Twenty-Six Men and a Girl by Maxim Gorky
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This week Matt and Cameron read “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl,” by Maxim Gorky. Born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, it was only when he had begun publishing fiction in his early twenties that Gorky would adopt his later-famous pseudonym, likely as a reflection of the critical lens he took in his analysis of the then-Russian Empire (‘Gorky,’ in Russian, means bitter). This story, published in 1899, serves as the prototype of a genre which would later be named “social realism," which focused on the struggles of working-class people to expose the structures of power which caused their conditions.
Major themes: the alienation of labor, idealization/fetishization, pretzels.
17:00 - In fact, by 1871, every work by Karl Marx was banned with the exception of Das Kapital. In the words of one of the official readers in the office of Censors of Domestic Publications, Das Kapital was “a colossal mass of abstruse, somewhat obscure politico-economic argumentation.” He would go on to say that “[i]t can be confidently stated that in Russia few will read it and fewer will understand it.” As cited in “Das Kapital comes to Russia,” by Albert Resis. https://doi.org/10.2307/2493377
Hello and welcome to Tipsy Tolstoy: Russian Literature for the Inebriated.
I am Matt "Listen to my Podcast" Gerasimovich.
And I'm Cameron Lallana, the eggnog master. This is a podcast where me and my good pal Matt get to unwind from our week with some Russian literature and a drink or two or three or four. We don't judge here.
How do you become an eggnog master? How do you get to that title?
Well, there's no legal method for it. So first of all, I bestowed it upon myself which was the most important step actually. Secondarily, I made eggnog this week, and I used a very particular recipe, which I'm just gonna give a few ingredients. Let me know when you see some a kind of stands out to you. Some milk, some heavy cream, some eggs, a full liter of bourbon. Yeah. Yeah. So three, no, two weeks ago, I made a drink, which was like, I think 60% bourbon, maybe by weight. And then I had to let it age. And before we started filming this episode, I took the egg whites that I had frozen out, well, I'd already thawed them and then whipped them up and poured them in. And this is now like an aged eggnog. Very full of bourbon. I have not yet had it yet. I'm really afraid of it. And we're going to drink it on this episode for the first time.
All right, I'm looking forward to it because I've been following your progress here for a while.
I'm afraid I'm going to get alcohol poisoning because I'm looking at this class. And I know it's like, it looks like a glass of eggnog, but it's mostly bourbon.
Yeah, see I'm always consistently just less interesting than you because I am not eggnog master. I am listen to my podcast because although whoever is listening to this podcast has succeeded in doing that, I feel like I'm slowly becoming the person that's like, Oh, yeah I've got a podcast about Russian literature. Maybe you wanna listen to it? And I'm just drinking a jack and coke this week. Nothing crazy. Nothing crazy.
Nice. That's good. Well, you're consistent, right? Because now after however many weeks I've broken my my streak of getting craft beer for this episode. And last week, I didn't even mention what craft beer I bought. I just was going on about how I was buying beer on a Tuesday afternoon and everyone else was getting vegetables at the store.
What a fool.
Hold on. I'm gonna quickly drink this. I'm going to let you know how it came out.
Okay, you know, actually, that's not bad. It doesn't really taste like the eggnog that I am familiar with from my youth of buying it from Trader Joe's.
How does it taste? Describe it to me.
So like imagine eggnog and then water it down. And like there's a slight overtone of bourbon over this. Like, I think someone poured water into this eggnog. Yeah. And then there's nutmeg, which is like not offensive at all. I also reduced the sugar by half, so maybe better if I hadn't done that. But it is not offensive at all. Actually, the egg... The whipped egg yolks are quite nice. It's a very pleasing texture. And this will absolutely just knock you right down the stairs, sobriety-wise.
Well, I'm proud of you for that, because I thought that you were gonna sip that and be like, Oh, man, this is disgusting.
I did too.
Well, proud of you.
Thank you. I'm proud of me, too.
I'm proud of you for doing this on our holiday special episode. Kind of.
Kind of. This is... this will be out on, well, on the New Year. So that's a holiday.
On the newest year. Yeah. I mean, it's a holiday special in the sense that it's released on a holiday. So that counts.
