Podarki: the Podarok Principles

Every so often something happens to interrupt the slog and grind of life in this city.

Days trudge by - colourless days of unabated potatoes, terrible sausage, chilly porridge; days of tedious queuing; days at the end of March when the Russian winter finishes and a second, English, winter begins. Days, in short, when the old Soviet-type bureaucracy still seems to be working perfectly.

And then the unexpected, the incredible happens:

A favourite Armenian cognac slips through the net and somehow finds its way onto the shelves of a local vegetable shop;

A friend turns up with a gift of a rare piece of foreign literature, or a jar of glistening black caviar bought on the cheap from a fisherman acquaintance;

Summer arrives - before Spring;

A box of plump Havana cigars is discovered for sale amongst used carburettors and dirty gears at the car-part market.

Such freak occurrences are podarki, 'gifts'. Podarki are important to the Petersburger because they confirm what he has suspected all along: that there is a limit to the effectiveness of human bureaucracy. There is a corollary to this: if human bureaucracy is in the last resort powerless, so much the more so is the human individual. This too is welcome news to the Petersburger.

Podarki are not simply gifts; they are gifts from above - from Providence or Fate. They are good things which come about by chance or mistake. They are freak irregularities in the imposed order of things. They are, in their way, small miracles. In a rational world there would be no podarki.

In a rational world there would be no podarki because every pleasure and happiness would be planned in advance. Podarki are that which cannot be planned.

Podarki have a significance which goes beyond their material usefulness. I know of Petersburgers whose lives centre on the receiving of these occasional freebies dropped from above. They collect podarki. A drink of cool spring water on a hot day; a rare friend or book; summer fruit and tomatoes; a place like Koktebel: to the Petersburger these are all valuable signs that the world is not wholly graceless; taken together, they constitute a vague metaphysical underpinning for life (the Podarok Principles). Vague, because the Petersburger has no need for certainties or grand systematic precisions.

The Podarok Principle (1)

The first Podarok Principle says that in a hostile and irrational world the Petersburger is represented above by a special podarok-distributing Providence; this Providence has a Petersburgian sense of what is good and beautiful.

The Podarok Principle (2)

The second Podarok Principle states that, the world being irrational and unpredictable, the most it makes sense for the Petersburger to do is sit waiting for podarki.

The Podarok Principle (3)

The third Podarok Principle says that all this is as it should be. Better by far that the Petersburger should confine himself to passive collection of special dispensations from above, than that he should risk trying to change the world himself.