In 1932 I was
living in Leningrad and I discovered the practice of psychiatry because a mental
illness had just been revealed in someone very dear to me (2). It was dark times
already, scarcity in the cities, famine in the country, terror, unaccountable
assassinations, persecution of technicians, believers, peasants, oppositionists.
I belonged to this final category. It meant that, during the night, from the
very depths of sleep, my hearing was on the alert amid the noises of the
staircase for the ascent of footsteps to carry out the next arrest... A doctor
friend invited me to visit the oldest psychiatric hospital in the city, the
hospital of St John the Miracle-Worker, Bolnitza Ivana Chudotvorfsa, a
second-rate institution, overcrowded, dilapidated, surrounded by a sinister
reputation. 'I should particularly like', the doctor said to me, 'to bring to
your notice a strange, even amusing case, and, how should I put it? very
doctor looked alarmingly half-crazy himself, though he was a man of great
kindness, always controlled by a rare intelligence, at one and the same time
both limited and profound. In my memory I preserve a boundless regard for him.
He liked his ascetic life, more and more doomed to hardships, enclosed in a
little hell unknown to the world. He was tall, bony, bald, one-eyed. Broken
teeth gapped his smile. His academic gown of other times had only folds left and
a texture worn out through poverty. His cravats frayed. Though he had spent his
whole life in the hospital, he was only the deputy, and that was entirely his
own fault since he had objected to joining the party in power on conscientious
grounds. "That's barmy", they said round about him. "Why? He'd be the Head, he'd
get the rations of the first-class scholars”. I made no reply to these critical
through a high gate, first presenting my identification at the checkpoint. Bare
trees, the black earth sweating out the frost under a dull, autumn Baltic sky. A
featureless facade, painted yellow, scorched by smoke, breached by barred
windows; I went into a building of petrified silence. (It goes without saying
that the hospital no longer bore the name of the wonder-working saint: but
nobody knew its new name, I've forgotten it; the saint's memory lingered on
without a miracle, in neglect.)
received me in his office heated by a stove: pleasant. He looked at his watch in
- Excuse me, Victor Lvovich, you'll have to be patient a moment. It's the time
they come, I have to receive them.
They? The lightly-stressed pronoun intrigued me as if they'd been ghosts. The
doctor's one eye, a bulging eye, filled with secret flashes, aroused in me a
vague feeling of unease.
- You see, Victor Lvovich, our institution is attached to the OGPU... That is,
the OGPU send us their clients when they can do nothing else with them I've a
lot of them.
- Ah very good, I said stupidly.
later, They arrived, at the precise time. So punctuality still existed in this
world we live in, at least in these kinds of arrivals. I watched them come,
through the steamed-up double glazing, without hiding; my eyeglasses, I thought,
made me look sufficiently like a psychiatrist A van stopped in the garden. Two
beardless soldiers, wearing long, grey greatcoats, got out of the front seats
and took up their positions on both sides of the back door. Suddenly they drew
their cavalry sabres which to me seemed very long, broad, and shining, as if
they concentrated on their blades what little light there was on a dull day. And
in my head I played a mental patient's word game; pig-sticker, madman-sticker..
(3) A warrant-officer appeared, opened the van door, leant in. " Out you come
and smart about it, citizens!" he shouted. (Madman - sticker, citizen -
sticker...) and the citizens, the citizenesses loomed up out of their dark box,
jumping down awkwardly, for that box was high up on its wheels. The light of the
outside world visibly dazzled the citizens, the citizenesses. The motionless
sabres seemed to present arms absurdly to them. Male nurses in white took hold
of them smartly and escorted them to the hospital entrance close by. I counted
more than half a dozen arrivals, ordinary folk, like the folk you see on the
buses, almost without seeing them. It all happened quickly, in silence, without
surprise or protest. That day's load of political prisoners was made up of
peaceful madmen or rational neurotics simply thrown with fright. The nurses
supported them only as a precaution; without this aid, perhaps. they might have
flopped down gently on the black earth and we would have realised that they were
really only rag dolls, with wax faces, borrowed from the property room of the
producer Meyerhold. (This great artist didn't disappear until a few years
later...) The bright sabres went back into their sheaths, the van disappeared
from sight under the bare trees. The one-eyed doctor returned. He spread out his
reddish hands over the stove.
that, he said. All very quiet today. It's not always like that... I've nothing
to offer you, Victor Lvovich, not a drop of vodka A glass of tea in a few
minutes. Our restocking is pitiful.
- I guess as much, doctor.
He wanted to talk, for he lived in silence, turned warily in on himself, amid
the incoherent murmuring.
- These OGPU clients', he said, 'are sometimes very embarrassing from the
professional point of view. Upstairs you'll see a lass, a chinkarka (4), you
know their line: illicit traffic in alcohol...
