Sunday, November 12, 2017

ET: Almanac

Mikhail Mostovskoy was kept for over three weeks in the isolation ward. He was fed well, examined twice by an SS doctor, and prescribed injections of glucose.

During his first hours of confinement Mostovskoy expected to be summoned for interrogation at any moment. He felt constantly irritated with himself. Why had he talked with ikonnikov? That holy fool had betrayed him, planting compromising papers on him just before a search.

The days passed and Mostovskoy still wasn't summoned . . . He went over the conversations he had had with the other prisoners about politics, wondering which of them he could recruit. At night, when he couldn't sleep, he composed a text for some leaflets and began compiling a camp phrase-book to facilitate communication between the different nationalities.

He remembered the old laws of conspiracy, intended to exclude the possibility of a total débâcle if an agent provocateur should denounce them.

Mostovskoy wanted to question Yershov and Osipov about the immediate aims of the organization. He was confident that he would be able to overcome Osipov's prejudice against Yershov.

Chernetsov, who hated Bolshevism and yet longed for the victory of the Red Army, seemed a pathetic figure. Now Mostovskoy felt quite calm about the prospect of his impending interrogation.

One night Mostovskoy had a heart attack. He lay there with his head against the wall, feeling the agony of a man left to die in prison. For a while the pain made him lose consciousness. Then he came to. The pain had lessened, but his chest, his face and the palms of his hands were all covered in sweat. His thoughts took on a deceptive clarity.

His conversation about evil with the Italian priest became confused with a number of different memories: with the happiness he had felt as a boy when it had suddenly begun to pour with rain and he had rushed into the room where his mother was sewing; with his wife's bright eyes, wet with tears, when she had come to visit him at the time he was in exile by the Yenisey; with pale Dzerzhinsky whom he had once asked at a Party conference about the fate of a young and very kind Social Revolutionary. 'Shot,' Dzerzhinsky had answered . . . Major Kirillov's goloomy eyes . . . Draped in a sheet, the corpse of his friend was being dragged along on a sledge - he had refused to accept his offer of help during the siege of Leningrad.

A boy's dreamy head and its mop of hair . . . And now this large bald skull pressed against the rough boards.

These distant memories drifted away. Everything became flatter and lost its colour. He seemed to be sinking into cold water. He fell asleep - to wake up to the howl of sirens in the early-morning gloom.

In the afternoon he was taken to the sick-bay bath. He sighed as he examined his arms and his hollow chest. 'Yes, old age is here to stay,' he thought to himself.

The guard, who was rolling a cigarette between his fingers, went out for a moment, and the narrow-shouldered, pock-marked prisoner who had been mopping the cement floor sidled over to Mostovskoy.

'Yershov ordered me to tell you the news. The German offensive in Stalingrad has been beaten off. The major told me to tell you that everything is in order. And he wants you to write a leaflet and pass it on when you have your next bath.'

Mostovskoy wanted to say that he didn't have a pencil and paper, but just then the guard came in.

As he was getting dressed, Mostovskoy felt a small parcel in his pocket. It contained ten sugar lumps, some bacon fat wrapped up in a piece of rag, some white paper and a pencil stub. He felt a sudden happiness. What more could he want? How fortunate he was not to have his life drawing to an end in trivial anxieties about indigestion, heart attacks and sclerosis.

He clasped the sugar lumps and the pencil to his breast.

That night he was taken out of the sick-bay by an SS sergeant. Gusts of cold wind blew into his face. He looked round at the sleeping barracks and said to himself: 'Don't worry, lads. You can sleep in peace. Comrade Mostovskoy's got strong nerves - he won't give in.'

They went through the doors of the administration building. Here, instead of the stench of ammonia, was a cool smell of tobacco. Mostovskoy noticed a half-smoked cigarette on the floor and wanted to pick it up.

They climbed up to the second floor. The uard ordered Motovskoy to wipe his boots on the mat and did so himself at great length. Mostovskoy was out of breath from climbing the stairs. He tried to control his breathing.

