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The Case of

by Victor Serge

Digitalized by



  1. Comets Are Born at Night, 1

  2. The Sword Is Blind, 27

  3. Men at Bay, 54

  4. To Build Is to Perish, 79

  5. Journey into Defeat, 108

  6. Every Man Has His Own Way of Drowning, 143

  7. The Brink of Nothing, 180

  8. The Road to Gold, 211

  9. Let Purity Be Treason, 248

10. And Still the Floes Came Down . . . , 277

This novel belongs entirely to the domain of literary
fiction. The truth created by the novelist cannot be confounded, in any
degree whatever, with the truth of the historian or the chronicler. Any
attempt to establish a precise connection between characters or episodes
in this book and known historical personages and events would therefore
be without justification.

1Comets Are Born at Night

For several weeks Kostia had been thinking about buy-
ing a pair of shoes. But then a sudden impulse, which surprised even
himself, upset all his calculations. By going without cigarettes, movies,
and lunch every other day, he would need six weeks to save up the one
hundred and forty rubles which was the price of a fairly good pair of
shoes that the salesgirl in a secondhand store had kindly promised to
set aside for him “on the q.t.” Meanwhile, he walked cheerfully on card-
board soles, which he replaced every evening. Fortunately the weather
remained fair. When Kostia had accumulated seventy, rubles he gave
himself the pleasure of going to see the shoes that would one day be his.
He found them half hidden on a dark shelf, behind several old copper
samovars, a pile of opera-glass cases, a Chinese teapot, and a shell box
with a sky-blue Bay of Naples. A magnificent pair of boots, of the softest
leather, had the place of honor on the shelf—four hundred rubles, imag-
ine! Men in threadbare overcoats licked their lips over them. “Don’t
worry,” the little salesgirl said to him. “Your boots are still here, don’t
worry . . .” She smiled at him, and again he noticed her brown hair,

her deep-set eyes, her irregular but pretty teeth, her lips—but what
was the right adjective for her lips? “Your lips are enchanted,” he
thought and looked straight into her face, hut never, never would he
dare to say what he was thinking! For a moment her deep-set eyes held
him, with their color between green and blue—just the color of those
Chinese jades he had noticed under the glass top of the counter! Then his
eyes wandered on over the jewels, the paper cutters, the watches, the
snuffboxes, until, quite by chance, they fell on a little ebony-framed por-
trait of a woman, so small that he could have held it in his hand . . .

“How much is that?” Kostia asked in a startled voice.

“Sixty rubles—it’s expensive, you know,” said the enchanted lips.

Hands that were no less enchanted dropped a piece of red-and-gold

brocade, reached under the counter, brought out the miniature. Kostia
took it. It was a shock to find his big, grimy fingers holding the little
portrait. How alive it was! And how strange! It was the strangeness of
it that he felt the most. The little black rectangle framed a blond head
crowned with a tiara; alert yet sweet, penetrating yet mild, the eyes were
an unfathomable mystery . . .

“I’ll take it,” Kostia said, to his own surprise.

He had spoken so quietly, the voice had seemed to come from such
depths of his being, that the salesgirl did not dare to protest. She looked
furtively to right and left, then murmured:

“Don’t say anything . . . I’ll make out the slip for fifty rubles. Just

don’t let the cashier see what it is when you pay for it.”

Kostia thanked her. But he hardly saw her. “Fifty or seventy—what

do I care, girl? The price has nothing to do with it—can’t you see
that?” A fire burned in him. As he walked homeward he felt the little
ebony rectangle in his inside coat pocket cling gently to his breast; and
from the contact there radiated a growing joy. He walked faster and
faster, ran up a dark flight of stairs, hurried down the hall of the col-
lective apartment—today it smelled rankly of naphthaline and cabbage
soup—entered his room, switched on the light, looked ecstatically at his
cot bed, the old illustrated magazines piled on the table, the window with
the three broken panes replaced by cardboard—and felt embarrassed to
hear himself murmur: “What luck!” Now the little black frame stood on
the table, tilted against the wall, and the blond woman saw only him,
as he saw only her. The room filled with an indefinable brightness.
Kostia walked aimlessly from the window to the door—suddenly he felt
imprisoned. On the other side of the partition Romachkin coughed softly.

“What a man!” Kostia thought, suddenly amused by the recollection

of the bilious little fellow. He never went out, he was so neat and clean—
a real petit bourgeois, living there alone with his geraniums, his gray-
paper-bound books, his portraits of great men: Ibsen, who said that the
solitary man is the strongest man; Meqhnikov, who enlarged the bound-
aries of life; Darwin, who proved that animals of the same species do
not eat each other; Knut Hamsun, because he spoke for the hungry and
loved the forest. Romachkin still wore old coats made in the days of the
war that preceded the revolution that preceded the Civil War—in the
days when the world swarmed with inoffensive and frightened Romach-
kins. Kostia gave a little smile as he turned toward his half-a-fireplace—
because the partition which separated his room from Assistant Clerk
Romachkin’s room exactly divided the handsome marble fireplace of
what had once been a drawing room.

Poor old Romachkin! you’ll never have any more than half a room,

half a fireplace, half a life—and not even half of a face like that . . .
(The face in the miniature, the intoxicating blue light of those eyes.)
“Your half of life is the dark half, poor old Romachkin.”

Two strides took Kostia into the hall and to his neighbor’s door, on

which he rapped the customary three little knocks. A stale odor of
fried food, mingled with talk and quarreling voices, wafted from the
other end of the apartment. An angry woman—who was certainly thin,
embittered, and unhappy—was clattering pots and saying: “So he said,
‘Very well, citizen, I’ll tell the manager.’ And I said, ‘Very well, citizen,

I’ll’ ” A door opened, then instantly slammed shut, letting a burst

of childish sobs escape. The telephone rang furiously. Romachkin came
to the door. “Hello, Kostia.”

Romachkin’s domain was nine feet long by eight feet wide, just like

Kostia’s. Paper flowers, carefully dusted, decorated the half-a-mantel-
piece. His geraniums bordered the window sill with reddish purple. A
cold glass of tea stood on the table, which was neatly covered with white
paper. “I’m not interrupting, I hope? Were you reading?” The thirty
books stood ranged on the double shelf over the bed.

“No, Kostia, I wasn’t reading. I was thinking.”

The faded wall, the portraits of the four great men, the glass of tea,
and Romachkin sitting there thinking with his coat buttoned. “What,”
Kostia wondered, “does he do with his hands?” Romachkin never put
his elbows on the table; when he spoke, his hands usually lay spread flat
on his knees; he walked with his hands behind his back; he sometimes
folded his arms over his chest, timidly raising his shoulders. His shoul-
ders suggested the humble patience of a beast of burden.

