“Vanya, why are you sitting in the dark?”
“I’m looking at the picture,” came the imperturbable reply.
“What picture?” What new fantasy had come into his mind? I walked up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder.
A picture frame he had brought in off the street was propped against our pot-bellied fridge. It had a picture in it.
I flicked the switch and warm light flowed down from our tumblerlike lampshades.
A naked blonde, her upturned face registering pleasure, was squirming erotically while pouring a black liquid, evidently oil, over herself from a red plastic bottle. The oil was running over her half-parted lips, sumptuous breasts, and belly button, and dripping from her delta. It streamed down long legs to red stiletto heels. Behind the nude were some birch trees and oil rigs, and above the Petroleum Venus’s head hovered a halo of gold-colored barbed wire. Her eyes gazed heavenward; the barbed wire halo resembled a crown of thorns.
The picture was wrapped in polythene. Vanya had torn a large hole in it but had not removed it completely. I peeled back the bottom right corner to reveal the name “Georges Sazonoff” ornately signed in Latin letters.
“Art!” Vanya said proudly. “Look what glass I found!” he added, waving a fragment of red brake light in the air.
I stood that December evening in the living room of our suburban Moscow home contemplating a painting by a fashionable artist which my fifteen-year-old Down syndrome son had dragged in from who knows where.
Tearing off the rest of the polythene to take a closer look at Vanya’s find, I saw it was a genuine oil painting and, while its artistic merit might be open to question, the artist was much in demand and his work commanded a good price. Some of my customers had commissioned Sazonov to paint them dressed as one of Napoleon’s marshals, or to paint their children, wives, or lovers as Greek deities, and sometimes group portraits of their entire business team in the manner of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.”
Our curvaceous blonde would not have been out of place painted on the door of a long-distance truck, with her voluptuous breasts, diminutive waist, the bottle in her hands the same color of red as her nails and sandals, and the oil spattered over her body like the sperm of some primeval subterranean monster.
Vanya could not tear his eyes away from the painting. He stared at the woman’s white body dripping with black oil.
“Vanya, can you please tell me where you got this, er, painting?”
“I won’t! I won’t!” he shouted, running around the room laughing and flinging himself down on the high-backed sofa with its two worn velvet bolsters at each side.
“Come on, Vanya. Tell me.”
He suddenly started bawling. It’s something he does.
“M-m-mmmmm, don’t ye-ell at me-e-eeeee! Wa-a-aaaaa!” He was instantly transformed into a big baby in floods of tears, smearing snot all over his face.
“I’m not yelling at you! Stop howling. You’re grown up now!” I tried to maintain my pose of a firm but fair father.
“Ah-ah-ah-aaaaaaaa!” His mouth and nose bubbled.
“Well, all right, I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry, pal, I just . . . like . . . I’m sorry!” I’m a useless nanny. I gave Vanya a hug and patted his back. “Don’t cry. I’m asking for a reason. It’s a bit weird. I’m just pushing the car out and you suddenly bring back a painting. What if there are gangsters looking for it?”
“It’s pretty,” Vanya sobbed. Like a baby, he stops crying as quickly as he starts. He’s easily placated, my Vanya. I wish I was. When I get stirred up, I take ages to calm down again.
“Go on, tell me where you found it.”
“Did you find it at the rubbish dump?”
“I won’t say! I won’t say.”
“Come on, then, you can show me,” I said gently, but took him firmly by the hand. I put on his jacket and shoes. He did not resist. I put on my own things and we went outside. We drove to the road.
“There was a car here!” Vanya jumped out and started galloping along the median, acting out the accident.
We are sitting at our round table and looking in silence at the painting.
“I was walking along and then bang! The car had an accident! I went over. The man was not moving. He hadn’t done up his seat belt. You should always wear your seat belt . . .”
“Tell me about the picture.”
“It was next to him. I opened the door and took it.”
“And nobody saw you?”
“I’m not sure,” Vanya says, wondering, pondering.
How on earth did he manage to bring a painting all the way home without anyone noticing? All we need is a witness. The picture is crap and not worth a whole lot of hassle.
“Dad, is it art?”
“Art? Oh, well, it’s difficult to say. Probably not exactly.”
“Well, for a painting to be considered art, it has to be . . . it has to be . . .” I hesitate, not finding it easy to explain the obvious. “Art has to be beautiful. There!”
“But is it ugly?” Vanya asks in surprise. “It is very beautiful!”
I look at the Petroleum Venus. You can’t in fairness say it is ugly, but something like that just doesn’t get called beautiful.
“Perhaps it is beautiful. Oh, I don’t know.”
“What is art for?” Vanya persists.
“What do you mean? Well . . . so you can show other people something you think is beautiful. That sort of thing. Say an artist sees a beautiful woman, he paints her, and it turns out you think she is beautiful too.”
