After studying law at St. Petersburg University, Mikhail Zoshchenko served as an officer in the Great War. In 1918 he volunteered for the Red Army. After working at a variety of different jobs, he joined the literary grouping, 'The Serapion Brothers' in 1921. His humorous sketches quickly became popular; 700,000 copies of Zoshchenko's books were sold in 1926--7 alone. Zoshchenko was no less admired by fellow-writers — from Maksim Gorky to Osip Mandelstam and the critic Viktor Shklovsky. Zoshchenko's finest work dates from the twenties, but he continued to write through the thirties and early forties. In 1946, however, he was expelled from the Writers' Union, denounced as an 'enemy of Soviet literature'. After this he wrote little of value.
One of the criticisms directed at Zoshchenko by the authorities was that at a time of epic achievements he wrote only of trivia. Voronsky, the editor of the influential journal Krasnaya Nov' (Red Virgin Soil), wrote in a 1922 review of Zoshchenko's first book: 'This is supposed to be Revolution? Here we get backyards, little crumbs and tiny anecdotes. But that which shook all of Russia from end to end, the loud rumble that was heard around the world [. . .] where is the echo of all this?' In reality, however — and this may be the true reason for Voronsky's indignation — Zoshchenko registered this echo precisely; his stories perfectly capture the texture of everyday life in Soviet Russia, what Sinyavsky has called its 'outrageous small-mindedness': the inescapable bureaucracy; the constant shortages of everyday necessities, especially living space; and people's strange eagerness to denounce one another.
Zoshchenko has much in common with the greatest of his contemporaries, Andrey Platonov. Both adopted a style that reflects the upheavals of their time. Zoshchenko himself wrote: 'Ordinarily they think that I twist the "glorious Russian language", that for a joke I use words in ways life never intended, that I purposely write in broken Russian to make fun of the esteemed public. This is not true. I twist almost nothing. I write in the language that the street now speaks.' One of his previous translators, Sidney Monas, has described his style as follows: 'Zoshchenko uses careless language carefully. His narrators are not illiterate peasants, but they are usually not far removed from that condition. Their talk is anything but folksy. It is a weird mixture of peasant idiom, misunderstood highfalutin' phrases, rhetorical flourishes, explanatory asides that are anything but explanatory, repetitions, omissions, propaganda jargon absurdly adapted to homey usage, instructional pseudoscientific words, foreign phrases, and proverbial clichés joined to the latest party slogans.'
Like Platonov, Zoshchenko is remarkably bold. 'Simplicity of Soul' parodies countless poems and speeches about the forward march to the bright future. The narrator of 'The Hat' is terrifyingly casual in his dismissal of the value of an individual life: time is precious nowadays, he says, and so a train — the train of progress, of history, of the Revolution — will barely pause if an individual is 'blown off' it. Had this story been written in the sixties or seventies, it would have been read as an attack on Stalinism. At the time, however, no one seems to have paid it much attention — fortunately, perhaps, for Zoshchenko.
Platonov and Zoshchenko can also be seen as complementary opposites. Platonov's sentences tend to be long and groping; Zoshchenko's are short. Platonov is the poet of the Russian steppe and the promises held out by its seductive openness; Zoshchenko is the poet of the claustrophobic 'communal apartments' of the Soviet city. And while Platonov's apparent gloom seems to be lit by more hidden hope each time one rereads his work, Zoshchenko's brilliant wit comes to seem more and more despairing.
Depressiveness, however, has its wisdom. Zoshchenko is not only one of the funniest of Russian writers but also one of the soberest. No one is more aware of the dangers of the grand vision; not even Chekhov has more impassionedly asserted the importance, in a cramped and dangerous world, of small acts of kindness — of not stepping on your neighbours' feet.