Bulat Okudzhava

Print

How Ivan Ivanych Made an Entire Country Happy

In his free time Ivan Ivanych used to make all kinds of wooden picture frames. Not for sale but just for his own pleasure. They happened to be rather nice. Then he simply gave them away to his friends and acquaintances. They were always more than gratefully received, and this occupation made his rather ordinary life more interesting. Everyday life was difficult and the general atmosphere in the country was tense and somewhat anxious. But in the evenings, after work, there were the frames and fret-saws, files, varnishes, fragrant wood. And then everything was instantly forgotten - how his boss shouted and stamped his feet at some trifle or other and how much Ivan Ivanych wanted to tell him to control himself. But he, of course, never said anything, but remained silent, or nodded obediently, or apologised... Yes, all that was forgotten over the frames. He forgot too how the plumber, who reeked of alcohol, said: “To hell with it leaking. I ain’t got no washers, right?” And how he had to stand for hours in a queue for meat, and how not only was he not rewarded for that, but he was abused and pushed and how they tried to give him bones instead of meat.

Because of all this Ivan Ivanych had a stooping air about him and gradually became thin in the face, as if the hardships of life had left their marks on his brow, cheeks and figure. No, this did not mean that life was not sweet to him. He loved life, and even his job, to say nothing of the frames. But it seemed other people somehow managed to live an easier life, whereas he, for some reason, always got in everybody’s way, and was not really needed, and everybody could perfectly well do without him, and his friends were really acquaintances rather than people who were involved in his life. He was, he existed, and that was that. The picture frames - that was interesting, great stuff, why not just accept them gladly, when he offers them. Good work, however do you do it...But for all that they could perfectly well get on without him, to say nothing of his frames. It’s just that if someone gives you something, you can’t really say no, can you? Why hurt a person’s feelings?

And it so happened that one day one of those frames, hard to say how, fell into the hands of the president of a big Japanese company “Sinseido”, a certain Otake-San. Otake-San was delighted to have this picture frame. No, he was not planning to market these frames; in this case he was not concerned with their market value. The fact was that in his free time he painted pictures just for his own pleasure, and one day he put his painting into Ivan Ivanych’s frame and saw that it was a perfect match. He saw something in common between the mood of his Japanese subject and the exquisite wooden pattern that showed through the lacquered layers of this frame by an unknown Moscow master. I have no doubt that such a rich man was perfectly capable of obtaining frames in his own country or, say, America, but he took to this particular frame. And he fell in love with Ivan Ivanych’s frame, and he passionately wanted to combine these two arts in a more fundamental way.

Meanwhile in Moscow they of course had no idea about this at all; everybody was preoccupied with perestroika, when suddenly an official invitation arrived at the institution where Ivan Ivanych worked. It was from the Sinseido company, personally inviting Ivan Ivanych to visit Japan, as a guest of the company and to attend its 40th anniversary celebrations. Well, you can imagine what happened next! First Ivan Ivanych’s boss was shocked and offended, as he was not used to things like this. He called Ivan Ivanych in and began shouting at him, stamping his feet, commenting on what he regarded as Ivan Ivanych’s suspicious behaviour lately and hinting that he had possible links with the Japanese secret service. In former days nothing like that would have happened as his boss would simply have gone to Japan himself, telling the Japanese that Ivan Ivanych was seriously ill. But now perestroika was in full swing, things were beginning to change, and his boss was given the order to send Ivan Ivanych immediately. The machine was set in motion and wheels started to turn. The boss’s heart was aching: he was offended by the sheer injustice with which fate was now favouring this insignificant, stooping and pitiful little man. This pathetic little man now had a brilliant new future. For God’s sake, there must be a limit to all this perestroika... In short, however unpalatable it all was for the boss, he had no choice but to grit his teeth and do what he was told. Bureaucracy had its way and soon Ivan Ivanych received all he needed for his trip.

