Andrei Gelasimov  <<

Gods of the Steppes (Steppengötter) 

Eksmo Verlag, Moscow, November 2008

Actes Sud, Arles/France

Alto, Sofia

Amazon, USA

July 1945. The small village of Rasgulaevka in the far east, on the Russian-Chinese border. Petka, a barefoot boy who is permanently hungry, likes playing war games, and goes to the station every day to greet the Red Army troops travelling east to throw themselves against the Japanese Kwantung Army. Petka’s two uncles have not yet returned from the front, his grandfather smuggles grain spirits from China, his grandmother is busy with her goats, and his mother, Nyurka, is always sad and hardly utters a word. Petka knows why. He doesn’t have a father; his mother had him when she was fifteen. That’s why only Valerka will play with him, a sickly boy who has nosebleeds; to everyone else, Petka is ‘the bastard’. But Petka has another friend, the wolf cub Ispug, whose life he saved by trading a bottle of spirits stolen from grandfather for him with the soldiers. His half-blind grandmother believed him that Ispug is a wolfhound puppy, but their goats know who they’re sharing a shed with.

Not far from the village are coalmines where Japanese prisoners of war have been working since 1939, including the medical officer Miyanaga Hirotaro. He could have been back in Nagasaki with his wife and sons long ago, but he didn’t want to abandon his wounded comrade Masahiro, left behind by the retreating Japanese army. Masahiro has hated him ever since their childhood, but Miyanaga is held hostage by his own guilty conscience: It was for him and not for his lame son Masahiro that Ivaya, the boss of the tobacco company, financed a degree in Paris, and with him that he spent long evenings talking about plants and tobacco. In the evenings, Miyanaga now writes down the century-long history of his dynasty in a notebook, musing over the passing of the old Japanese traditions. He hopes that one day his son will receive this book – a greeting from the realm of the dead to the world of the living. What Miyanaga doesn’t know is that it will be the other way around. His family will burn to death along with 40,000 other people on 9 August, in the first few seconds after the atomic bomb hits Nagasaki.

For the moment, though, Miyanaga is busy finding out why the prisoners are dying like flies in one of the mineshafts. Perhaps there was a good reason why the native Siberian population left the area long ago, the only trace left behind the talismans decorated with runes on the doors of the peasant huts. Petka’s friend Valerka’s mother worked in the same shaft before his birth, and nobody knows what her son is now dying of. Petka feels very sorry for his friend, but at the moment he is joyously happy: he has made friends with Major Odinzov from the camp guards, and finally gets to eat his fill of a heavenly treat – corned beef from the American allies.

But destiny units Petka in an uncomfortable situation with Miyanaga. On his way home from the camp, Petka forgets to watch out for the village thug Lyonka and his gang. They use him for their game of ‘finding Hitler’, genuinely stringing him up from the branch of a tree. It is Miyanaga who saves him. He has just found mutated plants growing near the shaft and now knows what’s causing the prisoners’ deaths: radiation. But how can he convince the camp commander to close the shaft?

From this moment on the plot picks up speed, and everything that happens now takes place on a single day, turning the villagers’ routine life on its head. It all starts with the news that two village men are coming back from the front; one of them is Mitka Mikhailov. Petka’s mother Nyurka immediately attempts suicide, but is saved by Natalia, who has long known that her son Mitka is Petka’s father. The boy doesn’t understand what’s going on, but he makes a plan to save his unhappy mother – by finding her a good husband.

Petka has an old magazine with a photo of the famous Soviet painting ‘S. M. Kirov Greets a Parade of Athletes’, showing pretty young women marching in white skirts and socks. Natalia knits a white dress overnight, and Petka persuades the wife of the Kolkhoz chairman to give him the only unused pair of white socks in the whole village, and matching patent leather shoes. Even he didn’t know how beautiful his mother is. The next morning, he takes her to meet his new friends. The officers are sitting together, enjoying the whiskey hidden for them by their American brothers-in-arms in the guns of the newly delivered tanks. They dance, sing and thoroughly enjoy themselves, except that Nyurka’s shoes are much too small for her. She takes them off and holds them in her hand.

Suddenly, Valerka’s mother rushes in and summons the only camp doctor to her dying son. On the way, Petka and Miyanaga are overtaken by a horse-drawn cart: the drunken hero of the Soviet Union Mitka, one leg lost in the war, wants to take a photo of Petka and his ‘new mother’, a woman plastered with make-up. He gives his new-found son money, but Petka doesn’t want a father like that. Miyanaga can’t do anything to help Valerka, but the villagers force him to expel the evil spirits from the boy in a useless ritual. In his despair, he performs a few scenes of traditional Japanese No theatre...

