Chapter 15

Submitted by Reddebrek on January 28, 2015

THE LAST fine days of autumn passed, swept off by such a wave of events – all fatal, for they all either brought death, kept it at bay, waded it off, or insured it – that their very succession became a kind of calm. Thus, under a constant clatter of machinery, there arises a kind of silence in which man listens to his heart beating, smokes his pipe, and dreams perhaps of his wife in a waking sleep. The harvest had been brought in in the countryside. It was being hidden. Tillers who had fought under the red flags with their old scythes buried their wheat and sounded the tocsin at the approach of the Anti-Christ. Others, their sons, with red stars sewn into their old Imperial Army caps, arrived to search their barns. Workers, fearful of being stoned, harangued village elders. They were men caught between hunger, hatred, discipline, faith, war, fraternity, typhus, and ignorance. Around the edges of this bizarre continent, like feverish ant heaps, moved armies which melted into bands and bands which swelled until they became armies. In the land of blues and yellows – peaks and sand dunes- a noncom transformed into an ataman had railroad workers thrown into locomotive boilers alive. But, a son of the people, he gave the daughters of his old generals to his exasperated soldiers. From armoured trains the blind eyes of cannon peered out over steppes once overrun by Genghis Khan’s archers. Gentlemen with immaculate bodies daubed with cologne, wearing perfectly laundered underwear under the uniforms of the Great Powers, gentlemen who didn’t know what it meant to sleep in the open with lice at every hair and a good chance of getting killed the next day, watched the Russian earth pass by through the windows of Pullman cars. Their orders were dated Washington, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo. They had Gillette razor blades, enough money to pay the old Chinaman of Irbit for the favours of his most heavily rouged courtesans, enough prestige, wealth, arrogance, gleaming shirt cuffs to humiliate and reduce to oriental obedience an entourage of penniless, ignorant, intriguing ministers watched over by camarillas of officers, and generals, admirals, supreme governors who still exercised their profession with a modicum of competence; they had ideas as polished and well-rounded as their fingernails: ideas about barbarism and civilisation, about the Jewish plague, about Slavic anarchy, German gold, Lenin’s treason, Trotsky-Bronstein’s madness, about the inevitable triumph of order, which means being able to go to one’s club or café and to take hot showers.
They brought along cases of canned goods: Amieux sardines, tuna, beef from La Plata, Prince’s herring: and when they decamped at the sound of rifle fire coming too close, in an auto jolting with the breath of panic, under the flag of the Geneva Cross, some yellow partisans, smelling of animal hide and soured goat’s milk, picked up these mysterious boxes lacking any sort of openings and turned them around and around in their shepherds’ fingers. Their wrinkled olive-coloured masks were fixed in terror and joy before the mirrors in the railway car, explaining to each other that it was really them, there, straight ahead – me, you, the one laughing there, that bearded fellow, that’s me!- delighted with self-discovery, for they were men of the desert and had never seen themselves.
And then one of them, face-to-face with his double, laughing at his double, became seized, without knowing it of course, by metaphysical vertigo. I don’t want my double to laugh when I laugh! I don’t want my double to exist! I want this mysterious spell to be over! He grabbed a stump of a rifle by the barrel and, raising his hand against himself, smashed the mirror with the butt, which was made of a gnarled root. For these were desert men who battled victoriously against the most terrible spells. That man was the equal of Prometheus. He dared to break the chain. He would have dared to steal fire; unless he was merely a brute whose muscles and whose anger harboured elemental forces. It matters little.
They found the sardines tasteless.
What does matter is that the station at Voskresenkoe (Resurrection) has been taken. Telegraph the Revolutionary War Council: a plasterer, a mechanic, a schoolteacher, bone tired and fast asleep in a round tent of motley skins. Telegraph the Kremlin that communication has been re-established. One more chance for safety (lighter, it is true, than a grain of sand from the plains) has been added to your side of the scale, Republic. One chance? Voskresenkoe has been taken in Turkestan; Rozhdestvenskoe (nativity) has been lost in Siberia. It matters little. Announce it to the press: “Progress in Turkestan. The valiant partisan army of Ali Mirza…”
“Ali Mizra? You know very well he went over to the enemy.”