They set off down a strip of carpet that ran down the corridor. The lamps - small, semi-transparent tulips - gave a warm calm light. They walked passt a polished door with a small board saying 'Kommandant' and stopped in front of another door with a board saying 'Obersturmbannführer Liss'.

Mostovskoy had heard the name 'Liss' many times: he was Himmler's representative in the camp administration. Mostovskoy was amused: General Gudz had been annoyed that he had only been interrogated by one of Liss's assistants while Osipov had been interrogated by Liss himself. Gudz had seen this as a sight to the military command.

Osipov had said that Liss had interrogated him without an interpreter; he was a German from Riga with a good knowleddge of Russian.

A young officer came out, said a few words to the guard and let Mostovskoy into the office. He left the door open.

The office was almost empty. The floor was carpeted. There was a vase of flowers on the table and a picture on the wall: peasant houses by the edge of a forest, with red tiled rooves.

Mostovskoy thought it was like being in the office of the director of a slaughterhouse. Not far away were dying animals, steaming entrails and people being spattered with blood, but the office itself was peaceful and softly carpeted - only the black telephone on the desk served to remind you of the world outside.

Enemy! That word was so clear and simple. Once again he thought of Chernetsov - what a wretched fate during this time of Sturm und Drang! But then he did wear kid gloves . . . Mostovskoy glanced at his own hands, his own fingers.

The door opened at the far end of the office. There was a creak from the door into the corridor - the orderly must have shut it as he saw Liss come in.

Mostovskoy stood there and frowned.

'Good evening!' said the quiet voice of a short manwith SS insignia on the sleeves of his grey uniform.

There was nothing repulsive about Liss's face, and for that very reason Mostovskoy found it terrible to look at. He had a snub nose, alert dark-grey eyes, a high forehead and thin pale cheecks that made him look industrious and ascetic.

Liss waited while Mostovskoy cleared his throat and then said:

'I want to talk to you.'

'But I don't want to talk to you,' answered Mostovskoy. He looked sideways into the far corner, waiting for Liss's assistants, the torturers, to emerge and give him a blow on the ear.

'I quite understand,' said Liss. 'Sit down.'

He seated Mostovskoy in the armchair and then sat down next to him.

Liss spoke in the lifeless, ash-cold language of a popular scientific pamphlet.

'Are you feeling unwell?'

Mostovskoy shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

'Yes, yes, I know. I sent the doctor to you and he told me. I've disturbed you in the middle of the night. But I want to talk to you very badly.'

'Oh yes,' thought Mostovskoy.

'I've been summoned for interrogation,' he said out loud. 'There's nothing for us to talk about.'

'Why do you say that?' asked Liss. 'All you see is my uniform. But I wasn't born in it. The Führer and the Party command; the rank and file obey. I was always a theoretician. I'm a Party member, but my real interest lies in questions of history and philosophy. Surely not all the officers in your NKVD love the Lubyanka? Mostovskoy watched Liss's face carefully. He thought for a moment that this pale face with the high forehead should be drawn at the very bottom of the tree of evolution; from there evolution would progress towards hairy Neanderthal man.

'If the Central Committee orders you to step up the work of the Cheka, are you in a position to refuse? You put Hegel aside and get working. Well, we've had to put Hegel aside too.'

Mostovskoy glanced at Liss. Pronounced by unclean lips, the name of Hegel sounded strange and blasphemous . . . A dangerous, experienced thief had come up to him in a crowded tram and started a conversation. He wasn't going to listen, he was just going to watch the thief's hands - any minute now a razor might flash out and slash him across the eyes.

But Liss just lifted up the palms of his hands, looked at them and said: 'Our hands are like yours. They love great work and they're not afraid of dirt.'

'Mostovskoy frowned deeply: it was horrible to see this gesture and hear these words that so exactly mimicked his own.

Liss began to speak quickly and with enthusiasm, as though he had talked to Mostovskoy before and was glad to have the opportunity to resume the conversation. The things he said were extraordinary - terrible and absurd.