It is this strange mixture of Soviet patriotism, Stalinism and deeply rooted superstition, including necromancy and shamanism (see sample translation), which lends the novel its unmistakable colour. Andrei Gelasimov perfectly illustrates the contradictions of these unimaginably hard times, which were yet populated by warm-hearted and sincere people. Petka is angry with Miyanga for saving his life but tearing his shirt to bandage his wounds. What is he going to tell his grandmother? On the other hand, Petka is sorry that he broke Anton’s leg in a fight. Now he can’t walk to the station to pick up the village mail, and his family may well starve without his extra wages. Nor can Petka bear to take revenge on his enemy Lyonka, who bullied him for so many years, because Lyonka is badly off himself – his father has come back from the war and has no mercy, beating him and his mother, who had been out with the officers from the camp.

Simply retelling the plot can’t possibly capture the magic of Gelasimov’s novel. The key is how he tells the story, his unmistakable tone. Virtuoso use of colloquial language, short sentences, narration in dialogues that drive the story on like a fast-moving volley – all this is characteristic of his writing, developing a mesmerising narrative voice that pulls the reader along. The apparent simplicity of his writing is down to his great talent, with no equal in Russian literature; one could call him the Russian Salinger. Like in Salinger’s work, his heroes are usually children or young people, often at the painful transition stage into adult life. And Gelasimov too masters the art of painting a psychological portrait of his characters simply through a situation or a brief and often funny dialogue.

Gelasimov’s prose is far from pathetic, and yet – there is no other way to say it – moving. He is not afraid to allow his heroes a chance for happiness, but nevertheless never descends to banality. He always stays very much in the everyday, never commenting and always leaving scope for more than one truth. If there is a moral, then Gelasimov hides it away in his texts like contraband.

Sample translation

Andrei Gelasimov


(from “Gods of Steppe”)

Translated from the Russian by Sylvia Maizell

“It’s good yuh called on me,” muttered old Potapikha, fussing over her magical dough. “Because nowadays it’s Kuzmich they ask for. As if only his spells work. And who, I’d like to know, set things right with Zubov’s bride’s belly? And who fixed Makarov’s boy’s hernia?”

Potapikha pounded away at this wonderworking dough in a wooden tub and both because of her effort, and because she had to stoke the stove in summer, she quickly broke out in a sweat and pulled off her high-collared black jacket of thick shiny cloth, the name of which Petka didn’t know. What he did know was that for a long time old lady Darya wanted one like it, but old man Artem just couldn’t put together the money to set off to Krasnokamensk for it, so old lady Darya had to be patient for now.

“And whut’s this one?”asked Potapikha, squinting in Petka’s direction. “We dunneed a stranger’s eye here.”

“He‘s Valerka’s friend,” Valerka’s mama answered barely audibly. “Let him sit a while.”

“Watch out, that’s an evil eye he’s got. Didn’t yuh see? Them kind put the put the worst hex on yuh.”

Valerka’s mother looked at Petka in alarm.

“He’ll hex someone--and be on his way,” old Potapikha added.

“I’ll close my eyes,” Petka said quickly. “I’ll go sit over there. Under the table. You can’t see me from there.”

“Go and sit, Petka,” Valerka’s mother pleaded. “Or else you never know what can happen.”

“It’s not yuh never know, yuh can bet something will,” Potapikha confirmed, turning white as an undershirt, like a strange snowman, in the stuffy half-darkness of the room. “Go on, git under the table.”

The house was dark. Valerka’s mama and Potapikha had tightly closed the shutters ten minutes ago.

“Light in this sort of thing gets in the way,” Potapikha announced from the threshold. “Where there’s light there’s sickness.”

And she also ordered the rooster removed from the yard so he wouldn’t start to crow.

“Because if he crows the whole fix’s for naught. Up in smoke.”

So they locked the rooster in the bath-house. Two scraggy chickens, who by some miracle held out till Victory day and were not eaten up in the last spring of the war, came over right on the heels of Valerka’s mama and clumsily tried to fly onto the vent to peek inside.

“Kill the speckled one for me later,” said Potapikha, looking thoughtfully at the hens jumping around near the bath-house.

She always took a hen as payment for her services.

This time Petka hadn’t expected at all that Valerka would be so sick. But Valerka was now lying on a wide wooden bed and his mother, beside herself with fear, was pacing around with a towel in her hands, unable to stop.

“Better sit down,” Potapikha said to her finally. “Or my dough won’t rise.”

“What’s this…how’s that my fault?” Valerka’s mama asked in dismay. “Why my fault?”

