WHAT MAKES things turn out the way they do? A thousand events comprising in turn a million lesser events all add up without anyone knowing how; the wave attack advancing confidently is broken up by machine guns which it expected to knock out without any trouble as on the day before and the day before that; men who were fleeing turn around, stop fleeing, discover their own ferocity, spring back into action; those who were pursuing them stop, spent, discover their own exhaustion, turn around, flee.
The workers at the Great Works laboured in grey darkness, without electricity, in order to mount artillery pieces on trolley-car chassis for street fighting. The workers at the Izhorsk and Schlusselburg factories formed battalions of volunteers. They were consumptive, near-sighted, worn-out men of forty-five, wretched-looking soldiers in threadbare overcoats marching into the cold wind with backs bent and shoulders sloping under the weight of cartridge belts. Many of them fell in the muddy fields of Pulkovo and Ligovo; but the sight of officers dressed English-style going elegantly into battle with revolvers in their fists made the fight like mad dogs. The Bashkirs ran away in one place and fought furiously to hold another. The Siberian battalions fought in a spirit of bored solemnity as if they were working at some heavy, unpleasant job. A rough job – let’s face it- killing men while trying to not get killed yourself; but the sooner it’s done the sooner you get to go home, which is the real goal, for the earth is waiting. It doesn’t always wait; it also receives a man without delay, as soon as he extends his watchful face six inches beyond the protective cover of a tree trunk at an unexpected angle.
There was also the heroism of the sailors, for newspaper headlines. They went into battle with such dash, as if going to a party! All these dance-hall Casanovas with women’s names, hearts, and braids tattooed on their chests! Nonetheless, a hundred reported sick before the battle; and half of them were thrown into the brig (most of these happened actually to be sick quite by chance) -on charges of malingering. Wounds in the hand and foot, numerous during the first engagements, became rare after a few summary executions to set an example. No matter. The sailors were splendid; for they would have paid dearly in case of a defeat. The blood of the admirals and captains “sent West” to satisfy the fleet’s sense of justice proved to be a valuable incentive. It came to pass that the Commander in Chief of all Republic’s armies, a great statesman but a rather poor horseman(1), leaped onto the nearest horse in order personally to lead a bunch of disordered runways back into combat. They were astounded at the sight of the formidable, confident man, whose picture was posted everywhere, looming among them, looking strangely like himself, extraordinarily natural yet larger than life. They saw him, they heard him. With a blond energetic gesture he pointed to the little copse crackling with gunfire from which everyone was fleeing; a little copse which was no more terrible than any other, in reality. Why were they fleeing, in fact? The runaways took off again in the opposite direction, shouting the “hurrahs” of the charge. The Commander wiped the sweat off his brow. Ouf! He had almost lost his pince-nez. On the other side of the noisy little copse, which was thus retaken by some brawny lads from Kaluga, where they drawl their a’s, stood (in the first version of the story) the crack troops of Prince Bernet outfitted with German equipment, who were immediately routed; according to the second version, there was nothing there, the enemy having retreated from their side in time; according to the third version, the copse was only a screen of trees; according to the fourth, invented ten years later, the copse didn’t exist and nothing of the kind ever happened.
The city was bristling with barricades made up of heavy armour plates, paving blocks, and stacks of cordwood, situated so as to rake the main arteries with gunfire. Cannon planted perfidiously in deep ditches pointed their muzzles along the level of the pavement. Others were concealed behind the iron gates of gardens. An empty bazaar, its windows piled with sandbags, prepared to resist a long siege. Trenches dug by civilians, dragged from their homes for this nigh time duty, surrounded statues, cut across squares, and formed labyrinths in front of churches. Genuine bourgeois, albeit impoverished ones, accomplished their labours on the earthworks with simulated goodwill. The defeated party announced that it was mobilising three dozen of its members for the defence of the Revolution, an elite corps commanded by Fanny herself; she got lost between the lines, lived off the peasants for two weeks, gloriously seized a cannon abandoned by the Germans during the 1918 offensive, and left behind her – in unknown hamlets where no other carriers of ideas had been seen since the Lutheran ministers came from Sweden in the seventeenth century- the seeds of a heretical socialism. A corps of anarchist partisans volunteered to defend the institutions of the dictatorship. Their services were accepted. Two days later it was decided to disarm them, the worst danger having passed. They refused to go along with the idea. The decision was reversed, the situation having worsened… The simple face of victory was at last rising into the light. The anarchists wondered if they were not playing a fool’s game. The Special Commission sent in bogus converts to study them. Stassik favoured the idea of a fruitful “expropriation”; Uvrarov, a clandestine departure for the Ukraine; Gorin, an alliance with the Party. The result was three splits. The ones who got the worst of it were the unity men, whose sole desire was to oppose splintering, a tendency which obviously showed their most contemptible lack of principles.
