Chapter 17

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 1, 2015

THE OFFICES are at work as usual. That is to say, they are going through the motions of working. There are people waiting on lines in the streets. Special assembly at the factory. Special meeting in the district. Telephones. The city awaits the event gathering somewhere above it, in unknown regions, ready to pounce on its huge prey. Woe unto the vanquished! A young pregnant woman – for maternity disarms suspicion- and an old white haired woman are preparing false papers for an underground organisation which will carry on the activity of the Party tomorrow, in the lost city; they don’t know that they have already been sold out to the enemy; that their addresses are known; that the false foreign passports they are buying are doubly false… Regiments are gloomily preparing for a supreme battle, pregnant with a horrible every-man-for-himself. The Special Party battalions, billeted around the Committees, are grumbling that nothing is being prepared for the evacuation; that the leaders will have trains and cars for their getaway while the poor slobs will play martyr. The workers, in the factories, are demanding flour and pilfering pieces of metal, tools, fence boards, sheet metal, ropes, cables… Clouds heavy with rain bring rumours of betrayals, arson, defeats, executions. The Cossacks have pillaged the palace of Gatchina. The great writer, Kuprin, has gone over to the enemy. “They’re hanging every last Jew, every last Communist!” At the end of school, in a schoolyard spotted with mud puddles, Rachel and Sarah, who look as if they had been born under a palm tree on the edge of a biblical desert, suddenly find themselves surrounded by kids.
“Yids! Yids! They’re gonna disembowel you soon!”
“Children too?” inquires blond-haired Madeleine.
“All of them! All of them.”
The little Jewish girls go off hand in hand, and already the future terror surrounds them with a strange void.
“What’s `disembowel`?” Rachel asks her big sister. But the big sister, who feels like crying, quickens her pace. “Shut up, you never understand anything.”
What makes you think the city can hold out when the whole Republic is going to crumble? Experts have studied the problem of transportation, the problem of food supply, the problem of the war, the problem of epidemics. They conclude that it would take a miracle. That’s their way of telling the Supreme Council for Defence: “You’re bankrupt!” They withdraw, very dignified, veiling their prophets’ arrogance. One knows that the wear on the railroad line will become fatal in less than three months. The other that the big cities will be condemned to die of hunger within the same lapse of time. It’s mathematical. The third that the minimum program for munitions production is perfectly unrealisable. The fourth announces the spread of endemics. Their files contain all the temperature charts of the Revolution. This fever curve is deadly. History can’t be forced. Production cannot be organised by terror, don’t you see, with one of the most backward populations on earth! They barely refrain from passing sentence out of deference for the men of energy who have embarked on this formidable adventure, who are lost, but whose least errors will be studied for a long time to come. How to explain these men? That’s really the problem of problems. There is fear in that defiance; irony, too; perhaps even regret.
The experts have left. Two men face each other in the middle of the Supreme Council, which in fact resembles, with its long faces and its papers covered with specious figures, the board of directors of a firm which is losing money at a terrific rate. Liabilities: the White Terror in Budapest, the defeat of Hamburg; the silence of Berlin, the silence of Paris, the hesitation of Jean Longuet, the loss of Orel, the threat to Tula. Liabilities: the fact that we were nothing until yesterday, that we are coming out of poverty, out of the shadows, out of perpetual defeat. Assets: the dispatches from Italy, the strikes in Turin, the exploits of the partisans in the Siberian taiga, the rivalry between Washington and Tokyo, the articles of Serrati and of Pierre Brizon. Assets: the knowledge, the will, the blood of the workers. Another asset: the terrible liability of a civilisation which carries the wound of war in its side. Through propaganda, the eleven thousand people murdered by the White Terror in Finland are converted into assets…
At this moment, in the midst of the masses’ labour and silence, the debate is summed up in the heads of two men. They are the two whose tiresome effigies are seen everywhere: in people’s homes, in offices, in clubs, in the papers, in the display windows of flunky photographers contending for the honour of having shot the negative, at the doors of public buildings. On one occasion these two men, in a good mood after a great success in the nationalisation of the coal mines, exchanged the following ironical words about this iconography:
“I say, what a glut of portraits. Don’t you think they’ve gone a bit far?”
“The bad side of popularity, my friend. Whipped up by opportunists and morons.”