“Well, who else then? The boy’s sittin’under the table. Down there he’s got no chance to put the evil eye on anyone.”

“All right,” said Valerka’s mama, and Petka saw how her feet stiffened up near the stool. Next to old Potapikha’s feet these feet behaved very timidly, and looking at them it was obvious they were expecting something. If Petka hadn’t known in whose house the table was under which he now sat, screwing up his eyes tightly and at times, just in case, even covering them with his hands, he would have thought it was Valerka’s mama’s feet that were visiting, not old Potapikha’s. She stood solidly, like a landing barge, with half its hull grounded on the shore, while Valerka’s mama kept shifting her feet, holding her breath and shuddering intermittently, raising now one now the other foot onto the wooden cross-piece of the stool.

“Will he pass?” her voice asked barely audibly.

“Who? The boy? No, he won’t.” old Potapikha’s voice answered.

Her slippers, cut from felt boots, which she didn’t take off even in such heat, turned towards the stool. She moved in one piece. Like a real ship.

“Whut yuh talkin’about--pass? His ass’s not even rounded yit.”

Valerka’s mama’s feet froze for an instant then dropped in unison from the cross-piece to the floor.


Petka knew these ankle boots well. Valerka’s mama had bought them when the “Killed in Action” notice came about Valerka’s father. At first she sat a long time in the hall, and looked at the holes from the nails and at the spider web--she didn’t even notice that the postman, Comrade Ignat, had said goodbye and left quietly. Then she hid the notice behind the mirror, put together Valerka’s things, and set off with him for Krasnokamensk. From there Valerka came back with these very same boots on his feet. In Atamanovka not one of the kids had anything like them. Not even all the grown-ups walked around in real leather boots. There were felt ankle boots, knee-high boots, slippers. Now suddenly leather boots turned up. But Valerka didn’t spare them at all. He gave them a real beating in just one winter. Just so the other kids took him along to play. And his mother didn’t scold him. When they wore out, she began to wear them herself.

Once she wore them to school to see the teacher Anna Nikolaevna. She asked the teacher to point out where Stalingrad was on the map. She looked at the place, covered it with her palm, stood awhile like that and then said, “Thank you.”

Either she meant it for Anna Nikolaevna or the entire big map of the Soviet Union.

Staring at these broken down boots and having forgotten what could happen with his eyes opened., Petka noticed that the string which Valerka’s mama used to tie up the left boot was coming loose, and that it would open wide like a hungry little cuckoo bird’s mouth. Petka extended his hand carefully from under the table, trying to fix the string, but Valerka’s anxious mother unexpectedly moved again and stepped painfully on those fingers that were smashed in a recent fight. Petka let out a hiss and old Potapikha’s head hung down under the table instantly. It was easier for her to bend over than to turn around.

“Whuut?” she asked suspiciously. “Whut’s this hissing?”

Obviously she had decided that Petka in his malice had invented a new, as yet unknown to her, vocal version of the evil eye. This troubled her greatly but Petka screwed up his eyes right away, and on top of that covered his mouth with both hands and she, having thought it over, softened a bit.

“Well, go on, instead of just sittin’ there like a dunce, go catch me some roaches. But don’t yuh kill’em now, just press down on’em bit. Put’em in this box here. Mind, don’t come up out from under the table.”

And Petka began his hunt.

There weren’t many roaches because they live where there’s at least something left to shovel down, but after Valerka and Valerka’s mama ate, there was nothing left. There just couldn’t be anything. They hardly had enough for themselves. Crumbs were swept up carefully into the palm and in full view of the disconsolate roaches, carefully deposited into the mouth. Like coal in the mine near Krasnokamensk. One shovelful--and it’s in the trolley.

So Petka didn’t see his prey right away. Especially since he kept screwing up his eyes a little. He believed just as strongly in the evil eye as he did in Marshal Zhukov. Someplace deep in his heart there even flickered the suspicion that the Germans lost the war because he, Petka, hexed their Hitler. That’s not to say, of course, that our troops didn’t fight fiercely and that all in all they’re not the best troops in the world, but still Petka too had done all he could.

Sometime around a year ago he had begun scratching out in old lady Darya’s haystack curse words about Hitler. At first just to amuse himself, but then he discovered with astonishment and his heart in his mouth that for each word he scratched our troops took big cities.

