The Norm

Cargo City, Germany
Cargo City, Germany. Ellie Ga, ©2003

Norma, written in the early 1980s, is the most radical fictional product of Sots-Art, the Russian version of Pop Art. Its style recreates the banal cheerfulness, faux-naturalism, and hard-boiled tone of official Soviet writing before utterly blowing it up. A remarkable work of anti-totalitarian fiction, it has never been translated into English.

The book opens with a preface: the writer Boris Gusev is arrested while going out to get his newspaper. He reacts bravely, refusing to answer questions while the KGB searches his apartment. They find the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago (“You gave the other two volumes to Feinstein the other night, is that correct?”) and a 372-page manuscript of a novel called Norma (“Recommended Daily Allowance,” or “The Norm”). They immediately send the manuscript to headquarters, at Lyubyanka, where a 13-year-old boy is given the task of reading it. The text then follows.

The first third of that text, Part I, follows—seven scenes are translated, the others are summarized in brackets.

Sveklushin escaped from the crowded bus, adjusted his scarf, and marched rapidly down the sidewalk.

The wet asphalt was covered with fallen leaves, the wind blew at his back and nuzzled the bare branches of the poplar trees. Sveklushin raised his coat collar and ducked into a side street. But the side street soon ended, and Sveklushin crossed the avenue to a newspaper kiosk. Suddenly he received a tap on his shoulder.

“Hey, buddy!”

He turned around, and there was Trofimenko!

“Holy shit!” said Sveklushin, his eyebrows inching up his face. “Trof?”

“That’s right!” Trofimenko brightly held out his hand.

“But, wait, wait, how did you get here? Where are you coming from?” Sveklushin shook the hand.

“From home, Sashuk! From home!”

“But, wait, holy shit, why didn’t you call? Why didn’t you come by?”

“I just got in. Right off the train. My baggage is in a locker.”

“Wait. Wow. Are you in on business, or what?”

“Technically no, but actually yes. I’m looking for an apartment.”

“Yeah? That is business. But look at you, holy shit! You look great. You been pigging out or what?”

“Yeah, right. No danger of that out there.”

“But, wait, holy shit. And Nina?”

“What about her? She’s a sweetheart. We’re working, living. You know. Raising the kids. Sasha’s two, Timka’s almost eight.”

“What? Timka? Holy shit! Just the other day I was throwing him in the air.”

“Wouldn’t be able to do that now. He’s a real porker.”

“Yeah, huh. Wait, Serezh, but tell me, how are things really? How’s Pavel Yegorich? And Senya?”

“Ah, everything’s fine. Pavel Yegorich is hanging in there.”

“Head engineer?”

“Yup. But Senya’s started drinking. Had some problems at work. His wife almost kicked him out.”

“Holy—! What happened?”

“I don’t know. He wasn’t much of a drinker, either. Or not more than anybody else . . .”

“Yeah. That’s something. Smart guy, too . . . Listen, let’s sit down or something, we’re standing here like two idiots . . . here.”

They crossed the street and sat down on a bench near the side street.

Sveklushin looked at Trofimenko, shook his head quietly.

“Yeah . . . wow. Funny how we ran into each other. But you’re a good one. No letters, no phonecalls . . .”

“Ah, Sash, that’s not up to me. I’m away on business six months at a time. Just running around like crazy.”

“Still. A couple of lines wouldn’t kill you. ‘I’m okay, everyone’s healthy. Say hello to your parents for me.’”

“I wrote you.”

“When?”

“I wrote you. I did. Come on.”

“Ah, you!” Sveklushin laughed, slapped Trofimenko on the shoulder. “‘I wrote,’ he says!”

Trofimenko produced a pack of cigarettes.

“Want one?”

“Nah. No.”

“Well, and how’re things with you?”

Sveklushin sighed.

“Pretty much the same. Vera’s finishing the aviation institute.”

“In the evenings?”

“Yeah. And Serezha’s in seventh grade.”

“Grades?”

“So-so. He just can’t seem to get down to work. Just wants to hang out, listen to the radio.”

“Okay. And how’s work? How’s Sidorov been acting?”

“Shitty.”

“He’s coming down on you?”

“Yeah. I’m thinking of getting out. I’m sick of them.”

“Where will you go?”

“I could go to the tech institute. Teach there.”

“Technology?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, why not? That’s interesting too.” Trofimenko kept smoking, adjusting his grip on the very tip of the cigarette.

“And the main thing is, it’s nearby. In Cheremushki.”

“Then it’s God’s will, practically. Do it.”

Sveklushin placed his briefcase on his knees, smiled, sighed.

“Ah, Serezha, Serezha,” he said. “Look at you. You’re getting wrinkles.”

“Yeah, and so? That’s normal.”

“What’s normal about it? Black-belt in sambo, thirty-five years old.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve got plenty of wrinkles yourself. So don’t worry too much on my account. You’ll give yourself a heart attack!”