“What were you thinking about, Romachkin?” ,


A vast subject, you certainly didn’t exhaust it, my friend. Odd—it was
chillier here than in his own room. “I came to borrow some books,” said
Kostia. Romachkin’s hair was neatly brushed, his face was sallow and
aging, his lips were thin, his eyes fastened on you, yet they looked afraid.
What color were they? They didn’t seem to have any color. No more,
indeed, did Romachkin—at first you thought gray, and then not even
that. He studied his shelves for a moment, then took down an old paper-
bound volume. “Read that, Kostia. It’s the stories of brave men.” It was
issue Number 9 of Prison, “official organ of the Association of Former
Convicts and Life-Exiles.” Thank you, good-by. Good-by, my friend.
Would he go back to his thinking now, the poor creature?

Their two tables exactly faced each other on the two sides of the

partition. Kostia sat down, opened the magazine, and tried to read. Now
and again he looked up at the miniature, each time with the happy cer-
tainty that he would find the greenish-blue eyes fixed on his. Spring
skies, pale above the snow, had that light when the river ice went out and
the earth began to live again. Romachkin, in his private desert on the
other side of the partition, had sat down again with his head in his hands
—solitary, absorbed, convinced that he was thinking. Perhaps he really
was thinking.

For a long time Romachkin had been living in solitary communion

with a depressing thought. His job as assistant clerk in the wages de-
partment of the Moscow Clothing Trust would never be made permanent,
since he was not a member of the Party. On the other hand, unless he
should be arrested or die, he would never be replaced because, of all the
117 employees of the central office who, from nine to six, filled forty
rooms under the Alcohol Trust and over the Karelian Furs Syndicate
and next door to the Uzbekistan Cottons Agency, he alone knew every
detail of the seventeen categories of wages and salaries, in addition to
the seven types of remuneration for piecework, the possible combina-
tions of basic wages with production bonuses, the art of reclassifications
and paper raises which had no upsetting effect on the total salary budget.
“Romachkin,” the order would come, “the director wants you to prepare
the application of the new circular from the Plan Committee in con-
formity with the Central Committee’s circular of January 6, of course
taking into consideration the decision of the Conference of Textile
Trusts—you know the one?” He knew. The head of his office, former

capmaker and member of the Party since last spring, knew nothing—he
couldn’t even add. But he was said to he connected with the secret
service (supervision of technical personnel and manual lahor). He
spoke with the voice of authority: “Understand, Romachkin? Have it
ready by five o’clock tomorrow. I am going to the board meeting.” The
office was in the third court of a brick building in St. Bamaby Alley;
a few sickly trees, half killed by rubble from a demolished building, made
a touching spot of green under his window.

Romachkin immersed himself in his calculations. And after a time

it appeared that the 5 per cent increase in the basic wage published by
the Central Committee, combined with the reclassifications whereby
certain workers in Category 11 were transferred to Category 10, and
certain workers in Category 10 to Category 9, thus improving the condi-
tion of the lowest wage groups (as not only justice but also the directive
of the Council of Syndicates demanded), resulted in a 0.5 per cent reduc-
tion in the total wage budget if the regulations were applied with the
utmost strictness. Now, the workmen in the two mills earned between
110 and 120 rubles, and the new rent increase became effective at the
end -of the month. Romachkin sadly turned his conclusions over to be
typed. Every month he went through some similar operation (though
the pretext for it was always new), brought his explanatory tables for the
accounting office up to date, waited until quarter to five before he went
to wash his hands, which he did slowly, humming “tra-la-la, tra-la-la”
or “mmmm-mmmmm” like a melancholy bee ... He dined hurriedly
in the office restaurant, reading the leading article in the paper, which
always announced, in the same tone of authority, that the country was
progressing, was making rapid strides, that there had never been any-
thing to compare with it, that despite all opposition history was being
made for the glory of the Republic, the happiness of the working masses
—witness the 210 factories opened during the year, the brilliant success
in creating a grain reserve, and ...

“But I,” Romachkin said to himself one day as he swallowed his last

spoonful of cold semolina, “am squeezing the poor.”

The figures proved it. He lost his peace of mind. “The trouble is that

I think . . . or rather, there is a being in me that thinks without my
being aware of it, and then suddenly raises its voice in the silence of my
brain and utters some short, acid, intolerable sentence. And after that,
life can’t be the same.” Romachkin was terrified by his twofold dis-
covery—that he thought, and that the papers lied. He spent evenings at
home, making complex calculations, comparing millions in goods rubles

with millions in nominal rubles, tons of wheat with masses of human
beings. He went to libraries and opened dictionaries and encyclopedias
to Obsession, Mania, Insanity, Mental Diseases, Paranoia, Schizophrenia,
and concluded that he was neither paranoid nor cyclothymic nor schizo-
phrenic nor neurotic, but at most suffering from a slight degree of hyster-
omaniacal depression. Symptoms: an obsession with figures, a propensity
to find falsehood everywhere, and an idea which was almost an obsession,
an idea which was so sacred that he feared to name it, an idea which solved
all intellectual problems, which put all falsehood to flight, an idea which
a man must keep perpetually in his consciousness or he would cease to
be more than a miserable wretch, a sub-human paid to nibble at other
men’s bread, a cockroach snug in the brick building of the Trusts . . .
Justice was in the Gospels, but the Gospels were feudal and pre-feudal
superstition; surely Justice was in Marx, though Romachkin could not
find it there; it was in the Revolution, it watched in Lenin’s tomb, it
illuminated the embalmed brow of a pink and pallid Lenin who lay
under crystal, guarded by motionless sentries; in reality they were
guarding eternal Justice.

The doctor whom Romachkin consulted at the neuropsychiatric clinic

at Khamovniki said: “Reflexes excellent, nothing to worry about, citi-
zen. Sex life?” “Not much, only occasionally,” Romachkin answered,
blushing. “I recommend intercourse twice a month,” said the doctor
dryly. “As to the idea of justice, don’t let it worry you. It is a positive
social idea resulting from the sublimation of the primitive ego and the
suppression of individualistic instincts; it is called upon to play a great
role in the period of transition to Socialism . . . Macha, call in the next
patient. Your number, citizen?” The next patient was already in the
room, his number in his fingers—fingers of paper, shaken by an inner
storm. A being disfigured by an animal laugh. The man in the white
blouse, the doctor, disappeared behind his screen. What did he look like?
Romachkin had forgotten his face already. Satisfied with his consulta-
tion, Romachkin was in a mood to joke: “The patient is yourself, Citizen
Doctor. Primitive sublimation—what nonsense! You have never had the
least notion of justice, citizen.”

