How I saved the world for communism

Issue 3/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kreisland (WSOY, 1996). Rosa Liksom’s first novel is a picaresque story of a heroine whose adventures range through Finland, Soviet Russia and America. Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

Maid Agafiina: Got myself some shiny black rubber boots, the kind with the red felt lining, and a colorful crepe de chine dress and a rayon coat, and while shopping for all that I checked out the four wonders of Moscow: a bell that doesn’t ring, a cannon you can’t fire, a ruler who doesn’t speak, and money that doesn’t stink.

In no time at all I made up a new personality, learned the language real good, and obtained a Soviet citizen’s passport. I was totally excited by everything I’d seen. My cheeks were as red as the flag. I wanted to find out about everything and see every achievement of this huge Soviet land.

Saturday nights I often spent at the movies. In a packed Kino Oktyabr I saw Mosselprom’s Cigarette Box, in the Ribbon of Light Cinema I saw The Ecstasy of NEP, and in the Barricade, Her Highness the Soloist, which showed us Matilda Ksesinskaya’s quiet and soberly dignified life and her cultured character that was all untainted by bitterness. The kind of good character a person may adopt after a long and happy but sufficiently care-ridden life.

After a while, hotel life became both dull and expensive, so I put on my boots and my flowered dress and went out to look for permanent lodgings. I found a tiny room, six square meters, in a communal apartment along Denetzhny Pereulok, close to the former headquarters of the Komintern and next to a big construction site. The whole apartment was only fifty square meters, and I shared it with more than a dozen grown­ups plus brats. In the kitchen, at least ten samovars were kept hissing night and day. The steam was so dense that the Turkish-born inhabitants were able to use the kitchen as a steam bath.

Now I had clothes on my back, a place to sleep, and all I needed was a job so I could make some money and study Soviet life from the inside.

On Monday morning, I calmed my hunger pangs with half a gallon of hot tea with a lump of sugar the size of half a brick, and then I went to that nearby construction site. I thought I’d start at the bottom, a humble unskilled laborer, and work my way all the way up to engineer.

The site wasn’t easy to get to. I had to navigate across the ruins of a coke-fueled chemical plant – chunks of concrete, broken bricks, piles of gravel. The place was teeming with thousands of construction workers, members of the Lumpenproletariat, and women and children picking up things by hand. I thought I’d start working on clean-up myself. It was, after all, the first step in the construction of Communism. I signed up as a volunteer and got to work reconstructing war-ravaged industry. This was my first Soviet job, and it taught me the difficult skills required by Socialist existence, and let me just say that the working man, at his best, has both physical strength and spiritual beauty.

For three months I worked on cleaning up those ruins. During that time, I was promoted to the position of director of clean-up operations.

One day I woke up with the strong feeling that something had bitten me in the head. It must have been the Fly of Communism: I realized that I believed in the working class and Marxist-Leninist ideas!

In the war, I was told, the Jerries had blown up one hundred and twelve factories in the Moscow region. While these factories were being rebuilt, people were also busy constructing railroads, water lines, and power line networks. Just about every place suffered from shortages of competent workers and tools. Trucks came from Gorky, Arkchangelsk supplied railroad ties, Yaroslav electrical generators, Baku and Grozny provided bitumen and other petroleum products. Lumber was brought in from Belorussia, metal beams and such from the Dniepropetrovsk region.

From the ruins I moved on to the construction site next door, where they were rebuilding the Moskovitsal sheet metal factory that had also been destroyed in wartime bomb attacks.

Maid Agafiina: When I arrived at the construction site, folks had been pottering around for over a year without accomplishing much beyond pouring some of the concrete foundations.

I watched the creation of Communism’s material-technical groundwork for a few days and saw that it just wasn’t going anywhere. The construction crew were allowed to do whatever they felt like, and most of the time they just weren’t interested and didn’t feel like doing anything. Every foreman and labourer was guilty of absenteeism, malingering, and wasting raw material. It dawned on me that every construction site here was a battlefield with several groups of combatants: the builders, the workers, the Lumpen, the Party bosses, the union representatives and their various secretaries, of which there were dozens. All kinds of cliques had been formed: Otsovists, God­ Builders, Empiriomonists, and so on. All these policy conflicts and general childish­ ness provided an excellent breeding ground for hooliganism, whose representatives didn’t give a shit about anything.

I called the first Secretary of the Moscow District Committee, Comrade Glazunov, and told him about the unfortunate situation. Glazunov turned out to be the right guy to call. He showed up the next week and started kicking ass! He invited a bunch of technical and scientific intelligentsia to the site and told them to investigate the amount of damage, the condition of equipment, the energy supply, the number of cranes, the quality of the work force, the workers’ degree of patriotism, their levels of class consciousness, and the Party’s organizational skills. This committee of experts snooped around for a while and then declared that at the present rate of progress it would take us twenty-five years to get anything built. In two seconds, Comrade Glazunov dispatched the entire management staff to the Siberian tundra to work on Stalin’s railroad line, the one that led from nowhere to nowhere. He told me that Socialist resources were so inexhaustible, the planned economy so capable, and the Soviet Union’s power so great, that the factory could be ready in two months. Listen, buddy, I said to him, let’s not go overboard here, but we’ll do our best to make sure that this joint will be producing cold-milled steel plate as soon as possible. Then I proceeded to direct operations with true Finnish energy, and things progressed at an incredible speed, while my belief in Socialism grew stronger. Every day, dozens of new people came to the site: demobbed soldiers, mechanics from other government districts, welders and sheet iron workers returning from Siberia and the Ural, real pros who still took pride in their work.