“It matters little. Put: `The Revolutionary Council of the Army of the Red Partisans…`”
Deacon Epiphany sings expiatory masses at Rozhdestvenskoe (Nativity). A meeting at Voskresenkoe (Resurrection) decides that the station will henceforth bear the name Proletarskaya, which most of the inhabitants take for a woman’s name. where is Ali Mizra’s head at this moment? Let’s keep this unique photo for the Museum of the Revolution. Magnificent fanlike beard, glasses: you’d think he was a western businessman, circa 1890. But those machine-gun ribbons around his body, that tall turban of the sect, those Tommy’s puttees around spindly legs? Where did he come from? It seems that the turncoat’s head, tongue cut out, was stuck on the end of a pike in front of the tent of a Cossack ex-noncom (a fine waltzer) and left until there was nothing but a skull. The drunken ataman maintained that day that it was the skull of the Bolshevik, Lukin. A legend grew up that Ali Mizra was still alive. A pseudo Ali Mizra roamed the desert on horseback and slept in the ruins of Tamburlane’s forts.
It matters little.
Various bands, all of them liberators, roamed the roads through the high grasses of the plains in carts weighted down with machine guns and phonographs. Drunken cavalry raided little Jewish towns with old white houses leaning low to the ground; not low enough. And all the women, all the girls down to runny-nosed eight-year olds, had venereal diseases afterward. An American woman doctor went methodically through these horrified hamlets. She promised medicine and gathered statistics. The medicine never arrived, the statistcs were false. Other pitiless cavalries pursued the first. Four hundred bands (but why four hundred? It matters little), thirty armies which were no more than stronger, more organised bands, two great armies, the Siberian and the Southern, commanded by real headquarters staffs provided with real artillery, accompanied by authentic journalists and profiteers, all fell upon the Republic at bay, blowing the mort with every horn, sounding the charge with every bugle. Two lesser armies in ambush were getting ready to leap at our throats. Tanks were arriving from Cherbourg, rifles from London, grenades from Barmen, money from the whole universe. It was the end, the end, the end.
… This city at the very limit of this encircled land, this city, prey to famine, at the very limit of the end, lives on with the carelessness of the living! The days are in some respects alike for all the living; days most heavily loaded with glory or death (that will be seen later on, or not, for these are still ideas of the living) are the same as others; and as long as there is sour cabbage soup, as long as the sky is mild, as a streetcar comes by anyway (Hey, they’re running today!), as long as you’re in a good mood, it’s life as usual. “Quite fortunately,” philosophised my friend Kukin, “man has no antennae to feel his neighbour’s pain.” This peaceful harmonica player was in his own way a useful citizen. He was the first in his neighbourhood, in the centre of town, to have the idea of raising rabbits and chickens in a room; he sold, cheaply, bunnies and chicks born in a great parqueted salon with cupids hanging from the cornices. – Quite fortunately, the wild shrieks of sacked cities were not heard anymore than the insignificant little noise of skulls being cracked, production line style, with rifle butts or mallets, to save ammunition, after the enemy’s victories or ours. “If the human species,” Kukin went on, “could achieve a collective sensibility for five minutes, it would either be cured or drop dead on the spot.” I could never figure out if Kukin was a moron, a crackpot, or something much better. HARMONICA LESSONS FROM 2:00 TO 6:00 P,M,; REDUCED PRICES FOR SOLDIERS AND WORKERS. This notice helped him live. “I’ve always been a Socialist,” he declared, “for socialism promises a great future for music. And the harmonica…” it was he who told me the news of the events of the twelfth, which he knew twenty-four hours before the Party cadres and three days before the newspapers admitted it.
Conspiracies were hatched, unravelled – spiderwebs knocked down with axe blows- and irresistibly re-formed. The committees sat. in the name of public safety, Committees who wanted to end the dictatorship of the Committees, in coalition with others who wanted to set up their own, blew up an important committee in the middle of a session. Our old weapons – fulminate, bomb throwers’ valour, tyrannicidal faith- were absurdly turned against us. Committees having fraternal relations with the fratricidal Committees repudiated them. This tragedy occurred under red banners. Intestinal typhus was worse. What were people eating? “Tell me” – Kukin shook his head- “how does the Fourth Category live with their twenty-five grams of black bread a day? If it weren’t anti-Socialistic, I would establish a philanthropic rabbit hutch to feed the last surviving capitalists…”
Sixty-seven spies, counterrevolutionaries, foreign agents, ex-financiers, ex-high officers, monarchistic professors, vice-den operators, and unlucky adventurers were executed following the anarchist bomb attack. It filled two whole columns of 8-point type in the barely legible newspapers plastered on the walls. The southern front was going badly. Sixty-seven? The price in blood of a skirmish. Who among those sixty-seven would have spared us? We knew all too well what was happening on the other side of the front while Te Deums were being sung in churches and educated people were voting motions on the return to democracy. We could all see our own names, in anticipation, on similar lists. Did the statesmen of the great nations ever think of the number of this people’s children condemned to be carried to the cemetery when they ordered the blockade? The mildest of these ministers (all good family men) had more innocent blood on his neat, downy hands than old Herod, whose villainy had been highly exaggerated and who missed Jesus besides.