Vanya opens his eyes wide and covers his mouth with his hands, the way cartoons convey astonishment.
“I get it . . .”
“What do you get?”
“The painter painted it specially for me!”
“No, Vanya. That’s not what I meant . . .” But he has stopped listening.
“I get it! I get it! He painted her for me!”
I stop listening to Vanya and try to imagine who this Venus could belong to. Some oink got rich and commissioned a painting of the woman he’s in love with? A widowed forty-something decided to ask a fashionable artist to paint her portrait? Or had “Sazonoff” decided to create a new image of Russia as a curvaceous blonde with oil rigs and birch trees?
There was a film screening the next day. After some words of welcome and expressions of thanks, we were treated to a real musical, with long dance routines and vocal numbers. It was the tale of Alyonushka, a poor girl, but pretty and honest. Her neighbors and friends envied her intelligence and beauty, and one day gave her a poisoned apple. Alyonushka took an antidote, dealt with the evildoers, and made off with the most eligible bridegroom. People helped her, and wild animals, as did the ancient spirits of the land, which gave her oil. Curiously enough, all the good characters were blond and all the bad people had dark hair and wore glasses.
The best scene was the finale, festivities in a forest glade. In the middle was a circle surrounded by the battlements of a fortress. They looked like those of the Kremlin only they were made of ice. From behind some slender birch trees came a score of boys and girls in gaily embroidered folk costumes. The boys had balalaikas. They formed a line in front of the fortress and struck up the slow, lyrical opening bars of “Kalinka.”
The singers divided to reveal five figures with red cloaks inside the circle. Their cloaks fell to the ground. Three were girls, one a mulatto, another a brunette with the painted eyes of an ancient Egyptian, and the third was blonde Alyonushka. The girls wore lingerie painted with yellow khokhloma folk art leaves and red berries. Alyonushka too was in bra and panties, only hers were gold. The girls were all wearing red stiletto shoes and squeezing in their hands bottles of vodka named in honor of the president. (The film’s main sponsor was a distillery.) The two others were boys wearing vests and combat trousers. Their Adidas sneakers were navy blue with the obligatory three white stripes. They carried whips and their biceps were tattooed with helicopters, tanks, and paratroopers. They were suntanned and athletic, their faces hidden by special-ops face masks.
Ka-a-a-lin-ka malinka m-a-alinka moia
V sadu iagoda malinka malinka moia . . .
At first, singing their folk song of raspberries in the orchard, five lithe bodies smoothly circled each other, like animals in a courtship display. Then the mulatto put a vodka bottle on her head and her hands on her hips. One boy cracked his whip, wrapping the lash round the bottle. A flick, a tug, and he held it in his hands, the girl unharmed, the bottle intact. The public whistled and clapped appreciatively.
The second boy repeated the trick no less adroitly, but with the brunette.
Kalinka malinka malinka moia
The boys started moving in from both sides on Alyonushka. She put a bottle on her head. They cracked their whips and snared the glistening bottle at exactly the same moment. Alyonushka jumped back as their eyes bored into each other with theatrical menace. Each had a bottle in his left hand, while the third was held quivering in mid-air by the tensed whips. The guys began rhythmically rocking their entwined whips and the bottle, before dashing it to the ground. Glass splintered, vodka spurted.
Kalinka malinka malinka moia
As if on cue, the boys dashed the bottles they were holding against their foreheads and computer graphics transfigured the splashes and splinters into seams of diamonds.
One of the dancers whistled and the boys tore off their hats and masks to reveal the heads of Wolf and Bear. The animal heads grew naturally on their human bodies. Their snout-faces expressed human emotion, smiling, baring their fangs. Wolf’s top left fang was gold.
The singers in the chorus also threw off their clothes and began dancing wildly. Close-ups alternated with wide shots, angled from above and below. The dancers performed everything expected in a Russian folk dance and more besides. The girls turned cartwheels, did high kicks and hand stands. Wolf danced on his haunches, leaping high, spreading his legs wide, his hands touching the tips of his sneakers. Bear jumped head over heels again and again.
Great raindrops fell from the skies, black drops on Alyonushka’s face, more and more of them. The dancers stripped off their painted bras, only Alyonushka remaining covered. The boy-beasts were magically stripped to black trunks. “Kalinka” rang out in a cutting-edge electronic rendition, its tight rhythm like the beating of one big communal heart.
Kalinka malinka malinka moia
“Oil, oil, oil, oil,” hammered through the hall.
Sure enough, it was raining oil, which the Mother Spirit of the Earth had bestowed upon Alyonushka. It became a downpour. The dancers whirled insanely beneath it. Muscles bulged on shoulders, calves, and bellies. The girls’ hair sprayed black wetness over the screen, a wetness which could enable you to travel at fantastic speed, to fly round the globe in a day, erect skyscrapers, roll out a banquet, or hold on to power and make it grow.
