Vladimir Kozlov's story “1987” appears in HFR #49. His translator Andrea Gregovich asked him some questions in hopes of shedding some light on some of the cool Soviet-era nuances in the story.
Andrea: This is one of my favorite stories of yours because the young adolescent characters do so many of the things I did when I was in junior high. Just like them, I pierced extra holes in my ears with safety pins, shaved the sides of my head, wrote band names on my denim jacket with a permanent marker, and passed around controversial music like the Sex Pistols on bootleg cassettes. Are you as surprised as I am to discover some of these childhood parallels in our two countries? The United States and the Soviet Union were so different in the eighties, and yet I wonder – what might we have actually had in common?
Vladimir: Yes, I am quite surprised. But, on the other hand, it is sort of proof to me that political systems and ideology don’t mean that much to teenagers. There are much more important things in their lives, like their favorite music, youth rebellion and defiance of authority, and those things turn out to be universal. And although a day-to-day life of an American teenager in the 1980's was inevitably much different from that of a Soviet teenager of the same era, they had much more in common than anyone could think they would. The Soviet government could try to keep people behind the “iron curtain” as long as it could, but it couldn’t control people’s desires, interests and feelings.
Andrea: “1987” opens with a brawl downtown in the Belarusian city of Mogilev, in which the local tough guys take on a bunch of visiting punks who have, oddly enough, come to town to commemorate Hitler's birthday. Where would these guys have come from? Why did they choose Mogilev for their Hitler Day gathering? Besides getting into fights, how else would these guys have celebrated Hitler?
The 1980's was a very confused period for Soviet youths when it came to subcultures and their respective ideologies. For years, we were pretty much isolated from the rest of the world, we didn’t know much about who punks or hippies were, and when some information began to arrive with Gorbachev’s “openness” policies, it was in bits and pieces. Many got quite confused. Very few people understood who punks were and what their subculture was about, including some of those who called themselves “punks.” I’m not sure those guys who came to Mogilev to commemorate Hitler’s birthday were actually punks – they must have been just confused types who thought it was cool to be “punks” and celebrate Hitler and do whatever they could to piss off the authorities. Maybe they came from Leningrad or Moscow where authorities were already prepared to crack down on such a gathering. Why Mogilev? It was relatively close, train tickets were cheap at the time, so why not go to that provincial city and march on the central street, shouting “Sieg Heil” and extending arms in a Nazi salute? There were some Nazi gatherings in Moscow in the early 1980's. Very little is known about who took part and what it was about because the Soviet authorities were very secretive about things like that, which they viewed as “anti-Soviet” rallies. Quite recently, I came across an interesting theory explaining those Nazi activities in the 1980's. Under that theory, some youths saw the Soviet system lie about so many things that they believed it lied about Hitler and the whole Nazi thing, too, and in reality Hitler could have not been that bad. That’s how confused people got.
Andrea: Lenka, a nonconformist, confrontational character in this story, is diagnosed with what I've translated as “mental deviance”, and is committed to a mental institute. Is Lenka legitimately troubled, or was this psychiatric diagnosis invented as a way to deal with troublemakers? How long would a girl like Lenka have spent institutionalized in the Soviet Union in 1987, and what would her experience have been like?
Vladimir: I don’t see any “mental” problems in her. True, she is a troublemaker, she hates school and she hates her parents but she doesn’t suffer from anything that a mental institution could cure. Under the Soviet system, lots of people, including dissidents and protesters against the regime, were committed to mental institutions under various kinds of invented diagnoses. But what is especially sad about Lenka’s case is that her own parents thought she was troubled and sent her to the institution because they were unable to deal with her. Under the bad scenario she would have spent a few weeks institutionalized and that would have been pretty horrible. Under the good scenario, the doctors would have released her after a few days of checks, finding no real mental problems – she was quite young and apparently harmless.
Andrea: You're rather critical of the Soviet school system in this and other stories, as well as in your novel USSR. Even the “good” kids are skeptical about the value of grades, brazenly copy each other's work, and often spend their time in class passing around magazines and drawing pictures rather than paying attention to their lessons. The students in your stories are also constantly reminded that conforming to the collective is far more important than their development as individuals. Was there value in your own school experience beneath all the institutional bullshit? Or did you find, like many of your characters, that life offers more meaningful education than school?
Vladimir: I can absolutely identify with my characters’ skepticism about the Soviet school system in the 1980's. By then, the system, which had never been good, was just deteriorating. There were other things that made school seem pointless. Like, in the late Soviet era, education wasn’t really valued, people with university degrees had boring and uninteresting jobs and were paid less than blue-color workers. Plus, that bullshit about the Communist ideology, which teachers were supposed to feed to their students. But it was pretty clear that they didn’t believe in it themselves, it was all hypocrisy. The Soviet-era school system was meant to be a machine aimed at suppressing individuals and turning them into obedient citizens eager to do what they are told. But it didn’t work that way – at least, in the 1980's, when the Soviet empire was already in agony. The “good” kids hated the system because it was pointless and stupid, the “bad” kids hated it because it tried to coerce them to do things they didn’t want to. One other thing was the disparity between what students were expected to learn and what they actually learned. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that there was no value at all in my school experience. There was some specific knowledge in individual subjects that I gained and later used to enter university. But, certainly, what I learned in real life was much more meaningful and useful.
Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator living in Anchorage, Alaska; Vladimir lives in Moscow and is a journalist, novelist, and cultural critic. Andrea's translation of Vladimir's story “Drill and Song Day” appeared in AGNI Review and Rasskazy: New Fiction From a New Russia, and she is almost finished translating his novel USSR.