In “Novostroïka,” the opening story of Maria Reva’s Good Citizens Need Not Fear, we meet Daniil, a resident of 1933 Ivansk Street, a building that may or may not exist. It is winter, and the heat in his family’s apartment isn’t working. “Grandfather Grishko’s telling everyone he hasn’t seen his own testicles in weeks,” his aunt yells, adding, “We’re tired of the cold, Daniil…and we’re tired of hearing about the testicles.” However, when Daniil goes to the town council hall to get the heat turned on, the clerk has no record of the building, no address with that number. Daniil becomes flustered, asking her to check again. “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street, Kirovka, Ukraine, USSR. Mother Earth.”
It might be tempting to read more into this, a post-Soviet short story about a place you call home no longer existing, but Reva insists that this actually happened with her family’s old apartment building in Ukraine. She said in an interview in Fiction Writers Review, “My dad told me that during that first winter the heating didn’t turn on, which was strange because everything was centralized and connected. He gave his address to the woman at the town council. She said that there was no such address, and since they didn’t have it in the records, our building didn’t exist.”
Much of Good Citizens Need Not Fear teeters on the edge like this. Reva is at once sober-minded about the cruelties of bureaucracy and refreshingly sardonic about how people learn to cope with them; the result is a droll humor and grotesque absurdism that have drawn comparisons (and deservedly so) with the work of Nikolai Gogol. She irreverently mines Marxism and the conditions that led to the Soviet Union’s collapse for good one-liners, invoking the kind of black but tender comedy common among people who lived in the USSR. In “Bone Music,” a woman who sells banned Western records by imprinting them on X-rays sends her young daughter to inform her coconspirator that she’s sick and cannot make it to their “biweekly study session on dialectical materialism.” In “Miss USSR,” party leaders in Moscow are concerned that a beauty pageant in Kirovka might start a chain reaction of local, decentralized events. “Next thing we know,” an angry official says, “it’ll be Miss Estonia SSR. Miss Latvia SSR. Miss Georgia SSR.” In moments like these, Reva showcases a deftness with dark humor that both resists sentimentalism about the difficult aspects of Soviet life and rejects the idea that it was nothing but bad. Instead, she frees herself up to tell bigger (and often smaller) stories about her homeland—stories about agoraphobic black market profiteers, the practice of making swans out of old tires, and how to find privacy within yourself. In doing so, she establishes herself as one of the leading post-Soviet writers of her generation while breaking through the limitations of the term itself.
More than anything else, Good Citizens Need Not Fear is about how things are made—the labor that goes into them, the fragile foundations upon which they’re built, and the humanity that is required to sustain them. As readers, we become intimately familiar with where the sinkholes and exposed rebar can be found in Kirovka and whose bones are less sturdy than they appear. (The foreign tourists want to know: Because of Chernobyl?) We learn how much tinplate you need for a can of pickles. Diagrams, charts, models, and infrastructure reports abound. That, too, feels like an inside joke, a play perhaps on the genre of construction novels popular in the Soviet Union, like Cement (1925) and How the Steel Was Tempered (1934). It is a subject Reva knows intimately. While pursuing her MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, she worked in construction. As she told the author Lara Prescott, a guest instructor in the program, in an e-mail introducing herself (as recounted by Prescott on the website Electric Literature), “I work with some nasty chemicals and lead paint…but get to wear a spacesuit (kind of).”
Likewise, in Good Citizens Need Not Fear, Reva trains your eye to look for loose screws and shaky support beams, inviting readers to think about how to build a sturdier foundation so that a better world, if we ever make one, won’t sink into the ground. And she proves to be an incredible builder of worlds, largely by recognizing that people, like screws, cannot simply be discarded because you don’t feel like finding out where they go. Her characters are an eclectic assemblage of personalities and types who, despite their mutual suspicions, are all equally dependent on one another, whether it’s for friendship, gossip, or cloves. Perhaps that is why, for a book about a place that is falling apart, Reva’s stories are so prodigiously well structured. She understands, as a facile young intelligence officer says in a moment of clarity, “A bolt cannot function without a nut and a nut cannot function without a bolt.”
The nine stories in the collection are linked by 1933 Ivansk Street, where the characters live, lurk, or simply wind up, often through fantastical means. As Reva tells us, the building was hastily assembled after construction workers realized they had enough spare parts to make not two but three towers; hence it fails to show up in official records. The people inside work at chemical plants, metallurgical factories, polyclinics—the sort of jobs that are often presented as banal and sources of pity in Western books and films but in the Soviet Union were recognized as essential.
