How low we can go

In George Saunders’s story “Christmas,” the protagonist thinks to himself:

There comes that phase in life when, tired of losing, you decide to stop losing, then continue losing. Then you decide to really stop losing, and continue losing. The losing goes on and on so long you begin to watch with curiosity, wondering how low you can go.

Ivan Petrov knows the feeling. Petrov is a Russian, born in 1936, who lived through the worst of Soviet oppression—labor camps, low-wage jobs, collective farming, government censorship, corrupt law enforcement. For two years in the late 1990s, journalist C.S. Walton interviewed him and then organized Petrov’s rambling into an autobiography.

Ivan Petrov: Russia through a Shot Glass is the story of a Russian, sure, but it may also be the story of the U.S.S.R. There’s nothing particularly special about him—that’s part of the point—except for his sharp storytelling skills and a keen self-awareness. He tells us of a world that’s so deadening that he’s punished with beatings, imprisonment, and numbing poverty for making his own fun. But he does it anyway, because otherwise he’d kill himself.

Most of the time, that “fun” involves alcohol, and it’s no surprise that Petrov becomes a drunk by the time he’s eighteen. Russia through a Shot Glass shows the slow descent into alcoholism into which many Russians—Petrov would say most Russians—became trapped.

You do have to preface several of the statements with “Petrov would say.” Walton did a heroic job of fact-checking, and provides maps of Petrov’s journey along with needed translations of his ever-present Russian slang, but mostly stays out of the way. We don’t see her questions to Petrov and, other than chapter breaks, the narrative—like a Studs Terkel interview—belongs entirely to the interviewee. So you’re forced to keep in mind that you’re hearing the life story of a drunk. Take it as you will.

Here he is on himself:

I could see no reason to stop drinking. Life would be no better without the bottle. Shops would not suddenly fill with goods and the people around me would not blossom into interesting companions. I found a thousand convincing reasons to get drunk. If Olga [his wife] nagged me I had to register my protest. If someone had made a rude or untrue remark about me I drank to console my hurt feelings. When I felt misunderstood I drank. Most often it was my wife who was guilty of wounding my soul.

Each time I overstepped the mark I renounced the bottle for two or three months until my resolve crumbled. My periods of abstention convinced me that I could leave the bottle alone. Yet whether I was drinking or not I always had alcohol on my mind; I thought everyone had.

Simple, precise, and darkly funny, Petrov eschews self-pity. He knows the bottle is destroying him. He wrecks his marriage. He’s estranged from his daughter for two decades. He loses job after job after job. He sleeps in stables and doorways more often than beds. He gets arrested so often for petty crimes than the authorities are more or less forced to place him in prison camps.

But he doesn’t stop drinking, even by the close of the memoir. If you’re looking for tidy resolution or a happy redemption, look elsewhere.

In the morning my hands shook so much that I could not hold a glass without spilling it over myself. If I had a companion with me he would pour the wine down my throat—if not I used a belt; I wrapped one end round the hand that held the glass and passed the other around my neck, pulling on it so the glass reached my lips.

Everyone drinks too much in Petrov’s world. In prison, the inmates distill alcohol from cleaning fluids and glue. At each job he works, there’s a secret distillery that uses even worse ingredients. At home, his aunt drinks herself into a violent rage every day; his stepfather drinks himself into a stupor. Every time Petrov tries to escape the spirits, he finds that they’re too readily available to be ignored. Alcohol and sex are the only things that are both fun and affordable. And even sex ceases to be fun when you’ve already supporting four kids and various relatives on a fixed state salary.

Petrov, who styles himself as an intellectual of sorts, understands all this. He says on more than one occasion that the state forces you to become a thief and a drunk. The U.S.S.R. realizes that its wages aren’t enough for an average person to support himself, and so knows that this average person will steal and cheat just to make ends meet. As long as he does so, he’s a criminal, and can be thus manipulated by the government with “just cause” at any time. The average person knows all this, is frustrated by this bone-crushing lack of social or economic mobility, and so drinks. Drinking, of course, just compounds the problem.

So, even though Ivan Petrov is a drunk, he’s in some sense an ordinary Russian laborer. He’s more peripatetic than most—he travels to Estonia to see his estranged wife and daughter, he sails the Arctic Ocean working on a ship, he works on collective farms so far to the East that you can see Japan from a mountaintop—but his journeyman’s status means that he’s seen enough of Russia to be able to comment on the country as a whole. He’s seen all parts of the country, and for him it’s all the same—grungy, beautiful, squalid, rotten at the core.

Of course, those adjectives describe Petrov as well as they might describe Soviet Russia, so it’s worth casting a cold eye on the man. Still, Petrov’s bluntness and eye for precision leads me to believe he’s mostly telling the truth. (And Walton, who lived in Russia long enough to write a memoir about the experience and to learn the language, would not be an easy person to snow under with bullshit.) Petrov’s story is painful—so painful that you have to laugh at times—but it doesn’t seem that he’s trying to impress the reader. He simply wants to tell you his story of everyday cruelty and sorrow. His voice is so sharp that you down it, neat.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to How low we can go

  1. If most Russians do in fact become Alcoholics, as stated by Petrov, this is certainly a sad commentary on the hardships in Russian life for the common people. Isn’t it ironic that for the affluent in American society and for the economically depressed people in Russia, one commonality is excessive drinking and alcoholism?

  2. It seems obvious that Russia needs a great deal of economic reform. If most of Russian people experience a “bone-crushing” lack of social or economic mobility, their sense of hopelessness and depression become understandable. I’m no expert in economic development, but it does seem to make a lot of sense to take advantage of the tremendous oil reserves that exist in Russia. As a country, Russia needs to focus on their strengths and make a major effort to revamp their economy. This is necessary if their people are to get out of their collective depression, stop becoming alcoholics, and increase their life expectancies.

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