Speaking of- Welcome to 2021. It's, you know how like historians love calling everything the long century like the long 18th century, the long 19th century. This is the long 2020.
Yeah, it's been horrible. And I hope that 2021 is a quickie. Nothing more than that.
Yeah, yep. Okay. Well, speaking of things, I actually don't have a transition there.
Speaking of quickies...
Speaking of factory labor, let's talk about "26 Men and a Girl."
Who was talking about factory labor?!
I don't know. I hadn't thought too deeply about that one.
Fair. Fair. Fair, fair.
Okay. So, Maxim Gorky, who is he?
Maxim Gorky, I'll give you a couple things. You don't need to know a lot for this specific short story. But to know a little bit about Maxim Gorky. Maybe that's a fun party trick for you. I don't know. It hasn't been for me, but maybe it will be for you. So he's a writer that was born 1868 lived to 1936. He is generally credited with being a founder of the artistic movement, socialist realism, and he was a big political activist. He's known for really being the true kind of proletarian writer, that's really what he embodied, I think, for the Soviet Union and for a lot of writers. And he did, because I think partially because he was writing so early, like I said, 1868, that's many, many years before the Revolution... he was able to still write things that I guess were almost retroactively classified as socialist realism but were still interesting, because when you get to socialist realism, you get a very Party defined idea of what literature should be, a very top down approach. And that yields literature that is predictable, there's a certain plot, there's a labor that is overcoming some obstacle. And you know, he grows the biggest fruit or he mows the most grain or whatever you do with grain. And that's kind of that, but Maxim Gorky actually writes... he's a good writer, he has a lot of really interesting stories. I personally really liked "26 Men and a Girl." It's one of the first things that I'd read by him four or five years ago at this point. And I've gone back and reread it several times, and I get something new out of it every time.
Before we get to our reactions, I wanted to jump in and also add that this story was published in 1899. And if you aren't really familiar with the Russian Empire at this era, of course, we're about t minus 18 years to the beginning of the Russian Civil War, which would lead to the Soviet government. But at this time, in kind of the late czarist period, you have this kind of tension between some attempted reforms that some czars have put into place and you know, increasing frustrations and especially an increasing sort of policy of Russianization. In the mid-19th century, you of course, have the freeing of the serfs. If you aren't familiar that up until the 1860s, a large amount of the Russian population were serfs. They were enslaved to the land they lived on and they were... their whole lives were beholden to their lords. Now you have a czar who overthrows this. Some argue for humanitarian others argue for economic reasons. That czar is later killed by an assassin of the Narodnaya Volya, who was a kind of a student group that was attempting to engage in a socialist revolution in Russia. I think this was really interesting, because it's actually a pre-Marxist socialist revolution. So I love to talk about that. But it's not really relevant. But...
it's probably the most powerful student group ever. I imagine seeing those guys on your student org website.
Yeah, in reaction to that, a lot of czars after that were a lot tougher, they were a lot less willing to give into social pressures, especially to political pressures. That event really halted a lot of the burgeoning liberal politics that had been happening in the Russian Empire at that time. And it also sucks to be in the Russian Empire at that time, you have a whole artistic movement, which we have now retroactively termed Realism, which I think you can maybe draw a line between, like, the sort of realism that Gorky would take on and later socialist realism. But I'm not an expert in this field. That's just things I've noticed. And basically Realism focused on a kind of critical analysis of modern Russian life and probably the best realist... the one that is most often cited is Ilya Repin. You've probably seen some of his paintings. They're very kind of dark gritty, showing what life is like as a laborer in the late Russian era, and Gorky follows in this tradition. Maxim Gorky is not his birth name, his birth name is Alexei Maximovich Peshkov. Gorky is a Russian word meaning bitter. So you can see that in his writing, and he's kind of... he's writing about, as he does in this story, and as he does in many other early stories, the difficulty of what it was like to be a laborer at this time, before he would kind of really engage with socialism, and go on to write triumphalist socialist texts and begin to develop an idea of work as as revolutionary rather than just oppressive as it is in this novel. Kind of as I view it, drawing a line to socialist realism.
So how did you come away from the work? Did you enjoy it? Did you not? What do you think of this as a realist short story?
