Volume 21, Number 1

The Official Sour Cabbage of United Russia

Thomas Girshin

Fyodora Andreovna, older than middle-aged, stepped out into the stinging cold, shut the door behind her with the dull thud of wood on wood and arranged her headscarf of thick gray wool to better insulate her cooling temples. The contrast between the dim interior and effulgent snow caused her to squint.

It was not windy, and though cold, not unbearably so.

The idea had come to her like many others had since the death of her husband twelve years ago: lying at night in the empty-feeling bed, trying to get to sleep. She had never expected, even after so many years, that that would be where she felt his absence most. Her husband had been a simple man, neither lover nor fighter. He had gone to work in the mornings and come back home in the evenings until one night he simply did not come home. His dinner was cooling on the table when the factory called to tell her there had been an accident.

Though the idea was hers, Fyodora still held it in suspicion. Its catalyst, a bottle of Putinka vodka, she considered a moral, social and physical poison, and though she thought of herself as a modern woman—she would pick up Moda magazine when she could—part of her thought it might all blow up in her face.

If it succeeded though, she’d have meat. Enough beef for a stew tonight and щи for tomorrow’s dinner perhaps, or a maybe a small piece of mutton instead. She pictured the clean shreds of meat and yellowish cabbage swimming in the oily broth and felt hungry despite her stomach full of boiled millet. Her head down, she calculated what she might make that day and what she’d be able to afford for groceries that evening.

She remembered with a pang of shame having to put back a liter of kefir at the grocery around the corner yesterday. “So expensive now,” she had said to make it seem as if it was only a matter of her not bringing enough money with her. “It was cheaper last time.”

The memory lowered her expectations. Eggs would do as well, she thought. And then: forty-five rubles for a liter of kefir, and fifty for a bottle of vodka–it’s no wonder they drink!

As she thought she dragged her cart full of sour cabbage on its metal rails over a tortuous landscape of ice and snow that covered the sidewalk along Nova Sadovaya, sometimes having to lift it over a steep feature of the geography carved by the millions of feet delivering a burst of downward energy into the same prints day after day.

Like most of the mostly women selling fresh curd cheese, or peanuts and sunflower seeds, or slices of pumpkin, or apples or carrots or beets, or any of a number of other common goods from cigarettes to stockings, Fyodora Andreovna was a pensioner.

Alone, she had no one to share her one bedroom apartment and the cost of necessities. Her daughter, newly wed, had moved in with her husband’s family in Kazan, and they saw each other rarely. Her own husband had died too early, leaving her with his scant benefits, and although she received a rent subsidy, more than half her income went to pay for her one-room apartment in a decomposing two-story wooden building, nestled among new and in-progress high-rises.

From the other side of the street it’s a curious scene, as if two eras had somehow come together to share the same space. At eye level is a set of once ornate but now mostly decaying wooden buildings, their embellishments of carved cornices now faded and cracked, once vivid greens and oxbloods peeled to expose the soft gray wood underneath, foundations bowed and crumbling from neglect.

Flanking this ancient compound is a pair of gaping towers in the process of construction; stacks of gray bricks with iron rebar stretching out like countless antennae. A crane, ubiquitous indicator of progress in Samara, appears through their frame. In the background, proud and erect, stand the buildings’ future forms: flashy high-rise apartment buildings, covered in mirrored glass, their expensive flats still mostly unoccupied.

Always in the shadow of this progress, the wooden apartment buildings have developed a sour smell of dampness emanating from within their dark bowels, even during the dry, frigid winters. They smell of the earth to which, soon enough, they will return. And from the center courtyard of these more humble dwellings emerges an old woman, head down, her figure rounded out with several layers of heavy fabric. Within this grand landscape is the smaller universe rotating in her mind, thick with needs and bills and shiny little kopeks and tattered, grimy banknotes.

And so, her head wrapped up inside and out, Fyodora Andreovna stepped slowly over the compacted snow and ice of the sidewalk. She disappeared behind a large rectangular board running parallel to the street. Before the second revolution it had displayed official announcements and upcoming productions at the drama theatre.

