Most disorienting in this story is Berberova’s subtle mirror, which she turns on the reader, the practice of reading, and the inhumaneness of humanity. Zoya arrives at a Ukrainian boardinghouse, fleeing the civil war that is slaughtering Bolshevik Russia. She must conceal everything that’s good about herself—her intelligence and education, her youth, her stockings—because such attributes are not trending in communist populism. But who is Zoya? Digging for clues, the landlady and her daughters examine Zoya’s unusual name. They rifle her suitcase, her underclothes, her wastepaper, her torn skirt. From the appearance of her things, they form no conclusions beyond the prejudicial: she’s a foreigner therefore diseased; she has good stockings therefore this penniless refugee must be loathsomely privileged. In real life I’d hardly condone such invasions of privacy or snap judgments based on outward appearances; but as the reader of Zoya’s story, do I not form my impressions of Zoya in exactly the same way as her landlady? Mustn’t I cobble together Zoya’s image based on Berberova’s inspections of her physiognomy, accent, underclothes, overclothes, private letters, table manners, and whatever symbolisms might be implicated by her name? Fiction, being fiction, protects its readers from moral culpability vis-à-vis its characters: the invasiveness of curiosity and the unfairness of appearance-based judgments ‘do not matter’ because Zoya isn’t ‘real.’ But what if she was? You’d like to think that, unlike Zoya’s landlady, you wouldn’t toss Zoya literally into the street if she appeared to contract a disease. ‘But these are exceptional times,’ you might say as you await your COVID vaccination, meanwhile glaring with horror at anyone who sneezes.
“These were fairy-tale times,” Berberova writes. The landlady and her daughters feel “that in the general displacement, the universal alarm, the time had come for them, too, to live and act . . . Something told them that there were not two or three or four of them but no end to the people, no counting them—whether they had a needle or a slotted spoon in hand—gripped by the general hatred and vindictiveness.”
First published in English in The Ladies from St. Petersburg, New Directions, 1998