In "Uncle Vanya," we have Vanya, a man full of goodness, modesty, and self-abnegation contrasted with the celebrated professor Serebriakof, an egoist, unfeeling, scornful, and ungrateful. The latter, who has recently remarried, comes back to the estate which Uncle Vanya, the brother of his first wife, has managed for him. For several years Vanya has been working incessantly; he has saved in every possible way so that he can send as much money as possible to his brother-in-law, this professor, fondled and pampered by the whole family, who see in him their glorification. But Serebriakof soon gets tired of the country; besides, he thinks that the doctor—a friend of the family who is taking care of him—does not understand his sickness, and he begins to mistrust him. He wants to go away, to travel, in order to recover his health, and, in order to make money, he proposes to sell the estate, which legally belongs to Sonya, the daughter of his first wife.
Up to this time Uncle Vanya and the other members of the family as well, had sacrificed themselves entirely to this celebrated man. But at this proposition Vanya realizes that their idol is nothing but an abominable egoist, and he begins to despise his brother-in-law. What is more, he secretly loves the young and beautiful wife of the professor, while she suffers from the everlasting complaints and caprices of her husband. However, a general reconciliation takes place. The professor and his wife leave for the city, and all goes on as before; Uncle Vanya and the family will sacrifice themselves for the glory of Serebriakof, to whom all the revenues of the estate are sent.
The "Three Sisters," that is to say the sisters of Prozorov, live with their brother in a vulgar, tiresome town,—a town lacking in men of superior minds, a town where one person is like the next.
The great desire of the three sisters is to go to Moscow, but their apathy keeps them in the country, and they continue to vegetate while philosophizing about everything that they see. However, at the arrival of a regiment, they become animated, and have sentimental intrigues with the officers till the very day of their departure.
"They are going to leave; we shall be alone; the monotonous life is going to begin again," cries one of the sisters.
"We must work; work alone consoles," says the second.
And the youngest exclaims, embracing her two sisters, while the military band plays the farewell march:
"Ah, my dear sisters, your life is not yet completed. We are going to live. The music is so gay! Just a little bit more, and I feel that we shall know why we live, why we suffer...."
This certainly is the dominant note of Tchekoff's philosophy: the impotency of living mitigated by a vague hope of progress.
The last, and perhaps the most important play of Tchekoff, is "The Cherry Garden." Human beings, locked up in themselves, morally bounded, impotent and isolated, wander about in the old seignioral estate of the Cherry Garden. The house is several centuries old. In former times a happy life was led there; feasts were given, and generals and princes were the hosts. The Cherry Garden gave tone to the neighborhood, but many years have passed!... Now other houses have taken its place: the estate is mortgaged, the interest is not paid, and the only guests now are the postman or a railway official who lives close by. The occupants of the house do not think of doing anything about this state of things. For them the past is gone. All that is left is a dislike for work, carelessness, improvidence, and ignorance of the necessities of the present. Like all that dies, they evoke a certain pity, a certain fatality hangs over them. The inhabitants of the Cherry Garden set forth their ideas about one another; but in reality none of them see anything but themselves, in their small and very limited moral world, and they analyze with difficulty the embryos of thought that are left to them. Thus, they cannot grasp in full the evil that is falling on the old home, and they remain impassive when some one proposes to alleviate this evil by energetic means. People speak to them of the downfall to which they are doomed; a means of safety is proposed, but they turn a deaf ear and continue in their narrow and fruitless dream. Finally, when the estate is sold, they look upon this event as a fatal and unexpected blow. They say good-bye to the cradle of their family, weeping silently, and depart.
 For some reason, unknown to the translator, the author has made no mention of Tchekoff's famous play, "The Sea-Gull." This drama, which, when first produced, was a flat failure, scored a tremendous success a short while afterwards. It is especially interesting in that the author has made one of the characters, Trigorin, largely autobiographical. To-day "The Sea-Gull" is one of the most popular productions on the Russian stage.
