Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Chapter 5

Other oases of electricity burning from dusk till dawn: the Committees. Committees of Three, of Five, of Seven, of Nine, the Enlarged Committees, the Extraordinary Committees, the Permanent, the Temporary, Special Subaltern, Superior, Supreme Committees deliberating on the problem of nails, on the manufacture of coffins, on the education of preschool children, on the slaughter of starving horses, on the struggle against scurvy, on the intrigues of the anarchists, on agitation and propaganda, on road transport, on the stocking of women’s hats after the nationalization of small business, on the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, on the infraction of discipline committed by Comrade N., on the famine … So much thought straining and working everywhere in these messy rooms under the same portraits, in the same atmosphere of neglect characteristic of conquered places where people are always rushing in and out! New dangers were appearing at every turn. The thaw was approaching. Piles of filth hardened by the cold filled the courtyards of buildings and the floors of whole rooms which would be transformed into cesspools with the first warm days. The water conduits had broken in many areas: they would soon be infested with disease. Typhus was already present; it was necessary to head off cholera, to clean up a huge enfeebled city within a few weeks. Kirk proposed to the Executive the formation of an extraordinary Committee of Three with unlimited powers. Kirk telephoned the Urban Transportation Committee: “I need four hundred teams…” At the other end of the wire Rubin answered: “I’ll give you thirty and you’ll feed the horses yourself.” Kirk requisitioned the old retired tramway cars and posted notices declaring that “persons belonging to the wealthy classes, aged 18-60,” were drafted into sanitation duty. Formed into teams supervised by the Poor People’s Committees, this workforce would clean up the city. Only 300 disinherited ex-rich people were to be found among the 750,000 inhabitants. Kirk, swearing in English into his stained moustache, ordered roundups in the centre of the city and had the trams stopped in the streets to pull off well-dressed people who were adjudged ex-bourgeois by their appearance and sent off to sanitation duty with no further discussion.

Frumkin had no workers to unload trains of foodstuffs; as a result there was a shortage of cars, and the cars in the stations were being pillaged. He announced an obligatory registration of former employees and unemployed functionaries, picked up nine hundred na├»ve fellows at the unemployment office, and sent them off to the stations escorted by a Communist battalion; but one third of them melted away en-route and another third on arriving. The flour sacks, unloaded with unheard-of slowness and clumsiness by the remaining three hundred petits bourgeois, were left under the snow along the tracks: a good part of them went rotten. The black markets were inundated with flour for several days. The great writer, Pletnev, and the brilliant tenor, Svechin, having learned that professors, men of letters, and gracious lawyers who, under the old regime, had brilliantly defended the Revolutionaries, were being drafted for these “Public Works,” protested to the President of the Soviet against these proceedings, which were “unworthy of a civilized people” and would “end up dishonouring the Revolution.” The President had just received a stock inventory from the Town Council indicating that in three days there would be no more food; and from the Railway Commissariat a telephone message begging him to take urgent actions aimed at supplying combustible materials for the lines and raising discipline among yje railwaymen; otherwise all traffic would probably halt in less than a week. Kondrati had just announced to him that a strike was brewing at the great Works. He gazed at the great writer and brilliant tenor with polite indifference.
“I’ll look into it, I’ll look into it; we’re swamped…. Do you need anything?”
Naturally , they were in need of many things, despite the fact that the whole city envied their opulence, which was of course exaggerated by gossips.
“I’ll have two sacks of flour sent over to you, Simeon Gheorghievich…”
The brilliant tenor lowered his chin as a sign of thanks; in this way his thank you was no more than a silent acquiescence masking both disdain and servility. Pletnev, whose greatest pleasure-all the while feigning indifference- was to discover the hidden inner man (“the true brute, the vain, hypocritical madman, who nonetheless has created God in his image..”) beneath the masks of social man, noted this movement, which was worthy of a flunky taking huge tip. The President took him affectionately by the arm.