I spent all day circulating from one work area to the next. I met drivers, casters, rollers, and asked them for news of their work sectors, and about problems and shortfalls. After listening to their miserable explanations, I issued the appropriate reprimands and gave exact instructions.

Whenever we fell behind schedule, I told the cadres to spend the night at the factory until we were caught up. I found a recently built place to live in, for myself and the bosses in charge of the construction of blast-furnaces, smelters, and the rolling mill. In this manner I created an atmosphere of general enthusiasm, determination, and boundless confidence in one’s own abilities. I had found my mission in life. I put up agitation posters everywhere and praised the Socialist planned economy. Once in a while I found myself quite amazed to realize that a proto-Finnish fascist like myself had become such a hardline Soviet Communist! Then I just chuckled and kicked ass some more. Figures and dates were posted all over the place, the factory had to be finished in record time. This called for the use of every resource, of new work methods, progressive technical solutions, courage, intelligence, and, above all, inventiveness. The most important thing was to keep up our speed. On that building site, I recreated the scene I had been used to in the front lines.

I drew up the equipment plan with Yura Pravda, a pipe fitter from Yaroslav. He had earned his diploma with a project on the purification of natural gas by electrostatic means. He knew a lot and was a smart, hard worker, always implacably Leninist. In his spare time he designed energy cells powered by lightning and power stations fueled by electric eels.

We put our wise heads together and solved all the problems.

And there were a lot of them, once we started putting up the buildings. The Russians had a lot of trouble fitting the pipes so the bends and joints wouldn’t start leaking immediately. As I was wondering about that out loud to Comrade Konstantin Petrovich, a one-legged Vogul welder, he told me what he knew about modular installation methods. I got real excited, and we pursued the idea. The pipes were assembled on the ground into modular units, and these were then hoisted up by crane or tackle and combined with the rest. This speeded things up and made it easier to work on the pipes, and other construction sites took notice, and the method became the norm all over Moscow.

In addition, I thought of a genius improvement on the electrical wiring methods. I had tunnels dug under the building and cables run through those to all parts of the factory, neatly and efficiently.

The Moskovitsal plant wasn’t finished in two months, but it was finished. We had to deal with a lot of problems. Since the Americans didn’t want to supply us with turbines and generators, we had to build all of them ourselves. We also built most of the rolling plant. At night, under cover of darkness, tools, materials, some machines, their spare parts, even candle stumps were looted from the site. Some hooligan could kill a trained machinist over a cup of hot water. Not a week passed without some kind of state of emergency, or shooting, or other violence. The worker’s apartment buildings were in ruins, and they had to sleep off-site in sheds or big tattered Red Army tents. They lived on dark bread and black tea. Moscow had no services whatsoever: the mails didn’t work, there were no hospitals, no drugs. Wartime morality was still in full force.

The construction site whistle blew every morning at five thirty. That was the wake­ up call. Half an hour later, it blew again, and work began. It was still dark when dense hordes of workers emerged from those tents, from caves in the ruins, from the tall apartment buildings of the neighbourhood. Work pants worn shiny gleamed in the moonlight, satin shirts with oblique-angled collars trooped past below wobbling fur hats from Kuban, as the filthy and smelly work force hurried to the site.

I was happy, I gave a hand wherever I could, dispensing motherly advice, helping the riveters, masons, carpenters, tinsmiths and electricians.

The main building was finished in only eight months, even though people on the construction site didn’t manifest the same persistence and independent thinking I had seen while on the clean-up crew. Now and again I began to lose faith in the working man’s omnipotence, and even in the ideas of Socialism, but then I would climb up again out of that valley of sad thoughts, raise my head up into the clouds and push on! Moskvitsal didn’t become Moscow’s most effective or perfect plant, but for some reason, Muscovites saw it in a cause for pride, a symbol of the industrial might of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. To them, it was equal to Gorky in literature and Shostakovich in music. Our factory was designated Moscow’s best steel plant of the year 1949, and we received a red pennant from the People’s Commissariat of Iron and Steel Industry and the Central Committee of Metal Workers. I can remember, as if it was yesterday, the moment when the first load of ore arrived at Moskovitsal and I gave the order to light Blast Furnace Number One! All the workers of our factory streamed into the street, hugged each other, and danced. In among the working cadres waltzed two Deputy Secretaries of the Armaments Industry, the leading metallurgist of the State Commission, and a few officials from the Department of Aeronautics. And I was already planning the start-up of production of cast iron and sheet iron in the Number Three factory building.

Oh, those days of the springtime of life! Every single one of us believed in the pure doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, and in the goodness and superiority of Soviet rule.

But my time at the Moskvitsal plant wasn’t just hard work. There was the search for optimal solutions, there were arguments, there were shock shifts, nocturnal alarms, many disasters, and even a few dreams. Almost every day we had on-site meetings, and we started up clubs and a drama group. After a heavy and stressful working day, we stayed at the workers’ clubhouse to plan mass campaigns – against illiteracy, or for the teaching of Russian tango. We had Red Saturday Dances, and we put on the play How the Steel was Tempered. Around midnight, I would sneak home and hit the sack, happy but oh so tired.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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