They laughed.

Sveklushin slapped Trofimenko on the knee.

“Listen up, businessman. You get yourself to the train station, get your bags out of hock, and come on over. I’ll give Verka a call, tell her to rustle something up for a big man from out of town. She’s home already, you know. So get going.”

Finished speaking, Sveklushin stood up, then remembered something.

“But wait. I’ll take my norm first, no need to lug it home. Good thing I remembered.”

He sat down and opened his briefcase.

Trofimenko smoked, shaking the ash onto the asphalt.

“Where . . . ah, there you are.”

Sveklushin took out the neatly wrapped cellophane bag with the norm in it.

“Oh, wow.” Trofimenko reached out for the package. “Look at that. We don’t get them like this. They just put them in little paper bags. And the paper’s real rough. But yours—look how carefully they did this. Even the typeface is nice. NORM.”

“The capital’s the capital,” said Sveklushin. He tore open the packet, shook the norm onto his palm, pinched off a chunk and shoved it into his mouth.

Trofimenko touched the norm with his finger.

“It’s so fresh . . . and soft. Ours is all dried out. Gets all crumbly. So-called ‘organizers.’ They can’t organize shit.”

“You should write someone, let them know.” Sveklushin kept chewing, occasionally pinching off another chunk.

“Write!” Trofimenko threw down his cigarette and crushed it with his foot. “Don’t make fun, Sasha.”

“It wouldn’t help?”

“Of course not. They couldn’t care less. And then they say, ‘Why aren’t the provinces producing?’ They’ve got to be kidding. It’s just déjà vu every time. They keep trucking the norms in, they keep trucking them in, and inside they’re lying there all dried up and stale. They could at least get the norms right. It’s strange.”

“Yeah, some things in this country are still pretty screwy.” Sveklushin put the last piece of norm into his mouth, crumpled up the bag and was about to throw it in the trash when Trofimenko stopped him.

“Don’t throw it out, give it to me. I’ll show my wife.”

He smoothed out the bag carefully and placed it in his pocket.

They got up.

Trofimenko straightened his cap, Sveklushin his scarf. They stood a moment looking each other over.

Trofimenko exhaled quickly through his nose. “Sash, what if a guy wanted to buy that coat. Is it hard?”

“No, not really, but it’s Czechoslovakian. So it’s a deficit item.”

“But I can overpay if I need to. I have some money. What do you think?”

“We can try. Vera knows a lot of the salesgirls.” Sveklushin shifted his briefcase to his left hand, sighed. “We’ll try. But for now, you get yourself to the station, you hear? Get your stuff. You remember the address?”

“Are you nuts? Of course.”

“Well, then, good. Run. Be at our place in half an hour, you got it?”

“Got it.” Trofimenko smiled.

“Good. We’ll be waiting.” Sveklushin nodded, turned, and quickly marched toward home. Trofimenko smiled and watched him walk away.


Radushkevich lowered the flame, and the cocoa’s chocolate foam rose less quickly.

As soon as it reached the rim of the little pot, he switched off the gas and began to stir the cocoa with a spoon.

“Dad, look,” Sveta called from the other room, “they’re showing the circus!”

Without answering, Radushkevich removed the pot from the stove and poured himself some cocoa, then sat down.

“Dad! Acrobats!”

He unsealed the norm, poured it into a cup, then took a can of eggplant salad from the refrigerator, opened it, and began to scoop it with a spoon onto the dried brick of norm.

“Dad! They’re flying!”

Radushkevich used the spoon to mix the norm with the salad, then cut off some bread.

“Dad! There’s three of them!”

He began to spread his mixture onto the bread.

“They’re doing flips right in the air!”

In all, the mixture was enough for seven sandwiches.

Radushkevich stirred the cocoa, sipped at it, picked up the first sandwich, took a bite.

“This woman just went through his legs, Dad!”

“That’s nice for her,” said Radushkevich, in a barely audible murmur, as he slurped at the cocoa.

His paws knocking against the floor, Henry came up and stuck his black face into Radushkevich’s knee.

Radushkevich gave him a lump of sugar.

Henry gnawed at it loudly, dropping pieces onto the floor, then picking them up. He licked himself and looked at his master.

[The day’s final galleys arrive at the news-room. Olya, the office manager, distributes the pages. Tumakov helps out, and has to read more than his share because Morozov, who’s friends with the editor-in-chief, has taken off early. But it’s more time he gets to spend with Olya. After some reading, Olya gets up to stretch and checks on her norm. “All day I’ve been chewing at it, and chewing, I just can’t seem to chew it to the end.” Tumakov suggests she make the effort.]


Yartsev was ten minutes late—the clock on the silvery post nearby showed that it was past six.

Slavka and Sashka were waiting for him at the corner, near a shoe repair stall.

“Hey,” said Yartsev, holding out his hand. “I got a little caught up . . .”