'When we look one another in the face, we're neither of us looking at a face we hate - no, we're gazing into a mirror. That's the tragedy of our age. Do you really not recognize yourselves in us - yourselves and the strength of your will? Isn't it true that for you too the world is your will? Is there anything that can make you waver?

His face moved closer to Mostovskoy's.

'Do you understand me? I don't know Russian well, but I very much want you to understand me. You may think you hate us, but what you really hate is yourselves - yourselves in us. It's terible, isn't it? Do you understand me?'

Mostovskoy decided to remain silent. He mustn't let Liss draw him into conversation.

But he did think for a moment that, rather than trying to deceive him, the man looking into his eyes was searching for words quite earnestly and sincerely. It was as though he were complaining, asking Mostovskoy to help him make sense of something that tormented him.

It was agonizing. It was as though someone had stuck a needle into Mostovskoy's heart.

'Do you understand me?' Liss repeated, already too excited even to see Mostovskoy. 'When we strike a blow against your army, it's ourselves that we hit. Our tanks didn't only break through your defences - they broke through our own defences at the same time. The tracks of our tanks are crushing German National Socialism. It's terrible - it's like committing suicide in one's sleep. And it might well end tragically for us. Do you understand? Yes, even if we win! As victors we would be left on our own - without you - in a world that is alien to us, a world that hates us.'

It would have been easy enough to refute all this. Liss's eyes had now drawn still closer to Mostovskoy's. But there was something even more dangerous than the words of this experienced SS provocateur. it was what stirred in Mostovskoy's own soul - his own vile, filthy doubts.

He as like a man afraid of an illness - of some malignant tumour - who won't go near a doctor, tries not to notice his indispositions and avoids talking about sickness with anyone close to him. And then suddenly someone comes up to him and says: 'Say, have you ever had such and such a pain, especially in the mornings, usually after . . . ? Yes, yes . . .'

'Do you understand me, teacher?' asked Liss. 'A certain German - I'm sure you know his brilliant work - once said that Napoleon's tragedy was that he embodied the soul of England and yet in England herself found his most deadly foe.'

'If only they'd start beating me up!' thought Mostovskoy. And then: 'Ah, now he's on about Spengler.'

Liss lit a cigarette and held out his cigarette case to Mostovskoy.

'No,' said Mostovskoy abruptly.

He felt somehow calmed by the thought that all the policemen in the world - the ones who'd interrogated him forty years ago and the one talking about Hegel and Spengler right now - should use this same idiotic technique of offering their victim a cigarette. Yes, it was just that his nerves were weak - he'd been expecting to be beaten up and suddenly he'd had to listen to this horrible, absurd talk. But then even some of the Tsarist police had known a little about politics - a few of them were really quite educated, one had even read Das Kapital. But had there ever been a moment when a policeman studying Marx had wondered, deep in his heart: 'What if Marx is right?' What had the policeman felt then . . . ? But what of it? Mostovskoy had trampled on his doubts too. Still, that was different - he was a revolutionary.

Not noticing that Mostovskoy had refused the cigarette, Liss muttered: 'Yes, that's right, it's very good tobacco.'

he then closed his cigarette case and began again. He sounded genuinely upset.

'Why do you find this conversation so surprising? What did you expect me to say? Surely you have some educated men at your Lubykanka? People who can talk to Academician Pavlov or to Oldenburg? But I'm different from them. I've got no ulterior motive. I give you my word. I'm tormented by the same anxieties as you are.' He smiled and added: 'My word of honour as a Gestapo officer. And I don't say that lightly.'

'Don't say anything,' Mostovskoy repeated to himself, 'that's the main thing. Don't enter into conversation. Don't argue.'

Liss went on talking. Once again he seemed to have forgotten about Mostovskoy.

'Two poles of one magnet! Of course! If that wasn't the case, then this terrible war wouldn't be happening. We're your deadly enemies. Yes, yes . . . But our victory will be your victory. Do you understand? And if you should conquer, then we shall perish only to live in your victory. It's paradoxical: through losing the war we shall win the war and continue our development in a different form.'

