Saturday, December 17, 2022

Late Tsarist Russia from a child’s perspective

Kornei Chukovskii’s The Silver Crest is a deeply heartfelt, funny and humane book. I picked it up on a recommendation from a friend at church, Doug J—. Though it’s only about 180 pages long, whatever it lacks in length it more than makes up for in wit, warmth and genuine insights. One would expect no less from an author like Chukovskii, who is sometimes called, not without reason, the ‘Russian Dr Seuss’—known for his perennially-popular and deeply-influential rhyming children’s books and tales. The Silver Crest is Chukovskii’s autobiographical retelling of his days in (and out of) the gymnasium he briefly attended in Odesa—but although it is a tale of how he grows up, it isn’t so much about him personally it is a series of character sketches of his family, friends, childhood rivals, and various people in his childhood neighbourhood. Odesa has something of a character in this as well… and although his treatment of his childhood home is nowhere close to complimentary (he would go on to call it ‘revolting’, and claim he was a Petersburg man rather than an Odesa one), it’s still clear that Odesa was written deep into his blood.

There’s more than a bit of caricature in Chukovskii’s chronological recounting of this one particular episode from his childhood. His impressions of his fellow-students—whether his stammering but highly-imaginative and -studious Archangelsk best friend Timosha Makarov; the hyper-religious Old Believer but clueless student Grishka Zuev; the arrogant, ‘pig-faced’ Tuntin—and moreso his impressions of the grown-up teachers and administrators of his school (Six-Eyes, Proshka, Finti-Monti, Father Meletii) all bear the stamp of gentle exaggeration on them. But it is the sort of exaggeration which would be natural to a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy, and thus even these caricatures have a certain ring of truth as a youngster would see it.

But the real driving force of the story, the real source of Chukovskii’s pathos, comes from his family: of which his handsome, simple, hard-working half-Ukrainian single mother who makes her living by doing laundry; and his serious, pedantic and rather sesquipedalian sister Marusya; form the core. There is also his uncle Foma, who comes from the countryside, as well as a Jewish pickpocket and burglar Yusef Stock who gets the nickname of ‘Top Hat’ whom Chukovskii’s mother sort of adopts as a cause in an attempt to reform him. A major plot point of the story is that Stock falls in love with a girl who works as a shop clerk, and she gets him to stop stealing—only for him to be wrongly accused of burgling a wealthy woman’s home while she’s out of town.

Chukovskii paints himself in a not-altogether-flattering light: we see him rebel against his mother and taunt his sister numerous times, and they constantly forgive him and take care of him—as often as not correcting him by example. At the same time, when Chukovskii is expelled from the gymnasium for what he imagines to be a personal failing, we can’t help but sympathise with him when he takes it on himself to try everything he knows to get back in for the sake of his mother, who pinned great hopes on her son’s education. (The titular ‘silver crest’ is the emblem of his school which is pinned to his hat; it gets ripped off by the school dean, Proshka, when he is expelled.) Although he does describe rather matter-of-factly the verbal abuse and the flagrant corruption (including the basest and most vulgar instances of trading money for grades) among the administration and teaching staff as well as students’ families, Chukovskii’s experiences in gymnasium were evidently fairly mild in comparison with others in ‘the system’, particularly given that those who went through it before the 1860s had to endure beatings with rods on top of everything else.

However, Chukovskii soon learns that he wasn’t expelled because of any prank he pulled in his classes (like using a tripwire system to help—not very well—his classmates cheat on a dictation, or supposedly making fun of the school rector Father Meletii)… but because of his low-class origins. By official decree, the ‘Decree of the Cooks’ Children’, all gymnasium students who came from certain backgrounds were not allowed to attend the school. The justification for this choice was that it would drag down academic outcomes… but as it becomes clear through Chukovskii’s telling, most of the students in the gymnasium were bribing their way through it anyway. And the smartest and most dedicated students, like Makarov and Chukovskii himself—who taught himself English and other subjects after his expulsion, using old second-hand flea-market textbooks bought with money he made from work—came from more humble backgrounds anyway. Interestingly, Chukovskii learns about this decree from one of his teachers, Ivan Mitrofanovich (whose students give him the nickname of ‘Finti-Monti’), who himself is repulsed by the corruption and injustice of the school’s ‘official culture’. Finti-Monti is the one who assures Chukovskii that his expulsion is not owing to anything he himself did. And he also provides Chukovskii the impetus to carry on his education by himself.

Kornei Chukovskii doesn’t really expostulate himself on politics in this book. How can he? It’s a recounting of his pre-political childhood experiences. He’s more focussed on his street rivalry with the ‘Pechonkies’ from several houses down his street, or on the exploits of the bicycle racer Utochkin. But there is a political tone to the book, particularly after he learns the circumstances of his expulsion from gymnasium. Chukovskii is particularly incensed by the pretensions to piety that his school administrators made, venerating the Emperor and bowing to icons of Christ and the Theotokos while taking bribes behind their backs—or the local policeman who takes kickbacks to look the other way at abuses in the market, and is hailed as a model citizen and a fine friendly fellow by the same—or his much-worse superiors in the police force who have unspoken agreements with a local crime gang led by the Drakondidi brothers, and who join in persecuting and wrongly framing Chukovskii’s friend Yusef Stock for trying to leave the gang.

Chukovskii’s insecurities about his own identity are some of the least interesting parts of the book—the characters come to life of their own, and we don’t really necessarily care that his mother is half-Ukrainian or that Stock is Jewish. It’s their personal mannerisms, habits of dress and action, and relationships with each other that endear them to us. (We wouldn’t care so much about Stock’s humorous attempts to reform himself in order to woo his girlfriend Celia, if we hadn’t seen him bumbling a break-in to Chukovskii’s mother’s apartment earlier!) But although I would never dare to equate my own comfortable and infinitely more boring childhood with Chukovskii’s tribulations growing up, there is a certain level at which Chukovskii’s understated concern about not really belonging anywhere mirrors my own insecurities about my Jewish heritage.

As an autobiographical account of growing up in the late Tsarist period, The Silver Crest carries more than its fair share of charm. One gets a more intimate sense of the margins of urban life before the revolutions here, than one would in the more straightforward scholarly treatments of the sort found in The Russian Worker. But it’s really the colourful supporting cast, however viewed through a gloss of gentle (or not-so-gentle) caricature, that makes this book shine.

Kornei Chukovskii