The Underground (Uzbekistan)

The Underground book cover

by Hamid Ismailov

Skip pages 18-25. Once we got over the dream about the cat, I loved this novel! It’s not told in the linear fashion we in the West have come to expect. It’s a collection of memories of a dead 12-year-old, down in the depths of the Moscow metro he loved when alive. Each memory is presented in connection with a metro station. Each chapter is a station–all designed like opera houses, so that even the working poor can enjoy the beauty once reserved for the rich.

The main character’s name is Mbobo Kirill, but his nickname is Pushkin. His father was probably an “Abysinnian” (Ethiopian) athlete from the Olympic Village during the Summer 1980 Olympic Games. His mother is a Russian from the Siberian region…her Colonel father can trace his lineage back 30 generations.

The Problems of Being Pushkin

a Moscow subway station that looks more like an opera house
Komsomolskaya Station (page 6)

“Gleb forced me to think about Russian literature…I often wondered why Russian literature had picked Pushkin as it’s guiding light, its sun. I will say it again: it is because he was normal, like a non-Russian. You can’t be Russian and not have a few screws loose…”

Little Pushkin has a lot of problems. Other than the blatant racial prejudice he encounters every day from strangers, his problems are mostly relative. And some of his relatives aren’t even related to him. His mother is a flirtatious and beautiful young woman so Pushkin ends up with two stepfathers…one is a writer and one is a policemen. Both are alcoholics and abusive in various ways, yet they do seem to care for Pushkin, at least a little.

Moscow train station
Not sure which metro station this is…but it’s gorgeous

Pushkin’s Mommy’s father, Colonel Rzhedvy, is all excited to meet his grandson, until the blanket is pulled back and he sees the color of the baby’s skin. SLUT, he bellows down the length and breadth of the subway station, and little Puskin is forever without a grandfather. When the scary grandmother comes from Siberia to claim the kid, after his mother dies, the whole city of Moscow seems to conspire against her and she goes home empty-handed.

Moscow subway station unidentified
And the same for this one…

The city is Pushkin’s mother and his mother is the city: his Mommy’s name is Moscow. Since the main character is 12 years old, we just get glimpses of Kruschev huts and peristroika vodka. Uncle Gleb, one of the stepfathers, occasionally bellows “coup de etat!” and slams his fist down on the table in a rage. World-shaking events are happening all around Pushkin, but in typical child fashion, he is mostly concerned about himself and his immediate family circle.

The Little Problem of Nationalities

Novokuznetskaya Station (page 264)
Novokuznetskaya Station (page 264)

It boggles my mind that all of these people are just seen by us Americans as “Russians”. Here is the breakup of the Soviet Union through little Pushkin’s eyes:

“But now, everyone was trying to become Russian–the Ukrainian Sasha Butovets, the Jew Deniska Abramov, the Tartar Nata Buslayeva, the gypsy Romik Gimranov, yes, and me too, with my exotic blend of African and Siberian blood.

Kuznetsky Most from the outside (p. 58)
Kuznetsky Most from the outside (p. 58)

“But they were already sitting in front of the Hotel Russia, having pitched their little tent town: the Uzbeks from Uzgen, knifed by the Kyrgyz from the neighboring mountains, just as earlier the Turk-Meskhetians had sat there, scorched out of Fergana by those same Uzbeks, just as Armenians from Sumgait had sat there, as had Azerbaijanis from Shusha, Abkhazians and Georgians, Latvians and Lithuanians.

“But then suddenly everyone stopped being Russian, and even Jews, friends of my Mommy, began phoning to inform us of their imminent departures for Israel…”


Mendeleveskaya Station (page 216)
Mendeleveskaya Station (page 216)

Q and A: What is the “stick of Finnish cervelat” the characters eat along with their Kostromskoe cheese? It is a type of sausage originally made from brains–but now more likely to be a combination of beef, bacon, and pork stuffed in to a zebu intestine. It seems to be the national sausage of Switzerland, too.


Banned in Uzbekistan? But Why…

A fantastically interesting book from a writer who identifies as Uzbek. Born in an ancient city of Kyrgyzstan, he was forced to flee his home in Tashkent when his writing brought him to the attention of the government and he moved to London. His writing is still banned in Uzbekistan.

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