From "A Salad Of Needles"
From "Twelve Portraits Of Famous Russians"
Translations © 1999 by Serge Elnitsky. The responsibility for any errors, inaccuracies, and inadequacies is, of course, mine. The (much-more-expressive) originals can be found here (in KOI8 encoding).
This page is dedicated to the memory of Roman Scheglov (1965-1995), who (many years ago) introduced me to Averchenko's work.
Perhaps, upon reading this book's title, some tender-hearted reader -- without bothering to understand what's going on -- might immediately start squawking like a hen:
"Ah, ah! What a heartless, cruel young man, this Arkadiy Averchenko! Now why would he stick a knife into the poor revolution's back -- and not one, but a whole dozen?"
It is, indeed, a harsh action to take; but let's thoughtfully examine it.
First of all, let's honestly ask ourselves: do we even have a revolution, today? All this rot, stupidity, garbage, and darkness that surrounds us -- is this what a revolution should be like?
A revolution is a sparkling lightning-bolt, a revolution is a divinely beautiful face lit up by righteous anger, a revolution is a blindingly bright rocket that rises like a rainbow amidst the damp fog!
Do these shining images resemble what we have today?
I will further say this in defense of a revolution: its birth is as beautiful as that of a child, his first silly smile, his first inarticulate words, which are so touching when uttered by a little pink tongue that is still unsure of itself...
But when the child is in his fourth year, but he is stuck in the same cradle; when it's his fourth year of sucking on his (by now, fairly large) foot; when it's his fourth year of babbling the same unintelligible words like "SovNarKhoz," "UyeZemel'Kom," "SovBur," and "RevVoyenKom" -- then this is no longer a cute little baby, but a strapping lad that has (forgive me for saying it) fallen into quiet idiocy.
Very often, however, this quiet idiocy turns violent, and then the lad is out of control.
It's not funny but touching when a baby reaches towards the fire with his tiny fingers, and mumbles with his unsure tongue, "Daddy, daddy, gimme, gimme..."
But when, in a dark alley, an ill-groomed fellow with murder written on his face stretches his crooked paw towards you and grumbles, "OK, daddy-o, gimme a light, and your coat" -- excuse me, but I simply cannot find this adorable.
Let's not fool ourselves, or others: the revolution has ended, and it ended long ago.
Its beginning was a clear, cleansing flame; its middle, foul smoke and soot; its end, cold burnt-out embers.
Are we not, now, wandering around amid the ashes, without food or shelter, with dull disappointment and emptiness in our hearts?
Did Russia need a revolution? Of course it did.
What is a revolution? It is a turnaround and a deliverance.
But when the savior, after turning things around and delivering you, has himself so firmly latched onto your back that you are, once again (and even worse than before), suffocating in deathly anguish, tormented by cold and hunger, and when there is no end in sight to his sitting on you -- then to hell with him, this savior! I, and you too, I suspect -- if you are not fools -- will be happy to stick not just a dozen, but a whole gross of knives into him.
There are still many people who, like poorly-trained parrots, keep repeating the same phrase: "Comrades, defend the revolution!"
I'm sorry, but you yourself used to say that a revolution is a bolt of lightning, that it is the thunder of primordial divine ire... How is it possible to defend lightning?
Imagine a man who, standing in a thundercloud-darkened field, spreads his arms out, yelling: "Comrades! Defend the lightning! Do not let the lightning be extinguished by the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries!"
Here are the words of my fellow writer, the famous Russian poet and citizen Konstantin Balmont, who, like myself, had struggled against the ugliness of the former tsarist regime:
"A revolution is good when it tosses off a yoke. But it is not revolution but evolution that makes the world go forward. Harmony and order are what we now need, as badly as air or food. Internal and external discipline, and the knowledge that the only notion that we must now defend with full force is that of Russia -- a notion above any individuals, or classes, or any specific tasks, a notion so important and all-encompassing that everything melts inside it, and there are no enemies within it, only people who understand each other and work together: merchant and peasant, worker and poet, soldier and general.
When a revolution becomes a satanic whirlwind of destruction, then truth falls silent or turns into lies. Wild folly transforms crowds into mobs, and all words lose their meaning and persuasiveness. When such a misfortune befalls a people, it inevitably comes to resemble the proverbial demon-possessed herd of pigs.
A revolution is a thunderstorm. A thunderstorm ends quickly and refreshes the air, and this makes life brighter and the flowers more beautiful. But nothing can survive if thunderstorms occur continuously; so anyone who wants to prolong the thunderstorm is clearly dead set against us building ourselves a better life. And the expression 'defend the revolution,' I must say, seems to me both meaningless and pathetic. What kind of thunderstorm is it, if it needs to be wrapped in a comforter, like a little old lady?"
This is what Balmont says. And he is only wrong about one thing -- his comparison of our overgrown revolution to a helpless little old lady who needs to be wrapped in a comforter.
It is not a little old lady -- would that it were! -- but a drunken brigand; and it is not you who will wrap him, but he who will wrap himself in the coat he has pulled off your shoulders.
And maybe he'll then poke you in the side with a knife, for good measure.
And we are supposed to defend this bandit? To protect him?
He doesn't need a dozen knives into his back: he needs a hundred, he needs to be turned into a porcupine, this drunken, lazy thug who is clinging to us -- so that he can't stop us from building a new, free, great Russia.
Am I right, friends and readers? Eh?
So those of you who are neither senseless idiots, nor crooks who benefit from all this disorder and all this "defense of the revolution," must -- one and all -- yell out the answer:
-- Arkadiy Averchenko
Today, for the first time, I felt a bitter pang of regret that my mother didn't send me to music school.
What I want to write about is very hard to express verbally. I am so tempted to sit down at a piano, plunge my hands onto the keys, and pour it all out into a whimsical sequence of sounds -- ominous, anxious, plaintive, softly groaning and tumultuously cursing.
But, alas, mute and powerless are my stiff fingers; and the cold, distant piano will long remain silent; and the magnificent entrance into the colorful world of sounds is closed to me forever.
So I am forced to write my elegies and nocturnes in the usual way -- not on five lines but on one, quickly drawing out paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Many are the rich possibilities, the splendid achievements that language can offer -- but not when one's soul is repulsed by sober, realistic prose, when it wants sound, when it demands stormy, frantic movements of an insane hand on the keyboard.
