Chapter 16

Submitted by Reddebrek on January 29, 2015

ADMIRABLE and inexplicable are the ways bad news gets transmitted in prisons, besieged cities, and countries with censorship. In time of civil war in habitants are able to discern in the usual atmosphere of a city the indefinable signs of its doom. The authorities of the moment may very well post announcements that the situation is improving; the inhabitant knows that evacuation will begin tomorrow. He guesses that the first horsemen of the new terror will be seen the day after tomorrow in the withering silence of deserted streets- people with flowers will run ahead of the buglers… Houses will be searched… Suspects with blood at the corner of their lips will move off like automatons flanked by strange looking infantrymen with huge black sheepskin headgear… et cetera. The people of Kiev have known eleven occupations. The people here go about scenting their fear or their anticipation. For our fear is made of others’ hope; our hope is woven of their fear. City adrift. The foreign papers, smuggled in and passed from hand to hand with the greatest secrecy (your life depends on it), are saying- according to a dispatch from Stockholm- that this city has been taken. Another dispatch rectifies: “From our special correspondent: the National Army plans to enter in three days.” (You read it madam! The shoemakers will be back in their shops, the banks will reopen, praise God!) The Whites have reoccupied the old imperial residences, twenty miles away. The have tanks… The price of bread triples at the clandestine marketplace jammed by two thousand people. Of what value is the paper currency of a revolution about to receive the coup de grace?
Time for action; retreat is no longer possible. A puffy old archivist, having survived for months on frozen potatoes fried in castor oil, slowly forces open the drawers of the mahogany secretary of the presidency of the Senate, a beautiful piece of furniture from Emperor Paul’s period, but it must be done! His heart beats like a great bell. The time for daring came so simply. Tomorrow perhaps these archives will burn, yet the autograph letters of the great provocateur must be saved. He carries them against his skinny chest, and his halting step in the street is more joyful than if by some miracle he was twenty again and had delirious love letters to read over at night. He stifles a silent laugh on his pinched lips. A fatigue party of ex-bourgeois guarded by two women soldiers in short skirts is digging trenches in front of Trinity Bridge. The archivist contemplates their slow, probably useless labour for a moment: women in unfashionable coats clumsily push wheelbarrows full of wooden paving blocks; the men don’t seem to be in bad humour. “Let them take the city now, what do I care?”
They’re stealing the supplies from the Commune, they’re even selling non-existent supplies. Who’ll be here tomorrow? Money to escape, money to hide oneself, money to buy papers, money to betray, money to enjoy and get rich. Procuresses, whose telephone numbers are passed along discreetly, offer you charming ballet dancers. A grand dukr’s favourite? A sentimental one who clings? Or do you prefer a kinky one? Scattered around the egalitarian city subsist invisible seraglios where you can enjoy life forgetful of discipline, of assemblies, of the Revolution itself, provided you have jewels. And what else is there to do but take them, when you find jewels? Expropriated antiques dealers, who are probably nothing but looters, offer you precious miniatures: they will always keep their value, they’re easy to hide, easy to carry. You slip over the border one night, a little suitcase in your hand – guard your little suitcase well in the dark woods!- and you’re rich! Ah! Smugglers who are perhaps nothing but double agents of the Special Commission will guide you into Finland (or into an ambush0 for a few thousand rubles. But where to hide the jewels? Think about it carefully. In the heel of your boot? Too well known. A good new one: in the buttons of your overcoat. Under the matches in a matchbox you pretend not to care about. In your anus, as convicts do it… Men in black leather, like us, standing their turn of guard duty in the offices of the Executive, sell the supplies of the Commune, and even carloads of foodstuffs that have already been stolen. The thick face of a greedy peasant ill improved by years spent in storerooms of battleships smiles over the miniatures: Paul I (Kalmuk nose, red-rimmed eyes, and three-cornered hat), a marquess with a bluish complexion, Napoleon. And if the city holds? Take the kinky one or the sentimental one? The face flushes, transfixed by a sudden flash of hot blood. Both, Devil take me, I’m a male, what! and I’ve a fortune here… Five o’clock. It’s time for dinner at the table of the Executive- the only one where you get a succulent soup of cured horse meat. Then reports to the President- “State of food supply?” “Bad. Gromov, this can’t continue…” Gromov is nothing but zeal, frank explanation, and careless proletarian devotion. “Transportation. Those stinking railroad workers only think about their bellies; all speculators!” “Still, propose something; after all, Gromov!” “I propose requisitions in the marketplaces. Let’s go there army-style.” (We will take back from the marketplaces, to the sound of militiamen firing shots into the air and the panic of terrified women, the flour and rice sold yesterday to Andrei Vassilievich for two sprays of diamonds.)
