cover of the underground by Hamid ismailov translated by carol ermakova published by restless books

Preface to The Underground

by Carol Ermakova

Editor's note: This piece was written as a preface to The Underground by its English translator, Carol Ermakova. Her original translation, which she references here, is at times different from the version that was ultimately published by Restless Books these differences are marked where applicable. The Underground can be purchased in our Bookstore.


My German teacher used to say that you should read a book at least five times before you could begin to write about it. I wonder what her recommendation would have been for translation, for in translating a book as you work on unlocking the meaning of each word, at each re-read you discover new layers of meaning and connections which had previously escaped you. Robert Chandler recommended I translate Mbobo [Ed. This is the original title] partly because I spent three years in Russia during the early nineties and experienced much of what Hamid Ismailov writes about here. So as I worked on Mbobo I re-lived many of my own memories as well as Mbobo’s as I unwrapped the layers of meaning encapsulated in each episode. These themes and episodes are all skilfully woven into an intricate tapestry where scenes of Mbobo’s childhood unfold, with the Moscow Metro providing the loom for the variegated threads of this brief but vivid life.

Mbobo tells us that if he were cut open on the operating table we would find “not blue veins and red arteries but the multicoloured web of the Moscow metro stations” and I myself have travelled on many of these lines coursing through Mbobo’s body. The Moscow Metro is a far cry from London’s cramped, dirty tube plagued with delays, or from the spartan functionality of the Paris Metro. No, Moscow’s Metro is an outstanding feat of Soviet engineering and architecture. The first lines opened on 15 May, 1935 and the system has been constantly upgraded and expanded ever since.  During the siege of Moscow in 1942, some stations were used as air raid shelters and the Council of Minsters even moved its offices to the platforms of Mayakovsky Station, from where Stalin made several public speeches. The architectural extravagance peaked in the mid 1940’s to mid 1950’s, and was followed by a stage of bland, utilitarian stations known as ‘centipedes’ because of the parallel rows of 40 columns which made up the stations’ halls. Some lines were dug very deep to double up as refuges in case of nuclear attack and stations on such lines can only be reached by traversing a cascade of dizzyingly steep escalators which plummet into the depths at an alarming rate of knots. The older stations reflect all the Soviet love of pomp and glory, built out of gleaming, multicoloured marble decorated with mosaics, murals, bas reliefs, statues and stained glass. Such is the diversity and splendour of the stations that western tourists would pay tens of dollars for a tour back in the days when a day ticket cost but 5 kopeks.

Even the names given to the Moscow stations are more colourful than those of the London tube, and some have changed more than once over the course of their history. Some are named after nearby streets or landmarks, others after important figures, and because the memories Mbobo relives with us are linked inextricably to specific stations, their names play an important role in the narrative. At Clean Ponds Station, for instance, Mbobo is badly beaten up and washes his blood off into the ponds, muddying them. Or the episodes centred around Runner Station, when Mbobo and his mother Moscow are running away from Gleb’s violence. It is because of Ismailov’s clever use of these station names that I have taken the unorthodox approach of translating them rather than simply transliterating them, thereby enabling the reader to fully enjoy these parallels. If, as Mbobo suggests, we were to make a tour of “his” Metro, pausing to remember where he was born, where he died, where he first set eyes on his beloved Olessia, then we can use the bilingual Metro map on page… [Ed. The final version refers to the stations by their Russian names, and thus there's no bilingual map.]

The trains themselves are fast, functional and frequent – every 90 seconds at rush hour, every 2 - 3 1/2 minutes off-peak. This is just as well as the Metro carries over 7 million passengers on a normal weekday. For many years, I was one of those passengers and I have never once experienced a delay or a cancelled train. Even after the terrorist attack in 2004 when a suicide bomber blew up an early morning train between Car Factory Station and Paveletsky Station killing 42 and wounding hundreds, the line was functioning perfectly again by evening, though travelling along that deathly route the same night was an eerie experience. However, trains are often overcrowded despite the efficient service and especially in winter when the passengers double in size thanks to the extra layers of fur coats and sweaters, it is not uncommon to find yourself squashed into a total stranger’s padded bosom. The train doors deserve a special mention. They snap open and shut with alarming alacrity, slamming with a bang announced by the monotonous recording: ‘Mind the closing doors…’

