Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe. Iz zapisnykh knizhek [Useless Fossil. From the Notebooks], edited by V. S. Murav’ёv

Author: Venedikt Vasil’evich Erofeev (1938-1990)

Drafting years: the work consists of a selection from the notebooks kept by the author, in alternate periods, from 1955 to 1990

First volume edition in Russian: Vagrius, Moskva 2001 (now also available in digital version by I. Simanovskii and A. Balakin)

«I don’t look at the world, I stare at it»[1].

The edition presents for the first time in single volume a selection of materials from the writer’s notebooks, partially already published in some Russian literary journals in the 1990s[2]. As friends, acquaintances and the authors of Erofeev’s recent biography have repeatedly underlined (see Lekmanov, Sverdlov, Simanovskii 2019), the numerous booklets full of notes from which he never separated constitute the true magnum opus of the writer, through which it is possible to follow, in a diachronic manner, the progressive formation of his personality. His picturesque annotations, in fact, reflect his relationships with surrounding reality, with contemporaries and with himself. It is no coincidence that Erofeev considered them an essential presence in his life and in his artistic activity, and that despite his wandering and precarious existence he continued to keep them for several decades, until the last painful period of the disease. The collection, not yet translated into English or Italian,[3] is a kind of refined compendium of the thoughts and aphorisms of the author considered more effective, bright and cohesive for their tones and contents. The title, Useless Fossil in English, is an editorial choice taken from one of the selected notes: “a useless fossil, that’s what I am” (Erofeev 2004a: 442). Given Erofeev’s landmarks related in large part to authors and atmospheres of the so-called serebrianyi vek (silver age) of Russian culture, this highly evocative expression seems to emphasize the considerable concrete and at the same time psychological distance that the narrator feels between himself and the world in which he lives. The lack of pol’za (utility), to which the adjective refers, sounds in its turn like a statement of intent and a provocation in the Soviet context, in which literature had to be at the maximum degree realistic, “productive” and “useful” to the cause of real socialism[4].On the formal level the work consists of a dense pastiche of aphorisms, erudite quotations, short thoughts, fragments of songs, unfinished works and personal reflections ranging from more or less “encrypted” references to Russian and world culture to icastic comments on different aspects of Soviet everyday life: “I’m getting as beautiful as a village of Kazakhstan” (Erofeev 2004a: 485). In the mosaic of prose fragments only apparently random and heterogeneous in its composition, stand out instant beats and puns that for the sly tone, the irony, the taste of paradox and the conscious use of hyperboles recall Daniil Kharms’s (1905-1942) and also Ennio Flaiano’s style (1910-1972)[5]. In many cases sideways thoughts and sharp jokes – most of them of a maximum lenght of five lines – are written in first person, and thanks to the continuous spacing and the frequent (and deliberate) lack of capital letters[6] they give a certain degree of dynamism to the text also on the graphic level. In fact, the rhythm of the page is created to the eyes of the reader by the stylistic and semantic interaction – or rather, “collision” – between high-sounding quotes from other authors’ works and lapidary comments of personal origin. From benevolent advice given in a light, ironic or sarcastic tone, up to more bitter, peremptory and unsettling considerations, Erofeev’s writing is characterized by constant “funambolic” and postmodern effects generated by the juxtaposition, in the single fragments, between contrasting lexical elements and linguistic registers (literary terms and philosophical concepts vs. profanity, ‘high’ style of speech vs. ‘low’ or ‘colloquial’ ones, etc.), that can be made to interact in different ways by readers. In the delicate plot of short forms that make up the text we can notice the same peculiar “construction technique” based on stylistic oppositions that the author uses and refines in his contemporary works, from the youthful povest Blagaia vest’ (The Good News, 1962), to the famous prose poem Moskva-Petushki (Moscow-Petuški, 1970) and Moia malen’kaia Leniniana (My Little Leniniana, 1988)[7]. In this collection sui generis the irreverent and at times pitiless portrait of the Bolshevik