First as Tragedy
My grandfather worked for a count. He cut wheat. He lived in a cabin on the count’s estate, twenty miles from Tsaretsk, in the south of Narodistan. He wrapped his feet in strips of birch, and these were his shoes.
And then there was the revolution.
My grandfather and the other peasants captured their count. They tied his hands behind his back, took his slippers, wrapped his feet in strips of birch, and told him to walk to Europe. They went into the manor house, and they divided up the things. My grandfather took a child’s bed, a few bowties, and some dead butterflies preserved under glass. He took books he could not read. He took a pair of boots, and he threw away his strips of birch forever.
The little village was renamed Stalinetsk. The wheat fields became collective farms. My grandfather died in the war, but he didn’t mind. It was the Soviet Union, and everyone was very happy.
My grandfather took the books, and years later, I read them. I wore a red neckerchief. I learned Russian. I passed my exams. I left Stalinetsk and moved to the capital. I went the university—the famous Friedrich Engels State University of Narodistan.
History was good to me.
I was in my final year at the university. I was finishing my degree in dialectical materialism. I had many exciting thoughts about Marx and the philosophy of history.
On New Year’s Day, I woke up late. I had fallen asleep at my desk. My neck hurt. There were noises outside—singing and shouting.
I walked around the dormitory. I knocked on doors. I called out names. Only Jang answered. Jang was the son of a North Korean general. His country had sent him to Narodistan to study socialism. It had given him strict orders: except for class, he was not allowed to leave the dormitory.
Jang opened his door. “Where is everyone?” I asked. I had to say it a few times. He couldn’t speak Narodi at all. He barely spoke Russian.
“Tank,” he said. “Man took tank.”
Some drunk got into the barracks, I thought. A New Year’s prank. I got my coat. I wanted to see this prankster. I wanted to see him punished. I told Jang to come with me. He locked himself in his room.
I walked toward the noises, toward Revolution Square.
I had never seen the square so full. I tried to push my way in, but the crowd was too thick. Chests touched backs. The famous orange bricks of the square were gone, hidden beneath the boots.
I was stuck at the edge of the crowd. I was so far back that I couldn’t even see the statue of Lenin. I stood on my toes. I jumped. Finally, I climbed a tree. My steps shook snow from the branches, and the people below said I was an idiot.
From my tree, I saw the center of the square—the great golden head of Lenin. Next to him was the tank. A few people were standing on it. They were waving their arms. I watched them for a while, and then I climbed down.
The crowd had grown bigger and tighter. I could not leave. “Go home!” I said. “It’s cold. You can’t even see the tank.”
“It isn’t about the tank,” said the crowd. “It’s a revolution.”
“Oh, no,” I said. I pointed toward the great golden head. “The revolution already happened.”
I pushed my way back to the dormitory. I went to my room. I sat at my desk, read the Eighteenth Brumaire, and took notes. My neck hurt. I went to bed early.
The next day, the dorm was still empty. Jang was still locked in. I went back to the square. I learned what had happened.
An army officer had stolen a tank. He had driven it into the square and asked people to join him. He said that Narodistan should be independent—should leave the Soviet Union.
For some reason, people listened to this man. They came to the square and yelled and cheered. For days—for weeks—they came to the square.
So I too came to the square. I talked to people. I explained history to them.
Marx and Engels explained it all long ago, I said. First, there is the existing order—the thesis. But then something else arises and opposes that order. This is the antithesis. These two—thesis and antithesis—struggle. And from that struggle comes something new, something greater than either—the synthesis. Master and slave, lord and serf, capitalist and worker—thesis and antithesis, over and over. History is always advancing, moving toward a higher synthesis. History is a process, but it has an end. Our dear Soviet Union was the final synthesis. We have reached the end. There are no more revolutions left. Go home. Enjoy the end of history.
I gave speeches. I debated. I shouted. The crowd did not listen. Some of them put flowers in my hair. Some of them sang. They played songs on their guitars, and they were louder than my voice.
I was angry, but then I thought of the soldiers. Soon they would come. I thought of their sticks and their shields, and I felt better.
One day, a song spread through the crowd. Everyone sang it. It was, I think, a Beatles song. I asked them why they were singing. No one answered. They sang louder. Then I saw, and I understood.
Lenin had ropes around his neck. The crowd pulled. He broke at the knees.
