Insurance, Moral Hazard, and Collective Action in Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf

A few weeks ago, I posted on Competition, corporatism, collusion, and antitrust themes in Ilf & Petrov‘s early-Stalinist-era comedy, The Golden Calf. Today, the topic is insurance, moral hazard, and collective action. This scene concerns the residents of a communal apartment, Apt. 3, nicknamed “The Rookery” (Voron’ia slobodka). The inhabitants, described in a previous chapter, include Basilius Andreevich Lokhankin, Chamberlain Mitrich, Hygienishvili (a Georgian), “nobody’s grandma”, Nikita Pryakhin, Lucia Franzevna Pferd, and some subletters of individual beds.

The Rookery caught fire at midnight. . . . Nobody’s grandma was the first link in the long chain of events that ultimately led to the fire in apartment No. 3. She, as we know, had been burning kerosene in her loft because she didn’t believe in electricity. For a long time after Basilius Andreevich was flogged [another interesting scene earlier in the book], nothing exciting happened in the apartment, and the restless mind of Chamberlain Mitrich suffered from the idleness. So he thought long and hard about the grandma’s ways and became alarmed.

“The old bat will burn the whole place down!” he grumbled. “What does she care? And my grand piano alone is probably worth two thousand.”

With that in mind, Mitrich had all his belongings insured against fire. That way, he didn’t have to worry about it anymore, and so he watched calmly as the grandma dragged a large murky bottle of kerosene up to her loft, holding it like a baby. The first to find out about Mitrich’s prudent move was Citizen Hygienishvili, who immediately interpreted it in his own peculiar way. He came up to Mitrich in the hallway, grabbed him by the chest, and said threateningly:

“You want to burn the whole place down? You want to get the insurance money? You think Hygienishvili is a fool? Hygienishvili understands everything.”

And so the hot-blooded tenant took out a large insurance policy for himself on the very same day. The Rookery was terrified. Lucia Franzevna Pferd came running into the kitchen with her eyes bulging.

“These bastards will burn us all down. Whatever you say, people, I’m off to buy my own insurance right now. We’ll have a fire anyway, but at least I’ll get some money. I have no desire to go penniless because of them.”

The next day, everybody bought insurance, with the exception of Lokhankin and nobody’s grandma. Lokhankin was busy reading Motherland magazine and wasn’t paying attention, while the grandma didn’t believe in insurance any more than she did in electricity. Nikita Pryakhin brought home his purple-edged insurance policy and studied its watermarks against the light at length.

“So the government gives us a helping hand?” he said glumly. “Offers aid to the tenants? Well, thank you kindly! So now we’ll do as we wish.”

He stuck the policy under his shirt and went into his room. His words made people so fearful that no one at the Rookery went to bed that night. Dunya was packing, while the other bed renters went off to stay with their friends. During the day, everyone watched everyone else, and the building was being slowly emptied of belongings, piece by piece.

There was no longer any doubt. The house was doomed. It simply had to burn down. And indeed, it went up in flames at midnight, set ablaze on six sides simultaneously.

The last to escape from the building, which was already filled with samovar smoke and streaks of fire, was Lokhankin. He tried to protect himself with a white blanket. He screamed “Fire! Fire!” at the top of his lungs, even though it was no longer news to anybody. All the Rookery tenants were already there. Inebriated Pryakhin was sitting on his trunk with metal corners. He stared mindlessly at the flickering windows, mumbling: “We’ll do as we wish.” Hygienishvili was squeamishly sniffing his hands, which smelled of kerosene, and he wiped them on his pants after each sniff. A flaming spiral flew out of a window and sprung open under the wooden overhang, sending sparks downward. The first window pane shattered and fell out, making a loud noise. Nobody’s grandma burst into a terrifying howl.

“The house stood here for forty years,” explained Mitrich with authority, walking around in the crowd. “It stood through all the regimes; it was a good one. But under the Soviets, it burned down. A sad, sad fact, citizens.”

The female population of the Rookery banded together and couldn’t take their eyes off the flames. Cannon-like fire was shooting from all the windows. The flames would disappear momentarily and the darkened house would seem to recoil, like an artillery piece that’s just been fired. Then the red-and-yellow cloud would reappear, giving Lemon Lane a bright and festive look. It was hot. One could no longer stand near the house, so the gathering moved to the opposite sidewalk.

Only Nikita Pryakhin didn’t move; he was snoozing on his trunk in the middle of the street. Then he suddenly jumped up, barefoot and wild-looking.

“Christians!” he yelled out, tearing his shirt apart. “Citizens!”

He ran away from the fire sideways, barged into the crowd, and, shouting something unintelligible, started pointing at the burning building. The crowd was rattled.

“They forgot a baby,” said a woman in a small straw hat confidently.

People surrounded Nikita. He tried to push them away and get to the house.

“On my bed!” he yelled like a madman. “Let me go, let me go!”

Violent tears streamed down his cheeks. He hit Hygienishvili on the head in order to clear the way and ran into the courtyard. A minute later, he ran back out with a ladder.

“Stop him!” shouted the woman in a straw hat. “He’ll burn alive!”

“Get lost!” yelled Pryakhin, setting the ladder against the wall and pushing away the young men who were trying to grab his legs. “I can’t leave it. My soul’s on fire!”

He kicked with his legs and climbed up the ladder, toward the smoke billowing from the second-floor window.

“Get back!” people shouted from the crowd. “What are you doing? You’ll burn!”

“On my bed!” Nikita continued to bellow. “A full bottle of vodka, a big one! Three quarts! How can I leave it behind, Christians?”

With unexpected agility, Pryakhin grabbed onto the flashing and instantly disappeared, sucked in by the air stream. His last words were: “We’ll do as we wish.” Silence fell over the street, only to be interrupted by the bell and the trumpets of the fire brigade. Firemen in stiff canvas suits with broad dark-blue belts came running into the courtyard.

A minute after Nikita Pryakhin committed the only heroic act of his life, a large burning timber fell from the building and crashed onto the ground. The roof cracked open with a tearing sound and collapsed into the house. A shining pillar rose to the sky, as if the house had fired a cannonball toward the moon.

Such was the end of apartment No. 3, which was known as the Rookery.

(As before, the translation is by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson.)

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