There was no horizon. There was nothing. The track ploughed in the snow crossed featureless plains. Lying stretched out on the sledges, the travellers saw only dull, white slopes on which an equally white and grey sky pressed down. When the whiteness was luminous, it hurt the eyes which closed before this unbroken, icy emptiness, on the point of becoming absurdly hot. When it was dull and grey, or, even more, shaded with a dirty yellow, this endless whiteness drove them to despair. Then the travellers asked the driver: 'How long to go? Thirty hours to the Cape, forty-five to the village.' They had voided their lives. Feet froze. Doctor Chud stirred in his wolf-skins, pulled a bottle from the bottom of a little case he kept under his head, and drank straight from it, down in the warmth of his bed. Three mouthfuls of spirits drew a satisfied grunt from him. Of an even shade of blue-grey stoneware cracked in the fire, his wild eyes showed in the folds of fur along with his shapeless nose, sought out Kirk lying beside him, and, more than his lips, suggested:
Which means precisely: This great drop of stuff almost in the same tone as one said 'this nice bit of stuff'.
Only, the doctor might have added, vodka is much better.
Kirk looked without seeing, since there was nothing to see. White slopes succeeded white slopes. Once, the sledge lifted on an unaccountable bend in the road and there was a jolt. To the right, Kirk saws colourless plain on which, in the distance, rested an utterly leaden low sky; to the left, the very same landscape. The sea too, motionless under ice and snow. Nothing in front: they could sense that the road opened easily with a push in the soft snow; and behind the sledge, the road was to close in again with a soft push of snow as irresistible as sand. Kirk lingered on the idea of sand, but his inert mind saw only, in bleak motionless relief, a dune in Central Asia, planted with withered bushes. He looked again at the driver's bent back, the horse's steaming hindquarters. He knew the slightest wrinkles of the sheepskin turned inside out, stretched on this human spine, the slightest tufts of faint browny-yellow hair on the hindquarters of the thin, good-natured beast, intelligent and tough, tougher still than man, who is certainly hardy...
‘Drink?’ On the point of closing in flushed sleepiness, Doctor Chud's mad eye kindled a tiny brand of anger deep down in Kirk; but he replied quietly enough:
'No, thanks,' with an old Russian word which means: 'God help you.'
A hundred and ten, a hundred and fifteen hours already on the trail. Woods showed up to the right of the road. Black and snow-covered. They passed a stream as hard as stone, the sledge almost turned over, old Chud got a whole shovelful of snow in his face; very drunk, it didn't fully wake him up. He only swore, like everyone else, spluttering terrible words of insult to women, become inoffensive. What happened next? They lost the road, marked now and then by pine branches. It snowed, the driver's back became invisible, the smoothly-gliding sledge seemed to float in mid-air, hanging among a dense mess of swirling flakes which blinded, penetrated into the slightest folds of clothes, covered everything, came on heavily. From down below, it's true, an illusion of warmth arose which induced the desire to sleep. To fall asleep, to die. What then? Doctor Chud murmured: 'I don't give a damn,' and covered his head. Abruptly, the swaying of the sledge stopped, Trofim's face covered in furs and snow poked through the thickening grey blizzard and Trofim said:
'Bad job. We're off the road.'
Alert, Kirk and Trofim listened instinctively, longing for a tinkling of little bells. Little hope, little bells are getting scarce, you don't come across them any more. The co-ops don't bother about selling them, maybe because they aren't made any longer. "We'd have to put the question of the making of little bells to the Supreme Economic Council”, Kirk laughed derisively to himself. He saw a broad, green table covered with papers, comrade Machin, an upstart from the last debate in the Party, presiding, and he saw himself opposite, putting forward, with quotations in support,- even inventing a sentence from Lenin for these idiots, - the need for the urgent manufacture of five million big, little bells for sledges, five million, no, - to raise the question on the scale of the whole Union, ten million, fifteen million, to overtake America, twenty million! and a year's production in three months... The Council members nodded their heads in time to the soft tinkling of millions of invisible little bells. At that moment, a dead silence came over Kirk, with all its weight of snow.
'Bad,' said Trofim. 'We've to get there before nightfall.'
And he vanished into the blizzard, two metres away to the horse he had to pat reassuringly. Kirk heard him speaking to the horse in a way he certainly couldn't speak to men, in a voice full of kindness: 'Good horse, good horse, let's go and look for the road, my friend, my friend...'.
And doubtless the animal looked at the man with infinite understanding, pricked his ears, sniffed the air ... Trofim came back, saying, Will find it, won't find it, will find it, It's God's will.'
‘Do you believe in God?’ Kirk asked.
'We're all in God's hand,' he replied,' but, of course, I don't believe in Him.'
Having wrapped himself up in his long reindeer-skin coat, Kirk stretched out his feet in the straw, under a squatting Trofim. The horse held back a moment, seemed to want to pull in opposite direction, to start; the swirling snow cleared, the sledge began to sway again imperceptibly... That lasted either a long time or a short time, for it was a kind of dream projected outside all precise duration. Trofim, who seemed to be asleep, suddenly sprang up, shouting: ‘The road!' and plunged into the snow. The barely perceptible tip of a pine branch was sticking out somewhere, meaning safety. Trofim picked up the reins again.
The blizzard was no more than a dream inside a dream, a dream of a dream, thought Kirk, before something else happened. A sledge came from the opposite direction, the two drivers came alongside. Which of them would reverse his load into the snow of the banking and put his horse into it to let the other pass? Seeing Trofim's expression as he came back, Kirk realised it was their right to pass. Two blurred shapes, wrapped in grey furs, watched them pass: a woman, a man, both vaguely distinguishable closer up, the woman small. Their wizened, shiny, browny-yellow faces shot little black looks from among the wrinkles.
'Where have you come from? Trofim asked them, and his voice echoed, lilting, with long, low modulations.
'From Mgla', the man said, in a tart voice.
Simple, white designs, circles traversed by radii and chords, decorated his fur collar.
Mgla: Darkness. White darkness. Gray in winter. Boundaries of life: 24 houses, 129 inhabitants, 21 kilometres from the nearest village... Upright in the sledge, Chud looked at the Samoyeds, glassy-eyed.
'Mgla, Mgla,'he repeated. 'Darkness. Where we all come from!' he murmured.
In the falling darkness, a black house suddenly overlooked the road, with its sightless windows, boarded up. Built of thick trunks floated down the rivers in spring. A faint, reddish-brown light fell from the half-open door.
'In the old days,' Chud said,'there was a kind of inn here, kept by an old man of the Castrati sect deported under the ancien regime because of the spreading of the sect in the Pskov region. He had the 'great seal, everything off, everything. It was terrifying to see. He believed he was a saint. He was all there, the old man, a hard worker, sober, Herculean, who knew every tuft of moss in the country. He loaned the Samoyeds money, powder, food. He hired out horses. He was deported again somewhere else, this time as a rich men..’
A low log fire burned in the big stove of the ramshackle room. Lying down on the stove, the shelter's watchman showed his bearded head in the half-darkness and gave his opinion:
'Yes, he was a holy man.'
Then they heard him stir, cough, breathe deeply before falling asleep.
A little lamp lit the room feebly. The corner table, stout enough to withstand a shipwreck, was as filthy as the floor. To be warmer, Trofim went to sleep with the horse, behind the partition. Night fell so intensely that, from the threshold, none of the snow's whiteness could be seen even. But a continuous, far-away howling gave it life, resonance of the darkness, noise of wind on the tundra, murmur of forests, the unknown.
Kirk opened one of his last tins, meat and flour. Chud ate his black bread dipped in cod-liver oil. ‘Taste my caviare,' he said courteously. The bread was dry, it needed dunking. Chud cut off a green mouldy bit which he nibbled a little around the edges before throwing it under the table. His brown hands were wrinkled and glossy like the feet of certain birds. Full up, he took a pencil and jotted down some figures in his notebook. Cross-legged, warm in his long reindeer-skin coat, Kirk smoked one after another these coarse little Tractor cigarettes, made of hops, straw, and whatever else. (In four days be would be out of them.) The tea-boiler hummed on the fire.
With a purplish-blue nail, he pointed to a figure in his notebook.
'Rheumatism, 34,' Kirk read. 'Or 94, I can't see clearly.'
Doctor Chud had a broad, wrinkled brow, gaunt cheeks sown with grey hairs, a bristly moustache, the nose of two knotted bones. He looked out from the depths of his moist eyes which always seemed on the edge of wildness.