I ran to find the soldiers. And I did. They were in their trucks, in a long line. They were driving east, back to Moscow.
I caught a ride to the border. We reached it by sunset. I presented my passport, but they would not let me into Russia. The passport was no good, they said. I was now a citizen of the Republic of Narodistan.
I came back to the capital, and I went the barracks. The doors were unlocked. The soldiers had left uniforms, hats, medals. Unsewn patches, red stars, badges of Marx and Lenin. I filled my pockets. I came back again and again.
The university closed. It reopened in the spring. There was no more department of dialectical materialism. Jang went home. I did not return to the university. I took my books and my bags of medals, and I left the dormitory.
I needed money. I gave Russian lessons. I had an apartment. I saved, and I visited Moscow. I hung the medals on my walls. I hoped things would return to normal—that history would stop again. There were elections, and I voted for the Communist Party.
In the first year, I had sixteen students. The next year, I had twelve. Then eight. Then three.
“Do you teach English?” the parents asked.
I quit teaching. I got a job at a grocery. I sat on a little stool. I scanned food with a little laser. For this, the store gave me money. But not much money. From my labor, the store made profit. So I corrected my wages. I took boxes of cigarettes from the storeroom, and I sold them in the subway.
One day, I was sitting on my stool. I was scanning an orange with my little laser. The manager told me to stand up. We walked back to the stockroom. The manager asked if I had been stealing cigarettes.
“All private property is theft,” I said.
He told me to never come to the store again.
I had saved five or ten boxes of cigarettes. I sold them. They were gone, but I was still there. I decided to ask for money.
This was difficult. I could not ask other Narodis for money. They had betrayed history. The Soviet Union was gone now, and it was their fault. No, I could not ask them.
I had to ask foreigners. When foreigners came to Narodistan, they came to Revolution Square. If I wanted to ask them for money, I had to go to the square.
It was no longer called Revolution Square. They had renamed it—Skrypsyz Square. Skrypsyz was the army officer who had stolen the tank. He was now the president of Narodistan.
Lenin was gone. In his place was a golden tank. The beautiful orange bricks were covered by rugs—hundreds of rugs. On top of these rugs were hats, t-shirts, old Soviet passports, medals, busts of Lenin. Each rug had its own little Narodi man. Tourists bent over the rugs, and the Narodi men told them to buy things. There were other Narodi men in the square who dressed as Stalin and Lenin. For five roubles, you could take your picture with them.
I stood under the golden tank. I spoke in Russian. I asked foreigners for money. I was good at it. I was happy to speak Russian again.
I had ten roubles when the police came. They took my money and broke my mug on the ground. They said begging was not allowed in Skrypsyz Square.
I went back to my apartment. The electricity didn’t work. I went to the hallway, to my circuit breaker. Someone had cut the cord to my apartment. There was a note. It said I could have a new cord when I paid the bill.
That night was dark. I thought many terrible things. But then I thought of the future. History would stop again. The next synthesis would come. I wanted to see it. The streetlights reflected off my medals, and I slept in that gold light.
The next day, I left home at sunrise. I went back to the square. I brought my bedsheet and a heavy box. I found an empty spot near the golden tank. I spread my bedsheet over the brick. On top of my sheet I placed the hats, the medals, the uniforms—the things that I had taken from the barracks.
The tourists bent over my bedsheet.
Soon, the police came. They said that selling things was not allowed Skrypsyz Square. If I wanted to do it, I had to give them twenty percent. For thirty percent, they would save me a spot every morning.
My spot was a few meters behind the tank.
I had a neighbor—another person who paid for a spot. He was an old man. He was trying to sell patches from Soviet uniforms. But no one bought them. In three days, he did not sell a single patch.
On the fourth day, a Russian girl bent over the old man’s rug. She asked the old man about a price. But the old man could not speak Russian. He spoke to her in Narodi. She did not understand. I translated. I told her that the patch cost six roubles.
“Six roubles?” she said. “For this?” She held up one of the patches. The stitching was bad. The Russian words were misspelled. Lenin’s left eye was lower than his right. “It’s fake,” she said.
I translated, and the old man shrugged. The girl walked away. I told the old man that he was a fraud—that he was dishonoring the Soviet Union with his fakes.
“I will show you something real,” he said. He reached into his jacket. He pulled out a little box. Inside the box was a dull gold star. He turned the star over. “You speak Russian so well,” he said. “Read it.”