Both men were sarcastic, but in different ways: one was jovial, with a high, bare forehead, high cheekbones, a prominent nose, a wisp of russet beard, and a great air of health, simplicity, and sly intelligence. He laughed often, which made him squint, and then his half-closed eyes were full of green sparks. In those moments he displayed a huge wrinkled forehead, a big mouth, and a jovial expression which revealed to the observer the features of an Asiatic mingled with those of a European. The other man, a Jew, with prominent lips whose great fold at times revealed an eagle’s powerful ugliness, had a glance of penetrating intelligence, the carriage of a leader of men, an inner certainty which near-sighted people might confuse with old fashioned pride, and a rather deceptive Mephistophelean mask in his laughter- for this man retained the capacity for joy of an adolescent for whom all life is waiting to be conquered. They laugh at their own portraits.
“So long as we live long enough to stop them from being printed,” said the one.
“Let’s hope we live long enough not to be beatified,” said the other.
They knew that you can’t turn the world around without leaning on the oldest rocks.
The fate of the city is being decided between them. –What is a city, even that one! The southern front is more important. Here’s where we have to hold on: keep the Tula arsenal, the central capital, the keys to the Volga and the Urals, the heartland of the Revolution. Gain more time, even by giving up territory. Concentrate our forces. Nothing will be lost after this very hard blow. We can evacuate the city, since the situation is becoming untenable. The enemy won’t be able to feed it. It will be a brand of discord between the Whites and their allies… - Already one of these men, the one characterised by the greatest prudence in the execution of a design conceived with the greatest daring, is preparing to gather new weapons out of an accepted defeat.
The other man leans toward solutions of energy. The best defence is offense. Two hundred thousand proletarians, even exhausted ones, ought to be able to hold out against an army ten times less numerous bringing them the yoke. Two hundred thousand proletarians can be an amorphous mass doomed to slavery or a host on the march toward some great victory or a horrible defeat, an invincible, inexorable force stronger than traditional armies, itself capable of giving birth to impassioned armies. An obscure consciousness transforms submissive mobs into rebellious mobs; a clear consciousness awakens the mass to organisation and later brings forth armies. All that is needed is a human ferment.
The argument for resistance prevails. The chief of the army shakes his black mane. A flash of mockery veils the look of preoccupation in his pince-nez. The fold of his mouth relaxes.
“I’ll send in the Bashkirs!”
The laughter of the two men disconcerts the Council for a moment. The idea of turning this cavalry of the steppes on Helsingfors in case Finland starts to move is a brainstorm! (Whether the Bashkirs are worth anything under fire is another question…) It will make the ink flow by the gallon in the West. Not bad. Manipulating the enemy’s press is an advantage.
“By ensnaring it in its own stupidity, the effect is certain.”
“I’ll catch it through its own stupidity, exoticism, and funk.”
Grey battalions streamed out through the streets of the suburbs. Three thousand silent heads arrayed under the thick white columns of the Tauride Palace listened to Trotsky intoning, like an anathema, the threat of Revolution. Tomorrow this threat would reach the land of white lakes and pensive forests; by degrees it would penetrate, an evil shadow, into the petty cottages of a blond, fair skinned people, proud of its cleanliness, of its well-being, of its daughters (who practice rowing and read Knut Hamsun), of being the best-policed people on the globe and of having drowned its Commune in blood.
“The road that leads from Helsingfors to this city also leads from this city to Helsingfors!”
Three thousand pairs of hands applaud, for this is reversing the odds, turning a peril into a strength. The man who raises his hand in order to strike a blow feels stronger than the one who raises his hand to ward one off.
“We were silent, bourgeoisie of Finland, when you sold your country to the foreigner. We were silent when your aviators bombed us. We were silent when you massacred our brothers. The cup is full!”
Yes, full. Everyone felt it in that dark furnace where hazy silhouettes were fired with new anger.
“Well, then, strike! Dare to! We promise you extermination. We are massing the 1st Bashkir Division at your gates…”
Let a young people from the steppes avenge their dead from the Urals and the dead of every murdered Commune on these clean shaven merchants who have been trading on our death for months. The hounded Revolution turns around and shows you a new face, Europe.
“You rejected the proletarians who came proclaiming peace. You banned them from your civilisation because, armed with your science, they undertook to rebuild the world they carry on their shoulders. So be it! We have yet another side. We also have- the poet spoke true- Scythian cavalry! We will hurl them at your clean, tidy cities with their bright facades, at you brick-steepled Lutheran churches, at your parliament, your comfortable chalets, your banks, your pious, right-thinking newspapers.
Riding down the broad straight avenues appeared cavalrymen dressed in grey or black sheepskin caps mounted on little roan horses who couldn’t prance. The squadrons were preceded by commissars wearing pince-nez. Some of them had medallions of Karl Marx’s portrait pinned on their tnics as insignia. Most of them were yellow skinned nomads with wide, muscular, rather flat faces and little eyes.