He emerged from the crisis strengthened and illuminated. As a result

of the doctor’s advice on sexual hygiene he found himself, one cloudy
evening, on a bench on the Boulevard Trubnoy, haunt of painted girls
who ask you, in soft, alcoholic voices, for a cigarette . . . Romachkin
did not smoke. “I am very sorry, mam’selle,” he said, trying to sound
lewd. The prostitute took a cigarette from her pocket, lit it slowly to

display her painted nails and her charming profile—then crushed her
body against his: “Looking for something?” He nodded. “Come over
on the other bench, it’s farther from the light. You’ll see what I can
do . . . Three rubles, right?” Romachkin was overwhelmed by the
thought of poverty and injustice; yet what connection was there be-
tween such thoughts and this prostitute, and himself, and sexual hygiene?
He said nothing. Yet he was half aware of a connection, as tenuous as
the silvery rays that on clear nights link star to star. “For five rubles, I’ll
take you home,” said the girl. “You pay in advance, darling—that’s the
rule.” He was glad that there was a rule for this sort of transaction. The
girl led him through the moonlight to a hovel almost indistinguishable
in the shadow of an eight-story office building. Discreet knocking on a
windowpane brought out a poverty-stricken woman clutching a shawl
over her sunken chest. “It’s comfortable inside,” she said, “there’s a little
fire. Don’t hurry, Katiuchenka, I’ll be all right here smoking a butt while
I wait. Don’t wake the baby—she’s asleep on the far side of the bed.”
In order not to wake the baby, they lay down on the floor on a quilt
which they took from the bed, in which a little dark-haired girl lay
sleeping with her mouth open. A single candle gave the only light.
Everything, from the dirty ceiling to the cluttered corners, was sordid.
The iniquity of it went through Romachkin like a cold that freezes to
the bone. He too was iniquitous, an iniquitous brute. In his person,
iniquity itself writhed on the body of a miserable, anemic girl. Iniquity
filled the huge silence into which he plunged with bestial fury. At that
instant, another idea was born in him. Feeble, faraway, hesitant, not
wanting to live, it yet was bom. Thus from volcanic soil rises a tiny
flame, which, small though it be, yet reveals that the earth will quake
and crack and burst with flowing lava.

Afterwards, they walked back to the boulevard together. She chat-

tered contentedly: “Still got to find one more tonight. It’s not easy. Yes-
terday I hung around till dawn, and then didn’t get anyqne but a drank
who didn’t have quite three rubles left. What do you think of that?
Cholera! People are too hungry, men don’t think about making love
these days.” Romachkin politely agreed, preoccupied with watching the
struggles of the new little flame: “Of course. Sexual needs are influenced
by diet . . .” Thus encouraged, the girl talked of what was happening
in the country. “I just got back from my village, oh cholera!” Cholera
must be her favorite word, he thought. She said it charmingly, now
blowing out a straight stream of cigarette smoke, now spitting sidewise.
“The horses are all gone, cholera! What will people do now? First they

took the best horses for the collective, then the township co-operative
refused to furnish fodder for the ones the peasants had been left or had
refused to give up. Anyway, there wasn’t any more fodder because the
army requisitioned the last of it. The old people, who remembered the
last famine, fed them roof thatch—imagine what fodder that makes for
the poor beasts after it’s been out under rain and sun for years!
Cholera! It made you weep to see them, with their sad eyes and their
tongues hanging out and their ribs sticking through their sides—I swear
they really came through the hide!—and their swollen joints and little
boils all over their bellies and their backs full of pus and blood and
worms eating right into the raw flesh—the poor creatures were rotting
alive—we had to put bands under their bellies to hold them up at night
or they’d never have been able to get back on their legs in the morning.
We let them wander around the yards and they licked the fence palings
and chewed the ground to find a scrap of grass. Where I come from,
horses are more precious than children. There are always too many chil-
dren to feed, they come when nobody wants them—do you think there
was any need for me to come into the world? But there are never
enough horses to do the farm work with. With a horse, your children
can grow up; without a horse a man is not a man any more, is he? No
more home—nothing but hunger, nothing but death. . . . Well, the
horses were done for—there was no way out. The elders met. I was in
the comer by the stove. There was a little lamp on the table, and I had
to keep trimming the wick—it smoked. What was to be done to save the
horses? The elders couldn’t even speak, they were so sunk. Finally my
father—he looked terrible, his mouth was all black—said: ‘There’s
nothing to be done. We’ll have to kill them. Then they won’t suffer any
more. There’s always the leather. As for us, we will die or not, as God
pleases.’ Nobody said anything after that, it was so quiet that I could
hear the roaches crawling under the stove bricks. My old man got up
slowly. ‘I’ll do it,’ says he. He took the ax from under the bench. My
mother threw herself on him: ‘Nikon Nikonich, pity . . .’ He looked as
if he needed pity himself, with his face all screwed up like a murderer.
‘Silence, woman,’ says he. ‘You, girl, come and hold a light for us.’ I
brought the lamp. The stable was against the house; when the mare
moved at night we heard her. It was comforting. She saw us come in
with the light, and she looked at us sadly, like a sick man, there were
tears in her eyes. She hardly turned her head because her strength was
nearly gone. Father kept the ax hidden, because the mare would surely
have known. Father went up to her and patted her cheeks. ‘You’re a

good mare, Brownie. It’s not my fault if you have suffered. May God

forgive me ’ Before the words were out of his mouth Brownie’s

skull was split open. ‘Clean the ax,’ Father said to me. ‘Now we have
nothing.’ How I cried that night!—outside, because they would have
beaten me if I’d cried in the house. I think everybody in the village hid
somewhere and cried . . .” Romachkin gave her an extra fifty kopecks.
Then she wanted to kiss him on the mouth—“You’ll see how, darling”
—but he said “No, thank you,” humbly, and walked away among the
dark trees, his shoulders sagging.

All the nights of his life were alike, equally empty. After leaving the

office, he wandered from co-operative to co-operative with a crowd of
idlers like himself. The shelves in the shops were full of boxes, but, to
avoid any misunderstanding, the clerks had put labels on them: Empty
Nevertheless, graphs showed the rising curve of weekly sales.
Romachkin bought some pickled mushrooms and reserved a place in a
line that was forming for sausage. From a comparatively well-lighted
street he turned into another that was dark, and walked up it. Electric
signs, themselves invisible, filled the end of it with an orange glory.
Suddenly heated voices filled the darkness. Romachkin stopped. A brutal
masculine voice was lost in uproar, a woman’s voice rose, rapid and
vehement, heaping insults on the traitors, saboteurs, beasts in human
guise, foreign agents, vermin. The insults spewed into the darkness from
a forgotten loud-speaker in an empty office. It was frightful—that voice
without a face, in the darkness of the office, in the solitude, under the
unmoving orange light at the end of the street. Romachkin felt terribly
cold. The woman’s voice clamored: “In the name of the four thousand
women workers . . Romachkin’s brain passively echoed: In the
name of the four thousand women workers in this factory
... And
four thousand women of all ages—seductive women, women prematurely
old (why?), pretty women, women whom he would never know, women
of whom he dared not dream—were present in him for an incalculable
instant, and they all cried: “We demand the death penalty for these vile
dogs! No pity!” (“Can you mean it, women?” Romachkin answered
severely. “No pity? All of us need pity so much, you and I and all of
us . . .”) “To the firing squad with them!” Factory meetings con-
tinued during the trial of the engineers—or was it the economists, or the
food control board, or the Old Bolsheviks, who were being tried this
time? Romachkin walked on. Twenty steps farther he stopped again,
this time in front of a lighted window. Between the curtains he saw a
table set for supper—tea, plates, hands, only hands on the checked

linoleum: a fat hand holding a fork, a gray slumbering hand, a child’s
hand ... A loud-speaker in the room showered the hands with the cry
of the meetings: “Shoot them, shoot them, shoot them!” Who? It didn’t
matter. Why?

