Banned Book – Vlad Men Companion Piece

An excerpt from This is Moscow Speaking.
By Yuli Daniel (Nikolai Arzhak)

When I try now to recall what happened last summer, I find it very difficult to remember things in their proper order and to give a coherent and consistent account of all I saw, heard and felt; but the day when it began, I remember perfectly, down to the most trifling detail.

We were sitting in the garden of the dacha. We had all arrived the day before, for Igor’s birthday. We had drunk and made a lot of noise until the small hours, and gone to bed at last, expecting to sleep until noon; but the quiet of the countryside woke us at seven. We got up and all set out on various absurd activities, such as running about the garden in our shorts or exercising on the bar (no one managed more than five press-ups), and Volodya Margulis even doused himself with water from the well, although it was common knowledge that he never washed in the morning, claiming that it would make him late for work.

We sat and argued cheerfully about how to spend our Sunday. Naturally, we considered bathing, volleyball and boating, and one enthusiast even suggested a cross-country walk to the church in the next village.

“It’s a very nice church,” he said. “A very old one, I don’t remember which century…”

But we laughed at him – no one felt like walking five and a half miles in the heat.

We must have been a strange sight – men and women between thirty and thirty-five, stripped as though for the beach. We tactfully tried to ignore the unexpected, comic and sad things about our appearance: the narrow shoulders and incipient bald pates of the men, the hairy legs and thick waists of the women. We had known each other for a long time, we remembered one another’s dresses, suits and ties, but had never so far visualized ourselves in a state of nature, almost without clothes. Who would have thought, for instance, that Igor, always so elegant and neat, and successful with his women colleagues at the college where he taught, would turn out to have bandy legs? Looking at each other in the raw was as interesting, amusing and shame-making as looking at dirty postcards.

We sat, backsides firmly wedged into our chairs which looked so out of place on the grass, and spoke of our forthcoming athletic feats. Suddenly Lilya appeared on the veranda.

“I don’t understand a word of it,” she said.

“Why is it you are supposed to understand? Come and join us.”

“I don’t understand a word of it,” she repeated, smiling plaintively. “A broadcast… I heard only the very end… They’re repeating it in ten minutes.”

“The latest, twenty-first reduction in the price of horse collars and harnesses,” said Volodya in an announcer’s voice.

“Come inside,” said Lilya. “Please do…”

So we all trooped into the room where the small, square plastic box of the loud-speaker hung modestly on a nail. In answer to our puzzled questions, Lilya did nothing but sigh.

“Just like a steam engine!” Volodya joked. “Steam-engine sighs – that’s good expression, don’t you think? Straight out of Ilf and Petrov.”

“Stop pulling our legs, Lilya,” Igor began. “I know how boring it is to wash the dishes by yourself…”

At this moment, a voice came from the radio.

“Moscow speaking,” it said “Moscow speaking. We will now broadcast a Decree of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, dated 16th July, 1960. In view of the growing prosperity…”

I looked around. Everyone stood calmly listening to the rich baritone of the announcer – all except Lilya, who buzzed around like a photographer in front of children, gesturing at the loudspeaker.

“…To meet the wishes of the wide masses of the workers…”

“Give me a match, Volodya,” said Zoya. We all went “shh!” at her. She shrugged her shoulder and, dropping the unlit cigarette into her cupped hand, turned away at the window.

“…Sunday, August 10, 1960, is declared…”

“Here it comes!” cried Lilya.

“…Public Murder Day. On that day all citizens of the Soviet Union, who have reached the age of sixteen, are given the right to exterminate any other citizen with the exception of those listed in the first paragraph of the annex to this decree. The Decree will be in force from 6 a.m. Moscow time until midnight. Annex… Paragraph 1. It is forbidden to kill (a) children under sixteen, (b) persons wearing the uniform of the armed forces or the militia and (c) transport workers who are on duty. Paragraph 2. Murders committed before or after the above mentioned period, and murders committed in the course of robbery or rape, will be regarded as crimes and punished in accordance with the existing laws. Moscow. The Kremlin. Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme…”

The radio went on:

“We will now broadcast a concert of light music…”

We stood and looked at each other, dazed.

“Strange,” I said. “Very strange, I can’t see what can be the point.”