Posted on every street corner, newspapers printed on dirty-green paper with muddy ink suddenly proclaimed such incredible news that people first thought it was false. Detskoe Selo Taken. (“- you see, they really were there!”) Krasnoe Taken (“So it was true!”), the city has been saved. “Soldiers, sailors, workers, Communists, commanders, commissars! In spite of everything, forward, forward! Decapitate the hydra! Victory! Victory! Victory!” Signed: The President of the Revolutionary Council for War. The Red Army of Siberia telegraphed the taking of Tobolsk. A telegram from the Revolutionary Soviet of the Southern Front announced the taking of Voronezh, which no one knew had been lost. Victory on every front. We will live. Future, you are ours until the end of the centuries- or until the spring; that’s almost as beautiful and much more probable. In the windows of the Telegraph Agency huge coloured cartoons, drawings, and captions of the Futurist Mayakovsky showed Lloyd George and Clemenceau crestfallen. The squadrons of Shkuro and Mamontov, tainted with the odour of massacres, were in flight before the Red Cavalry. In the rear of the White Army Nestor Makhno paraded his carts bristling with unseizable machine guns through the villages of the Ukraine, working the fields in the intervals between combat. How many lost children you have, Revolution, ready to shoot each other in your name! Their hands reach out to each other from Obi to the Dnieper: Mongolian faces, singing Cossacks, rude countrymen, idealistic ex-cons, bandits dreaming of cities of the future, proletarians giving their last strength to repair the last locomotives, illiterate proletarians scrawling their crude signatures on orders written out by defeated ex-generals who have learned to say “comrades,” proletarians on horseback leading Kazakh nomads to the conquest of Turkestan, proletarians bent over piles of statistics measuring hour by hour the death of industry, engineers dreaming of the electrification of a future “America” without gold seekers; for the real gold has been found (it lies in the heart, the brain, and the muscles of man). We will have more of it than all the vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank. Think of all those cellars filled with yellow metal: what a strange aberration! We will have a hundred million, two hundred million free men; two hundred fifty million Europeans will see themselves in us as they never have been. We will awaken India: three hundred million oppressed people, the oldest wisdom on earth, fallen low, extremely sick, but we will bring it health; we, a West repudiating the cannon, we who through machines will liberate man from the machine! We will awaken China: four hundred million men… A billion Asians will hear our call, Shanghai and Bombay will see strikes and insurrections holding aloft our emblems, applying our methods. Millions, hundreds of millions of men on the march, this is what we are. Today, here, we have arrived. What else matters?
Rain washes over newspapers freshly glued to the walls. COUNTERREVOLUTIONARIES, SPIES, AND CRIMINALS SHOT. This column, single-spaced in 8-point type, with the names set off in bold, is the one people read the most attentively under the dreary, piercing rain. “List of counterrevolutionaries, spies, criminals, blackmailers, bandits, and deserters executed by order of the Special Commission.” Thirty-four numbered names. Artiushkin, Losov, Kaufman, Aga Oghol, Kasparov, former general, “1. Vadim Mikhailovich Lytaev, university professor, known counterrevolutionary, affiliated with the Right Centre organisation, convicted of having harboured a White agent….” Paramonov, ex-officer. Ma Tsiu-dey, laundryman, convicted of several murders. “15. X, known as Nikita, counterrevolutionary. 16. Nicholas Orestovich Azin, alias Danil petrovich Gof, 25 years old, member of the Right Centre organisation, courier for the Whites. 17. Olga Orestovna Azin, 28 years old, his accomplice. 18. Arkadi Arkadievich Ismailov, 34 years old, member of the Special Commission, guilty of corruption. 19. Kik, Beliaev, Smolina… 27. Yegor Ivanovich Mateev, known as Yegor, 30 years old, ex-sailor, bandit…” Ivanov, Fokin, Sacher…. Names take strange shapes on this list, coming to life, then bizarrely dying out before eyes which once saw flesh-and-blood beings moving through a universe in which nothing remains of them but these little characters traced in ash. People who don’t know them move their lips spelling them out. Dead, dead, executed, heads gaping, buried no one knows where… “When, then?” “Read the date: on the night of…” “We slept peacefully that night, is it possible!” Nothing different on the street, the world is ordinary. Yet there comes a moment, long and brief like a swirling fall. Abyss. And the man reading these names thinks of himself: a double within him, who would never admit his own existence, substitutes his name for these names, his age for these ages, his live for these extinct lives.