'No,' he said triumphantly, and his smile bared his irregular teeth, greenish at the base, but well set. 'No, neither 34 nor 94, - 74. That's what comes of trying to make out other people's figures !'
'And then, you know, I don't give a damn for these statistics I make up. They're not important at all. 34, 94 or 74 cases of rheumatism in Mezen', what can that really matter to whom, I ask you? Who will read my report? If by chance it's printed, I'm sure the printers will jumble the figures; besides, if a member of a conference quotes them, he'll muddle them in turn, with several chances of missing the true figures again, that has happened to me. Figures, statistics, people only count in the mass, in the long run. Between a 3 and a 7, difference zero. Thirty or fifty kilometres of plain, twelve or fifteen hours on the sledge, what difference does it make? You or I, dead or alive, I ask you, stop a minute, what does it matter, to whom, to what? Listen, If we were to disappear this instant, this house, Trofim, the human being snoring there, pooh, all carried off by a blast of wind, to the Pole and beyond, without leaving a trace, who'd notice, tell me, please?
He made bizarre gestures which were his alone, cutting the air with both hands held out to make a statement, cutting the light of the lamp even to extend the assertion.
'It's true, 'Kirk said, amused, 'If we all suddenly disappeared, pooh ! that would be funny...'
And he had the childish desire to open the door to the night, the howling of the night, the terrible cold, as if to tempt the void.
'Brandy? the doctor offered. 'I do what I have to do. Why? Why does the mother hen sit on the eggs? What does she know about it? Why are we making this journey here? Because the Head Office of the Co-ops of the Northern Region sends you? Wouldn't it be better to send another box of matches? Because the Ministry of Public Health wants to have a doctor's tour of the Winter Shore to include in its statistics? But I'm sure the printers will put zero and they'll be right ! The whole country is sick, rheumatism and intestinal disorders. You'd have to abolish cold, damp, hunger. I come with my little box of medicines almost empty. I drink my oil not to die myself. I drink my alcohol not to go mad. And-you? What good are you?
Kirk felt the cold coming in through the thick trunks of the wall. Dirt, these cigarettes. Something bridled up in him, a stubborn old resilience, not easy to wear out. He looked sternly in front of him, searching for a refutation of this night's despair. The alcohol glowed gently, live coal, a little below his heart.
'Comrade Chud, listen, 'he said, 'you're worn out, that’s your business. I understand that. For myself, my life suits me. I know what I'm doing here. I know what you're doing, and devil take you if you're not satisfied. True, they'll find someone else. We're both powerless, true also. We're worms flattened out under a stone. The stone is heavy, all the same worms turn: are you sure they won't finally lever off the stone? For once, above all, I've been satisfied with my life as never before. In no way to want to exchange it. Give me a drink. There's some left.'
'It was in '20, in the Ukraine. I had stayed behind in a little town in the rear of the Whites, to try to restart the Party organisation. Someone denounced me. I was caught in the street, taken to counter-espionage, beaten unmercifully, I pass over the details, they're tiresome. At last a rather likeable colonel said: "Shoot him. I thought: "Good, now it's my turn ..". I had sometimes given the same order, every time asking myself deep down: "When will my turn come? You have to be logical. Two soldiers take me away. And they had fine heads. I see them: long Cossack moustaches, peaked cap on the back of the neck, typical, you know! And in a good mood: "Well, brother, they ask me, where d'you want to be shot? In the yard or down there beside the little wood?" "Near the little. wood," I say, "I'd have time to smoke a cigarette", for we weren't smoking straw like to-day. We set out, me in front, them behind, according to custom. We go along the main street. I looked at the houses, harled and whitewashed, the big yellow blooms of the sunflowers, the trees, the stooped girls who were coming back from the well with their two pails of water, as if I had never seen them. A marvellous sun dazzled everything. At first I thought of escaping: chancing it, bolting? The likelihood was really tiny with two rifles behind me. At that point, I thought that it was all over, that I was seeing this bright light for the last time, and I waited to weep, to cry out, to roll on the ground, to thrash about, and I began to shake, to shake. You know, it's a strange feeling when your legs begin to tremble, then your chin: and you hear your teeth chatter. However I walking, bearing up, hoping they wouldn't see me shaking and that perhaps, at the verges of the little wood, going along the track, I'd be able to try my luck. We were getting near. And there I met a man who stopped to pity me. Not old, of indeterminate age, insignificant: a short jacket, a scarf, fairly clean shirt, short torso, pot-bellied, full face, mouth half-open, bad teeth: wide nostrils with pale hairs inside. He looked at me, he was afraid, and I didn't see his eyes, I only saw his look, his fear. He shook more than me. I realised that he was the least of the world's men, the smallest, the most cowardly, the most useless; that he had a very little life at his disposal, a bug's existence in a bedstead - and that he was sorry for me! I thought that was fantastic, I almost burst out laughing, and all at once, I felt so well, content to be there and to be what I was two hundred steps away from the little wood. In a few seconds I thought over my whole life, which has dark pages and pages which disgust me, and I was content, in spite of everything. We went our different ways, the least of men and I, but I wasn't shaking any more And all at once I thought: the great revolution is passing, it's sweeping me away, and the least of men is left!' And so, comrade Chud, the desire to live came back to me, as it must come back: unshakable. It has stayed.'
‘The rest,' Kirk finished, his outburst at an end,' isn't interesting.'
In this white land the villages are all alike. A fold in the plain; two rows of wooden houses, spaced out by custom for fear of fire. Black from far away; grey from near at hand, the colour of the worn wood and the poor land of the north. In spring and in autumn, the sodden main street is no more than a mire. There carts slump about for a long time, children squelch in the mud, the blue of a splendidly cleared sky, with drifting white clouds, is mirrored in the pools. In winter, they're prisoners of the cold; in spring and autumn, of the mud. In summer, liberation of the waters, of the sea, of men, the night's hugs under the stars, soft breathings of the whole earth, forgetting the frost. Now forgetting the summer is the rule. Why here, these stranded houses lost in the whiteness, why not there? They've done leagues and leagues, four days' journey through infinite space. They'd go on indefinitely, rocked by the gentle rolling of the sledge. At last this useless village shows up. Contrariness of the mind, useless contentment of the body: they can sleep in the warmth, eat, drink tea.
‘There won't be tea', Chud said, responding aloud to Kirk's thought. 'Even last year we mostly only drank boiled water.'
Here the houses are quite big and well situated. In front of the ones with red signs teams halt, reindeer and horses. The clumsy shapes of the people and the more graceful shapes of the animals stand out in sharp silhouette on the snow scarcely marked by the carts.
'Let's go to Bezrukikh's.'
Bezrukikh, in spite of his name which means The Son of the One Armed, has strong enough arms and hard hands, stitched by scars, fingers twisted by rheumatics. His beard is pungent, Straw-coloured, his nose flat: his little grey, always lively pupils in the depths of the sunken sockets cast a distrustful flash sideways at Kirk, clad in fawn-coloured leather under the reindeer-skin coat. "You don't like authorities, citizen, that's obvious ', thinks Kirk unperturbed, but Bezrukikh smiles courteously to him. In his house the old, well-ordered way of life is seen, more durable than time, more durable than man, more durable than anything. The white desert stops, controlled at the threshold of this house. Two young women bow to the Strangers, and they have fine curved foreheads. - From one forehead to another, who knows how the highest intelligence develops through the ages? Kirk is seized by optimism again. Ideas come to him. It's hot. There's tea, by good luck, they've afforded it, in spite of the poor fishing, they'll make some for the guests. 'Welcome!" Bezrukikh said solemnly. "You'll sleep in the Best Room", the gomitza, reserved for those who honour a house and for newly-weds.
The house has only one entrance leading to a clean hall: to one side the byre, the barn, the shed where the implements, the harness, the sledges, the stores are put away; to the other, the living quarters. A mother doesn't have to go out to milk the cows. The same heat bathes man and beast. You enter the living space by a low door: mind your head. The room is spacious, made for the whole of life: work, eat, talk, sleep. A big stove, with an oven in which bread can be baked. A big bed: parti-coloured bedspreads, eiderdowns, white cushions piled on top of each other, a very small one right on top. The father and mother sleep here. The old folks stretch out on the stove, under the ceiling, in the stuffy luke-warmth amid the stirring of cockroaches which you hear clearly during the night if you listen: these thousands of tiny moving legs and long frayed wings add a soft metallic rustle to the silence. Sometimes, too, you'd say, a rustle of silk. Boards run under the ceiling, laden with things. Corner table, benches round it, in the old style, icon. No, Bezrukikh is an unbeliever. What you mistake at first glance for an icon, is the head of the Elder Statesman of the Republic, with spectacles and goatee, hanging pretty much in the same place, cut out and stuck on a backing of red paper, wily old Kalinin, first President of the Central Executive Committee of the Federative Union, member of the Politbureau, in no way a saint, but a real ruler, the kind that fix the taxes. Scant light, but much more than in the cave of their ancestors. The spinning-wheel whirs, a rickety child, with bare little bow-legs, plays on the grubby floor with everlasting pebbles. 'The mother must be consumptive', says Doctor Chud.
