On a desolate battlefield, 15-year-old Midge, a Soviet Pioneer, plods to her execution whistling a jaunty tune. The siege of Leningrad is at its height and Midge, having wangled her way into the army, is less afraid of death than she is of being thrown out of her unit. She feels that she fulfils a vital role in the Collective: in the words of her commander, she is ‘the faithful little wife of the regiment’ and night after night the men queue up to experience the affection she dispenses indiscriminately.
Much to her surprise, Midge is not executed but instead is made a Hero of the Soviet Union. It emerges that she experiences ‘strategic dreams’ in which, in the form of a seagull, she takes to the air. Swooping over Russia, she reports on troop movements and even spies Stalin, squatting on the top of the Kremlin, plotting and scheming.
The Naked Pioneer Girl is a breathless mix of two realisms; socialist and magical. The yawning disparity between the grinding misery of Midge’s day-to-day existence and her naïve cheerfulness may make the reader flinch but her chirpy response to degradation and disaster make her a true comic creation, a sister-in-arms of Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk.
It may seem a little late in the day for a satire on tales of heroic sons and daughters of toil but, with the re-election of a former KGB officer as President of Russia (with a majority Stalin would envy), who is to say that things have changed so much?Peter Whittaker