Small wonder, then, that Mbobo is overawed by this fairytale realm teaming with life beneath the ground, so unlike anything he has experienced before, and chooses it as his realm, his refuge. Ismailov highlights the dichotomy of ‘life on the surface’ and ‘life underground’ drawing parallels from African, Siberian, Russian and Tibetan mythology and beliefs. However, apart from this spiritual aspect of the underworld of the afterlife and how we live it out, the socio-political implications of this emphasis on the underground is also subtly insistent. During the Soviet era, much of the USSR’s best art was forced into hiding, pressed out under the weight of layers of ideological censorship, like the layers of earth piled over Mbobo’s dead body. Many literary works and translations were circulated in the famous ‘samizdat’ or simply copied by hand; music, art, literature were all part of a social network of free-thinkers and avant-garde artists which was quite literally played out underground. As each Soviet citizen was bound by law to be in employment, many artists took jobs such as boiler stokers or night watch guards meaning they were alone at work, free to spend their time writing, drawing, playing. A friend describes one such night when a rock concert was organized in the prison vaults of the St. Petersburg Peter and Paul fortress. This vibrant literary scene dances through Mbobo, twinkling like the spangled lights on a Christmas tree. Mbobo’s first step-father, Gleb, is a journalist and writer, and through him Ismailov introduces us to some of the key literary figures of the time – Yerofeyev, Aygi, Yeremenko. Another Uzbek writer, remembers this time in Moscow:

I remember a meeting of the Moscow "underground". It was a period when poets and artists (my friends Dmitry Prigov, Alexander Yeremenko, Ivan Zhdanov, Aleksei Parschikov, and others) were more interested in the events in Central Asia than experts in Central Asian affairs are nowadays. We shared a longing for freedom and nobody cared about his or her own native language, culture, or ethnic origins. Much less did anyone care about differences in social status. We all belonged to intelligentsia, we all thought along the same lines, and we were not afraid of condemning Gorbachev's regime in the apartment of Gorbachev's own assistant.

It was 1986, the year when the Perestroika was but in our thoughts and speeches. The Russian intelligentsia was the leader of the public and cultural life of the Soviet empire, and we - right in the center of this empire - enjoyed direct assess to the most advanced ideas of the period. [‘Balsam for the Dictator’, Muhammad Salikh, http://enews.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=1265 accessed 12.11.08.]

This is what Mbobo would have aspired to, to express himself freely regardless of ethnic background. This dream, however, soon proved ephemeral, and the eager hopes of so many were replaced by resignation as it became clear that Glasnost and Perestroika were unable to break through the ranks of government rhetoric to become a social reality benefitting all citizens. Privatization was hijacked by ruthless racketeers with Grandfathers and Uncles who had formerly held key positions in the Communist Party, while the underground art scene disintegrated and artists scrabbled to earn a living. Mbobo’s step-father, Gleb, typifies this.

It is also through Gleb that Ismailov introduces us to varied literary styles – short stories, a diary and a letter. The short story has remained an important genre throughout Russian literature, while the diary entries show the contrast between Pushkin’s more Byronesque style and modern rationalism. Mbobo’s own short story, The Village, is a fine example of Russian peasant literature.  Mbobo, like Pushkin, is also a poet, and each of his ‘Signs’ from the underground begins with an epigraphic poem, giving us a hint at what Mbobo could have achieved had been able to live out his life, at least to the age of genius, twenty-seven or so, if not to a ripe old age. [Ed. While the poems are not included with each 'sign', snippets are included as epigraphs of the sections named for years.] These short examples also display a variety of styles – epigraph 2, for example, is reminiscent of Blok, particularly his poem A Girl was singing in a church choir.