Among the crowd assembled in front of the poster stands an old woman and a couple. The woman seems very old because of her old fashioned dress and her grey lips; she must have aged all at once. She is reading; and suddenly the little aluminium pot hanging in her hand falls to the pavement. The old woman hears nothing. A little girl in a red beret picks up the little pot and hangs it back onto the inert hand, which seems paralyzed. “Auntie,” says the little girl, “hold on to your pot or you’ll drop it again.” The old woman answers nothing. She straightens up a little, which makes her look funny, for her normal carriage has recently become stopped. The black-braided bonnet sitting on her grey hair has slipped down onto the back of her neck; she looks like a madwoman; you might think she is about to laugh, scream, break out sobbing, or fall. But she walks away mechanically through a desert of frozen lava. An unimaginable silence surrounds her. – A young blonde with deep eyes like sparkling blue water leaning on the arm of her lover, who wears the uniform of a vanished school, runs over the list distractedly. “Two women,” she thinks, “28 years old, 31 years old…ah!” She herself is twenty. It’s nothing but a ripple which quickly disappears over shallow water. They walk away with swinging strides. “Georg,” she says, “I have become much more conscious…”
Johann Appolinarius Fuchs, painter, had been worried for some time that something bad had happened to the girl next door. Strangers armed with a Housing Order had moved into the absent girl’s apartment without bothering to remove her personal effects. A new born baby was now squalling in there, and a redheaded woman with a square chin was wearing Olga’s dressing gowns. Whenever they met, Fuchs lowered his eyes so as not to look at her face, but then he discovered her hands, which were huge. He winced when he recognised her step in the hall and the brutal way she flushed the toilet. He was living miserably from the sale, for paltry sums, of the last of his racy eighteenth-century books. This very day a new drop in the value of the ruble had reduced his purchases to some poor quality black bread and rotten fish. At random he walked into the General Information Bureau of the Commissariat of Public Education (LEARN! INFORM YOURSELF!) and found a little ageless woman explaining to two peasant women that the authority of the Bureau did not in any way cover arbitrary confiscations of furniture in the countryside. Fuchs was able to snatch the day’s papers without any problem, which put him in a good mood. The sky had cleared, autumnal sunlight spread in tawny shimmering pools along the sidewalks of the central prospect. A rider was galloping toward the station down the middle of the street – which was deserted for two miles in a straight line- on a Siberian pony with long dirty hair the colour of yellow bricks. The rare passers-by didn’t even turn around at the sight of this Scythian tearing along at a full gallop between two rows of tall modern buildings, noble churches, severe ornamented palaces, theatres, and libraries.
Prostitutes were walking up and down in pairs in front of the monumental buildings of the former Eliseev fancy-food store. Fuchs reflected that half of his food supply corresponded more or less to their current asking price. Lyda, grown thinner, a tall pales girl with a small face lighted by timid grey eyes, was there as usual, walking arm in arm with a girlfriend. The year had gone by for her without any other events than bad colds, long waits in front of the pawnshop, the fear of diseases, and bad times with some rough customers. “Nothing will ever change for us,” she would say, “it will always be the same or worse.” It was in her room, sprawled across a narrow single bed with a bolster supporting two little white pillows, that Fuchs opened the newspapers. “…17. Olga Orestovna Azin… 17. Olga Orestovna…17. Olga, Olga, Olga…” The tiny dried-ash characters danced before his eyes; and he also glimpsed a blond head which seemed to have captured light, hands folded over a blue dressing gown; he heard a living voice: an all of this mixed up with terrifying shadows and the constant, obsessive, insurmountable, vertiginous sensation of that blond head suspended over the abyss, of her terrified expectation, of a horrible wound- of a horrible wound…
“What’s the matter, Johann, do you feel ill?”
A pale, bony, brunette head with mascaraed eyes hovered over him in worried concern. This head too; why not? All heads are alike, there is only one kind of suffering, one death, one life, it’s obvious.
The sound of his name reached him through half-words after the passage of eternal seconds.
“It’s nothing, honey. It’ll pass. It’s the t-t-t-times.”
He was shaking from head to foot. “Do you know someone on this list, Johann?” Lyda didn’t recognise anyone. “Lie down, Johann my friend, don’t think about it anymore. Relax…” She rubbed his temples and forehead like a child’s.
1: The man is Trotsky.