Arts, Culture & Media

Soviet lines way of life in Grushin novel

By Brigid McCarthy

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The collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago eliminated one of the most defining and despised features of Soviet life: standing in line — lines for bread, butter, and other basic necessities. According to one estimate, citizens in the USSR spent up to a third of every day standing in lines.

Olga Grushin has written an entire novel, now out in paperback, about a line. But her characters aren't queuing up for toothpaste or toilet paper. They're waiting for something much more precious.

The novel is called "The Line" and it opens with some of the most frequently uttered dialogue in the Soviet Union: "Who's last in line? Are you last in line? What are they selling?"

A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. "People would just stand in line hoping for something."

The characters in the novel queue up, in alternating shifts, for an entire year. Friendships develop; feuds and fist-fights erupt, and romance blossoms.

"It's such a powerful metaphor, the idea of people literally waiting day and night, come rain or snow," Grushin said. "It's like the gold at the end of the rainbow almost."

In this case, the pot of gold is a concert ticket, and it's all based on a real story.
Stravinsky

In l962, Igor Stravinsky made a historic visit to the Soviet Union. The famous Russian composer had been living in exile in the West, and had not set foot in his native land for 50 years. Nor had people there been able to hear his music; Soviet authorities had banned it.

"There was this footnote in the book I was reading, that when people heard that Stravinsky was coming back to Leningrad to perform his music, they lined up and waited in line for a year," Grushin said. "I thought this was so amazing, people with not very easy lives, as they would be in Russia at that time in the 1960s, waiting in line literally for a year to hear music for a couple of hours."

More than 5,000 people waited, and some of them, including an elderly cousin of Stravinsky's, didn't even get a ticket.

"I knew within a day of coming across this story that I wanted to write this book," she said.

Grushin said "The Line" isn't meant to be historical fiction, even if the famous exiled composer in her story is very transparently named Igor Selinsky, and whose music sounds very much like Stravinsky's.

It's more of a fable about hope and the search for meaning. One of the characters in "The Line" spends much of the year imagining how this miraculous, forbidden music will sound.

"He began to anticipate at last the unwinding of the as yet unheard Selinsky melody. That ecstatic rising from note to note, that rare, exultant, vertiginous moment he loved most of all, when his very essence seemed drawn out of his body after a piercing surge of music. When all the inexpressible, mute feelings, all the neglected longings of his soul, found a language full and perfect and forgiving."

Another character in "The Line" says, "Perhaps we believed that beauty or happiness had to be brief, in order to live in one's memory."
Sacred mission

Olga Grushin was born in Soviet Moscow in l971, but now lives in the United States. It was easy to imagine characters who'd sacrifice so much to hear two hours of music, she said. "People I know would do that."

In the Soviet Union, she said, music, poetry and painting were considered as essential as bread.

"I think what was so unique about Russia for a lot of its history is that artists had sort of a sacred mission. They were almost prophets or saviors," she said. "They would tell the truth and carry this to the people when they couldn't get it anywhere else."

"The Line" is Olga Grushin's second novel. It was inspired by family stories, as well as her own experiences growing up in the Soviet Union.

"There were lines, of course, for daily necessities, but when I became old enough to wait in lines, fortunately my lines were more like the line in my book, which is why when I read about the Stravinsky story, it really spoke to me on so many levels," Grushin said. "There were exciting lines to get into a new exhibits, and concerts."

This was in the twilight years of the USSR when the country was opening up under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

"In 1987, there was the first Chagall exhibit in Moscow, and I remember waiting in that line. Not a year, but it was a very long line."

Grushin said even though the element of scarcity makes "The Line" a distinctly Soviet story, she said it's really about the more universal themes of longing and desire.

Our daily lives, even here, most of us are waiting for something. There's something at the end of the road that you're hoping will happen, and you are sort of waiting in a metaphorical line for something," she said, whether it's for vacation, a new job or love.

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