“IT’S the end. Kronstadt in flames. Regiments going over to the enemy one after another. The city is living on hay. No anaesthetics at the main military hospital! While you were busy talking about the society of the future, you have slipped down to the bottom of the pit. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more, do you understand? You dream of self-sacrifice because you are the daughter of a bourgeois, raised on bourgeois idealism, on that stupid idealism we cultivate so well and which teaches you to turn around and strangle us with innocent eyes and clear consciences… Get yourself sent to the front, you little fool; go tell those flea-bitten mujks, those Ivans, those Timochkas, those Matveis who have been fighting for five years against the Germans, the Turks, the Bulgarians, the Austrians, the Czechoslovaks, the Poles, the English, the Serbians, the Romanians, the Japanese, and against other Matveis, other Timochkas, other Ivans, conscripts just like themselves, go tell them they should go on living like this for another two years or ten years, without bread or shoes, in order to bring socialism to the world! And that when they have to dig a bullet out of Ivan’s thigh they won’t be able to put him to sleep for lack of chloroform! And that when winter returns he’ll freeze like his brother froze last year. I’ve seen frozen corpses stacked like firewood! All Ivans, Timochkas, Matveis, fair or dark, with broad noses like young Tolstoys.”
Xenia buckled her belt with clenched teeth. The sky was heavy with a cheerless light. At the back of the room under the icon (before which, when Xenia was absent, a little red lamp was kept burning) her mother pretended to sleep, lying on the couch, her face against the leather. Andrei Vassilievich continued his monologue in a low voice; his words, muffled in his beard, sounded like an incantation.
“Your Revolution is a corpse. There’s nothing left to do but cart it away.”
Going out after eight in the evening without special permission prohibited. Mandatory guard duty at the doors of dwellings. Mandatory labour. Mandatory surrender of all arms, even processional ones (it would have been too easy to invoke processions) within twenty-four hours under pain of death. Telegraphed order from the President of Revolutionary War Council prescribing the establishment of lists of relatives of former officers serving with the Red Army, these families to be considered responsible for the loyalty of the officers. Arrest of hostages. Special surveillance of automobile and motorcycle traffic. House-by-house searches. Identity checks. Arrest of suspects. Division of the city into internal defensive sectors. Mobilisations of Communist battalions. Death penalty for speculators. Death for spies. Death for traitors. Death for deserters. Death for misappropriators of public funds. Death for spreaders of false reports. Death.
“Andrei Vassilievich, they just posted a list of seventeen men who were shot. I read Aaron Mironovich’s name on it.”
She saw Andrei Vassilievich’s image reflected in the glass over a large picture of a child (her portrait as a little girl). She wished never to see it again, after having said these words. This trembling bearded spectre had dark holes in the place of eyes. His hands clenched his collar like someone being asphyxiated; his necktie, always correctly adjusted, was pulled to one side; he looked like that same Aaron Mironovich whose features had been reflected so many times in that same picture.
“Enough!” said Xenia sharply to herself in the stairway. The familiar image of a potbellied, bearded Jew with an unctuous smile floated in front of her, unsubstantial and persistent. His convulsed smile faded into a pool of blood. Xenia stopped in the grey stairway, her hand tightly clutching the bannister. Her throat was parched. She made a great effort to coldly, clearly. We are in the right. I want what must be. I will do what must be done. It was a relief for her to add mentally: Whatever that may be and whatever the outcome.
It was two in the morning. In the ashy white street the forms of sentinels appeared at intervals in doorways. A militia-woman paced up and down at the corner, her rifle barrel planted straight against her shoulder. Xenia felt hostile glances spying on her. These were enemy houses. The faraway gasps of cannon vibrated almost imperceptibly in the cool air.
…The Timochkas, the Matveis, the Ivans are perfectly right, poor souls, not to want to fight any more. It is their Revolution that we are making; it is to end war forever that we are fighting, that their blood must still flow. They suffer, they want to live, they have their eyes wide open and can’t see what human necessity makes them bow down. We see for them, but the law is too hard, the rebel against us, they flee. Their weakness turns against them. (Thus, in Leonid Andreev’s play, crowned Hunger, who reigns over the poor, pushes the plebs in revolt, then betrays them and bow down to the rich, for she is always in any case their servant.) The Ivans don’t know what history is. Nonetheless history pushes them forward, drags them along, grinds them down, pulls them by the millions out of their thatched huts to the sound of tocsin, of mobilisations, piles them into cattle cars, puts repeating rifles into their hands (hands which guided wooden ploughs or turned over haystacks with slow movements consecrated since the peopling of Eurasia), throws these human masses against Europe in Prussia, against Asia in Armenia, parades them through French port towns and scatters their bones in Champagne, lines them up – Ivan, Matvei, Timochka- alongside helmeted Senegalese, turbaned Sikhs, and Tommies with pipes in their teeth, against methodical Germans whose leaders are all doctors and who go into battle wearing piglike masks preceded by waves of gas… Who will save them if they don’t save themselves? Tomorrow, if we are defeated, they will become brutes again. They will give back the land. They will be hanged, whipped, and mobilised. Newspapers and schools will be founded to teach them that such is the eternal law. They will be lined up, like mechanical soldiers, in the squares of workers’ cities, and when the red flags appear the Ivans will shoot. – They will shoot at us, who are them.