Why on earth had this all-powerful Liss, instead of watching prize-winning films, drinking vodka, writing reports to Himmler, looing at books on gardening, re-reading his daughter's letters, having fun with young girls from today's transport, or even just taking something for his digestion and going to sleep in his spacious bedroom - why on earth had he decided to summon an old Russian Bolshevik who stank of the camps?

What did he have in mind? Why was he keeping his motives so secret? What was the information he wanted?

Mostovskoy wasn't afraid of torture. What did terrify him was the thought: 'What if the German isn't lying? What if he's sincere? What if he really does just want someone to talk to?'

What a horrible thought! They were both ill, both worn out by the same illness, but one of them hadn't bee able to bear and was speaking out, while the other remained silent, giving nothing away, just listening, listening . . .

Finally, as though answering Mostovskoy's silent question, Liss opened a file on his desk and very fastidiously, with two fingers, took out some sheets of dirty papers. Mostovskoy immediately recognized them as Ikonnikov's scribblings.

Liss evidently expected him to feel consternation at the sight of the papers planted on him Ikonnikov. . . But he felt quite calm. He even felt glad to see these scribblings: once again everything was clear - as absurdly simple as every police interrogation.

Liss pushed the papers to the edge of the desk and then drew them back again. Suddenly he began to speak in German:

'I've never seen your handwriting, but I knew from the first words that you could never have written rubbish like this.'

Mostovskoy remained silent.

Liss tapped his finger against the papers. he was inviting Mostovskoy to speak, affably, insistently, with good will . . .

Mostovskoy remained silent.

'Have I made a mistake?' asked Liss in surprise. 'No, it's not possible. You and I can feel only disgust at what's written here. We two stand shoulder to shoulder against trash like this!'

'Come on now,' said Mostovskoy hurriedly and angrily. 'Let's get to the point. These papers? Yes, they were taken from me. You want to know who gave them to me? That's none of your business. Maybe I wrote them myself! Maybe you ordered someone to plant them on me . . . ? All right?'

For a moment he thought Liss would accept his challenge, lose his temper and shout: 'We have ways of making you answer!'

He would have liked that so much. That would make everything so straightforward, so easy. What a clear, simple word it was - 'enemy'. 

But Liss only said: 'Who cares about these wretched papers? What does it matter who wrote them? I know it was neither of us. Just think for a moment! Who do you imagine fill our camps when there's no war and no prisoners of war? Enemies of the Party, enemies of the People! yes, and if our Reich Security Administration accepts prisoners of yours in peacetime, then we won't let them out again - your prisoners are our prisoners!'

He grinned.

'The German Communists we've sent to camps are the same ones you sent to camps in 1937. Yezhov imprisoned them: Reichsführer Himmler imprisoned them . . . Be more of a Hegelian, teacher.'

He winked at Mostovskoy. 

'I've often thought that a knowledge of foreign languages must be as useful in your camps as it is in ours. Today you're appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves. And by the day after tomorrow we may be more tolerant again. I have been led by a great man down a long road. You too have been led by a great man; you too have travelled a long, difficult road. Did you really believe Bukharin was an agent provocateur? Only a very great man could lead people down a road like that . . . I knew Roehm myself; I trusted him. But that's how it had to be . . . What tortures me, though, is the thought that your terror killed millions - and we Germans were the only ones who could understand, the only men in the world who thought: "Yes, that's absolutely right, that's how it has to be!"

'Please try to understand me - as I understand you. This war ought to appal you. Napoleon should never have fought against England.'

Mostovskoy was struck by a new thought. He even screwed up his eyes - either because of a sudden stab of pain or to get rid of this tormenting thought. What if his doubts were not just a sign of weakness, tiredness, impotence, lack of faith, contemptible shilly-shallying? What if these doubts represented what was most pure and honourable in him . . . ? And he just crushed them, pushed them aside, hated them! What if they contained the seed of revolutionary truth? The dynamite of freedom!