Here is my symphony -- weak and pale, when put in words...
When the dull, greyish-pink twilight descends onto the city of St. Petersburg, as if, exhausted by hunger, it were wearily closing its once-sparkling eyes; when its formerly-civilized inhabitants crawl back into their gloomy lairs to wait out yet another of the one thousand and one hungry nights; when everything grows quiet except the commissars' automobiles that cheerfully whizz about, piercing, like sharp awls, the dark, blind thoroughfares -- then several drab, silent figures assemble in an apartment on Liteinyi Avenue, and, after exchanging trembling handshakes, sit down around an empty table, illuminated only by the vile, furtive light of a tallow candle-end.
For a while, they say nothing; they are out of breath from making several gigantic efforts in a row: they had to walk up the stairs to the second floor, shake each other's hands, and move their chairs closer to the table -- this is such unbearable work!
Cold air is blowing in through a broken window... But nobody is capable of blocking off the hole with a pillow -- the preceding physical labor has exhausted their bodies for at least an hour.
They can only sit around the table and the guttering candle, and speak in a quiet, quiet murmur...
A few looks are exchanged.
"Shall we start? Whose turn is it today?"
"Not at all. Yours was the day before yesterday. You talked about macaroni with minced beef."
"That was Ilya Petrovich who talked about macaroni. My report was on veal cutlets with cauliflower. On Friday."
"Then it is your turn. Please begin. Attention, gentlemen!"
The gray figure bent over the table even more, making the huge black shadow on the wall quiver and shake. A tongue ran rapidly over parched lips, and a quiet, hoarse voice broke the deathly silence of the room.
"Five years ago -- I remember it as if it were yesterday -- I ordered fried navaga and a Hamburg-style steak, at Albert's. There were four pieces of navaga -- large pieces, fried in bread crumbs and butter, gentlemen! You understand, real butter, gentlemen. Butter! On one side lay a large clump of fried parsley; on the other, half a lemon. You know, a nice bright yellow lemon which is lighter on the side where it's been cut... You could just take it in your hand and squeeze it over the fish. But I did it like this: I would take the fork and a piece of bread (they served both dark and white bread, I swear) and deftly separate the thick sides of the navaga from the bone..."
"Navaga has only one bone, in the middle, shaped like a triangle," interjected a neighbor, panting.
"Shhh! Don't interrupt. Well?"
"After cutting up the navaga -- and, you know, the skin was nicely toasted, very brittle, and completely covered with the bread crumbs -- I would pour myself a shot of vodka, and only then squirt some lemon juice onto a piece of fish... I would put a little bit of parsley on top -- just for the aroma, exclusively for the aroma -- drink the vodka, and immediately swallow some fish -- yum! And there was a French bun, you know, the really plump, soft kind, -- so I ate it too, along with the fish. And the fourth piece of fish -- I didn't even finish it, heh heh!"
"You didn't finish it ?!"
"Don't look at me like that, gentlemen. The Hamburg-style steak still lay ahead, don't forget. Do you know what that means, 'Hamburg-style'?"
"Is that with an omelet on top?"
"Exactly! It's made with only one egg; just for flavor. The steak was soft and juicy, yet resilient, slightly more well-done on one side, slightly rawer on the other. You remember what roasted meat smelled like, don't you? And there was lots and lots of gravy, really thick, too, and I loved taking a slice of white bread, dipping it into the gravy and, together with a tender piece of meat -- down the hatch!"
"Were there no fried potatoes?" moaned someone at the far end of the table, grabbing his head with both hands.
"That's the whole point -- there were! But, of course, we haven't gotten to that yet. There were also some horse-radish spears, and some capers; and on the other side, almost half the dish was filled with diced fried potatoes. Damned if I know why they soak up that beef gravy so well. So the pieces were each drenched in gravy on one end, and on the other, they were quite dry and even crunchy. I would cut myself some meat, dip some bread into the gravy, grab all of this with my fork, along with a bit of omelet, potatoes, and a pickle slice..."
The neighbor emitted a muffled roar, sprang to his feet, grabbed the speaker by the collar and, shaking him with his feeble hands, cried out:
"Beer! How could you not have washed this steak down with some strong, foamy beer?"
The speaker, in ecstasy, jumped up as well.
"Of course! A large, heavy mug of beer, with white foam on top, so thick that it stayed on your moustache. I would swallow some steak and potatoes, and then dive into the mug..."
Someone in the corner started softly sobbing:
"You shouldn't have had beer... Not beer, but red wine, slightly warmed! They had such a great Burgundy for 3.50 a bottle... You'd pour some into a glass and look at it against the light -- it would sparkle like a ruby, a real ruby..."
A fist, fiercely striking the table, rudely interrupted the flow of excited whispering.
"Gentlemen! What have we become? Shame on us! How low have we fallen! You! Are you men? You are a bunch of lustful Old Man Karamazovs! All night long, you salivate over what a handful of thieves and murderers has taken away from you! You have been deprived of something that every man has the right to -- the right to eat, the right to stuff his stomach with food according to his simple tastes -- why do you tolerate this? You get a half-rotten herring tail and an ounce of bread that tastes like dirt, every day -- and there are many of you, hundreds of thousands! So go, all of you, go out into the street in hungry, desperate mobs, crawl like a million locusts that can stop a train by their sheer multitude, go and attack this gang that has created hunger and death, tear out their throats, trample them into the ground, and you will have bread, meat, and potatoes!"
"Yes! Fried in butter! Full of aroma! Hurray! Let's go! Let's trample them! Let's tear out their throats! We are many! Ha ha ha! I will catch Trotsky, push him to the ground, and poke his eye out with my finger! I will walk on his face! I will cut off his ear with my pen-knife and stuff it into his mouth -- let him eat that!"
"So let's run, gentlemen. All out into the street, all who are hungry!"
So they ran... They ran for a very long time, and covered a very long distance; the strongest and fastest reached the front door, others fell earlier -- some on the threshold of the living room, some by the table in the kitchen.
Their numb, unbending legs had covered dozens of miles... They lay, exhausted, their eyes half-closed, some in the hallway, some in the dining room -- they had done all they could, they had really tried.
