Possibly the Best Quote in All of Russian Literature

Or at least the most realistic. The following is from Voinovich’s Moscow 2042, and takes place on a Lufthansa flight.

Улыбнувшись в полном соответствии со служебной инструкцией, она спросила меня, что я буду пить. Разумеется, я сказал: водку. Она опять улыбнулась, протянула мне пластмассовый стаканчик и игрушечную (50 граммов) бутылочку водки «Смирнофф». Она собралась уже двигать свою тележку дальше, когда я нежно тронул ее за локоток и спросил, детям примерно какого возраста дают такие вот порции. Она понимала юмор и тут же, все с той же улыбкой, достала вторую бутылочку. Я тоже улыбнулся и довел до ее сведения, что, когда я брал билет и платил за него солидную сумму наличными, мне было обещано неограниченное количество напитков. Она удивилась и высказала мысль, что неограниченных количеств чего бы то ни было вообще в природе не водится. Поэтому она хотела бы все‑таки знать, каким количеством этих пузырьков я был бы готов удовлетвориться.

— Хорошо, — сказал я, — давайте десять.


Smiling in full accordance with her hospitality training, she asked me what I would like to drink. Of course I said: “vodka”. She smiled again and held out a plastic cup and a toy (50 grams*) bottle of Smirnoff’s. She started to push her cart on past me when I lightly tugged at her elbow and asked: these bottles are intended for children of what age? She understood the humor and with the very same smile gave me another bottle. I also smiled and brought to her attention the fact that when I paid, out of my own pocket, the not insubstantial price for my ticket, they assured me an unlimited amount of beverages. She looked surprised and expressed the thought that an unlimited amount of anything was not to be found anywhere in nature. Therefore, she wanted to know with what quantity of those vials I was prepared to be satisfied.

– “All right,” I said, “give me ten”.

Moscow 2042 is worth a read if only for the caricature of Solzhenitsyn in the person of Karnavalov. I have the utmost respect for Solzhenytsin’s courage, but later in life he tended to bite the hand that fed and protected him in a depressingly repetitive reprise of Tolstoy’s descent into misanthropy at the end of his life. The slide of that dissident from perceptive and constructive critic to blind partisan was less publicized, although his later criticisms of materialism in the West often made it into print in the more self-righteous leftist publications in the US. Voinovich presents the Russian emigre reaction to that public persona, and it ain’t pretty.

*Russians measure their alcohol by mass. Volume changes with temperature and pressure, but you are always assured of the same amount of ethanol in a given mixture if you measure by mass.

14 thoughts on “Possibly the Best Quote in All of Russian Literature”

  1. Hurrah, I’ve found an expert! There is a quote I’ve been trying to track down for years. The author is mocking the rich Slavophiles, with their good English wool pants tucked into their high Italian boots, their fine French linen peasant blouses, etc., and their sentimental attachment to the peasantry, which does not involve lifting a finger on their behalf. He concludes by saying that this play-actor will do anything for the “poor little muzhik” except get off his back.

    The sentiment makes me think of Turgenev, of course, but I can’t find it there. Please help me before I complete my descent into madness.

  2. Mitch – I’m hardly an expert, and the quote does not ring more than a general bell, but I’ll ask around. (And the first person I’ll ask is Tatyana…).
    Don’t rule out Lenin as the author.
    Joseph – no I haven’t. I’ve avoided it in fact, but I need to read it soon. I know very little of that history, other than what gets presented in basic Russian History classes, and the little you learn form reading histories of Israel and about figures such as Jabotinsky.
    Solzhenitsyn is a fervent Russophile. To bastardize a phrase – scratch a Russophile and you’ll often find an anti-Semite. So I always approach their views on the subject with circumspection. Do you know of any books on the subject that might give me a background with which to calibrate my reading of Solzhenitsyn?

  3. JJ and Mitch: the quote might belong to whole bunch of them, from Nekrasov to Dobroljubov to Saltykov-Shedrin to Belinsky to Ogaryov to Hertzen to Lenin to anyone, really. I.S.Turgenev, in a sense, could be described by the quote himself. He was a classical liberal Russian aristocrat, a monarchist, despite his association with Ogaryov and Hertzen; he didn’t approve of Dobroljubov’s and Belinsky’s radical ideas – he favored and took part in preparation of liberation of serfs in 1861 and reorganized management of his own villages, but had a patronising and sentimental atttitude towards peasantry till the rest of his life – abroad, living on income from his country estate Spasskoe; his portrayal of “nihilists” in Fathers and Sons was a public scandal with the “youth movement”. However, the quote might belong to him also – in his last novel, “Nov'” (mmm…how to translate this…”Transformation”? “New times”? “Global change”? all of the above) he made sarcastic fun of all layers of Russian society, from Slavophiles to Westerners to youth radical movement.

  4. Daniel Mahoney has a book summarizing Solzhenitsyn’s thought in the “Library of Modern Thought” series. I didn’t think of him as a liberal, after all his other books in that series have been about Bertrand de Jouvenel and de Gaulle.

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