Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"Rothenburg or the History of The Man Reforged"

“Rothenburg or the History of The Man Reforged”
Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko
Stretching from the White Sea, overland to Lake Vygozero, overland to Lake Onega.  From there the canal joins the Volga-Baltic Waterway.141 miles in total, 23 of which are man made.

PLOT SUMMARY: Zoshchenko’s story is one that he adapts from an autobiography of Abram Isaacovich Rothenburg, a tall, balding, man of Jewish origin from Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) in his forties.  Zoshchenko retells the tale from Rothenberg’s first-person perspective, and delves into his background from his troubled youth, to his first encounters with violating the law. In and out of prison, Rothenburg travelled the Caucuses and the Middle East as he worked as a jewel forging con-artist alongside his equally criminal wife Maria Kornienko. He details the First World War and his life as a draft-dodger, spending time in prison for imitating a soldier while he carried out more theft and robbery. Rothenburg notes that the February Revolution failed to leave an impression on him, and following the war he returned to his international criminal escapades, losing his wife along the way and falling into heavy drinking. 

     After nearly killing a man in Greece after a dispute, Rothenburg runs away accidentally ending up on a ship back to the USSR. Returning home to Tiflis, Rothenburg makes a living delivering parcels, falling in with a prostitute who eventually turned him over to the police, resulting in him being sentenced to three years hard labor. He is sent to work on construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, where he initially falls into poor spirits because of his situation and conditions of the labor. However, Sparanov and other workers’ encouragement reinforces the notion that Rothenbureg is working for himself, not a capitalist boss, and that their critical work could improve their country. This meaning-driven workplace culture infects Rothenburg, who felt inspired to work hard at his job. Eventually, his team became one of the most valued on the whole canal project, and Rothenburg climbs the ranks from laborer, to assistant reform-instructor, all the way to commissar. Rothenburg’s life up to the finish of Zoshchenko’s retelling ends with him winning the Order of the Red Banner of Labor as a freed citizen. He asks that Zoshchenko pass on his story of reform and rebirth to Maria Kornienko. Zoshchenko marvels at his change and refutes skeptics by stating that he “would be prepared to vouch for this man leading a new life now.”

ANALYSIS: Zoshchenko’s perspective on Rothenburg is that his criminality is predicated on the capitalist society that produces strife and inequality. His roots in poverty and the allure of a quick buck lead him to commit crime after crime, resulting in his frequent imprisonment. However, Zoshchenko’s reading of Rothenburg’s life seems to already have a predetermined end, as he is writing for the purpose of lifting up the Soviet model of labor. The character of Rothenburg was saveable from the start.  Even before his story begins, Rothenburg vocally traces his lineage of hard work, asking “how can people be born criminals.” His physical attributes fit that of a real Soviet man’s man: tall, strong, bald, and a bit past the youthful prime demonstrating longevity with his purposeful labor. Zoshchenko notes that Rothenburg is clearly not the most intelligent, although literate with a good head on his shoulders. His heritage fits that of the global Communist mission, as he is a Georgian Jew who has rejected his faith and heritage for the broader goal of serving the revolution. The poetic rise of Rothenburg as a criminal forging jewels and running sham businesses fits the Soviet-realist archetypical capitalist, one who is tempted by riches but ultimately is just a criminal.

     The path of Rothenburg’s reform further emphasizes the failings of the Western capitalist system and their lack of striving for creating a “New Man.” The stark difference between his imprisonment in British Baghdad and Canal is a conduit for Zoshchenko to make this commentary clear. In the British prison, his movement and interactions with his fellow prisoner were constrained. He could not interact with a prison economy and felt little purpose. It was the meaningful work and proper treatment that put an end to Rothenburg’s criminal ways. The Communist working spirit allowed for him to lift a team to great heights in the construction of the canal, while also leaving room for personal achievement as well. Zoshchenko views this path as a panacea to the “criminal underworld”, and writes to fulfill the vision stripping “thief, robbery and murder” (Page 147) from the Soviet vocabulary. The fact that Zoshchenko titles this work a “History” signifies that he believes this to be a firsthand account of a trend of change.


“Once again I began to sell paste for diamonds and brass for gold. I became an expert at the business. I was even surprised myself sometimes, when I thought of the cleverness of my work.  I began to collect a good bit of money.” (132)

“It [British Prison] was very hard. Speaking and smoking were not allowed, of course. We had separate cells, and the rules were so strict you would be surprised if I told you. Everything had to be done to orders, like drill.”  (135)

 “‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’ve been everywhere and you’ve seen what sort of reform they go in for abroad. They clubbed you and punched you in the face. Of course, we aren’t asking you to work in return for behaving decently to you. It’s hard, I know, it’s no paradise here, but then, if it was like paradise everybody would be committing crimes so as to get sent here. We don’t want that.  We demand work because we’re working for ourselves, and not for the capitalists. We want our country to develop and be prosperous.” (144)

BIOGRAPHY: Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko was born on August 10, 1895, in what is now the Ukrainian city of Poltava. Zoshchenko attended a St. Petersburg high school, graduating in 1913 before spending significant time as a military man. He first was a member of the czarist forces in the Great War before pledging his allegiance to the Red Army and receiving recognition for his valor in combat. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, Zoshchenko worked a number of different odd jobs that would later contribute to his storytelling that often focused on the artisans and working folk of his city of residence, Leningrad.

