “First chapter from the book Velikaya Krinitsa.” The stories “Gapa Guzhva” and “Kolyvushka” are the only extant sections of Babel’s projected book about the collectivization of agriculture. This story begins during Maslenitsa (also known as Butter Week and, here, Maslenaya, which is taking place now across the Slavic world). The holiday takes place before the start of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Lent and has roots in a Slavic pagan folk tradition that originally marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Much like Mardi Gras, it involves feasting and revelry before the Lenten fast, with blini (crepes fried in butter) as the food of choice.. This story was written in the spring of 1930 and published in 1931. Additional explanatory notes to the story are included under the text.
Vinokur previously published Babel’s seminal Odes to Odessa with The Odessa Review and has also written for the journal about the history of Babel translation in English.
Over the course of Butter Week in 1930 they put on six weddings in Velikaya Krinitsa. The carousing reached a level of rowdiness not seen in a long time. Customs of old were reborn. The father of one groom got drunk and insisted he be allowed to try out the bride—a practice abandoned in Velikaya Krinitsa some twenty years before. The father-in-law had already unwound his sash and thrown it to the ground. The bride, weak with laughter, tugged the old man by the beard. He puffed up his chest and came at her, guffawing and stomping his boots. In any case, the old man had no cause for alarm. Of the six bedsheets raised over the huts, only two were wet with nuptial blood—turns out the other brides hadn’t gone on midnight strolls for nothing. A Red Army man, home on furlough, got ahold of one of the sheets, and Gapa Guzhva climbed after the other one. Bashing men on the head as she made her way through, she hopped onto the roof and began scrambling up the pole. It sagged and swayed under her weight. Gapa tore down the red rag and slid down the pole. On the flat part of the roof stood a table and stool, and on the table were a half liter of vodka and slices of cold meat. Gapa tipped the bottle into her mouth; with her free hand she was waving the sheet like a flag. Down below, the crowd crashed and danced. Gapa’s stool kept slipping, creaking and coming apart underneath her. Herdsmen from Berezan, driving their oxen to Kiev, stared at the woman drinking vodka high above beneath the very sky.
“A woman?” the wedding guests replied to them, “nah, our widow’s a devil . . .”
Gapa chucked bread, twigs, and plates from the roof. Having polished off the vodka, she smashed the bottle on the chimney ledge. The muzhiks below roared in approval. The widow jumped to the ground, untied the shag-bellied mare slumbering by the picket fence, and galloped off to get wine. She returned with flasks all over her like a Circassian bandoliered with cartridges. The mare was breathing heavily, rearing its head; her foal-heavy stomach sagged and swelled, her eyes trembled with an equine madness.
The wedding guests danced holding handkerchiefs, their eyes lowered and feet shuffling in place. Only Gapa let herself go like a city girl. She was dancing with her lover, Grishka Savchenko. They grappled like wrestlers; tore at each other’s shoulders with stubborn animosity; fell to the ground with a rattling drumbeat of boots, as if someone had knocked them over.
It was the third day of weddings in Velikaya Krinitsa. The groomsmen, smeared with soot and wearing their sheepskins inside out, banged stove lids and ran around the village. Bonfires were lit right on the street. Mummers with painted horns jumped over them. They’d harness horses to washtubs, drag them over knolls, and gallop through the fire. Muzhiks dropped to the ground, overtaken by sleep. Housewives tossed broken dishes out into their backyards. The newlyweds had washed their feet and climbed atop their tall beds, and only Gapa was still dancing by herself in an empty shed. She was whirling around with her hair loose and a gaff in her hand. Her tar-covered club pounded the walls. The blows shook the structure and left black, sticky wounds.
“Ain’t we deadly,” Gapa whispered, twirling the gaff.
Straw and planks of wood rained down on the woman, the walls collapsing. She danced with her hair loose amid the ruins, amid the din and dust of splintering pickets, flying wood rot, and snapping planks. Her red-collared boots spun through the wreckage and stomped to the rhythm.