Yeah, as a real short story, I think it's super interesting. I was like... as I was reading it I was kind of mentally comparing to a lot of later socialist realist texts, especially Cement. And it was really interesting because this is partially about the alienation of labor, which is a really important feature of early Bolshevik politics, of course, but you also see in this particular story the transformation of the alienation of labor into... well then what they turned their kind of human attentions to, and sort of the failure of humans and humanity in that regard. So I thought it was a really interesting story because it did involve so much both of his kind of social criticism, but also just kind of like a human tale. I thought that was really cool that you were able... he was able to weave that nuance into it. And I know you're very into the story.
I did, I enjoyed it a lot as well. It's told from an interesting point of view, I find as we will get to at the end of the summary. I just think there's a lot here. It really every time you read it, it gives you something a little bit new.
Yeah. So what is here, Matt?
Yeah, I'm happy to jump into it. The story is about 26 men and a girl. As the title insists, though, I do want to point out right before we get to the summary, just the title, something that I found interesting. Someone who has seen the Russian title, the Russian title is dvadsat' shect' i odna. And that is just 26 and one, but because numbers and nouns and everything are gendered in Russian, the 26 has a masculine gender, the one is a feminine noun. And so that's how we get this translation of 26 men and a girl. But from the start a lot of numbers in the title.
As you can tell Russian is really fun language to learn just by its numbers.
Just by its numbers. You'll hate yourself for having to learn all the numbers, but it's fun.
I love the fact that one has four different genders.
It's fine. Yeah, it's a good time. I enjoy it, kind of. And so with that, let us get into the summary. So it's about 26 men and the girl, but mostly the 26 men and then also later a little bit about the girl. It starts with a description of these 26 men who work making basically pretzels and other tea snacks, but primarily pretzels. And I'm going to call them pretzel makers throughout the summary, because it's just easier. And they work in horrible conditions. They work from dusk till dawn, they do this horribly, horribly monotonous task of just, you know, rolling out the dough, and forming the pretzels. And it sucks. They do the same thing every single day. Sometimes they sing. And it's a really sad song that all the workers sing together. And that's about it. Their work chambers suck, they got bars on the windows, they can't see anything, they get no light, their boss put bars on the windows because he didn't want them giving pretzels to any of the beggars walking by. So it basically looks like they're in a prison. It's dark. It's hot, because I've got the ovens going to make all the pretzels. And the only thing that they have positive to look forward to is this girl Tanya, who comes to visit. Tanya is a maid servant who works in the gold embroidery shop on the second floor of this building. And she comes in and she says, My little prisoners, what can I have for a snack today give me some pretzels. And they're all super happy to give Tanya pretzels. And she comes basically every day to see them. And they're really infatuated with Tanya. And they start to idolize Tanya to idealize Tanya. And she becomes almost as godlike figure throughout the story for them. Until, as we get towards the ending, this idea comes to be tested. So we find out about this rival faction, if you will, of roll makers. And rolls are like the high class food and they're treated better. They're paid better, they have better quarters to make the rolls as opposed to the pretzel makers. And they never talk to each other throughout the story. There's just this ingrained, like, Oh, we don't like the roll makers, because they're paid more, and they have better conditions and whatnot.
And they can go outside.
And they can go outside. Yeah, there's... you know, a lot of benefits here. Right. So, you know, if you look at it on Glassdoor, you're definitely gonna want to be a roll maker, not a pretzel maker. So one of the roll makers is fired and replaced by this guy who is an ex-soldier. I don't think he's actually ever named throughout the story. He's just called the soldier. And he kind of talks about his sexual exploits with women. And he's pretty attractive. He's very charismatic. And he's talking to the pretzel makers, because he's the only one that had ever came over to talk with them and they actually like him. And they're chatting, you know, he is talking about some of the girls that he seduced and how they're fighting over him. And one of the filmmakers to some effect, he says something along the lines of, yeah, you've picked some saplings, but try pulling up an oak. And basically he is referring to Tanya, because this is the girl that they have all completely idealized by this point in the short story. And he eventually gets him to explain what he means. And he says, oh, in two weeks I could seduce Tanya, no problem. And they say No way. No way, no way. And they're a little bit nervous because they don't want Tanya to sleep with him because in their eyes, they would see that as some sort of imperfection. So ultimately, he is able to seduce Tanya, and he comes in one morning and he says, All right, look out the window, look out the window. And he goes with Tanya down down an alley and they have sex it's implied. And he comes out, Tanya comes out kind of you know, walking funny and whatnot. And the prisoners rush into the yard and they start to verbally assault Tanya because she did this. And Tanya, basically just she she calls them scum. She walks away and she never comes back to visit ever again. And that is "26 Men and a Girl" by Maxim Gorky.
