The Kid’s Book That Connects Me to My Lost Soviet Childhood
Victor Dragunsky’s ‘The Adventures of Dennis’ recalls a U.S.S.R. I can barely remember
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book you read in secret?
Saturday night on the banks of the Piscataqua River. Seagulls battle the wind, land to rest on the metal frame of Memorial bridge. The first alarm sounds and the gate arms descend, one after the other, like domino tiles. In a moment, the bridge will rise with a screech to let a gundalow barge through.
I watch the boat while I settle at my own gate, an entrance to the arts festival where I’ve been working as a gatekeeper all summer. There’s a concert tonight. Behind me, musicians unpack their instruments for a sound check, cover their arms with bug spray. It’s an outdoor stage and by evening the mosquitoes will swarm. The Piscataqua is a water boundary between New Hampshire and Maine. Earlier this summer, a band joked you can hear them perform in two states at once when the wind is right.
It’s still hours before the show. I twirl a package in my hands, a crumpled plastic sleeve with line after line of stamps and my mother’s neat handwriting. She memorized the list of items approved for mailing to the States by heart. Russian chocolate, gingerbread cookies, newspaper clippings, socks — all okay. No luck on tea bags, CDs, religious paraphernalia. Sometimes she gives packages a false bottom and hides an icon for this saint or that. She says she worries about my spirit. This package came earlier today and I know, before I rip the plastic open, that it’s a book. A copy from my childhood, worn edges, the price — six kopeks — listed on the back cover.
The Adventures of Dennis by Victor Dragunsky is classic Soviet literature — Soviet, not Russian. Does the difference matter? It didn’t when I was a kid. My grandfather read those stories to me at bedtime. In them, a mischievous eight-year-old boy finds all sorts of trouble. Perched on my stool at the gate, I open the first page. These titles! “3rd Place, Butterfly Stroke,” “Exactly 25 Kilos,” “Who Ever Heard of It?” Each one resurrects a memory. In one story, Dennis forces himself to drink a full bottle of soda to weigh exactly 25 kilos and win a year’s subscription to Murzilka, a children’s magazine. In another, he performs “satire verses” during a Young Pioneers concert, only to suffer from extreme stage fright and be stuck singing the same line. Twin stories “Things I Like” “…And Things I Don’t” list with lucid detail the tastes of a young boy in the 1950s, one of them playing “Reds and Whites.” He doesn’t like to be a “White,” Dennis says. He’d rather drop out of the game.
Pioneers, Murzilka, Reds and Whites were relics by the time I entered school in the early ’90s. Things of the past, but not forgotten. Reds, of course, were the Bolsheviks in the Civil War; Whites were the remains of the old society, the side that lost. My great-grandfather, a White Officer, disappeared in the prison camps. “I love stories about Red Army cavalrymen who always win their battles,” Dennis says in “Things I Like.” I did not hear it as a child, but now that I sit with this book 25 years later, I wonder. Did my grandfather’s voice falter when he read this story to me?
The audience gathers. The gate is a formality. There are no walls around, only strings of colorful flags creating a square in the middle of a public park. Every night I watch children tug on them, jump over, sling themselves into the arms of parents as if from a catapult. One night a boy kept walking the length of the string taking every flag between his fingers and saying its color — green, blue, pink, yellow, green, red, pink. There are no tickets, only donations I collect in a black apron tied around my waist. Now, as I spot the first people in the distance, I hide The Adventures of Dennis in my bag. A couple races through. “Just going to our boat,” the man says over his shoulder. The stage is adjacent to public docks. I watch them until they descend to the water and disappear from sight. I take the book out again.
I want to slow down, savor the stories, but the moment I finish one my eyes find the first line of the next. “The Mystery Clears,” “Chicken Soup,” “Twenty Years Under the Bed.” New editions of the book come every year, but it’s becoming harder and harder for parents to translate the realities of Soviet life to their children. “Chicken Soup” begins with Dennis’ mother bringing home a whole chicken, which she hangs on the window frame. The English translation published in 1981 by Raduga has the mother put it in the fridge instead. Playing hide-and-seek with his friends in “Twenty Years Under the Bed,” Dennis enters an unfamiliar room only to be accidentally locked in by the room’s occupant, the elderly Efrosinya Petrovna. This won’t make a bit of sense unless you’ve lived in a communal flat.
The Cyrillic letters, the choppy sentences of a children’s book with their dropped subjects, the long unpronounceable patronymics erase the reality around. As if I never left my hometown, where fluff of poplar trees floats down the streets in July and the chocolate factory fills the air with a thick oily smell in the mornings. As if I never grew up, and my grandfather still lives, still reads those stories to me every night. Then I look up and people at the gate are waiting. I hide the book before accepting the crumpled dollar bills they hand me. One is a two-dollar bill, and I set it aside. Later I will replace it with my own money, bring it home, and add it to the growing stack on the fridge. One of the things I have learned in five years in the States: two-dollar bills are rare.
As the start of the show nears, people pass through more often. I collect the money, count the change, hand out small round reentry stickers from my fingertips. Between these exchanges I open the book, read a page, close it again. I hid it on impulse the first time. I didn’t want to appear bored. But after that, I begin to wonder. Is it the cover? The book is flimsy, with a faded image of a boy bundled in a thick winter coat marching in front of his father. It doesn’t scream of being a children’s book, not unless you can read the title in Russian. Or is it my connection to this book? After all, The Adventures of Dennis is an intimate part of my childhood. Somewhere in it are chocolate stains from my six-year-old fingers. Trapped between its pages is the smell of meatballs and pickle soup my grandmother made every month.
On their own, these things don’t matter. It’s when I put them together that I understand why I hide the book each time someone arrives at the gate. What would you think of a woman if you saw her, in the middle of her shift, stealing glances at a children’s book in another language? Would you think she missed her homeland? Would you think she was happy?
I am part of the last generation born in the U.S.S.R. A thread connects me to the world of Pioneers and soda at three kopeks a glass. But the thread is thinning. On days like this, as I watch the American flag soar over Memorial Bridge, I begin to doubt myself. Memory is not like a bridge that goes up and down, allowing you to cross. It went up long ago and never came down. Now you can only stand on the shore and look at the lights across the river, and wonder. But if the wind is right, sometimes you can perform in two states at once.