Slavka shook his hand wanly. “We started thinking you’d skip out again.”

“Vit’ka the skip-out artist,” scowled Sashka, taking Vitya’s hand. “We salute you, Mr. Skipski. Always somewhere else to go. Say, why so businesslike? You wasted already?”

“Yup,” said Vitya. “I’m in a bad way.” He took out a pack of cigarettes, offered it around.

They smoked. Vitya exhaled, then spit.

“So?” he said. “Do I have to go get the stuff again?”

Slavka and Sashka laughed together.

“He’s a businessman!”
“He gets things done! Look at him, there’s smoke coming out of his ears!”

“What, you buy it already?” asked Vitya.

Slava shook his head reproachfully.

“Viktor Kuzmich,” he said. “You don’t think much of us, do you? You don’t value us very much.”

He opened his overcoat. A bottle of vodka peeked out from the inside pocket.

“Forgive me, Lord,” Vitya giggled. “I knew not what I thought.”

“That’s more like it, Viktor Kuzmich. You should be more careful in the future. Let’s see a bean and a half from you.”

Vitya counted out the money and shoved it over to Slava.

“Where should we go?”

“Anywhere at all. Here, even.”

“Let’s go in back of the building.”

“In the little square?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.”

They went around the corner, crossed a playground.

In the little square, two men were sharing a bottle of red wine, and another was asleep on the bench.

They walked past. Sashka nodded toward them.

“Fucking suicides.”

They sat down on a bench.

Slavka opened the bottle. Sashka handed around some processed cheese.

“Now,” Slavka said, flicking a cigarette butt off the bench. “Please do the honors, Sash.”

Sashka drank from the bottle, then handed it to Vitya. Vitya raised it to his lips, then suddenly pulled away.

“Ah, fuck . . . I still have my norm. Here, Slav, you go first.”

He handed Slavka the bottle, took the norm from his pocket, ripped open the packet.

“What the fuck?” Slavka looked at him in surprise.

“What? Nothing.”

“You guys have to take it too?”

“Yeah. 150 each. You didn’t know?”

“No,” Slavka drank from the bottle. “Ekh. Why’d you decide to start?”

“Just decided is all.” Vitya broke the norm in half and began eating it, biting from each of the halves in turn. “You’ll decide too, one of these days.”

“Fuck that,” said Slavka, holding out the bottle to him. “Here.”

Vitya finished the norm, then drank.

They each swallowed a piece of cheese.

Sashka threw the bottle into the bushes.

“Well fuck, Vityok,” said Slava. He looked at his friend. “Be careful.”

“Unbefuckinglievable.” Sashka spit, stood up, and, dropping the tin-foil from the cheese, deftly kicked it with his foot.

The silvery little ball traced an arc in the air and disappeared into a pile of fallen leaves.

[Alexei Kirillovich’s spoiled cat Sinus refuses to eat his sausage, apparently holding out for fish. “No fish,” Alexei Kirillovich says. “Don’t even think about it.” Eventually he eats the sausage himself, makes some tea, goes into the living room to do some work (he is a physicist) and chew on his norm. He keeps Sinus updated on the progress of the work. Suddenly, he bites down on something hard. A button! “How about that . . . Sinus, someone swallowed a button. How’d he manage that?” Sinus scratches at the couch.]

[Teens Zhenya and Sergei find the guys who beat up Sergei, and beat them up; Zhenya’s norm is damaged during the fight, gets all over his coat.]


“It’s always that way with them.” Era cracked the seventh egg into the enamel bowl. “They make plenty of money, but they don’t know how to live like normal people. So at the end of the month they come borrowing.”

“I know.” Anya was cracking almonds, removing them from their shells, and putting them in a cup.

“Mashka comes by, she’s practically naked, just an amber necklace and a little slip. Era, she says, could you help me out? And she knows perfectly well I can’t say no.”

“Of course she does.”

“She went to the Solovyovs’ once, they said no. But me, I just can’t do it. I can’t say no.”

Era tossed the shells into the wastebasket and started whipping sugar into the eggs.

“You’re too good.”

“I tell myself, don’t be an idiot, who do you think you are? But I just can’t. Whereas Mashka, she takes the hundred—no problem. See you later. The next day they have a party. All sorts of people. On pay day, she gives me half back, then at the end of the month, there she is again.”

“Does he come by?”

“No, of course not. They’re the Party elite, they’re not going to condescend to visit a couple of engineers. Their guests are that way, too—bunch of snobs. All wrapped in leather and suede.”

“Is he in the Union?”

“Long time. He’s got a three-volume collected works coming out, Mashka said.”

“Did you read it?”

“I read it. It’s—it’s just the dullest thing. An industrial novel. He loves her; she’s on the factory committee; he’s a foreman. He’s having trouble meeting his quota. His crew’s falling apart, people are quitting. She criticizes him. He thinks she fancies the head engineer. Of course it all works out. They surpass the quota, they get married. The tough old boss gives a toast at the wedding. The young workers clap. The end.”