But the titanic effort had sapped their strength, and they all collapsed, like a fire dragged apart log by log.
The speaker crawled over to his neighbor, who was lying on the floor next to him, and whispered:
"But you know, if Trotsky gave me a piece of roasted pork with gruel -- just a tiny piece -- I wouldn't cut his ear off, I wouldn't trample him! I would forgive him..."
"No," the neighbor whispered back, "Not pork. How about some chicken, so tender that the white meat easily peels away from the bone... And some cooked rice with a slightly-tangy sauce..."
The rest, hearing this, lifted their eager heads, one by one, and gradually crawled together into a pile, like snakes at the sound of a reed flute...
They avidly listened.
The one thousand and first hungry night was ending. The one thousand and first hungry morning hobbled along to take its place.
"Sit down, don't be afraid. You'll have a great time."
"What's so great about it?"
"It's a lot of fun."
"Well, you just wait till the wheel starts spinning -- it'll toss you off, smack right into the wall! It's very funny."
That was a typical conversation on the "Devil's Wheel."
A few years ago, some clever entrepreneurs built an amusement park in St. Petersburg. I used to go there for a somewhat unusual reason: I like observing fools. At the amusement park, I would find better, more colorful specimens for my collection -- and in more abundant numbers -- than anywhere else.
An amusement park is, quite simply, a fool's paradise. Everything is set up so that a fool will enjoy himself.
The fool would enter the "Hall Of Mirrors," take a look at his seven-foot-long legs growing right out of his chest, at his two-foot face -- and he'd laugh like a child. He'd sit down into the "Crazy Barrel," get pushed down the ramp, and the barrel would start bumping against posts on both sides, shaking the fool like a pellet inside a rattle, bruising his ribs and shins -- that's when the fool would realize that there is still some care-free happiness left in the world. And then he would walk over to the "Merry Kitchen," and he'd see that it was made just for him, too. A few yards behind a barrier, there were shelves filled with defective plates, bowls, bottles, and glasses; the fool could throw wooden balls at them, after purchasing this enviable right for a rouble. The fool stood to gain nothing from this -- he wasn't awarded any prizes for his performance; nor did he receive any applause from the crowd, since hitting a plate at such a small distance was easy as pie -- and yet, believe it or not, smashing up dozens of plates and bottles was every fool's favorite pastime. And after the "Merry Kitchen," all worked up from the exercise, the fool would go cool down in the "Haunted House." This was a place where you had to be ready for anything, from the moment you entered it. You would grope your way along pitch-black, narrow corridors, while glow-in-the-dark ghosts would appear on all sides, and some invisible hands would try to strangle you; then you would tumble down some tube onto some padded mat; and when, finally, you triumphantly emerged onto a brightly-lit walkway high above the crowd -- then, all of a sudden, a strong stream of air would suddenly start blowing right from underneath you; if you were a man, your coat would rise above your head like a pair of wings, whereas if you were a woman, the salacious public would instantly become acquainted not only with the color of your garters, but with some other things that belong on the best, rawest, most titillating page of an erotic novel, rather than in an article about politics.
So that's what the amusement park was like: heaven, to a fool; hell, to an average person who happened to wander in by accident; and a boundless opportunity for scientific investigation, to a thoughtful observer wishing to study the Russian fool in his natural habitat.
As I look at the Russian revolution, I can't help but notice how much it has in common with that amusement park. The parallels are so exact, it's simply scary.
The radical transformation of society, the destruction of the old, supposedly outdated, institutions -- hey, isn't that the "Merry Kitchen"? Laid out on the shelves are the old justice system, the old finance system, the church, the arts, the press, the theater, the schools -- such a sumptuous display!
The fool walks up to the barrier, grabs as many wooden balls from the basket as he can with his left hand, takes one into his right, aims, and -- wham! -- the justice system falls to pieces. Wham! -- there go the finances. Crash! -- there go the arts, and all that's left instead is some miserable ProletKult stump.
The fool is getting fired up, he's getting the hang of it -- and he's got plenty of wooden balls left. Wham! -- now, the church is smashed to bits, the schools are in ruins, trade is in tatters. The fool is having the time of his life; the spectators -- French, English, German -- are laughing themselves silly, and the German even eggs him on:
"Wow, how clever you are! Come on, hit the universities once again. Come on, show us what you can do to the industry!"
He's so hot-headed, the Russian fool -- oh, so hot-headed... What good is it that later, once the happy thrill is gone, he will cry bitter tears over the smashed-up church, the broken finance system, the already-dead sciences -- but, right now, everyone's watching him! Right now, he is the center of attention, this fool whom nobody even used to notice before.
And who's that riding in the "Crazy Barrel," bumping his sides, losing his hat, cracking his ribs, and breaking his kneecaps? Oh, that's an ordinary Russian traveling with his family from Chernigov to Voronezh, in our merry revolutionary times. Bang against a post -- the baby goes out the railcar window; bang against another -- Petlyura's men toss him out himself; bang against yet another -- Makhno's men rob him of his suitcase.
And who's that, standing in front of a distorting mirror, and not knowing whether to laugh or to cry? That's simply a naive man, trying to recognize himself in how a different political party's newspaper depicted him.
And that "Haunted House," where they lead you down dark, narrow, winding corridors, where they scare you, where they push you around, where they maim you -- is that not the Cheka, that most striking creation of the Third International? It is indeed a blend of many nations: Latvians, Russians, Jews, Chinese -- hangmen of all countries, unite!
But the most amazingly, the most shockingly similar part is the "Devil's Wheel."
Here's the February Revolution -- its very beginning, before the wheel had started spinning yet. In the middle of the polished surface stands the most notorious fool of our times, Aleksandr Kerensky, yelling as loudly as if he were addressing a rally:
"Come on, comrades! Join the game, we're about to start. Milyukov! Sit down, don't be afraid. You'll have a great time."
"What's so great about it?"
"It's a lot of fun. You just wait till the wheel starts spinning -- it'll be tossing everyone off, and into the wall... However, you can sit in the very center, next to me, and we should manage to hang on. You too, Guchkov -- sit down, have no fear... We'll spin this thing beautifully... OK, is everyone ready? Off we go!"
And off they went.
A few turns of the "Devil's Wheel" -- and already we see Pavel Milyukov start to slide, trying in vain to hold on to his neighbor.
