Yuri Trifonov’s novella, “The Exchange,” gives us a glimpse at various aspects of later Soviet life. The text tells us many things about this kind of life – it describes how private and public space is defined, how the new kind of bureaucracy is represented, and much more. The lifestyle of the people living at this time shaped and molded them into becoming the people and culture that they were.
In “The Exchange”, Trifonov makes it clear that in this post war Soviet society, there is no such thing as privacy or personal space. Every space you have is shared with others. This aspect is displayed in many ways throughout the novella: everything you own is owned by others as well. There is no talk of buying an apartment (or room), but rather of exchanging them. Dmitriev shares his bathroom with his neighbors. He also watches “a young unattractive woman” in the balcony across from his (24). “Why was inconceivable-he didn’t like the woman at all-but the secret observation of her inspired him” (24). Dmitriev relishes the idea of having something private, something to himself, while the young woman shows how little of this privacy is truly left in the society they live in. In addition, “Everyone in the office knew what was going on in Dmitriev ‘s life” (33). The exchange itself stresses the ultimate sacrifice of privacy – you are no longer a person, but rather something that can be traded in for something better or more useful.
This loss of personal space leads to a forced sense of community. Neighbors who live together are forced to tolerate one another because what affects them affects everyone around them. This idea of the community being greater and more prominent than the individual is not a new one. Throughout Russian history, emphasis has been put on the state over the individual – from the conversion of the entire state to Christianity, to the ultimate reform into a community through Communism.
In the world that Trifonov describes, it is important to “know how to get things done.” This urgency is stressed by the fact that you are only one in a community – on your own, you do not matter. You are part of a whole, and no one will notice if you are gone. In addition, while everyone talks about the “legitimate” ways of doing things, it is crucial to have connections and to know how to get things done off the books. This is displayed when Dmitriev speaks with Nevyadomsky. When Dmitriev asks Nevyadomsky how an exchange is made, the latter replies: “With the exchange bureau, I don’t know any other routes” (35). Both men know how an exchange is made in theory, but both also take for granted that in order to truly get anything done, they need to do it in another way – in other words, to “know how to get things done.”
People’s mentality changes with the times. People believe Communism is working, and that life is genuinely better as a result of it. That’s how things are. In a way Dmitriev’s whole story is formed from, and about memories. Very little happens in the present, and most of Dmitriev’s thoughts are focused on the past. The story is told in flashbacks. All that matters is what used to be. “The Exchange” hints to the fact that Communism distorts the memories of people because it makes people think of the past and the future, and not the present. Dmitriev constantly thinks of things of the past, such as Tanya – who “would have been the best wife for him” (33). Dmitriev has flashbacks to how good things used to be, when Lena and his mother got along, when he was with Tanya, when things were better. He dwells on the past instead of focusing on what is currently going on in his life. Because of this, he relies on Lena to take care of the present and future.
Dmitriev can be seen as a symbol for the average Russian during this time period. The wife Lena, could in turn be seen as a symbol for the government. Dmitriev does not think for himself – he needs someone else to tell him what to do, even if he knows what he must do on his own. Lena provides him with this information. In return, he does it, and does not question it. In this manner, many Russians lived under Communism. Dmitriev’s mother, Xenia Fyodorovna, represents the complete lack of privacy; she is no longer a person, but an object in a business interaction. In addition, the old woman represents the past of which Dmitriev keeps thinking. Dmitriev recalls when “Mama was studying English, just for herself, so that she could read novels, and Dmitriev was getting ready for graduate school” (23). Both he and his mother were going to do something with their lives and become people, become individuals. However, when Lena came, this stopped. Lena (in the form of the government) stopped any progress that could be made to become an individual. She does not like the past, and doing her utmost to get rid of it.
Dmitriev trades his mother for money, just because the government (his wife) said so. All throughout the text, people are referring to coats they bought, or an old sofa that they got somewhere. When Tanya offers to lend Dmitriev some money, she mentions that she does not need it anymore because she couldn’t buy a summer coat. Such details emphasize the importance of material goods. In a culture where people have very little that belongs to them and not the collective society, people come to value what little material goods they truly own. The ottoman that Dmitriev and Lena own is “an object of envy among their acquaintances” (20).
“The Exchange” by Trifonov gives the reader a sense of what life was like in post-war Russia. The individual ceased to be an individual, and people valued material goods over all, because they had so little that was truly theirs. Dmitriev and Lena are like a model for what life was like – the government said to get something done, and you did it without thinking. Much can be learned about Russia’s culture from works such as this novella.