“Awful . . .”

“Yup, I barely finished it. He has a book of stories, too. It’s, you know, village lyricism. Not bad, really, but how much can you take, you know? Enough already.”

“Do I put the cream in now or later?”

“Later. Or it’ll sink. Pass me the flour.”

Anya handed her the sack of flour.

Era measured out two cups, poured them into the bowl, added some melted butter, and began stirring with a wooden spoon.

“Er, do I put the nuts in all at once or later? Do I put them on top?”

“No, no, all at once. That’s the whole trick. It’s not a ‘Fancy.’ Why don’t you mix the nuts with the norm now.”

Anya took a covered plate from the counter. On it lay four norms. Three were dark, but the other was very fresh, and orange-brown. Anya poured the nuts onto the norms and began mixing them all together.

“Er, where does Kolya’s ministry get its norms?”

“The kindergarten.”

“Yeah, you can tell. They’re so light. We get the ones from the juvenile centers. They’re not bad, but not like this . . . It still smells, though. Nothing you can do about the smell.”

“We’ll bake it, leave it awhile, and you’ll see—no smell.”

“Really?”
“Yup . . . Did you mix them in? I’ll take that.”

Anya handed over her plate. Era cleared the heavy mass off it and into her dough, added some flour, and began to roll up her sleeves.

[Important Soviet functionary comes home, discusses problems with grown-up daughter, takes his norm straight.]

[Young couple walks down street, buy wine, go home and have great sex—she goes to the kitchen, asks him to bring their norms—turns out she’s his mistress—they cook up a nice omelet from their norms, discuss recipes. She says, “Only in this country would people think of just eating it straight.” They eat the omelet, kiss, he picks her up . . .]

[Nikolai covers his norm entirely with jam; his father-in-law comes in, is disgusted. “You’ve turned it into a cupcake!” Starts criticizing Nikolai, until Nikolai grows angry and throws him out of the kitchen.]


The pigeons fled their puddle at the approach of the large truck, and flew over Kuperman’s head.

The truck sprayed some water on the beat-up old Zaporozhets parked by the side of the road, and then disappeared behind the corner.

Kuperman moved along the shuttered market stalls. It had just stopped raining. The brightly sanded walls were still wet, and drops dripped from the slate rooftops. A few men crowded around a beer kiosk.

One of the startled pigeons circled above the kiosk and then landed on its roof. Kuperman turned, walked another hundred meters, and found himself at the river. The wet asphalt stretched around him, an occasional car passed in the evening light. The street was empty. Kuperman approached the cement parapet and, placing his elbows atop it, looked down.

The water was steel-gray; it would be dark out soon. A thin layer of slime lay atop the river.

Kuperman looked around. There was no one.

Rapidly he removed a handkerchief with his norm inside. He leaned further over the parapet and quietly let the norm fall into the water.

The brownish little brick plopped into the river, disappeared, then floated up again.

Kuperman looked around once more, blew his nose into the handkerchief, and, without hurrying, began to walk along the embankment.

A milk-truck passed, followed by two cars.

Kuperman turned down an alleyway, picked up a yellow maple leaf, and wandered along, rustling the wet autumn leaves with his boots.

A taxi stopped at the river, and a young couple stepped out.

He waved to the cab driver, who quickly turned his car around and left.

She climbed atop the parapet and stood to her full height. He took her hand.

“You’ll fall off!”

“Don’t worry.”

Balancing, she moved along the parapet.

“Lyd, you’re a real acrobat, you know that?” he said, laughing. “But this is your final act!”

“And my first.” She removed her velvet cap and began to wave it around. “We ask that elderly persons and those with heart conditions please leave the arena . . .”

“The world’s most amazing tight-rope walker! Dogs jumping through hoops, ladies and gentlemen, under the circus top! And on a wire, ladies and gentlemen, high in the air!”

The girl laughed, he grabbed her legs.

“You’re about to go for a swim, get off.”

She looked down, squinted. “Hey, what’s that?”

The young man took her down from the parapet, then looked with her.

Floating down below, rubbing against the granite wall, was the buoyant norm.

“It’s some sort of brick,” she said.

“Wait. That’s a norm!”

His face grew serious.

“How did it get there?” asked Lydia.

“I don’t know. Maybe someone lost it.”

“That can’t be.”

“Who knows? Or maybe some lowlife threw it in there.”

“Really?”

“Why not! I read in the paper the other day—one guy was throwing them into trash cans on the street. He’d wrap them up in paper, then out they’d go.”

“Geez. But listen, what if someone drowned?”

“How?”

“Just drowned! And the norm floated up!”

“No. Don’t be silly.”

He watched the norm.

“You know, we should get the police.”

“Out here?”

“We drove by one back there at the intersection.”

“Yeah, that’s right. It’s not far. Let’s go.”