It must be said that on top of everything else his return air fare was paid for by the Japanese company, a first class ticket with Japan Airlines. This must have increased his boss’s antagonism even more and he even started plotting against Ivan Ivanych, spreading rumours about him, questioning his motives, but again thanks to the changes and the new times they were living in, his efforts were in vain. And when Ivan Ivanych tiptoed his way to the boss to thank him, he did not receive Ivan Ivanych, but told him through his secretary that Ivan Ivanych should watch out and not disgrace himself in this treacherous capitalist world.

Ivan Ivanych did not feel any euphoria. Life continued for him as normal, he went on moving in his usual rhythm. Even on the eve of his departure he had to listen to the usual series of official reprimands before he rushed to different shops to store some food in the house, he had to stand several hours in a queue for tomatoes, pushed his way with great difficulty on to a bus, and when he almost fell off it listening to the abuse of his fellow citizens, he saw that his tomatoes had turned into a red mess in his plastic bag. But he didn’t throw them out, considering that even in that state they could be used in a vegetable soup.

He was a little bit upset of course that he didn’t have any smart foreign clothes, but that couldn’t be helped and he didn’t give it another thought. He was hoping to buy some matryoshkas as gifts, but there were a lot of things to do on the last day and he didn’t have time. So on the appointed day with his old-fashioned suitcase in his hand and a bunch of frames he reached Sheremetievo airport by bus, entered through a glass door and left Moscow behind.

Ivan Ivanych started to look round and felt at a loss because he didn’t know where to go. All the information on the boards was in a strange language. Everywhere people were rushing. Everywhere you could hear the sound of foreign speech. Behind a counter a towering plump blonde with cold eyes was approached by a succession of important-looking foreigners. They presented their passports and tickets, and seemed to feel very much at home. Ivan Ivanych observed them, plucked up courage, even tried to straighten himself a little, went up to her and asked quietly:

- Where do I have to go?

- How would I know? - she said wearily.

- I am going to Japan, - he said almost guiltily, - but I don’t know where to go.

- Passport, - she said officiously.

He gave her his passport. His fingers were shaking.

- Ticket, - she demanded. There was contempt in her eyes.

He started looking for his ticket in his wallet. The blonde maintained a hostile silence. He stood in front of her stooped, with his head tucked into his shoulders and thought: “And what if the ticket is fake?”

She took her time dealing with his ticket. At last his suitcase and his frames went on the luggage-belt. Suddenly a colleague came up to the blonde, looked at Ivan Ivanych’s ticket and said: - “Lyudochka, what are you doing? It’s first class”. Ivan Ivanych saw her blush and saw a look of bewilderment on her face as she tried to understand how this worthless Ivan Ivanych could be flying first class. And with Japan airlines too? She rewrote some cards and gave them to him with his ticket.

And where now? - he asked.

Quatro, - she said unable to believe what she was seeing, but soon she was with the next customer.

Ivan Ivanych made his way in a gingerly fashion across the hall, repeating to himself: quatro... quatro... But his divine nature was not entirely extinguished, it switched to despair, the latter switched to intuition and that in its turn brought him to the glass booth, which was quatro, that is passport control, and a very young immigration officer busied himself with his passport. It took the officer some time and with horror Ivan Ivanych began to think that the immigration officer would say:“ Your visa is a forgery!” But everything turned out fine and he was let through. He did not know where to go and the departure time was already close.

But a person who had gone through the school of queuing, office labyrinths and the like clearly possessed such refined judgement that it was impossible to bend him completely. And Ivan Ivanych, after hovering anxiously on the spot for a moment, looked around and gasped as he suddenly caught sight of two Japanese striding confidently from passport control. And he followed them and was right to do so. And they eventually came to a glass partition, behind which one could see rows of arm-chairs, entered through a glass door, showed their tickets, passed one more check-point, and one of the Japanese had something that set off one of the alarms and he was stopped and searched and they found a set of keys and he was let through special gates. The keys were returned to him, but Ivan Ivanych passed through the gates safely and found himself in a hall with armchairs. No sooner had he sat down and wiped the sweat away from his brow, than a pleasant voice announced that his flight was called and passengers poured to the indicated exit. Ivan Ivanych moved into the stream of people. It was pleasant for him not to have to make any effort to look where to go. He was carried by the stream along a winding corridor, and he safely reached the wide open door, where the stream flowed through and with a sinking heart he crossed the threshold...