They seemed to be happy to be riding through a town where the horses’ shoes never struck the soil, where all the houses were made of stone, where automobiles often bounded out of nowhere- but which was unfortunately lacking in horse troughs. And life must be sad there since there are neither beehives, nor flocks, nor horizons of plains and mountains… Their sabres were bedecked with red ribbons. They punctuated their guttural singing with whistle blasts which sent brief shivers down their horses’ manes.
In the evening the commanders, the commissars, the members of committees, and the men belonging to the Party, who were authorised to go out, wandered among the streets of ill fame looking for prostitutes. It was soon repeated around that they were almost all diseased. They paid well, for many of them were rich in their country; they were gentle, curious, caressing, and brutal with the women of the street- too white, too restless, and too talkative for their taste, and who were intimidated by their apparent awkwardness. They knew Dunya-the-Snake, Katka-Little-Apple, and Pug-Nose-Marfa. One of them left a curved, bone-handled dagger in Katka-Little-Apple’s pink belly- in their country, the women know slow dances and choruses that men can never forget. Over their long red dresses they wear necklaces hung with rows of coins which are passed down from generation to generation: big silver rubles of Peter and the two Catherines, blackened eagles of all the autocrats, coins of three centuries. The pattern of their dresses goes back even further. They love coral; and they croon at the doors of low wooden houses or tall round tents as they grind their grain in mills which are nothing but cut-off tree trunks. Their motions are the same as those of the women of the first Turkish tribes who came to land of the Belaia, driven by drought and war, so many centuries ago that the historians lose their way. Perhaps the ancestors of these riders were fashioning their beehives in the same shape as today long before there were Sophists in Athens.
Back from the fleshpots, a few of them were squatting in a circle in their barrack room, stirring up old projects. These men felt themselves a resuscitated people to the bones. Bitterly they recalled the great Kurultai of 1917 which declared their national independence. Word by heavy word they poured out their resentment at fighting for others, their hopes for glory, the more tangible hope of getting their pay, and thoughts heavier still. The man who had just possessed Dunya-the-Snake in feline silence, his loins empty now, his nails black, his skull covered with insect bites under his mop of hair, recited the lines of the Nogai poet in a nasal twang:
“Rosy dawn will wake the horses of the East.
The white birches will greet the horses of the east”
Kirim, squatting opposite him, continued in a singsong voice:
“The arrows of the sun will guide the horses of the East.”
Kirim always wore a green skullcap embroidered in gold with Arabic letters, even under his huge sheepskin hat. This man was learned in the Koran. Tibetan medicine, and the witchcraft of shamans who can conjure spirits, bring love or rain, turn loose epizootics. He also knew passages of the Communist Manifesto by heart. For laughs, they wake up Kara Galiev, who can be heard whistling as he snores.
“What time is it, Kara Galiev?”
Kara Galiev kept flocks for fifteen years on the steppe of Orenburg. The dry winds have eaten away the skin of his face like acid. He is wrinkled at thirty, as wrinkled as an old man od sixty, which he thinks he is at times, not having an exact count of his years. On his chest, hanging right against his rarely washed flesh, he wears a gold watch, like a great amulet, on the inside cover of which is engraved:
To Private
Ahmed Kara Galiev
Of The Red Army of Workers and Peasants
For his Bravery
Since he knows the place of every word, Kara Galiev sometimes imagines he is able to read. His plainsman’ sleep is light. The time? He takes out his watch, which hasn’t run since it was presented to him ro the sound of the “Internationale” under the red flags- without his knowing exactly why; for, on the same day, he had stolen a horse, taken flight at a shadow, and found a machine gun abandoned by the enemy in the middle of combat. He lifts the watch to his ear and shakes it. Ticktock, ticktock. The little sounds of time become perceptible for an instant. Kara Galiev noiselessly crosses the room in his bare feet, which are cloven like a faun’s, and goes out to sniff the air of a starless night. Kara galiev is infallible. Above his curly head so many different nights have unfurled their carpets of stars, their domes of ice, their infinity, their nothingness, that a new sense of time has been born in him. The darkness will be the same in an hour, in two or three, but he says:
“The third hour after sunset.”
And it is the third hour after sunset.