“Just make sure we remember the spot.”

The policeman was patrolling the intersection on the other side of the bridge. He wore a long, checkered poncho, with his traffic baton poking out.

The couple approached him, and the young man spoke first. “Comrade police officer, we were down there, over by the turn, and then we looked, in the water . . . someone’s norm was floating in it.”

“In the water?” asked the policeman.

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure? A norm?”

“We’re sure, we’re sure!” The girl nodded her head furiously. “We were walking, we looked in the water, there it was.”

“Is it near the embankment?”

“It’s right there, next to the wall.”

“And it’s floating.”

“Yup.”

“Well, look . . .”

The officer opened his poncho halfway and produced a microphone, attached to a long coiled wire.

“Sixth, come in, sixth . . . Sash, it’s Savyolov from the eighteenth. Listen, I’ve got some kids here, they say they saw a norm in the water. Next to the alleyway, next to the turn to the market. It got washed up toward the wall. Yeah. Tell them at the station, they can send a boat.”

He put the microphone away.

“Thanks, you two.”

“Ah, it was nothing.”

The couple walked away.

Five minutes later a motorboat puttered up the river, approached the embankment, and then moved slowly alongside it. The pilot was accompanied by a policeman.

They had some trouble finding the norm in the waning light. It had begun to break up into bits in the water.

The skipper carefully maneuvered the boat’s nose against the wall as the policeman leaned out with a canvas sack, picked up the norm, and shook it out over the water.

“That’s the fourth time in two days. Can you believe it?”

The pilot lit a cigarette, threw the match overboard, and began to move away from the embankment and turn around.

“Did they find the guy?”

“We’ll find him,” the police officer nodded swiftly as he transferred the norm to a paper bag. “We’ll find him alright.”

[Yulia comes home to little Vova. He’s so excited! Did she bring the ice cream? No, better, she brought cupcakes. She makes dinner, puts her norm on a plate. “Mom,” asks Vova, “why do you eat doo-doo?” “It’s not doo-doo. Don’t talk nonsense. How many times have I told you?” “But why?” “Because.” “Mom, tell me! It doesn’t taste good. I tried. And it smells like doo-doo.” “What did I tell you! Cut it out!”]

[Prokhorov fixes his coffeemaker; sticks cotton balls up his nose, covers his norm with ground pepper, and tries to swallow it all without chewing. He turns on the television as he does so and watches angrily as a crowd erupts with laughter over the antics of a circus clown.]

[Three grad-student physicists go camping, discuss their physics projects. Beer, sandwiches, salted fish, everything’s great. No one’s around, so they consider throwing out their norms, then decide, what the heck: split one in three, throw the other two away. A bird comes over, they toss it some bread and the norms. It takes the bread and flies away.]


Alyosha covered the buzzer with his hand.

“Who is it?” inquired a female voice, cautiously, from behind the door.

“It’s me. Klav, open up.” He tried to lean on the frame but his arms slipped, so that he ended up swaying with his head against the door, balancing against it.

“God, you’re drunk. It’s past midnight. I’m not letting you in.”

Klava’s voice trailed off.

“What? No. Baby, no.” Alyosha grabbed the door handle. “It’s me. Alyosha. Just me, baby.”

There was no answer from behind the door.

Alyosha backed off and slapped the buzzer.

“Klav! That’s enough! What’re you doing? Klav. Baby. Open up.”

The door was silent.

“Open up, you hear me?!” Alyosha banged his fist against the door, just below the apartment number. “Open up! You hear me?”

“You hear me? Klav!”

“Open up! You hear me!”

“You hear me? Klavka!”

“Open up! Klavka!”

“You hear me! Klav!”

“Klav! Klav! Klav!”

His voice echoed, hollow, through the entryway.

Klava made no answer.

Alyosha kept ringing and ringing, with occasional pauses.

Then he hammered on the door.

“Open up, you bitch! Open it! Open it you fucking slut!”

“I’m talking to you! Open the door!”

“Open! Klavka! No joke!”

“Open it! Open, you!”

“Klavka! You hear me? Open the door!”

“Open it or I’ll kill you! Klav!”

He backed away for a running start, but his foot snagged on something and his legs crumpled beneath him. Alyosha collapsed onto the stairs.

“Oh, fuck . . .”

The neighbors’ door cracked open and for a second a face appeared in it. Then disappeared again.

Alyosha staggered uncertainly, made it to the door, and kicked it with all his might.

“Open up! Listen!”

“Open it, Klav.”

“Open it!”

“You hear me? Open the door!”

He kicked the door again and again, barely keeping his balance.

Then he sat down on the little doormat.

“Open up . . . you hear? Klav. Come on.”

“You hear? . . . Hear?”

“Klav . . . open up . . .”

“Klav . . . what’d I do?”

“Klav . . . Klavka . . .”

“Klav . . . open up . . . open the door . . . open the door you bitch!!!”

