Chapter 10

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 28, 2014

DANIL lived in a maid’s room at Professor Lytaev’s. Evenings, before going to sleep, he read love notes that had been left in the night table drawer by a brunette. Some of them were formal, written on paper decorated in the upper corner with coloured flowers: “Dear Mademoiselle Agrafena Prokhorova, allow your most obedient servant...,” ending with a contorted invitation to a birthday party. “With respect, your sincere perpetual admirer…” The writing was that of one of those public stenographers who used to keep stands in the market places.
When Danil came home early enough he would find two old men absorbed in their spoken meditation before a window which was still milk-white. The tea in the glasses took on a tint of wine; Vadim Mikhailovich Lytaev was saying:
“…Peter’s mount has got back into stride. Russia is beginning her revolution again. After Peter, she drifts slowly back into her past again. The Czars only borrow two things from the West: uniforms and money. Behind their false front the old Russia subsists: superstitious, bent under the yoke, floating her huge rafts down the Volga with the same songs as in the sixteenth century, still dragging the wooden swing plough through the fields, building the same houses as a thousand years ago, getting drunk the same way, Christianity celebrating pagan festivals during Easter, making love to fat, painted women and beating them from time to time, deporting or immuring heretics… This old country is still there, deep down, under a thin layer of burning lava.”
The historian, Platon Nikolaevich, answered:
“That is so. And the lava will cool. And when the lava is cool, the old earth by its fermentation alone will crack open the thin layer and once again push its old, eternally young green blades into the sunlight. Ashes make good fertiliser. After each era of disturbances, Russia begins living again according to her inner law like the plants which spring back after a storm. This land “Where Christ trod on every clod of earth” binds her wounds and continues her mission, which is neither that of the West nor that of the East, but hers alone. Even in those disturbances, which are alike from one century to another, old Russia remains faithful to her law…”
“Platon Nikolaevich! This year, while Lenin was speaking in the assemblies, they burned a witch alive a hundred and eighteen versts from Moscow. Two hundred and thirty versts away, in order to protect a village from an epidemic, naked virgins were harnessed to a plough, following a custom which may go back to the Scythians, and dug a furrow around the fields and dwellings. We are darkest Asia. We can only be pulled out of ourselves by an iron fist. Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. He left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of new classes.”
Platon Nikolaevich resembled Lytaev in a multitude of contrasts: in his immobility; in his face, which was as full as the other man’s was sharp; by his faith, which was as solid as the other’s was anxious. The mould of a face mask resembles the face because it reproduces its harmonies in reverse… Platon Nikolaevich answered slowly, for they spoke to each other mainly to affirm a living thought which, though expecting nothing from men, still felt the need for the ephemeral finality of expression.
“No, Vadim Mikhailovich; Peter, like the people in the Kremlin, is only an accident – perhaps a necessary one in the accomplishment of certain developments – in the history of Russia. It is Alexis who is right against Peter, just as Christ on the cross is eternally right against the eternally vanquished Anti-Christ. Peter is only great to the degree that in spite of himself he becomes the instrument of a cause which is not his own – when he renews the reasons for living of the old Russia he attacks. This time of troubles will end. The southern Slavs, who have remained healthier, closer to the soil, will re-create order and unity in the faith against the sick cities. We are passing through a sort of dark age and we will be reborn. And we will once again bring light to the West.”
“The question,” said Danil, “will be decided by the sword.”
“No, by the spirit.”
It was their common thought, so much so that of the two historians neither was quite sure who had answered.
“But what is the spirit without the sword?”
“But what is the sword without the spirit?”
Danil saw the same indulgent irony in the eyes of the two scholars. He looked at the books lining their shelves, old books full of facts, of ideas, of things so useless when it is a question of bread, of lice, of blood. In the drawer of a mahogany secretary manuscripts lay sleeping. History: that vile scholar’s lie among whose printed lines not a drop of spilled blood can be found, where nothing remains of the passion, the pain, the fear, and the violence of men! He felt a kind of hatred for these two old mandarins who knew so many dates and theories but hadn’t the least idea of the stench of a sacked town or the look of an open belly full of fat green flies over which poppies droop their heads.
