The End of an Empire: On Iurii Andrukhovych's Novel "Moskoviada"

Per-Arne Bodin 29 kwietnia 2009
Iurii Andrukhovych's novel Moskoviada was published in 1992 in Ukrainian and was translated into Russian in 2001. This novel, in addition to three other novels and various collections of poetry and essays, have rendered Andrukhovych one of the most important authors in contemporary Ukraine. Andrukhovych, born in Ivano-Frankivsk and now in his forties, is already regarded as a classic of Ukrainian  literature. He is a member of the famous Bu-Ba-Bu, a literary grouping which was formed in 1985. The three syllables signify Burlesk (burlesque), Balahan (farce) and Bufonada (buffoonery), and besides Andrukhovych the members of the group are Viktor Neborak and Oleksander Irvanets. According to one critic Bu-Ba-Bu is the only literary group or movement anywhere that acknowledges Mikhail Bakhtin's writings on the carnivalesque as a major source of inspiration in its artistic practice (although the Bu-Ba-Bu insist that they had formulated the central issues prior to reading Bakhtin), [Chernetsky,].
Moskoviada is the story of a relatively young Ukrainian poet, Otto von F., studying at the Literary Institute in Moscow, as Andrukhovych did himself at the beginning of the 1990s. On the title-page of the novel its genre is defined as a "novel of horrors" which is a very apt description of the text. The novel retells one day in the life of the poet - a Saturday, which means that he is free from lectures. He is living in a student dormitory of the Soviet type, described in detail. He wakes up, takes a shower in the basement, meets a black girl and has sex with her in the shower. Then he goes downtown to a beer-bar and drinks a mixture of beer, wine and samogon (illicitly distilled spirits) and then continues on to the snack bar in restaurant Praga on Arbat street. He gets more and more drunk, meets one of his girlfriends, Galina, then goes to the department store "Detskii mir" to buy some toys for the children of his friends. There he wanders around in his drunken state. He is robbed and chases after the robber all the way down to the lowest basement of the department store where his assailant is drowned in the sewers. Step by step the hero loses control of himself and the events become more and more uncanny. Our poet can not find his way out and by accident ends up in a government zone inside a network of different tunnels, corridors and lifts, and is arrested. In this subterranean world of Moscow there live rats of enormous size, and the guards intend to give him as food to these odious animals. There he suddenly meets his girlfriend Galina again, who is working for the secret police - something quite new to the hero. It is her duty to give him some injection as a preparation, before he is thrown to the rats. In the end she changes her mind and helps him to escape. He finds a lift, which takes him up to some congress centre, where he walks into a conference with different characters from Russian history, including Ivan the Terrible, Catharine the Great and Lenin, taking part. The aim of the conference is to find a way of saving the disintegrating Russian or Soviet Empire. All these characters are not real but empty dolls, something which Otto realizes when he shoots at them with a revolver he has found. He runs away and in the last lines of the novel he is on the train back to Kyiv at the end of his stay.
The novel, already considered a classic, has been compared by the critics to Venedikt Erofeev's novel Moskva-Petushki and is even regarded as being in a palimpsestical relation to that novel [Uritskii, A., 2001, "Iurii Andrukhovich, 'Moskoviada', 2001", [in:] "Znamia", nr. 12. znamia/2001/12/uritski.html].
The novel, in its description of the decaying Soviet empire, has also been compared with the Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki's book Mała Apokalipsa [A Minor Apocalypse, 1979], which Andrukhovych translated into Ukrainian at the time when he was writing Moskoviada. The buffoonery in the book suggests a comparison with Kotliarevsky's Eneida.
The novel's satirical approach to historical and national myths is also related to the works of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. In this paper I shall dwell on a theme close to this last one, that is on the deconstruction of the myth of the Soviet and Russian empire in the novel.