The ranks were forming in front of the District Committee, a princely little town house now stuffed full of files, typewriters, machine guns, and armed men sleeping on straw mattresses. There were jostling crowds around the secretaries’ desks in rooms hung in white silk dotted with cornflowers. – “The comrades from the Meyer Factory, second company, in front of the church.” – “Kostrov Factory and waterworks people across the street.” – “Stack your arms, at ease!” An astonishing calm reigned over the activity of this anthill in the square.
The District Commanders – a man in black leather, an old woman who seemed radiant because of her halo of white hair, and a stocky man in a jacket and cap with cartridge belts across his chest – approached the special company. Men and women of all ages stood there in formation. Most of them were poorly clothed. A few soft felt hats. Caps pushed flat across the backs of heads. Women workers in overcoats with kerchiefs tied around their heads. A few pince-nez. Some detachable collars. An artist’s mane. Hands resting on rifles.
“Squad leaders fall out to the right.”
Xenia followed the movement and found herself in a crowded courtyard. Three gilded domes surmounted by finely wrought openwork crosses – the cross victorious over the prostrate crescent- stood out against the deepening blue of the sky. The stones had a bright sheen. The crosses floated through a singular serenity. Faces expressed concern; there was little talking. Everyone signed and received his papers in the corridor. Warrant: Instructions for house-to-house searches. Descriptions (secret).
“Give special attention to the dwellings of intellectuals.”
“X., military man, aged 22-24, chestnut hair, medium build, thick eyebrows, laughs easily, habit of folding his arms across his chest, Muscovite accent, recently arrived from the south. Long scar on outside of left wrist. First name begins with D.”
A tall old workman with dirty linen, tallow skin, and some wasting disease whispered into Xenia’s ear:
“Seems like we’ll get half a pound of bread and a herring. I guess we’ll develop a taste for these searches, eh?”
Kondrati appeared standing on a chair. His voice rang out in the crystal crispness of the morning air as sharply as the three crosses standing out against the sky above his head.
“… disarm the enemy within. Order, discipline, firmness… Our sailrs are launching an assault on Fort Hill at this very moment… Decisive days… The Proletariat… We will hold on, we will hold on; woe to those who…”
“Some of them are shits. In my squad yesterday one little guy swiped a gold watch from a lawyer’s place. I had him searched. I smashed his face in, personally. You should have seen how he thanked me afterward.”
“And the watch.”
“In the fund for the wounded. I don’t give a damn for the bourgeois, you see.”
“Remember,” hammered Kondrati, “the thirty thousand who died in the Paris Commune! Remember the fifteen thousand who died in the Finnish Commune! Remember the three hundred who were hanged in Yamburg! Not one of us, not one…”
Xenia left, carrying bread and herring for her people. The squads were assembling on the square in an apparent disorder which was the birth of order. In hers, Xenia found a sailor from the Vulture, a tired woman worker of about thirty with hair gracefully arranged in a cluster behind at the back of her head, a sullen redheaded young soldier with a big mouth, a flat nose, and jutting brows whose name she asked and who answered “Matvei”; and two young workers from the Meyer Factory, both beardless, one with a deformed shoulder and a limp. This group went off through the empty streets. The sailor smoked in silence. The soldier carried his rifle by the strap, muzzle down; the strap was made of rope anyway. The woman worker said: “Four hours? We won’t be finished before seven o’clock.” She explained: “I’d like to be home in time to feed my husband. He’s a non-Party member, but a good worker – what a life!”
“This is the place,” said Xenia. The sleeping house was not expecting them. A white cat with red markings dived into a cellar at their approach. In the sky, rosy shadows were warring with turquoise hues. A splendid day was rising over the city, the estuary, the sea, the forts, and the enemy columns on the march. A very old man stood guard at the door of this big house with windows dead behind drawn blinds. On this June morning he stood muffled in an ancient greatcoat which had turned green at the shoulders. His wizened face, elongated by a goatee, was half hidden in the fur collar.