He comes in from the Soviet rubbing his hands. 'I'm going to destroy a legend. They say the whole village is syphilitic. It's not true, barely 4% and secondaries; and yet that must have been true, - legends are nearly always old truths. Admire life: it has overcome the disease on its own. Some generations are dead, that's all.' Kirk comes back from the Co-op., his brow lined with furrows which in him shows a bad mood. Senseless prices, idiotic goods. Tege face powder, bunch of idiots, a stock of spoiled preserves that nobody buys; you'd have to be a complete idiot to take them: they've been put down on the inventory for four years, you see, and the price is regularly put up in line with the circulars ! Petrol, rationed. Soap shortage, no way of fulfilling the rations even: two pounds a family for the fishing season; tea shortage (a hundred and twenty-five grammes for the season likewise, only the sharpest have got it; sugar shortage, the only thing in relative abundance anywhere else! Believe it or not, they let the paltry meat rations rot, which the fishermen couldn't take for lack of money (and because, moreover, other fools didn't pay their wages...).
'Why didn't you give it on credit?' I ask.
'It's not allowed, the Centre has put out a circular, and all the fishermen are already in debt, they'll never get clear of it.'
‘Why didn't you salt it?’
'We've neither salt nor barrels; we're short for the fish.'
‘So the meat had to rot, you idiot bungler miserable bureaucrat?
The poor fellow makes an evasive gesture with his hands and answers dejectedly: 'Yes, it had to rot, see the circulars ..'He has all the circulars on his desk, in the most glorious disorder.
'Are there nails? No. Nets? No. Lines? No. Textiles? No. The same with everything: no and no.'
The poor fellow says, 'My predecessor is in prison because he gave credit: he ended up three thousand roubles in the red.'
Nobody makes nets any more; what would they make them with? And what will they do next year without nets, for heavens' sake?
At arm's length Kirk picks up the half-naked child who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry and bawls; 'Diadia! Diadia! (Uncle! Uncle!). Reindeer pass slowly in front of the window shaking their oddly decorative antlers.
Full of life, Chud replies: 'Dear comrade, they'll do without them. As without medicine. They do without everything, my friend!'
Bezrukikh shakes his head in disapproval. 'They die without medicine and without priest, and even to better account; they don't fish without nets!'
It's supper, the young women hurry. They've left their spinning-wheels and dress upstairs; they're heard running from one end of the bedroom to the other. The grandmother has come back, sitting close to the stove, a brown head scarf knotted under her chin, she knits stockings. She has asked the newcomers only if there's wool in the capital and the price. The answer made her heave a long-drawn sigh, but she doesn't cross herself any longer since a Governor's portrait has replaced Saint Cyril’s figure (Even the leaders of the Revolution are Governors to her.)
Thirty years younger, Marfa looks like her already from the stooping shoulders bent over the oven, the knotted head scarf about her face, the dreadful wear and tear on her hands. It's fifteen years now since Marfa danced at the soirees; she was no sooner married than the war started, Bezrukikh went away, not to come back for four whole years: 'I thought it was someone else who was trying to tell me a lie when he said: 'It's!...' 'You, my husband, you?" He came back old, worn out, boasting. He told me straight out: 'I'm poisoned. Gas, you understand?' And I was frightened to kiss him, but when he picked up his tools again, I recognised his manner, and I wept: 'it's you all right.' 'I recognise my harpoons;' he said, already smiling at the sea. Then the police officer was killed on the road.
Soldiers came back saying: 'It's the Revolution, missus, we're going to live it up, they've drunk our blood enough!' And Bezrukikh went away again for two years, for he didn't want to serve with the English. For a year he lived in the forest like a wolf. The men had become wolves. And when he came back, he shouted: Take down the icon, missus, there's only men on the earth and stars in the sky
Youth has passed. Marfa serves the sour fish, yellow and rancid, starting to rot, the moistened bread, still hard, the cream cheese. The steaming samovar hums in the middle of the table. Bezroukikh chews slowly and now and then runs his fingers through his beard.
'How's life? Kirk asks him.
'Life?' says Bezroukikh, evasively. 'Look at it, you'll see.'
'How's the fishing? Chud takes up.
'The fishing? Pretty bad. Last year we went into a collective, now you draw your ground by lot or the artel1 sends you. I’ve a bad spot, for navaga2 We earn twenty to a hundred roubles a season, I've lost fifteen. I did March to May on an Ice-breaker; June to September on the Murmansk coast, the cod season; a hundred roubles down when I got back. And left again for the navaga fishing in the North. This time, good fishing. The Co-op takes our fish at five roubles twenty the pood. The artel keeps 25%; when my food comes off, and my voyage, twenty roubles net left. At the end of the year, a hundred and thirty roubles up, in total. To pay: tax, voluntary tax which has been voted for the upkeep of the road and the school, State insurance, co-operator's share, a hundred roubles plus; textiles received on credit, twenty; the family's rations for the year, two hundred and sixty. Total: two hundred and fifty down. Luckily I have my eldest In Vologda, In a brick-works; he sends us boxes of dried bread, sometimes almost white; they're in luck down there. The two girls work by the day. We've had a boarder who paid us well: money's no object to townsfolk. He was a Party man, come to arrange the delivery of milk by contract: we'll have to supply the Co-op with a hundred and sixty litres of milk per cow per year, we'll no longer have enough. Twice I drove passengers to Mezen' by horse, that brought me In fifty roubles, more than three good months' fishing. I can get by, but there are some who are right at the end of their tether. The man goes off to sea, without being able to pay for his family's rations. What will happen to them? - "There's a benefit fund !" Galkin replies. Go and see, at the benefit fund, everyone owes, nobody can pay, the Commission Is so much In debt itself that it daren't say anything. It’ll end up with an exemplary trial at the club, but where's the money?'
Kirk knew about all that before they told him. Problems as uniform as the plains, the same everywhere. In silence heat ate the spoiled fish and the black bread like bark.
'I'm sorry for the sea', Bezrukikh said. 'The young men leave it. They don't know how to love it any more. We were different. The young men say: "The see doesn't feed us and there are cinemas in the towns."
The see asks only to feed men. You have to see it in spring, when the sun doesn't set, you have to see it In a temper when the wind blows from the west: even the fish are afraid of it, I tell you, and that's the time we have good catches.'
Piatochkin's going away. He has left the artel, as poor as a tramp. He'd gone in with his boat and his tackle worth eight hundred roubles. Hell be paid back, In line with the rules half at the end of the year. when the books are made up. He already owes as much on all sides. And If he owed nothing to anyone, like a real lord, what could he buy with his money? Who'll sell him a boat? It's against the law. And there's none. Everyone's in the artel. Yes, he could drink, but he drinks enough already, all the saInts' days, and the holidays for the Revolution and to forget; and you can't always get spirits. He said to me, Bezrukikh, goodbye. You won't see me again. There's better pay In the docks, there you're as free as the wind: speak and spit where you like."'
That makes one man less for the coast.
Kirk and Chud slept that night in the Best Room, decorated with old carved wood. A poster in red tints showed, rising above the Kremlin. huge steel structures, skyscrapers, chimneys, an enigmatic and formidable machinery. in the crimson sky above it, a giant hand dropped this figure of the triumphs of industry In the era: 518. Black letters studding the sky, the ground: masonry and machines proclaimed: The decisive Third Year of the Great Plan. Kirk looked closer at a reindeer finely carved, rather cut In bone, on the window ledge - the void beyond skilful work of young artists who don't know their own worth. As long-suffering a the centuries, squatting In the smoke, under bell tents of felt and skin, overlaid with snow: white mole-hills for man-mole, to be found a thousand kilometres from hero in the polar void. - The animal's vivid contour was the same as two thousand five hundred years ago on the gold ornaments found in the Siberian tumuli; - and this contour was like the prehistoric artists' - six thousand, ten thousand years ago? - who, living in the same yurts perhaps, carved with the very same hands perhaps reindeer contours from mammoth bones. Around them, in the same semi-darkness, the same stink of fish. To-day's race is on the threshold of a new destiny perhaps. The soundwaves sometimes bring it the promise and the exhortation of the Party leaders, the Esperanto courses, the Grand Theatre concerts, the good news of the world Crisis.