leader unfolds from a rich and skillful collage of passages from some of his works, and especially from excerpts drawn from the correspondence with some of the most significant figures in his life.The dense mixture of quotes, comments and notes of personal nature that distinguishes Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe offers a real cross-section of Erofeev’s almost “epidermal” relationship with short forms (cf. Remonato 2006): : “You don’t have to mint money, you have to mint aphorisms” (Erofeev 2004a: 410). The notebooks appear to us as a sort of ‘atelier’, the creative laboratory through which the writer was elaborating his peculiar manera pis’mennosti (way of writing, syle), certainly unorthodox, light-hearted and at times desecrating, but at the same time deeply woven with references to culture, music and literature of Russia and other countries[8]. As ‘monads’ of his tormented inner journey, his notebook aphorisms reflect Erofeev’s profoundly free way of relating to his own language and cultural world. Let us think about the books stolen in libraries, from which he quoted with a prodigious memory that astonished those who listened to him, or about the first of all existential character of his estrangement both from the propaganda slogans and from the dull everyday life of Soviet zastoi (stagnation). Within the “niche” of friends, intellectuals and drinking buddies that protected him from police controls and the shackles of bureaucratic officiality, the handwritten notebooks were read and commented out loud in laughter. These booklets, a real “blanket of Linus” for the taciturn writer coming from the far North, circulated in clandestine meetings or were lent by the author, according to several testimonies, in exchange for alcohol. In addition to their oral fruition and transmission, on some occasions the contents were copied and passed from hand to hand through the channels of samizdat, as it happened with Erofeev’s works. This contributed to the fame of the writer and his unconventional ideas «in narrow circles».For what concerns the issues addressed in the text, even in the colorful and fragmented heterogeneity of the contents we can distinguish some topics that come back several times between the lines, creating echoes and internal symmetries: the woman figure and allusive female names; Russian literature of the 1920s; the angels and references to the Gospel (in particular to the parable of Lazarus and the verse «Vstan’ i idi», «Rise and walk», which is the Leitmotiv in the main character’s itinerary also in Moskva-Petushki). The lucid analysis of the ambiguous relationship with alcohol, the predilection for classical music (Sibelius, Mahler, Shaliapin) and German idealistic philosophy are other relevant themes. Besides, the presence of binary conceptual oppositions and different literary genres are worth mentioning, because they accentuate the dynamic and experimental character of the annotations. In some cases the entries consist of paraphrases that echo in a lowered or parodic tone passages from the Gospel and the Books of the Prophets (here from Matthew 25: 31-46): “I was hungry and you didn’t feed me, I was naked and you didn’t dress me, I didn’t have a roof and you did not welcome me”. In La Rouchefaucauld’s style: “stupidity is distrustful” (Erofeev 2004a: 406). At times Erofeev’s aphorisms may sound unusual and sententious, but they are never moralistic; beyond the caustic tone and epigraphic style, and the apparent “lightness” of some maxims strong and heartfelt messages come out: “Nothing is eternal except shame” (ibid.). The frequent references between the fragments are functional to support the “game of mirrors” that conceals the author’s emotions and intimate thoughts, transforming him into a fictional character. (As it is konown, the constant mixture of autobiographical details and the narrator’s artistic representation[9] is a significant literary device in his works). Even from his declared ‘outsider status’, Venedit Erofeev was an attentive and sensitive observer of contemporary reality. That is why reading his notes, an original summa of his intense relations with culture, gives us the possibility to make a funny, surreal and fascinating “journey” in his world: “And so I can’t fly at all, I’m not able to. Neither on a broomstick, nor on the wings of a song. Etc.” (Erofeev 2004a: 493).




[1] V. Erofeev, Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe, in Id., So dna dushi (From the bottom of my soul), Vagrius, Moskva, 2004: 443 (hereafter Erofeev 2004a). All the English translations from the work are mine, I. R.