Ivan Ivanych had only flown once before in his life. From Moscow to Sverdlovsk. On that occasion he entered the plane and the stewardess told him to come through and be quick and take a free seat. He had found himself cramped near the roaring jet engines with his knees bent and nobody paid him any attention, apart from the one occasion when he was offered a fruit-drop and a drink of lemonade...But on this occasion something totally unexpected happened. He crossed the threshold and found himself in a spacious room, a hall, filled with soft wide armchairs. Three charming Japanese women surrounded him smiling happily. They bowed low to him and there was no end to their delight. Although they did not shout or weep or wave their hands, there was such happiness in their smiles, such true joy at the sight of him, that Ivan Ivanych while being carefully led to the seat, thought: “Perhaps they are mad?”

One of them carefully took off his jacket, another helped him to put on a light blue kimono, and it even seemed to Ivan Ivanych that he could understand the English that they were muttering; and they were so sincere in their joy, and they were so happy to see precisely him and not just anybody, that he gradually began to calm down and rejected the possibility of their insanity.

Meanwhile the plane began to rumble along the tarmac and Ivan Ivanych sank into his armchair, looking cautiously around. There were not many people in first class, about seven. They were also wearing blue kimonos. The plane now made a quiet humming sound. The scales had now fallen from Ivan Ivanych’s eyes. He could see things around him clearly. He peered at the Japanese women secretly. They were not so very beautiful, but so charming, feminine and nice in a Japanese way and however much he tried to gaze at them unobserved, they caught his eye and bowed to him again with a happy smile.

“ Are they pretending? - thought Ivan Ivanych. - “What have I done for them?” Filled with lofty feelings he was suddenly sorry that he hadn’t had time to buy matryoshkas in order to give them to the girls now. He even blushed at the thought of his blunder.

The plane made a louder noise, accelerated and took off. And then Ivan Ivanych understood that the things that were happening to him were real and now he was flying to far away Japan. After about five minutes the rumbling suddenly stopped, the plane levelled out and only a slight rustle accompanied the flight. In fact there was no flight really - only a quiet rustle and a certain coolness.

The young Japanese women were indeed not beauties, but they did not look alike either as he had thought at the beginning. He gave them all familiar pet names for convenience, namely: Vera, Nadya and Lyuba.(1) Vera was tall, slender, almost European looking. Nadya - not so tall and with prominent cheek bones and a bit plump, she smiled readily and approached him all the time asking in English whether he was comfortable or needed anything. And it seemed that now he understood everything. Little Lyuba was very small but remarkably graceful, like a doll. There seemed to be some mystery in her smile, perhaps because of the fringe on her forehead or may be something else. The girls were attentive and smiled at all the other passengers as well, but especially, he felt, at him. “What have I done to please them so much?” - he thought but was unable to find an answer.

An unusual lightness of spirit took possession of him. He sprawled out in his armchair and prepared himself for further surprises. He did not have to wait long for them to happen. The beautiful Vera gave him small ear phones and, laughing at his bewilderment, taught him how to use them. And he heard beautiful profound music, then he changed channels and heard English speech and to his amazement he understood it immediately. At first he was even frightened that he was able to understand a foreign tongue which had previously been unknown to him, there was even the alarming thought: what if something had happened to him? But gradually he became entranced by the words of the lively correspondent: it was about events in Lebanon. He listened to the news, then to music, and then to children’s fairy tales. It was enough just to change channels. Nobody was in his way or disturbing him and he did not annoy anybody and because of this he felt relaxed and happy. At that very moment Nadenka with the high cheek bones came up to him bowing and gave him a little felt bag with a zipper and said that it was a present for him from the airline. He was very much surprised and started examining the contents. His eyes were dazzled by a glittering display: little bottles of eau de cologne, eau de toilette and something else that was not familiar to him, a safety razor in case he decided to shave and there was also a small tube of shaving cream. There was a comb in a box should he want to comb his hair; a box containing transparent scented soap, and also in a side pocket a small flannel and a manicure set: a small pair of scissors, nail files, tweezers and on top of it all a set of small buttons, needles and thread just in case. But all of Ivan Ivanych’s buttons were in their right place.

