In The First Circle Bookclub!
If you’re wondering what the Sharashka Marfino looked like, well, there it is. That’s a picture of it.
Article 58 is what put the guys in the Sharashka in the first place. Well, most of them. If you’ve never heard of it before, you should read up on it. Here are a couple of the fun excerpts:
58-7. Undermining of state industry, transport, monetary circulation or credit system, as well as of cooperative societies and organizations, with counter-revolutionary purpose (as defined by 58-1) by means of the corresponding usage of the state institutions, as well as by opposing their normal functioning: same as 58-2. Note: the offense according to this article was known as wrecking and the offenders were called “wreckers”.
What did this mean in practice? Well, let’s let Solzhenitsyn explain it from the Gulag Archipelago:
And what accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found! . . .One such pernicious piece of advice (from Nikolai Karlovich von Meck) was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about the heavier than average loads. The GPU exposed von Meck and he was shot. His objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When not long afterwards, the new People’s Commisar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich ordered that the average loads should be increased, and even doubled, and tripled them (and for this discovery received the order of Lenin along with others of our leaders)-the malicious engineers who protested them became known as limiters.
So if you’re putting too much stuff on the trains? Wrecking. If you’re limiting how much stuff is put on the train? Wrecking.
Oh, and check out 58-12: Non-reporting of a “counter-revolutionary activity”: at least 6 months of imprisonment.
So if someone is wrecking and you don’t report it? Article 58 has you covered.
One of the jokes Solzhenitsyn talks about is the guy who gets hauled off to prison for 15 years. “What did you do?”, the guards ask. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”, comes the answer. “No, people who don’t do anything wrong only get 10 years.”
Anyway, after the cut, we’ll have our list of chapters for the uncensored version (and the chapter names from the censored version, if different, in parenthesis after… this is when his editing *REALLY* starts showing up. Different orders for the chapters, everything. I was also wrong last week. It was Chapter 20 A Study of a Great Life and Chapter 27 A Bit of Methodology that were not included in the original version).
You, yes you! What did you think? What scenes, phrases, thoughts stuck out for you?
17. Hot Water (Ch. 16 No Boiling Water for Tea)
18. “Oh, Wonder-Working Steed” (Ch. 17)
19. The Birthday Hero (Ch. 18)
20. A Study of a Great Life (this chapter was not included in the expurgated version)
21. Give Us Back the Death Penalty! (Ch. 20 – Give Us Back Capital Punishment, Iosif Visarionvich)
22. The Emperor of the Earth (Ch. 21 – Old Age)
23. Language as an Instrument of Production (Ch. 19 – Language is a Tool of Production)
24. The Abyss Beckons Again (Ch. 22 – The Pit Beckons Again)
25. The Church of Nikita the Martyr (Ch. 23 – The Church of Saint John the Baptist)
26. Sawing Wood (Ch. 24)
27. A Bit of Methodology (this chapter was not included in the expurgated version)
28. The Junior Lieutenant’s Job (Ch. 25)
29. The Lieutenant Colonel’s Job (Ch. 26)
30. A Puzzled Robot (Ch. 27)
31. How to Darn Socks (Ch. 28)
32. On the Path to a Million (Ch. 29 – Soaring to the Ceiling)
Chapter 18 “Oh, Wonder-Working Steed” remains my favorite chapter in this book. The rant the engineer gives the general is one of the rants for the ages. The absolute absurdity where he’s yelling about how everybody is whispering that we’re doing something for Stalin, we’re doing something for Stalin and we can’t even get condensers! You laugh until you remember that this is historical fiction rather than some theorized dystopia written by some pasty western writer.
The little aside in Chapter 19 about the doctor who had warned Stalin about… well, never mind what. The doctor had been shot. That little scene? You laugh and then you think “wait, seriously?” What mindset would it take for someone to do that? As if the relationship between your arteries and tobacco smoke were a dialectic that could be decided through forced consensus! The little scenes with Stalin provide a lot of meat to chew on… and it’s strange that Chapter 19 was included and Chapter 20 was left out.
In Chapter 21, the scene where Abakumov talked about how it’s good if Stalin is yelling but bad if he’s quiet stuck with me. A friend of mine knew a guy who knew a guy and, next thing you know, he’s doing tech support for a made guy in the mob. The guy explained to my friend that, hey, if they’re screaming at you? You’re golden. It’s when they start being friendly that you expect to take the dirt nap.
The scenes where Yakanov remembers the woman he almost married managed to be very, very sad… not just because of the suicide contemplation or the fact that most “it coulda beens” have this weird melancholy tint to them (even if you dodged a bullet, as Yakanov seemed to), but because of how even the simple things like courting had to have The Revolution as part. I can understand wishing to replace, say, Russian Orthodox Christianity. But to replace it with that?
The friendship of Sologdin and Nerzhin is an absolutely wonderful counterpoint to Stalin’s thoughts on his own lack of peers. As Stalin felt bad for himself because Hitler was the only guy he was ever able to trust, Sologdin and Nerzhin were having one (of obviously hundreds) of little philosophical/political discussions. Nice guys. I like them.
Nadelashin’s hobby of making clothing for himself, his family, but making sure that no one knew about this because it wouldn’t be seen as apropriate made me think of Orwell’s Happy Vicar poem… specifically the line “we maim our joys or hide them”. The additional irony of how this is pretty much the only useful thing that he does, and yet, it’s something he must keep hidden because it’s thought demeaning.
Our “wait, what?” moment from Chapter 29 comes to us from Article 58: “Remember what Gerasimovich was in for! This was his second term, under Article 58, clauses 1a to 19, i.e., treasonable intent. He hadn’t betrayed his country, but he had been unable to prove that his reason for going to Leningrad in the first days of the war was not to be there when the Germans arrived.”
And then reading about the wives of the “enemies of the people” and how they remain, more or less, steadfast and waiting? How were there not more mutinies? How were there not more divorces?
“What the hell was the Dnieper Power Station built for anyway?” I have no idea why this question, once articulated, make me draw a sharp intake of breath and smile despite myself.
The story of Berkalov being recommended for three days in the hole at the same time as winning the Stalin Prize? “That’s the sort of thing that can happen to a man in Russia.” I wonder how often it happened and whether it happened often enough to answer the question about mutinies.
This book is more harrowing this time, I think.
What do you think?
For next week, we’re back to chapters that have *NOT* been re-ordered in the different versions. So we’re going to read from Chapter 33 Penalty Marks (Ch. 30) to Chapter 48 The Double Agent (Ch. 43). It looks like the chapters that weren’t included in the original will be Chapter 44 Out in the Open and Chapter 47 Top Secret Conversation.