The upper floors of the vast Institute are already empty. On the ground floor a throng reminiscent of days of uprising gloomily organises itself. Are the offices growing empty due to the mobilisation or due to flight? The President hasn’t the slightest idea. His step is listless. He walks down the straight corridor with his hands in his pockets, like a gentleman emerging from a small café. The doors of the former girls’ dormitories are numbered: No. 82 Party Committee, No. 84 Cadres Assignment Bureau, No. 86 Press, No. 88 Office of the International. The President enters this last one. In a dark, bare antechamber made out of deal partitions two young kids, page boys, are having a wrestling match, stifling their laughter for fear of being heard by the terrible secretary, who is correcting proofs of a message to the G.C.P. on the split of the Bremen group. They freeze on the spot at the apparition of the President. But his big unkempt head wears a vague smile. The boys suddenly grow bold: “We don’t have any more pants or shoes, look, comrade! Sign us a voucher, comrade!” Hot dog, he’s gonna sign the voucher! “Ask at the secretariat.” The President said it! Behind him the kids dance a silent jig: we’ll have shoes!
Spacious white room. The President dictates to the stenographer, a pale blonde. “Workers of the world!...” this evening the wireless will broadcast- to all! To all! To all! I- the final appeal of the Northern Commune. In the last analysis we have nothing left but that voice with which to oppose the squadron blockading the harbour and which, tomorrow, will disembark flat-helmeted battalions. “British soldiers and sailors, workers and peasants, will you forget that we are your brothers?” The President paces from one corner of the room to the other, emphasising the rhythm of his sentences. The stenographer steals a glance at him as, searching for his words in front of the window, he runs his hand through his rebellious hair. She is thinking that it’s always the same thing, that he has a handsome face, that she’s going to miss the distribution of herring at the sub-secretariat for Latin countries, that in case of an evacuation he will surely take her along in the presidential rail car….
The headquarters of a division moves into one of the railroad stations. The line of combat is edging into the outer suburbs. The frontlines of resistance and retreat for interior defence follow the contours of the canals. Certain intersections will be well defended. The survivors will retire along the river at the risk of being cut off twice… Then, dynamite and fire will reign. Kondrati states calmly:
“We’ll blow up the bridges. We’ll blow up the factories. We’ll blow up the Executive, the Special Commission, the old ministries. We’ll set fire to the warehouses in the harbour. We’ll turn the city into a volcano. That’s my solution.”
The President would prefer a different one. His big, bluish chubby head is glued to the telephone. His muffled voice tirelessly transmits the bad news four hundred miles away to the very heart of the Republic. No food supplies, no reinforcements. Enemy progressing irresistibly. Tanks. Yes, tanks. Troops demoralised, not very reliable. Conspiracies inside the city. We risk being taken in the rear. The troops on the northern front will give way at the first push; let’s have no illusions about it. The British fleet… That’s what I’m saying: untenable. Evacuation yes. Avoid useless massacres, save the live strength of the proletariat….
The full membership of the Special Commission was sitting, in accordance with the statutes, to judge the case of Arkadi. Fleischman, nominated to replace the accused, would then report on the situation at the front. Twelve heads in the small oak-panelled meeting room. Osipov presided. The case presented itself with irreparable simplicity.
Zvereva’s report, stated in terms of an apparent extreme moderation, ended with a veiled supposition of corruption. Nothing proved that Olga Orestovna Azin had not obtained the release of other individuals besides her brother and had not been paid by interested parties. An ambiguous passage in a deposition by Kaas reinforced this hypothesis. (This odious report had made Osipov decide to withdraw File No.42 from comrade Zvereva in order to give it over to Kirk; but some people saw this as an arbitrary measure; the President’s coterie, in private conversations which “somehow” got reported to the Central Committee, censured “this singular manifestation of comradeship…)
Maria Pavlovna, sent to Moscow in order to submit the dossier to the big chief, had found herself in the presence of a bony man so overworked that he looked like an old, careworn recluse. His thin shoulders stuck out under his green tunic. He was all nerves, concentrated movement, reserve, reticence, silence. Sharp profile, sharp pointed beard, sharp eyes whose absent stare transfixed his interlocutor inexorably, perhaps on account of its limpidity tempered by inner tension. Nothing on his desk but a great, massive inkwell made of rare stones from the Urals the colour of flayed flesh veined with blue violet presented by the proletariat of Ekaterinburg, “executioners of the last autocrat, to the inflexible Sword-Bearer of the Revolution, our great and dear- “No ink, naturally, in that beautiful closed inkwell, for the big boss signed his decrees with a fountain pen, a gift from the Quaker journalist, Mr. Pupkins. Maps of the front. Under the life-sized portrait of Karl Marx, between two windows, a bizarre panoply: masses of weapons made of huge nail studded roots; gnarled clubs hanging at the ends of hunks of rope; mutilated rifles with sawed-off barrels and amputated stocks; a sort of deformed cannon – a metal tube inserted in a tree trunk; and on a square of Bristol board a typed inscription: “Liquidation of the Tarasov Gang- Tambov district, February 1919.”
