CHAPTER I. Professor Persikov's Curriculum Vitae
On the evening of 16 April, 1928, the Zoology Professor of the Fourth
State University and Director of the Moscow Zoological Institute, Persikov,
went into his laboratory at the Zoological Institute in Herzen Street. The
Professor switched on the frosted ceiling light and looked around him.
This ill-fated evening must be regarded as marking the beginning of the
appalling catastrophe, just as Professor Vladimir Ipatievich Persikov must
be seen as the prime cause of the said catastrophe.
He was fifty-eight years old. With a splendid bald head, like a pestle,
and tufts of yellowish hair sticking out at the sides. His face was
clean-shaven, with a slightly protruding lower lip which gave it a slightly
cantankerous expression. Tall and round-shouldered, he had small bright eyes
and tiny old-fashioned spectacles in silver frames on a red nose. He spoke
in a grating, high, croaking voice and one of his many idiosyncrasies was to
crook the index finger of his right hand and screw up his eyes, whenever he
was saying something weighty and authoritative. And since he always spoke
authoritatively, because his knowledge in his field was quite phenomenal,
the crooked finger was frequently pointed at those with whom the Professor
was conversing. Outside his field, that is, zoology, embriology, anatomy,
botany and geography, however, Professor Persikov said almost nothing at
Professor Persikov did not read the newspapers or go to the theatre.
His wife had run away with a tenor from the Zimin opera in 1913, leaving him
a note which read as follows:
"Your frogs make me shudder with intolerable loathing. I shall be
unhappy all my life because of them."
The Professor did not marry again and had no children. He was
short-tempered, but did not bear grudges, liked cloudberry tea and lived in
Prechistenka Street in a flat with five rooms, one of which was occupied by
the old housekeeper, Maria Stepanovna, who looked after the Professor like a
In 1919 three of the Professor's five rooms were taken away. Whereupon
he announced to Maria Stepanovna:
"If they don't stop this outrageous behaviour, I shall leave the
country, Maria Stepanovna."
Had the Professor carried out this plan, he would have experienced no
difficulty in obtaining a place in the zoology department of any university
in the world, for he was a really first-class scholar, and in the particular
field which deals with amphibians had no equal, with the exception of
professors William Weckle in Cambridge and Giacomo Bartolomeo Beccari in
Rome. The Professor could read four languages, as Mvell as Russian, and
spoke French and German like a native. Persikov did not carry out his
intention of going abroad, and 1920 was even worse than 1919. All sorts of
things happened, one after the other. Bolshaya Nikitskaya was renamed Herzen
Street. Then the clock on the wall of the corner building in Herzen Street
and Mokhovaya stopped at a quarter past eleven and, finally, unable to
endure the perturbations of this remarkable year, eight magnificent
specimens of tree-frogs died in the Institute's terrariums, followed by
fifteen ordinary toads and an exceptional specimen of the Surinam toad.
Immediately after the demise of the toads which devastated that first
order of amphibians rightly called tailless, old Vlas, the Institute's
caretaker of many years' standing, who did not belong to any order of
amphibians, also passed on to a better world. The cause of his death,
incidentally, was the same as that of the unfortunate amphibians, and
Persikov diagnosed it at once:
The scientist was perfectly right. Vlas should have been fed with flour
and the toads with flour weevils, but the disappearance of the former
determined that of the latter likewise, and Persikov tried to shift the
twenty surviving specimens of tree-frogs onto a diet of cockroaches, but
then the cockroaches disappeared too, thereby demonstrating their hostile
attitude to war communism. Consequently, these last remaining specimens also
had to be thrown into the rubbish pits in the Institute yard.
The effect of these deaths on Persikov, particularly that of the
Surinam toad, is quite indescribable. For some reason he blamed them
entirely on the People's Commissar for Education.
Standing in his fur cap and galoshes in the corridor of the freezing
Institute, Persikov said to his assistant Ivanov, an elegant gentleman with
a fair pointed beard:
"Hanging's too good for him, Pyotr Stepanovich! What do they think
they're doing! They'll ruin the whole Institute! Eh? An exceptionally rare
male specimen of Pipa americana, thirteen centimetres long..."
Things went from bad to worse. When Vlas died the Institute windows
froze so hard that there were icy scrolls on the inside of the panes. The
rabbits, foxes, wolves and fish died, as well as every single grass-snake.
Persikov brooded silently for days on end, then caught pneumonia, but did
not die. When he recovered, he started coming to the Institute twice a week
and in the round hall, where for some reason it was always five degrees
below freezing point irrespective of the temperature outside, he delivered a
cycle of lectures on "The Reptiles of the Torrid Zone" in galoshes, a fur
cap with ear-flaps and a scarf, breathing out white steam, to an audience of
eight. The rest of the time he lay under a rug on the divan in Prechistenka,
in a room with books piled up to the ceiling, coughing, gazing into the jaws
of the fiery stove which Maria Stepanov-na stoked with gilt chairs, and
remembering the Surinam toad.
But all things come to an end. So it was with 'twenty and 'twenty-one,
and in 'twenty-two a kind of reverse process began. Firstly, in place of the
dear departed Vlas there appeared Pankrat, a young, but most promising
zoological caretaker, and the Institute began to be heated again a little.
Then in the summer with Pankrat's help Persikov caught fourteen common
toads. The terrariums came to life again... In 'twenty-three Persikov gave
eight lectures a week, three at the Institute and five at the University, in
'twenty-four thirteen a week, not including the ones at workers' schools,
and in the spring of 'twenty-five distinguished himself by failing no less
than seventy-six students, all on amphibians.
"What, you don't know the difference between amphibians and reptilia?"
Persikov asked. "That's quite ridiculous, young man. Amphibia have no
kidneys. None at all. So there. You should be ashamed of yourself. I expect
you're a Marxist, aren't you?"
"Yes," replied the devastated student, faintly.
"Well, kindly retake the exam in the autumn," Persikov said politely
and shouted cheerfully to Pankrat: "Send in the next one!"
Just as amphibians come to life after a long drought, with the first
heavy shower of rain, so Professor Persikov revived in 1926 when a joint
Americano-Russian company built fifteen fifteen-storey apartment blocks in
the centre of Moscow, beginning at the corner of Gazetny Lane and Tverskaya,
and 300 workers' cottages on the outskirts, each with eight apartments,
thereby putting an- end once and for all to the terrible and ridiculous
accommodation shortage which made life such a misery for Muscovites from
1919 to 1925.
In fact, it was a marvellous summer in Persikov's life, and
occasionally he would rub his hands with' a quiet, satisfied giggle,
remembering how he and Maria Stepanovna had been cooped up in two rooms. Now
the Professor had received all five back, spread himself, arranged his
two-and-a-half thousand books, stuffed animals, diagrams and specimens, and
lit the green lamp on the desk in his study.
You would not have recognised the Institute either. They painted it
cream, equipped the amphibian room with a special water supply system,
replaced all the plate glass with mirrors and donated five new microscopes,
glass laboratory tables, some 2,000-amp. arc lights, reflectors and museum
Persikov came to life again, and the whole world suddenly learnt of
this when a brochure appeared in December 1926 entitled "More About the
Reproduction of Polyplacophora or Chitons", 126 pp, Proceedings of the
And in the autumn of 1927 he published a definitive work of 350 pages,
subsequently translated into six languages, including Japanese. It was
entitled "The Embryology of Pipae, Spadefoots and Frogs", price 3 roubles.
State Publishing House.
But in the summer of 1928 something quite appalling happened...