- I know...
I knew these shady, dull little markets - without visible goods which gathered
behind churches. Groups of silent men, suspicious women, all drab, all
circulating slowly, with shifty looks. Passing close to you, a man or a woman
filtered between his or her teeth: 'Tea', 'sugar', 'watch cyma', 'borrowings
from the state' The chinkarka whispered nothing since you glimpsed a little
glass in the hollow of her hand. From the bottle hidden under her coat, she sold
vodka in small measures, a mouthful, half a mouthful, swig it quickly, citizen.'
It revives the will to live of those who can't even treat themselves to the
quarter litre.... Kindly chinkarka
blonde, the doctor went on 'Eighteen, Kostroma peasant girl... Caught red-handed
Sentenced to three years' log-felling in the forests of centre-north Siberia. It
seems it sometimes works quite well Rehabilitation through work. Too hard for
her. This kid escapes, gets back to Leningrad, God knows how, starts selling her
little glasses again. She can't do anything else, you don't need more than two
roubles of capital for it; prostitution is repugnant to her, a good many of our
peasant women are like that, they feel an inborn inhibition towards
prostitution... Caught in the act again, recidivist. This time, five years'
log-felling, in a colder region, of course. The prison, she's in a good mood.
she only thinks of the immediate future, she can 't picture the longer term.
Infantile. When the departure is given out, she has a fit of nerves at the very
last moment, becomes unfit to travel! She's sent to me... Here, she calms down
bit by bit, becomes pleasant, starts to live again. I sign her exeat, and it all
starts again, she's sent back to me, in a state. Now she's rational. Her
psychosis amounts to a dread of the forest... I ought to sign her exeat again.
What should I do, Victor Lvovich. Sign, or not sign?
- But, Doctor, put in a report to the OGPU. They ought to understand...
- No, you're the one who has to understand me, my dear fellow. I've put in
plenty of reports to them, believe me. I'm held in suspicion. I'm not in the
Party. It's not my job to criticise their decisions but to fill in forms...
He winked his one eye:
-And I'm a little afraid of the forest too, you know... At my age.'
This little joke cheered us both up. I saw the blonde chinkarka, guilty of
illicit traffic in alcohol. She was washing a corridor floor. She smiled at the
doctor who addressed her familiarly and affectionately, then said to me.
-Can't be helped If an inspection came round, I'd be in trouble. I'll sign her
exeat. I'm quite at ease on her account, they'll soon bring her back to me.
darkened by old dirt were filled with murmurings which crept over the floors in
the cold damp. We went into a number of rooms. I saw what there was to be seen
in these kinds of establishments. I only recall one incident. A dozen women
dressed in grey bonnets received us in a bare room, some drained, others
excited, a few without looking at us, several making obscene gestures, a number
surrounding the doctor, speaking to him all at once in gabbling voices. For a
brief moment I let my mind wander in fantastic solitude. The queer feeling you
sometimes experience under the barely discernible beam of a fixed look made me
turn round. I was face to face with a good-looking brunette, grave, almost
elegantly dressed in worn clothes, holland silk scarf tied tightly round her
neck. She looked at me with extreme care and asked, in a very low voice:
- Who are you?
- Member of the Writers' Union...
All very quickly very low, speaking decisively, her beautiful brown eyes staring
into mine. Fascinating, clear-headed, anxious. I thought of a bird you hold in
your hand, noting its excessive heartbeats. She hastily punched out her
sentences, every second counted:
- I trust you. Neither mad nor hysterical, you see. I've cried too much. Worker
at the Skorokod shoe factory, seven arrests the other night. For the love of God
or whoever you love, inform my parents. Remember my name, my address... That's
- I promise to inform them.
I remembered the name, the address. I caught a glimpse of quivering lips. With
the tips of my fingers I touched shoulders also stirred by a slight shaking. Try
to be calm. I wish you...
What could I wish her?
and I kept going through hideous-looking rooms. I was ashamed to be walking
there, useless and powerless. I was glad to remember a name, an address, the
vague feeling of a brunette's gaze...
- Well, doctor, I said, and your interesting, even amusing case, have you told
me about it?
-Right away, Victor Lvovich. Separate quarters. Top floor. We went up. The
doctor opened the door of a spacious cell which seemed to me suffused with
light. An ageing man, in a grey overcoat, was reading on the window-ledge, his
knees pointed. He turned his head calmly towards us. 'Good morning, Doctor. Good
morning, citizen.' Very sonorous voice, non-committal tone. The doctor
introduced us: 'Victor Lvovich K., writer... Nestor Petrovich Iouriev, lover of
literature. You'll undoubtedly have pleasure in meeting... I'll leave you for a
Iouriev: pale, asymmetrical face, made to look longer by a straggling, almost
white, goatee. In the depth of his eyes, a grey look, rather kindly, calm.
