Home » Newpages Blog » The New Moscow Philosophy

The New Moscow Philosophy

The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated in many languages since its publication in 1989, has finally been translated into English this year by Krystyna Anna Steiger. As Steiger notes, this is a gentle parody of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but even if the reader is unfamiliar with that book, The New Moscow Philosophy is easy reading and full of insights into literature—particularly the Russian reverence for it. The book offers a mystery story and a debate, often humorous, over good and evil. And the reader may have heard of the competition for apartments in Moscow, which is at the heart of this book.

The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated in many languages since its publication in 1989, has finally been translated into English this year by Krystyna Anna Steiger. As Steiger notes, this is a gentle parody of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but even if the reader is unfamiliar with that book, The New Moscow Philosophy is easy reading and full of insights into literature—particularly the Russian reverence for it. The book offers a mystery story and a debate, often humorous, over good and evil. And the reader may have heard of the competition for apartments in Moscow, which is at the heart of this book.

A product of glasnost, a period in Soviet history of artistic freedom, this novel, as Steiger explains, pokes fun in its characters of this era “that stirs up complex emotions and attitudes, ranging from anticipation of the future to nostalgia for the past, and even for the present, the late-Soviet status quo.” This sounds sometimes like old people complaining about the loss of values in a more open society.

Though Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is parodied, it is only because the crime, ultimately revealed, is watered down so much from that in Crime and Punishment, and the punishment similarly ludicrously reduced. Pyetsukh is infusing humor into his “homage to Dostoevsky’s classic and the classical Russian literary tradition as a symbiosis of literature and life.”

For the reader perhaps intimidated by Russian literature, the book has provided help. There is a list of all the characters’ names in the beginning, and for all the allusions to Crime and Punishment and other historical and literary facts, there are explanations at the back. Also the evolving mystery and solution unfold in this short novel over only four consecutive days, forming the book’s sections. The mystery is that an elderly occupant in the one of the apartments has disappeared. The day before her disappearance, the other residents confronted her about when she would die and leave the apartment to one of them. She was healthy but also somewhat disliked because as the descendant of the original owner, she was officious over the others.

Alongside this mystery, there are two sets of discussions. The framework is an unnamed narrator, calling Russian literature “evangelical literature,” since Russians take literature very seriously—as fact:

In Russia, there’s positively nothing to be ashamed of when in certain romantic instances, we nod and glance back at those figures we hold sacred in the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Chekov, for they are not figments of the imagination, but the true saints of Russian life, having existed in actual fact as exemplars, worthy of imitation in how they suffered and reasoned, for the whole point is that all of it happened.

As proof of literature’s factual nature, Pyetsukh gives us the history of Apartment 12, its occupants through the years—“facts” that do figure later in the mystery—and a floor plan of the apartment to follow for the “crime” being committed.

The other insightful discussion comes from two of the inhabitants who take it upon themselves, in sometimes bumbling fashion, to solve the crime. One is a pharmacist, and the other is the caretaker and resident philosopher.

One of the children in the adjacent apartment puts muck on a doorknob and that “crime” starts off the discussion of good and evil, whether evil exists in animals, and that it does make a human “a two-fold creature”:

This is understandable, not least because man and mankind have been endowed with the potential for everything. I can pick up a stray kitten on the street today and steal a broom from my neighbor tomorrow, because the vast majority of people are neither good nor evil in absolute terms, but not-so-good and not-so-evil at the same time.

The reader will agree with the translator about the “utter absence of pretentiousness despite the elevated topics it examines and presents for our consideration.” Steiger does manage one of her challenges—to capture a savvy narrator’s irony and humor in his consideration of “the nature of the literary text, the intricate relationship between literature and life … in forming the psyche of the average Russian reader.”

She’s less successful in “creating natural-sounding dialogue between characters ranging in age from six to sixty plus, in discussions ranging from the official and the philosophical to the prosaic, from the heated to the sullen, from the impassioned to the indignant.” (The children certainly don’t sound young.) But in spite of that fault, this novel provides insight into a particular era in Soviet history, and humor besides.

Spread the word!