Reinforcing Identity

A common thread in Bykov’s trilogy about Stalinism is how obsessed the Soviets were with being the first and the best in everything, even clearly useless things. In X, Bernard Shaw is visiting the USSR and is proudly shown a huge, beet-red cucumber. The writer fails to understand the value of the cucumber. Is it tastier than the regular one? No, it’s barely eatable. Then what’s the point?

“But it’s so big!” the proud Soviets exclaim. “And such unusual color! Have you ever seen anything like it before? Nobody else managed to do it but we did!” That nobody even tried creating inedible red cucumbers doesn’t matter.

Then the writer gets introduced to the largest sow in the world who doesn’t give piglets and can’t be used for meat. But she’s big! That’s the animal’s entire purpose, to show that nature can be twisted into any shape humans want.

Finally, Shaw is treated to a spectacle of cockroaches dressed in costumes. Again, “we were able to do it! We dressed cockroaches!” is what brings joy and a sense of achievement. The purpose of the exercise is to reinforce a sense of identity, even if it’s utterly useless.

2 thoughts on “Reinforcing Identity

  1. This is the only thing that had ever managed to make the Soviets relatable to me.

    If I could dress cockroaches in little gowns and smoking jackets, I would.


  2. “we were able to do it! We dressed cockroaches!”

    This reminds me of the Hungarian political satire the Witness (a tanu) from 1969.

    The titular character, an uneducated peasant, is given a series of high profile jobs which he fails at in spectacular fashion. One of these is working at an institute to grow oranges in Hungary (based on a real project).
    They succeed in producing a single orange which gets eaten before its grand presentation to a visiting communist official.
    So they use a lemon and as the official tries to eat it the hero explains it’s a real HUNGARIAN orange! “It’s a bit more yellow, it’s a bit more sour, but it’s OURS!”

    Liked by 1 person

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