Technically, the apartment block at 1933 Ivansk Street, in Kirovka, Ukraine, does not exist. The building was made of leftover material from its neighbors. It doesn’t appear on the official rolls. Consequently, its residents have a hell of a time getting heat, electricity, and other utilities. This lack of documentation also serves as a metaphor for the characters in Maria Riva’s brilliant collection of connected stories, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, who tend to fall into the cracks of Soviet and post-Soviet life.
The first half of the collection, which contains stories set before the fall of the USSR, was my favorite. For all the terrible absurdity and brutality, there was always the hope that the fall of the regime would make life better for the characters. I hoped that Daniil would be able to move out of assigned housing that he shares with far too many relatives (“Novostroïka”), that Konstantyn the Poet would no longer be persecuted for a joke, and that Smena would be able to openly listen to music from the west instead of secretively creating “Bone Music” (named for the historical recordings made on X-rays).
The stories in the second half—set in an independent but far from settled Ukraine—were harder for me to get through. I knew enough of history to realize that these characters with already marginal lives wouldn’t have much to look forward to unless that managed to ride the coattails of a rising oligarch. In “Lucky Toss” and “Roach Brooch,” characters scramble to keep themselves fed by cannibalizing anything of value. “The Ermine Coat” is particularly unsettling because of its subtext. It’s never stated directly, but there are hints that the narrator of this story is being prepared to support her family by going overseas and engaging in some kind of sex work.
The last story, “Homecoming,” features two recurring characters returning to 1933 Ivansk to witness the final collapse of a building that wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place. I had already noticed a theme building around the idea of foundations and systems, but this last story really brought home the idea that structures are only as good as their foundations. Communism was rotten. It was so riddled with inconsistencies, human error, human spite, and logical contradictions that it couldn’t last. Post-Soviet capitalism is so rapacious and unfair that it is equally doomed. Just like 1933 Ivansk, the only way forward is to tear everything down to rubble and start over.
Good Citizens Need Not Fear is an excellent collection of stories that I enjoyed for Riva’s deadpan humor and the way characters would walk in and out of the stories. I love a good collection of linked stories. The fact that they’re set in the Soviet Union/Ukraine meant they were just that much more interesting to me. Unlike a lot of Russian writing, this collection is not unrelentingly grim. There are disturbing moments and Kafka-esque scenarios, but things never got downright miserable or dreary. I enjoyed this collection quite a lot.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.