[2] Some of the publications are: V. Erofeev, Zapisnye knizhki raznykh let (Notebooks of different years), edited by G. Erofeeva, with the preface of V. Shokina, «Konec veka», 4 (1992): 235-291; V. Erofeev, Poslednii dnevnik: oktiabr’ 1989 g.-mart 1990 g. (The Last Diary: from October 1989 to March 1990), «Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie», 18 (1996): 61-198 and V. Erofeev, Dnevnik 1973 goda (Diary of the Year 1973), «Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie», 29 (1998): 278-311.

[3] About ten aphorisms from the first edition of the work (2001) were translated by the writer and Slavist Paolo Nori, and can be found on his blog: cf. https://www.paolonori.it/argomenti/bespoleznoe-iskopaemoe/ (last accessed 31/12/2022). Of a similar diaristic-autofiction character is the first work written by Erofeev, Zapiski psikhopata (Memoirs of a Psychopath, 1956). The text dates back to his university period at MGU and was translated into Italian by Lidia Perri (cf. Erofeev 2017).

[4] It is interesting to point out, as evidence of how much Erofeev’s issues, his way of expressing himself and his deep sense of estrangement from reality are still current, that the string Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe was chosen as the title of a song and the eponymous album (2011) by the Russian rapper of Siberian origins Sasha Skul (1989-2022), https://youtu.be/pTN54o-RUcc, online (last accessed: 31/12/2022).

[5] See, by way of example, these famous phrases of the writer and journalist from Abruzzo taken from the Taccuino del Marziano (Notebook of the Martian), a collection of fifty-eight aphorisms taken from the comedy Un marziano a Roma (A Martian in Rome, 1960; published postthumously in 1974): «Chi rifiuta il sogno deve masturbarsi con la realtà», «Who refuses the dream must masturbate with reality» and «Il mio gatto fa quello che io vorrei fare, ma con meno letteratura», «My cat does what I would like to do, but with less literature», (E. Flaiano, Taccuino del Marziano, Henry Beyle, Milano 2015: 14 and 16; my translations, I. R.).

[6] As it is known, the failure to respect capital letters, punctuation and some spelling rules, that Erofeev carries out also in other works, is a formal expedient common to modernist writers, and corresponds to a tendency to “break the rules” to emphasize the continuum of the flow of thoughts of the narrating self. This aspect is relevant in the text, so much that the editor of the 2001 volume Vladimir Murav’’ёv (1939-2001) pointed out from the beginning that the notes-aphorisms were restored with the original punctuation and spelling, however irregular, conceived by the author.

[7] All of these works have been translated into Italian; instead, only the prose poem is available in English up to now (in three different translations). On Blagaia vest’ (The Good News), it is worth mentioning the volume edited by Alice Bravin with full Russian text, an Italian translation in front and a rich critical and bibliographical apparatus (see Bravin, 2020: 83-127). On the first three among the four Italian translations of the prose poem Moskva-Petushki and on their distinctive traits see Remonato 2013. On the last version by Paolo Nori (2014) see among the others the review in Remonato 2014. The only Italian translation up to now of My Little Leniniana has been realized by Gario Zappi, and contains a valuable critical apparatus of notes to the text for the readers of the target context (see Erofeev V. V. 2004b: 313-337).

[8] From Hamsun to Kafka, from Nietzsche to Reagan, from Swift to Chesterton, from Mozart and Mendelssohn to the key figures of the French Revolution up to the Nazi hierarchs: it is almost impossible to account for the myriad of references to authors and personalities of various eras cited in the most varied ways between the lines. This testifies to the breadth of the writer’s readings, interests and knowledge.

[9] On this aspect see Remonato 2004.