Narrow forehead, lined horizontally. 'A visionary', I thought. Delicacy.
Something too sharp in the features. I'm calling him Iouriev here because bun is
a Slav form of George and because, in The Lives of the Saints, St George slew
the dragon of Silenus whose wrath only subsided when he was given children to
me that he felt fine here, "like a monk in his cell", and that he'd felt just as
well in prison besides, "of course"
- You weren't ill-treated?
- Oh no. They were even pleasant after the first night...
- You're a writer? What are you writing? Iouriev asked me
- Forgive me, he said gently. Don't be upset by what I'm going to say. Essays
are useless, you must create...
- I also write novels
- Forgive me once more. There are so many lies and trifles in novels...
- I hope there are hardly any in mine...
- I hope so too, said Iouriev with a smile.
I felt he was sincere and defenceless. All at once I felt defenceless too.
- You've a fine window, I said, almost believing it.
- Isn't it? he resumed in a satisfied tone.
Through the dust-covered double-glazing we gazed at the bleak garden with its
splintered trees, the black earth, the row of erect tips of the railings a
glimpse of street without movement, bow roots, banks of smoky clouds.
- In my cell I've a lot of contact with space, Iouriev said.
We were decidedly sympathetic. So I had to come here, to the unfriendly city, to
experience this precious feeling - mutual in the presence of a stranger ('very
- I like writers who really have the courage to write, Iouriev said. I'd the
honour of knowing several: Rozanov, Guerschensohn, Sobogub, Blok, Bely.......
(An elite of the old days.)
- Pity, he went on, there are so many little humbugs in literature...
- Pity. I said lightly. Whom do you read?
- Dostoevsky. The best and the worst, inseparable He really looks for the truth
and is afraid to find it, and he often finds it in spite of himself, and then
he's terrified of it... A great man but unfortunate. Isn't that so?
- Yes, yes, I said frankly. We spoke in this manner for a few minutes. It seemed
to me that Iouriev made some astonishingly true, thought-out remarks, showing an
exceptional capacity for analysis. Who was he? I couldn't place him. Why here?
Arrived no doubt between the drawn sabres... Counter-revolutionary? Guilty of
mysticism? He turned to me more keenly. His searching look came close up to me
and he asked:
- Are you afraid?'
- Yes. Sometimes... Like everybody else...
Iouriev shook his head slightly.
- No, not like everybody else. If you're afraid, forgive me for saying, you're
an invalid who cultivates his illness. Fear is an infectious neurosis but
curable. The great mass neurosis. I’ve had it, I'm better. You can get over it
too, if you want. It's a question of...
He broke off
the conversation. He stared into space, far away from me, towards the enclosure,
beyond everything. I asked confidentially, for it might have been impossible for
me to raise my voice:
- It's a question of... of what Tell me.
- of liberation in depth... It's terribly hard to put over, that's the
unfortunate thing. It's as if you tore out a superfluous organ, an obscure
organ. It's infinitely easier to do than to say... It's enough to want...
The little grey eyes were looking for a way to pass on their hidden strength to
- Try to understand me beyond the words... Want at the darkest hour, get it?
- Perhaps, I said. I think that...
I was glad
the one-eyed doctor came back looking for me at that point. I took leave of
Iouriev with a long-drawn-out handshake. He assured me he needed nothing.
And the one-eyed doctor, in his cramped office, warmed his big, reddish hands
again over the lukewarmness of the stove. The bare branches of the trees
reflected their fixed gestures on the window like voiceless cries. A waitress
brought us two glasses of sickly tea and four pills of sugar no bigger than
match heads. The doctor's profile only showed me his empty socket: an old scar
closed with a bluish seam.
- I've only carrot tea to offer you, said the doctor. I won't have anything else
until the end of the month. Drink it quite hot.
- Surely he's freezing up there, your interesting case'
- No. He's tough. We're getting a little warmer. You know the physical stamina
of our patients is sometimes surprising.
- Who is he?
- A k.r., counter-revolutionary, serious case, charged under several paragraphs
of article 58 of the criminal code. You don't want my diagnosis, I hope. For
about thirty years, Iouriev sold papers somewhere on the corner of Liteini
Prospect and Easseinaya or Fanteleimomonovskaya Street, in the traditional
quarter of men of letters. He knew some of them, selling them papers on tick. He
has rare books, dedicated, the only things he values on earth. His books are
under seal, that makes him a little anxious.
- So you're afraid of losing them ? I asked him insidiously.
The word fear made him wince. He thought it over before replying that it would
be a genuine sorrow for him and that regret has some of the characteristics of
- But isn't anticipation of regret a fear? I insisted.
- No, he said, an anxiety rather. Would you want the thinking individual to live
without anxiety ? What is thought then if it isn't a courageous anxiety?
