Generous Gifts by Georgi Popov

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by Vasily Shukshin

It is spring. Egor Prokudin, a broad-shouldered man of about 40, is being released from prison. He tells the prison superintendant that he plans to buy a cow and do agricultural work. He also shows the superintendant a photograph of Lyubov Fyodorovna Baikalova, a pretty young woman with whom Egor exchanged letters while in prison. Egor says she is his future wife.

The superintendant has to return to prison business, including quelling a disturbance in a prison literature class, where the prisoners are pestering the teacher with questions about Tatyana from Pushkin's Evgeni Onegin, such as: Will she have any children with her old husband?

As he leaves prison, Egor remarks, "Freedom and spring! What more does a man need?"

Egor flags down a Volga and negotiates a ride. The driver, a young fellow, has a transistor tape player, and Egor greatly enjoys the music. He says that he's happy. The driver shrugs and asks what's there to be happy about. Egor tells him that he has to learn how to be happy and how to appreciate poetry. Egor quotes a long passage from Esenin, but the driver isn't particually impressed.

As they drive through the countryside, Egor has the driver stop so that he can take a few moments to gaze lovingly at his "sweethearts"---the beautiful white birch trees, standing white like brides awaiting their grooms. The driver deposits Egor on the outskirts of the district's main town. Egor pays the driver and buys his tape player.

Egor's former gang, led by a fellow named Fat Lip, are gathered in their hideout, a dingy and ugly place called a den--an insult to animals. They are drinking champagne and nervously waiting for the telephone to ring. Suddenly, there is the secret knock at the door. It is Egor. They are all glad to see him, especially one of the girls with high cheekbones, Lucienne, who covers him with kisses.

Egor asks why everyone's so tense. Fat Lip says some of their boys are pulling a job and they are waiting to hear how they did.

Lucienne smashes her champagne glass on the floor, and calls to Egor to dance with her. Two guitars play a barynia folk dance for them, and they dance very well. Egor cries out, "This is the moment my long-suffering soul was waiting for." Lucienne promises to soothe his soul in another way, too.

The telephone rings. Bad news! Their boys were caught! Fat Lip orders everyone to immediately split up and lie low for two weeks. He offers Egor some spending cash. Egor at first refuses, then accepts. Egor is one of the last to leave the hideout, along with Fat Lip and a younger gang member. The police already have the whole block surrounded. Egor says he'll make a dash for it to draw away the police. He has release papers with today's date on it, so they won't be able to pin anything on him. And if caught, Egor will just say he was looking for a woman and got scared when he heard the whistles and sirens.

Egor runs off and actually manages to elude the police. Egor thinks, "Too bad it's not always like that. When you really need to escape, then you get caught."

Egor tries to hook up with some former friends, but they are either gone or he can't find them. So he decides to go to Lyubov, his darling little Siberian potato cake. Hopefully, he'll be able to put on some weight and let his hair grow out at her place.

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Egor takes the bus to the village of Yasnoye. As he gets off, he sees Lyubov waiting for him. After an awkward first meeting, the got to a tea house to talk. Egor is distressed to find out that Lyubov has a large family with strict parents. (He groundlessly fears that they are Old Believers.) What's more, her brother's children are good students. This leaves a sour taste in Egor's mouth.

In response to a question from Lyubov, Egor concocts a story, saying he was a bookkeeper at a supply house. The bosses were stealing and when the audit came, it was he, Egor, who took the rap. Lyubov notes that Egor's hands seem more appropriate for braking locks than keeping books. She then reveals that she wrote to the prison superintendant and knows why Egor really was locked up. Egor calls the superindentant a craphead.

Lyubov remarks that Egor's letters to her were so nice--more like poems than letters. She seriously asks why he has come out here. Egor is stumped for an answer and says, "Maybe just to find rest for my soul."

Egor notices that Lyubov sounds a lot like Lucienne.

He confesses that the only thing he is fit for is a being a thief. Lyubov says Egor does not act much like a swindler--more like a regular fellow. Egor mentions that he does have a licence as a truck driver.

I'm a recidivist convict, you little fool. I'd steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes.
Egor is surprised when Lybov--knowing the truth about him--invites him to come and stay with her for a week or so--to relax--then he can go back to stealing if he wants.

Lyubov brings Egor home and introduces him to her parents, who are worried and frightened to have a jailbird in the house. Lyubov tells her parents the bookkeeper story and that Egor was in prison for a misundertanding. She then goes out to warm up the bathhouse.