The empire

The empire and the impending fall of the Soviet empire is a recurring theme, or perhaps the theme of the novel. The setting of the novel is the centre of the empire, its capital Moscow, in the vicinity of the television tower (and the Exhibition of Economic Achievement), these being important symbols of the Soviet empire. Other topoi of the empire are the underground, the Arbat, the centre of the city and so on, that is distinct and precise places in the capital of the empire.
The literary institute with its students from all over the former Union and the location of this institute in Ostankino in the vicinity of the television tower are stock and trade propagandistic elements boasting the multinationality of the Soviet Union. The enumeration of the different peoples of the Soviet Union living in the dormitory, drinking in the beer-bar, being friends of Otto and so on, is repeated throughout the novel from the very first pages, stressing that Moscow is the centre of an empire with many nationalities. The multinationality of the Soviet state is thus represented by the author in these repeated enumerations.
The empire is Otto's antagonist. He very often mentions the empire as his enemy and as the dark side of existence in general. It is almost personified, and the very word "empire", "imperiia" is used constantly throughout the whole book. However, the empire is on the verge of falling apart: there are no products to buy, there are no longer any toys in Detskii mir, even vodka is difficult to find due to Gorbachev's campaign of sobriety, almost nothing is functioning.
Apart from on this superficial level, the deconstruction of the empire is accomplished in many different and very persistent ways. The most important of these - I would argue - is the use of language. This is even signalled by the placement of the institute beside the TV-tower that distributes the Soviet propaganda. The tower with its transmitting waves causes all the students to fall into some sort of somnambular state.
The empire is not described in the language of the empire - Russian - but in the language of one of the colonized - Ukrainian. The capital of the Soviet Union, so often described in Russian propagandistic language as being for all the people of the Soviet Union, is suddenly described here in Ukrainian and in a very dark way. The Ukrainian language has taken back its status and is no more in a colonial relation to Russian.
Russian is sometimes used neutrally in quotations of what has been said in Russian, but mostly to show the imperial discourse as in the following poem by one of Otto's fellow poets, a Russian by name of Novokain, and published in the series "The Russian idea" founded by a certain Nikolai Palkin, this being a nickname of the reactionary tsar Nicholas I, and by the publishing house "The Third Rome":
За что, Прибалтика, скажи,
Святую Русь так ненавидишь?
Замри, Эстонь! Литва, дрожи!
Ты русский х(...) еще увидишь!
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 13].
This Russian poet, whose imperialistic diction reminds the reader of Fedor Tiutchev, is some sort of beggar, trying to find a place to sleep at the institute; the former courtpoets have a hard time in the last days of the empire. The Russian obscene language, mat, is used abundantly in the novel as can be seen in this quotation. An interesting fact, however, is that this mat is only marked with the first letter in the Ukrainian text but spelled out fully in the Russian translation of Andrukhovych's novel.
Russian is also used to quote different political slogans as for example:
Когда отечество в беде - не можем быть в узде!
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 111].
The Russian language is also used to quote the speech of the guards when Otto enters the governmental zone and is arrested. It likewise plays an important role in the Orthodox discourse used by the old man whom Otto meets outside the conference hall. Here the Russian is reproduced with Ukrainian orthography:
Во храм хадiть надобно. Богу молiться. Он всьо прощает
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 120].
In the above case one can even feel along with the poet Otto some sympathy for the old man, who is a representative of the small people of Russia with their humility, but also with their characteristic passivity. The use of Russian in the novel therefore means both a seizure of the Russian language by Ukrainian and its marginalization. The use of the Ukrainian orthography is especially important here: throughout the history of the Ukrainian language, especially in the 1880s and in the 1930s, the Russian and Soviet authorities tried to force Russian orthography onto the Ukrainian language. In the Ukrainian context, the orthography is a question of political and cultural independence.
But the novel is even more complex than this. After the hegemony of Ukrainian has been established in the novel, the Ukrainian language too is deconstructed in some respects, as in this absurd utterance by Otto concerning the beauty of the Ukrainian language:
До речi, наша солов'їна мова посiдае друге у свiтi мiсце за милозвучнiстю. Це визнали специальни експертизи з милозвучнoстi мов на конкурсi, що вiдбувався в Женевi. Росiйська опинилaся на почесному тридцять четвертому, якe подiлила з монгольською та суахiлi
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 61].
The irony is not only directed at the Soviet empire and its manifestations, but also at the Ukrainian nationalistic discourse, which is the main target in the first published novel by Androchovych - Recreations. The very narrative voice of Otto is questioned by the reader in these primitive nationalistic utterances. Some Russian critics have found anti-Russian elements in the novel, taking this kind of utterance as representing the opinion, not of Otto, but of Andrukhovych himself, and they have seen these primitivisms in isolation and not within the structure of the novel as a whole.
The Ukrainian language can also be used in an imperial discourse as can be seen in the episode describing the zone. Even if the Ukrainian tongue has been colonized by Russian, this does not mean that it is never guilty per se. The chief of the zone, Sashka, already knows everything that Otto has done during this Saturday, and he retells the story of the novel, which we already know in the words of Otto. Sashka retells it in the language of the KGB but renders it in Ukrainian. The Chekist even asks Otto about the quality of his language:
- До речi, як вам моя українська?
- Бажае гiршого, - зауважив ти. - Надто правильна, и це вiдразу робить очевидною вашу професiю
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 95].
Sasha has even planned to be a poet and quotes one of his own poems about nature written in a typical Ukrainian style.
The narrative of the novel is thus reiterated in the discourse, but not in the language, of the empire:
Вiзьмciмo, для прикладу, день ваш сьoгоднiшнiй, день ваш суботнiй. Почався вiн властиво з того, що в гуртожитскьiй душовiй ви провели незаконний статевий акт з громадянкою Малагасiйьcкої республики Татнакета
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 97].
Language, and the mixing of Ukrainian and Russian, is thus of crucial importance in the novel. In the Russian translation of Moskoviada the translator has tried to mark the use of Russian by transcribing it in a sound-imitating way, that is by writing out the a-kanie. This has the effect that this special use of Russian is still felt, and that the translated novel preserves the play between the language of the empire and the language of the colonized people.