He's subtle, you see.
- Writers send him in bread and sausage so he's well fed. Iouriev says he has a
high opinion of them, while feeling sorry for them because they live in fear.
His particular misfortune- speaking objectively - is to have overcome fear.'
I went on
seeing only the scar of the doctor's missing eye under the enormous pale-pink
forehead. It seemed to me that I hardly existed for him and that he was for me,
at that moment, only an abstracted voice, without appearance.
- A German author once wrote the story of the man who had lost his shadow... In
this century, we don't even lose our shadow in the dark. It penetrates us and
shines round us. It's fear. Iouriev, humble citizen of our times, was ravaged by
it for a long time like you and me. The workers, he explains, are afraid of
dying of hunger it they don't steal, afraid of stealing, afraid of the Party,
afraid of the Plan, afraid of themselves. The guilty are afraid to own up, the
innocent are afraid of their innocence and of having nothing to confess. The
intellectuals are afraid of understanding and afraid of not understanding,
afraid of seeming to understand or not seeming to understand. The ideologues are
afraid of ideas, the believers afraid of acknowledging their beliefs and afraid
of betraying their faith. The people are afraid of the authorities and the
authorities are afraid of the people. At the pinnacle of the State, the men of
the Politburo are afraid of each other, afraid to act, afraid not to act, afraid
of the economic crisis, afraid of the consequences of their own actions, afraid
of the masses, afraid of war. The Leader is afraid of his subordinates, his
subordinates are afraid of him. He can't drink a glass of water without being
afraid of poison, he mistrusts his most faithful guards. Iouriev, whose system
of thought I'm summarising, thinks that the most powerful are the most unwell,
but not the most to be pitied. He trembled for nights without number though
nothing threatened him. He concluded that dangers exist but that they are
confronted more wisely with equanimity that fear fills the mind with phantoms,
debases us, darkens us. "But the instinct of self-preservation?" I said. -The
instinct of self-preservation wills the joy of living, he retorted. The
revelation came one morning. He woke up, delivered. No fear of anything -
anything. The very illumination of feeling clean. He felt on holiday. And
everything improved through the new-found self-confidence with which he tackled
his worries. He'd been refused bread cards because he'd tried to open a tiny
bookshop about fifteen years ago. Former capitalist, therefore He was so
confidently persuasive in front of a Board that everything was settled at once.
He could be happy, but had he the right to keep the secret of salvation to
himself ? Iouriev loves mankind. He spent several days writing beautifully with
his own hand forty Appeals to the People. Citizens, why are you trembling ? Why
are the members of our Great Party of triumphant Communism trembling? Why does
the government uncover plots which don't exist? Why are you afraid to raise your
voice against lies and flagrant injustice. Enough !. The nightmare will be over
tomorrow, you only have to want it. Look at each other honestly, without fear or
resentment, and the abomination will give way.... Iouriev signed the forty
appeals not through pride on his part. He added his address... He spent a night
sticking them up in the centre of the city, under the eyes of the militia and
belated passers-by. They took him for an ordinary bill-poster who was working a
little late to have more peace and quiet. And he went home to bed.
o'clock in the morning, a bloke in uniform and a bloke in civvies were knocking
at his door... His suitcase was ready. He was well aware that the government
wouldn't give him credit all at once: the psychological effort demanded by his
Appeal requires time. Several inquisitors from OGPU interrogated him turn about,
exhorting him, threatening him, seeking to side-track him. Who are your
accomplices ? What addresses of consulates do you know? Who paid you? What do
you think of capitalism? "They're mad !" he said sadly. A soldier whose patience
was exhausted called him a counter-revolutionary dog 'to be shot this very
night'.' Iouriev shook his head without departing from his unfaltering
good-will. "Control your nerves better, citizen chief ! I advocate the final,
the only true revolution. Let me explain. Tirelessly he proved to them that
fear made them lose their common sense, that they too could recover, like
himself; that it was the only road to salvation... So rationally convincing that
disconcerted uniforms saw in him an extraordinary pretender... Pretender to
what? Iouriev didn't flinch before the revolvers pointed at him "You'll never
forget what I've told you", he said to them. "I'll save you in spite of
yourselves Very worried higher officials took part in these useless
interrogations In the end they sent me Iouriev.. What do you think ?. .
Leningrad Hospital' was written in 1947 and first published in Preuves
(Paris), No. 24, February 1953, as 'la Folie de Iouriev' ('Iouriev's Madness').
It was collected in le Tropique et le Nord (Tropics and North), Paris,
Russakova, his second wife.
impossible to render the rhymes of this word game in English. Coupe-choux,
coupe-fous literally means short-sabre, madmen-cutter. Here I have used the
slang meaning of coupe-choux.
is a Ukrainian word for innkeeper, tavern owner or landlord.