Night descended. Bonfires waned in their thawed-out pits. The shed lay in a disheveled heap on the hill. Across the road, a ragged little flame began smoking inside the village council hall. Gapa flung away the gaff and started running down the street.
“Ivashko,” she shouted, bursting into the village council, “come out with us to drink our lives away . . .”
Ivashko was the representative of the Regional Collectivization Commission. It had been two months since he began his discussions with Velikaya Krinitsa. Resting his arms on the desk, Ivashko sat before a crumpled, chewed-up heap of papers. The skin around his temples was creased, sickly cat’s eyes sagged in his skull. Two bare arcs protruded pink above them.
“Don’t disdain our peasant ways,” Gapa shouted and stamped her foot. “I’m not disdaining nothing,”Ivashko said sullenly, “it’s just that it wouldn’t be prudent for me to go out with you.”
Gapa paraded before him, stomping and waving her arms.
“Come break bread with us,” the woman said, “we’ll be at your service, Deputy, only tomorrow, not today ..”
Ivashko shook his head.
“Wouldn’t be prudent for me to break bread with you,” he said, “after all, what kind of people are you? . . . You all go around barking at dogs—I’ve lost eight kilos because of you . . .”
He chewed with his lips and closed his eyes a little. He reached out and groped around his desk for a canvas briefcase. He rose and lurched to the door chest first, dragging his feet as if he were walking in his sleep.
“He’s pure gold, that citizen,” Kharchenko the secretary said as Ivashko left, “he’s a man of great integrity, it’s just that Velikaya Krinitsa treated him rough . . .”
An ashen forelock hovered above Kharchenko’s pimples and button nose.
He was reading a newspaper, his feet hoisted on a bench.
“Just wait till that judge comes down from Voronkov,” said Kharchenko, turning over a page, “then they’ll remember.”
Gapa pulled a pouch of sunflower seeds from under her skirt.
“How come all you remember is your job, Mr. Secretary?” she said.“How come you’re afraid of death? . . Since when does a muzhik refuse to drop dead? . . .
Out in the street, a black swollen sky churned around the belfry; the wet huts slouched and slithered. The struggling stars were etched above them, the wind crept below.
From the front porch of her hut Gapa could hear the mumbling mono- tone of a rasping, unfamiliar voice. A wanderer looking for a place to spend the night sat on the stove with her legs tucked beneath her. The holy corner was braided in raspberry strands of light from the icon lamps. The tidy hut was draped in absolute quiet; the walls and partitions smelled of apples and alcohol. Gapa’s large-lipped daughters stared up and down at the beggar. The girls were overgrown with short horselike hair, their lips were turned out, their narrow foreheads had a greasy, lifeless sheen.
“Tell me some lies, Granny Rakhivna,” Gapa said leaning against the wall, “I do like listening to some lies . . .”
Sitting up beneath the ceiling, Rakhivna fixed her hair into braided rows along her little head. Her washed and disfigured feet were resting on the edge of the stove.
“Three patriarchs are reckoned in this world,” said the old woman, lowering her crumpled face. “The Moscow Patriarch is imprisoned by our rulers, the Jerusalem Patriarch is with the Turks, so that means all Christendom is governed by the Patriarch of Antioch . . . He’s sent forty Greek priests to the Ukraine to curse all the churches that had bells removed by the rulers . . . The Greek priests passed through Kholodny Yar, people seen them in Ostrogradsk, by Forgiveness Sunday they’ll be here in Velikaya Krinitsa . . .”
Rakhivna closed her eyes and fell silent. The icon lamps lit the arches of her feet.
“The Voronkov judge,” the old woman said as she came to, “he collectivized Voronkov in a single day. He took nine squires and put them in a cold cell . . . The next morning it was their lot to be marched off to Sakhalin. But listen, my daughter, in every place that people live, Christ abides in glory . . . The nine squires spend the night in the cold cell, guard comes to get them . . . Guard unlocks the jailhouse door, in the full morning light, there’s nine masters swinging from the rafters on their own belts . . .”