Happily standing naked in the warmth of a civilised shelter, Chud made his bones crack. He blew out the candle end and the void pervaded the room, siding in unexpectedly through the cracks in the shutters.
'Kirk ... Are you afraid of death?’
Still standing at the foot of the bed, Kirk drew himself up from head to foot:
'What?... No, I've too many things to do yet. And I'd like to see how this whole business is going to turn out.'
'It strikes me you like pointless questions...'
Chud's lazy drawl came from very far away:
-'Me? I don't give a damn. We live by force of habit...'
Silence was born from the void. But the cows stirred in the byre, warm weak sound
The Arctic circle cuts In two this country, which has no end perhaps, and of which the seventh star of the Little Bear shows in the sky the ideal centre. The Winter Shore is wooded, marshy, sown with dull little lakes, like bluish diamonds set in old bronze in the middle of the woods, seen from very high up, from where no one sees them. From down below, this dull water has bleak steel-like reflections. Over stony tracts the tundra sends up its sapless bushes, its pale little flows, its grasses which focus colour and light with a gentle r . The grebes' tight crosses the pale sky. To the south, forests close In which have been there since the end of the ice age: armies of woodcutters front the state-controlled Forest Trust of the North hack away the edges further down, towards Mezen'and Onaga; in spring, the dead trunks of old felled trees float down all the bluish rivers to the sea: timber for England, wealth for the businessmen of the West gold for us, gold for machines, machines for the future. Clearing the neglected booms at the river estuaries, this floating gold Often goes on to the sea, then to the open sea, over the ocean, on lost voyages, at the sea current.' when. The returning icebreaker crews gaze on the undoing of men's labour.
The Winter Shore runs out to a Cape, turns Into the neck of the White Sea - opposite the rounded coast of Tersicly, Kola Peninsula, Lapland; - bends back on Koyda, then Dolgoshchel'ye, Longue Crevesse, ten hours by sledge over the plain, drops down towards the Mazen' estuary, extends Into the Interior of the country, through the forests: settlement. at the deported, huts and dugouts on the edge of the clearings, little white crosses, crowded together, all new, and added to (dysentery, typhoid, typhus; the floating wood, the wood which is gold, wealth for the businessmen of the West gold for machines, machines for the future, the wood often lost, often carries away its weight of flesh). Over the Mezen, the forest. stop. for the earth is too poor :boulders. Bare coast, tundra, snow desert for seven months, desert hardly taking on green In summer, fair desert suffused with light; twenty hours by sledge and Mgla-Darkness - human darkness in the Northern plain, twenty houses set at the edge of the sea, between two deserts; higher up, Nes', on the road which leads to the Pechora, by the land of Kanin, inhabited by birds, given over to the sea, to the sky and to the Samoyed hunters called Nental. If, for fifteen days, you followed the rout which winds through the plain, you would arrive, worn out by the bleakness of life, in the middle of limitless landscapes, at Pustozersk, Desert of Lakes, on the Pechora as wide as an arm of the sea.
Pustozersk, battered by such winds that the bones in the cemetery are sometimes carried away with the sands. Fishing station, red corner, Stalin's portrait, social education In the hands of a deportee wearing pince-nez who would maybe tell you:
"I'm the oldest inhabitant In this region. You think I'm forty? Maybe I'm three hundred. Under Alexis Mikhailovich, the second Romanov, they exiled here the Old Believers who persisted in making the sign of the Cross with two fingers, according to the old custom, and not with the three which the Church brought in, claiming to have rediscovered a more ancient law. It must be added that they weren't condemned for the error which was only yesterday's faith, but for disobedience. The protopope Avakum lived fourteen years in the cellar of a house doubtless like enough this one, before being burnt In 1682. The great boyar, Artamon Sergeyevlch Matveyev, Alexis Mikhailovich's favourite, exiled his enemies to Pustozersk; he came himself in 1675. Under Anna Johannowna, two hundred years ago, the Secret Chancellery deported suspects here; this chancellery must have been a model Institution, far advanced for its time, for it worked admirably; the deportees were given new names, their files even were destroyed, they disappeared Under Nicholas 11, the men who sent me here have perhaps come this way themselves. It's very possible in fact that I, too, may have signed exile orders for these parts, for the individual can't do much when faced with the forces of history (but what I can do, I do ...). This desert of white lakes, with its bitter winds, its snows, its broad, dull river, Its age more persistent than its winds, as limitless as the tundra, bright and heart-breaking as its snows, this desert is the oldest Russia which breaks through and carries on through everything and makes everything adapt including the Revolution...'
Because the Revolution is incomplete.
So speaks a man steeped in learning, freely lyrical in speech. If you asked him:
'And what d'you think?’
He'd reply, with the stern look he has when he becomes a theorist again:
'You see, you'd have to define the dictatorship of the proletariat.'
But don't take him on in a debate, compromising only for yourself. Let him take his gun and go out and shoot wild duck on the bank of the Pechora, while meditating on the decline of the British Empire. Once a year Chud goes a hundred and fifty leagues to see him: 'It does me so much good', he says, 'to sit facing a man who still thinks... l don't know if he's right or wrong, I don't give a damn, I'm inclined to think he's wrong like all the rest who put up a fight; for the survivors are right and they survive who adapt; but I go and see him in the same way as we hold our hands to the fire to warm them.'
Spring comes. Birds feel its coming. The sky has tones of sunrise. The Samoyeds race along the trails to exchange in the co-op depots the soft white, grey, silver fox furs, ermine pelts, the little russet squirrel skins, warm to the touch, for matches, powder, shot .thread, wool, alcohol, alcohol. The eager animal with the pointed snout, and shrewd eyes, which sped on the snow as white as herself, has bled to death; her fur flung on the fine lot offered to the Furriers’ Association relapses into living curves ; the triangular head stretches back to the luxurious brush as If the animal was curling up to go to sleep. What delighted stranger will one day put her cheek to this velvet-like softness of lukewarm snow? They're worlds apart Yeni the Wise knows nothing about these women.
Yeni is going to get drunk. That persevering, hazardous hunt, which ended in unearthly moonlight, is easily good for two big bottles. With impassive face, Yeni laughs to himself: for he wears on his belt a bears eye-tooth and claw; thanks to which he has good hunts. The sale’s over. Wearing knee-high boots, Comrade Galkin stands over the furs, shouts, laughs, gesticulates: ‘Not a first-class skin, all seconds.’
‘Not true !” goes Yeni the Wise hurt to feel that he’s being robbed, still admiring the dead animals, despising the Russian who always tells lies.
Several centuries and a civilisation apart, Galkin and Yeni look alike: same broad face with sniffers’ nostrils, same flattened shape in the middle of the nose, same deep-set little eyes under the same determined forehead) same jaws without heaviness, but shut severely. They exchange sly smiles which make the wrinkles round the mouth and eyes radiate out. Galkin is fair, but bed food has given him a sallow complexion. Yeni the Wise verges on the yellow, but the beard he wears like a collar is grey. A drooping, dingy-white moustache shadows his mouth. He has finished up acquiring the crafty expression of the animals he has hunted for forty-five years between the fortieth and ninetieth parallels, the White Sea and the Yenisey. His shifty look is a foxs,* caught in a trap. So what ... The buyer is in the stronger position.
(*Perhaps because he feels like the fox - note in the original)
‘So many people have to survive on your furs...’, Chud thinks, and he says:
‘Yeni, you’ re making a good bargain. Let’s go to the Club.’
The village people say ‘Karpov’s house’ more readily. The Club was in this house, the second lest at the end of the road, where infinity begins again. Club of the name of.. The name has slipped, nobody will bring it up again. The taciturn Karpov, an uncouth fellow, lived there with his two sons, wrights all three And wet coopers, carpenters and everything. Three families in one, five adults, seven children. It’s a tangled tale; if they’d been given a share: four horses, six cows, they might hardly have been ‘middle peasants’. The Commune Executive Committee where they had an enemy, the former suitor cut out by one of Karpov's daughters-in-law, put them all together on the list of the ‘rich’. Certainly by the January memorandum they had a cow too many and, making allowance for tax, were indeed ‘rich’. From the May explanatory guidance, in fact, no, at the very most they could be classified with the ‘well-off middle’ peasants; they were even a horse short for that. Came the March directive, late: the Commune Executive gave notice that at least 2% of the village ‘rich’ had to be ‘liquidated’. They had a meeting, a thorough scrutiny; a great rumpus. The Karpovs were able to pass for three families while only making one, there was no need to look further, the Instructor sent by the Executive clearly hinted. All the village women wept, all the men drank, swore (and fought afterwards), when Karpov was expropriated by order of the Centre, can’t be helped’. The militia had come from the District. They had to take aim at the old man to make him drop his axe; they wrenched him away from his money-boxes. The women yelled heartbreakingly, the two sons had gone to bed dead drunk in order to blot everything out: they ware taken away on a cart-load of straw, bound as a precaution, and their kids sitting shaking on it Bezrukikh shouted in the street, ‘We didn’t make the Revolution for that!