“Dostoyevsky…” began Platon Nikolaevich.
“I don’t read him. No time, you understand. The Karamazovs split hairs with their beautiful souls; we are carving flesh itself, and the beautiful soul doesn’t mean a thing to us. What is serious is to eat, to sleep, to avoid being killed, and to kill well. There’s the truth. The question has already been decided by the sword and the spirit. A sword which is stronger than ours, a spirit we don’t understand. And we don’t need to understand in order to perish. We will all perish with these books, these ideas, Dostoyevsky and the rest; precisely, perhaps, on account of these books, of these ideas, of Dostoyevsky, of scruples, and of incomplete massacres. And the earth will continue to turn. That’s all. Good evening.”
The days got longer, heralding white nights. The snow melted on the steppes, revealing patches of black earth and pointed yellow grasses. Streamlets ran in every direction, babbling like birds. They glistened in every fold of earth. Swollen rivers reflected pure skies of still frigid blue. Scattered bursts of laughter hung in the woods among the slim white trunks of birches. Specks of dull silver seemed to hang in the air. The first warm days were tender, caressing. The pedestrian in the damp streets offered them his face and his soul. His glance clung to pretty white clouds which passed above like cares carried off by a great gust of confidence. The charm of life revived with the little children playing on street corners; it hovered over an empty square above a horse carcass devoured by stray dogs. The animal’s skull emerged, a fresh ivory colour, from a burrow of melting snow. Shreds of hairy brown skin, laundered by the frosts, clung to the crushed rib cage. The five little golden onion domes of a rococo church pierced the pale sky, azure turned white, but an airy white of limpid freshness. One could no longer believe that there was still war, death, hunger, fear, lice. The river, immensely free between its granite banks, carried along huge blocks of ice. The floes moved with soft crunching sounds downstream from northern lakes toward the sea now reopened to the lapping waves, to the living lights beading the foam, to the warm Gulf Stream breezes which, starting from Yucatan and the Floridas, passed over the Atlantic, the fjords of Norway and the plains of Sweden, and came to rest on our icy shores. Atop the golden spire of the Admiralty Building a tiny gilded ship, as light and distinct as an idea, sailed through the sky. The colours of the red flags revived.
The first buds opened in the gardens. Then there was an explosion of fresh green foliage over the rivers and canals cutting through the city. The pleasure of life, suddenly recalled, had an acid taste. The evenings were cold under skies tinted steel blue as from the distant reflection of huge icebergs. There was no more night; dusk dragged on grey, blue, mauve, ashy, pearly, brighter and brighter, to midnight. The sky glowed white until sunrise, captivating every glance, at the end of the sparkling canals, through the black arching branches, above the heads of century-old riders holding in their rearing horses… Couples roamed the riverbanks. The sky poured its brightness down on them, the river encompassed them with solitude. They met with ghostly smiles. They paused before rotting barges abandoned by the boatmen last autumn when the river transports were nationalised. Soon they would be dismantled to make firewood; it would be a rough job. The Poor People’s Committees were struggling bitterly over a possession of these hulks.
A blond adolescent girl with deep blue eyes shimmering like rivulets of melting snow questioned her lover, who wore the ragged uniform of a vanished academy:
“Will you help me?”