Because terror and suffering were everywhere mingled with an inex-

plicable triumph tirelessly proclaimed by the newspapers. “Good eve-
ning, Comrade Romachkin. Have you heard? Marfa and her husband
have been refused passports because they were disenfranchised as arti-
sans formerly working on their own account. Have you heard? Old
Bukin has been arrested, they say he had hidden dollars sent him by his
brother, who is a dentist in Riga . . . And the engineer has lost his job,
he’s suspected of sabotage. Have you heard? There is going to be a fresh
purge of employees, get ready for it, I heard at the house committee
meeting that your father was an officer . . .”—“It’s not true,” said
Romachkin, choking, “he was only a sergeant during the imperialist war,
he was an accountant . . .” (But since that right-thinking accountant
had belonged to the Russian People’s Union, Romachkin’s conscience
was not entirely at ease.)—“Try to produce witnesses, they say the com-
missions are severe . . . They say there is trouble in the Smolensk
region—no more wheat . . —“I know, I know . . . Come and play

checkers, Piotr Petrovich . . They went to Romachkin’s room, and

his neighbor began telling his own troubles in a low voice: his wife’s
first husband had been a shopkeeper, so it was more than likely that her
passport for Moscow would not be renewed. “They give you three days
to get out, Comrade Romachkin, and you have to go somewhere at least
two hundred miles away—but will they give you a passport there?” If
it turned out that way, their daughter obviously couldn’t enter the
Forestry School. Gilded by the lamplight, the ax came down on the head
of a horse with human eyes, voices lashed through fiery darkness de-
manding victims, stations were filled with crowds waiting almost hope-
lessly for trains which crawled over the map toward the last wheat, the
last meat, the last combines; a prostitute from the Boulevard Trubnoy
lay gaping wide open on a pallet beside a sleeping child pink as a sucking
pig, pure as the innocents Herod slaughtered, and a prostitute cost
money, five rubles, a day’s pay—yes, he must find witnesses to face the
new purge with, was the new rent scale going into effect? If in all this
there was not some immense wrong, some boundless guilt, some hidden
villainy, it must be that a sort of madness filled everyone’s brain. The
game of checkers was over. Piotr Petrovich went home, thinking of his
troubles: “Most serious, the matter of the interior passport . .

Romachkin turned down his bed, undressed, rinsed out his mouth, and
lay down. The electric light burned on his bed table, the sheet was white,
the portraits mute—ten o’clock. Before he went to sleep, he read the
paper carefully. The face of the Chief filled a third of the front page, as it
did two or three times a week, surrounded by a seven-column speech: Our
economic successes
. . . Prodigious, they were. We are the chosen peo-
ple, the most fortunate of peoples, envied by a West destined to crises,
unemployment, class struggle, war; our welfare increases daily, wages,
as the result of Socialist emulation by our shock brigades, show a rise
of 12 per cent over the past year; it is time to stabilize them, since
production has shown an increase of only 11 per cent. Woe to the skep-
tics, to those of little faith, to those who nourish the venomous serpent
of Opposition in their secret hearts!—It was set forth in angular periods,
numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; numbered too were the five conditions (all now
fulfilled) for the realization of Socialism; numbered too the six com-
mandments of Labor; numbered too the four grounds for historic cer-
tainty . . . Romachkin could not believe his senses, he turned a sharp
eye on the 12 per cent increase in wages. This increase in nominal wages
was accompanied by a reduction at least three times as great in real
wages, as a result of the depreciation of paper money and the rise in
prices. . . . But in this connection the Chief, in his peroration, made a
mocking allusion to the dishonest specialists of the Commissariat of
Finance, who would receive exemplary punishment. “Continued ap-
plause. The audience rise and acclaim the orator for minutes. Salvos of
shouts: ‘Long live our unconquerable Chief! Long live our great Pilot!
Long live the Political Bureau! Long live the Party!’ The ovation is re-
sumed. Numerous voices: ‘Long live the Secret Police!’ Thunderous

Feeling unfathomably sad, Romachkin thought: How he lies!—and

was terrified at his own audacity. No one, fortunately, could hear him
think; his room was empty; somebody came out of the toilet, walked
down the hall dragging his slippers—no doubt it was old Schlem, who
had stomach trouble; a sewing machine purred softly; before getting
into bed, the couple across the hall were quarreling in little sentences
that hissed like lashes. He felt the man pinching the woman, slowly twist-
ing her hair, making her kneel down, then hitting her across the face
with the back of his hand; the whole hall knew it, the couple had been
reported, but they denied it and were reduced to torturing each other
without making any noise, as, afterward, they cohabited without making
any noise, moving like wary animals. And the people listening at the

door heard almost nothing, but sensed everything.—Twenty-two people
lived in the six rooms and the windowless nook at the back: twenty-two
people, all clearly recognizable by the most furtive sounds they made in
the stillness of night. Romachkin turned out the light. The feeble glow
of a street light came through the curtain, tracing the usual pictures on
the ceiling. They varied monotonously from day to day. In the half-
light, the Chief’s massive profile was superimposed on the figure of the
man who was silently beating his wife in the room across the hall. Would
she ever escape from her bondage? Shall we ever escape from falsehood?
The responsibility was his who lied in the face of an entire people. The
terrible thought which, until now, had matured in the dark regions of a
consciousness that feared itself, that pretended to ignore itself, that
struggled to disguise itself before the mirror within, now stripped off its
mask. So, at night, lightning reveals a landscape of twisted trees above
a chasm. Romachkin felt an almost visual revelation. He saw the crim-
inal. A translucent flame flooded his soul. It did not occur to him that
his new knowledge might avail him nothing. Henceforth it would pos-
sess him, would direct his thoughts, his eyes, his steps, his hands. He
fell asleep with his eyes wide open, suspended between ecstasy and fear.

Romachkin took to haunting the Great Market—sometimes before

the office opened in the morning, sometimes late in the afternoon after
his work was done. There, from dawn to dark, several thousand human
heings formed a stagnant crowd which might almost have appeared mo-
tionless, so patient and wary were their comings and goings. Patches of
color, human faces, objects, were all overwhelmed by the uniform gray
of the trodden muddy ground which never dried out; misery marked
every creature there with its crushing imprint. It was in the suspicious
eyes of market women swathed in shapeless wool or prints, in the earthy
faces of soldiers who could no longer really be soldiers, though they
still wore vague uniforms that had been in battle only to flee; it was in
the frayed cloth of overcoats, in hands that held out unexpected wares:
a Samoyed reindeer glove fringed with red and green and lined inside—
“Soft as down, citizen, just feel it”—a solitary glove, as it was the soli-
tary merchandise the little Kalmuck thief had to offer today. Difficult to
tell sellers from buyers, as they stood shifting their feet or prowled
slowly around one another. “A watch, a watch, a good Cyma watch—
buy it?” The watch ran only seven minutes—“What a movement, listen,
citizen!”—just long enough for the seller to pocket your fifty rubles and
vanish. A sweater, worn at the collar and patched in the body, ten rubles
—done! A man dead of typhoid had soaked it with his sweat?—Cer-