Wwwwhhhzzzzzzzz! -- the wheel whistles as it gains speed, and Milyukov crashes into the wall, thrown out by the irresistible centrifugal force.
And now, Guchkov starts sliding after him, grabbing Skobelev by the sleeve... Skobelev tries to push him away, but it's too late. He loses his balance, and they both go flying like feathers in a hurricane.
"Aha!" -- Tsereteli gleefully shouts, latching onto Kerensky's leg. "Hold on tight! The left-wingers and the right-wingers will fall off, but we, the center, can hang on."
As if! Tsereteli loses his grip, and he -- along with Chkheidze -- is tossed all the way to the wall of the Caucasus.
Kerensky laughs happily, as he rapidly twirls in the very center; he feels as if this sweet sensation will last forever. But now, next to him, suddenly appears a shapeless tangle of three heads and six legs, known commonly as "Gotzliberdan." It wraps itself against Kerensky's foot; the general commander emits a plaintive cry, moving an inch to the left... But that's all the "Devil's Wheel" needs!
And Kerensky is propelled into the air -- head over heels, not just to the wall but over it -- landing somewhere far away, either in London or in Paris.
The "Devil's Wheel" has thrown everyone off -- so, now, it slows down almost to a complete stop, to allow a new merry bunch to climb aboard: Trotsky, Lenin, Nakhamkis, Lunacharsky...
"Come join us, comrades! Sit tighter! Those fools couldn't hold on, but we will! OK, here we go!"
And all we can do now is wait and watch: let's see who will be the first to slide off, and who ends up crashing against which wall.
If only I could get my hands on them, when they do...
Exactly ten years ago, the worker Panteley Grymzin received from his vile, mean, blood-sucking boss his daily pay for 9 hours of work -- a mere two-fifty!
"Well, what can I do with this crap?" Panteley bitterly thought, staring at the two silver roubles and fifty kopecks in change in the palm of his hand. "I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, and I need new soles for my boots -- the old ones are just one big hole... Oh, what a hellish life we lead!"
He dropped by a shoemaker of his acquaintance; the bastard charged him a rouble and a half for a pair of soles.
"Do you even bother to wear a cross?" Panteley sarcastically inquired.
The cross, to the robbed Panteley's surprise, was in place -- on the shoemaker's hairy chest, right under his shirt.
"Now, all I've got left is one rouble," thought Panteley with a sigh. "And what good will that do me? Hah!"
So he went and bought half a pound of ham, a can of anchovies, a loaf of French bread, half a bottle of vodka, a bottle of beer, and a dozen cigarettes -- and by the time he was done, his entire capital was down to four kopecks.
And when poor Panteley sat down to his frugal supper, he felt so bad that he almost started weeping.
"Why, why?" whispered his trembling lips.
"Why do the rich and the exploiters drink champagne and liqueurs, eat grouse and pineapples -- and all I ever get is plain vodka, canned fish, and ham? Why is life so unfair? Oh, if only we, the working class, gained our freedom! Then we would really live like human beings!"
One day in the spring of 1920, the worker Panteley Grymzin received his daily pay for Tuesday -- a mere 2,700 roubles.
"Well, what can I do with this?" Panteley bitterly thought, shuffling the multicolored pieces of paper in his hand. "I need new soles for my boots, and I'm dying for some food and drink!"
He went to the shoemaker, haggled him down to 2,300, and came back out into the street with four pitiful 100-rouble bills.
He bought a pound of semi-white bread, a bottle of soda pop, and was left with 14 roubles. He checked out the price of a dozen cigarettes, spat, and walked away.
At home, he sliced up the bread, opened the soda, and sat down for supper... And he felt so bad that he almost started weeping.
"But why," whispered his trembling lips, "Why do the rich get everything, while we get nothing? Why does the rich man eat tender pink ham, stuff himself with anchovies and real white bread, guzzle genuine vodka and foamy beer, smoke cigarettes -- while I, like some kind of dog, must chew this stale bread and drink this nauseating saccharin-based swill? Why is life so unfair?"
Ah, Panteley, Panteley... Can you say, "oops"?
Stage One (1916)
"Well, you don't seem to have a lot of new stuff this week, do you? Only three new books. Please renew my subscriptions to The Eglantine and The Land. By the way, do you have Belshe's Love In Nature? Which edition? Sytin's? No, I would prefer Sablin's. Oh, and what about The Children Of Sin by Catulle Mendès? But, please, not the Sphinx edition -- their translation is pretty sloppy. And what's this? Not a bad volume. Printed by Golike and Vilborg, of course? Great choice of what to publish -- Eugene Onegin, something everyone knows by heart anyway. And who did the illustrations? Samokish-Sudkovskaya? A bit too kitschy. And the format is too wide -- makes it hard to read, lying down!"
Stage Two (1920)
"Miss! I requested 72 titles from your library's catalog, and you don't seem to have a single one. What am I to do?"
"Pick something from that stack on the desk. That's all that's left."
"Hmmm! Here are three or four more or less acceptable ones: A Description Of the Ancient Monuments Of the Olonets Province; The Reborn String Can Once Again Sing; Makar the Murderer; and The Collected Speeches Of Disraeli (First Earl of Beaconsfield)..."
"Well, so just take any one."
"Listen... Is The Monuments Of the Olonets Province interesting?"
"Yes, yes, it's interesting. Don't hold up the line."
"Did you hear the news?!"
"The Ivikovs found an old book under their dresser! It'd been there since 1917! What luck. They're having a party to celebrate."
"And what's the title of the book?"
"Who cares what the title is -- it's a book! 480 pages! The Pustoshkins, the Bildyayevs, the Rossomakhins and the Partachevs have already signed up to read it."
"I guess I'll run over there and sign up, too."
"Don't be late. I hear the Ivikovs are planning to tear the book into 10 small ones, 48 pages each, and sell them."
"What -- each with no beginning, and no end?"
"Oh, pshaw. As if that mattered."
"Well-known reciter of Pushkin's poetry attends family soirées, by invitation. Can read all of Poltava and all of Eugene Onegin. Price by agreement. Also directs dances and rents out ice-cream machine."
Conversation at the soirée:
"How do you know Pushkin's poetry so well?"
"I learned it by heart."
