The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 20

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The Simplest of All Gods


SOME years ago all Russia was aroused by the news which spread of a sinister sect of "self-incendiaries." At their head were the brothers Rakitsky, who had come to Russia from the Balkans. They worked in the southern provinces of Russia, particularly in the province of Yekaterinoslav, and succeeded in gathering round them a considerable number, over five hundred followers.

Their tenets were simple: Antichrist has descended upon earth and is sowing seeds of sin, which bring forth every year larger and ever more terrible crops. The people are sinking in the morass of evil. Nothing can save them but men's own, voluntarily given, blood of sacrifice. Or, in other words, it was a sect of suicides, demanding of its professors the termination of their own lives for the good of others.

This unhealthy propaganda lasted for a good many years. The authorities had no knowledge of it till a score of men, with one of the brothers Rakitsky at their head, amid chanting pious songs, set fire to the farmhouse in which they were congregated and perished in the flames.

The police made inquiries, which led to startling discoveries of the progress made by "self-incendiaries." The other brother was arrested, condemned to hard labour and deported to Saghalien; but, while still in prison, he poured over him the contents of a petroleum lamp, set fire to himself, and expired in the prison hospital.

There was another sect of a similar kind and founded on similar religious grounds by Stephen Kolesnikov. I had the chance of becoming personally acquainted with this group.

Kolesnikov established himself in the province of Perm. His faithful followers cut their throats amid prayers. After several suicides had been discovered, Kolesnikov was imprisoned, sentenced, and deported to Saghalien. But he succeeded in escaping from there, and hiding from the authorities, lived for years in the province of Tomsk, migrating from one locality to the other.

All these sects have In any case a certain historical or canonical foundation. But in the north of Russia there exists a sect whose origin cannot be explained on such grounds.

I came across it in the northern part of the Perm province.

I saw a great gathering of peasants, of benighted, half-savage, illiterate men, exhausted by their struggle with hard, inexorable nature; there they stood, lazily and apathetically gazing at a wall of uncouth logs stopped with moss. I am sure their minds were blank, unless they were thinking of bread and brandy. But after a while, one of the peasants came up to the wall and began to bore a hole in it. He drilled the log through, and slowly, cautiously, and unctuously unscrewed the drill backward.

This done, together with the others he fell on his knees and yelled with a heart-rending voice:

"O, hole of ours, O, sacred hole! Help us!"

And for hours they kept imploring the hole in the log.

Who was it that invented this simplest of all gods—a hole? Who was the founder^, the prophet of this savage, idiotic sect, terrible in its madness and darkness?

No one has ever inquired into this question, but now, after many years have passed away, it seems to me that perhaps I am on the track of the solution of this riddle.

For in the northern territories of Russia the wintry night lasts for months. The sun disappears, everything becomes cold, hopeless, sick with an unknown yearning in the dark cottages with windows filled in with thick bladder instead of glass, covered with a sheet of ice, and snowed over as high as the thatched roof. Through a hole drilled in the wall a streak of moonlight enters; not even a beam of light, but perhaps only the faintly perceptible glimmer of its shine with which all nature, ice, snow, clouds, and stones are enveloped and enwrapped.

Is it possible that this hole in the wall and this scarcely noticeable gleam reminds those prisoners of the night of the moment of the appearance of the sun?

The birth of the sun! The myth of Helios! A myth in the primitive, arctic night-like, gloomy form. A different form for different men. For it is the country of forlorn tribes whom God and men have forsaken!