     His writing career sprouted during the 1920s and led to immense popularity following a string of successful short stories and an eventual move towards longer works, including Youth Restored (1933) and Before Sunrise (1946). Zoshchenko would become well-known for his works of satire commenting on life in the Soviet Union, albeit doing so in ways that were not overtly political or partisan in the socialist realist vein. After receiving honors for participating in the defense of Leningrad during the Second World War, Zoshchenko’s luck in the cultural landscape of the Stalinist era began to fade, and was forcibly removed from the literary community in 1946. He remained under the radar until the death of Stalin, where he was able to publish again, but died soon after in 1958.


Belaia, G. “The Existential Problematic of the Work of Mikhail Zoshchenko.” Russian Social Science Review 38, no. 2 (1997): 76–96.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Mikhail Mikhaylovich Zoshchenko.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

Emerson, Caryl. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Hicks, J. “Worker Correspondents: Between Journalism and Literature.” The Russian Review, vol. 66, no. 4, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 568–85, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9434.2007.00459.x.

May, Charles E. Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Vol. 4th ed, Salem Press, 2012. EBSCOhost,

"Zoshchenko, Mikhail Mikhailovich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Paul Lagasse, and Columbia University, Columbia University Press, 8th edition, 2018. 

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “White Sea–Baltic Canal.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,


Belaia, G. “The Existential Problematic of the Work of Mikhail Zoshchenko.” Russian Social Science Review 38, no. 2 (1997): 76–96.
Belai’s scholarship helps to contextualize parts of Zoshchenko’s body of work with an analysis focused on his personal worldview that bleeds through into his writing, further solidified in an examination of selected personal letters. Specifically, Belai examines his perception of the spiritual and existential through his adoption of championing the every-day worker, contrasted with his experience as an educated revolutionary. The author of the article lays Zoshchenko’s self-reflexivity in his critiques of the inaccessibility of what might be seen as high minded thought. Belai notes, however, that Zoshchenko never abandons critical questions of existence and that of the ordinary day, made clear in in-depth looks at the “heroes” of some of his works, such as Stories of Nazar Il’ich Mr. Sinebiukov, A Marvelous Rest, and Apollo and Tamara, to name a few. Overall, this work provides great insight into societal and personal battles that play out in Zoshchenko’s stories. 

 Draskoczy, J. “The Put’ of Perekovka: Transforming Lives at Stalin’s White Sea-Baltic Canal,” Russian Review 71, no. 1 (January 2012): 30–48.
Julie Daskoczy’s article delves into the Stalin-era idea of perekovka, or reforging, a notion in the forefront of the mind and body of the Soviet people during the first Five-Year Plan.  Draskoczy explores this reforging through the lens of laborers constructing one of the most striking extensions of the Gulag, the White-Sea Baltic Canal. First, she lays out the hierarchical structure and thinking behind the idea of perekovka, detailing the characteristics of competition, “shock-worker mentality”, and “cultural-educational work” aimed at reform. She explains the hierarchy of bodies that resulted in high mortality rates and a somewhat eugenics-like view of physical fitness as a key to the reforging process. The article goes on to describe a parallel between revolutionary socialist ideology and the reform of the prisoner, where both converge to form the “New Man'' who replaced a dreary past with a hopeful present. Draskoczy explores this through the literary perspectives of the builders of the canal themselves, detailing stories of conversion, mentorship and reforging. At the same time, the author notes the counter-narratives present in the system, that of intimidation, shame, or the path to criminality. Furthermore, Draskovsky details a third narrative that emerges: the proud criminals, or those critical of the perekovka cultural rehabilitation methods. This article is overwhelmingly useful in its analysis of the nuanced perspectives of the prisoners who built the canal and their stories, which would be used as source material for Zoshchenko’s character-building and dialogue.

Hicks, J. “Worker Correspondents: Between Journalism and Literature.” The Russian Review, vol. 66, no. 4, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, pp. 568–85, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9434.2007.00459.x.
Hicks examines the blended nature of worker correspondents as a cross between journalism and literature, similarly utilized by Zoshchenko in his works as “source material for stories of disputes in restaurants, trams, communal flats, and bathhouses.” The author tracks the development of the worker correspondents, exploring their perceptions of themselves as proletarians producing writing, as well as the perceptions of outsiders looking in. Hicks explores the tension between established writers such as Alexander Voronsky and Leon Trotsky, who argued that proletarian literature was not really worthy of the name literature, while the proletarian writers advocated for themselves and the future they wished to see, one with a socialized role of art. Hicks further develops nuances of the proletarian correspondent by examining the journal Lef, and goes on to review the relationship between information, style, and how worker correspondents themselves were represented by other authors. This article is important in relation to Zoshchenko because the perspectives of the proletarians themselves may frame the way we can think about the characters Zoshchenko builds and the space in which they occupied in his examination of the White Sea-Baltic Canal.

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