The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 2

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The Face Laid Bare

THAT great master, Leo Tolstoy, during the period of his life when he was perfectly frank and candid, described with ruthless sincerity the weird twilight which broods over the peasant soul, although at a later epoch he devoted himself to search and to find the rejuvenating and ennobling elements that lie in the depths of the mind.

Savage, brutish instincts, primitive passion and hatred, a hand ready to murder, the love-seeking dusk reminiscent of the murkmess of the low, smoke-filled cottages, silent, ill-boding hatred resembling the combat of two enraged stags in misty dawn upon a marsh dotted with tufts of brown-black, rank grass cut down by winds and frosts. When betimes the conscience, the almost listless conscience, of that savage stirs, and begins to give utterance to words that whip and scourge of an almost pagan mysticism, then, in his frenzy of self-mortification, that savage man is ready of his own free will to submit to every martyrdom that shall purge with the torment of the sinful body the mire and dirt deposited upon his soul.

Tolstoy was the first of Russian novelists to give currency to the definition of the Russian nation as one "carrying God in its soul"—"the carrier of God" (Bogonosiets). Is this definition apposite? It would be useless to discuss this question. If we admit this truth, we have to acknowledge that the Deity which abides in the soul of the Russian people is neither Yahove nor the Christian God, but only the idol of some primitive deistic thought, made of clay, wood, and stone, some Perkunas or Moloch.

Still another great writer, Theodor Dostoyevski, the anatomist of the Russian soul, endeavoured to approach the true Divinity abiding in the Russian soul by every possible metaphysical quibble, but succeeded in putting before us the Karamasovs—father and sons—and Smierdyakov, and sundry "devils," including Raskolnikov, in whose souls a European psychologist can in no wise discern his God. He will behold there the sinister, contorted features of the gods of primeval pagans, nomadic Shaman-images, and only sometimes he feels himself in the presence of a sectarian God, in whose name men killed and burned others and themselves. This divinity has been worshipped for the last three hundred years secretly in the forests of the North and Kama within ancient "Skitas" (chapels) made of cedar or larch trees, by the priests of the "old Faith," which was suppressed by the "first Antichrist," Tsar Peter I, and later by the "General of the Knights of Malta," Tsar Paul I, who himself met with a violent death.

Thus, while in the country we behold primitive men and primeval passions, the instincts of the original "homo sapiens," turned nomad and pagan, according to whose views crimes are not sins, we are being shown quite a different picture, perhaps even more dangerous from a psychological point of view, by the poet of barefeeters and revolutionary workmen in the towns—Gorky.

When he saw that the types of heroes, represented for instance in the novel Mother, were not exactly attractive in their nudity, he tried to adorn them with the mantle of respect for old age, of filial love, of fidelity to ideals; but then his figures became wooden, astonishingly like marionettes of a pantomime, like vociferous provincial actors. Nobody could believe that these worthies ever lived.

But when those heroes dream of "the naked man upon the naked earth," when they want to throw one massive, collective bomb of revenge into the human ant-heap—their words burn with true force.

Let us consider the facts. There came the October revolution, that triumph of the illiterate, the day of the "approaching brute," of the Russian "Apocalyptic monster." What were Gorky's heroes doing? Why, they robbed and destroyed the workshops of their own labour and the property of the whole nation, condemning all to misery and to degrading independence on other nations. They have killed off or driven off the brains of industry—the technicians and capitalists, the organisers; they took over the management of mine and factory, reducing them within three years to a state of utter bankruptcy; they were giving away millions of national money to a multitude of swindlers or jesters for the setting up of factories for the manufacture of bread from sawdust, sugar from straw, soap from turf, etc.; they were the men who, during the Soviet rule, took a bloody revenge, annihilated morality and faith, introduced inquisitorial tortures, and welcomed the unknown author of the imaginary decrees on the "nationalisation of women" and on the "Freelove Sunday" with a roar of applause.