Lyubov's father, Fedya, asks Egor what the "misunderstanding" was--did he hit someone and accidentally break his skull? Egor responds, yes, he bumped off seven people, chopping off their heads. Lyubov's mother gasps in fright. Fedya is not so gullible. But he tells Egor plainly that he doesn't believe the bookkeeper story. Fedya's seen plenty of bookkeepers--mild and weak people. And Egor doesn't fit that descriptions. Indeed, Fedya says, "If they beat you on the head for six months you wouldn't feel a thing."

Egor says Fedya's so sharp he should have been a police inspector. In fact, Egor asks, wasn't Fedya a member of Kolchak's counterintelligence when he was young? This puts Fedya off balance. Egor continues the pressure, asking: "You never stole grain from the kolkhoz during hard years?"

Aleksei Grigorevich Stakhanov
Four eyes.
A Ukrainan miner credited with
single-handedly mining 102 tons
of coal in a single six-hour shift
in August 1935. This achievement
gave rise to a nation-wide movement
to emmulate his achievement and
boost worker productivity.
Egor then launches into a sarcastic speech about how so many people are working hard for the common good while others--such as Lyubov's parents--only want to take care of themselves and stay warm by the hearth. Fedya indignantly protests that he's been a Stakhanovite all his life and has 18 commendations.

Lyubov's brother, Petro, arrives. He and Egor go down to the bathhouse. Without really knowing why, Egor felt that he wanted to be accepted by these people. He offers his hand to Petro, who takes no interest. Insulted, Egor lies down, refusing to go into the bathhouse. He finally agrees to go into the bathhouse when Petro, using language Egor can understand, threatens to shove his head in a bucket and sit his ass down on the hot stove.

Meanwhile, Lyuba's mother and sister-in-law, Zoya, are haranging her, telling her to get rid of the jailbird immediately. Fedya says there is no need to be hasty and that they should just wait and see what happens. Lyuba defends Egor, saying that she can see in his eyes that he is a good man.

Petro comes racing out of the bathhouse, screaming, "He's boiling me alive!" Apparently, Petro has asked Egor to toss a dipper of hot water on the stove. Egor misunderstood and splashed the boiling water on Petro, scalding him. Neighbors who were attracted by all the yelling conclude that Petro was probably drunk and fell on the stove.

That evening, about a dozen of Lyuba's parents' friends stop by. They drink and talk of common concerns and the old days--recalling who was dekulaked and for what. Lyuba shows Egor the family photograph album, including photos of two other brothers who died in the war. Petro smiles a friendly smile at Egor and asks him to turn on his tape player. Egor does this, and it blasts out a joyful march. Conversation ceases, and everyone listens to the music.

All my life, I've hated it when I lied. And I do lie, of course--and that only makes life all the harder. I lie, and I hate myself for it. I even feel like I want to do away with myself, smash my life to bits.
The next morning, after breakfast, Egor tells Lyuba that he has to go into the city to buy some clothes and things. Lyuba looks at him calmly, but sadly. Egor can't stand this so, saying that he'd rather not lie, he tells her that, in truth, he might return and he might not.

Lyuba thanks him for the truth, and this makes Egor fret even more. He expounds on the uselessness of words, saying, "Words are worth nothing! Why do people believe them?" He says he has to go off on his own and search his heart for a bit. Lyuba responds that if Egor stays away she'll be very sad and will probably cry, but she won't say anything bad against him. Egor says it's hard for him, too, and ask for Lyuba's forgiveness.

While working at the kolkhoz that day, Lyuba is in a daze. She herself is surprised how much she is aching for Egor. Her girlfriends tell her to forget him, that he probably has a wife somewhere. But Lyuba can't put him out of her mind.

When Egor gets to the regional capital, the first thing he does is buy himself a natty suit of clothes. Then he goes to the post office to wire money back to Fat Lip. At first, the cashier there seems to be making eyes at Egor. But when Egor, saying that he's just in town from the gold mines, offers to take her out that evening, she acts offended. This irritates Egor. He goes to a restaurant to drink champagne. He gives the waiter, Mikhailych, a hefty tip and, flashing a large wad of money, asks him to arrange a private whorehouse for him that evening.

Later, Egor calls Lyuba and tells her that he'll have to stay in town for the night because he got delayed registering himself with the local militia. Then, putting on a robe, he sweeps off, just like Caligua, to debauch himself.