The chief opened the file. Zvereva’s report. The interrogations of Olga Orestovna Azin and Arkadi Arkadievich Ismailov (Arkadi was given his full name, which distanced him even further). The statements of the two defendants corresponded so closely that it appeared they had carefully agreed on everything in advance. The accused woman declared having been convinced of her brother’s innocence at the time. Arkadi had believed her. A month later she became his mistress. On this last point, it had been difficult to drag precise details out of her. A secret denunciation emphasised the fact that the investigation, arbitrarily removed from the hands of Comrade Zvereva, an irreproachable collaborator, had been turned over to a former syndicalist, Kirk. “A dirty business,” said the big chief. “I ought to go there…”
The door opened quietly. Someone brought in a red envelope. The chief turned his limpid eyes on Maria Pavlovna and asked:
“Generally speaking, isn’t your Commission too corrupt?”
The sudden start of the severe old woman, whom he had known for twenty years, having corresponded with her when she had lived in Paris, on Rue de la Glaciere, and he was residing in West Kanskoe, in the Altai mountains, on the Chinese border, made him add quickly:
“Don’t take offence, Maria Pavlovna. You know yourself how quickly people get demoralised, especially the young ones. Now: decide this matter yourself; I rely on you. I’ll come later on…”
This proof of confidence constituted perhaps the worst way of deciding; for at that time the suspicious shadow of the chief dominated the Special Commission.
Another complication: a scandal was brewing. The President, speaking before a big assembly of the Party, had permitted himself an allusion to the germs of corruption discovered in the redoubtable Special Commission itself. “We will purge the organs of the terror pitilessly,” he had cried in an oratorical flourish. “The sword of the proletariat must be clean.” The audience had applauded for a long time.
Arkadi belonged to the Kondrati group. The whole group felt threatened through him. They would turn the President’s outburst of demagoguery against him, no one having the right to divulge a case which had not been judged by the Party or by the Special Commission – but the sacrifice of Arkadi seemed imperative so that the coterie would not be smeared on account of his mistake.
Finally, the case of Zolin, although completely different, was vexingly present in everyone’s mind. This low-echelon agent of the Special Commission, who had made himself counterfeit seals in order to obtain foodstuffs for vouchers which he wrote out himself, had been shot with no discussion.
Article XV of the Internal Regulations was as precise as a guillotine blade. The debate was short, punctuated by long embarrassed pauses. Maria Pavlovna, the only member of the Central Committee present, said in a neutral voice:
“I propose the application of Article XV”
Osipov put it to a voice vote:
Fleischman, the first of the Kondrati group, voted “for.” When Terentiev’s turn to vote came, he took the floor. For a few moments only his big red face, his curling lips, and his low forehead were in the light. His porcelain eyes, of indeterminate hue, were rolling in every direction; his big round hands, as red as his face, made a few broken gestures, as if stammering.
“There’s nothing here but a whole lot of fuss over a woman. Arkadi’s clean. We have few men of his calibre. He’s worth more than I am, I tell you, a hundred times more! I tell you we can’t shoot him. I’m an ignorant man, see. Look at my big paws, look how I sign my name…”
He grabbed a pencil, made the motion of writing his name. He was looking around the room for some support, but the eleven faces were mute. Osipov, his cheek resting in his hand, was listening sadly. Terentiev, blushing, stammered.
“I believe in him. The Revolution can’t simply take a person’s word, I know. We have to offer our heads, it’s true, because we are without mercy. But I can’t! I tell you we can’t…”
He fell silent.
“Have you finished?”Osipov asked softly, “You’re voting against it?”
Kirk looked avidly at Terentiev. Six votes remained; this could be the decisive ballot. Terentiev’s face was flushed, his head bowed. The veins stood out on his neck, his ugly hands were lying flat on the green cloth. He was struggling with himself, his back against an invisible wall.
“No,” he said, choked, “I vote `for.`”
Kirk threw in “against” with a kind of fury. Too late; he was the only one. Osipov, the last, articulated distinctly:
“Me `for`. By eleven votes against one the application of Article XV passes.”
Late that night Kirk went and knocked at the door of Room 130 in the House of Soviets. Osipov, dragged out of bed in his shirt, barefoot, with his old riding breeches hanging loose around his skinny hips, greeted him anxiously.
“Well, nothing. You know, brother, we’re committing a crime.”
“A crime?” Osipov tossed back at him. “Because one of us got hit this time around? Don’t you understand that one must pay with one’s blood for the right to be pitiless? Do you by any chance imagine that we won’t all end up like that?
“I would have saved him if I could have. But you saw what happened, there was nothing left to do but share the responsibility. You’re a Don Quixote, with your lone horseman’s ways. Maybe that amuses you, but it serves no useful purpose.
“And then listen, this whole affair no longer has any importance. No more than your death or mine would have this week. You’ve come at a good time, for I’m completely exhausted. Go wake up Grichka in the guardroom, take my motorcycle, and have yourself driven over to Smolny. Six hundred men have arrived from Schluselburg. They have to be housed, fed, armed, and whipped into a fighting force. Work fast.”