Wow, don't you love listening to our podcast?
I feel like we should do better of sprinkling in happier things, though, it is really hard to say what is happy in Russian literature?
Yeah, I was gonna say the last time I read a comedic tale involves someone murdering his wife in Russian literature. But yeah, so this is, you can obviously see a lot of the alienation of the worker in this story. The whole first three pages in my copy are just about how much it sucks to be these guys. How much every day their souls are sucked out by this job to the point where even when they try to sing, their songs are kind of sad in the face of the oven, which watches them and silently laughs and they feel is always there like a monster, which is when you're getting to the point when you're starting to like personify the things around you as taunting you. Which like I've been there, but I was also awake for about 40 something hours. So yeah, that was... it's pretty tough, I'll say in a very generous way. And they can't even talk to each other. They've, for the most part, run out of things to say and even accuse each other over for quote, how can a man be guilty if he is half dead? If he is like a stone idle, if all feelings in him are stifled under the weight of toil. And this is really just about how much it really, really reduced your humanity, which I think you could probably tie to a lot of quirky socialist leanings, of course, in, I have no way of... I don't know if Gorky had read Marx at this point. Of course, it would go on to. A fun fact about Marx is early Russian Imperial censors actually allowed Das Kapital, because they thought no one would understand it. And actually, for the most part, they're right for a while. But I believe later in this period that was kind of in the 19... in the 1860s. By this time, I'm sure Gorky had been at least somewhat familiar with Marx's theorisation. And a big part of that is the alienation of the worker because of the idea of specialization. From primarily Marx was referring to factories and specialization in factories were in his example, one nail maker made nails every day for eight hours a day, that was all he did hammer these things out. And it kind of reduced a human to an automaton. And this is not quite the same, in this case, because industrialization had not quite come to Russia at this point. But still, they're being put in a basement and being made to do the same repetitive actions over and over again, to produce a product.
I think it's like their variant of this same feeling that comes from alienation during the industrialization.
The classic Russian solution: just throw more people at it.
There you go. I think it's interesting because it's very much in contrast to what we read last week, which was in the Kolyma Tales, where "Tamara the Bitch," especially this dog, was given human traits, because the characters were unable to see the human aspect in the system in which they were living. So they were looking for something good in something that was not a human. Whereas here, you have them pushing this onto this stove where they don't see anything human anywhere. And the stove... it refers to it as seeing the cold, pitiless eyes of a monster. And the only place in which they see any kind of human aspect in which they desire is in Tanya.
And it's worth pointing out that Tanya doesn't treat them well. She treats them incredibly badly. At one point because they give her food every day. And you know, try to give her advice. One of the workers asks her because she's a seamstress to fix his uniform. And she kind of laughs at him and says, as if I should. And they all laugh at him. It's like we made we made no more requests of her, we loved her and that was all. And that paragraph ends with, we had to love Tanya for there was no one else for us to love. Kind of going back to what I was talking about earlier with this idea of idealization around a human figure because they have nothing else in their lives, nothing else human about them to latch onto... to the point you're making that the only other thing they have, for the most part, because they can't even relate to each other anymore is this monsterous stove leaning over them.
Well, I actually don't think it's that they can no longer relate to each other. There's this really interesting line when they're talking about the silence of their work. And he says, silence is only terrible and fearful for those who have said everything and have nothing more to say to each other. For men on the contrary, who have never begun to communicate with one another it is easy and simple. And so to me, like they never even got the chance to know each other. And so they only know the appearance of each other. He says like you know, they know the way that each of the lines on each other's faces looks but they don't know anything about each other, there's never any characterization of any of the 26 men that are down there working. They're just workers, that's their identity, they just make pretzels. And that's it.