If anybody says that cognac smells like bedbugs, I'll hit him over the head with a bottle.
Upon entering his private party room, Egor is somewhat taken aback as he sees that most of the debauchers are old, and the women are homely and wretched looking. He quickly recovers, however, and gives a somewhat rambling speech in praise of nature, then he orders everyone to drink down champagne and cognac.

Egor tries to organize the revellers in a chorus, but they degenerate into bickering over who sang what wrong. Egor leaves in disgust and decides to find a taxi to take him back to Lyuba.

Egor doesn't understand why he's gotten so shook up over a skirt. When he arrives in Yasnoye, all the lights are dark in Lyuba's house. He awakens Petro and invites him to drink Remy Martin cognac in the bathhouse. As they drink, Egor says he doesn't understand what's going on with him. After a silence, Petro says he used to drink cognac during the war in Germany, and that cognac smells like bedbugs. Egor protests, and Petro says, maybe the good stuff doesn't smell, but the normal kind does. Just before dawn, Egor and Petro were drunkenly singing:

I sit behind bars in the damp and the gloom
And feed a young eagle that lives in my cell
My unhappy comrade stretches his wings
And pecks at the meat that has brought him to hell

The next morning, Egor walks with Lyuba to the dairy farm. Lyuba comments that she herself would never go to a bathhouse at night because that is were devils are hatched.

As they reach the dairy farm, Egor stops to gaze in wonder at the cows. He says that all he remembers from his childhood is his mother and their cow, called Manka. One spring, they let the cow out to eat old hay along the road. She wandered into someone's yard and they stuck her with a pitchfork. The cow came home, dragging her guts on the ground.

Dmitri Vladimirovich, the director of the sovkhoz, walks up. Lyuba introduces him to Egor, noting that Egor is a driver. Dmitri is glad to hear that and says that, even though Egor hasn't got his passport registered yet, he'd like to put Egor to work right away driving him around. Egor accepts the invitation to go with Dmitri and see the district--a suggestion which five minutes ago he would have laughed at.

Dmitri asks Egor where's he's from. Egor says a local village and invents a name. Dmitri, knowing this is false, asks why the pretense? Egor says a person's biography is irrelavent, but says, if Dmitri really wants to know, Egor is the son of a public prosecutor. This makes the director laugh. He thinks Egor is too irrationally belligerent.

They arrive at the apiary, and Dmitri invites Egor to come inside for tea. Egor declines and says outside, admiring the view. He talks sweetly to a birch tree, telling it that soon it will be beautiful, all dressed in greenery.

They next drive to the village club. Dmitri gets out, but gives Egor instructions to drive ahead to the village of Sosnovka, pick up brigade leader Savelev, and bring him back. Egor completes the errand, then tells Dmitri that he just can't bring himself to drive other people around anymore. He knows its irresponsible and politically backward, but he just can't do it. He's an ex-con, he says, a zek. It would be better if he drove a dump truck or a tractor. Then he turns and walks away, leaving Dmitri baffled.

Egor berates himself for apologizing and justifying himself before Dmitri. It left a rancid taste in his mouth. He fears that this is the way one becomes an ass-kisser. He finds a birch grove and wanders about it. He takes off his necktie and ties it around one of the most beautiful and whitest of the trees. He places his hat on a stump next to the tree. He steps back and looks at the natty couple, feeling much better now.

Back at Lyuba's, Egor paces nervously as Fedya prepares a fishing line. Fedya asks Egor not to mistreat Lyuba. After all, she's the baby of the family and had a rough time with her alcoholic ex-husband. Egor says that alcoholics ought to be given a five-year sentence at the bottom of a mine shaft.

When Lyuba comes home, she's surprised to see Egor, expecting him to have still been driving Dmitri around. Egor tells Lyuba that he wants to talk with her about something. But just then, Petro comes home in the dump truck he drives. Egor borrows the keys from Petro, and drives off in the truck with Lyuba, leaving everyone wondering what he's up to.

Egor tells Lyuba that they are going to Sosnovka to see an old woman named Kudelikha. He says she is the aunt of some fellow he knew in prison and he promised to look her up and find out how she is. But she is not to find out that her nephew is in prison, so Egor wants Lyuba to ask all the questions, pretending that she is from the social service office, just checking up on how a pensioner is doing.

Lyuba and Egor (wearing dark glasses) arrive at Kudelikha's log house, and Lyuba begins her gentle questioning. Things in general are fine with Kudelikha. One of her children still lives with her, and three others are off in various regions of Siberia. In addition, there were two other sons who left during the famine time, but she has no idea what ever became of them, if they are alive or not. As she recalls this, Kudelikha begins to cry. Lyuba comforts her sincerely and naturally.