Now the side facing the road advertised an array of all-inclusive vacations to Egypt and Turkey’s southern coast, and several flyers for one-hour cleaners, hair salons, plumbers and offers to buy apartments. The side facing the sidewalk was plastered with posters endorsing United Russia for the previous month’s elections, though they name no candidate. Curiously similar posters–same colors, type and layout, albeit no bear–will be put up in a few weeks’ time, not by United Russia, but as an ostensibly nonpartisan prod urging the populace to vote in March’s presidential elections.

She emerged carefully from behind the billboard, for the city never puts down enough sand. In the evenings when she sat by her window she would sometimes see even young men—seemingly sober—slip and fall here. It was because the water pump from which she and her neighbors drew their water stood there; its drippings formed a solid glacier of ice cascading down to the street curb.

As she pulled her cart along her face was loose, not hard but detached. Her brow hung heavy over her eyes as she walked, worrying and making plans for the day. The New Year was approaching. People would be in a mood to buy. It would be a good day. She needed it.

Kept out of the formal markets by high rents and a lack of блат, or connections, Fyodora arranges her homemade sour cabbage atop an upturned wooden crate near the corner of Ossyepenko and Nova Sadovoya. Every day but the very coldest she sits on the sidewalk until a little past dark, when the danger of waiting much longer to go home begins to outweigh the possibility for getting another customer.

After involuntarily “retiring” from her job sorting bolts in a local factory when it was shut down nine years before, this was the only source of income she could find. Her husband already gone, no severance, not even her last paycheck, she referred to them numbly as the “bad times.”

She had chosen this place because it was at the edge of a small indoor market—large enough to draw a crowd, but not so big that it would drown her out, she had reasoned. And until she was eligible for a pension six years later, it got her through the bad times, one way or another.

But, though it wasn’t as dire as it once was, business had taken a tumble of late.

Ever since Galina Borisevna set up a box only two sellers down from her she had been having a hard time selling enough sour cabbage. Hers was good. She made it the same way her mother had made it and had taught her. The same way she would make it now for her children or grandchildren: winter cabbage—more juicy and longer lasting—shredded with carrots by hand on her well-worn shredding board, then salted and squeezed between her thick calloused fingers until it had the right amount of juice. She would then empty it into a faded wooden barrel, where it would ferment for a week, one of her husband’s ancient dumbbells pressing down on a plate to keep the top from drying out. Only then was it ready for sale.

But Galina Borisevna puts a few cranberries in her sour cabbage, and all the customers go to her. So what are a few cranberries? she says to herself. She only sprinkles some at the top for looks; there are barely five cranberries in a kilo of it. And it’s too salty. Mine may not have cranberries—who can afford them?—but it’s a better cabbage.

Today, though, would be a good day because Fyodora Andreovna had a new idea, a new product to sell, something that will get more customers to her box, and they buy one thing, they’re more likely to buy the sour cabbage from her too. Today, in addition to her usual assortment of jars and bags and squares of fabric, Fyodora Andreovna carried with her a simple cardboard sign, and this sign, she was sure, would change her fortune.

Suddenly a large flash of black passes inches in front of the walking Fyodora. The burst of heat and the wave of gasoline exhaust emanating from it jars her thoughts and stops her next footfall in midair. In a moment it was there and then gone, like déjà vu.

Her heart pounded, and her chest was tight, making breathing difficult. Her legs felt like they were going to give way under her, and she leaned her weight on her cart. “My God,” she said aloud. The driver had not been aware of her. He was oblivious even now, as Fyodora Andreovna’s eyes found the car: a BMW covered in gray dust and with chestnut-colored wetness at the wheels, idling in the line to the McDonald’s drive-thru window, so short a distance away that it belied her perception of the car’s speed pulling in.

She stared at the car a moment, preparing to march up to the driver, rap on the window and cure him of his comfortable ignorance in a flurry of harsh words. Harangue is a talent that reaches maturity in Russian women her age.

If the circumstances were different, maybe she would have. But she was intimidated by the expensive car and the heavily rhythmic Western-style music she heard pounding through the windows. It was a young man, rich, probably getting some breakfast or coffee on his way to work. Besides, who would heed the words of a lonely old woman?