Daniil works at the Kirovka Canning Combine, where he has just been ordered to find ways to economize the amount of metal used to can various food items and begins to evaluate the “squeezability” of different products. “Some foods posed more of a packing problem than others,” Reva writes. “Soups could be thickened and condensed milk condensed further, into a mortar-like substance. String beans proved the most difficult: Even when arranged like a honeycomb, they could reach only 91 percent packing efficiency. In the middle of every three string beans hid an unfillable space.”
For Daniil, the task becomes a way of thinking about his access to breathable space. Like “pressed meat liver paste” or “whale meat in natural juice of the mammal,” he feels squeezed in everywhere—in the factory, in the streets, and most important, in an apartment with 13 other family members. He had been living in a communal apartment (one of the multifamily buildings that were a common feature of Soviet life), and the personal unit provided by his job was quickly invaded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, and their pets, including a cage of hens. Reflecting on his lack of privacy, Daniil creates a chart similar to what one would expect for his cans at work: “Minimum Dimensions of Space Necessary for Human Functioning, 85 processes: Sleeping (based on average Moscow male, head to toe) = 175cm…Evacuating bladder (volume) = 400ml…Breathing (torso expansion) = 1.5cm.” When we learn in a later story that Daniil’s cans are overpacked and have begun to explode, leaving their purchasers with shrapnel wounds, one may start to wonder whether Daniil, too, will eventually burst in frustration.
When I studied abroad in Moscow, our orientation involved a brief lecture on the particularities of Russian and post-Soviet culture. At one point, the program leader told us there was no word in Russian for “privacy” (an oft-mentioned though somewhat misleading cultural anecdote). Students suddenly looked wide-eyed, excited that these people were in fact going to be very different from us, despite the Starbucks and McDonald’s nearby. However, in Good Citizens Need Not Fear, Daniil jealously guards what little privacy he has and resents its constant invasion. At one point, he throws a space heater out a window to make room and perks up at the prospect of leaving the cramped apartment to retrieve it. Here too, Reva pushes back against stereotypes and pat narratives about the Russian soul or Soviet mentality. Daniil does not display some kind of primordial, Slavic, wholesale embrace of communalism; like any of his Western peers, he wants his space. But this never undercuts his belief in the broader principles that gave him and his family shelter in the first place. He never rails against public housing or decries the communist system. He is a “good citizen.” He just wants the heat turned on and for his grandfather to stop talking about his testicles.
In “Novostroïka” and in telling the story of the origin of 1933 Ivansk Street, Reva helps us understand what it means for anyone, in the Soviet Union or elsewhere, to fall through the cracks. It can be a source of anguish but also an escape. In “Little Rabbit” (a story that won a National Magazine Award), she explores the inner workings of an orphanage in Kirovka where the children are rated from one to three based on their perceived value as future citizens. “Threes have a minor defect,” she writes. “Twos are blind and/or deaf. Skin disorders and ambiguous genitalia fit the criteria, too. Ones simply lie there.” They’re arranged in a pattern, represented by Reva with a diagram in which threes are given pride of place. “The director would deny any pattern to the distribution of the babies. If the healthier babies lie next to the great bright windows where they can chatter with the magpies, and next to the doors where the occasional Ministry inspector can see them best, it’s surely a coincidence,” she writes.
One of the children, a little girl named Zaya, becomes ill with pneumonia and is downgraded from a three to a one. As she lies in bed, she sees a slit in the vinyl floor. A strange glow starts to emanate from it, and she becomes transfixed. “What she has to do is crawl toward that crack. The need is bodily, instinctual. She has seen it in every moth and mosquito bewitched by a flame.” Zaya peels away the vinyl and, finding floorboards underneath, manages to dig her way through and escape, for a time. She is the closest thing we get to a main character in Good Citizens Need Not Fear; she appears and reappears across the collection. In a later story, she is adopted by Konstantyn Illych, the head of a cultural center, who tries to turn her into a beauty queen for the Miss USSR pageant—an endeavor that becomes a macabre version of Pygmalion. “What’s the one thing people don’t know about you?” he asks Zaya, quizzing her for the interview portion of the pageant. Confused, she responds, “You can’t take a squat [at the orphanage] without an audience. Everyone knows everything about everyone.” She runs away again here but returns in a later story, realizing, as the rest of her country will in time, that a way out is not the same as a way up.