“They should have left him in his mothballs,” joked the worker with a limp.
The Privy Councillor from apartment 26 waited to be spoken to, his hands in his pockets. The smaller carnivores have that watchful. Sharp. Spiteful look when taken by surprise in front of their lairs/
“Come on, open up” ordered the Vulture sailor, “you know who I am.”
“Kindly present your warrants,” answered the Privy Councillor without emotion.
Xenia showed her paper. Seal of the Special Committee of Three Valid for six persons. – “Good. Enter.” When they had passed, the old man shuddered. Inside the courtyard, the squad divided up into three couples. Xenia took the soldier, Matvei, with her.
They knocked on doors among hostile shadows. They knocked at length, for the people were either sleeping or pretended out of anxiety to be asleep. At last bare feet ran toward them down the corridor. Fearful voices asked, “Who’s there?” They answered imperiously, “Open up!” Iron bars and chains were lifted, bolts were pulled back. Keys grated, and they entered. The bad air inside caught in their throats after the vivifying crispness of the clear night. The relative misery of comfort of these dwellings was soon patent to these intruders – a sailor, a woman worker, a young hunchbacked man, Xenia… Here, sleeping in a camp bed, lay a skeletal man of about fifty with a smooth skull of old copper. Huge unlaced shoes gaped up from under the bed; on the windowsill a hot plate, a potted cactus, a vial of poison: a skull on the label. The man resembled that skull.
“Who are you?”
“Physician attached to Typhus Clinic No.4.”
Papers in order.
“Excuse us, citizen.”
At the head of his bed, a little icon, a very old Virgin with Child dressed in sculpted silver, painted by the first master miniaturists of Palekh. In the next rooms terrified women, a mother and a daughter with long tresses hanging over dressing gowns, trembled as they revealed their treasure: sixty pounds of potatoes in the bathtub. Then, in the living room, while their papers were being checked, the daughter lymphatically raised her blue-veined arms to adjust her hair while keeping one eye on her diamond-studded earrings on the shelf.
Matvei stood motionless among the rooms, curiously considering the unfamiliar objects. They paused for breath in a stairway that smelled of wine. A sepulchral silence hung behind the door they had just knocked at. All Matvei said was:
“Let’s get this over with.”
At around five o’clock in the morning they arrived at Professor Vadim Mikhailovich Lytaev’s. Danil, Smiling, arms folded across his chest, stood in front of a wide-open window interrogating Matvei, who was now weighted down with an old cavalry sabre seized at the apartment of a paralytic old lady on the floor below:
“How’s it going, little brother?”
At that instant Xenia, who was about to leave, remembered a phrase she had read or heard, a long while ago, long before the lassitude of these hours and the blue splendour of the sky in this window. An important phrase nonetheless, which characterised someone: “The habit of folding his arms across his chest.” Who, then? Kondrati, perhaps. Xenia was struggling against a sort of intoxication resulting from nervous tension, tiredness, and a vague sense of physical well-being instilled by more and more iridescent glare of the morning light as the sun rose higher in the sky. – Kondrati, his fresh complexion, his wheat-coloured hair, his orator’s mouth with its healthy teeth; - and the three svelte onion domes floating high above that tribune’s head. He was unaware of them as he spoke, his hand outstretched; but the sky, deeper than any thought, and those brilliant crosses nonetheless hung over him, as necessary as his gesture, necessary in fact to his gesture, for there is no such thing as chance. We move through life without ever knowing all the riches, all the power, all the beauty which lies around us.
“What a fine morning coming up,” said Matvei in the dreamy voice of a prisoner. “It must be nice in the fields right now.”
Danil let out a big jovial laugh/ “You bet! Listen to those birds!” They heard them peeping, thousands of them, in the garden of the school next door. Xenia, too, listened for a moment. Then she briskly held her hand out to Danil – “Good-bye, Comrade!” – nodded farewell to the Lytaevs, whom she glimpsed in the next room, a really nice old couple, and left.
Behind her, Maria Borissovna Lytaeva said:
“How nice she was, that little Communist. I felt reassured as soon as I saw her. Aren’t you coming back to bed, Vadim?
“No. This unexpected visit has done me good. And it’s really morning already. My head is full of ideas, I’m going to write. Try to go back to sleep, Maria.”