She continued forward instead, now finding herself thinking about what this man might be ordering. She had of course seen advertisements for their breakfasts: grossly enlarged stacks of pale yellow, sterile and unidentifiable slabs. They had entered her consciousness only cursorily before now. But now she wondered what it would taste like to bite into one. To sit inside at one of the bright plastic tables surrounded by all those carefree people. To laugh with them, talking about what pleasures to capriciously accept from life next.

Or better yet, to drive up to the window in her own car, perhaps even a car like the one that had very nearly ended her career selling sour cabbage outside the market on Novo Sadovoya, and order some of the outlandish, plastic-looking food.

An American breakfast. Probably very tasty, if Americans eat so much of it.

She continued in this way, alternating between fantasies of revenge and dreams of entering a new, higher social class. She felt younger, more capable, and as she mentally orchestrated her future, like a simplified path through a kinder world had been revealed to her.

Never before had Fyodora Andreovna allowed herself to so graciously entertain her daydreams. Since adolescence she had worked nearly constantly, and she was too practical a woman besides. But today—perhaps her new idea stirred in her a greater awareness of possibility and thus a greater tolerance for the kinds of dreams she had earlier known to be foolish.

As her imagination roamed she saw herself the owner of the McDonald’s, fantastically rich and terribly powerful, refusing service to this man in a black BMW, without even deigning to bestow an explanation.

So wrapped up was she in this latest rumination that the red Lukoil sign surprised her when she came upon it, so while normally she would have seen both the time and the temperature by the time she passed the sign, today she had to stop and wait, her head craned up, for the 7-48 to change to the temperature. As she waited, she guessed, she felt, the temperature would be—19° C. In a moment the sign changed, filling Fyodora’s chest with a surge of accomplishment. She had guessed it exactly!

It was not much, but it felt good to be empirically right about something. It meant that at least one of the conclusions she made based on her experiences proved to be true, and so why not others as well? In this one thing, after all, she could find resonance in reality.

It is a criticism not lost among Russians that they are able to nurture two mutually exclusive beliefs, simultaneously, and defend each with equal vigor. In politics, for example, in order to be successful a candidate must be seen as a “good man.” What exactly makes one a good man is not easy to determine, for a candidate with a laundry list of legal and moral infractions can still be seen as a good man. Even after the crimes are made public and even while the acts themselves are condemned.

There are always, in the minds of Russians, at least two truths about anything, one an official truth and one based on personal experience. The former must be sustained because of fear, national identity, or cultural pride. The latter, because it maintains the integrity of one’s own perceptions.

Fyodora had lived through the propaganda of Communism, the turmoil of Perestroika and the modern feeling of having emerged back into the world, each promulgating a radically different set of values. But what does that have to do with a Lukoil sign anyway? It felt good to be right, that’s all. She walked with confidence.

She was close now to the piece of sidewalk in front of the small market where she sells sour cabbage, and she could see that her spot was open, but her neighbors were already there, just as she had hoped. She wanted to feel their astonishment when she revealed her new product. She wondered what exclamations they’d make as she simply and unassumingly took out her sign and leaned it against her box. She thought with warm and subtle pleasure of how Galina Borisevna would be envious, and possibly even awed.

Доброе утро,” she said to Galina Borisevna when she was near enough.

“Good morning. Cold, isn’t it?”

“Just as I thought,” she answered, continuing to remove the items from her neatly-packed cart and arrange them between Galina and Maria Simonevna, who sold the soft homemade cheese творог and to whom she also bade a quick good morning.

Fyodora Andreovna then placed her display half-liter jar on her sturdy wooden crate and filled it to overflowing just like she always did.

But then, removing it from the rubber cords which held it to her cart and unfolding it, she leaned a cardboard sign against the side of her crate. “Путина Капуста,” it read. Putin’s Cabbage. In the upper left corner, diagonally, was written United Russia, known popularly as Putin’s party. In the upper right corner, similarly written, was the slogan, “We believe in you.” And placed tastefully toward the bottom in the center was the seal of United Russia, which Fyodora Andreovna had cut from one of the thousands of posters and flyers scattered throughout the city during the last month’s elections.