"Who taught you? Pushkin himself?"
"No, not Pushkin. He's dead. I learned it from a book, back when there were books."
"Did he have good handwriting?"
"What does handwriting have to do with it? The book was printed."
"I'm sorry... What do you mean?"
"Well, here's what they used to do: they would cast letters out of lead, stick one next to the other, put some black paint over them, place a sheet of paper against them and press really hard -- and the words would get printed onto the paper."
"Wow, that's so far out! Please sit down! Have a cigarette! Olya, Petya, Gulya -- come here and listen, Mr. Gortannikov is telling us about the kind of tricks that Pushkin used to pull! Did you get the ice-cream machine from him, too?"
"Listen to me! I know you're just a corner-shop owner, but maybe you'll understand a cry for help from an old Russian intellectual, and do me this favor."
"What's the matter?"
"Look... When you lock up your shop for the night, you don't need your sign, do you? Let me take it and read it before I go to bed -- I just can't fall asleep without reading. And the text is so instructive -- soap, and candles, and sour cream -- all kinds of things. I'll read it and give it back."
"Oh yeah, sure... You all say that. The other day, some guy asked to borrow the cover from a box of Georges Bormann biscuits, and never returned it. And it had a picture on it, and all kinds of letters... I have a growing son, too, you know."
"Where are you coming from, Ivan Nikolayevich?"
"I was taking a walk outside of town. Admiring the gallows out by the highway."
"Some entertainment -- looking at gallows!"
"Oh, don't say that. Actually, I mostly do it for reading's sake: one gallows looks like an 'H,' another, like a 'T' -- I just read them and move on... After all, reading is food for the mind."
(A lecture delivered by Nikandr Khlapov at a Party activists' meeting in Kolpino)
Dear comrades, and those of you in the back chewing sunflower seeds!
I will say a few words for proletarian music.
I spent four years as washroom attendant at the conservatory, in my capacity as a specialist.
And let me tell you: nowhere is there such a bourgeois domination as in music.
Comrades! Why is it that they've stuck us, the proletariat, with a three-stringed balalaika, and grabbed those grand pianos -- with more strings on them than that guy over there's got hairs on his noggin -- all for themselves?
And I'll tell you too, comrades, that those grand pianos are nothing but a swindle. We all know that music has seven notes, the so-called gambit. But those bastards have crammed so many notes in there that I've seen guys barely manage to keep up with both hands! And they always have to keep pushing on something underneath, too. What kind of fairness is this? If you cut one of those grand pianos up, you could make eight little ones out of it, for the people.
Comrades, we don't need those Schuberts and Muberts -- we want our own, real, proletarian stuff!
And those little black keys that they've got sprinkled all over the place? We get three strings -- or maybe seven, like on a guitar -- and they get both white keys and black ones?
"Half-tones," they say. Yeah, yeah -- what good does that do us? No good at all. The other day, I tried to play Don't Cry, Marusya, You'll Be Mine Yet, using only the white ones -- and it worked just fine! So what are the black ones for? Just to lull the class consciousness of the proletariat?
So they give us those crappy balalaikas, and in the meantime, they make almost a hundred keys for themselves -- out of ivory! It's true, I swear. They kill an elephant and make piano keys out of him. Why? What if the elephant's just as much a human being as you and me? Nothing but brutality and oppression.
Take their scores. They're so messed up, on purpose, so you'll go nuts trying to make head or tail of them. Why do they write their squiggles on five lines? Why not on one? It must be the vodka talking. Just like it's easier for a guy who's plastered to walk on five floorboards than on one -- so, same here, they scatter their chicken-scratch up and down, up and down. It's embarrassing. Show it to me all on one line, if you're a real musician!
And those sharps and flats... Some idiot sticks a bunch of them on the left-hand side, and I'm supposed to remember that? What if I don't want to?!
And even that's not enough for them: they've come up with these "naturals," too. What the hell's natural about them? The working proletariat doesn't find them natural!
That's all those running dogs are trying to do -- make it harder to understand.
Have you seen that thing they call a treble clef? It looks like a tapeworm. How does that help with anything?
And those pauses! If you're gonna play, then keep playing honestly all the way through -- don't stop and just knock your paw against the floor. Or else we could do some knocking, too, if you catch my drift.
To conclude my lecture, I can only say this: the Russian proletariat is already awakening, and once it wakes up fully and completely -- it'll show you such music that all these Tchaikovskys, Mayakovskys, Mechnikovs and Bechnikovs will spin in their graves!
Loud applause from the party members.
A man who killed.
There are some classic phrases that will be alive and fresh even 200, or 500, or 800 years from now.
"Vanquished peoples should be spared only their eyes, so that they may cry," said Bismarck.
"The State, that's me!" exclaimed Louis XIV.
"Paris is worth a Mass," decided Henry IV, exchanging one faith for another.
However, that king also showed his good side with a more altruistic statement:
"I would like to see a chicken in every pot."
We do not know what Lenin and Trotsky would like to see in each of their subjects' pots; but the famous Cheka bigwig, Peters, expressed himself on the subject pretty clearly, and we consider his utterance to be no less remarkable than Henry's.
Namely: according to newspaper reports, when representatives of the Rostov-on-Don workers came to see him -- as the official in charge of the city -- and told him that the workers were hungry, Peters replied:
"Do you call this hunger? How can this be hunger, when your rubbish-bins are full of various scraps and refuse? Now in Moscow, where the rubbish-bins are totally empty -- as if they'd been licked clean -- that's hunger!"
Thus, the Rostov workers can exclaim, like the old Cossacks:
"Lo, there is still powder in our powder-kegs! We still have the rubbish-bins, those breadbaskets of the Soviet government!"
For some strange reason, Peters' phrase went fairly unnoticed; nobody paid any close attention to it.
This is unjust! Such statements should not be forgotten...
Were it up to me -- I would print it on huge billboards everywhere, carve it in marble, paste it in as a separate page into all children's textbooks; I would have town criers loudly proclaim it on all squares and street corners:
"As long as the rubbish-bins are full, how can the workers complain of hunger?"
I wonder whether H.G. Wells, during his stay in Moscow, examined -- along with the Soviet government's other miraculous achievements -- the local rubbish-bins?