He stood, dirtying his hands on the doorjamb, backed up again and threw himself on the door.

“I’ll kill you, you slut! Bitch! I’ll kill you! Open the fucking door!!!”

Klava came out an hour and a half later. Alyosha was curled up before the door, asleep. Klava got him into the dark hallway, closed the door, and, holding him under the arms, dragged him toward their room.

“Oh God . . . drunk again . . . God . . . How could you? . . . Bastard . . . How much longer can I take this . . .”

She yanked off his dirty boots, carried them into the hallway. Returning, she dumped Alyosha out of his overcoat. Small coins rang out as they dropped from his pockets to the floor. Klava went through the overcoat, removed a few crumpled bills, and then felt something soft, wrapped in cellophane, in the inside pocket.

“Oh, God, the norm . . . God . . .”

She placed the norm on the table. The remaining money she put in a drawer underneath the linen.

Alyosha mumbled something, turned over.

Klava pulled off his mud-stained pants, his jacket and shirt. She dragged him onto the bed, put him on his back, and covered him with the blanket. She went over to Vovka, lying on the cot, and straightened his sheets. Then, yawning, she took off her robe and lay down next to her husband.


Alyosha awoke a little after five, got up, wandered over to the bathroom. After taking a messy leak, he turned on the faucet and put his dried-up lips to the stream. He drank for some time. Then he plunged his head under the water, made a neighing sound, and returned to the room, dripping water from his hair. He sat down on the bed and shook his head.

Klava turned to him.

“Lyosh, is that you? Listen, the norm’s over there, you forgot to eat yesterday’s . . .”

“The norm?”

“Yeah. It was in your pocket. In the coat. It’s on the table.”

“Wha?”

“What what?? Norm! The norm!” His wife was hissing. “You didn’t take your norm!”

“How?”

“That’s how. It’s sitting over there.”

Alyosha stood up, felt for the packet on the table.

“Ah fuck,” he said. “How’d that . . . how did I . . .”

“You got drunk, that’s how. Just take it now and go back to sleep. We have to be up by seven.”

Alyosha turned the packet over dully in his hands. The streetlight outside their window was reflected, piecemeal, in the cellophane bag.

He sat down on the bed again, tore open the packet, and began to chew the norm.

“Who were you with, huh?” asked Klava. “With Fedya? Or who? Huh?”

“None of your business.” Alyosha’s thin jaw moved back and forth without enthusiasm.

“Sure it’s not,” said Klava. “I just have to clean your filthy pants and wait to make sure your boots aren’t ruined.”

“All right. Shut up. Go to sleep.”

“Shut up yourself. Alcoholic.”

Klava turned over to face the wall.

Alyosha finished chewing the norm, looked at his dirtied hands. He got up and stumbled into the kitchen. He sucked at the spout of the teakettle and wiped his hands on his underwear. He approached the window and looked out over the sleeping houses. He scratched his chest.

In the building across the way, a window exploded with light on the sixth floor. And then another window nearby did the same.

Alyosha flung the drops of water from his forehead. He sniffed his hands.

He wiped them again on his underwear and went back to get some sleep.

[Fedor Ivanovich teaches Kolya how to eat his norm. “This stuff’s butter compared to what we used to eat. I tell you!” Kolya tries it, it’s disgusting. “It’s got a strange taste.” “Not a strange taste, a normal taste . . . You’ll get used to it.”]

[Ludmila Ivanovna leads a group of nineteen kindergartners to a room on the second floor. She tries to keep them in order. In the room, they are to sit down and shit. Some have trouble, Alekseev especially. “Ludmila Ivanovna, I only peed.” “Now make doo-doo.” “But I can’t. I can’t pee and make doo-doo. I either pee or make doo-doo.” “Nonsense. Sit back down.” “But I won’t make doo-doo.” “You just try.” All the children defecate and are allowed to go back downstairs, but poor Alekseev proves true to his word. The teacher asks him about his mother, who works at the airport. (Might she be useful?) Finally: “Alekseev! How much longer must we wait?” “But I don’t want to make doo-doo.” “Then you won’t be allowed to draw today.” “I don’t want to draw either.” Ludmilla Ivanovna gives up, releases him.]

[Marina and Vika, two lesbians, hang out naked and talk dirty. Vika is very beautiful, but she’s not feeling it today. They go to the kitchen, where Marina, it turns out, has this contraption over the sink. What is it? It’s for processing the norm, taking away the smell. Wow. Marina’s grandfather invented it. “But it’s true what they say,” asks Vika, “that it’s shit?” “Shit is shit,” Marina agrees, “you can’t do anything about that.” Vika’s never tried the norm, whereas Marina’s been taking it for twelve years. Vika, it turns out, sells juice at a kiosk, Marina teaches at Moscow University. The ingenious machine turns Vika on—finally!—and the two leave the kitchen to play.]