Galina Borisevna noticed the sign first, because even though she was further away than Maria Simonevna, she paid more attention. But she didn’t know what to make of it. What could this mean, Putin’s Cabbage? She had known Fyodora Andreovna for less than a year, but she could not believe that this woman selling sour cabbage almost as good as her own without even a market stall was in any way connected to the president of Russia. It was worth questioning her about, which she did, and which brought the attention to her sign Fyodora Andreovna was waiting patiently for.

“What, Fyodora Andreovna, do you mean to say that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin made that sour cabbage?”

“Of course not,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I made it.”

“Well, what then?”

“Simply that this is the official cabbage of United Russia, Putin’s party.”

At this Galina Borisevna was silent. She was not sure what it meant to be the official sour cabbage of United Russia, though she had seen endorsement signs of the like around the city. The vodka, Putinka, her husband was fond of, and which she liked to take a nip of herself now and then.

Besides, she saw on Fyodora Andreovna’s sign what must surely be a mistake: she was charging for her cabbage cleanly twice as much as she had charged the day before. It was also twice as much as Galina Borisevna herself charged and, as far as she knew, about twice as much as anyone who vends cabbage in all of Samara charges. So she said nothing, content to let Fyodora sink herself.

The first customer was a regular of Galina Borisevna’s and so he looked straight ahead or sometimes down, or to his right, but never to his left. Only when he was a few feet from Galina did he turn towards her, smile briefly and greet her. She doled out the portion of sour cabbage he had come for on that day, and they exchanged a few pleasantries.

And so it was that despite Fyodora Andreovna’s fierce marketing campaign, the first cabbage sale of the day still went to Galina Borisevna. This was a bad omen, and it allowed a whisper of doubt to crawl into Fyodora Andreovna’s mind, because she had long ago noticed that when the first customer of the day went to Galina Borisevna, it would be a bad day indeed for Fyodora Andreovna. But she pushed the doubt away, sure that once they are aware that she is selling Putin’s sour cabbage, the customers will flock to her.

And she was right. The next customer, a middle-aged woman in black high-heeled boots and a faux-fur, was not a regular, but was exiting the market and on her way home when she saw the cardboard sign. She bought a half-liter without even tasting it. A moment later a man with a briefcase and a newsboy hat did the same. A regular of Galina’s pretended not to see her and bought a whole liter from Fyodora.

People who walked by and noticed the sign could not help but be attracted to it and the cabbage it was selling. It is true, not everyone who saw the sign stopped to buy, but many did, and of those who didn’t, many were bitten by curiosity and made mental notes to return another day and buy some. Those who did stop to buy that first day did so enthusiastically, or with awe or caution, but nearly all bought without tasting the cabbage, an entirely new phenomenon in the Russian cabbage market. Even more striking, however, was the fact that not a single person questioned Fyodora Andreovna about what made this Putin’s official sour cabbage, or even what this means.

The result was that Fyodora Andreovna sold all the stock of cabbage she had brought that day in less than half the time it normally took Galina Borisevna to sell all of hers. And so Fyodora Andreovna went home earlier than she ever had before, one hand pulling her empty cart behind her, and the other hand clutching her purse full of small denominations. These, when added to her paltry pension, would give her barely enough to go on living from one month to the next. But luxury being relative, Fyodora Andreovna had a sense of turgid satisfaction holding her purse. Tomorrow she would bring more cabbage.

By the next morning, word had gotten out about Fyodora Andreovna’s “modernizing” cabbage, and for the first time since she began there was a line waiting for her. She was ecstatic. Her good fortune continued all that day and the next. Each day she would arrive with a little more cabbage to sell than she sold the day before, and each day she would return home by midday, having sold all she had brought.

Even after Fyodora Andreovna had gone home, Galina Borisevna had trouble selling because all her usual customers had bought cabbage already from Fyodora Andreovna. Galina would catch flashes of embarrassment in their eyes from time to time when she made eye contact. Even teenagers and university students, who never used to buy cabbage at all, from anyone, were buying cabbage from Fyodora Andreovna.