The empire of alcohol

The empire is thus deconstructed through the narrative of the novel and the use of language. A third way is through the use of alcohol. The hero, who is also the narrator, is drunk throughout the whole day, and the whole story about the fall of the empire is told through a haze of drunkenness. The empire will perish because of the shortage of spirits:
Свого часу тебе навчали, що Римьска iмперiя загинула пiд ударами рабiв и колонiв. Ця iмперiя загине пiд ударами пиякiв
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 28].

Але iмперия зрадила своїх пияйiв. I пререкла себе на розпад
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 29].

Alcohol itself is seen as an empire and the secular state perishes with it or because of the lack of it. Drinking is seen at the same time as a religion and the drinking in the beer-bar as some kind of blasphemous Eucharistic celebration. It is a sort of parallel empire, as multinational as the Soviet Union: Andrukhovych enumerates all the different nationalities in the beer-bar where Otto gets drunk. This empire is even international, as can be seen in the long list of spirits from different countries mentioned in the novel.
The story is discredited through having such a notorious drunkard as its narrator: the imperial discourse is deconstructed in Otto's narrative, but this very narrative is also deconstructed by the behaviour of Otto. Perhaps what he is describing is not the last manifestation of the empire but his own delirium.

The main hero

The main character is a drunkard and a person without any firm moral principles. His name, Otto, distances him from the Russian or Soviet imperial discourse, since his name does not correspond to Russian or Soviet names. Possibly his name alludes to the Austrian-Hungarian empire, to which Andrukhovych's home town, as well as Galicia as a whole, once belonged. Still he is no anti-colonial hero: we learn that he has not been steadfast in his contacts with the KGB; in his wandering around Moscow he forgets an important task, namely attending an appointment at a liberal Ukrainian journal; his achievements as a Ukrainian poet are doubtful. There is no narrator in the novel other than he and his story is put into question by his own low credibility. The name of Andrukhovych is mentioned in the novel, as is that of another poet of quite different standard - another way of distancing the main character of the novel from any moral discourse. I am presuming Andrukhovych has some sort of moral position, but Otto does certainly not. The Ukrainian scholar Tamara Hundorova states that the hero's identity is lost in the capital of the empire, but my own view is that he rather lets this happen, that he has responsibility for his own actions. However, I agree with Hundorova in her assertion that what is left of the hero is his language:

Describing the agonising Empire, Andrukhovych reveals and even intensifies its ambivalence. His novel "Moskoviada" (1992) immerses us in the atmosphere of the Soviet Empire. It becomes a parody of the late-totalitarian Empire and its symbols. The journey of a Ukrainian as a postcolonial subject to the capital of the Soviet empire demonstrates annihilation of his identity, which becomes shadow-like. His joy and erotic energy reminds us of a kind of necrophilic 'bravado' over the body of the almost "dead" Empire. Only one sphere of his power in that alien topological territory is left to him: his language [Hundorova,].


The theme of sex is used to bring a flavour of both European and international longing as a contrast to the Empire. At the same time it is a part of an anti-imperial discourse against the prudish official Soviet culture, in the same vein as the theme of sex was used in the underground Czech literature by such authors as Kundera or Klima. Some critics have compared Andrukhovych to Kundera, both I think for their use of sex and for their central European cultural discourse. The theme of Otto's girls is also ambivalent: the Russian girl, Galina, stands both for the empire as when she suddenly turns up as a representative of the authorities when Otto is arrested, and when she has to give him the terrible injections; yet she also rescues him from a certain death. Galina and Otto unite Russia and Ukraine, while the protagonist and his former girl friend Astrid from the United States unite east and west, as is explicitly stated in the novel. The black girl at the beginning of the story represents the international theme in the novel. Both alcohol and sex emerge as mock-empires deconstructing and destabilizing the Soviet and Russian empires.

