Playing Under Lenin
Little Failure is a memoir of the Shteyngart family. The author, born Igor in Leningrad, did the first of his growing up in the USSR, and the remainder in Queens, New York, where he became Gary after his family was permitted to emigrate when he was seven years old. He was a sickly child, who suffered quite severely from asthma before emigration, since Soviet Socialist medicine did not include the inhalers which greatly helped his condition in Queens. And in the USSR, he was of course deeply influenced by Soviet kitsch, like the enormous, heroic statue of Lenin in a favorite spot in Leningrad he recalls fondly from early childhood.
Moscow Square. Moskovskaya Ploshchad. This is where my life really begins. ... Moscow Square. Its geometry is cold, its colors are muted, its size is gigantic, and there are occasional colonnades and assorted Greek flourishes to make the place seem timeless and inevitable. The square is so vast it seems to have its own microclimate, a clap of oily rain will slick down its hectares of brick and marble, and in the summer violets are known to burst out amid all the ideology.
Here is my frozen King Kong-sized Lenin, my love, nearly jumping in the direction of nearby Finland, with his hand pointed emphatically at the horizon, with his coat sexily unfurling in the wind. Indeed, there is so much movement atop his granite pedestal that some locals have dubbed him "the Latin Lenin," as if any second he may launch into a salsa or, better yet, a proper Cuban rumba. Taking pride of place behind Lenin is a grandiose box of a building whose facade features workers, peasants, and soldiers marching solemnly toward a bright socialist future. This was destined to be a House of the Soviets, Leningrad's equivalent of city hall, during the Stalin era, then became a top secret facility in which at least two American defectors (both part of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy ring) were reputed to work on military projects, and today is a sad, listless place where you can get a photocopy of your passport or certificate of military service done for a few rubles.
The square's dramatic, Stalinist impact has further been cut short by the Citibank branch down the street, the Ford dealership a little further down, the ad hoc slot machines around the corner, and the intermittent fruit stand hawking bright imported oranges, ethereal red peppers, and glossy pears from a distant galaxy. One of St. Petersburg's 4.8 million McDonald's (one for each citizen) hums along at the southwest corner.
But when I am growing up there is none of that! There is Lenin, there is the Top Secret Building for Defectors and Spies, and across the street is a marble-like structure of equally imposing size that contains another important aspect of Soviet life: the gastronom. To call a gastronom a supermarket would be to insult supermarkets everywhere. Rather it is a uniquely precapitalist space in which ham at times appears and then very rapidly disappears. The ham is often not precisely ham but the fat around the ham. My mother wages a weekly battle with the gastronom staff to make sure they cut her the rosy, edible part of my favorite snack.
Moscow Square, Statue of Lenin, Top Secret Building for Defectors and Spies, gastronom. And to the left of Lenin, a small copse of yolki or spruces. When I am well enough from the asthma, Papa and I chase each other beneath the spruces, playing hide-and-seek. And here I am, shuddering with excitement behind a tree while the big Papa is hunting for me, he really can't find me! And above me, Lenin is gesturing acquisitively toward Finland, his dome balder than my father's. . . . I am hiding behind a spruce, and my father is singing, "Synochek, Igoryochik, gde ty?" (Little son, Little Igor, where are you?)"