tainly not, citizen, that’s only the smell of the trunk it was in. “Tea, real
caravan tea, t’ai, t’ai” The slant-eyed Chinaman chants the magic sylla-
bles over and over, looking at you hard, then passes on; if you answer
him with a wink he half pulls out of his sleeve a tiny, square painted
packet in which Kutzetsov tea used to come in the old days. “It’s the
real thing. From the Gepeou co-op.” Is he sneering, the Chinese, or is it
the shape of his mouth, with those greenish teeth, that makes him look as
if he were sneering? Why does he mention the Gepeou? Can he belong
to it? Strange that he’s not arrested, that he’s there every day—but they
are all there every day, the three thousand speculators, male and female,
between the ages of ten and eighty—no doubt because it’s impossible to
arrest them all at once, and because, no matter how many raids the
police make, the creatures are legion. Among them too, their caps pulled
down to their eyes, stalk the police detectives in search of their prey:
murderers, escaped convicts, crooks, renegade counterrevolutionaries.
This swarming mass of human beings has an imperceptible structure, like
an ancient bog. (Watch your pockets and shake yourself well when you
leave, you will certainly have picked up some lice; and beware of those
lice, they come from the country, from prisons, from trains, from the
huts of Eurasia—they carry typhus; you can pick them up from the
ground, you know; people that have them sow them as they walk, and
the filthy little insect, who’s looking for a living too, climbs up your legs
till it gets to the warm place—they know what they’re doing, the little
beasts! What—you really believe that the day will come when men won’t
have lice? True Socialism—eh?—with butter and sugar for everybody?
Maybe, to increase human happiness, there’ll be soft, perfumed lice that
caress you?) Romachkin vaguely listened to the tall bearded man who
was discussing lice with evident enjoyment. He followed “Butter Alley,”
where of course there was no alley and no butter to be seen, but simply
two'lines of standing women, some of them holding lumps of butter
wrapped in cloths; others, who had not paid the inspector for their
places, kept their butter hidden in their bodices, between waist and
breasts. (Now and again one of them was arrested: “Aren’t you ashamed
of yourself, speculator!”) Farther on was the section of illegally slaugh-
tered cattle, meat brought in the bottoms of sacks, under vegetables,
under grain, under anything, and which the sellers scarcely showed.
“Good fresh meat—buy it?” From under her cloak the woman produced
a shin of beef wrapped in a bloodstained newspaper. How much? Just
feel it! A sinister fellow with an epileptic tic held a peculiar piece of
black meat in his crooked sorcerer’s claws, saying not a word. You can

even eat that, it’s cheap, all you have to do is cook it well, and the only
way to cook it, of course, is in a tin dish over a fire in some empty lot!
Do you like stories about women who have been dismembered, citizen?
I know some interesting ones. A small boy went by, carrying a kettle and
glasses, selling boiled water at ten kopecks a glass. Here began the legally
constituted market, with its wares duly displayed on the ground. But
what wares! An incredible juxtaposition of dark glasses, oil lamps,
chipped teapots, old snapshots, books, dolls, scrap iron, dumbbells, nails
(the big ones were sold by the piece, the small ones, which you ex-
amined one by one to make sure the points weren’t broken, by the
dozen), china, bibelots from the old days, shells, spittoons, teething
rings, dancing slippers still vaguely gilt, a top hat which had belonged
to a circus rider or a dandy under the old regime, things impossible to
classify, but which could be sold because they were sold, because peo-
ple lived by selling them—flotsam from innumerable wrecks battered by
the waves of more than one flood. Not far from the Armenian theater,
Romachkin at last found himself interested in someone, in something.
The Armenian theater was composed of a number of large boxes covered
with black cloth and pierced with a dozen oval holes, into which the
spectators put their faces—thus their bodies remained outside while
their heads were in wonderland. “Still three places free, comrades, only
fifty kopecks, the show is about to begin—The Mysteries of Samarkand
in ten scenes with thirty actors in real colors.” Having found his three
clients, the Armenian disappeared behind the curtain to pull the strings
of his mysterious marionettes and make them all talk himself, in thirty
different voices—houris with long eyes, wicked old women, servants,
children, fat Turkish merchants, a gypsy fortuneteller, a thin devil with
a beard and horns—imitating the fire-eating assassin, the amorous tenor,
the brave Red soldier . . . Not far away a squatting Tatar watched over
his merchandise: felt hats, carpets, a saddle, daggers, a yellow quilt cov-
ered with strange stains, a very old fowling piece. “A good gun,” he said
soberly as Romachkin bent over it. “Three hundred.” Thus they became
acquainted. The fowling piece was useless, except to attract the danger-
ous client. “I have another one at home that’s brand new,” the Tatar—
Akhim—finally said at their fourth meeting, after they had drunk tea
together. “Come and see it.”

Akhim lived at the end of a courtyard surrounded by white birches,

in the district of quiet, clean little alleys around Kropotkin Street (they
had to go through Death Street to reach it). There, in a cavern dark-
ened by the hides and felts that hung from the ceiling, Akhim displayed
a magnificent Winchester with two shining hlue barrels—“twelve hun-

dred rubles, my friend.” That was Romachkin’s salary for six months,
and the gun was not at all the weapon for what he had in mind—only
two shots, clumsy to transport. Well, by sawing off part of the barrel and
two thirds of the stock, it could be carried under an ordinary suit.
Romachkin hesitated, weighing the pros and cons. By going into debt,
by selling everything he owned which was salable, and even stealing a
few things from the office besides, he could not get together six hundred
... A series of dull explosions shook the walls and rattled the window-
panes. “What’s that?”—“Nothing, my friend, they’re dynamiting St.
Saviour’s Cathedral.” They dropped the subject. “No, really,” Romach-
kin said, “I can’t, it’s too expensive. Besides . . .” He had said that he
was a hunter, a member of the official hunter’s association, and conse-
quently had a permit . . . Akhim’s face changed, Akhim’s voice
changed, he went for the singing teakettle, poured tea into their glasses,
sat down opposite Romachkin on a low stool, and drank the amber bev-
erage with relish; doubtless he was getting ready to say something im-
portant, perhaps his final price, nine hundred? Romachkin could no
more get together nine hundred than twelve hundred. It was devastating.
After a long silence he heard Akhim’s caressing voice mingling with the
distant boom of an explosion:

“If it is to kill somebody, I have something better . .

“Better?” Romachkin asked, gasping for breath ...

On the table, between their glasses, lay a Colt revolver with a short

barrel and a black cylinder—a forbidden weapon, the mere presence of
which was a crime—a fine clean Colt, calling the hand, fortifying the

“Four hundred, my friend.”

“Three hundred,” said Romachkin unconsciously, already filled with
the Colt’s spell.

“Three hundred—take it, my friend,” said Akhim, “because my heart

trusts you.”

