Chapter Three (continued)
In January 1918 the Bolsheviks dispersal of the Constituent Assembly after it had met only once sent the country tottering on the brink of Civil War. As disaster loomed, Lenin denounced pacifistic socialists who called for an end to the fighting. He saw Civil War as an expression of the Revolution itself.
Amidst the turmoil the Commissariat of Education reconvened in Petrograd. In a packed lecture hall, Lunacharsky opened proceedings with reference to the conflagration roaring throughout the countryside.
‘We are fortunate, comrades, that much of the internal fighting has been isolated to the southern and eastern regions of our country. We can therefore continue with our activities relatively unmolested. However, disturbing dispatches have been received from the provinces regarding unacceptable behaviour from senior officials who seem reluctant to let go of the past. This is something we cannot and will not tolerate!’ Lunacharsky paused for a moment, turned his head, and glared at Ronzakov. ‘Now, I would like to expound upon an article written by Marx concerning the predicament of Robinson Crusoe.’
Zvonsky shot to his feet.
‘From your alacrity, comrade Zvonsky, I take it you wish to speak first.’
‘If the Commissar grants me permission?’
Lunacharsky sighed, and nodded his head.
‘Since we last met,’ Zvonsky began, ‘I’ve studied comrade Gastev’s thesis on adopting time-motion methods of industrial productivity to improve efficiency in everyday life. He proposes factory trials in Petrograd with designated members of a time league. Soon, every worker in every major city will be required to carry watches and chronocards, on which they will record the exact use made of every minute in a day. To further economize on time, he has proposed to mechanize speech, to replace long expressions with shorter ones. Our language may be beautiful, comrades, but beauty is sometimes impractical, and to attain the requisite level of progress, we may, for example, need to resort to acronyms.’
Ronzakov winced at this, and looked close to openly protesting.
‘Gastev,’ Zvonsky went on, ‘also proposes to mechanize man and his activities in accord with these time-motion experiments. A future in which people would be known by ciphers instead of names, devoid to a certain extent of personal ideas and feelings, whose vain individuality would dissolve in collective work, making it possible to designate the separate proletarian entity: A, B, C or 1, 2, 3. This signifies that in proletarian psychology there flow powerful psychological currents, for which, as it were, there exists no longer a million heads, but a single global head. In the future this tendency will, imperceptibly, render individual thinking all but impossible.’
One of the Party’s chief ideologues, Alexander Bogdanov, a bearded, intense-looking man of thirty, got to his feet in an open show of approval.
‘Bravo, comrade Zvonsky, bravo. This investigator, for one, has a foothold in reality. I doubt whether one could be more proletarian in feeling and thought. Think of any new worker who has come to the factory straight from the village. The kind of worker comrade Ronzakov has been in close contact with over the last few weeks, for example.’ He nodded in Ronzakov’s general direction. ‘We must instil a chivalrous attention towards this strange newcomer. With gentle care we must encourage this novice leading him into the world of the unknown, incomprehensible, strange and even fearful to him!’ He turned to Ronzakov. ‘And what has comrade Ronzakov to report from his recent stay in the provinces?’
‘Please, comrade Ronzakov,’ said Lunacharsky. ‘Step forward and deliver your findings.’
Ronzakov walked to the front of the hall.
‘Comrades,’ he began, ‘every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art. History has known the slave-owning cultures of the East and - ’
‘Comrade Ronzakov,’ said the still standing Bogdanov. ‘We didn’t request a historical treatise. We sent you to engage with the peasantry, to assess educational standards and adaptability towards our programme. Please enlighten us, as I’m assuming you performed your duties as instructed. ‘
‘As you wish,’ he replied. ‘I found the workers and peasants to be in good spirits and not outwardly hostile to the possibilities associated with the Revolution. But subjection to such radical schemes as comrade Zvonsky proposes can only serve to alienate them. To proceed in this manner would be to act like the simpleton depicted in the fable, who carelessly and repeatedly steps upon the poker in the darkened hut, only for it to strike him on the forehead time and time again. We must work with the people, not against them, and strive to -’
‘Enough!’ roared Bogdanov. ‘I cannot listen to comrade Ronzakov’s lies for a moment longer! You sound like a defeatist, or worse still, an enemy of the people! Yes. We’ve been made well aware of your petty bourgeois performances for the peasants, and the way you sabotaged your trip to pedal romantic notions of our glorious literary past.’
Ronzakov sought out Turgenovsky. He quickly looked away.