If he did, he was probably highly impressed:
"Now there are sanitary conditions! Now there is real cleanliness! You could dance the fox-trot on the bottom of this rubbish-bin, just like on a parquet floor. In England, our rubbish-bins are filled with all kinds of nonsense: bread crusts, bits of fish, cigar stubs, chicken entrails, dried-out sandwiches, cheese rinds... Truly, the Soviet government has a great future, if even in dirty, messy Moscow it has managed to produce such neatness!"
I would also like to know -- exactly how is Comrade Peters planning to organize food aid drawn from rubbish-bins? Will it be rationed? But rations usually come in three or four categories.
Obviously, the first admitted to the magnificent banquet will be the Communist workers, category number one. After they have reaped the cream of the crop -- fish heads and sausage casings -- category number two, the ordinary workers, will timidly approach. They will pick out the potato peels and horse bones; the rest can be left for category number three, the bourgeois saboteurs.
Were I not a writer but a warden, and if Peters happened to land in my jail, I would arrange a great life for him. I would serve him all he could eat. Every day, I would treat him to a seven-course meal, dessert included.
He would never go hungry -- since, as he himself so wonderfully put it, "As long as rubbish-bins exist, there can be no hunger."
Here's what his menu would look like:
I don't think Peters would have the moral right to refuse such a feast.
Because if even such outstanding men as Napoleon, Suvorov, and Peter the Great honestly ate from the same common pot as their soldiers did, then surely our Zimmerwald Napoleons have no right to behave any differently, considering the kind of common pot they've turned Russia into:
The Odessa papers reported:
"During a Mariinsky Theater performance of the opera Eugene Onegin, Fyodor Shalyapin, in the role of Gremin, tore the epaulets off his uniform and threw them into the orchestra -- as a sign of protest against the White Army's advance on St. Petersburg."
That little story made me stop and think.
Because, in Shakespeare's words -- "Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't."
Until now, people have always explained all such zig-zags on Shalyapin's part by his heightened, artistic nervousness; the impulse of the moment; extreme emotional exhuberance in times of great stress. He did it, they say, as if in a state of delirium, not knowing five minutes beforehand what he was going to do.
That was how they explained it when Shalyapin unexpectedly sang the revolutionary song Dubinushka in 1905.
That was how they explained it when he suddenly knelt in front of the Tsar, on the Mariinsky stage, in 1909.
That is, most likely, how they will explain his tearing-off of the epaulets.
But wait a minute! It is precisely the case of the epaulets that arouses a most categorical suspicion: might not all three of these actions, by any chance, have been carefully thought out and prepared in advance?
Here is my reasoning:
Many of you probably know that when the sad ceremony of an officer's demotion must take place, its most showy, done-for-effect aspects are taken care of ahead of time -- the epaulets are partly unstitched, the sword is filed down somewhere near the middle.
The reason why this is done is obvious: the commanding officer, upon announcing the verdict, must, with a quick flourish, tear off the guilty man's epaulets and throw them to the ground; he must take the man's sword out of its scabbard and, bumping it lightly against his knee, break it in two and toss the pieces in different directions.
The preliminary preparations are needed to avoid the laughable, farcical scene of a man grabbing another by his epaulets, and pulling as hard as he can -- yet not being able to tear them off. You cannot keep dragging someone by the shoulder for five minutes, grunting and straining; you cannot spend ten sweat-drenched minutes trying to break the sword, banging it repeatedly against your swollen knee, stepping on it with your foot, and finally having to ask a couple of spectators to help you complete the job.
Shalyapin is too good an actor; he is aware of all theatrical conventions, and has an excellent feel for effect. And he knows all too well that the theater's tailor, when making a costume, intends it to last for decades -- so all the parts are sewn together very tightly and thoroughly. After all, the tailor does not imagine that Prince Gremin's uniform might ever need to undergo an epaulet removal!
Therefore I claim that Shalyapin's showy tearing-off of his epaulets was not an impromptu gesture, was not caused by a sudden surge of emotion.
Shalyapin would never have permitted himself, on stage, any risk of an unseemly, grunt-filled struggle with a stubborn pair of epaulets that wouldn't come off.
No! There was indeed a method in this madness.
"Gavrila!" the famous bass must have said to the tailor, the day before the show. "Gavrila! Unstitch the epaulets on the Gremin uniform for me."
"But why do you need that, Fyodor Ivanovich?"
"None of your business, pal. This is high politics, and you're a mere louse. Just make it so they're hanging by a thread."
But then -- wait! Then the Dubinushka story is undermined, too; then the kneeling also seems very suspicious to me; were these really sudden, unexpected, momentary outbursts?
Might it not, rather, have been like this:
Police chief's office, 1905.
"Mr. Shalyapin would like to see you."
"Ah... Ask him in, ask him in! To what do I owe the pleasure, Fyodor Ivanovich?"
"Oh, I'm just here for a little chat," replied the celebrated singer in his deep voice. "So, what do you guys do around here? Hunt down revolutionaries?"
"Yes, heh heh heh. That's our job."
"Keep up the good work. Is it mostly young hotheads?"
"Yes, for the most part."
"Do they all sing Dubinushka?"
"Once in a while."
"And what do you do to those who sing it? I bet you throw them in the slammer, eh?"
"No, not at all. Just singing Dubinushka -- that's pretty tame stuff. Sometimes, we give them a stern lecture; that's about it."
"Oh, really? Well, I'll be off, then. I don't want to distract you from your work."
Later that same day, Shalyapin gave a stunningly formidable performance of Dubinushka. And people explained: there comes a time when even stones cry out.
And one day in the summer of 1909, Shalyapin called his tailor (probably the same Gavrila), and said:
"For tomorrow's show, sew some foam pads on the inside of my trousers, right at the knees."
"But, Fyodor Ivanovich... It'll make them swell out."
"Don't argue with me! Politics is a complicated business, and you're just a hick. Do as I tell you."
It is my guess that when Yudenich enters St. Petersburg, first and foremost among the rejoicing population will be Shalyapin -- and, his wonderful eyes sparkling, he will start singing Miron Yakobson's The Three-Colored Banner in his succulent bass.
"That's Shalyapin for you," the crowd will reverently say. "His Russian heart simply couldn't contain itself -- he just couldn't help but break into an impromptu song!"