He was pleasantly surprised by all this, but particularly by the attentiveness and sheer delight on the Japanese women’s faces. Then it was time for dinner. By now he was really hungry. At that point all three hostesses began busying themselves with the passengers - Vera and Nadezhda and Lyubov. They did everything quickly, efficiently, whilst all the time bowing. Suddenly some force lifted Ivan Ivanych from his chair. He jumped up, stood bolt upright, slender and youthful and gave a very low bow to the astonished girls, so that they clasped their hands in delight. Then they handed him a hot towel and he wiped his hands and face. Then he was offered drinks and had a cognac. Then he was given a menu and he understood and read everything and asked for raw fish, rice and boiled vegetables and insisted on chopsticks and quickly learned how to use them. For an instant the memory of the squashed tomatoes on the bus returned but then immediately vanished. After dinner he made his way confidently to the toilet, but he was not the stooping Ivan Ivanych of old. Now he moved freely and with a spring in his step, and the Japanese women looked on with delight. Everything was easy for him and accessible; he was popular and in demand with everybody, and his light-blue kimono flapped around his legs as he walked. Meanwhile his armchair had been converted into a comfortable bed. He lay down on it. Under his head they put a soft snow-white pillow, and covered him with a fluffy blanket. “Well, this is really too much, - he thought, - a bit over the top. I could easily have snoozed sitting in the armchair...” However, he spread himself out on the bed and fell asleep at once.

Ivan Ivanych woke up quite a different person. His cheeks had become rounded and pinkish, his shoulders straight, his blood was hot and he now had an unfamiliar and untroubled sense of life. As he awoke the girls greeted him and he smiled at them as if they were his dear young sisters, and it must be said that he had a charming smile. And he smiled and without ceremony asked them for tea or something else to drink in perfect English and without any difficulty. And he was now not surprised by this but took it as something natural. He even wanted to speak Japanese but realised in time that he couldn’t yet construct the sentences correctly.

In the front part of the plane a huge screen descended from the ceiling, and they began showing an American film. The sound was transmitted through the headsets and it did not disturb those who were sleeping or thinking about life.

Ivan Ivanych sipped green tea as he watched the plot of the film unfold. It was quiet inside the plane with only that soft rustle outside to remind him that they were still flying. After the film Ivan Ivanych had another little snooze. He was woken by the soft touch of Lyubochka. She offered him a bite to eat, which he gladly accepted. He freshened himself up with a hot flannel and then started eating the prawns in breadcrumbs and chicken in soya sauce. And then green tea again and a wonderful pastry, whose sweetness he had never tasted before, and all of this interspersed with vague fleeting memories of Moscow, a city which perhaps had once existed in his life, or perhaps was only imagined. It was evidently only imagined, for now he could see a Japanese landscape coming towards him out of the clouds.

The land was approaching fast. His armchair was restored to its vertical position. The girls were smiling but he could detect in their smiles a hint of sadness at the prospect of parting. “How will we live without each other?” - he thought anxiously.

The landing was soft and quiet. When the motors had eventually fallen silent, Nadenka gave Ivan Ivanych his jacket, he put it on and got up. She gave him a look of admiration. “How can I live without them?” - he thought again and his heart sank. And having bowed several times to each other and having exchanged emotional farewells, they parted.

Having gone through a special corridor Ivan Ivanych found himself in a huge airport terminal, and he confidently followed the crowd and continued until he was approached by several men bearing a sign on which was written in Russian “Hello, Ivan Ivanych!” They shouted something cheerfully at him. It turned out that Otake-San himself, the president of the Sinseido company, was among the welcoming party. He was a big man with a broad face and the eyes of a child. Bowing began and by now Ivan Ivanych was quite proficient in this art. This bowing was not an expression of subservience but was a mark of mutual affection, respect and admiration between fellow humans, fellow countrymen, individuals. Among those meeting him there was also a young postgraduate student of Slavonic studies Jotoro-San, whom the company had invited along as an interpreter for Ivan Ivanych.