‘We must make an example of you, comrade Ronzakov,’ Bogdanov went on. ‘You should face criminal charges for your failure to implement commissariat proposals. Any fool can see the backwardness of the proletariat renders it ripe for a complete cultural upheaval! Reading them folktales, and encouraging them to continue with their religious activities is nothing short of counter-revolutionary sabotage of the most heinous kind!.’
‘Charges?’ said Ronzakov. ‘What charges? What exactly am I guilty of?’
‘You were sent to encourage our initiatives,’ said Bogdanov. ‘Not to perform like some frustrated thespian. Such individual vanity and crass insubordination cannot be tolerated.’
‘Anatoly Vasilyevich.’ Ronzakov turned to the Commissar. ‘What do you say to these ridiculous accusations?’
‘Randomin Randominovich,’ he said, ‘I can only respond to the reports we received from the provinces. We had a clear programme, which you’ve brazenly flouted, following your own misguided agenda. We want to create a new socialist man, a new proletarian culture. I thought you understood this, but clearly you have not. And we can’t afford to have anomalous ideologues lurking like snakes in the grass.’
‘But if you want to enjoy art,’ said Ronzakov, ‘you must be an artistically cultivated person. If you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Can you not -’
‘Silence!’ Bogdanov shouted. ‘Comrades, do we really have to listen to this bourgeois harangue from a relic, an agitator?’
‘You’re nothing more than a White Army sympathizer, an agent of the Tsar,’ came from the outlying benches. ‘Go team up with Alekseev.’
‘This is turning into a kangaroo court!’ said Ronzakov. ‘I will not be subjected to some kind of a baseless witch hunt.’
‘And what of it!’ spat Bogdanov. ‘You’ve abused your position to seduce teenage girls, you’ve betrayed the Revolution!’
Once again, Ronzakov looked to Turgenovsky.
‘Ivan Fyodorovich! I implore you to intercede and refute these disgusting allegations!’
Unmoved and emotionless, Turgenovsky stood there shaking his head.
‘Sadly, I cannot, because I saw you with my own eyes, and on more than one occasion.’
‘This is absurd!’ Ronzakov shouted. ‘I’ve behaved with complete propriety. Anatoly Vasilyevich, please. You’re well aware of my impeccable Party conduct. My -’
‘I’m sorry, Randomin Randominovich,’ said Lunacharsky, ‘your actions have been deplorable.’
‘Take him away!’ Bogdanov ordered two guards. ‘We’ll seek guidance from the main Party organs in dealing with such counter-revolutionary heresy.’
In a handful of weeks, Turgenovsky had come to despise everything about Moscow. The people were rugged and obtuse, ill-mannered and uncultured in comparison to those of Petrograd. His communal lodgings were cramped and impractical, his new work duties those of a glorified clerk. Every time he looked out of the windows at Pravda’s temporary offices, all he could see were the same soldiers marching under the same dull Moscow sky. Every time he slumped down in his chair, he heard the same clacking typewriter keys, and the same twenty or so faces passed his desk and offered him the same good morning greeting. These energetic, conscientious young people displayed an enthusiasm for their work that Turgenovsky had failed to instil in himself. Devoted to something greater than themselves, they struck him as a strange, incomprehensible breed. Even in his most fraternal moments, he still felt a million miles away from them.
One afternoon, as Turgenovsky was proof-reading an article on the ramifications of the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, Terinsky, the paper’s deputy-editor and a sturdy old Bolshevik with a bushy Marx-like beard, came and perched himself on the edge of his desk.
‘So, comrade Turgenovsky, when you were travelling with the Commissariat of Education, what struck you most about the provincial workers? Their zeal? Their drive? Their devotion to their work?’
‘All that and, er…so much more,’ he replied. ‘I found the working people to be in good spirits, and not outwardly hostile to the possibilities associated with the Revolution. And I strongly believe that we should work with the people, as opposed to against them. Only then will we be able to harness an untapped and almost limitless resource.’
‘Just as I expected,’ said Terinsky. ‘Chekhov’s depiction of the peasantry always struck me as a tad exaggerated.’
‘Sometimes’ - Turgenovsky paused for a moment, just to give extra weight to his words - ‘a wild embellishment can help an author get his point across.’
Terinsky nodded enthusiastically.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’ve expressed it perfectly. And I think it’s high time you wrote us an article about your experiences. I bet you’ve been champing at the proverbial bit, eh? All the administrative work you’ve been charged with recently must’ve felt a little tiresome. But small cogs make the machine function smoothly, remember.’
‘Not at all,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I’ve, er…thoroughly enjoyed my time here in Moscow. If I’m working for the good of the Party, I’m a happy man.’