So, into the midst of this, you have the soldier who comes in, well dressed, handsome, muscle bound, which is not an exaggeration. That's one of his main features when he comes in. And one of the very first things he talks to them about is what women like. And he's like they like... she likes a muscle, it says my copy, an arm like this, and then he like, flexes at them.
He pulls up his sleeve so he can show his bare arm to them and just flex towards them.
Which I gotta say, I did have someone... I've had like people do that to me in middle school, and it was a pretty good dominance asserter back then.
In middle school, maybe.
About since then. I mean, since then, if someone does that, to me, I take it as a bit more of a threat, and it would be a little bit less impressed, but only because I would be thinking that they're about to beat me up.
And not that they're gonna give you rolls or pretzels?
That's not usually the assumption that I'm gonna take. Yeah, so he's like, the guy tells them, women love me because I have muscles. And I'm dressed proper. And I wear fine clothes. And like you mentioned, at first all these guys like him. He's one of the very first people, outside of Tanya, to really engage with them and talk to them. And of course, he's kind of power tripping on this thing, because there's all these people who are, I think they're prisoners in my copy, they're repeatedly referred to as prisoners, it's not really made clear whether or not they're just unable to leave their job because that's all there is or because they're actually prisoners. But...
I think it that's important. That's an important point. I don't think they... they're not prisoners. They are legitimate workers. But Tanya, repeatedly refers to them as prisoners. And I think they think of themselves as prisoners. And I think the point is to show that there is no real distinction between this life and the life of prison. It's very similar.
Right. Yeah. And he's the only one who doesn't refer to them that way. He talks to them, you know, person to person, which they like until it begins to cross the lines of like someone treating them like people and their idol, the one thing they have which is not human to them.
I wrote on the margins of my copy from freshman year, which is really funny toalways look back and be humbled by what you wrote. In this case, I think it's still accurate. They just wanted someone to talk to him, even though he was an ass.
That's a that's a relevant piece of advice even beyond this story, I think.
Yeah, it applies even to the modern day. I mean...
Yeah, that's the truth for all of time, I think.
I would say so.
Yeah. So the reason why the cook ends up challenging the soldier about this is because, like you said, they, you know, see Tanya as a pine. When when the baker initially replies this the soldier doesn't just like, Come on, tell me what you're talking about. He gets angry. He falls into a rage. He's, like, risking impalement as he's, you know, walking around this shop trying to get closer to the baker, and is like, You insulted me. No woman can resist me, not one. No. And there's this line that I like, it appeared his self respect was founded on his ability to seduce women. And maybe outside that skill there was nothing alive in him. It alone made him feel a living man.
I have that exact line underlined. Yeah it really describes what this character is. He values his ability to seduce women and nothing else.
Yeah. And then I think it also relates to maybe a bigger point which he kind of expands upon later in the next paragraph. Gorky writes, at times a man's life is so poor that he must cultivate a vice and live by it. And one may say often some are addicted to a vice out of boredom. And I think this is maybe relating to the bigger aimlessness of this life to them because they don't really have anything bigger to look forward to. Best case scenario you're cooking buns, worst case scenario, you're cooking Pringles... Worst case scenario you're cooking pretzels. And that's it. So all he has to build his self worth on is his ability to seduce women. And the rest of them similar. They have a vice and their vice is putting Tanya on a pedestal. It's just like kind of shows how much a human is reduced in these conditions, even though the soldier appears to be much more than they are.
Yeah, he does. And I think Gorky does a good job of showing that he's, I don't know he's not really that much different. They're both bad in their own respective ways. And they both do things that they shouldn't, which kind of sets them up for the ending. You need each of these groups of people to have the ending that Gorky accomplishes here. Which is when when the soldier and Tanya end up sleeping together...
In an alleyway in the middle of the day.
Yeah, you know, in an alleyway in the middle of the day. As you do. And they... the pretzel makers go up to her. And they are just mean to her. I think at one point he says I don't even know why, but we didn't beat her, as if suggesting they should have for what she did. And Tanya just she leaves. My copy says, and she was gone, erect, beautiful, proud. And they were left just standing in the middle of the courtyard, in the middle of the rain, in the middle of the day. And Tanya doesn't ever see them again.