As Part I of the collection, “Before the Fall,” comes to a close, the sense of collapse is underscored by Kirovka’s crumbling infrastructure. In “Bone Music” we meet Smena, the woman who sells forbidden music illicitly reproduced on X-rays. She is agoraphobic and depends on a trend hunter named Larissa and a polyclinic worker named Milena to help with her black market operation. The three women crowd into Smena’s kitchen to hear one of Larissa’s latest acquisitions, a Megadeth album. “Megadeth is a deliberate misspelling of the English word ‘megadeath,’ one million deaths by nuclear explosion,” she tells them (another Cold War fear turned into a punchline). Smena becomes increasingly anxious that their underground operation will be discovered, but this is accompanied by a more generalized dread about the world around them coming undone. She reads reports in the papers about the city’s failing infrastructure that only confirm her sense of uneasiness: “A sinkhole trapped a commuter bus. A family of five plummeted to their deaths in an elevator malfunction. A gas leak gently poisoned preschoolers for weeks before being discovered. Pedestrians were advised to avoid underpasses.”
The stories in Part II, “After the Fall,” largely revisit the characters from Part I, their roles now reversed in mostly meaningless ways. Here too, Reva pushes back against the idea that this moment represents a glorious ushering in of wealth or freedom. All that felt fragile becomes even less sturdy. Everything continues to crumble, and not just concrete but also people. Bodies become crushed or compromised by the need to earn money. Konstantyn, who once made a political joke that got him in trouble with a KGB officer, now hires that officer to guard the ground floor of 1933 Ivansk Street, which has been converted into a tomb for a supposed saint. Konstantyn collects money from the pilgrims who travel there for a blessing; it is said that praying to the saint can alleviate tinnitus and cure alcoholism. One day while cleaning the tomb, the former KGB officer accidentally knocks over the body, causing the saint’s well-preserved white teeth (the main attraction and source of revenue) to spill across the floor. The teeth begin to haunt the officer, seeming to wink at him, leading him on a wild goose chase as he attempts to retrieve them. “I tried to imagine myself as a lover, following rose petals to a bed,” he says, “but couldn’t help feeling like a rodent, lured by crumbs to a trap.” He eventually trips and falls in his pursuit, knocking teeth out of his own mouth.
Much of the absurdity of the pre-fall stories is transformed in Part II into dark satires of capitalist consumption and the commodification of narratives that depict (in the Western imagination) Soviet life as miserable and physically degrading. In “Roach Brooch,” we meet Pyotr and Lila, new hawkers of “bone music,” which has been transformed from a clandestine practice into a way to create souvenirs for tourists. Pyotr has a tumor that he leaves untreated so they can have continued access to free X-rays from the polyclinic. When they sell the records, Lila points to the tumor to entice customers. “As with any growth or deformity,” Reva explains, “the tourists always want to know: ‘A victim of…?’ The tourists don’t want to say the dirty word themselves, but are itching to hear it, pronounced authentically by this kerchiefed babushka.” Lila gives them what they want. “Chernobyl,” she says, though her husband never served there. Nonetheless, “at the word ‘Chernobyl,’ the tourists have their wallets out.” For their part, Larissa and Milena have moved on to the fur coat trade, working day and night to sew a coat out of ermines for a rich young girl so that Larissa can move to Canada.
There is nothing new about telling the story of the USSR and its fall through the country’s apartment buildings. Historian Yuri Slezkine has made something of a career of it. In 2017’s The House of Government, he offered an epic, 1,128-page history of a single building in Moscow that housed Soviet officials. Years earlier, he wrote a widely cited essay that discussed the Soviet Union and its amalgamation of distinct ethnic republics in similar terms: “If the USSR was a communal apartment, then every family that inhabited it was entitled to a room of its own.” Fellow scholar Margaret Litvin has suggested that the “Soviet dormitory novel” might constitute not only a distinct subgenre but also a useful heuristic for understanding the lived experience of communist internationalism.
Indeed, much history is inscribed in the courtyards, doorways, and stairwells of the former Soviet Union, where public housing was inextricable from the entire national project. When I lived in Moscow, I once stayed in a khrushchevka, a prefab five-story apartment building named after the thaw-era leader who oversaw their construction. The private apartments with communal yards were originally intended to usher in a new era of consumer goods and the kind of suburban comforts that people thought existed only in the West. What Maria Reva wants to say about the Soviet Union through the history of the apartment building at the center of Good Citizens Need Not Fear is less explicit, except that like 1933 Ivansk Street, it existed and then fell apart, but what has been built in its place is no sturdier.