I’ll go and see Kalinin, he’ll have to give me an answer...’ They managed to hide their large silver samovar in the expropriated man’s cart, under the drunk man and the personal belongings... That’s the end of it, let’s say no more about it. Twenty days later came the memorable circular from the District Committee which prescribed an immediate end to improper expropriations. The secretary of the Commune Executive got an awful fright. There was some talk of arresting him. People thought about bringing Karpov back: he’d just died felling trees. His sons wrote, from a Vologda sawmill, that they were staying there, earning twice as much as before. The village has no more wrights, that’s the trouble. On the door of one of the rooms of Karpov’s house Galkin put a tine sign drawn in red ink:
That’s where he calls in the Samoyed hunters to pay them. At great length he explains to them that they have to ‘collectivise’ he hands them a paper to sign, gives thorn ‘a dram’, shakes hands effusively, anxious only to know if they've fully understood, If indeed they're going to come back as they undertake to do, to ‘organise’. The Samoyeds are polite, silent, sly; they often pretend not to understand. In the evening, dead-beat, Galkin opens his note-book and works out percentages: total membership, number of reindeer, number of families... It’s a matter of exceeding the expectations of the Plan. The Commission’s first alternative: collectivisation of the nomads of the Far North in 1933,17%. Second alternative, 35%. All the figures are laid down in advance, it only remains to fulfil them. In this region in 1933 there will be 1757 collective farms for breeding reindeer; the stock will rise from 655 000 head to 781,000. The nationalised farms will provide 62.5 % of the meat, leather and furs needed by the State, the collective farms 7.4%; the private farms which still produce 99% won’t deliver more than 30%. Such will be the victorious march of socialism in the Arctic tundra. The centuries, the Polar climate, the lack of fertility of the soil, the limitless spaces, the sorcery of the Shamans will be overcome by order of the Central Committee. Galkin’s going to be on the Regional Committee. His road in life is straight, with the of the interruption which the bullet of a Samoyed stock breeder, duly collectivised, can make.
The best room of Karpov's house serves as a Club. The furniture as still there. There used to be the greenish portrait of an obscure comrade recently named head of the Government; but since the papers denounced him as an instigator of counter-revolution, Galkin turned the portrait to the wall and stuck in this frame a strip of pink paper which reads.
Europe sharpens its knives,
Two strips of red calico bring together one above the other, two scraps of inscriptions for the occasion:
Down with Illiteracy.
The unusual mildness of the air foretells the oncoming of the thaw: a blue sky which seems suffused with light rests on all sides on white horizons. Men’s eyes aren’t made for so much brightness, they hurt In the bedrooms the young women finish dressing for the soiree They’ve put on red gala-dresses with white or blue flowers, blue dresses with red, pink and green flowers, orange and raspberry, they're all dressed in colours, for the eyes’ delight; lightly-laced over the breasts, the gala-dresses define busts like statues; we’ll soon see when they dance, tall, human flowers moving lithely. They tie bright head-scarves, they laugh about this evening with pleasure; they smile to each other and here they go to Karpov’s house, through an infinitely cloudless twilight. At once an accordion strikes up its jerky tune. Four voices as fresh as the throats of the young women and the gay colours they’re wearing rise in a single, laughing voice:
Ring, my gold ring
The four girls have the same loud laugh, both piercing and soft, as other white girls. The accordion recalls the reeling delight of a drunk man. A manly voice, shaking with suppressed laughter too, throws out, mocking:
Your clothes are old,
The little old church looks with Its blind eyes as these singing young people pass. An unknown architect has designed this simple work, unappreciated on the whole by the very people who see it. But does the beauty of the Ely of the field need to be beheld? Hardly any finer than a fisherman’s house, the church is built of planed boards. A hexagonal tower topped by a pointed bell-tower and, high above, by a green globe, overlooks the cemetery. The bulkier had tried his hand at putting up, in wood, a big, fat globe which now looks like the too-pointed, overturned hull of a fishing boat. The lines of the old wood sag, living, bent like everything else living in this country, by a kind of exhausted melancholy. The colours have all faded. (This church had been closed unanimously by the seven voters out of the forty-six present, to put an end to ‘the opium of the people’. Nikon, the deacon, the spiteful old soak, had fled; he’s up to all the dodges and has friends who hide him at sticky times. In sorrow the people asked ,‘What’s opium? Galkin was sending a report from the ‘Godless cell to the Commune, announcing the ‘final liquidation of capitalist superstition, on the 27th, between two and four in the afternoon’, when Nikon turned up with a paper m which the Party leader himself blamed the ‘r-r-revolutionaries’ - why several ‘r’s? What connection between these ‘r’s and ‘opium’? who, imposing false majorities, were closing the churches... On the look-out behind the disinterested windows, that very evening, the whole village clearly saw Galkin take the padlock off the door, stick it in his pocket and walk away with mock carefree step... The three little old church bells rang next day.)
In reddish half-light the big room of Karpov's house welcomes the four laughing women on whom sudden silence falls. Men chat around the lamp and the samovar. Chud knows them well. The little freckled blonde, twice raped last year in a sawmill ('you know, they nearly all start that way') has had two miscarriages in six months. 'Look at her fine hands, strong and slender...’ The tallest, who wears the white head-scarf embroidered in red, yes, the one who looks like a Kalmuck, with the smooth, rather moon-shaped face, is really a Syzran; tuberculosis of the bone, my dear fellow: alcoholism and scurvy in the family. Tassia, with the funny dimple above her little round apple of a chin, little questioning eyes of a changeable brown, like the brown of certain glossy furs, nurses a cancer patient at home: nothing, nothing to be done; she's already surrounded by trouble. With a nod Chud greets the blonde Nina, who seems to move her whole self in a wan sunbeam, with a shy smile in scarcely perceptible eyes, and made up lips, tightly shut, for she has very bad teeth. 'Admit that when our glances rest on her, they're full of this element of desire and longing, which is necessary for a look to be truly alive. They're closer than us to the animals, the plants, primitive life, life which isn't self-conscious, that's their secret. But look: four young women in the party spirit this evening, and already I see burdens on their shoulders to buckle several lives. Youth carries lightly the weight of the worst future...’
'Can you recognise a Titian, Kirk? (The other says yes, with half a wink, but perhaps he's joking.) Look at Nina: the finest Titians don’t have this lightly gilded complexion as if a light was showing through the skin... In part, it's a lighting effect. Very nice, kind, but what an amazing vocabulary of abuse, it can’t be repeated.' She was picked up in a Moscow street during a purge on the eve of an international congress; she took the customer into the doorway of a big shop, between two high glass doors. The night watchman, who had his bench there, shut them in for a quarter of an hour for three roubles; she even tells that once when he was drunk he left them there until morning, and, to crown everything, she was with a constable of the crime squad, - tireless brute who never paid, of course.....'
At the Karpovs’ table, men drink solemnly, out of saucers, sucking tiny sugar-lumps, boiling water faintly tinged with tea. Bezrukikh sits opposite Yeni whose brown jersey is set off with a bright collar in blue wool enhanced with red, which makes him look like an old barbarian. Kirk, Chud and several earnest heads moulded out of baked earth with beards of dried algae, are listening: Galkin says, turned towards Yeni, who stares intensely at him, as motionless as an idol:
'In. Alaska, the Americans have a million reindeer, a thousand thousand, ten thousand times a hundred'. They bought some from us at the end of the 19th century, one thousand three hundred; and that's what they've managed to do with sensible husbandry. Their stock increases between 33% and 45% a year. The meat alone brings them in two million dollars, four million roubles a year!'
Galkin casts a glance at the heads of dried earth there: their beards of stringy algae and bleached roots, the dim imprint of the Arctic seas and salt winds in the lines, the stubborn distrust which exists behind the brows, and repeats:
‘Two million dollars!'
