The Material Question

‘Knowing this weakness of theirs, all the foreign tradesmen, especially the Germans, unloaded a mass of useless merchandise on them, or goods which quickly got spoiled or worn out. The comedy went so far that you could even find among the objects advertised a special machine for lighting ordinary matches.
‘As most of the articles they sent for were either worthless to begin with or went to pieces almost at once, and as there was not a single repair shop in the locality, each family accumulated stacks of broken things.

‘There was still another reason why there turned out to be so many things for repair. At that epoch in the East, and particularly in Asiatic Russia, it was the custom never to part with anything once acquired, and never to sell it, even if it were no longer needed or had fallen apart. Moreover, even if one had wished to sell, there would have been no one to buy. And besides this, the practice was firmly entrenched of keeping things in remembrance of something or of someone.

‘So, in every house the attics and sheds were filled with an amazing accumulation of useless things, which were even handed down from father to son.

‘Consequently, when they learned that there was a workshop that repaired everything, they dragged to me devil knows what, in the hope of restoring and making use of things that had long lain useless, as, for example, grandfather’s armchair and grandmother’s spectacles, great­grandfather’s balalaika, great­ grandmother’s watch, godfather’s gift of a dressing-case, the blanket under which the bishop slept when he had stayed with them, an Order of the Star presented to father by the Shah of Persia, and so forth and so on.

‘All these I repaired.

‘Not once did I refuse anything or return it without repairing it.

‘Even when I was offered too trifling a payment to justify the time spent on repairing some article or other, I nevertheless undertook to put it right if the thing was new to me, since in that case I was interested not in the money itself, but in the difficulty presented by a kind of work that was as yet unfamiliar to me.