[Ludmila Ivanovna comes home from work, has a phone conversation with her lover, takes her norm with some soup.]

[Samoteev is exhibiting his paintings. His old rival Barvitskiy comes to look. Samoteev is excited—will Barvitsky finally acknowledge his talent?—and indeed Barvitskiy brings him some flowers. But, wait: they’re plastic! Samoteev is furious. “Your paintings belong in the Louvre!” yells Barvitsky, running out. “Have you ordered the gold frames yet? Have you drawn the farm machinery yet? Phony!” Later on, Samoteev eats his norm with his students, says Barvitsky has always been jealous of him. He’s not quite “normal.”]

[Giorgy is asking Aunt Katya about the wartime exploits of the heroic Aunt Natasha, who was a sniper in the Red Army. Can he see her medals? Why not; Aunt Katya takes him to the little treasure trove. Among the medals and letters, a little packet. “Norm,” it says. That’s Serezha’s. He loved Aunt Natasha, but was killed at Stalingrad. She took his last norm home with her. Can Giorgy try a piece, see how it tastes? Okay. He does. It tastes a little funny. Those were different times.]

[Denisov can’t stand the smell of the norm. “Open a window, would you?” he says to his wife. Finally he goes ahead and sticks it in his mouth—and vomits. “Now what?” his wife wants to know. Denisov couldn’t care less, she can throw it away if she wants. He goes to watch some television. She cleans up, washes off the norm, and brings it into the living room on a plate. Denisov laughs at something on the television. Then, as he watches TV, he begins to pick at the norm, bit by bit.]

[Novitsky and Akkuratov have an intense, high-level discussion of Picasso and Matisse and Duchamp. They are drinking tea and eating their norms with teaspoons. Novitsky finishes a complex, subtle point, then suddenly makes a face, starts pulling something out of his mouth—an incredibly long hair was in his norm. “Ariadne’s thread,” he jokes, pulling it out.]

[Vas’ka and Milok call up some girls, hoping to hook up. The girls say, “Tomorrow.” The boys console themselves by discussing the girls’ willingness to do anything. Really anything. Then they eat their norms, evaluating their relative quality.]

[The students Anya and Vasily talk about the theater. Vasily makes cutting remarks about the Taganka as he chews his norm.]

[A taxi driver is taking Rabbit to a far-away village. “Where is it?” asks the driver. Rabbit hits him with a rock. And again. And again. Throws him out of the car. Takes his money, but chucks his glasses and his passport. Finds the driver’s norm. Sniffs it. Disgusting. Tosses it out the window. Takes the car back to Moscow.]

[Kulikov’s novel is being criticized by Alexei Mikhailovich, his editor, who thinks that the protagonist should report his troubles to the local party committee as soon as he learns of them. Kurilov argues that this would mess up the plot. They compromise. Then, as Alexei Mikhailovich takes out his norm, they reminisce about how Tvardovsky, the legendary 1960s Novy Mir editor, the publisher of Solzhenitsyn, used to take his—at work, washed down with shots of vodka.]

[Three chess masters analyze the position that Kalmanovich has found himself in, in the tournament. Elaborate discussion. Finally they take their norms—they almost forgot! The two old masters have full norms, while Kalmanovich has a smaller (“grad-student”) one. Is it true, asks Kalmanovich, that the famous chess-master Botvinnik, when he went to London for a tournament, produced his own norm? Yes, it’s true. Wow, says Kalmanovich.]

[An old Komsomol secretary comes back to visit the old school. Chats with his friend and successor as KomSec. Student-gov phonies! A bit ostentatiously, perhaps, the alum takes out his norm and eats it.]

[Mikhail and his mom go through the newspaper to see whether they can get money for their old government bonds. There’s a chart in the paper. They go through it, figure they can recover fifty rubles, for now. So little! Why don’t they just honor all the 1950 bonds at once? “Ah, Mom, this whole country has its head up its ass.” Then Mikhail’s mom asks whether he’s going to have his norm, it’s been sitting there two days, he hasn’t touched it.]


“Nurse!” called a voice through the open door.

Reluctantly, Zoya stood up.

Klava was sipping tea next to her.

“What’s he yelling for? Is the buzzer broken again?”

“No. It’s the one who lost his arms.”

“Oh.”

Thrusting her hands into the pockets of her narrow white nurse’s robe, Zoya walked down the corridor to the patient. Krayuhin lay in the half-dark; he’d placed his bandaged stumps atop the blanket.

“What’s the matter?” Zoya asked quietly.

“Nurse . . . I . . . need to . . .”

“You want the bedpan?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

Bending over, Zoya took the plastic container from beneath the bed and placed it under the blanket.

Krayuhin adjusted his position.

“I’ll be back in five minutes.”

Zoya left, closing the door of the next room.

Klava was sipping her tea and reading, half-reclining on the cot.

Yawning, Zoya set herself down on a chair.