All he need do to defeat Liss, to push aside his sticky, slippery fingers, was stop hating Chernetsov, stop despising that holy fool Ikonnikov! No, no, he had to do more than that! He had to renounce everything he had stood for; he had to condemn what he had alwasy lived by. 

No, no, he had to do more than that! With all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that . . . ! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship!

More than that! he would have to condemn Lenin . . . ! This was the edge of the abyss. 

Yes, this was Liss's victory - not in the war running its course on the battlefields, but in the war of snake venom, the war without gunfire he as waging against him in this office. 

For a moment Mostovskoy thought he was about to go mad. Then he let out a sudden joyful sigh of relief. The thought that had horrified and blinded himhad turned into dust. It was absurd and pathetic. The hallucination had lasted only a few seconds . . . But still, how was it that for even a second - a fraction of a second - he could have doubted the justice of a great cause?

Liss looked at him and pursed his lips. 

'Do you think the world looks on us with horror and on you with hope and love?' he asked. 'No, the world looks on us both with the same horror!' 

Mostovskoy was no longer afraid of anything. Now he knew where his doubts led: they didn't lead into a swamp - they led to the abyss. 

Liss picked up Ikonnikov's papers. 

'How can you have anything to do with people like this? Everything's been turned upside down by this accursed war . . . If only I could unravel this tangle!' 

There is no tanle, Herr Liss. Everything's very simple and very clear. We don't need to ally ourselves with Chernetsov and Ikonnikov to overpower you. We can deal with both them and you . . . 

Mostovskoy realized that everything dark and sinister was embodied in Liss. All rubbish heaps smelt the same; there was no difference between one lot of splintered wood and crushed brick and another. One shouldn't look to garbage and debris in order to undestand similarities and differences; one should look to the thoughts, the design, of the builder. 

Mostovskoy found himself gripped by a joyful, triumphant rage - against Liss and Hitler, against the English officer with the colourless eyes who had asked him about the criticisms of Marxism, against the sickening speeches of the one-eyed Menshevik, against the mawkish preacher who had turned out to be a police agent. Where would these men ever find people stupid enough to believe that there was the faintest shadow of resemblance between a Soecialist State and the Fascist Reich? The Gestapo officer Liss was the only consumer of their rotten goods. Now, as never beofre, Mostovskoy understood the inner link between Fascism and its agents. 

And wasn't this the true genius of Stalin? He had hated and annihilated these people because he alone had seen the hidden brotherhood between Fascism and the Phariseeswho advocated a specious freedom. This thought now seemed so obvious that he wanted to explain it - to bring home to Liss the full absurdity of his theories. But he contented himself with a smile: he'd been around a long time; he wasn't like that fool Goldenberg who'd blathered to the Public Prosecutor about the affairs of 'People's Will'. 

He stared straight at Liss. Then, in a voice that could probably be heard by the guard on the other side of the door, he said: 'The best advice I can offer you is to stop wasting your time on me. You can stand me against the wall! You can hang me! You can do me however you like'

No one here wishes to do you in,' Liss answered hurriedly. 'Please calm down.' 

'I'm quite calm,' said Mostovskoy brightly. 'I've got nothing to worry about.' 

'But you do have something to worry about. You should share my sleeplessness. What is the reason for our enmity? I can't understand . . . Is it that the Führer is a mere lackey of Stinnes and Krupp? That there's no private property in your country? That your banks and factories belong to the people? That you're internationalists and we're preachers of racial hatred? That we set things on fire and you extinguish the flames? That the world hates us - and that its hopes are centred on Stalingrad? Is that what you people say . . . ? Nonsense! There is no divide. It's just been dreamed up. In essence we are the same - both one-party States. Our capitalists are not the masters. The State gives them their plan. The State takes their profit and all they produce. As their salary they keep six per cent of the profit. Your State also outlines a plan and takes what is produced for itself. And the people you call masters - the workers - also receive a salary from your one-party State.'