“With that kind of logic you could execute anyone. Nobody counts anymore. Even the numbers don’t count anymore.”
“You’re catching on. It’s about time. That’s just the kind of logic we need. Today is the twelfth. The question is whether or not the city will hold until the twenty-fifth. If not, every kind of logic will be bad, for they’ll be killing us. If it did does hold, any logic is good. Right now, in order to prevail, we must survive, my friend.”
“Well, we don’t have much chance of that.”
“Do you think so? Then sixty-seven isn’t enough. Let’s avenge ourselves in advance: that may increase our chances. And then: what else would you propose?”
The last dabs of sunlight on the great dome of St. Isaac’s vanished and the summer ended. The beautiful broad river- along whose granite banks the rotting hulks were fast being stripped bare- carried the bacilli of cholera, dysentery, and typhus down to the sea. This river was deserted. The absence of boats created great voids between the bridges. The golden spires rising above the Fortress, the Admiralty, the Old Castle, like old-fashioned court swords, turned pale in a whitening sky. In the Summer Garden the statues grieved over dead leaves; the grille at the gate imprisoned exiled goddesses. The straight streets were a little emptier than last spring, with their pavements collapsing here and there, their flaking facades more leprous, an even greater number of broken panes and shop windows abandoned as if in the wake of unspeakable bankruptcies followed by auction sales and abscondings… All of that had no importance. Sokolova was dancing at the Little Theatre in The Green Butterfly. They paid her in flour. The great tenor Svechin was about to make a new appearance at the Opera in The Barber of Seville. Tamara Stolberg was playing Vincent d’Indy in the great hall of the Conservatory. You could get up to twenty pounds of potatoes in the market for a worn-out suit of evening clothes; but they wouldn’t give you more than five lumps of sugar for a brand-new silk hat. “There’s only the circus still buying them,” explained the old-clothes dealer. And the circus was about to close: some of the stable boys were contemplating devouring its emaciated lions, who were fed on bread crumbs. Leather sofas attained fantastic prices, for obscure master cobblers had discovered ingenious ways of making boots, high-button shoes, and even little high-heeled slippers for elegant ladies out of them…
The Superior Council for Regional Economy was working on reorganising the management of industry: hence conflicts with the Commissars of Transportation, Supplies, and Agriculture; friction with the Central Council, intervention by the Regional Committee of the Trade Unions, underhanded opposition from the Executive of the city, displeasure in the Central Committee of the Party, deliberations in the Council of People’s Commissars, a proposal to convoke a special conference of economic institutions, exasperated complaints from the High Commission for Army Supply, which…
Fleischman made a special trip back from the front to draft, in haste, with the Kondrati faction, new theses on the vertical organisation of industrial sectors (cf. the Resolution of the Seventh Congress of Soviets, Title IV of the Resolution of the Eighth Party Congress, Circular No. 4827 of the Central Committee;- don’t forget to quote Engels’s letter to Sorge of march 1894) when the event of the twelfth took place.
Rain began to fall on four thousand men. They came out of their crumbling trenches and crossed over waterlogged fields to seek shelter in immensely dismal villages. These starving Ivans, Matveis, and Timochkas saw nothing but absurd horizons all around them. Winter was coming, snow in the trenches, frozen hands and feet, hungry stomachs, and the poor neglected earth! Virgin Mother of God, Saviour Christ, Revolution, leaders of the world Proletariat! When will all this end? Or is there no one who cares about us, who understands us, no one to cry to that we have had enough? Some escaped into the woods. That’s where the Greens were. How to invent a new colour, no longer be White or Red or Green, no longer fight against anyone! We have taken the land, declared peace, shown we have had enough, but it’s never, ever over. Some escaped to the other side of the front, because there was more to eat, it seemed. Enough of Jewish commissars with nothing but exhortations to resist on their lips! Let them get killed all by themselves defending their Kremlin! The people of the soil have had enough, do you understand? (But they would return, for on the other side of the front it was worse…)
The White Army, wearing British uniforms, attacked on the twelfth. The 6th Division melted before it. A few men were killed fighting desperately in the wet hay, under the rigid gestures of already bare branches. They searched among their corpses for the dirty Jew in order to spit into his filthy hirsute face. Thus died the author of a Goethe’s Philosophy. This time it was really the end; the city would be taken inside of a week.
