Chtenia is a unique publication that focuses on translating, sharing, and re-discovering Russian literature, both classic and modern. Each issue has a special theme and Volume 10 Issue 2 focuses on happiness. It contains a variety of pieces, including plays, poems, short stories, and chapters of books, each one circling around the theme of happiness.
One of my favorite pieces in this issue is “Domestic Bliss,” a satirical piece written by Mikhail Zoshchenko in 1924, known for his “playful eye on the absurdities of daily life in the early Soviet Union.” In this short story, the narrator visits a friend who explains that they no longer cook in the home and have eliminated all cooking utensils, appliances, and apparatus from the home in favor of eating out at the canteen. At the time, canteens were created to help liberate women from the tediousness of everyday labor.
The husband in the story exclaims at how much freedom his wife has now so that she can do other activities. When the narrator asks, “Cooking, sewing, what’s the difference? Maybe your wife would like to read that paper of yours? Maybe she doesn’t feel like sewing,” the husband scoffs and attributes these questions to a lack of food provided to the guest. It is clear the husband doesn’t see the connection, but it is very clear to the reader that the wife is being “liberated” from other work only to find new work to do.
I loved the poem “Purple Honey” by Varlam Shalamov, written between 1937 and 1956. This pretty poem shares beautiful imagery of something so simple in life: a bite of fruit during the iciness of winter:
He sucks tart sweetness,
this purple honey,
and his dried mouth
twists in happiness.
This reminds me of the delight of having the first harvest of a fruit, or the tang of fruit in the winter when the world is cold and frosted over.
Another favorite piece for me in this collection was “The Same Old Story” by Ivan Goncharov written by 1847. Here, a mother is trying to explain to her son why he should not want to run away to St. Petersburg. She tries to explain how much he has right where he is, to show him the beauty of the world he is in right now versus the threat of the unknown he would face in the city. “‘Just look,’ she says, ‘at the beauty with which God has clothed our fields [ . . . ] we will reap a harvest of as much as four thousand bushels alone [ . . . ] the firewood from our property will bring in at least a thousand [ . . . ] The lake is positively teeming with fish.”
Throughout this short story, the mother tries to show her son that there is such bounty, such beauty in the place where he lives already and there is no need for him to go out into the world, seeking happiness elsewhere. However, no matter what she says, he has his mind set and is eager to set off into life to discover his own adventures, to find his own happiness. For me, this brought to mind how many children of farmers, of rural families, seek the hubbub of the city life and abandon the tranquil beauty of their childhood behind—only to dream about and long for that tranquility later in life.
Each story, poem, and play provided from classic and modern Russian literature in this issue of Chtenia focuses on different versions of happiness, some looking at happiness from a philosophical viewpoint while others at happiness from a sheer sense of enjoyment in life. Each one reminds me of where I find happiness in my own life, even if it is in the simple joy of listening to the wind rustle the trees.