A Well-run House 

Published by

Olma-Press, Moscow

Rights acquired by

Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne

Gabo Kiado, Budapest

Ludmila Ulitskaya, a cousin of  Grigori Ryazhski, wrote an essay about her own family that can be used as a foreword to Ryazhski's novel, because, in many ways, it served as a pattern for his story. In her essay, she tells the tale of a desk that she inherited from her grandfather. She wrote her first stories sitting at this desk, and later Ryazhski took over the desk and likewise began his career as a writer sitting at it.

"A Well-run House" is the great saga of a family, spanning a hundred years of Russian history. Despite the wide sweep of its action, the narrative is tight, with an almost movie-like quality, and a sense of dramatic tension. At the same time, Ryazhski exhibits a careful touch with the fine nuances of character development and historical details. The action takes place almost exclusively in a house with the unusual feature of having two-storied apartments that was built in the center of Moscow in 1903 by the Jewish architect Semen Mirski. The novel revolves around the family that lives in the house, or more precisely, around Mirski's wife Rosa, whose profile strongly resembles that of the poet Anna Akhmatova. Rosa was born the year that the house was built, and as the novel reaches its closing scene in 2003, she turns 100 years old.

Times change and along with them the residents of the house. Some of them disappear into the camps, and others are cheated out of their apartments, and are replaced by yet others: The illegitimate son of Alexander Kerenski (the Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Government in 1917), a KGB agent, a member of the Nomenklatura (the Party Elite), and after Perestroika, by "New Russians" (the post-Communist noveau riche), a thief and a prostitute. The winds of historic change blow by, bringing the October Revolution, the death of Lenin, the Stalinist purges, World War II, Khrushchev's "Thaw", Gorbachev's Perestroika, the coup of 1991, but one thing does not change at all. It would be unthinkable to sit down at Rosa's table, if there were not a starched tablecloth on it, at which she still serves delicious Jewish pastry with her tea, and where visits from neighbors are always welcome. Rosa keeps the family together with her warm-heartedness and openness. She is the heart and soul of the house.

The fates of the residents are closely tied together, and their stories are complex. Only the reader knows about all the intrigues and is aware of all the secrets. Here are just a few of the threads from the warp of the loom of the story:

Rosa does not know that Semen, who is much older than she, is cheating on her, even with Sina, the housekeeper, whom Rosa had taken in off the street when she was fifteen. Rosa does not know that Sina—after she found out that she was pregnant—is the one who denounced Semen to the authorities and got him sentenced to fifteen years in the camps. Sina cannot deal with her feelings of guilt and goes back to her hometown in the Ukraine. After the war, Semen comes back from the camps at the age of seventy-five, and dies soon after; Sina comes back to see Rosa, bringing her daughter Sara to work for Rosa as a housekeeper. Sara falls in love with a sculptor, Fedor Kerenski, who lives next door with his parents. Sara is expecting his child, but Fedor does not admit his paternity, and Sara goes back to her mother, where she delivers a daughter, Angelina.

In the early 1990s, when Angelina grows up, she too heads for Moscow, because she hopes that she can earn money there to help her ailing mother and her twin boys Rinat and Petro. Her husband died as a result of his participation in the rescue action for Chernobyl, and her husband's Tartar family does not want to lift a finger for the "unbeliever." Without a residence permit, however, she cannot find a job, and all that is left to her is prostitution. The first time that she goes out on the street, she is taken home by Fedor Kerenski. All he wants from her is companionship, so that he does not have to drink alone. Kerenski decides to take Angelina on as his housekeeper. It is only after a while that he discovers that she is his daughter, a shock that he does not survive. Now Rosa takes in Angelina, closing the circle. Sara comes to Moscow as well, bringing Rinat and Petro with her. Rosa, who lost her only great-grandchild, calls the boys her "great-grandchildren." This is when she learns for the first time that Semen had an affair with Sina.

Rosa was also not aware that her new neighbor, the KGB officer Gleb Chapajkin, had sent the Jewish family who were Rosa's friends off to the camps so that he could get their apartment. Gleb's wife Alevtina—on Rosa's advice—is studying Fine Arts at the university and later becomes a professor. She meets Stephan, a charming young man, and becomes his lover. She does not suspect that Stephan has been in prison, and is nothing more than a refined thief, who is only interested in valuable pieces of art. Alevtina becomes his best source of information. She tells him about Mirski's unique private collection of Russian Avant-guardists and about the Picasso, "A Woman with a Guitar," that was presented to Semen by the artist personally. Even when times had been hard, the family never thought about selling even so much as one painting. Rosa would rather sit at her sewing machine for nights on end, sewing corsets and brassieres in plus sizes for the solidly built ladies of the Party hierarchy. And through it all, Rosa has always had a small boy at her side to raise: first her son Boris, then his son Vilen (named after Vladimir Il'ich Lenin) and then her great-grandson Dmitri.

Gleb discovers his wife's unfaithfulness, and decides to take revenge on Stephan. When he finds out that Stephan has made a million dollars selling antiques on the Black Market, and is planning to abscond with the money to Israel, Gleb smells an extra chance to help himself climb up the ladder to the peak of his secret service career. However, the KGB unit that storms Stephan's apartment after a meeting between Stephan and a group of American diplomats, who are his very good customers, only finds the charred remains of bundles of dollar bills in his fireplace. Stephan had asked the diplomats to record the serial numbers of all the bills before he burned them. Years later, he has the million paid out to him in the U.S.A. Gleb only learns how he pulled off this trick at the end of the novel.

Stephan returns to Moscow, and blackmails his way into an apartment in Mirski House. He makes friends with Rosa. Her great-grandson Dmitri is especially impressed by the elegant, self-assured Stephan, and learns of a new lifestyle through him. He joins one of the newly formed Mafia groups, and carries out a contract murder of one of the group's rivals. Stephan pretends that he has murdered the wrong person, and says that this mistake can only be made good with a huge cash payoff. Dmitri only has to take two paintings from Rosa's collection: the Picasso and a Chagall. On the day of Fedor Kerenski's funeral, Dmitri takes the pictures and hides them in Kerenski's apartment. He had gotten a key from Kerenski's mother, who, for a bottle of vodka, had been glad to provide a love nest for Dmitri and his lover Varya, Chapajkin's granddaughter. In the meantime, Gleb, who was retired because the new Post-Communist times had put an end to his KGB career, gets word of this. He confronts Stephan and, in a fight, shoots him with his old service pistol.

Angelina has to move out of Kerenski's apartment, because she cannot prove that she is his daughter. She wants to take some of his art work as a memento, and while she is in his atelier, she comes across the Picasso and the Chagall, which she returns to Rosa. This closes the circle once again. In 2003, when the family assembles around the table for the Jewish Easter celebration, Rosa says a prayer in Yiddish, from which it is clear that it is all the same to her which God—be it Yahweh or a human Jesus Christ—protects her family from evil. She then gets a call from the U.S.A. The news of the long-lost Picasso in her collection has leaked out, and she is asked if she would consider selling it for tens of millions of dollars, but Rosa declines the offer, saying that she has two great-great-grandchildren and wants to keep all the paintings in the house. "If you want to come and have a look at the painting, you are welcome," says Rosa. "I'll serve you tea and tasty pastries."