The kingdom of death and the resurrection

The narrative is structured as a "wandering" through hell, a hell that first appears in the form of the beer-bar or in the form of Moscow in general, as in this characterization of the capital of the empire:
Це мiсто тисячi та одноi катiвнi. Високий форпост Сходу перeд завоюванням Заходу. Останнє мiсто Азїї, вiд п'яних кошмарiв якого панiчно втiкали знекровленi та германiзованi монархи. Мiсто сифiлису та хулiганiв, улюблена казка озброених голодранцiв... Це мiсто трат
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 57].
The lowest circle of this hell is the underground world of Moscow, with its sewers and enormous rats. This is a wandering by the protagonist into the kingdom of death, not in an attempt to retrieve anyone from there except himself, but simply to depict the atrocities of that place, hence the subtitle "a novel of horrors". There is also a resurrection from the dead for Otto at the very end of the novel and here the novel makes yet another turn, the hero is returning to Kyiev:
Головне - дожите до завтра. Дотягнути до станцiї Київ. И не злетiти к бiсовiй матери з цiєї полицi, на якiй завершую свою невдалу довколасвiтню подорож
[Andrukhovych, 2000, 138].
Up until now the novel has been narrated in the second person singular but the narration switches here to the first person singular. The novel ends in a kind of Ukrainian discourse but without the satirical tone and without any drunkenness. The «I» is sober, the «You» is drunk. The novel is addressed all the time to the King of Ukraine, a sort of personification of Ukraine, I presume, but suddenly in quite a different tone. The imperial discourse is deconstructed in the narrative of the drunken Otto, but at the same time his own discourse is also deconstructed. In the end Ukraine is seen as a future paradise in contrast to the kingdom of death, or hell, described in the novel. However, this paradise is never described because here the novel ends. The very ambiguity of the novel deconstructs two discourses: the imperial and the national, but at the end of the novel the very ambiguity is also put into question. Perhaps the hero will develop into a Ukrainian hero or into a responsible citizen of Ukraine in his battle against the remnants of the empire.

A political postscript

The hero of the novel Moskoviada is thus not at all a Ukrainian hero, as we have been able to demonstrate in this paper. The return to Ukraine from Moscow at the end of the novel may be understood as a return to the Ukrainian cause for the protagonist of the novel, and as an opening for this theme in the later novels of Andrukhovych. The national theme is exploited to varying degrees in all the novels by Andrukhovych and with ever greater seriousness and stronger commitment to the independence of the Ukraine and to defence of his country against Soviet and Russian hegemony and imperialism. At the same time all his novels, and not only Moskoviada, are dedicated to the deconstruction of the nationalistic rhetoric. This defence of Ukrainian independence and simultaneous criticism of nationalistic propaganda is a very important feature of the novels of Andrukhovych as well as of the works of other Ukrainian postmodernistic writers.
This is certainly the most important political function of these authors: as a counterweight to all the cheap nationalistic slogans flourishing in Ukraine today. Andrukhovych's novels are even more committed to the pluralism of life, cultures and languages, as can be most seen in the novel Perverzion (1997) about a Ukrainian poet attending an international conference in Italy.
Andrukhovych, as a Ukrainian citizen rather than a novelist, has committed himself to yet another cause, that is the place of Ukraine in Europe and in the European Union. This was clearly expressed in a speech delivered in December 2004 to the European Parliament at the time of the Orange revolution:
I - just a writer - have my own particular hopes. I want to distinctly hear from Europe that Kuchma, Ianukovych and their spinmasters are wrong, that Europe is waiting for us, that it cannot endure without us, that Europe will not continue to be in all its fullness without Ukraine
[Andrukhovych, 2004].
In a speech in March 2006, after having been rewarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, he quoted this earlier speech and expressed his deep disappointment about the fact that - in his opinion - West European politicians did not want the Ukraine amongst them and that nothing had happened regarding this question after the Orange Revolution. [Andrukhovych, 2006]. His criticism was mainly directed against the Schengen treaty, which prevents Ukrainian citizens travelling to the countries of the EU. The political role of Andrukhovych here is twofold, both as a postmodern author with a commitment to pluralism and openness and as a citizen of a new Ukraine, who has become - as an author - a platform from which to propagate the independence of his country and its belonging to Europe.


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