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THE LENINGRAD HOSPITAL  

Victor Serge

 

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 topical...' 

This old 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 remarks. 

I went 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.) 

The doctor received me in his office heated by a stove: pleasant. He looked at his watch in embarrassment:
- 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.

A moment 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's 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

- Dumb 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. 

The corridors 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...
- Party
- No.
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 all.
- 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? 

The doctor 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 moment...'
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 gobble up. 

Iouriev told 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
- Essays...
- 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 strange case...').
- 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 me
- 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 love...
- 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.

At nine 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 ?. .

 

Translated by John Manson. 

Translator's notes:

1. 'The 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, 1972. 

(2). Liuba Russakova, his second wife. 

(3) It's 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. 

(4) Chinkarka is a Ukrainian word for innkeeper, tavern owner or landlord.