Mbobo is enriched by many allusions to great Russian writers of the past, too – Dostoyevsky, Turgenyev, Gorky, Nabokov, and of course, Pushkin. Mbobo has much in common with Pushkin: both are part African, part aristocratic Russian; both have beautiful, wilful, restless mothers who treat them rather cruelly; both spent their childhood in Moscow; both were brought up in a literary environment which encouraged them to read and write poetry; both have exotic, African features which single them out awkwardly from the crowd. However, Pushkin was able to realize his gift, becoming Russia’s best-known poet, whereas Mbobo’s life crumbled with the Soviet empire before he had the chance to fulfil his potential. His talent – like that of many others – was swamped by the tide of political uncertainty, the scramble for a place in the newly-emerging capitalism, and, of course, racism.

Few doors were open to non-white Russians and racism was – and still is – rife. We experience this violent discrimination first hand through Mbobo’s eyes and to many Western readers brought up in our relatively tolerant society where we are used to seeing people of all ethnic backgrounds in all walks of life, this prejudice may seem exaggerated. However, Africans are a rarity in Central Russia, limited to a few students from ‘friendly nations’ such as Ethiopia or Angola, or children like Mbobo who were picked up during the Olympics or some other international event. (There is even a special term in Russian to refer to such children, and they are generally disliked.) I remember one incident in St. Petersburg, 1992 when I witnessed a black African student being hassled and jibbed on the Metro escalator by a mob of school children asking him where is tail was. Such attitudes also spread to the non-Russian nations within the Soviet Union, particularly the dark-skinned people of Central Asia and the Caucuses. Ethnicity is important to Russians, they can – and do – discern it from surnames and physical features, and then tend to judge accordingly. As a teenager in the early 80’s, an acquaintance of mine formed a club at school to register all the pupils according to race, based on their surnames. Oddly enough, the ring leaders were an Azerbaijani and a Belorussian. This reveals the same moral double-speak seen in the episode where Mbobo is invited to join a similar group ‘to beat up blacks’, which is also headed by non-Russians. It should, however, be pointed out that this racism goes both ways; another acquaintance told me how his Caucasian father and Russian fiancée were beaten up by his brothers and left to die in a barn for wanting to marry a Russian girl.

Despite the racism portrayed in Mbobo, Ismailov never adopts a didactic or judgemental tone; this is simply a part of the boy’s life, as is the domestic violence to which he is subjected.  Ismailov uses songs, poems, jokes, television programmes, cinema and literary allusions to evoke this spirit, which is naturally more tangible for a Russian reader than a Western one, but we also see the day-to-day reality of Russia in the 80’s and 90’s in ways we can all relate to. We are given glimpses of the socio-political situation, of the great political changes underway, but without any heavy political rhetoric. Instead, we are privy to the collapse of an empire as it affects the life of one part-African, part-Khakassian boy in Moscow, almost as peripheral vision. Almost in passing, we learn of the food shortages and rationing, of the ubiquitous queues, of alcoholism, of chronic accommodation problems, of corruption, and we also see Gorbachev’s policies unfolding. In this respect, I sometimes think of Mbobo as a photo album, as a series of snapshots or home-movies which capture a slice of history, and this was perhaps what struck me most on a first reading – I have stood in those queues for bread and milk, I’ve lived in a flat ‘destined for destruction and demolition’, I have artist friends who took jobs as road sweepers to get a flat, I’ve been stopped by police who wanted to check my papers, suspicious of my darker-than-average colouring, and I’ve sat at a friend’s drinking tea while the putsch played itself out on the streets. This is how most people experience history, as part of day-to-day reality, not as great declarations announced by drum rolls. Ismailov has done what Mbobo himself has done:

maybe I’m taking with me, in splinters and crumbs, a whole epoch, a whole civilization, dismantling its past surface glory into little bricks, grains of sand, atoms?!

In portraying the collapse of an empire in this way, Ismailov raises some hard questions. Were someone with the potential to become a second Pushkin to be born into Russia today, would they be able to realize that potential? Mbobo’s story shows that the way is barred by turmoil and prejudice. Another similarity struck me recently – Mbobo and Obama. Their names are almost anagrams, they have both inherited the distinctly negroid looks of their father’s, they both had beautiful, restless mothers, and they both aim high. At a time when the US has just elected Obama as its first part-black president, one has to wonder whether Russia is perhaps heading in the opposite direction. [Ed. This preface was written early in Obama's presidency. We leave it to the reader to decide which direction either country is headed in presently.]