From stray animals littering the revolutionary squares of Moscow to illegal migrants roaming the back alleyways of Beijing, today’s post-socialist cities are home to massive discrepancies in wealth and privilege. In Russia, political upheaval features an unlikely victim: cats.

But what do these ‘losers’ of the post-socialist turnover tell us about the society as a whole? Recently-named Man Booker finalist Josip Novakovich discovered a stray on the coldest day of the year in St. Petersburg and decided to keep the kitten. The experience grew into a wistful and elegant essay-fable, Cat Named Sobaka, which we are excited to feature this week in a Hippo Reads exclusive digital debut. A story of a cat whose name means ‘Dog’ in Russian, Novakovich’s work uncovers the unlikely and hidden side of Russian society’s economic expansion.

Our apartment looked right out onto the legendary Nevsky Prospekt where revolutions had taken place. Now, a new revolution was in evidence—lots of people in mink coats, Hummers, the new oil money spilling all over ostentatiously bypassing the majority of still shabbily dressed people.

— Cat Named Sobaka, Josip Novakovich

The story of Sobaka is ultimately about the power of believing in survivors—at one point Novakovich and his daughter count Sobaka’s lives, deciding she has five left. “That’s pretty good,” they say. “Better than us.” Told with the backdrop of St. Petersburg’s ‘economically revolutionized’ society, we are left believing the forgotten cats may triumph after all.

Farther east, China’s hukou system creates an entire population of persons unrecognized by the state—workers who choose to travel to the city for work, and in so doing, lose access to their registration of residence. The result of this bureaucratic quirk is significant and far-reaching: an estimated 200 million migrants live without state schooling, health care, and other benefits simply because they have abandoned the countryside to find work.

Yet in a 2002 article on the subject, Peter Mackenzie in Strangers in the City argues these undocumented ‘second class’ urban citizens, while lacking access to necessary services, enjoy an unparalleled autonomy from China’s state control. His exploration of Beijing’s suburban Zhejiang Village shows us how this strange notion of ‘freedom’ is possible in post-Mao China.

While Mackenzie’s study is uplifting, it’s worth noting that despite this optimism, recent studies suggest the hukou system is contributing to a Chinese apartheid—clearly, the issue is more nuanced than Mackenzie originally suggests.

Still, the post-socialist picture is not all grim. In Vietnam, young women cybersurfing in internet cafes or chatting with boyfriends on mobile phones are negotiating a new relationship between state and society. Bucking a trend of articles examining young women’s lack of agency vis-à-vis the sex trade, in 2004’s Young Women and Emergent Postsocialist Sensibilities, Nguyen Bich Thuan and Mandy Thomas argue there’s a new array of possibilities in Vietnam. Savvy women, fuelled by mobile phone technologies, the internet, and pop culture, are shunning state-controlled media and public spaces. In other words, the state is losing its grip: “There is a common understanding of unofficial culture as in contrast to official ideology.”

Perhaps, then, there’s a glimmer of hope for the cats of Russia, the migrants of China: hidden in the cracks of the post-socialist moment are individuals chipping away at the old edifices of the state, building an entirely new architecture of the future.


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Image credit: CFP

About The Author

Kaitlin Solimine
Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads

Kaitlin Solimine, Co-Founder and Editor, Hippo Reads