A few years ago during a family visit in St. Petersburg, my grandmother, who has never been outside Soviet borders, asked me if Russians now had, in their stores, everything that you could buy in the United States. I thought, for some reason, of shampoo and the eight or ten different kinds of it for sale at the Western-style supermarket in my grandmother’s unassuming neighborhood. And I thought of the department stores and boutiques on Nevsky Prospect, where, if you wanted to spend more money on your shampoo, you had a choice of another eight or ten different European and American luxury brands. Then I thought of the dozens, possibly hundreds, of different brands of shampoos to be found in an American city, each with its own complicated semiotics signaling that the shampoo was high-tech or discount or handmade on a commune. How to explain the minute, absorbing consumer choices that made fools of us every day? “You have as much of everything as anyone could want,” I told her. “But for some reason we have…even more.”
At this point it’s only a difference of degree between the obscene bounty of America’s consumer republic and the slightly more modest bounty (for those who can afford it) of free-market Russia. But for many decades of the past century the universe of Soviet consumption was the flip side of the American one: many people had enough money to buy the things they coveted, but such items only rarely appeared in stores. These peculiar conditions of Second World consumerism are the background of The Queue, the first novel–originally published in 1985 in Russian, in Paris–by Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia’s funniest, smartest and most confounding living writers. Sorokin, born in 1955, has become an elder statesman of Russian postmodernism, with a career spanning Soviet stagnation, perestroika and the transformation of Russia into a free-market and increasingly autocratic state.
The Queue, which is being published for the first time in the United States, is set in an enormous line that forms one summer afternoon in the 1980s in Moscow, a line that about 2,000 people eventually join, over the course of two days, in order to have a chance to buy–something. It’s never entirely clear what they’re so eager to buy. In one of the novel’s running jokes, Sorokin keeps hinting at different kinds of items. At first the goods seem to be shoes from Yugoslavia (or possibly Czechoslovakia or Sweden), then jeans from the United States, then suede jackets from Turkey. Certainly they are imports: the Soviet versions of all these things could be bought in a store without much queuing, but their shoddiness was a familiar, insulting and inescapable fact of Soviet life. David Remnick recalls in Lenin’s Tomb, his book about the fall of the Soviet Union, an exhibit he attended in 1989 at Moscow’s Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Mounted in the frank spirit of glasnost, it was called “The Exhibit of Poor-Quality Goods” and featured “ruptured shoes, rusted samovars, chipped stew pots, unraveled shuttlecocks, crushed cans of fish, and, the show-stopper, a bottle of mineral water with a tiny dead mouse floating inside.” One could blame perverse incentives, mismanaged supply chains and bureaucratic corruption for this state of squalor; but two customers in Sorokin’s queue hit upon a more straightforward explanation while comparing American and Soviet economies: “They have to work their asses off over there, but here if you come drunk to work it’s no big deal.”