“Vassili Vassilievich, look at these charts: I thought of having them sent to you.”
green triangles, connected by straight lines to pink circles, blue rectangles, and violet ovals, each inscribed with figures and % symbols of percentages, dancing around them like air bubbles in clear water full of aquatic plants, described the progress of public education over the past year.
“What a thirst for learning!” exclaimed the President. “Look: the number of teaching establishments has grown by 27%, not counting adult courses, preschool, and the Remedial Service for Deprived Children; altogether, it adds up to 64%, 64%!”
Pletnev, tall, stooped, grey-headed, wearing a grey sweater under an old English jacket with wide grey stripes, shook his low, wrinkled forehead, sniffed the warm air of the room with his mujik nostrils, brought his hostile glance back from the green triangles to the pale, flabby, sad, self-satisfied face of the dictator and said evasively: “Mmm. Yes. Great progress. Hum. Hum.” He cleared his throat. “I really must discuss the school problem with you one of these days; quite right.”
How to make these confounded great men understand that the audience had gone on long enough! The President’s fingers snatched a piece of paper just handed to him through the half-opened door. A decoded message: “According to agent K.: Major Harris back in Helsingfors. Stop. Negotiations resumed. Offensive nearing Finland. Informed circles think agreement likely.” If an agreement is likely, that means our existence becomes rather unlikely.

“Harrumph” said Pletnev, restraining the hoarse sounds ready to burst out of his hollow chest, with the strange coyness of an old consumptive who had been holding on for twenty years, “ you know some funny things are going on in the schools…”
he finally vented his spleen with a short growl:
“I know of one high school where four students were found pregnant last month. Of course the old directress is in prison, no one could quite tell me why…”
Finally they left, the one after the other, colliding in the narrow opening of the doorway: the tenor, still elegant in his long overcoat lined with monkey fur, the writer extraordinarily erect, his stiffness accentuating his thinness, a sly expression on his face. Fleischman brushed past them without recognising them. Tenors and writers were the last thing he could be bothered with at that moment anyhow! He burst into the huge presidential office, with ts soft atmosphere of carpets and leather furniture, bringing with him the street, the wind, the old, dry mud clinging to soldiers’ boots. Muddy and booted himself, sheathed in black leather, pockets stuffed, chest crisscrossed with rust-coloured straps, his face the face of an inexhaustible old Jew, he unceremoniously picked up the thread of a conversation begun the previous night by direct wire from the front.
“We’ve got to put a stop to these outrages…”
These were not the same outrages, but they had just cost the lives of forty soldiers who had frozen to death near Dno while the overcoats being sent to them were held up in a railroad station because the shipping order hadn’t been filled out according to regulations. Varvara Ivanovna Kossich, the heroine of the trial of the 206 (1877), had sent an indignant letter to the President of the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the Federated Republic demanding an end to the same excesses denounced by Pletnev and Svechin. The letter ended with these lines: “I warn you: you will be held responsible by future generations.” The President of the Soviet of People’s Commissars was more concerned, under the circumstances, about his present responsibilities. He thanked Varvara Ivanovna for having pointed out abuses of which he was well aware and had her letter sent on to the President of the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the Northern Commune. The Party Control Commission was informed about it. Meanwhile, the Poor People’s Committtees and the population had more or less finished the job of cleaning up the city by dumping most of the garbage into the canals. Public Health reported the first cases of poisoned water. Kirk and Frumkin were about to be censured by the Control Commission when the affair was suddenly forgotten. A bunch of sailors, whom some described as drunk and others as anarchists, had just shot down three militiamen during a brawl. The Wahl Factory had stopped work and demanded two weeks paid leave for all workers to go to the country and replenish their food supplies individually. The strike, inspired by Menshevik agitators whom no one dared arrest, threatened to become general. That same night the Special Commission incarcerated seventeen Social Democratic intellectuals, most of whom were strangers to the movement. Among them was Professor Onufriev, the author of the authoritative History of Chartism. During the search of his house, a manuscript study on Democratic Freedoms in England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century, which Commissar Babin mistook for a counterrevolutionary satire was seized and lost. Several days later a few odd pages were found in a public garden.