Once, for a time, he quit writing those funny words, deciding to risk checking this remarkable regularity, but afterwards he blamed himself terribly for idleness. In newspapers and reports “From the Soviet InfoBureau,” like a worn out record, the very same words began to repeat: “Stiff Enemy Resistance…Heavy troop losses …” Terrified, Petka crawled back into the hayloft where he spent a feverish, sleepless night. Scared out of his wits and full of remorse, he scratched and scratched dirty words about Hitler with a nail along the wooden walls, and by the next morning Comrade Levitan announced on the radio at the village council office that the troops of the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian fronts under the command of Marshals Malinovsky and Tolbukhin after sustained fighting totally wiped out a surrounded 190,000 man force of the German fascist Army Group South and liberated the city of Budapest.

Racing back from the village council, Petka surveyed lovingly the fruits of his night’s labor, then collapsed in the hay and slept through to the middle of the next day. There wasn’t a happier man than he in the whole Soviet Union. Except for Marshals Tolbukhin and Malinovsky. But Petka didn’t mind sharing his happiness with them.

A hundred thousand fritzes for one night’s work-- not bad for a kid with a nail in a hayloft.

And so Petka believed in the evil eye.

It was exactly for this reason that he even was scared to stick his hand out from under the table when the roach he had been tracking down scurried from him to the middle of the room. That’s how sorry he felt for Valerka.

He sat patiently with the match box that old Potapikha gave him, rustling it quietly, opening and closing it to interest the runaway roach, and lure it back under the table. Petka wasn’t sure that roaches responded to the rustle of match boxes, but he had no other option.

“Come here, Hans,” he whispered. “Crawl over here, little, miserable Adolf.”

The roach picked up Petka’s rustle, hesitated, but then realized how this rustle could turn out for him and shot across the room towards Valerka’s’ bed.

Petka cursed and fell to the floor.

From there he could see the whole bed, a rumpled pillow and Valerka’s hand hanging down, lifeless, like a regimental banner that has fallen to the enemy. Useless. Looking at that hand of Valerka, it somehow occurred to him that he’d never seen dead birds. He’d seen plenty of killed ones, but to die like people--by and by from old age or from sickness--that he’d never come across. Because if they’d died naturally, then they should be lying around somewhere. After all, you wouldn’t fall from heaven anyplace but to earth. But neither in Atamanovka itself nor around it had Petka ever seen dead birds on the earth. Only the ones killed by cats or kids. And so it seemed they flew to another place to die. Or they didn’t die at all.

“Bring him a bucket,” said old Potapikha. “Can’t yuh see--he’s upset. He’s ‘bout to barf.”

Valerka’s mama’s feet tramped off into the entrance hall and returned. The wooden bucket banged the floor next to the bed.

“Say,” said Potapikha. “I’ve the same one at home. Bet Artem made it.”

“I don’t know,” answered Valerka’s mama and sat down again on the stool.

She really didn’t know. And couldn’t know. It was Petka who had dragged over this bucket when he and Valerka prepared seriously to sneak off to the front. But they didn’t succeed because they waited too long for it to warm up. They didn’t figure that it gets warmer much later in Atamanovka than in Germany.

“Go on, hold’em tighter,” said Potapikha. “Can’t yuh see’em bobbin up and down?”

Petka stuck his head out from under the table to see what they were doing with Valerka, but old Potapikha’s broad back, hunched over the bed, blocked his view.

Over her head Valerka’s hand, thrust upward, was swaying. He seemed to be drowning and this hand, flung toward the ceiling from somewhere under the water, was grasping for air with all its might.

“Hush now, hush now,” Valerka’s mother repeated through white lips, pressing down on him more and more and trying to restrain his hands.

“Hold’em tighter!” Potapikha hissed at her. “Even tighter.”

“They’ll smother him,” thought Petka, almost crawling out completely from under the table.

He had always suspected that such old bats smothered little kids on the sly. Or else, why would so many of them have died in the past two years. And he could swear to it, even in the name of comrade Stalin, that there was something mean in the eyes of these Atamanovka ladies.

“Hey, yuh git back!”shouted Potapikha, who, god knows how, had detected Petka’s movement behind her back.

“Hush now, hush now,” Valerka’s mama said again, speaking not to Valerka, but to Petka, who was sitting on the floor, gaping in fear.

Because she turned around, Petka finally was able to catch sight of Valerka. He was lying on his side with a wrinkled face and tightly closed eyes. A huge paper funnel stuck in his ear. At first it had seemed to Petka that by ramming an aspen stake into Valerka’s ear, old Potapikha had decided to finish him off, but then he realized it was only a newspaper.

Actually, the most terrifying thing was yet to come. As if in some ghastly dream about fascists who simply couldn’t be killed, old Potapikha took the matches from the stool, lit them, and carried the flame to the opening of the paper funnel. The flame leaped down towards Valerka’s head. He opened his eyes, his jaw dropped wide without a sound, and Petka saw clearly a stream of white smoke curling out onto the pillow from this open mouth.