The Japanese were unaware of the metamorphosis that had taken place in Ivan Ivanych. He was no longer a stooping figure, and the slightly yellowed appearance of his skin was attributed to the length of his flight. Everybody in the party was clearly happy to see him and jubilant that there was an excellent room waiting for their guest in a classy hotel, where he would be able to rest after his journey. He was ushered to a Mercedes. The friendly driver wore white gloves. The backs of the seats and the headrests in the car were covered with crisp white lace. Ivan Ivanych was a bit taken aback thinking that it was all done in his honour, but then another identical car stopped nearby, fitted out in the same way, and all the other taxis were the same with drivers in white gloves. So they set off and arrived in the huge city of Tokyo and the Senjuko district, and drove up to the lofty “Century” hotel and took a high speed ride in a lift to arrive in a clean spacious bright room with comfortable white furniture. Just Ivan Ivanych and Jotoro-San. Down below there was the distant hum of a boundless city, where a continual stream of brand new cars flowed. A blue helicopter took off from the flat roof of a neighbouring skyscraper. Suddenly he remembered Sretenka Street in Moscow and he felt a slight twinge in his left side.

Jotoro-San handed him an envelope containing money from the company for his expenses and asked: “Shall you have rest?” Ivan Ivanych nodded absent-mindedly and was left alone. He really did try his best to fall asleep but couldn’t. He looked out again at Tokyo but again saw only Sretenka Street and his boss. His boss had a tired frightened expression, he scrutinized Ivan Ivanych beseechingly and said something, but because he was so far away, his words were indistinguishable.

So his turbulent, fast-paced, colourful Japanese life began, full of excitement and comfort. In the evening they organised a press-conference for him in the oval hall of the hotel. A large number of Japanese press correspondents were there. They were ready with their notebooks and dictaphones. Ivan Ivanych was very nervous because he had never been in this situation before, so he was on his guard ready to strike back if need be, but he was simply asked about the frames, that is to say, how long ago he had become interested, and how he was able to combine it with his work and why he did not sell his delightful frames and what this creative process meant to him...The use of the word “creative” to describe the process of making frames took him by surprise and he began umming and ahhing, losing the thread of what he was saying, then composed himself again and mumbled something meaningful. The Japanese meanwhile were noting everything down, bowing and smiling all the while. However, there were no more questions about creativity and the frames. Instead they moved on to questions about perestroika.

While in Moscow Ivan Ivanych had never thought about perestroika, either because of his sluggishness or because of the difficulties of everyday life. That is, he had thought about it but in this way - ah, yes, we have perestroika, that means change... well, why not? Once someone from television had even asked him in the street: “What do you think about perestroika?” But Ivan Ivanych didn’t have any views about it; he simply shrugged and ran off to the shop opposite. Sometimes when he watched television he was able to observe how various nice people argued about finance and the economy, he watched and it seemed to him that they themselves did not understand anything; they did not know how to arrange things so that the shops were full of products, and so that people should speak quietly and respectfully to one another. O.K., perestroika, perestroika, could be worse... And he would switch the TV off and once again put all his energy into the frames, and imagined his boss stamping his foot and shouting: “The whole country is changing and you, what the hell are you doing?” And wearied by these incomprehensible shouts and feeling guilty all the time, he would shrink back into himself and try not to think about anything. And now he was once more being asked the same questions by the Japanese, who eagerly awaited his answer: “What do you think about perestroika?” and here Ivan Ivanych smiled and answered with unaccustomed ease:

“ It’s our last chance. Our society is seriously ill, but I believe that it can be cured. Our eyes are beginning to open and we have stopped ignoring what is going on elsewhere in the world.”

“ And what if perestroika collapses?” - one of the journalists asked.

“ That will be a catastrophe,” - Ivan Ivanych answered gloomily, “though,” he went on with conviction “even if everything ends, even what has already happened will have been beneficial...”

“ And who is standing in the way of progress? Bureaucrats?” - a nice looking Japanese woman asked. “Why is perestroika so painful and slow?”