But this impromptu was planned the same day as Gavrila unstitched the epaulets: while Gavrila was doing that, Isayka was, on his boss' orders, sneaking across the front line and into the White Army's camp -- to get a fresh copy of The Three-Colored Banner.
So wide, so unbelievably wide and diverse is the Russian soul! There is so much that can fit inside it.
It reminds me of Gogol's famous "Plyushkin's pile."
Do you remember? "Exactly what the pile consisted of was hard to determine, since it was covered in so much dust that the hands of anyone touching it would instantly resemble gloves. Most conspicuously protruding were a broken-off piece of a wooden shovel, and part of an old boot."
Same here -- everything is piled together in a most curious combination. A monogrammed snuff-box, a gift from the Tsar himself; a blood-stained, torn-up red flag; a "His Majesty's Soloist" certificate; the score of the Internationale; and, right there, you can see the corner of Yakobson's Three-Colored Banner sticking out.
Pile it on, brother.
A never-ending story.
There exist, in this world, two young men -- as beautiful as a morning in May, and as charming as fairy-tale princes.
They are Martov and Abramovich.
They are SDs. They publish a newspaper called The Socialist Herald. And it is even rumored that somebody, somewhere, actually reads this newspaper.
Its circulation is higher in the summer than in the winter. In the summer, it can be very useful for fly-swatting purposes.
But if one approaches this newspaper as reading material, the reader achieves a sensation similar to that felt by a hungry dog when a mischievous boy, after feeding it a piece of meat tied to one end of a string, starts pulling on the other end.
I imagine that under those circumstances, the dog has a strong desire to turn itself inside out, just to get rid of this sensation that has been forced on it.
The same emotions are experienced by a reader who decides to swallow Martov and Abramovich's appetizing publication.
One day, I read in their newspaper a vigorous and touching protest against executions performed by the Soviet government.
Martov and Abramovich categorically stated that shooting SDs is an outrageous abuse of power, and that the Bolsheviks do not have the right to shoot SDs.
Non-Socialists were not mentioned: apparently, it's OK to shoot them.
Similarly, right-wing SRs protested against executions of right-wing SRs; and left-wing SRs protested as well -- against executions of left-wing SRs.
It somehow turns out that -- since I'm neither an SR nor an SD -- any bastard can decide to shoot me, and neither the SRs nor the SDs will let out as much as a peep.
Well, not being a member of any party, I intend to narrow this principle even further: since my name is Arkadiy, I will issue a proclamation to the entire world, protesting against executions of any Arkadiys. If a man bears the poetic name Arkadiy -- don't touch him, you swine! Shoot Gennadiys and Appolinariys instead, if you absolutely must.
Other people can also organize themelves according to their distinguishing characteristics: the dark-haired will denounce executions of the dark-haired, redheads will defend redheads, the cross-eyed will support the cross-eyed, and the usual cretins... Actually, never mind that last part -- it's already done.
However, as the French say, let us return to our sheep -- to Martov and Abramovich.
So, they vigorously protest against executions of SDs, against the stifling of the SD press, and against the exclusion of the SDs from the ruling class.
Now, imagine the following scenario: Martov and Abramovich are at their editorial office, quietly, peacefully putting out The Socialist Herald -- and suddenly, in comes a delegation of Russian peasants, falls to their knees before them, and begs:
"Our land is large and plentiful, the Bolsheviks have been exterminated -- come rule and govern us!"
The SRs in Prague will turn green with envy that they weren't the ones invited, but Martov and Abramovich have better things to worry about: who cares about poor relatives?
"We win!" Martov will gleefully yell out, while glancing at Abramovich and thinking, "Gee, I wish you'd drop dead -- I don't need any partners anymore, do I?"
Whereas Abramovich will offer Martov a hearty handshake, and the thought will cross his bright mind, "If only I could be squeezing not your hand, but your throat! I know -- the moment I go to Moscow, you'll drag yourself along after me!"
But, outwardly, they will both be beaming; and, as they stuff their plump suitcases, they will promise the delegation:
"Since you are transferring power to our SD hands -- all abuses and violence will stop! Down with press restrictions, down with executions and the Cheka!"
And so, Moscow unfurls its beauty before the new Rurik and Sineus.
"Where shall we start?" asks the energetic Abramovich. "We must form a coalition government."
Martov frowns. "You mean, with the SRs and the Cadets?"
"Why on earth would we do that? Don't we have enough Mensheviks available? Let's stock our cabinet with left-wing Mensheviks, right-wing Mensheviks, and Mensheviks kinda sorta."
Abramovich comes to see Martov, looking as if he'd seen a ghost:
"Listen to this insolence! The SRs criticized us in their paper for not including them in the cabinet. Can you believe this -- they called me a talentless slug! I think this filthy rag of theirs should be shut down once and for all."
"Well," smirks Martov, "that's not exactly a sufficient reason."
"They also called you a fat Caligula with the temperament of a castrated money-changer."
"Hmmmm... I see. In that case, I suppose that's reason enough. Please prepare the court order."
Again, Abramovich runs in to see Martov. His face is a tragic mask.
"Listen! After we closed the SR and Cadet papers, those thugs have really gone off the deep end: I have received information that they are organizing a plot to overthrow us."
"Never!" Martov exclaims, with a regal gesture. "We must create a special agency that will guard public safety and uncover such plots."
"An Extraordinary Commission?"
"You dolt! How can we revive the Cheka, and bring back to life the dark legacy of Bolshevism? No, we need to create an Ordinary Commission."
"So, the Obka?"
"Yes, Obka. That sounds perfectly harmless."
A year later, two Russians meet abroad.
"Why did you leave Russia?"
"I fled from the horrors of the Obka."
I am not a moralist; I merely wanted to show the readers what one-party rule means. He who takes the first step must inevitably take the next steps, as well.
When all of Russia is being shot, but Blockhead Ivanovich protests only against executions of Blockhead Ivanoviches -- then such a person in power would be the worst kind of Nero, minus the fiddling skills.
Party activists resemble mediocre, yet painfully vain, actors. And it has been said:
"Not every emperor, in Nero's position, would have become an actor; but any actor, in an emperor's position, will become a Nero."
A man with a clear conscience.
There is a wonderful Russian expression:
"I'm so ashamed, I'd like to fall right through the Earth."