Rakhivna fussed for a long while before she lay down. Sorting through her scraps, she whispered with her God as you would with your old man lying next to you on the stove, then all at once her breath came soft. Another woman’s husband, Grishka Savchenko, slept below on a bench. He lay curled up on the very edge as though he’d been run over, waistcoat riding up over his arched back, his head wedged into a pillow.
“That’s muzhik loving for you.” Gapa gave him a shake and began shoving him about. “I know all about that muzhik loving . . . Look how you turn your muzzle away from the wife, doing that little shuffle you do .. . But this ain’t your house, this ain’t Odarka’s . . .”
Half the night they rolled around on the bench in the dark, their lips clenched, their arms reaching out through the darkness. Gapa’s braid went flying across the pillow. Come dawn, Grishka sat up all of a sudden, groaned, and fell back to sleep with a grin on his face. Gapa could see the brown shoulders of her daughters, low-browed, big-lipped, black-breasted.
“Like camels,” she thought, “where did they come from? . . .”
Darkness stirred outside the oak window frame. The dawn revealed a violet streak in the clouds. Gapa came out into the yard. The wind grasped at her like ice-cold river water. She harnessed and loaded sacks of wheat onto the sled—over the holidays everybody had run out of flour. The road wound its way through the fog, through the mists of dawn.
It took them till the next evening to finish up at the mill. It snowed all day. Back at the village, through a solid wall of sleet, snub-legged Yushko Trofim emerged before Gapa wearing a soaking-wet floppy-eared hat. His shoulders heaved and sank beneath a snowy ocean.
“Woke up, I see,” he muttered, approaching the sled, and lifted his black bony face.
“What’s that supposed to mean? . . .” Gapa pulled up on the reins.
“Last night all the bosses came down,” said Trofim, “packed up that granny of yours real proper . . . The head of the collectivization committee came, local party secretary, too . . . They took Ivashko and put the Voronkov judge in his place . . .
Trofim’s mustache bobbed up and down like walrus whiskers, wiggling with snowflakes. Gapa shook the reins and then tugged them again.
“But, Trofim, why the granny? . . .”
Yushko stopped, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted from a distance through the howling snow.
“Looks like she was agitating about the end of the world . . .”
He limped away, and soon his broad back disappeared in the sky that blended into the earth.
As she pulled up to her house, Gapa tapped on the window with her whip. Her daughters were loitering around the table in their shawls and shoes, like guests at a get-together.
“Ma,” said the oldest, unloading the sacks, “Odarka came while you were out and took Grishka home . . .”
The girls set the table, prepared a samovar. Gapa ate and went to the village council. There, on benches along the walls, the old men of the village of Velikaya Krinitsa sat in silence. The window, shattered during earlier disputes, was covered with a sheet of plywood, the lamp glass had been wiped, a poster nailed to the pockmarked wall: no smoking please. The Voronkov judge was reading at the desk with his shoulders hunched. He was reading a book containing the minutes of the Velikaya Krinitsa village council; the collar of his drab little coat was turned up. Sitting beside him, Secretary Kharchenko was writing up an indictment of his village. He was filling out columns with all the crimes, failures to deliver, penalties, all injuries evident or concealed. When he arrived in the village, Oslomovsky, the judge from Voronkov, declined to call meetings or convene a general assembly of citizens as commissioners before him had done; he made no speeches and simply asked for a list of anyone with unmet quotas, former traders, inventories of their property, crops, and farms.
Velikaya Krinitsa sat on the benches in silence. The scrape and hiss of Kharchenko’s pen bustled in the stillness. There was a momentary stir when Gapa entered the council hall. Party chief Evdokim Nazarenko perked up when he saw her.
“Now here’s our top party asset, Comrade Judge,” Evdokim snickered and rubbed his hands, “our widow’s ruined all the boys . . .”
Gapa stood by the door, screwing up her eyes. A grimace touched Osmolovsky’s lips, wrinkles appeared on his narrow nose. He nodded and said, “Good day.”