This cataract of gold falls somewhere, unnoticed. Prokhor Kuzmin, who has an injured hand, slurps his tea. Galkin looks for support from Kirk, the Centre's representative, who ought to be an ally. Kirk has a strange, sullen pout, broad, bald head, a wisp of bristly moustache, cold, unpleasant eyes. Kirk thinks: 'Dollars! dollars!' with a scorn ready to turn to rage, but which irony calms down. Ideal: dollars in Alaska, dollars on the White Sea, dollars all around the Pole, snow and dollars, reindeer on the tundra, dropping not dung but dollars... When will they blow up all the federal banks? Lenin said: 'Build gold urinals...'
Galkin goes on:
'We have two million five hundred thousand reindeer between the White Sea and Kamchatka. In ten years, we'll have fifteen million!"
Sensible husbandry, zootechny, vets' posts with the nomads, insurance, collectivisation of breeding, class struggle, strict enforcement of directives, 120% fulfillment of the Plan, socialism.
Yeni expresses courteous thanks for the warm tea 'as good as warm reindeer blood'. Perhaps Yeni is an enemy. How many animals has he? Ask him, he never seems to understand you. He can't count; he must be rich. Galkin speaks freely about the 'little capitalists of the tundra’.
After the avalanche of dollars, the word socialism has fallen on this table like an insubstantial little snowflake... A man whose right eye is covered by a white speck, asks:
'What is it?'
' It's justice', says Bezrukikh.
'It's a way of treating men’, says Chud. 'A way of making them feel men...'
Galkin looks at him severely. What have men and the way of treating them got to do with it? What sense is there in this petit-bourgeois humanism? If we had to treat men with consideration, where would we end up? Could you apply one directive only? And then, which men? What d'you do about classes, citizen? There are no men outside classes. Chud understands. 'The number of reindeer makes the man, eh?' An irritating laugh writhes deep down within him, he'd like a drink.
'Socialism is the plan, industrialisation, the iron discipline of the Party; that's concrete, the results will come by themselves...’
'It's the plan, discipline, industrialisation'., says Kirk, 'and it's justice too, a way of being and a way of making men... Why do we always want iron discipline? Men aren’t machine parts to be fitted together with iron. Revolutionary discipline must be alive... Let's leave the iron for chains and boxes.'
Kirk speaks because he has to speak, even to the deaf: a day will come when someone will hear and that's the way you find men. He sees very clearly that nobody understands him. He's on his own. And it's strangely maddening: here he's almost doubting what he's saying himself, since he's on his own. The desert, indeed! The desert in the revolution?
Prokhor Kuzmin smokes thick shreds of stinking tobacco in little rectangles of the polar Pravda. Prokhor says that fish prices are too low. Chud mutters, leaning over to Kirk; 'Yes, men must at least eat their fill. The old system was pie in the sky or in the future...' Of course. But if the republic has nothing to give these people? On the contrary, if they're to fall victim or if so many per cent are to fall victim to stress, despair, scurvy, the sea? How many times has the revolution exacted the sacrifice of the best?
It's the human waste of every war, but you only escape from the war cycle by that particular war. And yet, that has to come to an end. What's the good of winning if, every year, you've to start again and if it's always as hard? It's high time to take into account the necessities and the faults of the system. The hatred of the middle classes isn't the only thing that adds to the Union's troubles, what about the weight of the mistakes and abuses? Industrialisation isn't war... The rest of the debate unwinds by itself, as mechanically as the Tibetans' prayer in their little wooden mills, a wonderful invention. - What did you say, not war? and the sawn-off shotgun which marks down the organiser of the agricultural communes at the edge of the wood, the sabotage in the Economic Councils, the suspect fires in the capitals, the Intelligence Service, Deterding, Poincare? The headlines of the newspapers are going to splash, millions of proletarians in the large factories demand, with raised hands, the supreme measure of class defence against the traitors of the Plan Commission, yesterday given the fullest confidence, arrested that night; I tell you that the war is there, lurking behind the Voihynia marshes and the Karelia woods, only waiting for the thaw, the first birdsong, to spring out. The lightened sky gives notice of war. Have you read Comrade Saveliev's speech (thirteen columns, eight point, a whole half of the paper)? The Pope himself is preparing war. No? You don't believe it? But what does that make you then, citizen? Wait till I tear off your class enemy or traitor mask, you too... - Enough, enough, I know, I know, taken as read, voted, resolved: 'down with the defeatism and disbelief of the right-centre-left deviation, faced with the danger from within and without which becomes greater all the time in spite of our enormous successes.
Kirk senses the futility of answering Chud or Galkin, and even of re-assuring himself once more. He shrugs his shoulders. The boys and girls get ready to dance. Three very distinct types: the Great-Russian, with the hard brow ridge, the broad, broken-looking nose, a bold, battered ugliness, blood of cheerless farm-labourers. Penza, Samara, Vologda, Riazan, green towns and plains, swarming with serfs, held down for centuries by periodic and powerful salves, rapturous emotion of sects, jacquerie, literature, revival...; the opposite type: the Finn, the blond mouth-organ player, almost Anglo-Saxon, untroubled, silent, strong, insensitive, the whole White Sea, all the frozen lakes in his eyes, crack Civil War battalions hammering their heels over the regions they had won, cadres of the Extraordinary Commissions and of the Party; the third type, mongoloid, in the women defined by rounded faces with flabby features, little, sunken, brown eyes; and long-suffering, silence, wiliness, the particular intelligence of nomads who believe in talismans, who can't reason abstractly, but set imperfectible traps for the forest animals, track bears, foil foxes, understand the reindeer and the moose, read like an open book the land between the White Sea and the Aleutian Islands...
Yeni the Wise says you’ve to eat a fish raw to absorb his life spirit; his stubby, bronzed fingers make such exact mimes on the table that you think you're seeing the silvery fish struggling there: hold down his bruised head, on one side, crushing the gills (the blinded eye turned white, all round), beware, for fish bite, press hard with the point of the knife on the shiny, curving belly, slit it, dean out the cold but quivering guts and bite into the white pulp at once, that's what gives strength to a man... Reindeer flesh is also better raw. Poorly fed on black bread and curdled milk, poisoned with alcohol, a hundred and thirty roubles in debt, Prokhor Kuzmin, who has the broken mouth of an old beast of burden, covets the Samoyed's carnassial teeth.
They leave for the Cape to-morrow. The prices are too low, there's no way out of that. Prokhor Kuzmin forgets Yeni. The girls start to dance, in the shadowy light it's only the twirling of dresses, hands dap in time, men's shouts bray: 'Hey-ey ! Twirl, twirl, Marussia, ah !' how finely she dances, and you, sunbeam Nina, have a fling, it's your turn, and give us a song then, the rest of you.
Galkin smiles at the dancers with satisfaction. It's certain the task will be fulfilled, the plan will be carried out 100%. -Someone is thinking of braining him with a whack from an axe handle, as happened last year to the District Instructor. That's the men's thinking on the eve of the great spring hunts, year XIV of the proletarian revolution, in a fisherman's big house on the White Sea coast, on a still, clear night, everywhere sprinkled with stars.
Twenty hours on the sledge to the Cape, from which they embark. The long convoy snakes through the folds in the tundra. The mist lay over it, they lost sight of each other, but the smell of beasts and men floated. An east wind blew away the mist, the plain loomed up at once, riddled by the sun, by blinding arrows. At last a pencil of smoke goes straight up to the sky, above a dark point on the horizon, life greeted by every eye. The cape extends out to sea, like a prow. The far reaches glitter. Still lightning flares out at sea. The plain is deserted, stony, scoured by the rawest winds, frozen till infinity. This white grandeur would be the void itself, were it not for a hut of ramshackle boards held down by stones, sheltered from the hardest buffets of the north wind by a snowdrift. The inside is a smoke-blackened den. The fire reddens and creaks on a hearth of smoky stones. The fire which seems to be dying down, stoked charily, licks and bites granite. Two human beings share this low flame. If there is ever a last fire on an earth returned to ice, it will be like that fire, and the last couple will be like that couple, These two beings know each other so well that, no longer speaking to each other, they have forgotten the language. They know every rock of the waste, every tint of the horizon, the chill of all the winds, the direction of the birds' flight, the stars' movement, time's fixity. This world is mirrored coolly in their tiny drop of obscure life. If they still think, it's about drink. They're stocky, dad in dirty skins which smell of beast and smoke, almost identical the man and the woman, Enna, Alena, Lena, Helen of the smooth forehead, Niloy bearded up to the eyes, whose name comes from gniloy, putrid.