‘We’re lucky to have you aboard. Now, about that article, around 1,000 words should cover it. I’ll give you complete autonomy, and if you deliver something of quality, who knows where it could lead.’
‘I’ll make a start on it right away,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘Rest assured. It will be a fine piece of, er…reportage, so to speak, drawn from my interaction with the common people, and my unique insight into their mindset and motivations.’
‘Very good,’ said Terinsky. ‘I’m sure you won’t let us down.’
The smile was still on Turgenovsky’s face when Ekaterina Denezkhina, one of the office secretaries, walked over to his desk. At twenty-five, she was cherubic-faced, had short brown hair, and wore a functional white blouse and pleated skirt which only enhanced her curvaceous figure. One of the new breed of socialist woman, she hailed from the working classes, and like the majority of her colleagues was dedicated to the Party.
Turgenovsky shifted in his seat. His tongue darted out over his top lip.
‘Would you like some tea, comrade Turgenovsky? I was just on my way to the kitchen.’
‘That would be very good of you, comrade Denezkhina. But before you rush off, I wonder if I could ask a favour? I need a manuscript typed up. It’s just some, er…old literary work of mine from my university days. It’s a little bit sentimental, I suppose, as I’m not even sure it’s of publishable standard. And I wouldn’t want you to think of me as some kind of vain individualist, but it may well be of interest to somebody one day.’
Denezkhina smiled, revealing a set of white, compact teeth.
‘I’m always happy to help a comrade,’ she said. ‘I could easily type for an hour or two after my work duties here. Bring the manuscript in tomorrow and I’ll make a start on it then.’
The following evening Denezkhina set about typing up the manuscript. Her speed and proficiency at a typewriter amazed Turgenovsky. Her fingers danced and elbows flailed like some deranged concert hall pianist. Most of all, he liked to watch her ample breasts shift to the side whenever she started a new line or replaced a sheet of paper.
‘How’s it going, comrade Denezkhina? You seem to be making rapid progress.’
She stopped typing and turned to face him.
‘Or can I call you Ekaterina? We’re alone, after all.’
‘Of course you can. But perhaps it would be better to remain on more formal terms during our official working day.’
He leaned against her desk.
‘I understand,’ he said. ‘How fast can you type? You seem to be whizzing through those pages like a one woman printing-press.’
‘Around 100 words per minute,’ she replied. ‘I could go much faster, but some of the passages in your book have knocked me out of my stride. Of course, it’s hard to judge when you’re typing away like this, but I think you’ve created something remarkably pure in socialist thought and feeling.’
‘You really think so?’ he asked, affecting surprise.
‘I’m no literary expert, but take this passage, for example.’ She read from a freshly-typed sheet of paper, ‘“Here and there bolts of sunlight pierced through the ashen, early-morning sky, and a strong wind blew from under a bank of cloud. Over the Don a mist was rolling, piling against the slope of a chalky hill, and crawling into the cliffs like a grey, headless serpent.’”
Turgenovsky nodded solemnly.
‘Yes. I remember being particularly struck by the poignancy of those images when I wrote them, so pastoral and evocative.’
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ she asked. ‘How do you make boring old words, which have been around for centuries, move the reader, and become so incredibly arresting?’
Turgenovsky looked thoughtful for a moment.
‘Over time,’ he said, ‘something just wells up inside of you that you can no longer contain. Then you know the moment has come to sit down and write. And then it just flows, flows, flows.’
Their eyes met. Before she knew what was happening, Turgenovsky swooped down and kissed her lips. Shocked, she wriggled in her seat, and tried to push him away.
‘I’m not sure this is appropriate, comrade Turgenovsky,’ she said on finally succeeding.
‘But haven’t you heard about the new guidelines by comrade Kollontai?’ he asked, withdrawing only slightly. ‘Casual intercourse with comrades for recreational purposes - with the use of conscientious contraception, of course - is being positively encouraged, as our numerous partners for want of sexual variety. It’s said to increase productivity and improve morale.’
Denezkhina looked wary and confused.
‘I have, er…noticed a certain loosening of moral standards recently,’ she said. ‘But I didn’t know it was the official Party line.’
He reached over and touched her face.
‘Of course it is,’ he replied. ‘I never took you for a comrade held back by petty bourgeois sensibilities. The Revolution assigned all that to the repressive rubbish bin of history. I always thought you were a forward-thinking young woman, and in the light of these new guidelines, am more than happy to offer my services to you. If we both find the results satisfactory, we can continue. If not, then we can shake hands, and carry on as the class-conscious colleagues we undoubtedly are.’