“She was the first one to sign up for the kolgosp,” Evdokim gushed, trying to chase the clouds away, “then some good people had a talk with her and she signed out . . .”
Gapa didn’t budge. Her face flushed brick-red.
“. . . And good people say,” she proclaimed in her low, ringing voice, “they say that on the kolgosp all the people will be sleeping under one blanket . . .”
The eyes in her impassive face were laughing.
“But I’m opposed to sleeping in a heap, we like sleeping two by two, and we like our horilka, goddamn it . . .”
The muzhiks started laughing and stopped abruptly. Gapa screwed up her eyes. The judge raised his sore eyes and nodded at her. He hunched even lower, put his head in his thin reddish hands, and plunged back into the minutes of Velikaya Krinitsa. Gapa turned to go, her stately back flashed before those who stayed behind.
Out in the yard on wet planks, his knees apart, sat Grandpa Abram, overgrown with proud flesh. Yellow locks of hair fell to his shoulders.
“What is it, Grandpa?” Gapa asked. “Makes me sad,” said the old man.
Back home, her daughters had already gone to bed. Late at night, inside the hut of Komsomol member Nestor Tyagay across the road, a mercurial tongue of light came on. Osmolovsky had arrived at his assigned quarters. The judge had taken off and thrown his sheepskin coat on the bench— supper awaited him, a bowl of sour milk and a crust of bread with an onion. He took off his glasses and pressed his palms to his aching eyes, this judge who was known in these parts as Two Hundred Sixteen Percent. That was how much grain he had managed to procure in the rebellious village of Voronkov. Secrets, songs, folk beliefs adorned Osmolovsky’s percentage.
He chewed his bread and onion and spread out a copy of Pravda, instructions from the District Committee, and reports from the People’s Commissariat for Collectivization. It was late, past one in the morning, when his door opened and a woman with a shawl across her shoulders stepped inside.
“Judge,” said Gapa, “what’ll happen to the whores? . . .” “Won’t be any need for them.”
“Will whores be able to make a living or not?” “They will,” said the judge, “but another way, better.”
The woman stared blankly into a corner. She touched the coin necklace on her breast.
“Thanks for your words . . .”
Her necklace jingled. Gapa left, shutting the door behind her.
The piercing, raging night threw itself upon her, thickets of mist, humps of ice with sparks of black. Clouds grew light as they swept low. Silence lay prostrate over Velikaya Krinitsa, over the flat, sepulchral, icy wasteland of the village night.
Spring 1930 (published 1931)
Additional notes to the story:
Forgiveness Sunday In the Orthodox Christian calendar, Forgiveness Sunday concludes the revelry of Butter Week, commemorates the Expulsion from Eden, and liturgically inaugurates the Great Lent with Christ’s words, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mark 6:14–15). On Sunday evening, at the culmination of Butter Week, the mascot Lady Maslenitsa—a brightly dressed straw effigy, once known as Kostroma (a fertility goddess whose name derives from the Russian word for “bonfire”)—is stripped of her finery and burned. Any remaining blini are also thrown on the fire, and Lady Maslenitsa’s ashes are buried in the snow as a fertility rite. During the Soviet period Maslenitsa was suppressed; celebrations resumed during glasnost in the late 1980s.
to sign up for the kolgosp Kolgosp is the Ukrainian contraction for a Soviet collective farm (kolkhoz in Russian). Collective farms formed gradually alongside state farms (sovkhozes) during the early years of Soviet rule, under the influence of propaganda workers. The collective farms that emerged after Stalin ordered the brutal forced collectivization of agriculture in 1928 were cooperatives in name only and soon resembled state farms.
horilka The word for this Ukrainian liquor, similar to vodka, is from the root meaning “to burn.”
proud flesh Literally, “wild flesh” in Russian. Proud flesh refers to an excessive growth of granulation tissue in a wound.
the coin necklace on her breast Gapa is wearing a monisto, a peasant necklace with coins and other beads.