“Klav, I can’t remember. Did we give Sedoy his shot?”

“Of course we did.”

“Okay. It’s all mixed up in my head.”

“Tired?”

“A little bit.”

“Well, lie down and have a nap. I’ll sit for a while.”

Klava got up. Zoya lay down on the cot, moaning a little, and stretching. “Oooh, God . . . don’t forget, the bedpan, he’s got . . . that one . . .”

“The one who lost his arms?”

“Right.”

“Should I go now?”

“Yeah, go. I just gave it to him.”

“Listen, Zoy, how’d he do it?”

“His arms?”

“Yeah.”

“He was working on a construction site. He’s a carpenter, I think. So he’s carrying these boards with another guy on the fifth floor. A bunch of boards. And they could either walk around on the scaffolding, or cut through on the wall. They took the wall.”

“He told you this?”

“No, Glickman told me. So. They’re walking and . . . ooouuaaa.” Zoya yawned. “And someone misstepped. They fell from the fifth floor. His friend let go of the boards and went straight down. Died right away. But this one sort of instinctively held onto the boards and went down with them. And they spread out, like a fan. So it’s like he had a parachute. Just sprained his knee.”

“And his hands?”

“His hands. When he landed, the boards all folded up from the impact, like a pair of scissors. And the hands were inside them. They got cut clear off.”

“Wow. Least the rest of him’s there.”

“Sure. And he’s got his own room, too. Almost paradise.”

“His neighbor got transferred?”

“No, they checked him out yesterday . . . So, Klav, I’m going to nap a little.”

“Sure.”

Klava got up, went over to Krayuhin’s room, looked in.
“So? Can I take it?”

“Yes,” Krayuhin answered weakly.

Klava put her hand under the cover, felt for the warm vessel, and removed it.

There was a bit of yellow urine at the bottom.

Klava headed for the door, but Krayuhin raised his head from the pillow.

“Nurse . . . I just remembered . . .”

“What?”

“In my pants, in the pocket, there was . . .”

“What?”

“My norm. We got it just before we . . . And it’s still there . . .”

“Okay, and?”

“Well, I have to eat it.”

“Now?”

“Well, why not? I’ve already missed two days. And I just remembered just now.”

“So, what? You want me to bring it?”

“Please.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Krayuhin.”

Holding the bedpan before her, Klava walked out.

Having dumped its contents into the toilet, she returned the container to its spot under Krayuhin’s bed, and then, walking down the corridor past the sleeping Zoya, she took the key to the locker room off the wall.

Zoya sighed and smiled in her sleep.

On the first floor, Klava walked past two nurses asleep in the corridor, opened the locked room, and turned on the light.

Three mice jumped off a desk and hurried underneath the lockers.

Klava opened one of the desk’s drawers and removed a swollen account book. She sat down on a rickety chair.

“Krayuhin . . . two days ago . . . let’s see . . . Krayuhin . . . where . . .” She turned the brown pages. “There. Ninety-seven.”

She went over to locker number ninety-seven and opened it. A torn-up cotton sweater hung on the nail, covered in dried mud and blood. Next to it hung a pair of cotton pants. Two mud-caked boots stood at the bottom of the locker.

Klava thrust her hand into the pants’ pocket and immediately felt the norm packet. She pulled it out. The norm had been seriously squished.

Klava returned the account book to the drawer, turned off the light, left the room, locked the door. One of the sleeping nurses raised her head.
“Klav, is that you?”

“It’s me. Don’t worry, sleep.”

“I thought someone was ringing,” mumbled the nurse.

Swinging the key and the norm, Klava went back up the stairs.

Zoya was no longer on the cot.

Klava went into the room where the man with no arms was.

He was still lying on his back. Klava waved the bag at him.

“Found it.”

“That’s good.”

“Should I leave it for you?”

“Sure, leave it . . . except . . . how am I . . . how . . . I don’t . . . how am I going to eat it?” His voice broke.

“Don’t worry.” Klava sat down on the edge of his bed. “Our doctors make these great prosthetic limbs now. Just like real hands. You should be glad you’re alive. Your buddy died, yeah?”

“Grisha. Yeah. Got smashed up real bad, they told me. And here I am in one piece.”

“There you go. And as for the norm, I’ll help you with it.”

She tore open the packet and, breaking off a bite of the dried-up norm, held it out to Krayuhin. He opened his mouth, took the piece, and began chewing.

“So don’t you lose heart. In my opinion, it’s better to lose your hands than your legs. Just put on the prosthetics, and that’s that. And no crutches or anything . . .”

She put another piece into his mouth.

Krayuhin chewed it silently.

Zoya came in.

“There you are. They woke me up, the devils.”

“Who?”

“Yakushin. He started yelling like a lunatic.”

“I didn’t hear it. I was down in the clothes room.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t hear.”

“Did you give him a shot?”

“Yup. He’s sleeping like a baby.”

Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen

Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen

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