Hero of the Soviet Union, it said. The highest medal. I had never seen one before.
He got it in the war, he said. The Germans took his town. He ran to the Red Army. At Stalingrad, he held a lookout tower by himself for three days. “I used my bullets on the first day,” he said. “After that, I had my knife.” For this, he won the Hero. He marched west. He helped liberate Narodistan. Stalin gave him a medal, an apartment, a pension. For fifty years, he had them. And now there was no Soviet Union, and he was a hero of nothing.
I left the square, and I came back with a loaf of black bread and a plastic bottle of kvass. The old man and I squatted over our things. I broke the bread in half, and we passed the bottle back and forth.
A few days later, the old man invited me to his apartment. He had a bed, a sofa, a few chairs, a stove, a cat, and a little wife. It was she, the little wife, who made the fake patches. She made them, and he sold them. This was how he lived, now that he had lost his hero’s pension.
We ate baked apples and whitefish. The cat slept on my lap.
Later that night, I had an idea. I poured more kvass for the old man and the woman. I told them that soon I would run out of things to sell. I had only taken so many medals. I needed supply. They had supply. They couldn’t sell it. They couldn’t spell the Russian words on the patches. They couldn’t talk to the Russian tourists.
The old man and the old woman talked. We made a deal. We would combine our two rugs into one. I would stand in the square and sell the things. I would help them spell the Russian words. The old man and the old woman would stay home and sew.
The old man said I was a very fine capitalist.
I sold the rest of my medals, and then we merged our rugs.
We had to lower our prices. “We’ll make up the difference,” I said. With the old man and the old woman sewing patches, there would be a lot of patches to sell. “We’ll make money on volume,” I said.
We didn’t. The old man decided I was not a very fine capitalist after all.
To save money, I moved in with the old people. The old woman cooked our dinners, and then I helped them into bed. I slept on a little sofa with the cat.
At night, I studied. I read my books, as always. But now I learned English too.
Most of the tourists were Russian. They came to Narodistan because it was cheap. They stayed for a day or two in the capital, and then they went south to ski in the mountains.
But there were other tourists. There were American students who came from Prague for the weekend. They had big clean teeth and furry boots. There were Narodis too—country-folk coming to the capital for the first time. They wanted to see the famous square and the famous tank. I charged them a lot.
Some days I did not sell a single patch, and the old people got depressed. I tried to cheer them up. I told them about dialectical materialism.
I had to start at the beginning. They knew nothing of Marx or the science of history. I told them about the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. “The Soviet Union was supposed to be the final synthesis,” I said. “The end of history. That was wrong. I should have known. Marx said that all historical events happen twice—first as tragedy, then as farce. Lenin was the tragedy.” I pointed to the golden tank. “That was the farce.”
The old man nodded. He said he wanted to go back to the Soviet Union.
“We can’t go back,” I said. “History only moves forward. First as tragedy, then as farce—but what about the third time? Marx never told us about the third time.”
“It will be worse,” said the old man.
I told him to have faith. In the end, my grandfather got his boots.
In February, there was an election. I went to the poll, voted for the Communist Party candidate, and walked to the square. It was full of police. Go home, they said. No selling today.
I went back to the apartment. In the evening, the radio said that President Skrypsyz—the man who stole the tank—had won. He was going to be president again.
We heard noises outside—singing and shouting.
I put the old people in their bed, and then I went to the square. There were twenty or thirty protestors. They stood in a circle around the tank. The police watched them.
The protestors said that Skrypsyz had fixed the election. They talked about democracy, freedom, and opportunity. They talked about Europe. They filmed themselves.
I told them to stop talking about democracy. “You don’t want progress,” I said. “You don’t want to get rid of Skrypsyz—you want a different Skrypsyz.” We argued. But something was different. After a few minutes, I didn’t want to argue. I got tired. In all the world, I was the last little antithesis. I went home.
The next day, the protests were bigger. They grew and grew. On the fourth day, the police fought the protestors and took them away in buses. I took the rug back to the square.
I sold patches in the snow, and I sold patches in the sun.
The old people got old. They sewed slower. We had fewer patches. We drank less kvass.
Every few years, there was an election. Skrypsyz won, again and again. The protestors shouted for a week, and we stayed home. The police took them away, and I went back to work.
History kept going.
One New Year’s Day, the police told me to leave the square. There’s going to be a celebration, they said. It was twenty-five years since the end of the Soviet Union. Skrypsyz came to the square and stood on the golden tank, and people took pictures.