It was only as he went out that Romachkin noticed how strangely

neglected and disorderly Akhim’s quarters looked. It was not a place
where anyone lived, it was a place where someone was waiting to vanish,
in a confusion like a station platform during the rout of an army. Under
the white birches, Akhim smiled at him mildly. Romachkin set out
through the peaceful little streets. The heavy Colt lay against his chest,
in the inside pocket of his coat. From what robbery, what murder on the
distant steppe, did it come? Now it lay against the heart of a pure man
whose one thought was justice.

He stopped for a moment at the entrance to a huge construction yard.

There was a wide view under the liquid hlue of the moon. In the dis-

tance, through scaffolding and the rubble of demolished buildings, he

could see the waters of the Moskva, as through the crenelations of a
ruined fortress. To the right was the scaffolding of an uncompleted sky-
scraper; to the left rose the citadel of the Kremlin, with the heavy flat
facade of the Great Palace, the tall tower of Czar Ivan, the pointed
turrets of the enclosing wall, the bulbous domes of the cathedrals rising
against the starry sky. Here searchlights reigned, men ran through a
zone of harsh white light, a sentry ordered back a crowd of gapers. The
wounded mass of the Cathedral of St. Saviour occupied the foreground;
the great gilded cupola that had crowned it was gone like an ancient
dream, the building rested heavily on the beginning of its own ruins;
a dark crack a hundred feet long split it from top to bottom, like a dead
lightning bolt in the masonry. “There it goes!” someone said. A woman’s
voice murmured, “My God!” Thunder burrowed through the ground,
shook the ground, made the whole moonlit landscape rock fantastically,
set the river sparkling, set people shuddering. Smoke rose slowly, the

thunder rolled over the ground and vanished in a silence like the end

of the world; a deep sigh rose from the mass of stone, and it began to
sink in upon itself with a snapping of bones, a cracking of beams, a
desolate look of suffering. “That’s done it!” cried a little bareheaded
engineer to several dust-covered workmen who, like himself, had emerged
from the cloud. Romachkin, having read it in the papers, thought that
life progressed through destruction, that things must perpetually be torn
down so that things could be built, that the old stones must be killed so
that new buildings, better ventilated and worthier of man, might rise;
that on this spot would one day stand the beautiful Palace of the Peoples
of the Union—in which perhaps iniquity would no longer reign. A slight
unacknowledged grief mingled with these grandiose ideas as he resumed
his walk toward the place where he could catch Streetcar A.

He put the Colt on the table. Bluish-black, it filled the room with its

presence. Eleven o’clock. He bent over it in thought for a moment before
he went to bed. On the other side of the partition Kostia moved; he was
reading, from time to time he looked up at the radiant miniature. The
two men felt each other’s nearness. Kostia drummed gently against the
partition with his fingertips. Romachkin answered in the same fashion:
Yes, come! Should he hide the Colt before Kostia came in? His hesita-
tion lasted only a hundredth part of a second. The first thing Kostia saw
as he entered was the magical blue-black steel on the white paper table-
cloth. Kostia picked up the Colt and bounced it happily up and down in

his hand. “Magnificent!” He had never held a revolver before, he felt
childishly happy. He was rather tall, with a high forehead, unruly hair,
and sea-green eyes. “How well you hold it!” said Romachkin admir-
ingly. And in fact the Colt increased Kostia’s stature, giving him the look
of a proud young warrior. “I bought it,” Romachkin explained, “be-
cause I like firearms. I used to hunt, but a shotgun is too expensive . . .
A double-barreled Winchester costs twelve hundred—think of it!” Kostia
only half listened to the embarrassed explanation: that his timid neigh-
bor should own a revolver amused him, and he made no attempt to hide
his amusement—his whole face lit up with a smile . . . “You will cer-
tainly never use it, Romachkin,” he said. Romachkin answered warily:
“I don’t know ... Of course I have no use for it. What should I use it
for? I have no enemies . . . But a firearm is a beautiful thing. It
makes you think . . .”

“Of assassins?”

“No. Of just men.”

Kostia suppressed a guffaw. A fine hero you’d make, my poor friend!

—A good sort, though. The little man was looking at him quite seriously.
Kostia feared that he would hurt him if he joked. They chatted a few
minutes just as usual. “Have you read Issue 12 of Prison?” Romachkin
asked before they separated.—“No—is it interesting?”—“Very. It has
the story of the attempt on Admiral Dubassov in 1906 . . Kostia took
Issue 12 with him.

But Romachkin himself did not want to reread any accounts of those

red-letter days of the Revolution. They were too discouraging. Those
historic assassinations had required meticulous preparation, disciplined
organization, money, months of work, of watching, of waiting, courage
linked with courage; besides, they had often failed. If he had really
thought about it, his plan would have appeared completely visionary.
But he did not think—thoughts formed and dissolved in him without
control, almost like a reverie. And since he had got through life' in that
fashion, he did not know that it is possible to think better, more accu-
rately, more clearly, but that such thinking is a strange labor which one
performs almost in spite of oneself and which often results in a bitter
pleasure, beyond which there is nothing. Whenever he could—whether in
the morning, afternoon, or evening—Romachkin explored a certain local-
ity in the center of the city: Staraia Place, an old square on which stands
a sort of bank building in gray freestone; at the entrance there is a black
glass plate with gold lettering: Communist Party (Bolshevik) of the
U.S.S.R., Central Committee.
A guard silhouetted in the hall. Elevators.

Across the narrow square, the old white crenelated wall of Kitai-Gorod,
the “Chinese City.” Cars drew up. There was always someone smoking
thoughtfully at the corner . . . No, not here. Impossible here. Romach-
kin could not have said why. Because of the white crenelated wall, the
severe gray freestone blocks, the emptiness? The ground was too hard,
it bewildered his feet, he felt that he had neither weight nor substance.
In the vicinity of the Kremlin, on the other hand, the breezes that swept
through the gardens carried him across Red Square in all his insignifi-
cance, and when he stopped for a moment before Lenin’s tomb, he was
as anonymous as the gaping provincials who stopped with him; the
faded, twisted domes of St. Vasili the Blessed dwarfed him even more.
It was not until he had mounted the three steps of the Place of Execution
that he felt himself again. It had been there for centuries, surrounded by
a small circular stone balcony. How many men had died there? Of them
all, nothing survived in the souls of the passers-by—except in his. Just
as simply would he have laid himself on the wheel that should break his
limbs. The mere thought of the atrocious torture set his skin shivering.
But what else was there to do when one had come thus far? From that
day on, he carried the Colt whenever he went out.