Ivan Ivanych thought for a moment and then said: “It is ridiculous and naive to maintain that the bureaucrats are the chief problem. The obstacle is not bureaucrats but the whole of society, and that is the main problem. The main enemy of perestroika is the low level of our political, economic and moral culture”.

The questions came thick and fast and Ivan Ivanych, strange as it may seem, was able to come up with the answers without hesitation. The meeting lasted for more than an hour, ending with questions about his views on Japan and Ivan Ivanych said among other things: “Here you are sitting before me, so well-fed, happy and satisfied with life” ... And here the Japanese laughed quietly. Their laughter sounded like a rustle. Sensing their reaction Ivan Ivanych moved swiftly to explain himself: “No, no, you have misunderstood me. I understand that you have many problems too. In general, wherever there are people, there are problems, I understand that...” He didn’t want to be taken for a stupid wide-eyed tourist, and he tried to explain what he meant. They nodded and wrote things down and smiled.

After this the days went quickly by, giving him a stream of delightful new experiences. He began to become accustomed to many things, but more and more often he was visited by images of Moscow and for some reason particularly the pink hues of the Moscow dawn, and his office and his boss, but his memories were coloured with both sadness and tenderness, as if there were no queues, overcrowded buses, reprimands, bullying and insults...

“ If you had been living with all this”, - he thought, looking at the smiling, bowing Japanese, “you wouldn’t be smiling like that...” Such thoughts as these began visiting him, though he didn’t bear any grudges against them, or, say, feel any hostility, no, just a fleeting bitterness and sadness.

Ivan Ivanych was taken to museums, marvellous parks and streets and everywhere he went, he was greeted with bowing, displays of respect and even, perhaps, love; and full of gratitude he walked with his head held high, happy in the knowledge that he was needed by people and that it gave them pleasure to see him and to hear him speak. He was especially impressed by the cars, which would suddenly appear before him in an old narrow Tokyo street and stop dead as if they were living things, while he was crossing the street, his head held high. Then they would slowly set off again and the drivers’ faces wore a constant smile. “What have I done to deserve all this?” - he thought and every time it happened he wanted to shout back to them: “Brothers and sisters, tell me how you do it, what is your secret?” He could even have shouted it in Japanese, as by now he could express himself quite well in the language, but he didn’t want to disturb the quiet of the street.

On the eve of his departure Ivan Ivanych bought himself a light beige suit, put it on and looked at himself in a mirror for the first time since he had arrived. He saw before him a tall slender man who was not yet old. His handsome head was held high and his fresh face expressed not petty ambition but human dignity, and his cheeks were rosy.

At this point something funny happened to him. Walking in his new suit along one of the shopping streets, he suddenly saw a shop sign bearing the familiar name “Beriozka” .(2) The sign was written in the Roman alphabet. The name generated in him a sense of home and the scent of his motherland at once reached Ivan Ivanych’s excited heart. This sign drew him to the entrance of the shop where, as he had guessed, they sold goods from his country. The temptation was too great and he ventured forth onto native soil. The first thing he saw was a great number of vodka bottles “Moskovskaya” ,“ Stolichnaya” ,“ Siberian”, “Polish”, bottles of Armenian, Georgian, Moldavian cognac, Crimean “Cabernet” and other wines and it was all inexpensive and there was no queue. Ivan Ivanych with gleaming eyes reached out to these things but then remembered himself and laughed out loud. It all looked very tempting, but the shop was empty and the Japanese for some reason seemed in no hurry to buy up these rare goods. Then in front of the traveller there gleamed tins of crabs, but then...what he saw on the opposite wall of the shop made him catch his breath: on numerous shelves there stood staring at him with blue indifferent little eyes, their little crimson lips closed, numerous motionless battalions of brightly painted matryoshkas. Their plump torsos displayed eternal disdain for foreign joys, in their fathomless wombs crowded whole armies of generations to come, with sharp blue eyes, closed crimson lips, and plump pink cheeks. And all these regiments looked at Ivan Ivanych, expressing total indifference towards him and the world around. There was no one in the shop. Unable to contain his trembling, Ivan Ivanych left this mysterious place.

