Kolia was born in one of the infamous Soviet labour camps in Siberia when Stalin was dictator. He “had the remarkable good fortune of remaining with his mother until she disappeared, which might explain how he learned to express himself with something other than primal noises and to piss standing up like the men who lived around him.” After the disappearance of his mother, Kolia meets Josef, a fellow gulag resident, who teaches him to read and write in Russian and French, rudimentary calculus and “how to survive in the shithouses of the U.S.S.R.” Eventually Josef disappears, too, and Kolia, a teenager, is alone. “He still didn’t look quite like a man. In fact, it was difficult to determine Kolia’s age. He knew absolutely nothing about society and its conventions.” After the death of Stalin Kolia and others are released from prison to integrate into society. He ends up in Moscow and becomes a successful circus clown.
The rise and fall of the USSR is an interesting back story for Kolia. It is a good read.