The Central Office for Political Education sent lecturers to explain socialism to these warriors. They left for the front along with columns of young khaki-clad mujiks from Riazan, battalions of fighters in caps clutching cartridge belts over their old overcoats, smart squads from the fleet, dressed all in black, astonishingly clean and well fed. On Pulkovo Heights, not far from the Observatory whose great telescope was pointed at the clusters of stars in the centre of Ursa Major thousands of light-years away, this thirteenth-century cavalry was decimated by high-explosive shells manufactured at St. Denis. The shaking of the earth caused by the artillery fire spoiled the observations of Moses Salomovich Hirsch, the astronomer.
Detskoe Park, covered with dead leaves, was falling into an irreversible state of neglect. Oblivion was covering the pavilions and statues placed at the ends of its straight paths for the delight of empresses. Some Bashkirs were admiring the little white mosque at the edge of the lake. The Chinese Theatre, surrounded by the deep silence of the pines, was filled with the heavy snores of an exhausted horde. A denlike stench escaped through the open doors. Convoys of wounded moved through the far end of the park; the last images of life reflected in their fading eyes were the golden tip of a minaret on the edge of the water, the colour of a dull sky reflected in the smooth white lake, the columns of a belvedere on a distant hill, and, forming a sort of shining crown, the gilded belfries of the Catherine Palace. Trifon, the terrified old keeper, a former palace footman, stood guard at the gates armed with a hunting rifle. Beside him stood a pale woman in a red kerchief. Bearded to the eyes, Trifon kept fiercely silent. Whenever the crackle of rifles firing somewhere reverberated through the air, Trifon took a few steps along the sidewalk, inspected the street and the grille of the new garden, removed his hat, and hastily crossed himself – five, six, seven times- in front of the little blue-and-white church. The useless carbine clashed with his pious demeanour. He believed that the end of the world was at hand, but he never doubted that it was his duty to preserve the palace he had guarded for thirty years from pillage- even from the wrath of God himself. The keeper was shivering with fever under an overcoat which was too big for his wasp like waist. The cuffs of his striped trousers were heavy with fringes of mud. The woman in the red bandanna had crazy eyes and dry lips that were almost black. She glowed inwardly with joy at having escaped hanging two days before. She reassured herself by reassuring her companions. “Don’t worry about anything. I’ve got my Party card.” And a mixture of secret laughter and touches of hate glittered in Trifon’s tiny pupils as he stared at her. In the sepulchral half-light behind the padlocked doors and closed shutters slept vast halls floored with rare woods: the amber room, the Hall of Portraits peopled with ghosts in court dress, the Hall of Silver, the tawny-coloured Hall of Lions, the Hall of Mirrors….
The Bashkirs Division tended its wounds -which wasn’t easy since there were no bandages- and slaked their fatigue in deep black slumber. A commander in a gold-braided green skullcap came alone to visit the palace. “I am Kirim, commander of the 4th, member of the Party!” The keeper insisted on removing the padlock himself. He guided the stone-faced visitor through the imperial apartments himself. Kirim walked along in silence, surprised, after days of chaotic fighting in the rain, by his semidarkness warmed by flashes of gold. He would gladly have slept on those floors as under the skies of pasture lands. The crystal chandeliers sent out a twinkle of lost stars in their infinitesimal motion. He spoke only once, in front of the malachite vases: “That’s ours.” The keeper, fearing his guest intended to carry off the vases, murmured: “… registered in the inventory of nationalised wealth…” and added, “They’re very heavy…” – “I mean,” Kirim continued severely, “Ural stone. Our Ural.”
A little later, in front of a white colonnade, Kirim noticed a tall sailor who had apparently seen some action, for the bottom of his coat was stained with dark red blood. He was holding an officer’s horse by the bridle. Booty. Shreds of splendid finery snatched by the armload from the wardrobe of the last Empress were lashed in a shapeless bundle behind his saddle under rough straps. Kirim came up and advised him with simplicity:
“Comrade, you’d do better to leave the wealth of the Republic right there. We must keep our consciousness.”
The sailor, testing the girth of the saddle with his hand, tossed his reply cheerfully over his shoulder:
“The Republic can shove it… get my meaning? Don’t get mad, my sourpussed little brother, I didn’t take everything. There’s enough left for you.”
Kara Galiev appeared at the edge of the ornamental lake. He was limping. Other grey forms were half visible among the weeping willows. “Hey!” shouted Kirim. He pounced like a cat, grabbed the sailor around the waist, and the two of them rolled between the horse’s legs. The animal, startled for a moment, watched curiously the double human form rolling around in the mud. Then his attention was caught by a green skullcap embroidered with an Arabic inscription: “There will be no city, said Allah that will escape our terrible punishment.”
Thus Yegor’s destiny was cut short.