They know, too, in certain shore houses, a hundred leagues away, that Niloy, a Pomeranian Christian, a man of the coast, a soldier in the Imperialist War, caught his complaint in Armenia, from a Turkish woman, a Kurd, an Armenian, a Greek, a Jewish woman from Kars, Yerevan or Trabzon, raped three times, raped a hundred times, so they say and maybe it's not true, - from a slim brunette with eyes like a panther, who was hanged under the orange trees? under the cedars? under the palms? because she was infecting too many men, because too many men were mad about her, so they say and now it's no more than a story. But indeed nobody alive sees the sun which never sets longer than these beings. The midnight sun, that dull red ball hung in the grey mists of the horizon, has left for ever in their eyes surrounded by living flesh, a reflection of distress.
From the threshold of their shelter, the man and the woman gazed at the approach of the train, thin dark line absorbed by the plain, but which re-appeared with clear shapes of reindeer and horses. 0-ho-ho-ho hummed the man, warmed up inwardly by the anticipation of alcohol. Enna went to put on her fur dress, on the breast trimmed with triangles of red material, and on the collar, the cuffs, the sleeves with geometric embroidery, red, blue, white, in the style of the Lopari who live on the other side of the sea.
The sledges left, the teams of hunters stayed with the boats. Fires lit up, man's first cheer, not enough fires for three hundred men, however, but what was there to burn? Fires studded this desert suddenly inhabited by shadows. Fortified by the alcohol which keeps alive an inner feeling of sunshine, recalls the world, cancels the world, inflames and sends to sleep, Enna and Niloy drifted from fire to fire, awkward, avid, more and more drunk, before falling dead-drunk beside their own hearth. Squatting there, guiding an aniline pencil with his thick woollen gloves, Galkin was going over the account of the costs of leaving, outlay on transport, a theft of tools. That wasn't good enough, forecasts exceeded by 18%. He was sixty men short on his lists: manpower crisis, the Plan in danger.
Day's end brought down a leaden silence on the fires. The sky flared as if the universe was on fire, a greater fire than the revolution even. Purplish-blue trails were to last a long time there then, thrusting themselves inexorably on the cold lava. Then Galkin discovered that the darkened hovel gave room to a host of remarkable creatures, motionless, but which froze intense movements in the shadows. Lithe profiles of animals stood out from cut stumps; their eyes had been carefully outlined with a red-hot poker. Niloy gave all his animals long human eyes. From a gnarled root the slight shape of a lean moose broke away in tree-like woods. The moose planted his two front feet on a boulder, he seemed checked on the edge of an abyss; his rump ran into his hind feet, which made him rise out of the ground like a monster. Niloy also cut out slender shapes of reindeer in birch bark: four feet, head up, antlers wild and proud. On his own, apart from the woman crouching, snoozing beside the fire, and with his eyes half-shut, Niloy sometimes set out these animals, born of the imagination, in the reddish glimmer of the hearth; he smiled at them; he laughed ; and, worn out by some great inward exertion, he ended up dropping off to sleep, crouching against the black wall. His eye-lids drooped on the shape of a moose sprung from the ground, with amazing antlers, rearing at the top of a cliff... Galkin let his pencil drop. Galkin saw Niloy sleeping, mouth open, black, the breath raucous. Galkin saw the moose, on a ridge, motionless but ready to spring, and proud reindeer rushed around, heads up. Galkin closed his eyes. The red moose sprang...
They brushed out the boats, full of snow, before turning them over to make shelters. They set them, hulls into the wind, and on the open sides put the cases, the baskets, the bundles gripped over on the outside by the driven snow. That makes a low shelter, a human den where you go in on your knees. There the oars are laid out, covered with clothes, and the bed is made. There eight men stretch out for the night in two rows, fully clothed, booted, helmeted, gloved, feet to feet, some in the prow, the rest in the stem. They block up the entry. To lose nothing of the precious body heat, don’t move. If the wind turns, they wake up with a powdering of snow, stiff and frozen. The winds bore on these wooden shells encrusted in snow. Deep sleep lulls most of the men at once; however, some talk, head to head, before falling asleep, about fish, hard times, illnesses, collectivisation; Prokhor Kuzmin swears the cunning fish is swimming off to the Americas, to Japan, the Indies, why, they'd better fishing before, before these times. Bezrukikh listens to him and, with a low laugh, says at once:
'Eh! brother Prokhor, you're backward.’
Prokhor isn't upset. It's late. Prokhor crosses himself, three times, and then, another three times, and then again with very economical little signs.
Chud and Kirk are stretched out nearby.
'Life's bare, that's why I like this country,' says Chud. 'We sleep on the snow, the sky open above us. No floors above, below, full of worries, pettiness, lies, Primus stoves for cooking, ration cards, newspapers for the mind and for bumf, stuffed with stories: I denounce you, you denounce me, he denounces us, we denounce you, you denounce us, they denounce themselves... These men will come out of these holes to-morrow to go and kill wild animals... When I think that every day of their lives people breathe the dusty air of offices, crush into trams, queue at the bakers', I like the north. Bare life and alcohol, my friend. Listen: there's nothing around us, space merges with time, between us and the stars, nothing. Magnificent.'
Before dropping off to sleep, Kirk was in the habit of thinking about the world. Every one of us turns in a circle, like a circus horse. There are circuses more or less well-maintained, more or less spacious, and horses, fat or thin, more or less well-trained. I am a stubbornly disobedient horse, too bad for me and worse still for the rider whom possibly some time or other I may fetch a good kick in the face. Let's turn, comrades. However we must try to resist the scarcely perceptible stupidity to which even quite intelligent men resign themselves, after forty, as long as they're fed. To keep to a mental welfare which is perhaps only a depravity and not forget the world. But also, what do we need brains for, tell me? The machine-man, producer, soldier, agitator of the infallible word because he has a gramophone record in a nickel-plated throat, the standard man in steel, with unbreakable, well-oiled works , wouldn't he be better than the mere man? What governments won't be of this opinion? Think of everything there is, rediscover reality: this isn't my circus and yours, it's something entirely different, believe me. What? Everything. The places with magical names: Ceylon, Amazon, Singapore, Formosa. The yellow waters of the Mississippi, Broadway, its anthills at the street level of the skyscrapers, its nightlights. A monkey swinging lightly from branch to branch among the lianas shot through by sunlight. Armour-plated, shiny blue insects carrying on their labours in the grass jungle you think about lying in bed, great as a God. Your dead brothers whose vivid pictures die and come alive again in you. A gleaner in sweat, standing in the corn, shading her eyes; and you see her tawny armpit which smells of hot flesh. A passer-by who looks at her reflection in a shop window: where? How is she? Shut your eyes tightly. A crowd on the march, in Shanghai, in Seville. Slender birches, all silvery, with black spots, at the edge of a Russian plain, bathing in the dear spring light. (On principle, he never thought about major problems: what's the good of that!' -seldom of the future which, very fortunately, nearly always mocks what you thought and wished for; he put out of his mind, too, the picture of mankind's suffering, for you see it quite enough when you're not a mug; to turn it over in your mind again would only serve to make you mad or neurasthenic.) Whatever you want, seek, the world is yours too, inexhaustible, it's an endless game. That helped him, in his journeys over the deserts and the steppes, to put in time without drinking; that helped him in the conferences at the Co-ops' Head Office to put up with long useless reports, full of rigged figures, false explanations and lying promises which deceived nobody. Every day he allowed himself a few moments' day-dream , now he saw cockpits of light metal flying over the world. Every sky, every burst of sun and night for component, scenes like postcards, towns as geometric as the plans, a sure force propelled through space towards its destination, all this force and this synthesised view of the world assembled within some delicately-united bones of a skull moulded by the millennia... And the irony worked at Kirk's big, slack mouth a little in the dark, for he mused that man, in the aerial cockpit, was usually an unoriginal creature, disciplined, enrolled, filled to overflowing (lyrically in the best of cases) with a stock of ideas, feelings and interests mass produced like machine parts .' Life is bare ', said Chud, 'I like this country...' Life is bare,' Kirk replied, ' and man's destitution is bare. But, in spite of everything, we are all on a tremendous journey. A one way journey. I'm willing to die on the way since there's nothing better to do. I'm happy.'
After the awkward sleep under the boat, it seems the blood has difficulty in starting to circulate again in stiff limbs. Ungainly stooges, clumsy bears, the men struggle. The weather is overcast. The fires contend weakly against a thin mist. Not enough fires, they huddle round them, standing to eat the hard bread which rasps rather than softens. The scalding tea sends out from the stomach, through the chest, a concentration of the sun's warmth. The hands which hold the bread freeze. Treacherous haze. The smoke irritates the eyes, they've to take out their handkerchief to wipe them, and the hands they've just rubbed, freeze again. Noses freeze. An acrid smoke fills Niloy's den, Enna cooks nameless in an old tin. Smells of sour fish hang in the cold, the burnt fat, the soot....