As Lyuba and Egor drive away, Egor, overcome with emotion, stops the truck and confesses that Kudelikha is his mother. Lyuba insists that he turn around immediately and announce himself to his mother. Egor, however, says he's not quite ready yet. But he will do it soon.

When they get back to Lyuba's house, Petro tells them that Kolya, Lyuba's drunkard of an ex-husband, is waiting inside. Petro also warns Egor that three of Kolya's friends are hiding outside the gate.

Wasting no time, Egor goes into the house, grabs Kolya by the collar, and drags him outside. He shoves Kolya to the ground and tells him to never come around again. Kolya challenges Egor to go somewhere to settle this. They step outside the gate, and Kolya's three friends start to follow. They reach a wattle fence, and Kolya immediately lunges at Egor, but Egor easily trips him. Then one of the friends attacks Egor, but Egor lays him low with a single punch to the stomach. The other two friends are too dumbstruck to do anything. Enraged, Kolya pulls a long stake from the fence and makes ready to attack. Egor, however, merely stares him down, then starts to walk away. Kolya wants to go after Egor, but his friends hold him back.

Some time later, Egor is driving a tractor on the kolkhoz. He looks as his work with pride and tells himself that if he keeps it up, he'll become a real shock-worker. He notices a grove of birch trees next to the field, so he goes over to talk to them. They have begun to turn green, so he calls them his little brides, all dressed up. Egor then returns to his tractor singing:

Snowball berry red,
Snowball berry ripe,
From a little birdie,
I learned his true nature

One evening, Egor, Lyuba, and her parents are at home, eating and listening to music on the radio when Shura, one of Fat Lip's gang members, shows up. Egor pretends that Shura is an old army buddy, and they step outside to talk. Lyuba sneaks out onto the porch and eavesdrops as Egor says that he is quits with the gang. Shura gives Egor a wad of money from Fat Lip. Egor slaps Shura across the face with the money and gives it back to him. Shura leaves, scowling angrily.

Lyuba cries, saying that she's heard that gang members who try to quit are always killed. Egor reassures her, then the two of them, together, sing:

Snowball berry red,
Snowball berry ripe,
From a little birdie,
I learned his true nature
He has such a nature
I didn't give in
So he left me for another.

Egor then goes off with Petro to do some drinking in the bathhouse again.

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On another day, Egor is driving his tractor, seeding the field. He sees Fat Lip's Volga parked by the birch grove in the distance, so he starts to walk over to it. With Fat Lip is Lucienne and two henchmen. Lucienne begs Fat Lip not to hurt Egor. Fat Lip tells her to shut up or he'll kill her, too, and desecrate their bodies.

Lyuba, returning home, learns from her parents that some strangers were looking for Egor. Fearing the worst, Lyuba piles into the dump truck with Petro and they speed to the kolkhoz.

On the kolkhoz, Egor and Fat Lip step into the birch grove. Just then, the henchmen see Petro's truck racing toward them. They call to Fat Lip, who comes racing out of the grove, hiding something in his pocket. The gang members get into the Volga and speed away.

When the dump truck pulls up, Egor comes staggering into view, holding a hand over a bullet wound in his stomach. There are bright red blood stains on the white birches.

Petro and Lyuba put Egor into the truck and start speeding toward the hospital. But soon Egor, groaning in agony, says there's no hope for him and orders that they stop.

They lay Egor down on the ground. He tells Lyuba there is money in his jacket and that she should share it with his mother. Egor dies.

Enraged, Petro gets back in his truck. He takes a shortcut along a lumber road and intercepts the Volga on the narrow main highway. He speeds head-on at the approaching Volga. The Volga swerves off the road into a muddy field. The dump truck, like an enraged bull, crashes into the side of the Volga, turning it over and rearing up on top of it.


Biography of Vasily Shukshin

Shukshin, Vasily Makarovich. Actor, film director, and writer born on 25 July 1929 in a peasant family in the Siberian village of Srostki, located in the Altai krai. In 1933, his father was executed either for sabotage in the kolkhoz or for inciting a riot. For the sake of the family, Shukshin's mother renounced her husband's name, and gave her son her maiden name of Popov. He lived with this name until he turned 16 years old. (Markar Shukshin was posthumously rehabilitated in 1956.) After finishing the village seven-year school. . . .(...Continued...)

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