Well: I know a gentleman who should be constantly, continuously falling through the Earth -- that's how ashamed he should be.
Let's say this gentleman runs into an acquaintance, the acquaintance looks him in the eye -- and my gentleman should instantly fall through the Earth. He should pierce the entire terrestrial globe with his body, emerging somewhere in the Antipodes; and, the minute some Antipodean looks him in the eye -- he should fall through, once again. So, had my gentleman any shame at all, he would be forever falling through, traversing the Earth's core in all directions.
But my gentleman has no shame, and he's never fallen through anything. Instead, he writes flowery essays, sometimes gives flowery speeches, living on the Earth's surface as if nothing were wrong; and he looks people straight in the eye, as if he had nothing at all to answer for.
Although, if you think about it -- it's frightening how much of a burden life has been piling onto this man's shoulders:
The poet Blok died -- and it's his fault.
The Cheka shot 61 scientists and writers -- it's his fault, too.
Two million Russian adults and one million children have starved to death -- it's his fault, just as if he had personally strangled each and every one of them with his own hands.
Millions of Russian refugees suffer hunger, privations, humiliations -- it's all his, his, his fault.
My God! If I ever happened to be saddled with such an extraordinary, terrible, superhuman guilt -- I would go straight to the famous Yellowstone Park, pick out the tallest tree in the world, take the longest rope in the world, and hang myself from the very top, so all could see how much my conscience was torturing me.
But my gentleman doesn't seem bothered in the least.
As I'm writing this, he is probably sitting in some restaurant in Prague, eating a garnished chicken cutlet, and washing it down with foamy Pilsner -- all the while, without batting an eyelash, reading the latest news from Russia:
"So far, hunger has killed up to three million Russians. By December, the total might reach ten million, and by March -- absent any foreign aid -- all of Russia will be dying." (The Common Cause, letter from St. Petersburg.)
And you're still eating your cutlet? Bon appétit, Aleksandr Fyodorovich! Won't you have the decency to choke on it?
They are a happy breed, these people with neither shame nor conscience. The open face exhudes innocence, the clear eyes stare unblinkingly, and the whole expression seems to say:
"So what? Don't blame me. I conducted myself perfectly, I was both general commander and metropolitan, and the only reason there are still no statues of me in Russia is that no man is a prophet in his own land..."
While you're serenely eating your cutlet, Aleksandr Fyodorovich -- let me acquaint you with your résumé. And if it makes even one mouthful stick in your throat, then, perhaps, there is still a God in Heaven, and justice on Earth...
Do you know exactly at what moment Russia started heading towards ruin? It was when you, the head of the Russian government, arrived at the ministry and shook hands with a gofer.
Oh, that was so stupid of you. And, were you a different person, you would now be so ashamed of it! You surely thought that the gofer was a man just like you. Absolutely correct: he had the right number of eyes, and proper blood circulation. But shaking his hand was nonetheless not a good idea, because here's what followed: the next day, he said hello to you first (what the heck, no strangers here, why be shy?), and on the third day, as you were in your office, he walked in without knocking, sat down on the edge of your desk, lit up a cigarette, and patted you on the shoulder:
"Hey, Al! What's up, dude?"
Not all was lost: you could've still -- even then -- slapped him away, tossed him off the desk, yelled at him: "You're forgetting yourself, you low-life! Get the hell out of here!"
But that's not what you did. You probably giggled, lit your cigarette from his, and replied:
"Oh, heh heh, I'm just doing my little bit to save Russia."
How embarrassing! Why on earth did you go out of your way to shake the gofer's hand? Do you think he appreciated it the way he should have? No: instead, he climbed onto your back, yelled "giddyap!", and rode you at full gallop -- not in the direction where you wanted to go, but where he did.
Of course, for all I know, maybe this gofer just happened to be a very charming fellow. The problem is, you weren't extending your hand to him alone -- but to the entire loutish, caddish substratum of Russia.
The cad jumped on you, saddled you like a good steed, and raced you straight to the border -- to greet Lenin and Trotsky.
Perhaps, you will argue that Lenin and Trotsky's arrival should be blamed on the Germans? My dear man! They were at war with us; this was just one of the ways of waging war. They could've just as easily sent us a train full of dynamite, or poison gas, or a hundred mad dogs.
But you gave those mad dogs a hero's welcome, and guarded them as the apple of your eye, like a loving nanny watching over some playful kids that have been entrusted to her.
What can I say to the Germans? Ask them why they sent us such terrible crap?
They'll ask me back:
"Well, why were you guys stupid enough to accept it? Had that been us, we would've strung them up right at the border -- the way we'd answer an attack with a counterattack."
And you? You were happy! Your comrades had arrived! "Hi! Welcome! Say and do what you want, it's a free country!"
You had one more chance, remember -- that time at Kshesinsky Hall? One battalion of loyal troops, and all this scum would've been taken care of for good. And nobody would've complained.
But instead, you sent your minister Pereverzev to find Lenin and Trotsky another headquarters.
Aleksandr Fyodorovich! You have such enviable self-control... This incident alone is as embarrassing as if you had been whipped in a public square. But now, instead of heading for Yellowstone Park, you just sit there and eat your cutlet.
There are many people with horrible pasts, but I know of none that have a more shameful one than yours. I could even understand it if you had been paid off -- but you did it for free!
You had in your hand the best kind of trump card -- the riots, when the insensed crowd (I witnessed this myself) was tearing the Bolsheviks to pieces. And what did you do about that? You, the head of state, banned the publication of documents showing that Lenin and Trotsky had received German money! Trotsky was in prison -- and you let him out; Kornilov wanted to save the country -- and you destroyed him. You swore to die for democracy -- and ended up fleeing in your limo.
So, now, you're publishing The Will Of Russia? And eating chicken cutlets?
With a past like that?
There are only two honorable ways out for you: either go find that tree in Yellowstone Park, or else put on a monk's hood and chains, and hide in some tiny monastery under a different name, forever, so that we would never again hear about the man who so carefully and methodically ruined one-sixth of the Earth's surface, along with one hundred and fifty million good people -- those same people who, in March of 1917, put their complete trust in you.
You certainly proved yourself worthy of that trust.
Well, good-bye. And bon appétit.
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