Pletnev, the great writer and Svechin, the admirable tenor, once again presented themselves at the office of the President of the Soviet. A harsh article by Pletnev on “The Tragedy of the Intellectuals” was turned down by the official newspapers. This created a fresh incident which was greeted with malicious joy by the foreign press. Professor Onufriev had only been freed for a short while when he died of dysentery. The President of the Special Commission, who drank too much, was replaced by Frumkin. The ruble declined disastrously.

The Commission on Workers’ Housing, whose seventeen members received the same food rations as members of the Executive, put the finishing touches on its grand plan for rebuilding the slums. It called for an initial delay of three years and a hundred million rubles credit. The painter Kichak showed a full length portrait of the President, his hair blowing in the wind, his hand extended in a vague but eloquent gesture which looked as if he wanted to see if it were raining, to bless a crowd, or to politely approve a takeover. In the background there was an armoured train so beautiful that no one had ever seen any like it. He charged admission.

The newspapers announced the coming visit of the old French revolutionary, Durand-Pepin, author of a Plan for the organisation of Socialist Society in 2,220 articles. Pravda (The Truth) announced that the situation at the front was improving. The next day it was learned that a catastrophe had taken place near Narva, which was overrun by the Whites. The problem of the front was thrust forward before the problem of nails could be resolved, before boots could be found for workers in the factories. Typewriters crackled ceaselessly: ORDER. ORDER. ORDER. MANDATE. EDICT. DECREE No. XXX. DECREE No. XXXX. DECREE No. XXXXX. DECREE… Cancelling DECREE No.XXX… From the Kremlin, by direct wire, the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the R.F.S.S.R. implored the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the Northern Commune to execute the measures decreed by the central government. The Northern Commune replied: “Impossible. Situation getting worse and worse.”
From dusk to dawn, the Comittees of Three, of Five, of Seven, of Nine, the Enlarged Committees, the Extraordinary Committees, Permanent, Temporary, Special Subaltern, Superior, Supreme Committees deliberated, planned, ordered, decreed….
“The meeting is called to order” said Fanny.
her wrinkled face bore the imprint of contradictory forces: vanquished diseases, hidden pride (the stubborn forehead, the sounding glance like a plumb line, the inner shock one felt on first contact with her), warmth, suspicion, and somewhere deep inside a secret instability, perhaps a noble madness, perhaps a half repressed hysteria.

A brass plaque alongside the door: S.T. ITIN, CERTIFIED DENTIST. Cardboard, on the door itself: LABOUR’S RIGHTS CLUB. Crumbling corridors smelling of piss and sweepings; old papers under a coat rack, the surprise of a large mirror in one corner, piles of newspapers tied to with twine and covered with a layer of dust, stifling heat; the desolation of a young bride’s smiling portrait left hanging over a chimney, of this tiny room itself, furnished with a camp bed, a mahogany table covered with ring marks from glasses, and a broken down couch. Cigarette smoke, steamed-up windows. Seven heads, so close they nearly touch at times, emerging and receding into the shadows; grave, undistinguished, austere heads; one of them charming, like a black flower fallen from a Persian poet’s paradise.
“Goldin has the floor,” said Fanny.
He had come from the Ukraine by way of the Volga: Czaritsin under siege, Yaroslav in ruins, starving Moscow, forty-seven days on the road, leaving behind him the shades of two brothers-in-arms, one hanged by the Whites at Kiev, the other shot by Reds in Poltava. He had slept in the vermin infested straw of the cattle cars along with typhus-ridden refugees, wounded men miraculously rescued from unknown battlefields, with raped Jewesses escaping from pogroms, and pregnant peasant women who hid foodstuffs over their bellies and paid for their corner at night by giving themselves standing to the men who ruled the roost. He brought back with him a bullet lodged in his flesh, at the back of his chest, against the spinal column, expressly to provoke the admiration of the surgeons (“You’re sure hard to kill!”), a pure and delicious love rent by pride- pride is sometimes only the noble side of egotism- some letters of the young Korolenko discovered in a country house during a guerrilla battle, and the secret correspondence of the vanquished party: five cigarette papers covered with ciphers hidden inside his metal tunic buttons.