Romachkin liked the public gardens that border the outer wall of the

Kremlin on the side toward the city. He gave himself the pleasure of
walking there almost every day. It was there that the thing hit him
between the eyes. He was walking in the gardens eating a sandwich (it
was between 1:15 and 1:50), instead of chatting with his colleagues in
the Trust restaurant. As usual, the central walk was almost deserted; the
streetcars, making the turn outside the fence, rattled and clanged their
bells. Where the walk curves in the direction of the rusty foliage that
borders the high wall of the Kremlin, a man in uniform appeared. Two
men in civilian clothes followed him, smoking. Tall, almost gaunt, the
visor of his military cap pulled down over his eyes, his uniform bare of
insignia, his face hard, bristlingly mustached, and inconceivably sensual,
the man stepped out of the portraits published in the papers, displayed
four stories high on buildings, hung in offices, impressed, day after day,
on the minds of the nation. There was no possible doubt: it was He. The
air of authority, the hands—the right in the pocket, the other swinging
... As if in final proof of his identity, the Chief drew a short pipe
from his pocket, put it between his teeth, and walked on. Now he was
only thirty feet from Romachkin. Romachkin’s hand flew into his coat
pocket, groping for the butt of the Colt. At that moment the Chief, still
walking, drew out his tobacco pouch; less than six feet from Romachkin

he stopped, daring him; his cat eyes shot a little cruel gleam in Romach-
kin’s direction. His mocking lips muttered something like, “You abject
worm Romachkin,” with devastating scorn. And he passed by. Demol-
ished, Romachkin stumbled over a stone, tottered, almost fell. Two men,
sprung from nowhere, caught him in time. “Do you feel ill, citizen?”
They must be members of the Chief’s secret-police escort. “Let me
alone!” Romachkin shouted at them, beside himself with rage—but actu-
ally he barely breathed the words, or other words, in a despairing whis-
per. The two men, who were holding him by the elbows, let him go.
“Don’t drink when you don’t know how, idiot,” muttered one. “Damned
vegetarian!” Romachkin sank onto a bench beside a young couple. A
voice of thunder—his own—rang in his head: “Coward, coward, cow-
ard, coward . . The couple, paying no attention to him, went on

“If you see her again,” the woman said, “I . . .” (the next words

were inaudible) “I’ve had enough. I’ve suffered too much, I . . .”
(more inaudible words). “I beg you . . .”

An anemic creature, hardly more than a girl—lifeless blond hair, a

face covered with pink pimples. The fellow answered:

“You make me tired, Maria. Stop it. You make me tired.” And he

stared into the distance.

It was all relentlessly logical. Romachkin rose as if pushed up by a

spring, looked at the couple implacably, and said:

“We are all cowards—do you hear me?”

It was so obvious, that the tension of his despair snapped; he was able
to get up, to walk as he had walked before, to reach the office without
being a minute late, go back to his graphs, drink his glass of tea at four
o’clock, answer questions, finish his day’s work, go home . . . Now,
what should he do with the Colt? He could not bear to have the useless
weapon in his room any longer.

It was lying on the table, the blue-black steel gleaming with a coldness

that was an insult, when Kostia came in and seemed to smile at him.
Romachkin was sure he saw him smile. “Do you like it, Kostia?” he
asked. Around them spread the peace of evening. Kostia, with the re-
volver in his hand and smiling at him quite openly, became a young
warrior again. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he said.

“I have no use for it,” said Romachkin, torn with regret. “You can

have it.”

“But it’s worth a lot,” the young man objected.

“Not to me. And you know I can’t sell it. Take it, Kostia.” Romachkin

was afraid to insist, because suddenly he so much wanted Kostia to take
it. “Really?” Kostia spoke again. And Romachkin answered: “Yes,
really. Take it.” Kostia carried away the Colt, put it on his own table,
under the miniature, smiled once more at the faithful eyes that looked
out of the frame, then at the clean weapon—mortally clean and proud it
was! He did a few gymnastics for very joy. Romachkin enviously heard
his joints crack.

Almost every evening they talked for a few minutes before they went

to bed—the one ponderously insidious, returning to the same ideas over
and over, again and again, like a plow ox making one furrow, then
beginning again, to plow one beside it, again and yet again; the other
mocking, attracted despite himself, sometimes leaping out of the invisible
circle that had been drawn around him, only to find himself unwittingly
back in it again. “What do you think, Romachkin?” he asked at last.
“Who is guilty, guilty of it all?”

“Obviously it is whoever has the most power. If there were a God, it

would be God,” Romachkin said softly. “That would be very convenient,”
he added, with a little devious laugh.

Kostia felt that he had understood too many things at once. It made

his head spin. “You don’t know what you are saying, Romachkin. And
it’s a good thing for you that you don’t! Good night.”

From nine in the morning to six in the evening, Kostia worked in the

office of a subway construction yard. The rhythmic and raucous throb
of the excavating machine was communicated to the planking of the
shanty. Trucks carried away the excavated earth. The first layers ap-
peared to be composed of human debris, as humus is composed of vege-
table debris; they had an odor of corpses, of the decaying city, of refuse
long fermented under alternate snow and hot pavements. The truck
engines, fed on an inconceivable gasoline, filled the yard with staccato
explosions so violent that they drowned out the swearing of the drivers.
A thin board fence separated Yard No. 22 from the bustling, klaxoning
street, with' its two surging streams flowing in opposite directions, its
hysterically ringing streetcars, brand new police vans, ramshackle hack-
ney carriages, swarming pedestrians. The shanty, the center of which
was occupied by a stove, housed the timekeeping department, the ac-
counting department, the technicians’ office, the desk reserved for the
Party and the Young Communists, with its file cases, the corner allocated
to the Secretary of the Syndical Cell, the office of the yard chief—but
the latter was never there, he ran from one end of Moscow to the other

looking for materials, with the Control Commissions running after him.
So his space could be used. The Party secretary took it as of right: from
morning to night he received the complaints of mud-covered workers,
male and female, who descended into the earth, then came up out of the
earth—one because he had no lamp, the second because he had no boots,
the third no gloves; the fourth had been hurt; the fifth, fired for ar-
riving drunk and late, furious because he was not allowed to go now
that he had been fired: “I demand that the law be obeyed, Comrade
Part.-Org. (Party Organizer). I came late, I was drunk, I made a row.
Throw me out—it’s the law!” The Part.-Org. burst out, turning crimson:
“In the name of God and all the stinking saints, you rub your dirty nose
in the law because you want to quit, eh? Think you’ll get yourself some
more work clothes somewhere else, eh? Damned dirty . . .”—“The
law’s the law, Comrade.” Kostia checked the timecards for absences,
went down into the tunnel with messages, helped the organizer of the
Young Communists in his various educational, disciplinary, and secret-
service duties. A short, dark, bobbed-haired, energetic eighteen-year-old
girl with rouged lips and small acid eyes passed. He waved to her. “So
your little pal Maria hasn’t showed up for two days? I’ll have to take it
up with the Y.C. office.”

The girl stopped short and pulled up her skirt with a masculine ges-

ture. A miner’s lamp hung from her leather apron. With her hair hidden
under a thick kerchief, she looked as if she were wearing a helmet. She
spoke passionately, slowly, in a low voice:

“You won’t see Maria again. Dead. Threw herself in the Moskva yes-

terday. She’s in the morgue this minute. Go take a look at her if you
feel like it. You made her do it—you and the Bureau. And I’m not afraid
to tell you so.”