After about a week of having to watch Fyodora Andreovna sell out before she could sell any of her own cabbage, Galina Borisevna decided it was time to do something. She believed in the basic good sense of the Russian people, and that had kept her quiet until now. But this, she considered, bordered on mass hysteria, and it was her duty to disabuse her fellow citizens.

Her demonstrations began mildly, as minor obtrusions. Before Fyodora Andreovna arrived each morning she would try to enlighten the captives in her queue: “Why are you waiting around for that second-rate cabbage when I’m selling better cabbage right here? After all, Putin didn’t make that cabbage. And what does it mean to be the official cabbage of United Russia anyway?” But no one stirred, everyone pretending to ignore her in his or her own way. By the time Fyodora Andreovna would arrive, Galina Borisevna would remain in sullen silence apart from the occasional humph or mocking chuckle.

But as time went on and things continued in the same way and especially when Galina Borisevna found she was having a hard time making a living at all, her protests became more earnest and vocal, until they were sustained tirades beginning as soon as the first customers arrived and concluding with jabs hurled after her last customers at the end of the day.

Fyodora was, of course, frightened by Galina Borisevna’s criticism. Everything she said made perfect sense to her, seeing as it was true. But then again, there is truth, and there is truth. Only the week before Fyodora had heard that President Putin had visited a Ural ski resort, and now that resort was the new destination of middle and upper classes. News of his trip was on the front page of every newspaper, and Channel 2 and Moda magazine both ran a feature on the resort. The resort itself was nothing special, a Khrushchev-era tour base with nondescript concrete buildings and poor service.

Fyodora’s cabbage was good, every bit worth the President’s endorsement. So as time went on, her fear wore away, and Galina’s protests became nothing more than annoyances. Hasn’t the woman anything better to do? My cabbage is preferred. She should accept that.

When several weeks later Fyodora casually mentioned that she’d been thinking of getting a stall in the main market downtown, the gross injustice of her success took root in Galina Borisevna’s chest. She rose up, silent for the first time since her protests escalated. Only her eyes, close-set, pupils pushing forward in determination, spoke of what she was about to do.

It was early morning, the busiest time for Fyodora Andreovna. Galina Borisevna pushed her way roughly through the row of customers exchanging money for cabbage. Her medusa eyes met Fyodora Andreovna’s and stoned her. She reached down and took up two jars of the cabbage, one in each hand, and turned to face the small crowd.

She wanted to say something, to show them they were being deceived. She wanted to make them ask all the questions she’d been asking: what made it the official cabbage of United Russia, and what did that mean? Was it really so good? Was it worth so much? She wanted at least to ask someone to taste it. But she had no voice.

That is, while she thought she was speaking, telling them what fools they were and what filth this cabbage was, offering it to them to taste, no one seemed able to hear her. They stared at her until her eyes met theirs, at which instant they’d look away.

If they would just taste it. She took a step forward and thrust out the jars of cabbage in her hands for people to taste, but people just backed away from her.

No one took a taste, and Galina Borisevna, dumbfounded and frustrated, let her arms fall slowly to her sides.

“You won’t taste?” she asked quietly, still wondering if she were really talking at all. “Well, fine. I will taste it.”

Turning around to face her competitor, she reached down and returned the two jars to the surface of the small upturned box in front of her. She glanced at Fyodora Andreovna’s smug, scoffing face.

Before withdrawing her hand, however, she removed a small clump of cabbage from one of the jars and placed it in her mouth. The cabbage is cold on her tongue, and leaves a trail of chill down her throat and into the abyss of her stomach. Beyond the coldness, she tastes nothing.

For a long time she is silent. She feels the crowd pressing around her, reaching out with bills in their hands. Somehow, the crowd and the cabbage produced in her a feeling not unlike the one Fyodora Andreovna had experienced after her near-demise outside the McDonald’s: it made her feel a little more aware of the possibilities of the world, it gave her a sense of mobility.

“Yes, it’s good,” she said, aware of a sour taste in her mouth for the first time.

“These are the last two,” she overhears Fyodora Andreovna announce behind her.