“Ah-ah-ah!” Petka finally heard Valerka’s scream.

“Ah-ah-ah!” Valerka kept screaming, and his thin voice reminded Petka now of singing, now of weeping.

Old Potapikha’s methods seemed strange to many people in Atamanovka.. As for Petka, he didn’t understand them at all. She treated red spots with sparrows’ droppings, angina with kerosene, herpes with a mixture of tar, copper vitriol, hot sulphur and unsalted pork fat. This sort of fat was the hardest to find and so Potapikha was not always successful with herpes. On the other hand, if a dog scared someone, at once Potapikha would fumigate the victim with smoke from a burnt mixture of thistle and this dog’s fur, and the fellow was never afraid of anything again.

Once when Petka caught a bad cold and for some reason his legs became numb, old Potapikha had him bundled up tightly, put in a haystack rotted from summer rain, and kept there exactly three days. In a weakened state, Petka peered out anxiously from the haystack, dozed off, sweated, made in his pants, but at the appointed time, his legs began to stir. Of course, later on he strongly suspected that they became numb simply from hunger and that while he was sitting in the haystack, old Potapikha had a fit of generosity and kept shoving buttered pancakes into the hay, and that’s why his legs revived after all. But it was only Petka who was doubtful. After this incident, old lady Darya came to believe unconditionally in Potapikha’s powers, and when it was necessary, for example, to wean old man Artem off the bottle, she went straight to her.

“Eh?” said Potapikha, peering under the table. “Did yuh collect some? Or did yuh fall asleep there, yuh little shit?”

Petka silently held out the matchbox.

“Is that all!” she was holding the crushed roach with two fingers, as if she was about to poke it in Petka’s face.

“There weren’t any more,” Petka grumbled. “I barely caught that one.”

“Caught it--is that what yuh think! Look what yuh did to it--yuh mashed it all up! And I need a whole one! And not one, but a dozen!”

“Well, there weren’t any more.”

“Look at him, still sassy. Wait, yer gonna get it!”

She jabbed her hand with the roach at Petka’s. He dodged it and nipped her on the wrist.

“He bites, the whore’s son,”old Potapikha informed Valerka’s mama, who also peered solicitously under the table.

“Please don’t bite, Petya,” she begged. “We have to tend to Valerka. Can’t you see he’s in a bad way?”

“Why is she….?”

“I’ll show yuh ‘why’ right off!” said old Potapikha, wiping the bitten spot. “Come outta there this minute!”

“I won’t!”

“Hand me a knife,” Potapikha turned to Valerka’s mama. “I’ve gotta check his hair. Of course it’s not so good without roaches, but lice will work too.”

A minute late Petka was sitting in the middle of the room on the stool and old Potapikha was scraping around with a knife in his hair. Once again he covered his eyes but this time not at all from fear of finally putting the evil eye on Valerka, but from infinite pleasure. Whether it was that his mama of late had become so tired at work or forgotten about him altogether, she hadn’t checked his hair for some time now. Someone scraping with a knife along the top of his head always felt good.

“Looks like we’re done,” old Potapikha said finally and Petka, with great regret, opened his eyes.

”Do I have to crawl under the table again? I can’t see anything from down there.”

For an instant Potapikha hesitated, but then waved her hand:

“All right, sit down. If I must, I’ll put a hex on yer evil eye…Looks like yer’s ain’t evil. C’m here…”

She dragged him up to a chink in the shutters from which was falling a ray of light, narrow as a razor, placed his face under the tickling, warm sun, and Petka went blind for the moment.

“No-o-o,”old Potapikha drawled from the teary darkness. “How’s it evil? It’s not evil at all. Whut sortta trick yuh been springin’on us, yuh little shit?”

“I didn’t play any trick on you,” said Petka and blinked so that his eye would tear.

Then he sat quietly in the corner, watching how old Potapikha cooked up pies from the dough into which she carefully folded all the lice she had found plus the crushed roach, and how Valerka was eating these pies and then throwing up into the bucket, with old Potapikha bent over him repeating--Now, now, this’ll be over soon, this’ll be over soon, honey--and then watching how she was leaving the yard with a little speckled hen under her arm with its neck already broken and dangling like drunken grandpa Artem’s tassle, and how she kept going farther and farther down the street to her own grandchildren who were probably waiting anxiously for her and how she began to hum quietly her favorite tune:

“I’ll be da-an-cin reels,

I’m puttin’ on my shoes,

Gonna kick up my heels,

Higher than the stools…”


© Sylvia Maizell