Mostovskoy watched Liss and thought to himself: 'Did this vile nonsense really confuse me for a moment? Was I really choking in this stream of poisonous, stinking dirt?'

Liss gave a despairing wave of the hand. 

'A red workers' flag flies over our People's State too. We too call people to National Achievement, to Unity and Labour. We say, "they Party expresses the dream of the German worker"; you say, "Nationalism! Labour!" You know as well as we do that nationalism is the most powerful force of our century. Nationalism is the soul fo our epoch. And "Socialism in One Country" is the supreme expression of nationalism. 

'I don't see any reason for our enmity. But the teacher of genius, the leader of the German people, our father, the best friend of all German mothers, the brilliant and wise strategist, began this war. And I believe in Hitler. And I know that Stalin's mind is in no way clouded by pain or anger. Through all the fire and smoke of war he can see the truth He knows his true enemy. Yes - even now when he discusses joint military strategy with him and drinks to his health. There are two great revolutionaries in the world - Stalin and our leader. It is their will that gave birth to State National Socialism. 

'Brotherhood with you is more important to me than territory in the East. We are two houses that should stand side by side . . . Now, teacher, I want you to live for a while in quiet solitude. I want you to think, think, think before our next conversation.

'What for? It's all just nonsense. It's absurd and senseless! said Mostovskoy. 'And why call me "teacher" in that idiotic way?'

'There's nothing idiotic about it,' replied Liss. 'You and I both know that it's not on battlefields that the future is decided. You knew Lenin personally. He created a new type of party He was the first to understand that only the Party and its Leader can express the spirit of the nation. He did away with the Constituent Assembly. But just as Maxwell destroyed Newton's system of mechanics while thinking he had confirmed it, so Lenin considered himself a builder of internationalism while in actual fact he was creating the great nationalism of the twentieth century . . . And we learnt many things from Stalin. To build Socialism in One Country, one must destroy the peasants' freedom to sow what they like and sell what they like. Stalin didn't shilly-shally - he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the German National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews. But Hitler's no mere student; he's a genius in his own right. And he's not one to be squeamish either. it was the Roehm purge that gave Stalin the idea for the purge of the Party in 1937 . . . You must believe me. You've kept silent while I've been talking, but I know that I'm like a mirror for you - a surgical mirror.'

'A mirror?' said Mostovskoy. 'Every word you've said from beginning to end is a lie. It's beneath me to refute your filthy, stinking, provocative blatherings. A mirror? You must be crazy. But Stalingrad will bring you back to your sense.'

Liss stood up. In painful confusion, feeling both hatred and ecstasy, Mostovskoy thought, 'Now he's going to shoot me. That's it.' 

But Liss seemed not to have heard Mostovskoy. He bowed from the waist. 

'Teacher,' he said, 'you will continue to teach us and continue to learn from us. We shall think together.'

Liss's face was sad and serious, but his eyes were laughing. 

Once again the poisoned needle entered Mostovskoy's heart. Liss looked at his watch and said: 'Well, time will tell.'

He rang a bell and said quietly: 'You can have this back if you want it. We shall meet again soon. Gute Nacht!' 

Without knowing why, Mostovskoy picked the papers up and thrust them into his pocket. 

He was led out of the administration building and back out into the cold night. Cool damp aair, the howl of sirens in the gloom before dawn - how pleasant it all was after the Gestapo office and the quiet voice of the National Socialist theoretician. 

A car with violet headlamps passed them as they reached the sick-bay. Mostovskoy realized that Liss was on his way home. Once again he was seized by a deep melancholy. The guard took him to his cubicle and locked the oor. He sat down on the boards and thought: 'If I believed in God, I would think that terrible interrogator had been sent to me as a punishment for my sins.'

A new day was already beginning and he was unable to sleep. Leaning back against the rough, splintering planks of pine that had been knocked together in a wall, Mostovskoy began to peruse Ikonnikov's scribblings. 

Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman

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