Glimpses of animal snouts flecked with gold, female breasts, birch trees. From the heavens black gold pours down. No, this dance is dedicated not just to oil. It is dedicated to all of us, to all of Russia. Khokhloma folk art and oil. Ice and suntans. Striptease and whirling reels.
New Russia has merged with Eternal Russia. Behold my country, the great enigma, where everything is as precarious as the electricity supply of a house which mainly depends on a mobile generator running on light oil. If the generator packs in, it’s the end of everything, but until it does we won’t build a power station. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Behold my Russia, a flighty madam accustomed to money and men who dance attendance on her. Everyone knows she is coarse and vulgar, drinks too much, behaves abominably, but she has only to smile for everyone to forgive her. Just that tender smile, that gaze straight into your eyes, and you are sunk, no longer responsible for your actions. My homeland, whose every act is unpredictable. Today, dressed to kill, enticing, billing and cooing; and tomorrow she will throw on a stained, crumpled vest, open the door, fold her arms to hide the punctured veins, push you out and pretend she never knew you. If she wants, she will spit in your face; if she wants, she will surrender to you.
Feet tap in time to the music. Some of the audience are dancing in the aisles. The images of the film get mixed in with the kaleidoscope of my visions. My country, whooping and cheering, rushes past in front of me. Sailors trashing palaces, and aristocratic young ladies flirting at their first ball; the “granddad” conscripts in the army beating up “greenhorns,” and drunken merchants flying around Moscow in their sleighs; Cossacks in earrings slash with sabres, Jewish violins lament, horses hauling cannons sink in mud, bears dance at fairs, headscarves whirl like the wind, leaders of peasant revolts are caged in Red Square, fingers of secret policemen press triggers, political prisoners fell timber.
There are the fascists’ nooses from which Young Communist martyrs dangled, and here are the fascists themselves on their way to be shot, goose-stepping, arms outstretched in a final salute. Here are the priests with pentagrams branded on their foreheads. Here are drunken women in pink, fur-trimmed anoraks dancing in front of the Lenin Mausoleum on New Year’s Eve. Here are the agents of Smersh in their dark blue breeches shooting in the back condemned men fighting in wartime penal battalions. Black-eyed mountain-dwellers cut the throats of yesterday’s schoolboys from Ryazan or Tambov, freshly kitted out in Russian military uniform. Slit-eyed horsemen, blond-bearded Slav champions.
On the screen, the dancers’ bodies merge to form strange hydra-headed creatures with multiple arms and legs. Chortling, antic faces.
My nose is stinging. I unobtrusively wipe tears from my eyes. It’s just love. I love this whole appalling shambles. I am a part of it. I don’t need any order beyond this chaos, beyond this indefinableness. Thank you, Russia, for the passion, for the atrocities, for your loveliness, for our suffering.
Witches fly in mortars and on mops, mermaids splash beneath the vaults of sunken bell towers, a troika of black steeds drags gun carriages spraying machine-gun fire. The world is blessed by the cross tattooed on a convict’s back. And above it all there sits in glory He, the Eternal Joker, the Artist who created me, and Vanya, and Petroleum Venus.
I see the cinema auditorium through the eyes of the characters in the film. I see the film through the eyes of the audience. I see the whole world through the eyes of surveillance cameras. Skyscrapers, blue domes studded with golden stars, nuclear submarines, a hail of arrows tipped with flaming resin. Malachite, the rack, boyar noblemen, tsareviches torn to pieces, space rockets. The birch switches in bathhouses fuse with rods lashing bloodied backs. The steam pouring out of the bathhouse goes up the chimneys of thermal power plants. Summer camps, forests, distant horizons. The haze over black rivers, over marshes at the bottom of which lie chests full of the treasure foreigners tried to drag away. Nearby lie the foreigners’ remains and, beside them, those of the defenders.
Vanya came away from the film deep in thought.
“Where does oil come from, Dad?” he asked.
I explained as simply as I could about long-dead trees, animals, and people, and couldn’t resist adding at the end that someday we too would become oil.
“I really want to become oil!” Vanya exclaimed. “Like in the picture. I really want to be useful to people.”
I promised him that someday we would definitely become oil. We would splash and gurgle in underground caves and, after millions of years, be found; and pipes would reach down to us like straws and we would be sucked up like fruit juice out of a tumbler. We would flow through pipelines in a thick, greasy stream. We would be fractionated, and combust, and turn into a cloud of exhaust fumes, and fly up into the heavens, there to be inhaled by the Lord God Himself.
From Petroleum Venus, forthcoming in 2013 from Glas New Russian Writing. © Alexander Snegiryov. By arrangement with the author and publisher. Translation © 2012 by Arch Tait. All rights reserved.