When the searches were completed Xenia decided to drop by at the Committee in order to prolong her walk through the city in the burgeoning light. New vistas opened before her at every street corner. A pair of crouching red lions spread their fiery gold wings along the entrance of a delicate bridge suspended by cables over a bend in the canal. Father on, the green freshness of trees burst forth bathed in transparent shadows. The white columns of a little palace were mirrored in the canal, their shapes undisturbed by the shimmering water. A single white cloud floated in the sky of that water as if above the city.
When we are dead, thought Xenia, when everything is finished, perhaps a similar cloud will pass through a similar sky at this very spot. What eyes will see it reflected in this water, eyes that will have known neither war, nor famine, nor fear, nor anguish, nor night patrols, that will not have seen man strike down man? I can’t even imagine it. I can see nothing of that future. I am like a person emerging from a cave. The light at the mouth is dazzling. He cannot see the brilliant landscape before him. I must learn. Perhaps I will learn if I live. But must I live? We must smash everything. Purify everything by fire. I saw fear trembling a little while ago in an old woman’s eyes when I entered. I felt pity. I crushed my pity like someone crushing a worm into the earth after a rain. The highest love excludes pity. Make way for men, old woman; men are rising up! The workers are changing the world just as they demolish, build, forge, throw bridges across rivers. We will throw a bridge from one universe to the other. Over there: the black and yellow peoples, the brown peoples, the enslaved peoples…
Words no longer followed her thoughts in their ineffable flight. The shimmering crosses of the churches attracted her eyes. Old faith, we will break you too. We will take the Crucified One down off the cross. We want people to forget him. No more symbols of humiliation and suffering on the earth, no more blindness; knowledge, the clear eye of man, the master of himself and of things, rediscovering the universe afresh.
From the mouth of a pink street surged trucks, bristling with bayonets. They came bounding out, shaking the ground, jolting and pitching over the broken pavement, huge meteors made up of a human mass and a heavy tired-out machine fed on the filthiest oil. Each carried sixty broad chests washed by the sea air, sixty heads ready to burst open like futile pomegranates under a hail of shrapnel, sixty heads readier still to plunge forward, death and victory in their eyes, sixty rifles topped with glistening steel like cold rays of light, nine hundred cartridges belted across warm stomachs and male chests. The ribbons attached to their black sailors’ berets danced around their heads. The silence continued to tremble long after these meteors had disappeared.
Xenia listened as the intense clamour of the passing masses of men and machines subsided within her. The same will that carried them off on their inevitable trajectory toward obstacles and dangers kept her walking, alone, her task completed. The same imperious soul coordinated every gesture, repressing weaknesses, stifling hesitations, reducing all forces to a common denominator, enlisting man in a sort of legion which was much more flexible and impassioned than any army. Stay at your post, do your job; we are multitudes animated by a single thought, which is the very law of history discovered by the surest science. We are accomplishing that which cannot not be accomplished. Still greater masses are behind us, whose dim consciousness we embody, who think, will, and act through us and who cannot act otherwise. If we go under, the laws which regulate the development of man will not be modified because it; the same struggle will continue to set the same classes against each other; the same conquest will be prepared for tomorrow. The waves can take centuries to undermine a cliff. Anyone who understands the process of the slow movement of continents, although he cannot predict which particular effort of the waves will give the final shove to the rocks loosened by seepage, does not doubt that the cliff must crumble. Each of us, and you too, Xenia, is only a droplet participating in the sweep of the waves; a droplet in which, before it dissolves, is reflected a whole vast strip of landscape, skies, rocks, ground swells, powdering spray, rainbows.
How clear it all is, when you think it through. I am glad to be a mere drop in the wave which is beating against old overturned stones here. I consent to everything. Here I am.
At the Committee, the stale smell of cigarette butts filled the messy rooms. The man on guard was sleeping, his rifle between his knees, seated on a step of the great marble staircase. Stuffed bears snickered on the landing. Ryzhik, alone, was pacing back and forth in front of the windows, which were open onto the sun-filled garden. They saw the joy in each other’s eyes.
“The fort has been retaken.” Said Ryzhik.
And he opened his arms; he never knew how it happened, but he took her in his arms and their mouths met joyfully. Then he asked – in order to dissipate the growing embarrassment between them, the blush rising to the top of his head along with the desire to slake his thirst totally in that spring of joy:
“No,” she said, “no.”
Her childish brow wrinkled; her whole face screwed up in painful concentration. “Yet it seems to me…yes!” She fished the identification sheet out of her pocket. “…laughs easily, habit of folding his arms across his chest, Moscow accent, first name D…” – “How could I have?... Ryzhik, we must telephone right away.”