It was raining dully. The Professor and Valerian found the situation satisfactory. Kaas was informing. “But” said the Professor, “the clever bastard is only informing on his own people. He hasn’t fingered any of ours. He’s holding on to his trump card, for our chances are improving. Seems he is even recognising that old fool, Lytaev, in my place!...”
“Rather imprudent of him,” observed Valerian.
“Kaas is never imprudent. He has the excuse of having barely met me; and I can hear from here, acting scrupulously: `I think I recognise him, but I wouldn’t be able to testify that…` Nothing is more convincing.”
In the comfort of his large, untidy study, under Repin’s portrait of Tolstoy, they were preparing proscription lists. “Kaas’s is the most complete.” The Professor resembled a rain-washed Polynesian idol made of varicoloured painted wood. His heavy square chin fell over an academic necktie- although he was not a professor, naturally. The yellow corneas of his eyes glowed, streaked by tiny red veins. High, bare skull tinted green under the lampshade, bony nose like a triangle stuck in the middle of a petrified face. Several of the sixty-seven touched him rather closely: that’s why his absent stare resembled the passive glaze found in glass eyes.
The city couldn’t know anything; but an indefinable anxiety wandered through it, pouring out of the rain, carried in by deserters, hawked in the lines by women who had read a manifesto from the Whites. “The hour of punishment approaches….” It was on one of those days that Zvereva made a surprising discovery. The suspect Danil Petrovich Gof was in reality named Nicholas (Kolia) Orestovich Azin and he had been arrested under that name a year before. The object of a clearly unfavourable investigation, he had been released at the time on an order signed by Arkadi, through inexplicable negligence. The suspect’s sister, closely watched, saw no one outside of a few aged relatives of no interest for File No.42; but she did get visits from a military man of extremely Georgian appearance. She went on an excursion with him to Detskoe Selo Park. She was dressed all in white under a big straw bonnet with a pink ribbon; he was rowing. The informer had rented a rowboat and succeeded in passing by this couple several times. He thought he had recognised an influential personage from the Special Commission itself… At this point Zvereva felt overwhelmed by an even greater happiness than that of the love-struck girl in her lover’s boat. The precious Kaas revealed that he had long known about an affair between a member of the Commission and a young woman of the upper middle class and had thought of taking advantage of it one day.
The river rolled toward the sea in dull, glaucous green masses. Driving rain poured down on the city out of a dirty white sky. Water streamed through barren fields, coastal moors, forests of pines, and bare birches. Across mud-soaked fields and rough, shapeless roads streams of grey men stampeded toward the city pursued by columns drunk with unhoped-for victory. The new President of the Special Commission got the latest dispatches from the front at three o’clock. The situation was getting desperate. There was a knock at the door. It must be Arkadi. It was.
“What’s the news?” he asked, seeing the blue ribbons of telegrams on the table.
“Bad,” said Osipov without raising his head.
Arkadi shrugged his shoulders. Fresh troops or the city is lost. But why was Osipov hiding his face? Arkadi waited. He was never afraid. Yet when at last he saw Osipov raise his pale forehead – that blank, weary face, incredibly sad- he felt a vague premonition of some terrible trouble.
“What have you done, old brother?” Osipov said heavily at last. The words wrenched out of him like blocks of clayey earth breaking loose from the sides of trenches ruined by rain.
Osipov rose, anguished.
“What? What? Do you know Olga Orestovna Azin?”
“Did you have her brother released in February?”
They got to the bottom of things immediately, and that bottom was deep as an abyss.
“Well,” said Osipov, “I have to arrest you.”
“You don’t have any doubts about me, I hope.”
“I don’t have any doubts about you, but what can I do?”
Osipov added, nearly whispering, as if to excuse himself:
“The warrant was countersigned by Terentiev.”
Him or another…
A dull, painful silence made the room grow larger. The ticktock of the clock on the mantel – Cupid and Psyche- wore out seconds void of all content. Arkadi looked through the window at the fine rain streaking an unforgettable yellow façade with thread-lines, broken, yet infinite. And, speaking aloud, as if in a dream, he said something stupid:
“Dirty weather. We ought to have that façade repainted blue.”
“What have you done, my poor old friend, what have you done!”
muttered Osipov, perhaps out loud, perhaps to himself. They shook hands.