The edge of her shovel gleamed evilly over her shoulder. She pushed

her way into the gaping elevator. Kostia telephoned to the department,
the police, the Y.C. secretary (private wire), the secretary of the yard
newspaper, and even others. Everywhere the same news echoed back to
him—numbing, and now banally irreparable. At the morgue, on the
marble slabs, in a lugubrious gray chill riddled with electric bulbs, lay
a nameless boy who had been run over by a streetcar. He lay sleeping on
his back, his skin white as wax, his two hands open as if they had just
dropped two marbles. There was an old Asiatic in a long overcoat, hook-
nosed, blue-lidded, with his cut throat gaping and black (his face had
been crudely painted for a photograph). He looked like an actor made
up as a corpse—greenish, the high cheekbones rose-pink. There was

Maria, with her blue and white polka-dot blouse, her thin neck horribly
blue, her little snub nose, her red curls plastered to her skull, but with
no eyes at all, no eyeballs, only those pitiable folds of tom flesh, strangely
sunk into the eye sockets. “Why did you do it, poor Marussia?” Kostia
asked stupidly, while his unhappy hands kneaded his cap. This was
death, the end of a universe. But a red-haired girl wasn’t the universe?
The guardian of the morgue, a morose Jew in a white blouse, came up:
“You know her, citizen? Then there’s no use staying here any longer.
Come and fill out the questionnaire.”

His office was warm, comfortable, full of papers^ Dr ownings. Street

Accidents. Crimes. Suicides. Doubtful Cases.
“Under what heading
should we put the deceased, in your opinion, citizen?” Kostia shrugged
his shoulders. Then he asked angrily:

“Is there a heading, ‘Collective Crimes’?”

“No,” said the Jew. “I call your attention to the fact that the deceased
has already been examined by the medical expert and shows neither
ecchymoses nor signs of strangulation.”

“Suicide,” Kostia interrupted furiously.

He pushed through the drizzle, his right shoulder forward. If he could
have fought somebody, broken somebody’s nose, or taken a straight
right on the jaw—for you, poor Marussia, you sweet little nitwit—it
would have done him good. You big fool, why let yourself get so des-
perate? Everybody knows that men are bastards. Nobody pays any at-
tention to the Wall Gazette, it’s only fit to wipe your arse with! How
could you be so dumb, you poor baby, oh for God’s sake, oh hell!—
The whole thing had been perfectly simple. The horror-stricken Y.C.
secretary kept her brief statement to himself. It was written on a page
from a school notebook and solemnly signed “Maria” (and her family

As a proletarian, I will not live with this filthy dishonor. Accuse no

one of my death. Farewell.”

And that was that!. On orders from the Y.C. Central Committee, the

branch committees were making a campaign “for health, against demor-
alization.” How should the campaign be conducted? The five young
men who made up the Bureau had beaten their brains, until one of them
had said: “Outlaw venereal diseases.” It seemed like a brilliant idea. Of
the five, two were probably Y.D. cases themselves, but they were clever
enough to take their treatments in distant clinics. “There’s Maria, the
redhead.”—“Perfect!”—A strange girl—she never said anything at
meetings, she was always clean and tidy, she repulsed any advances,

frightened to death, yet flared up when she was pinched—where had she
ever caught her case? Not in the organization, that was certain. Then it
must have been from the demoralized petty-bourgeois element? “She has
no class instinct,” said the secretary severely. “I propose that we publish
her expulsion in the yard Wall Gazette. We must make an example.”
The Wall Gazette, illustrated with caricatures in water colors which
showed a Maria recognizable only by her holiday blouse and her red
hair, and grotesquely loaded with a pair of rhinestone earrings, tumbling
out of a door from which projected the shadow of an enormous broom—
the typewritten Wall Gazette was still posted in the vestibule of the
shanty. Kostia calmly took it down, tore it into four pieces, and put the
pieces in his desk drawer, because they might be used as evidence in
court ...

Autumn and the rains carried away the insignificant episode of

Maria’s suicide. Submitted to the Branch Committee for a recommenda-
tion, the case disappeared under the directives for an urgent and imme-
diate campaign against the Right opposition, which was followed by in-
comprehensible expulsions; then under another campaign, slower in
getting started but actually far more drastic, against corruption among
Y.C. and Party officials. Under the whirlwind, the yard Y.C. secretary
sunk into an abyss of opprobrium—exclusion, derision, Wall Gazette
(the broom reappeared, driving him out with his hair standing on end
and his papers swirling over the dump heap), and, finally, dismissal for
having granted himself two months’ vacation in a rest house whose
dazzling white walls rose among the rockslides and bursting flowers of
Alupka in the Crimea.

Kostia, accused of “having demonstratively torn up an issue of the

Wall Gazette (a serious breach of discipline) and having attempted to
exploit the suicide of an excluded member as part of an intrigue to
discredit the Young Communist Bureau,” was “severely censured.” What
did he care? Every night—after the yard, the city, his suppressed rages,
his soleless shoes, the sour soup, the icy wind—he returned to the sooth-
ing eyes of his miniature. He knocked at Romachkin’s door—Romachkin
had aged a good deal only recently, and read strange books of a religious
tendency. Kostia warned him: “Watch out, Romachkin, or you’ll find
yourself a mystic.” “Impossible,” the shriveled little man answered. “I
am so profoundly a materialist that ...”


“Nothing. I believe it is always the same unrest in contradictory

“Perhaps,” said Kostia, struck by the idea. “Perhaps the mystic and
the revolutionary are brothers . . . But one has to extirpate the
other ...”

“Yes,” said Romachkin.

He opened a book—Isolation, by Vladimir Rozanov. “Here—read
this. How true it is! ” His yellow fingernail pointed to the lines:

“The hearse moves slowly, the road is long. ‘Well, farewell, Vassili

Vassilievich, it’s bad underground, old man, and you lived a bad life; if
you had lived better, you would rest easier underground. Whereas, with
iniquity . .

“My God, to die in iniquity . . .

“And I am in iniquity.”

“Dying in iniquity is no use,” Kostia answered; “the thing is to fight

while we are alive . . .”

He was surprised to have thought so clearly. Romachkin observed

him with the keenest attention. The conversation shifted to the issuing of
passports, the stricter enforcement of discipline among workers, the
Chief’s edicts, the Chief himself.

“Eleven o’clock,” said Kostia. “Good night.”

“Good night. What have you done with the revolver?”


One February night, about ten o’clock, the snow stopped falling on
Moscow; a mild frost draped everything in sparkling crystals. The life-
less branches of trees and shrubs in the gardens were magically covered
with them. Crystals full of a secret light flowered on stones, covered the
house fronts, clothed monuments. You walked on powdered stars through
a stellar city: myriads of crystals floated in the globes of light around
the street lamps. Toward midnight the sky became incredibly clear. The
smallest light shot skyward like a sword. It was a festival of frost. The
silence seemed to scintillate. Kostia became aware of the enchantment
only after he had been walking through it for several minutes, after a
Y.C. meeting devoted, like

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