There was a big crowd. They cheered. But some of them started to chant. They shouted about democracy. Skrypsyz went back to the presidential palace. But the people stayed.
The police fought the protestors. But this time, the protestors won. They beat the police back. They would not leave the square.
For weeks, I couldn’t go to the square. I sold my books and bought food. At night we listened to the radio. The police attacked again and again. The protestors held the square. From our apartment, we heard their guitars. We smelled their fires.
We started listening to the Russian radio stations, and I translated for the old people. The Russian president gave many speeches. He blamed Skrypsyz. He blamed the protestors. Russia and Narodistan used to be one people, and he wanted Narodistan to be peaceful and strong again. The end of the Soviet Union, he said, was the great tragedy of world history.
Soon even the Narodi stations were talking about this Russian president. The government called him a thug and thief. The protestors said he was more corrupt than Skrypsyz. Everyone—Skrypsyz and the protestors—worried that he would invade Narodistan.
“Skrypsyz had a tank,” said the president. “I have many tanks.”
I wondered if they were right—if this Russian president worse than Skrypsyz. But I had faith. History had an end. My grandfather got his boots.
This Russian president was bald, just like Lenin.
The winter got colder. The protestors held the square. The soldiers put down their sticks, and they picked up their rifles. The protestors made shields out of car doors. Some of them died, but they held the square. There were no more songs.
I sold my last book, and I waited in a long line to buy bread.
I listened to the Russian stations all day. The old man asked me to stop translating. He and his wife slept all day, and the cat slept between them. I woke them at sundown to eat our bit of bread.
The power went out, and the radio ran on batteries.
Just after Easter, a great noise came from the square. Skrypsyz had left, said the radio. He had taken a plane to the United States.
“You can go back to the square,” said the old man. “You can sell things.”
I turned up the radio. I was waiting.
That night, the snow started to fall. The cheers were quieter. I went to the window. The snow fell, and it too was quiet. And then I heard the beautiful words. The Russian president gave a speech. He was worried, he said, about the coup in Narodistan. He wanted peace. He wanted to protect his Narodi brothers. He was sending troops to help us.
I woke the old people. I told them what had happened. New tanks were coming. They would clear the square. We would see the beautiful orange brick again. We would all speak Russian, and we would matter.
For weeks and weeks, we had sat at that radio. We had been still. But now I moved. I jumped. I shouted. I waved my arms. I felt the joy of my body.
I picked up the box of patches. I opened the window, and one by one, I threw the patches into the snow. I rolled them into balls, and I threw them into the snow banks.
The old man told me to stop. “This is not a revolution,” he said. “This president is not Lenin.”
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly. History moves forward. It must. He’ll be better than Lenin.”
The old man shouted. He punched my shoulders and my ribs. But he was old, and I was so strong and happy. I threw the patches as far as I could.
He began to cry, and I cried too. I embraced him. I bawled. It was all over. Everything was finished, everything restored.
The old man ran down the stairs and into the street. I followed. He picked the patches out of the snow. But I kept running.
I ran toward the square. It would be restored—the rugs cleared, the tank pulled down. I wanted to see the orange brick. I wanted to see the great golden head, shining and bald.
Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. “First as Tragedy” is one of his Narodistan stories, others of which have appeared recently in Queen Mob’s Tea House and the Carbon Culture Review. He lives in Massachusetts.
Dave Seidel is a composer/performer based in southern New Hampshire who works with electronics in both live-improvised and composed idioms, with an emphasis on long tones and microtonal tunings. His album “~60 Hz” was released in 2014 on the Irritable Hedgehog label. He also has a number of netlabel releases under the name “mysterybear”. His website is http://mysterybear.net.
As a guitarist, he participated in the 1980s downtown New York music scene, including as a member of Scott Johnson’s and Lois V Vierk’s ensembles and in the bands La Guapa Papa and People Falling, playing CBGB, Danceteria, Mudd Club, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop and Alice Tully Hall, and other venues. His premiere recordings of Vierk’s Go Guitars and Red Shift were released on the XI and Tzadik labels, respectively. He also appears on Guy Klucevsek’s album Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse.
Seidel collaborates with singer Laurie Amat in the duo Palimpsest. He provided live sound design for Gregory Kowalski’s production of Crave, by Sarah Kane, at the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.