He emanated power, a bitter power somewhat drunk with itself, yet capable of sweeping others along. His style of talking was deliberately unadorned, yet vibrant with heat; its seductive power came as much from a veiled lyricism as from its firm dialectic. He was dark and bony with a thick head of hair, burning eyes, a prominent nose, and an ardent mouth. He wiped out all those faces surrounding him- insignificant for him except for the one which was feminine and beautiful- by pronouncing the single word “Comrades” in a warm voice which conveyed the strength of his formidable brother. Fanny was watching him from the side and judging him severely within her soul: too eager for exploits, not devoted enough to the Party to perform mundane tasks and remain in the ranks. Adventuristic. He brought the six heads surrounding him back to a life as strained and imperious as the health of the Revolution.

Balance sheet: hatred and famine in the countryside, ready to march on the cities armed with nail studded clubs as in the Middle Ages. A despairing decimated Proletariat. Paper decrees- impotent, annoying- dropping from the Kremlin towers onto the masses paralyzing the last living strength of the Revolution. The Regular Army, built at the hands of old generals, steamrollering over the partisans, the true people’s army. Opportunists and bureaucrats eliminating enthusiasts. A monstrous state rising from the ashes of the Revolution. “This Robespierrism will devour us all and open the gates to counterrevolution. We haven’t an hour left to lose.”
The head which was beautiful as a black flower murmured softly: “Reconstitute the fighting organization.”
“You’re crazy!” Fanny cut in sharply. “And you don’t have the floor.”
Timofei, of the Great Works, rose, filling the tiny room with his shadow. He had large, sky blue eyes set in a craggy face like a clenched fist.
“Department B wants a strike; Department A is hesitant but will go along. The best of them are with us, the rest are worthless anyway. Morale among the women is excellent. They’d be ready to smash up all the cooperatives in a single morning. Liaison with the Wahl Factory has been established.”
Kiril, who had gone through the experience of the 1914 strikes and of three years in the mining towns of Northern France, advised caution don’t commit the military organisation, which was still weak, until the strike movement became generalised. Formulate clear demands: Down with the despotism of the Commissars, free elections, continuation of the Revolution. Discriminate carefully between the masses’ legitimate revolt against rule by decree and their weariness, their despair and counter-revolutionary bitterness. Don’t give ourselves illusions: perhaps the masses are not yet ready for a new upsurge.

