Mikhail Zoshchenko and the Currency of Representation

Lida Oukaderova, University of Texas, Austin

Following the 1917 Revolution, political and cultural thinkers in Russia were consumed with the project of creating new forms of representation appropriate to the social transformations the country was then experiencing. Simultaneous to these developments, numerous parties debated what the place of money in the newly established Soviet state should be. While the total elimination of money was a frequently discussed possibility up until the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921, after that point discussions centered on the choice between the nominal'nyj rubl' ("nominal ruble") or chervonec (a ruble supported by the gold standard). These debates ended with the successful introduction of the latter between 1922 and 1924. Similar to the experiments in literature and art taking place during these same years, these discussions of money's form in post-Revolutionary Russian society were concerned above all with questions of representation and value; supporters of the gold standard, chief among them Finance Minister Grigorij Sokol'nikov, saw the rooting of money in the real material value of gold as a necessary counter to the arbitrariness they felt would otherwise plague any monetary system.

My paper examines three stories by Mixail Zoshchenko—"Tverdaja valjuta" (1923), "Foma Nevernyj" (1924), and "Ljudi" (also 1924, from Zoshchenko's Sentimental Tales)—through the lens of these controversies. In each of these three texts, money functions as the central pivot of narrative conflict, an object through which questions of representation (both visual and textual) and its relation to reality are discussed. In "Tverdaja valjuta," the hero's contemplation of the value of hard currency communicates his fundamental perplexity about the order of signs and things more broadly; in "Foma Nevernyj," the hero mistakes an image of a peasant on a newly issued chervonec note for a sign of his own all-embracing power; and in "Ljudi," the fictional narrator suggests that only writers who truthfully represent contemporary events will be reimbursed with gold rubles, while at the same time complaining that possession of such gold rubles is a prerequisite for being able to create truthful representations in the first place. Through an integration of both historical considerations and close textual analysis, I argue that Zoshchenko's inquiries into money's form and function embody a much broader questioning of the structure of representation itself, one symptomatic of the widespread symbolic and monetary instability in Russia at the time. My paper thus hopes both to add to our understandings of Zoshchenko's work of the mid–1920s, and to raise new questions about the imbrication of money and representation in early Soviet culture.