Russia has always been a source of fascination for many who live outside of its territory, and the major reason for this is its size. It is not just the sheer enormity of the country that attracts interest, but the anthropological and sociological elements that go hand in hand with this. Dozens of different ethnic groups can be found within its borders and many different cultures coexist there. During the Soviet era, this diversity went unadvertised, so it is only in the last two decades that we have become more aware of the demographics of modern Russia.
Gina Ochsner has attempted to engage with this diversity by taking a microcosm of Russian society and chronicling its travails in the post-Soviet age. After decades of living under a regime that sought to conceal the country’s remarkable demographic, the different groups coexist uneasily. The setting is an apartment building in Perm, the fifth coldest city in all of Russia, in which Ochsner has created a community that finds itself caught between primal instincts of survival and more artistic and philosophical aspirations. While this building is the home of the characters, the home of the plot is the city’s museum, where several of the apartment block’s inhabitants are employed.
The main events of The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight are centred around this museum, which has been selected as a possible candidate for receiving funding from a group from the USA — the Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification. Charged with writing the application for this funding, and looking after the American delegates, is the museum’s most artistic and responsible employee, Tanya. However, the raw materials that she has to work with leave much to be desired; the museum’s inventory consists entirely of replicas, made by the staff from whatever materials they have to hand, and its star exhibit is a room full of the models of deformed foetuses.
Tanya dreams of leaving her job at the museum — not least because none of the staff there have been paid for months — and securing a position as an air hostess with Aeroflot. However to do so, she must first lose some weight, so that she can fit comfortably down the narrow aisles of the airline’s planes. Her colleague and neighbour, Yuri, is less ambitious. His main pleasure is fishing, but he is prevented from indulging in this hobby by Volodnya, a legless war veteran who controls the banks of the river. Meanwhile, he is nagged by his girlfriend, who sees him only as a potential source of income and a possible means of impregnation.
The event that kicks off The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight is a suicide. One of the building’s residents, Mircha, jumps from the roof, leaving his wife, Azade, to take over his post as keeper of the outside toilet. Their son, Vitek, sees himself as a more successful businessman; he extorts money from his neighbours by any means he can, and schools a gang of feral children, who live in the rubbish heap, in sleight of hand and aggression. The body of Mircha remains unburied; consequently, his ghost haunts the building, appearing to many of the novel’s character and attempting to give them advice.
With such an eclectic cast, and such an array of surreal occurrences, we might expect great things of this novel, and there are certainly insinuations of greatness. The series of madcap antics that derive from an oppressive situation, while only compounding that very situation, is reminiscent of Bulgakov; and the way in which artistry is associated with futility recalls the fates of many other Soviet-era writers. But ultimately, too little seems to happen in this book.
This might seem unlikely, given the amount of information summarised here, but the perspective that Ochsner takes hampers the novel somewhat. Most of the chapters are narrated from the perspective of just one of the characters; this is certainly an effective way of handling a cast like this, but it is only towards the end of the novel, when the points of view are changed more frequently, that the characters can be truly seen as a group representative of Russia, rather than as a motley collective of individuals.