Men from the towns along the Volga sell crayfish in Moscow’s markets out of plastic barrels. While the crayfish wait to be bought, they crawl over each other, reaching up towards the light. Sometimes, one manages to hook a claw over the rim of a barrel and pull itself up. Before it can escape, however, the other crayfish start using its body as a ladder, clambering up in groups until its grip weakens and they all fall down again. It is a depressing sight.
I remembered that scene several times while reading Oleg Pavlov’s Captain of the Steppe, a book that would be more comic if it wasn’t so dark. It focuses on Ivan Khabarov, the titular captain, who commands a remote military post in the wilds of Kazakhstan. He never has enough food for his men, so he experiments by planting potatoes. Shocked by his initiative, and its success, the troops he commands and the officers who command him then conspire to drag him back into the barrel, where he can be as hungry and miserable as they are.
Published in Russian in 1994, Captain of the Steppe is Pavlov’s first novel and is closely based on his own experiences as a serviceman on the steppes. It is full of delicate observation and insight into the lives of individuals in a system so huge that it cares nothing for