Hou-ou-ou-ou-ououou ... All at once the icebreaker's siren wails like the yelping of a great beast, lying down there in the choking fog. So the regulated note of machines imitates, to carry further, the voice of great pain. We're going on board, going on board, little brothers. Despair thins like the haze. They've to put the boats in order, shift them, balance them, take them down from the steep coast by the slippery, brittle slopes, where we sink, where the snow covers over ridges of rock ... With difficulty eight men haul a boat through the icefield strewn with rock-like blocks and cracked by suspect crevasses.
Stretches of water as wide as streams have to be crossed. When the boat begins to float, you must grasp the moment to jump in. The hull resounds, knocked by floating blocks of ice. The men take the oar which they sometimes use as a pole. This time it's only a narrow channel, the streaming boat is again hauled over the ice, the team start to pull and push again, puff! pant! The Auguste-Blanqui is still at least seven hundred metres away, for heavens' sake......
The coast was sketched in Indian ink. The icebreaker, like a fine mechanical toy, stood out in the distance, in the middle of a vast amphitheatre of dark cliffs of a great clarity of design.
A little drunk, with fuzzy look and mocking grimace, Chud stubbornly readjusted one of his gloves which had torn; when he saw the edges of the tear re-open the moment he opened out his hand, a childish annoyance worked at his lower lip. He looked at Kirk with an amused eye.
That's odd, 'he said at last, shaking his hand, "you're not a fool... Nor a scoundrel... And I thought at first...'
'You must never "think, first", 'Kirk replied. 'First, you must take a good look at the man... Where are you going now?
To visit the Kanin nomads. Then I'll go east before the thaw. Four hundred kilometres from here, at Pustozersk, Desert of Lakes, I know a lively man... A kind of crackpot, of course...'
Boots gripped on the crusted snow which crunched softly. The teams made progress with difficulty, pushing and hauling the boats. Their deep, dead-beat breaths vibrated in the crystal dear air. In the complete stillness, the panting breathing of the men under stress was the breathing of the universe no less. Kirk joined the nearest team and added his effort. He found himself behind Prokhor Kuzmin whose sweating face almost touched the boat's side, while his whole body braced itself forward. Prokhor's strength welled up from the depth of his tiredness, he pushed for an eternity, he was prepared to push with his beaten thinker's forehead. Kirk was content to push with him.
The sky was clearing, the weak sun reddening in the distant mists gave out a vague lukewarmth, reviving and golden.
Seals showed, lying on the ice. Near the cows, the pups, still downy, which had just been born, still trailed after them, with traces of blood, the sallow threads of the umbilical cord. The astonished animals watched the coming of the men who grizzled, bowed over ropes, tugging their incredible burden. Held back by maternal instinct, the cows dived only when the men were a few feet away. The plaintive pups dragged themselves over the ice, letting out weak, shrill cries.
The hunt's going to be good.
The look-out, half frozen in the crow's-nest hanging from the mast of the Auguste-Blanqui, will sight large peaceful herds in the distance. It's the time of year when the life of the species starts afresh. The pups don't know how to swim yet, they drag themselves, without a thought, in the whiteness, they suck, the blinding midday sun beams on them. The Auguste-Blanqui anchors a good distance away, not to startle the prey. The guns go down the rope ladder and set out. They get as near the herd as they can and start firing, in sectors, in a fan in front of them. The reports break, rend, shatter the silence which constantly closes over them again, like water over stones. The alert, but awkward animals stampede, the bullets are faster than them, man's eye cuts off their flight, they crumple, hit, the blood streams over their oily fur, they have human expressions in pain and agony. When the hunters have shot the herd, the skinners arrive. With harpoon blows the skinner brains the pups which can't get away, which aren't worth a bullet. He finishes off the wounded beast. He disembowels it with a professional stab; his movements are deliberate, for the seal is heavy, the task arduous, it's piece work, the goods are worth making the most of. Long experience is necessary, eye and muscle to do this job well. Not a job for the monocle man or the barker, no! real work done with back, neck, hips, by sheer strength of arms dirty, back-breaking work, dangerous and badly paid of course, as you find at the beginning of everything... You strip off the skin and the fat. On the whiteness are left shapeless lumps of red meat and entrails of warm, dark colours; lush greens, darkish purples, greys shading into yellow, silvery greys, all fresh, covered with blood and slimy secretions. Often the hardest job is to drag behind you, among the rough ice-blocks, in the snow, the heavy skins which leave red stains behind them; and you've blood on your gloves, on your boots, up to your belly too, you're men of blood, sweating, faces frost-bitten, limbs heavier and heavier. You feel the tiredness when you’ve finished the piles and you’ve only to wait for the boat to come for you. The hours go past, you think you've been forgotten in the Arctic. You think of the people who died like this on expeditions. You freeze. If you've cut yourself, which happens more often than your turn, the cut stings on the quiet, you feel the pain gnaw your finger to the bone, no use trying to find out what it is, you're afraid. Seal fat causes inflammation, you're in for fun for three to six months. And ankylosis afterwards. If the snow starts to swirl, everything disappears, you're lost in space itself, unreal and directionless, which makes you dizzy. Don't fall asleep, comrade, don't fall asleep, you might never wake up.
A fantastically clear evening arced over the icepack. The hunters had returned. The ice-breaker took the day's booty. Fed on gleaming coal, the engine generated its rhythmic energy tirelessly. A huge steel heart thudded heavily in the ship's shell. With an inexorable and almost silent movement, the Auguste-Blanqui split the ice. Her rounded bows rose, slid, thrust smoothly with a monster's ponderous and perfidious skill, to bear then with all her weight on the transparent ice-pack which broke up, shattered, in a bursting of mingled emeralds and whites. An almost black water came up the ship's sides, seethed for a moment, furiously washed back ice blocks and abated astern, calm channel, then stiller and stiller furrow which, as soon as it was cut, began to dose again invisibly, irresistibly.
The brown seal carcases were piled up in bleeding heaps on the bridge. Somewhere far away, in the greatest peace there is, the herds which were going to have their throats slit were breathing at sunset; still further, in the direction of the Pole, peaceful, powerful white bears played about on glaciers still bathed in a deep bluish light.
Dulled with the burden of his day, Kirk was alone in the team's mess. Above, Galkin was sorrowfully abusing a man whom he called an idler every second word. Kirk tuned the Paris wavelength, shown on a slip of cardboard, and looked out of the port-hole. On the point of disappearing, the continent of Europe was no more than a mauve denseness on the horizon. Low, flat clouds covered it with an iron bar. All at once the loudspeaker broadcast a very dear feminine voice, the subtle tones of which reminded him of the sheen of a dark, shiny material. Unacquainted with French, Kirk didn’t know that this woman was giving a lecture on the art of pleasing. He listened to the music of that voice. A pleased smile disturbed his dull face, not shaved for a week, disfigured by the distortion of internal characteristics, marked with weariness, contempt, rebellion and authority. It was good, that absurd voice, like a trickle of scented eau de Cologne on a filthy skin smelling of sour sweat and dirt... Prokhor Kuzmin's skin, for example. Kirk listened, fascinated, and his smile changed, - yes, pour that pleasant voice on the hard old skin of Prokhor, just back from skinning, slobbery-mouthed, with the eyes of a broken-down horse... All thumbs, Kirk tried to switch off and not managing straight away, breathed ill-naturedly into the loudspeaker which went on pouring out the pleasant voice:
'Kindly dry up, madam !'
The horizon grew darker and darker. On the continent there was only the iron bar. - This evening think about:
1. Balance-sheet of the first hunt; - ways of cutting the overheads - rationalising the teams' organisation;
2. Polar bears on sparkling glaciers. Transparent blue shadows. Litheness and power of the individual, prime of life.
Leningrad, September-October 1931.
1. The association (note in the original).
2. A coastal marine fish of the cod family; it prefers cold water. It is found from the White Sea to the Ob delta, where it enters the river's estuary.
Translated by John
Victor Serge wrote White Sea in Leningrad in September October 1931. The fictional Dr Chud was Dr Nikolayenko who gave Serge background information from his work in the area of the Winter Shore. Although Serge commented in a letter that the story was 'without political leaning', nevertheless it conveys his view of the life of the area at the time of the first Five Year Plan.