A new edition of Vladimir Sorokin's first novel The Queue is published by NYRB Classics.

A century of standing in line after line

An era can be judged by street conversations.

"Look, there's a line."

"What're they giving out?"

"Just get on it, then we'll find out."

"How much should I get?"

"As much as they'll give you."

This touching dialogue from the Brezhnev era should be etched on the stern granite of Lenin's mausoleum – in memory of the great era of socialist paradise. And if anyone were to think seriously about a monument to that period, I would suggest that the empty mausoleum (should Lenin's body ever be finally consigned to the earth) be filled with those deficit, prestige items for which Soviet citizens suffered such torments standing in line. American Lees and Levi Strauss jeans, Camel and Marlboro cigarettes, "spike" heel and platform shoes, "stocking" boots, cervelat sausage and salami, Sony and Grundig tape recorders, French perfume, Turkish sheepskin coats, muskrat hats and Bohemian crystal – I can just see it all, under glass like the eidos of real socialism, lying in the triumphant half-dark of the mausoleum. Every year, the number of people wanting to catch a glimpse of Lenin's stand-in would increase, so that decades later the line would be a unique, living relic of bygone days...

But enough about bygone days. Here we are – in the new, post-Communist era:

"Look, there's beef. And no line."

"I haven't got enough money. Let's buy potatoes instead."

Not all that long ago, Soviet people couldn't even have imagined such a scene, and it proved tremendously difficult to come to terms with it. The ordeal of the free market turned out to be more frightening than the Gulag, and more burdensome than the bloody war years, because it forced people to part with the oneiric space of collective slumber, forced them to leave the ideally balanced Stalinist cosmos behind. The steel hands of the world's first proletarian government, which carried us from cradle to grave, cracked and fell off. Along with them went all the familiar socialist ways: free education and medical care, the absence of unemployment, the irrelevance of money, and finally, an entire system of distribution. It turned out to be particularly agonizing to part with the latter. It was the living flesh that inhabited the rigid ideological armature of the government, it lubricated and cushioned people from the Party nomenclature apparatchiks, and it stimulated the black market, which brought Soviet people all sorts of small pleasures. Then, suddenly, everything, everything turned to dust. And the queue? That fantastic, many-headed monster, the hallmark of socialism? Where has it gone, the monstrous Leviathan that wound entire cities in its motley coils? Where are the long hours of standing, the stirring shouts, the dramatic confrontations, the joyous trembling of the person at the head of the line?

In a catastrophically short time – just a couple of years – the line was dispersed and reborn as a crowd. It's probable that the queue is gone for good. Like everything epic that has plunged into the Lethe, it arouses interest. Not merely socio-ethnographic interest. One composer I know is seriously considering writing an opera titled The Queue in the style of a Russian epic: with mass scenes, choruses, a complex plot. Perhaps at the opening many of the viewers, despite their own rich personal experience of standing in line, will ask the question: what was this thing after all, the queue?

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Jamey Gambrell.



Issue 11 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop