Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Chapter 6

COLD WINDS blew in from regions where absolute winter reigned – passing over the pearly steppes of Lapland, over the lakes and dark forests of Finland, over the border of Karelia harrowed with white trenches and mantraps- and dispersed the Baltic fogs. Perfect clear days followed. The air was so transparent that the laws of perspective seemed somehow altered. Looking across the Neva, you could make out the tiniest details of buildings, the silhouettes of pedestrians, the forms of sphinxes brought over from Memphis and erected on the edge of the river by emperors, only to witness after four thousand years the fall of new empires. The slim white columns crowned with statues and the tall golden spire of the Admiralty stood out at the hub of deserted avenues stretching toward stations oppressed by shimmering silence. Trams with grey swarms of passengers clinging to their sides moved slowly over the bridges through the infinite light composed of pale, pure blue of the sky, the gold of a cold sun intellectual in its clarity, and reflected snow. Looking out through the windows of the old Senate, where anaemic scholars were shifting through the archives of the Czarist Secret Police, we contemplated the iridescent white square, dominated by Falconet’s bronze: the Emperor Peter, draped in Roman garb, rearing his horse on the edge of a precipice overlooking the future or the abyss… And, farther on, the university embankment lined with neat old houses – red, white, and yellow- which reminded you of an archaic Holland.

“Look outside,” Professor Lytaev said to me, “and preserve the memory; you are more likely to live through these times than I am. The air of Venice does not possess this transparency, for the activity of men disturbs it, and the heat rising from the old stones makes it tremble. Nothing trembles here, the air is crystal. No smoking chimneys, no busy tumultuous plazas. I have only seen such transparency and calm on the high plateaus of Mongolia. That is where I came to understand why the Chinese artists are able to draw such pure close horizons.”
All this beauty was perhaps the sign of our death. Not a single chimney was smoking. The city was thus dying. And, like shipwrecked men on a raft devouring each other, we were about to fight among ourselves, workers against workers, revolutionaries against revolutionaries. If Great Works succeeded in carrying along the other factories, we would witness a general strike pitting the populace of the dead factories against the Revolution. It would be the revolt of despair against the stubborn, wilful, organized revolt which still had hope. It would be fervid and unthinking treason of some of the best, ready to ally themselves with the famine against the dictatorship because they couldn’t understand that the faith of millions of men can also die for lack of bread, that we are less and less free men, more and more, in an exhausted, besieged city, an army in rags whose safety lies in terror and discipline.

Low crooked wooden houses, each leaning a different way, lined both sides of the alley. Plants were visible in the windows. The alley seemed wide because the houses were so small. It could have been a street in an ancient town had it not ended in a red-brick wall surmounted by tall, blackened glass panes, broken in places. A few paces on stood a chimney, black against the sky, just turning blue. The light was getting brighter, objects began to stand out more and more sharply from one instant to the next. At the corner of the street, huddling against the old, blackened wood houses, you could see a long line of women. Even before the first blast of the whistle, they stood there. They were waiting for the bread for which they waited long hours in vain yesterday, outside in a blizzard. The shutters of the store at last opened when it was broad daylight. Did these women’s eyes derive any joy from this marvellously open sky, from the perfect sharpnes of forms, lines, and colours, from the soft, nuanced sparkle of the snow? “What beautiful weather,” murmured some voices. “Yes,” bitterly answered others, “but are they going to keep us waiting a long time again?” Hours passed despairingly. They discussed the news, their troubles, rumours, ideas… “Het, remember before the war the price of eggs?” – “He beats her, I tell you, she’s a martyr. Patient as a saint.” – “So they requisitioned his house, and the flour, aand everything. There’s nothing left. Nothing but to go out into the world like a poor wanderer, my God, my God…” – “If the English come, you’ll see. Everybody who raised his hand for the Communists even once will be hanged…” – “Everybody, then?” – “Yes, everybody, everybody…” – “Do you remember nice old fat Mikhei Mikheich…?”
Communal Bakery No. 60, near the Great Works, occupied the former shop of that nice fat old fellow, who some said had been killed by his workers and whom others claimed to have seen in town, looking important, with a briefcase under his arm. In his place, behind the bare counter, in the cold airless store where the odours of badly cooked bread, dead rats rotting under the floorboards, and bitter sweat fermenting under sheepskins mingled, stood two skinny clerks, who took ration cards, cut off one square tab, and heaved a hunk of black bread as soggy as clay into gnarled outstretched hands. One woman suddenly burst into tears: “Someone stole my card, someone stole it. I had it right here a second ago…” The women who were already on their way out with their bread gathered around her, the others brushed past, pushing and shoving, the precious paper with the stamp of the Commune clutched in their fists. Eddies of unrest moved through the line. “What? What?” The anxiety spread from one person to another. “Citizeness!” cried one of the clerks inside. Those waiting outside saw a despairing group flowing back toward them. “There’s no more bread.” – “When will there be any?” – “I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the clerk, who now stood in the door wiping his nose with his fingers. “Go ask the Commissars.” The store remained open, empty, for the two boys had to put in their hours. They sneered. “What can we do, little citizenesses? We’re no different than you.” In the background, over the bare counter, hung a red calico banner covered with white lettering:

THE WORKERS WANT BREAD, PEACE, AND FREEDOM

The motionless snow covered factory buildings of the Great Works spread for miles, all the way from the workers’ quarter to the sea. Drafts of cold air whistled through the skeletons of its workshops. Strewn in this dessert lay piles of tip-trucks lying on their backs, old, twisted, resembling tangles of petrified snakes under the snow, loaded flatcars covered by white carapaces, small locomotives forgotten on sidings, and piles of scrap metal. The chimneys, nonetheless, still intermittently belched forth some astonishing black smoke. Life was concentrated in a few shops full of an odour of soot, cold oil, and neglected metal. Arc lamps hung like big pale moons; grey daylight filtered in through high dirty skylights in whose broken panes jagged patches of blue sky appeared suddenly. The muzzles of the 70-mm. cannon seemed to be pointing out through them. Drive shafts spun with a weary sound like out-of-breath hearts. The men on the job were lost among the machines, reduced to a sort of insignificance, pursued by cold and hunger, right up to their workbenches, heartsick at the emptiness around them.

“They call this a factory?” they said. “Ut’s more like a cemetery,,, We don’t know who the hell we are anymore. We’re no longer worker: starvelings, worthless beggars, good-for-nothing goldbricks, slobs, that’s what we are… Some of these men dismantle the machinery to make cigarette lighters. Other steal brass wire to build themselves rabbit cages. Some steal coal, machine oil, kerosene. Some of them doing that kind of work and never even held a job before. Look what’s become of us. Terrific.”
Groups would swarm around the locomotives in fits and starts, working furiously. They were the same men. They stole like the rest of them. They nursed a dark fury against themselves, against fate, against the Commissars, the Entente, everything which, by killing the factory, was killing them. They sent delegations to the President of the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the Northern Commune. Gaunt proletarians in old boots full of holes wound through the narrow halls of Smolny like exhausted soldiers. Inside the dictator’s huge office, surrounded by rugs, leather-covered furniture, shiny telephones, and walls covered with maps showing the blood-red line of the front drawn around the Republic, a cowardly timidity overcame even the most vehement among them. What to do? The fronts are there. No bread, paper money, peasants refusing to deliver grain. Hold out, hold out, or die by God! But didn’t we just say precisely that we can’t hold out any longer?...
“Sit down, comrades,” said the President quietly.
The delegation broke up, dispersed onto the sofa, too far away, onto armchairs too soft. The men remained fiercely silent, embarrassed.
“So, things are going badly?”
An old man who had marched behind Father Gapon in 1905, face wrinkled like a Chinese mask, stood up to regain his confidence and finally burst out:
“Bad? Impossible! No way to hold out anymore. Everybody’s going under. The factory doesn’t look like a factory any longer.”
The President also stood up, attentive, knowing all, knowing too that it was necessary to listen all the way through, then to show the maps, give out the figures, promise, telephone to the Commune and that, in the end, there was absolutely nothing to be done. (But you can always hold on for another hour, another day, another week; and perhaps that hour, that day, that week will be the decisive one.) He answered in a low voice, very different from the one people were used to hearing at big meetings. He talked about starving, ransomed Germany, about Liebknecht’s fresh blood, about the revolution ripening in Europe… Which of these men would come to his aid? What was the composition of this delegation? They had told him that it did not contain any adversaries, just non-party members, one or two sympathisers… Who?
His man was revealed in a youngish, heavy-jawed fellow who spoke in a studied manner, the way they do at meetings. The working class could fight to the end! Every man would do his duty for the International! As long as the food supply improved; and the factory received the special rations they had been promised for a month… What he said sounded strangely false – even though it was profoundly true and necessary to say it – you could feel he was lying in telling the truth. (“So you want to get yourself promoted onto the Factory Committee…”)
The same day the women went home without bread, after waiting all morning in front of the bakeries, a Council of Delegates, whose identity was secret, plastered some rather well-printed leaflets on the walls appealing to the proletarians of the factory to take their fate into their own hands. The strike was in the air. The news went out in every direction by telephone from the various Committees. Out of 3,700 registered workers, less than two thousand had begun work at seven o’clock. The chief mechanic, Khivrin, had gone up to the manager’s office, his cap over one ear, a cigarette in his teeth, and announced in a nasty voice that his machines weren’t working anymore. “Some kind of breakdown. I can’t figure out. Send over the engineers.” He announced this as if it were good news. Groups of Mensheviks and left SRs had held secret meetings during the night.
“Let’s get this over with.”
A thousand men filled the workshop. A platform with a length of rail for a balustrade was raised above people’s heads. The Assembly Committee was seated at on side, around a slightly raised table covered with red cloth. Timofei rang the chairman’s bell. “Kuriagin has the floor.” The meeting had already been going on for two hours, dragging and chaotic. The secretary of the Communist cell had been hooted down. “Give us bread! Bread! No speeches! We’ve heard all your bullshit before.” As he was stumbling down from the shaky rostrum, some big guys had grabbed him by the shoulders and shaken him. He looked thin and defeated in his military tunic.
“Say it! Tell us you didn’t phone the Special Comission. Go ahead if you dare.”
Timofei, who was delighted by the incident because it heated up the atmosphere, had controlled the tumult with his long outstretched arms and his emaciated face.
“Don’t get excited, comrades! We’re the strong ones!”
Kuriagin succeeded in dispelling the anger of these thousand men by telling an awkward, embarrassing story, saying all the wrong things, and relaxing them by making them laugh. He told of his trip to the countryside near Tver and how his three sacks of flour had been seized on his arrival home. His buddies assumed he had been on sick leave.

“Eat-it-all by yourself! You bastard!” cried a voice. The epithet seemed to stick to this red-faced sweaty loudmouth, who was floundering through a tirade against imperialism. Timofei was suffering. A thousand men and not one voice! So much suffering, so much revolt and not one voice! The arc lamps hanging from the metal skeleton of the roof cast a gloomy light over the thousand heads, some covered by old fur hats and others by shapeless caps. Hard faces, bony noses, ashy complexions, soiled garments: this was in appearance the same human mass (yet poorer, shrunken somehow) as during the February Days when the three-hundred-year-old autocracy crumbled under their pressure (because then, as now, there was no bread in these neighbourhoods; only people somehow lived much better in those days); the same mass as in July, when they poured through the city like a flood ready to carry everything away; the same mass as in October, when Trotsky’s voice swept them on to the conquest of power… The same, and yet not the same; altered, inconsistent now, disoriented, without heart: like an old acquaintance known for his firm jaw, determined gait, and direct way of speaking who suddenly appears spineless, flabby, shifty-eyed, and tongue-tied when you meet him after an absence. Timofei bit his lip. This crowd is spineless. The best among them have left. Some are dead. Eight hundred mobilised in six months. Not one voice. Naturally. Leonti had a voice and, what is more, a head; they say he died in the Urals. Klim is fightuing on the Don. Kirk is head of something. Lukin, what happened to Lukin? Timofei could still visualise these veterans standing in this very shop, three or four ranks of men, successive generations who had come up and disappeared within a year. Gone. At the head of the army, at the head of the state, dead: heads riddled with holes, lowered into graves in the Field of Mars to the sound of funeral marches. The Revolution is devouring us. And those who remain are without a voice, for they are the least courageous, the most passive, the followers, the ones who…
“Enough! Enough!” someone shouted at Kuriagin. “We’ve seen enough of you. That’s it.”
Timofei didn’t know how to speak to mass meetings himself. His pale blue eyes fogged up as soon as he mounted the rostrum, and all he could see ahead of him was a whirling, pulsating mist which lured him like an abyss. His voice was too weak to carry far; his thoughts came out in tight formulas that didn’t make complete sentences; people’s ears were still straining to hear him when he had already finished all he had to say; and since his mind was very sharp, he seemed to lack the breath to make a speech; he resolved every problem he posed before the audience even heard it.
Everything seemed lost to him, when a door opened at the rear and Goldin entered. Timofei, relieved, rang his bell vigorously to get the attention of the restless, murmuring audience.
“Put a time limit on the speakers!”
Timofei pretended not to hear. This was surely not the moment!
He rose.
“Goldin has the floor.”
Some hands clapped. A strident whistle blast sounded and then broke off sharply. Head, fists, shoulders shook awkwardly. Goldin seized the length of the rail before him with both hands – the cold felt good on his palms- and took possession of the rostrum. He leaned out toward the crowd, his head hunched into his shoulders; his glance sought out people’s eyes, held them for a moment, like a black flash, moved on, leaving a burning trace behind. His hot voice exploded, impassioned from the start.
“Do you remember, people without bread? How we drove out the Czar and his little ones, the ministers, the generals, the capitalists, the police? Tell me!”
“We remember,” replied a choked voice.
“When was that? Say it! Yesterday!
“What we could do yesterday, we can do today. What is the Revolution? This Revolution which shoots the bourgeois, conquers the Ukraine, makes the wide world tremble? – The Kremlin? Smolny? Decrees? People’s Commissars? Come now!” His huge blazing mouth split into a wide grin at this idea; and this infectious smile, which vanished instantly from his lips, spread from mouth to mouth, illuminating each man’s soul with the clarity of his thought. “The Revolution is us! You and me! What we want, the Revolution needs. Do you understand?”
Then a thundering apostrophe:
“… You, out there! You who manufacture laws and decrees!”
(The men were beginning to feel powerful. They were coming out of their torpor, electrified, awakening to new dreams of exploits.) “The Ukraine is in flames. Its fire will never go out. We don’t even know what the power of the people is yet! But it must not be emasculated by laws and decrees. We fear neither privations nor sacrifices; we will overthrow those who would snuff our fires. We demand workers’ freedom, decentralization, equality of all workers, individual provisioning, fifteen days paid leave for every worker to go ask his peasant brother for food! What we demand we are strong enough to take…”
A roar rose in the hall under the steel-beamed roof. Hands applauded frantically. Showers of cries exploded round this dark, bony, shaggy-haired man in a black blouse whose long sinuous hands were kneading the steel bar. All that remains is to put the general strike to the vote, thought Timofei… Two newcomers were pushing their way through the crowd toward the rostrum.
Arkadi sat down on the steps so as to be able to keep his head above the crowd without, however, being too conspicuous. He immediately tried to pick out the faces of outside agitators among the crowd of faces. He found one, which amazed him.
Antonov climbed ponderously up the rickety wooden stairs. His thick neck topped off by small, squarish, ruddy head emerged above the crowd. At first he was taken for a worker in the factory.
“I want the floor.”
His powerful sonorous voice carried all the way to the back of the hall.
“Comrades..”
“Hey! You don’t have the floor yet,” interjected Timofei. Goldin shrugged his shoulders. Antonov appeared to bow to the will of the chair but his heavy presence on that platform already defied it. Waiting patiently to be allowed to speak, he studied the audience. His narrow grey eyes searched out expressions and gestures; he could practically read the words on people’s lips. His impression was favourable. He became much mire self-assured. The chair decided that it was impossible to prevent him from talking: the crowd wasn’t sufficiently worked up. So he started in again:
“Comrades!” He wisely skipped the usual salutation “in the name of the Party Committee.” “It’s obvious that” – and his thick red neck, his broad shoulders under heavy furs, his huge stonecutter’s hands resting on the railing emphasized his point – “the condition of the working class is becoming intolerable…”
A vague murmur of approval came from the back rows of the audience. Son of a gun! So they finally noticed! You better believe it; it sure is intolerable!
“… We’re starving. The bakeries haven’t distributed bread for three days. It’s a disgrace! What good are paper salaries? We all have pockets full of rubles, but something to eat would be much more to the point. The roadblocks set up to prevent individual supply hunting have done more harm than good in many cases… Things have got to change! They will change if we have the will. We didn’t make the Revolution in order to end up like this.”
No one knew anymore if he was talking for or against the strike, for or against the government. He was repeating the previous harangues almost word for word, but in a more orderly form. Sure of himself now, his voice coming strong, his torso erect, he denounced hunger and poverty along with these thousand men. Goldin blacked in checker squares in his notebook. What a demagogue! He thought. The mistake was to give him the floor…
“This morning the Executive Committee decided to call upon you to form new supply detachments, on the basis of five to ten men for every two hundred and fifty, and prepared to leave within three days. There’s wheat at Saratov. Go take it! Don’t lose an hour.” Heads moved in all directions in agitated confusion: conflicting winds blowing through wheat before a storm.
“The Commune is sending you four boxcars of provisions: canned goods, sugar, rice, and white flour: supplies taken from the imperialists by the glorious Workers’ and Peasants’ Army.”
(-“What?”- “What did he say?” – “Four boxcars?” – “Rice?” – “Yes, rice and canned goods, you hear!” – “Listen, listen!”)
“Tomorrow, this very evening, you must organise teams to handle the distribution… Make sure that not a single pound of rice gets stolen by the bureaucrats and profiteers!”
(- “When are the cars arriving?” – “Let him talk!” – “No interruptions!”)
“… I said tomorrow! But there has been talk of a strike from this platform. Comrades, seven locomotives and thirty cannon are being repaired in your workshop. Each day’s delay in delivering the locomotives adds to the famine. Each day’s delay in delivering the cannon increases the danger. Where is the fool who can’t understand this? Let him show himself!”
Antonov took a breath. His temples were damp with sweat. He tore open his collar, popping the buttons. Triumphant – with those four carloads of provisions behind him – standing erect, he defied an invisible enemy in hall:
“Let him show himself!”
He threw back his sheepskin-lined coat, showing himself dressed in a faded blouse with a hole at one elbow, identical with these men. He knew it was necessary to bawl out crowds that might get away from you, to shout into their faces the things they would like to shout at you, to identify with them – against them – through anger and invective. Now was the moment to bear down.
“There are cowards, slackers, swine, traitors, tools of the Allies, henchmen of the generals, scoundrels who think only of their skins and their stomachs, who want to stuff their bellies when the whole beleaguered Republic is hungry! Let them remember that proletarian bullets have been cast for their heads!”
Having proffered a threat at the end of his diatribe, he stopped short, concluding rapidly with an affirmation which nearly brought on applause – he could see it:
“But I swear, there’s not a single traitor among us!”
Arkadi listened with admiration. Antonov pushed his advantage to the limit:
“Did you know that this week we discovered fifty rifles in the cellars of the Church of St. Nicholas?”
( They were old ceremonial weapons which had been placed among the tombs at the time of the first Turkish campaign.)
“… That Allied agents are planning to blow up the Kronstadt forts?”
(They would have liked to; but the only evidence of a plot was the self-interested report of a double agent)
“… that the Special Commission has just discovered a new conspiracy?”
(The Special Commission was, it is true, looking for this conspiracy.)
The meeting was ending in confusion and defeat. A worker read out the text of a resolution in a rasping voice: “… the powerful hands of the proletariat will mercilessly crush…” Always these clichés, thought Timofei. Boosted onto the shoulders of two men whom the human waves rocked gently, he shouted: “Workshop B is meeting separately” – for it was necessary, despite this debacle, to try to tally those men who were still dependable. Goldin led the way.
The night was about to waylay them on the border between the hubbub and the silence when a bearded giant with blue-veined neck and temples came running up to them, gesticulating. You might have thought him drunk. Bare-chested, teary-eyed, he held up a pair of black hands like hard roots – ready to grasp anything.

“Look at us!” he shouted. “We’re like dogs. The belly’s empty, they growl. Throw em a bone, they shut up. Look at me, comrades, little brothers. I’m like that too. Don’t hold it against us, little brothers, poverty made us this way!”
He clung to Goldin’s lapels with both hands. His despair was like rage. His powerful clouded eyes were like ponds whose bottom has been disturbed, as he stared into the dark eyes opposite him.
“And yet,” he stammered, suddenly releasing his grip, “if you knew what they have done, these hands. If you knew what they are still capable of, comrade…”
For a brief instant all that the three men could see in front of them were those two hands: dreadful, yet trembling with fatigue, hands which appeared to be charred.

Previous Chapter
Next Chapter.
Index

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog

 
#blog-pager { display: block !important; float: none!important; } .blog-pager-older-link, .home-link, .blog-pager-newer-link { background-color: #FFFFFF!important; }