‘But I’ve’ - she hesitated, looking terribly embarrassed - ‘I’ve never actually done it before.’
Turgenovsky’s eyes widened. His tongue darted out of his top lip.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, comrade Denezkhina, I’ve had very little experience myself.’
His article for Pravda was completed in a few short hours. The functional Party style prevalent in all Bolshevik publications - be it in newspapers or public addresses - was easy to replicate. All things revolutionary had been rehashed so often recently it made articles virtually indistinguishable. The tenor of the writing was what mattered most, not the content. Regardless, Turgenovsky derived immense satisfaction from knowing what to put where, as if following some recipe with just the right amount of this or that ingredient to achieve the required taste and consistency.
A few days after he submitted Thoughts on the Fate of the Provincial Worker, he was called to Terinsky’s office. The deputy editor was flicking through some papers, and he motioned for the young man to sit down.
‘Ah, comrade Turgenovsky. Congratulations. Your article is first-rate, it really is. You’ve certainly gone to the very heart of the matter, writing with such clinical precision. What’s more, there’s no ambiguity in your message or showiness in your approach, and I’m delighted to tell you the senior editorial board have approved it for publication. Comrade Stalin himself was said to be most complimentary.’
‘That’s right, my boy, the Chairman of the Commissariat for Nationalities, and a real revolutionary giant. You can’t get higher praise than that.’
On arrival at the prison camp Ronzakov was taken to a lock-up with one window, dirty floors and dank, murky walls. The disgraced Bolshevik had aged greatly in the months since his arrest. Weakened by years of revolutionary work, imprisonment and internal exile, his movements were ponderous now and his breathing laboured.
He did not seem unduly alarmed by his surroundings or the foul smell from the slop bucket - he had been in the same position so many times before.
‘Are you all right?’ asked his new cellmate, Anton Pavlovich. ‘You don’t look so well.’
Anton Pavlovich could not have been more than eighteen. Arrested for some petty larceny, he, like many others, was destined to spend the majority of his adult life in prison. Bright-eyed and with the cropped haircut of the common criminal classes, he exuded a kindly nature which prison life was sure to knock out of him sooner rather than later.
A little breathless, Ronzakov sat on his bunk.
‘I’m fine, thank you. I’m just tired after my long journey by transit train, that’s all.’
Through the window, he looked at a small corner of sky behind the ankles and boots of the sentries pacing up and down the prison ramparts. But it was this piece of sky he came to treasure, as he slowly resigned himself to his fate.
The other prisoners took to his cheery manner and keen intelligence, and would often gather at night to listen to him read or tell stories, or talk about his life as a revolutionary. Marked by his own experiences, he tried to be objective when they questioned him about the ramifications of the coming workers’ paradise. Increasingly, he found it hard to contradict his former beliefs. It was painful to have to face up to the possibility of everything he had ever believed in being nothing more than a lie.
Occasionally he got letters from old colleagues. None contained any reference to his predicament, and was written in a partial, matter of fact way that infuriated him. Then, after several months had elapsed, all communications ceased. His letters were returned unopened, and bar a parcel of basic monthly provisions, no further incoming correspondence was received. For several weeks this troubled him profoundly, and his deepening depression was something his fellow prisoners noted with alarm. So was his worsening health. He seemed to have lost all enthusiasm for life, looked pale and haggard, and often complained of chest pains.
To revive his spirits, they pooled together their resources to procure him some writing materials.
‘You said you always wanted to be a writer,’ said Anton Pavlovich. ‘So why not make a fresh start?’
‘I - I don’t know what to say,’ said Ronzakov. ‘How can I ever repay such kindness?’
‘I know of something,’ said Anton Pavlovich. ‘Every now and then you can read us a little of what you’ve written. How does that sound?’
Carefully, Ronzakov opened the bundle containing ink, several pens, and reams of writing-paper.
He lifted his head and smiled.
‘Okay, it’s a deal. Once I wrote a novel, but never finished it to my satisfaction. There were times in the Tsarist prisons and exile when I used to be able to memorize whole passages, just to stop myself from being driven insane by the boredom and mental inactivity. Yes. You’re right, Anton Pavlovich. Perhaps I could set aside a few hours from my work duties and make a fresh start on it here.’