If Gorky walks on stilts when describing characters equipped with general human psychological traits, his talent blazes up with magnificent fire when the heroes are types from Malvina or The Barefeeters … barefeeted … bare in the direct meaning of the word and transferred in their attitude to society and nationhood. The barefeeters are the outcasts of society not because they are criminals, terrorists, or anarchists. No! they are neither petty pickpockets nor slothful parasites produced as well by the town as by the village. What is there terrible in them? Such types fill at best the nightshelters, at worst prisons. We know them from the works of Chehov. Some of them are drunken dreamers, generally harmless, though sometimes given to smash windows or the faces of those with whom they disagree; others are suicidal dreamers, who brood over the unhealthy passages of their lives with souls and brains corroded with a hereditary wild desire for disorder, who curse everything and everybody, see darkness in the rays of the sun and the abyss opening under their feet, as they stand upon the paved courtyard of their wretched, lonely, dull cottages. Such degraded souls differ from the whimpering souls of Chehov's heroes inasmuch as their masters are "barefooted."

What then is there terrible in these specific types of the Russian proletariat? Nothing at all; they are rather tragi-comic, pitiful, or at the utmost deserving of the attention of the policeman, of the social welfare worker or the doctor.

And, nevertheless … a, perusal of the thoughts and imagination of the barefeeters fills the heart of a cultured reader with terror. There is an absolute self-erasement from the ranks of socially conscious human beings! There is a complete amorality, an utter lack of organs for the reception of intuitions and ideas, even of that primitive morality which arrived probably at the moment when two cavemen, resolving upon their troth, took their females with them, founded a family dwelling and began to live as neighbours, whilst searching step by step somewhere in the folds of their undeveloped brains manifold, yet simple, principles of ethics, which have outlived ages, centuries, and civilisations, and endured unto our own days.

There is a hatred and disdain of morality, law, and the principles consecrated by Christianity or the history of nations, expressed in every word, In every deed of such individuals, as seem to be bred only among the Russian people.

And with all that, Russian critics, some of them very serious and exacting, have with timid servility bowed their heads before Gorky's "barefooters" and Skitalec's "stumps" (ogarki = degraded youths).

Deliverance of thought! Unbridled nature! A protest against the bourgeois! were the watchwords of the various admiring critics. Yes, the bold words of those microcephalians of thought, feeling, and morality were admired, as well as the actions of shamelessly naked men.

Until the "barefooter" seized power, lolled In the chair of the President of the Cheka and exclaimed with the jovial voice of a drunkard:

"Let's make the earth bare and bare the man upon it!"

And It was so. The earth became bare, and upon it were ghastly pools of blood and brains beaten out from the intelligent skulls of those who but a short time before had been enraptured by the comrades of the many-coloured Malvina, and the drunken idlers who in the years 1901-1906 had so greatly Impressed the Russian youth. Gorky desired to point out the existence of those whom Russian ethnography has somehow not yet discovered, who formed "a state within the state," a number of egotistic and irresponsible groups of men in the loosely-cemented Russian society. But Gorky, knowing so well the turbid side of his anarchic people, solicits unintentionally our sympathy for those who shed the blood of the unhappy, hated bourgeoisie.

His genius succeeded in convincing Russia of the amiability of these cavemen of Odessa and of the motley crowd which thronged the public-houses of the ports. According to him they were the "eagle's breed" whom the bourgeois reptile crawling on the ground tried to imitate with awkward clumsiness.

Thus it came that all of a sudden, like the hawk upoii a flight of sparrows, the "barefooters" fell upon the Russian society—drew the knife concealed in their bosom and started the slaughter for, … there was then no policeman and no prison bar.

"How many were there in all Russia?" asks the curious reader—"one thousand, one hundred thousand, or a million?"

There is an answer to this question. The main support of the Soviets are eight provinces situated round Moscow. Thirty million peasants, for a long time deprived of land, of every tie with their native village, enjoying the "famous" freedom of wandering from factory to factory, from mine to mine, from port to port, from prison to prison. …

They defeated the Soviets, created the Third International, formed the leading Russian Communist Party, and crushed Kornilov, Denikin, Kolchak—the last supporters of statehood in Russia.

They were the "barefooters" living from hand to mouth like lords, feeding on the offal that fell from the table of the Russian society and State.

Far truer is the word of another Russian writer, Rodionov, who found their origin and fatherland in the village.

Rodionov wrote a number of articles and novels, of which the most instructive is Our Crime.

It is not even a novel, but rather a police record of village crimes: drunkenness, profligacy, unpunished murder, theft, ruin of family, disregard of authority, extinction of national consciousness an inferno too loathsome to describe.

If we read Rodionov's revelations, we are reluctantly obliged to admit that the Russian village, to which Tolstoy looked for the rejuvenation and renascence of the nation, is not much better than a foul quagmire.