Ilaria Remonato
[31st December 2022]


Editions in Russian (including partial ones)

  • Erofeev V., Ostav’te moiu dushu v pokoe: Pochti vsё, edited by A. Kastanjan, CHGS, Moskva 1995: 282-402.
  • Erofeev V., Iz zapisnykh knizhek, in Id., Zapiski psikhopata. Avtorskii sbornik, edited by S. Murav’ёv, Vagrius, Moskva 2000: 345-420.
  • Erofeev V., Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe. Iz zapisnykh knizhek, edited by Vl. S. Murav’ёv, Vagrius, Moskva 2001 [2nd edition 2003].
  • Erofeev V., Iz zapisnykh knizhek, in Id., Sobranie sochinenii v dvukh tomakh, Vagrius, Moskva 2001, t. 1: 277:350; t. 2: 283-382.
  • Erofeev V., Iz zapisnykh knizhek, in Id., Moi ochen’ zhiznennyi put’, Vagrius, Moskva 2004: 492-565 [2nd edition 2008].
  • Erofeev V., Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe, in Id., So dna dushi (From the bottom of my soul), Vagrius, Moskva, 2004a: 395-520.


  • VV., Neskol’ko monologov o Venedikte Erofeeve, edited by di I. Avdiev, G. Erofeev and Vl. Murav’ёv, «Teatr», 9 (1991): 74:122.
  • Bravin A., “Sulle ali di una risata belante…”. La buona novella di Venedikt Erofeev, Edizioni dell’Orso, Alessandria 2020.
  • Erofeev V. V., Moskva-Petuški e altre opere, Italian transl. and edited by Gario Zappi, Feltrinelli, Milano 2004b.
  • Erofeev V., Zapisnye knizhki (1960s), edited by Ja. Jablokov, Zacharov, Moskva 2005.
  • Erofeev V., Zapisnye kni Kniga 2, edited by Ja. Jablokov, Zacharov, Moskva 2007.
  • Eroveev V., Memorie di uno psicopatico, Italian transl. By Lidia Perri, Miraggi, Torino 2017.
  • Lekmanov O., Simanovskij I., Sverdlov M., Venedikt Erofeev: postoronnii. Biografiia, AST, Moskva 2019.
  • Lipoveckij M., S potustoronnei tochki zreniia: postmodernistskaia versiia dialogizma, in Karen L. Ryan-Hayes (edited by), Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva- Petu Critical perspectives, Peter Lang, New York, 1997: 79-99.
  • Lipovetsky M., Venichka: A Tragic Trickster, in Id., Charms of the Cynical Reason: The Trickster’s Transformations in Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture, Academic Studies Press, Boston 2011: 153–92.
  • Remonato I., Sulle tracce dell’autore: Moskva-Petuški di V. Erofeev, «Europa Orientalis», XXIII/2004 (2): 209-229.
  • Remonato I., Le forme brevi nel mondo artistico di Venedikt Erofeev, in Forme brevi, frammenti, intarsi, edited by S. Genetti, Primo quaderno del Dottorato in Letterature Straniere e Scienze della Letteratura, Università degli Studi di Verona, Fiorini, Verona 2006: 319-336.
  • Remonato I., Dal russo all’italiano: gli itinerari linguistici di Moskva-Petuški, «mediAzioni», 14 (2013), http://mediazioni.sitlec.unibo.it, online (last accessed: 31/12/2022).
  • Remonato I., V. Erofeev, Mosca-Petuškì. Poema ferroviario, Italian transl. and edited by Paolo Nori, Quodlibet, Macerata 2014, http://rivistatradurre.it/2015/05/la-recensione-3-la-traduzione-come-dialogo-interculturale/, online (last accessed: 31/12/2022).
  • Vaingurt Ju., Low Spirits and Immoderate Meditations in Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki, «Slavic Review», 81 (1), Spring 2022: 163-186.

To cite this article:
Ilaria Remonato, Bespoleznoe iskopaemoe. Iz zapisnykh knizhek, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <vocilibereurss.fupress.net>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
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