From that moment on his days gained an ordered regularity. Each morning he would rise, eat breakfast, perform his work duties, and then settle down to write. This bore immediate results. He began to fill page after page, until it felt as if he had always been sat before a blank sheet of paper with a pen poised in his hand and an idea awaiting expression at the forefront of his mind. His fellow prisoners’ admiration and curiosity was roused, but also their concern. Day in, day out, Ronzakov worked so diligently, they feared he may be putting his health at risk. But no matter how frail and out of breath he became, he continued, having to sell some of his most valued possessions just to obtain more writing-paper.
One evening, Anton Pavlovich and Ronzakov stood chatting by the railings outside their cell.
‘You’ve been busy writing for many months now,’ said Anton Pavlovich, ‘but still we’ve not heard a single line from you.’
‘Patience,’ said Ronzakov. ‘Due to your kindness, I’ve been able to revive my epic novel chronicling our country in these times of historic change.’
‘Tell me more, give me a little taster, eh?’
‘Yes, do,’ said another man, having overhead. He signalled for others to come gather round and listen.
They moved to the table where they took their meals. The men sat on some benches in front of Ronzakov.
‘My novel is set in the Don region,’ he told them. ‘It centres on a community of Cossacks caught up in the revolutionary struggles. It’s a story of the old world meeting the new, just as much in the hearts and minds of the people, as on the battlefield. My main character is a simple, hardworking man, torn between life as he always knew it, and life as it is becoming. Like many literary figures of classical tragedy his fate is -’ Ronzakov trailed off as if he had run out of words to express himself. In truth, he had been caught off-guard by a dazzling epiphany, in much the same way a man surveying the horizon is blinded by the sun suddenly emerging from behind a cloud. ‘His fate is -’
‘Yes,’ said Anton Pavlovich. ‘His fate is what?’
‘His fate is’ - a distant look glazed Ronzakov’s eyes - ‘is destined beforehand.’
‘And what do you propose to call your mighty tale?’ asked Anton Pavlovich.
‘Oh, er…I don’t know,’ said Ronzakov. ‘I never really thought of a title, perhaps some allusion to the quiet flow of a river, the passage of time, with, of course, a mention of the Don itself. But we’re a long way from all that. The mother has only just met the father, so any talk of baby names is a little premature.’
Anton Pavlovich chuckled.
‘I hope you finish it sometime soon, so we can all enjoy it together. And I must say you’ve certainly given us much pleasure in your time here.’
‘It’s my pleasure too,’ said Ronzakov. ‘As are all life’s greatest pleasures when shared. I love our language and the history of our culture, especially our literature. I feel that every time you hear a story or open a book the world becomes a bigger and better place. And that’s a very beautiful thing. Perhaps the most beautiful thing the Lord has given us.’ Ronzakov had to check himself once again, as it had been a long time since he had referred to any form of God.
‘I agree,’ spoke a lank-haired, gravelly-voiced convict. ‘I once heard something that made a great impression on me. I was working on a canal boat at the time, and the cook - a most learned man, who, when not stood before a stove, always had his nose in a book - was constantly complaining about one thing or another, and his favourite saying was, “Man is meant for freedom, the way a bird is meant for flight.” I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And the more time I spend in this damn place, the more I understand what he meant.’
The other convicts roared with laughter.
In the half-light, Ronzakov rested his weight against the table.
‘Sometimes, you find freedom in the most unlikely places.’
Time has a cruel irrelevancy when all you wait for is its passing. Alone in his cell, Ronzakov reasserted a little control over all that had been taken from him. The completed manuscript now stood on a table by his bunk, awaiting his fellow inmates’ approval. Thoughts of reading it to them filled him with great excitement, and he leaned back in his chair and enjoyed one of those incalculably blissful moments of silence. He closed his eyes and felt all the weariness seep down to the soles of his feet. It felt like a release, something regenerative and essential, in the way a hard day’s work can tire the body but soothe the mind of all worries.
As he set off to tell the other prisoners his news, a stab of pain shot from his forearm to his chest. He gasped and tried to steady himself on the railings in front of him, but missed, and groping fresh air, he collapsed to the floor. The cardiac disease which had gone undetected for many years had finally brought an end to his life. The walls of his heart were paper thin, and fatal arrest could have happened at any moment.
As news of Ronzakov’s death started to circulate, a clap of thunder heralded a tumultuous summer storm. Rain fell in long, uninterrupted sheets, and flashes of lightning lit up the sky. Distraught, Anton Pavlovich rushed into their cell, where Ronzakov’s body awaited removal by guards. As the others tried to console him, Anton Pavlovich was the only one who seemed to notice the manuscript on the desk. Another clap of thunder registered, making everybody jump. While the inmates looked out of the window, Anton Pavlovich took the manuscript and hid it amongst his own possessions.