Anatoly Gladilin's Moscow Racetrack is a powerful melange of satire, intrigue, and political commentary. Gladilin paints poignant portraits of the characters that populate the Moscow track, lending insight into gambling strategy and psychology. But interspersed with these vignettes is historical information and political commentary. The protagonist is Igor Mikhailovich Kholmogorov, better known as "The Teacher." He is a historian at public school and his side job is betting on the horses. Likewise, his cronies: The Professional, Coryphaeus, and Dandy also have "track names" that separate them from their daily lives. They bicker and talk over their gambling strategies, discuss the features of horses, and do all they can to maximize winnings and minimize losses. A group of gangsters also frequent the tracks, and the Teacher has nicknamed them himself: Ilyusha the Vegetable Man, the Bakunian, Yurochka the Gas Man, Lard Lardych, Fat Fatych, and Paunch Paunchich. Gladilin uses comic relief to palliate the gloomy undercurrents of Soviet life. His humor is dark and provocative and absolutely necessary to offset a harsh reality.
The "novel of espionage" is divided into two parts: a little more than half the book is set almost exclusively at the Moscow Racetrack, except for a few key scenes illustrating his off-and-on relationship with the feisty, unbalanced Raika. The novel opens in The Teacher's apartment, where he is with a prostitute; the reader catches an immediate glimpse of the protagonist's personal life, which always comes in second to the track. The brevity of the "Private Life" sections indicates the narrator's relative unconcern for genuine intimacy. On the other hand, the Teacher rambles on about the horses, their statistics, and other racing minutia. The Teacher never directly discusses his day job at school; his life is so consumed with the races that this omission in the text is completely intentional. Essentially, gambling is the Teacher's real job, and as the novel progresses, gambling does for a short time become his official, government-appointed profession.
Gambling, of course, is an overall no-win situation. It is more of a pastime and a diversion, an escape. The Teacher is aware of this: the Central Moscow Racetrack is known as "Fool's Field." Yet rarely does the Teacher express disgust and disillusionment with the track. Before his lucky "break," the Teacher asks himself, "Lord, what am I doing here?" (p. 27) He expresses contempt more for the seedy crooks that populate the Moscow Racetrack (the Gas Man and the Vegetable Man) than for the art and science of betting. The Teacher never gets into serious debt and even when he loses seems to enjoy the game. Betting appeals to him not so much for the adrenaline rush (although that must come into play) as for the diversion; studying horses is the Teacher's hobby and pastime. Without it he would probably become embittered; it is not enough to vent his frustrations through his political essays.
His anti-Soviet essays, in fact, cause the KGB to keep a steady eye on Igor Mikhailovich. Towards the beginning of Moscow Racetrack, the narrator interweaves excerpts of his published political essays with his commentary about the Moscow Racetrack. As a historian, the Teacher provides a crash course on opinionated Russian history and distinguishes between the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, which followed it. According to the Teacher, the Revolution was fought with true Marxist ideals but the men who cared most for Marxist theory and would have been best equipped to lead the Republic under a socialist regime were the same men who fought on the front lines. These troops perished and left behind a mass of "petty bourgeoisie," (p. 50) who cared little for the ideals of Marxism. Motivated by greed and egotism, this proletariat now seized power. The Civil War finalized their "apolitical" victory and left the Soviet Union in the state of false communism that existed until the 1990s. Anatoly Gladilin uses the horse races and gambling as a political metaphor: just as there are no winners at the track, "there are no winners in socialist revolutions," (p. 48). The struggle to ensure a healthy economy and to eliminate class distinctions became as futile, arbitrary, and fixed as a horse race. The metaphor extends on page 77: "And then 1918 arrived -- a glorious time for those who stayed firm in the saddle." The Teacher informs us about the origins of the Moscow Racetrack, which was a product of a Red Army hero with a passion for horses. By now the narrator sets the stage to expose the corruption extant both at the base of the government and at the track.
The author does always rely upon subtle metaphors to describe the bribery and fraud in both institutions. His essay, "So Just Who Was Victorious After The Revolution?" caught the attention of the KGB and one random bet at the track would change the Teacher's life. With a healthy dose of facetiousness, Gladilin places the protagonist on the toilet when his horse wins the race. Having just had a falling-out with one of his racing buddies, the Professional, the Teacher ran off disgusted with his friend's unwillingness to share his bets. The Teacher had just blown money on numerous losing horses and was shocked to see a flock of people swarm him after exiting the bathrooms. It turns out that the Teacher had the only winning ticket in the house. This not only went unnoticed in the Moscow Racetrack; the government immediately paid heed to the winner. Instead of picking up their money at the track cashier, the Teacher was taken on a mysterious car ride. The Professional is grabbed too.
Part two begins with the Teacher and the Professional (who henceforth is referred to by his first name, Zhenya, to emphasize the friendship) waking up in a sort of luxurious prison. They are accused of fixing the race and are blackmailed into helping the government with a twisted scheme: to win hard currency at foreign racetracks. The KGB uses the teacher's anti-Soviet essays as further leverage and the two friends have no choice but to relent. They are whisked off to a training camp where they are given a crash course in French and French racehorses. With another dose of hilarity, Anatoly Gladilin places the two friends in a camp designated for bridge builders and illustrates the farce of the whole situation. After four months, the Teacher and Zhenya are ready to fly to Paris and win some money for the Communist coffers. All their expenses are paid for; they will only have to apply their knowledge and luck in the service of their government.
The political commentary heats up after the Teacher meets Georgi Ivanovich Pankratov, Colonel of State Security (KGB). Georgi Ivanovich and the Teacher engage in a creepy discussion about the role of the government as the agent spins situations to his convenience. Ironically, Georgi Ivanovich detects that the racetrack is an "escape" for the Teacher; he has pegged him well, chosen his target skilfully. The KGB isn't perfect, maintains the colonel, but what else is better? Chillingly, Georgi Ivanovich states: "So you know that we buy grain and many other food products abroad. Why everything in our country is overgrown with grass is another question. You could write a little article about it sometime. But for now, the people want to eat," (p. 143). The people are starving but the government is too busy puffing up its own pockets to care.
Gladilin contrasts the cultures of France and Russia with aplomb; we see Paris through the eyes of two men who have never stepped foot in a capitalist nation. After hearing so many rumors, the Teacher and Zhenya hold plenty of stereotypes and prejudices about the West. They are amazed at the prices and at the plethora of material goods…