On his last evening the president of the Sinseido company, Otake-San, arranged a farewell party. Ivan Ivanych was brought into a comfortable Japanese house, where he had to take off his shoes as is customary at the entrance. In the entrance hall he was met by the hosts and other guests. They bowed to each other for a long time and gave expression to their exalted feelings. Carefully treading on the rice tatami, Ivan Ivanych went into the room. In the centre of the room which had sliding wall panels made of rice paper, there was a low square table surrounded by floor cushions. They each sat down on a cushion, with their legs lowered under the table into a special hollow, the bottom of which had been heated, making their feet warm and comfortable. There were square wooden tumblers filled with hot sake. They drank a toast to their honoured guest. The word “kampai” resounded within the rice walls.

They drank saki and beer and picked with chopsticks at a selection of Japanese delicacies, to which they added soya sauce. They made light conversation about poetry, painting and music. All of a sudden Ivan Ivanych’s eye caught sight of his frame on the wall opposite. Without false modesty he noted its high quality and his heart rejoiced, but what he saw in the frame transfixed him. Before his eyes he saw a meadow, red, green and yellow, semi-abstract in style, in which the figure of a dying black crane lay prostrate, sadly stretching out its neck. Ivan Ivanych could not make out whether its eyes were open or closed, but the figure itself seemed to express such a piercing cry of despair, anguish and protest against its fate, but at the same time such acceptance that it made one want to cry out , implore, demand ... How could one take the life of a warm-blooded, loving creature? Yes, for the guilt which we accumulate during our lifetime through nobody else’s fault but our own, the result of our own imperfections, we have to pay a high price sooner or later... Ah, if only it depended on the favour of the stars and not on human caprice. Poor black Japanese crane, leaving this world in such a Russian, Georgian, Tatar way!..

They all looked at Ivan Ivanych with bated breath. He raised his tumbler of sake and said: “My friends, this is a house where people talk about art and grieve over the fate of a black crane. This means that in spite of everything we all remain human beings. I drink to that. Kampai!”

Kampai! - all those present replied.

Otake-San wept quietly.

In the morning before his flight there was much smiling, bowing and sadness. The sounds of Tokyo were subtle and rich in meaning. Ivan Ivanych looked at those seeing him off - their eyes and faces spoke of sincere happiness at seeing him. And suddenly he thought despairingly: “How will you all get on without me now?!”

And he flew off. Next day, no sooner had he arrived at the office than the secretary rang him and asked him to call on his boss. He strode confidently down the corridor. In the ante-room the secretary whispered to him that the old boss was no longer there and had been replaced. Ivan Ivanych was not surprised. “That’s the way it should be,” - he thought without any malice, - “it’s high time we got rid of such people at the top. New times - new people” ... He entered the office without any trace of his former servility, without his former air of inferiority and there, sitting comfortably and in a dignified manner in an arm-chair, he learned among other things that his former boss had been promoted.

Notes

(1)The names given by Ivan Ivanych to the stewardesses - Vera, Nadya and Lyuba (full forms Nadezhda and Lyubov, diminutive forms Nadenka and Lyubochka) - correspond to the English words Faith, Hope and Love/ Charity.
(2)Beriozka shops were a chain of foreign currency shops in the Soviet Union.

First published 1989.


Contributed and translated by Natalia Gogolitsyna, University of Bristol.

Bulat Okudzhava is primarily known to the general public in Russia as a tremendously popular bard whose songs resounded throughout the 1960s -1980s in the Soviet Union. He was less known as an author of historical novels and short stories. During the perestroika years Okudzhava became an important public figure in a new capacity: his opinions on topical and controversial political and social issues were sought and valued.

The story translated above was written in 1989 and presents Ivan Ivanovich (or “Ivanych”, in the more familiar form), an ordinary person caught up at the crossroads of social change. The adventures of this character in Moscow and Tokyo evoke interest, sympathy and laughter, as the grotesque features and stereotypes of Soviet life pass before the reader’s eyes. Subtle irony is felt from the title of the story until the unexpected end. The name of Ivan Ivanych is significant in that it is a typical and ordinary Russian name suggesting a “little man”, rather like John Smith in English.