Alexei Tolstoy. Ordeal

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ALEXEI TOLSTOY
(1883-1945)-a classic writer and one of the founders of Soviet literature. Famous for his epic trilogy Ordeal, the historical novel Peter the First, the science-fiction novels Aelita and The Garin Death Ray, and also many short stories, dramas, and publicistic articles.
The central place in Alexei Tolstoy's work is held by his books about the events of the Great October Revolution and the Civil War. His Ordeal (1919-1941)-an excerpt is printed in the present collection-is a book about the Russian people as they forge their way to a new life, about the Russian in-telligentsia which, as a result of a long "ordeal", found its place in society.
Tolstoy himself wrote of the plan behind his' trilogy: "It's time to begin studying the Revolution, it's time for the artist to become a historian and a thinker... I not only acknowledge the Revolution - with such acknowledgement alone it would not be possible even to write a novel - I love its dark majesty, its world-wide scope. And that is the task of my novel - to create this majesty, this scope in all its complexity."

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ORDEAL

(An Excerpt)

She had no pass, but the old watchman at the gate only winked at her, saying: "You've come for the meeting, lass, have you? It's in the main building."
She picked her way over rotting planks, past heaps of rusty scrap iron and slag, past huge broken windows. There was nobody about, and the chimney stacks smoked peacefully against the cloudless sky.
Somebody pointed to a grimy door in the wall. Entering, she found herself in a long hall with walls of bare brick. The murky light filtered through a smoke-blackened glass roof. Everything was naked and exposed. Chains hung from the platforms of over-head cranes. Lower down were transmission shafts, their driving belts hanging motionless from the pulleys. Her unaccustomed eye turned in astonishment from dark lathes to the squat, lanky or straddling forms of all sorts of planing, milling and mortising machinery, and the iron discs of friction clutches. She discerned the outlines of a giant steam hammer, hanging lopsided in the semidarkness of a wide arch.
Here were made the machinery and mechanisms which supplied the life beyond the sombre walls of the factory with light, warmth, movement, significance and luxury. There was a smell of iron filings, machine oil, earth, and home-grown tobacco. A vast crowd of men and women were standing in front of a wooden platform, and many others perched on the side plates of machines and on the high window-sills.
Dasha pushed her way up to the platform. A tall young'fellow, turning his head, opened his mouth in a broad smile, his teeth showing white against his begrimed face; nodding towards a bench, he stretched out his hand, and Dasha climbed up beside him to the lathe beneath the window. The faces in the vast crowd - several thousand strong - were morose, the brows lined, the lips compressed. She saw such faces every day in the streets and trams, weary Russian faces, with forbidding eyes. Dasha remembered walking about the islands in Petersburg one Sunday, before the war, when her escorts - two barristers - had turned the conversation upon just faces. "Take the Paris crowd, Darya Dmitrievna - gay, good-humoured, bubbling with fun... And here you see nothing but scowling countenances. Look at these two workers coming towards us! Shall I go up to them, and try and joke with them? They wouldn't understand, they'd be offended. Russians are so ridiculously slow on the uptake, so heavy in hand..." And now these humourless folk stood there, agitated, sombre, tense and determined. The same faces, but dark with hunger now, the same eyes, but the expression fiery, impatient.

 