Fanny nodded approval. – Who do we send to the Great Works? Kiril, with his firm moderation, based on self-assured strength, his intuitive understanding of the feeling of crowds, his temperament of a forty year old worker little inclined toward empty gestures and phrase mongering? Better Goldin, with his intelligent passion, his eagerness for exploits. You have to throw a man into certain assemblies as you would throw a torch into dry wood.
“The meeting is called to order,” said the dictator.
A dozen people were seated around the big green table. Bare walls painted white, bright lights hanging in frosted glass globes; faces, silhouettes, papers on the table, everything sharp with the stark bright clarity of an operating room. Karl Marx, flowing beard, vague Olympian smile, framed in black, a red ribbon on one of the upper corners of the frame… The windows open over the river, at present undistinguishable from its banks in the whiteness and the fog.
Agenda:(1) the situation at the front; (2) supplies; (3) the Wahl Factory affair; (4) the situation at the Great Works; (5)nominations.
Present: eleven names. Excused: two names. The recording secretary fills in the blanks of a form divided into two columns: Reports heard, Decisions taken. The catastrophe of Narva is recorded here, following Fleischman’s laconic report, in terms as incomprehensible as the scientific names of diseases are to the laymen in a hospital room. “Make note of the negligence in Transport and the incompetence of the leadership. Replace the political cadres in the Xth Division. Intensify agitation among the troops. Demand that Supply deliver fresh equipment within the week. Give Comrade Fleischman the responsibility for carrying out the measures decided.”
Maria Pavlovna, in a black blouse, a high collar, an elderly school teacher’s complexion, old fashioned pince-nez with tiny lenses, and a severe mouth, had only one word to say about the nominations. “I’m against promoting Kirk. He’s been a Party member for only a year.” (Since the night before he and his sailors smashed open the gates of the Winter Palace.) His nomination was set aside. Garina, tiny, wizened, her glance amazingly young, infectious laughter constantly lurking in the depths of her eyes, a round nose, hair always a little wild, also had only one word to say – about the Wahl Factory:
“At the end of the resolution, instead of “We will not hesitate to use compulsion,” put: “We will not hesitate to use the most energetic pressure…”
And she explained, giggling in the ear of her neighbour, Kondrati: “For in reality we no longer have the means of compulsion.”
The men all looked drab in this operating room lighting, with two exceptions: the President –prominent head, blue cheeks, abundant hair, the well sculpted yet slightly flabby features of a young Roman Emperor or a Smyrna merchant, a deep voice which ran to falsetto when got excited, an appearance of heaviness, nonchalance and mastery, fatigue and intrigue, established greatness and hidden mediocrity; and the committee secretary, Kondrati – light complexion, golden curls at his temples, a fine featured yet rugged face, Scandinavian blood and Mongol blood. All interchangeable: around this table, in this city, this country, at the front, before the task and before death itself; each head here being but one head of that eleven headed being (this evening) called the Committee, each merging his intelligence and his will with those – anonymous, impersonal, sovereign, and superior- of the Committee, each knowing himself to be powerful and invulnerable through the Party yet insignificant and defeated in advance without the Party; each refusing to exist for himself other than through the fulfilment of a prodigious will in which his own will was lost, a useful drop in the ocean.
“Whom do we send to the Great Works?”
A single head inside eleven skulls weighed the problem maturely. Osipov? He was there; chin in hand, with the long face of a seminarist or a convict. Osipov had led the proletariat of the Great Works into battle during the great decisive days. No, no, too idealistic, too inclined toward self-sacrifice, incapable of understanding the masses when they sink, discouraged, back into the passive desire to live in peace, even if it is barely living…. Rubin? A good organiser but too hidebound. Kondrati? Too early… If things go really badly, to prevent or see through a disaster, but not before. Garina? A woman wouldn’t be right for the job; and in any case her subtle theoretical mind made her a first-class propagandist but a very poor agitator. Saveliev? Worn down by the workers’ problems, tormented by scruples (“Look at what the worker eats since he took power!”), capable of losing his head. No, no…. Several voices said:
“Antonov”
Antonov. Naturally. Nobody could be better. What a voice, Antonov! Made for covering the tumult of a railroad station. And character. Stubborn. Not intelligent. Not Stupid. Disciplined. Not many, ideas, guts. Vulgar. Tactful.
“Antonov. You give him instructions Kondrati,” said the President.
The rest of the meeting was taken up in the reality by intrigue. Kondrati’s coterie was contesting for some positions against that of the President, whom they suspected of trying to squeeze them out. A confused argument in which no one said what he was thinking took place over the nomination of some district secretaries. A compromise was finally agreed on: the positions were shared. A slight advantage for Kondrati.
“We’re making progress,” murmured Fleischman.
Osipov voted mechanically with the others, for at every vote unanimity was re-established. We’ve come to that, he thought. The Great Works against us! Hemmed in by hunger, picking up all the old weapons of power… What can we promise these workers if they no longer want to die for the Revolution?

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