He whispered yes as he kissed her ear, for she had given herself to him on one of these days, naïve and willing, bewildered and feverish, in a cosy nook of this rotting barge; the stale smell of the river pervaded the silvery grey of the endless evening. The waterlogged planks yielded under their footsteps. They had come there out of curiosity, unmindful of their joy since their joy carried them along. She had nearly fallen into a dark square hole at the bottom of which the water was lapping. “You see! You see!” he said, alarmed. She laughed. “If you had to count every near miss!” They found themselves suddenly alone. Nothing but the vast empty sky over their heads and the watery ripples below, reflecting through a wide gap in the disjointed planks. “How nice it is,” she said, offering him her lips, and the idea came to her simply that in love you have to give your body; it has to hurt and you feel a little ashamed, but you have to, with eyes closed and lips entwined, and you shudder with happiness afterward just thinking about it… But how do you do it? The books don’t explain it very clearly. – “I don’t know, I’m all embarrassed, forgive me, do what you will with me, I love you, I love you…”
Now her rosy petal-shaped lips mingled ordinary things with important preoccupations:
“We’ll set aside a provision of wood for the winter… Listen, I want to become more conscious; tell me what to read.”
Another couple. She: close-cropped hair under a brown leather cap which gave her small head a sporty appearance; gilded temples and eyebrows and gold-flecked eyes. He: a soldier, the red star encrusted in black leather over his brow. She had just left the District Committee, he had come from the political bureau of the 23rd Regiment; they met on a bench in the Summer Garden, a few steps from the Dutch House built by Czar Peter as a temporary residence while this city was emerging from the swamps and forests, with wooden sidewalks running along muddy streets, huge empty tracts, and parks which were in reality the edges of the forest. The graceful gestures of Diana and Artemises hovered beneath the trees. The severely wrought grille of the garden stood out black against the great pale light of the north. There flowed the river.
Their handclasp was firm. Without apparent tenderness. Nearly the same height, the two breathed the same strength. Her eyes followed the hopping sparrows as she said: “I’ve been thinking over the theory of imperialism. You were right the other evening. All you have to do is read Chapter Four in Hilferding. But on the problem of freedom I’m the one who’s right. Here…”
She pulled a sheaf of notes out of a pamphlet whose coloured cover showed a globe of the earth covered with chains broken by a red lightning bolt dropping from the milky Way.
“Marx writes: “Value transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic… For those who exchange their products, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” They believe themselves to be free because they are subject to the action of anonymous objects and not to men. They believe themselves free because they see no master over them. But “the reciprocal independence of person is achieved through a system of universal material dependence.””
“That was valid for the past. By becoming conscious of necessity we become free. Read Chapter XI of Anti-Duhring. By its understanding of necessary historical development, the proletariat, accomplishing what must be accomplished, passes from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. Read Chapter II and Part III.”
She knew what he was going to say, but with what words? She waited for these words and it seemed to her that her chest was bursting with joy.
“Xenia, we are necessary to each other, and we are free because…”
They kept silent until they reached the part of the garden where a great porphyry vase stands on a grey pedestal. Only there did he dare to ask her with awkward detachment:
“Will you come, Xenia?”
She nodded yes, simply, and, so that he wouldn’t see the joy laughing in her eyes, looked into the distance toward the varicoloured bulbs of the Church of the Saviour on the Blood. In preparation for this nod, she had spent a long time this morning washing and decking herself out in fine linen, hesitating whether to take along the vial of French Perfume. Was the use of these luxuries invented by the depravity of the rich not unworthy? Yet the District Committee distributed perfumes impounded by customs to the women activists with the most important jobs. She made up her mind on the basis of this specious argument: it was not a luxury nut a matter of hygiene. Wouldn’t he be angry at this bit of refinement in her? But how he breathed in the fresh smell of her bare arms…
They were leaving the garden. An auto, having passed them, stopped short. A high-booted man with a revolver at his side ran to meet them. Ryzhik was only three paces away when Xenia recognised him.
“You’re taking a stroll? You don’t know what’s going on? Come over to the Department right away. Everyone is mobilised.”
Ryzhik climbed back into the car. Only there did he feel, as one feels a bullet only the instant after it hits you, what a sharp jab had pierced his heart at the sight of that couple. Sprawled on the greasy old upholstery of the Ford, instead of thinking of the Revolution he thought that he was too old and that it was irreparable.