Dasha forgot what she was there for. The impressions of the life into which she had plunged from her lonely window in Krasniye Zori Street, carried her away like a storm bird, and she abandoned herself to them with pristine innocence. She was not really stupid but, like many other people, she had been left to herself, with only her own tiny store of experience to guide her. But she thirsted for truth-she thirsted for it as an individual, as a woman, as a member of the human race.
A new speaker had ascended the platform, a short man in a grey jacket, his waistcoat showing horizontal wrinkles. His bald, bumpy head was bent over the notes on the table before him. "Comrades!" he began, and Dasha noticed that he spoke with a slight burr, and that he looked worried, screwing up his eyes as if the light was in them. His hands rested on the table, on a sheaf of notes. When he said that his subject today would be the acute crisis which was bearing down upon the whole of Europe and on Russia heaviest of all, and that his subject was famine, three thousand people held their breath beneath the smoke-blackened roof.
He began with general statements, speaking in level tones, trying to establish contact with the audience. He spoke of the world war, which the two predatory groups, who had each other by the throats, neither could nor would bring to an end-of the crazy profiteering in famine. He said only the proletarian revolu-tion could bring the war to an end...
He said there were two ways of fighting famine: one was unrestricted private trade, distending the profits of the speculators, the other-state monopoly. He moved three paces from the end of the table, and bent towards his audience, thrusting his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat. This pose brought into prominence his domed brow and big hands, and Dasha noticed that the index finger of his right hand was inky.
"We have always stood, and always will stand, shoulder to shoulder with the class together with which we came out against war, together with which we have overthrown the bourgeoisie, and together with which we are bearing the whole brunt of the present crisis. We must stand by grain monopoly to the end..." (At these words the young man with the toothy grin gave an approving grunt.) "It is our task to conquer famine, or at least to lessen its burden till the coming of the harvest, to enforce the grain monopoly, the rights of the Soviet government, the rights of the proletarian state. We must gather up all grain surpluses and see that stocks are sent where most needed, and are properly distributed...
"But our main task is to keep society going and see that the stupendous work required is never relaxed - and this can only be accomplished by united, unremitting effort..."
The breathless silence was broken by a hollow exclamation, the cry of some tormented soul stumbling on the icy ascent to which the man in the grey suit was urging them all. His brow seemed to hang above the audience-beneath its protuberances the eyes were steady, inexorable.
"...We are faced with the necessity of carrying out a revolu-tionary socialist task, and there are enormous difficulties in our way. Our epoch is one of bitter Civil War... It is only by defeating the counter-revolution, by pursuing a socialist policy in regard to famine, and by the struggle against it, that we shall conquer both famine and the counter-revolutionaries exploiting famine..."
One of his hands flew out of the armhole of his waistcoat, as if to annihilate an invisible foe, and remained suspended over the audience.
"...When the workers, their wits fuddled by the slogans of the profiteers, clamour for the unrestricted sale of grain, the import of motor lorries and other transport machinery, we reply to them that this means to go to the aid of the kulaks... We will never take that path... We will seek the support of the workers, with whom we gained the victory in October, we will carry our decisions through only by means of imposing proletarian discipline upon all sections of workers. We are faced with a historic task. And we will fulfil it... The most fundamental of all questions - that of bread - is dealt with in the latest decrees. These are all based upon three ruling principles. The first is the principle of centrali-sation, or the combining of all for a single, common task under guidance from the centre... There are many who point out to us that the grain monopoly is being thwarted at every step by private buyers and profiteers. Intellectuals keep saying that the profiteers are doing them a great service, are keeping them alive... Yes, that is so... But the private traders are doing it in the kulak way, the way that will lead to the consolidation, the establishment, the perpetuation of kulak power..."
The hand, with sweeping gesture, wiped out a situation that would never again be tolerated.
"Our second slogan is the unity of the workers. It is they who will rescue Russia from the desperate, stupendous difficulties in which she finds herself. We will call to our aid the organisations of workers' food detachments, of the starving people from the non-agricultural famine areas, it is to them that our Commissariat for Supplies will address itself, and upon them that we will call to join our crusade for bread!"
There was heavy fury in the thunderous applause. Dasha noticed how the speaker stepped back, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and raising his shoulders. A spot of colour burned on each cheekbone, his eyelids quivered, his forehead was damp.
"We are creating a dictatorship... We are building up a proletarian dictatorship against exploiters..."
These words, too, were drowned in applause. Silencing the audience with a peremptory gesture, he waited for quiet to be restored, before continuing:
"...'Representatives of the poor, unite!'-that is our third slo-gan. We are faced with a historic task: the task of imbuing a class which is new to history with class-consciousness... All over the world the ranks of town workers, of industrial workers, have united to a man. But practically nowhere in the world have systematic, disinterested, self-sacrificing attempts ever been made to unite those living in remote country districts, on tiny farmsteads, their minds dulled by the benighted, lonely conditions in which they are forced to live. We are faced, here, with the task of identifying the struggle against famine with the struggle for the profound and significant system of socialism. In this struggle we must be ready to use our whole strength, to stake our all, for it is the struggle for socialism, the struggle for the final state system of the toilers and the exploited..."
He passed the palm of his hand rapidly across his forehead.
"...In the districts surrounding Moscow, and in the neighbouring gubernias ... even now-in Kursk, Orel, Tambov-we have, on the most conservative estimate, up to ten million poods of surplus grain. Let us attack this matter with combined forces, comrades! Nothing but concerted effort, the uniting of those who are the greatest sufferers in the famine areas, will be of any use to us, and this is the path to which the Soviet power calls you: the uniting of the workers, the uniting of the very poorest, of their vanguard, for spreading everywhere the idea of war against the kulaks for bread..."
He wiped his brow with his hand more and more frequently, and the ring had gone out of his voice. He had said all that he intended to say. He picked up a sheet of paper from the table, glanced at it, and gathered up the rest of the pile.
"And so, comrades, if we assimilate all this, if we do all this, we are sure to win."
Suddenly his face was lit up by a frank, good-humoured smile. And everyone understood: this is one of us! They shouted, clapped, stamped. He hastened from the platform, hunching his shoulders. Dasha's white-toothed neighbour bellowed at the top of his voice.
"Long live Ilyich!"

 

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