I also want to emphasize the point right before the story ends, then we shuffled back to our damp stone hole, which earlier had been described as almost a building built upon their shoulders, as before the sun never shone through our window, and Tanya came no more. So their gambit failed. And now they have nothing.
So I think this is like a twofold ending, I would say bad ending for the pretzel makers, probably. But I would say good ending for Tanya, because I think a lot of Russian literature previous to this, there would be a lot of discussion about the relationship between the way that the majority of men felt about this one woman's experience. And you could write Anna Karenina based on that like brief idea. But here it doesn't, it doesn't even give... Gorky doesn't even give that a consideration. Tanya says I don't care what you think, and walks away. And that's it. That's all just to do. She maintains that sense of self, I think, in this instance. And as I mentioned earlier, the way that the ending is set up is really because the point of view is told from the pretzel men, you never actually get inside Tanya's head, you don't really understand what she thinks at any point throughout the sort of story until the very end, when she kind of says this. Other than that she's really just coming for free pretzels, which, you know, why wouldn't you? Everyone knows pretzel day is the best
And pretzel days every day...
Yeah, yeah. So it comes crashing down for them at the end. And she is unidealized, I suppose, in their mind.
And without that admittedly, very problematic idealization of a human being down to simply a sort of minor god for them. Without that they have nothing. They're just the pretzels.
Yeah, I think that this short story is... I personally find it really cool. I think it shows a lot of different shifting power dynamics in society at the time. I think that because like I was saying earlier, you could write the story 100 years prior, and... or even 50 years prior, and it would have a different outcome. At the end, Tanya is able to walk away in I guess, a positive light. I mean, she's more powerful in this instance than all 26 of the men. I think that's what the numbers are supposed to signify the way... I mean, it could be called one and 26 instead, but it's not it's called 26 and one. Instead, the one ends up being more powerful by the end still, even though she is not idealized and she's not reduced anymore. She still ends up you know, in charge, but in her own way at the end. That's the way I would like to read it. I don't know if Gorky was necessarily indicating that.
But I like that reading enough that I think we should leave it on that. And that was 26 and one...
"26 Men and a Girl."
"26 Men and a Girl." Yes, sorry. I have the Russian title in my head now after you told me about that fun little fact.
Before we go, Matt: scale of one to Yeltsin. Where are you?
I think I am at Gorbachev when he decided to do the Papa John's commercial.
The Pizza Hut commercial.
Pizza Hut commercial. Sorry, they're all the same in my head.
That commercial is the reason that I now start every toast with za Gorbacheva.
Gosh. Well, yeah, I think that's where I'm at decision making wise is... you know, so I'm good. I'm having a good time.
It's good. Nice. Nice.
Yeah. Where are you at?
I throughout the course this episode have come to like my eggnog a little bit less.
It's gotten grosser and grosser as it gets warmer and warmer. But it is... it kicks like a mule. So I am... I don't have a bit of a clever thing. I am about as drunk as you would be if you drink a full glass of bourbon.
Okay, that's fair. That's a pretty solid unit of measurement. I think.
Because I think that's the actual unit of measure. Yeah. Okay. Before we started just talking too much about ourselves... What are we reading next week, Matt?
Next week, we're going back. We're going all the way back to similar to episode one we talked about "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol. We are going to be reading "The Overcoat." So come along, bring your best festive coat to our overcoat discussion.
This is a peacoat only discussion.
Peacoats only. No other kinds of coats. No windbreakers, no rain coats.
Those are the only two kinds of coats I know. So don't bring any other kinds. Don't try and sneak in there with them. Thiswill be peacoats only at the door.
Alright cut. The music used in this episode was "soviet march" by Toasted Tomatoes. You can find more of their stuff on toastedtomatoes.bandcamp.com and also on YouTube under the same username. If you enjoyed the episode, well, first of all that makes us happy. But also grad school doesn't pay very well. So if you happen to have a few dollars to spare, you can find us on patreon patreon.com/tipsytolstoy. It'll help us buy the books we'll be reading in the future. If you're looking for other places to find us, you can also follow us on Instagram at TipsyTolstoyPodcast, or you can visit our website tipsytolstoy.com. You'll hear from us again soon.