A beautifully told and evocative – if slightly capitalist leaning – short story of the power of generosity whatever the circumstances.
Pushkin and his wife Irina are peasant farmers on the eve of the Russian Revolution. As the revolution occurs they move from the country to Moscow to be part of the birth of a new communist world.
Irina straight away becomes an organiser and Leninist activist, becoming active in her factory work. Pushkin ends up getting fired for incompetence and assumes the traditional role of the woman, queuing in long lines for essentials like bread or grain.
But, though he may be incompetent he is kind and endearing with everyone he meets in the queues, and he soon finds that his generosity towards others is rewarded. He stands in lines for others and they, in return, give him a share of what they gain – bread, jam, coffee etc.
As time goes by he, through generosity not self-interest, recruits a team of young orphans who follow his lead, and together they help people queue in long lines for things they need and get their rewards in return.
Irina re-evaluates her view of Pushkin; from a kind, naive, hapless idiot – like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot – to a useful contributor to the revolutionary society, helping people achieve their aims and even making others productive. Unspoken, though, is that she’s rationalising his contribution because it benefits them so much. By then they live in a beautiful large apartment of the sort occupied by party grandees.
All is well until Pushkin finds himself in a line for the right to emigrate, on behalf of an artist / cleaner he befriends.The artist never relieves him of his place in the queue, and so Pushkin ends up successfully getting the seal for himself and his wife.
Irina and Pushkin leave for New York, but Pushkin’s naivety leads him to give away half of their possessions on the journey there, prompting Irina to realise he’s as hapless as ever and so leave him alone with almost nothing in this heaving and entirely alien city. But it ends with a positive note, as Pushkin joins the queue for a soup kitchen, and Towles hints that through his patience and generosity in lines like this he will recreate m himself and achieve his previous successes again, there in New York.
This is a simply told, light and amusing story, almost parable-like at times, very Russian even. But it has a pretty clear message: that enterprise and ingenuity and survival are inherent to all people, even the most naive and virtuous, and this will thrive in a communist society as much as a capitalist one. The implication, too, is that the aims of communism are not only easily betrayed by good people like Pushkin naturally doing what they do, but also that people like Irina – activists and supporters – are easily corrupted into wanting more and more, and they will rationalise that desire to allow their acquisition to continue and inequality to grow. In other words i can’t help finding a pro-capitalist, pro-enterprise message in this otherwise touching and enjoyable story.