They are now thrown out into the world. The old existence has gone, as well as the seignioral estate. The Cherry Garden is to be torn down; the blinds are all lowered, and in the half-darkened rooms, the old servant, who is nearly a century old, wanders about among the disordered furniture.
* * * * *
Tchekoff is a true product of Russian literature, an autochthon plant, nourished by his natal sap. His humor is completely Russian; we hear Tolstoyan notes in his democracy; the "failures" of his stories are distantly related to the "superficial characters" of Turgenev; finally, the theory of the redemption of the past by suffering which he puts in the heart of the hero of the "Cherry Garden" makes us think of Dostoyevsky. The qualities which call to mind all these great names in Russian literature are found in the works of Tchekoff along with characteristics which show a very original talent. If one wishes to look for foreign influence, one can relate Tchekoff to de Maupassant and Ibsen, of whom he reminds one in snatches, although still in a very vague way. And that is indeed fortunate, for, in general, Scandinavian symbolism hardly goes hand in hand with the Russian spirit, which likes to make direct answers to "cursed questions," and whose ideal, elaborated since 1840 in the realm of strict realism, is so definite that it does not necessitate going back to the circumlocutions of metaphors and allegories.
While Tchekoff lived his literary aspect was enigmatical. Some judged him to be indifferent, because they did not find in his writings that revolutionary spirit which is felt in almost all modern writers. Others thought of him as a pessimist who saw nothing good in Russian life, because he described principally resigned suffering or useless striving for a better life. Since the death of Tchekoff, which made it necessary for the critics to study his works as a whole, and especially since the publication of his correspondence, his character has come to the fore, as it really is: he is a writer, who, by the very nature of his talent, was irresistibly forced to study the inner life of man impartially, and who, consequently, remains the enemy of all religious or philosophical dogmas which may hinder the task of the observer.
The division of men into good and bad, according to the point of view of this or that doctrine, angered him:
"I fear," he says in one of his letters, "those who look for hidden meanings between the lines, and those who look upon me as a liberator or as a guardian. I am neither a liberal nor a conservative, neither a monk nor an indifferent person. I despise lies and violence everywhere and under any form.... I only want to be an artist, and that's all."
One realized that this unfettered artist, with his hatred of lies and violence, although he belonged to no political party, could be nothing but a liberal in the noblest and greatest sense of the word. One also realized that he was not the pessimist that he was once believed to be, but a writer who suffered for his ideal and who awakened by his works a desire to emerge from the twilight of life that he depicted.
To some he even appeared as an enchanted admirer of the future progress of humanity. Did he not often say, while admiring his own little garden: "Do you know that in three or four hundred years the entire earth will be a flourishing garden? How wonderful it will be to live then!" And did he not pronounce these proud words: "Man must be conscious of being superior to the lions, tigers, stars, in short, to all nature. We are already superior and great people, and, when we come to know all the strength of human genius, we shall be comparable to the gods."
These great hopes did not prevent him from painting with a vigorous brush the nothingness of mankind, not only at a certain given moment and under certain circumstances, but always and everywhere. Is this a paradox? No. If he did not doubt progress, he would be most pessimistic, if I may so express myself. He would suffer from that earthly pessimism, in face of which reason is weak; the pessimism which manifests itself by a hopeless sadness in face of the stupidity of life and the idea of death.
"I, my friend, am afraid of life, and do not understand it," says one of Tchekoff's heroes. "When, lying on the grass, I examine a lady-bird, it seems to me that its life is nothing but a texture of horrors, and I see myself in it.... Everything frightens me because I understand neither the motive nor the end of things. I understand neither persons nor things. If you understand I congratulate you.
"When one looks at the blue sky for a long time, one's thoughts and one's soul unite mysteriously in a feeling of solitude.... For a moment one feels the loneliness of the dead, and the enigma of hopeless and terrible life."
This universal hopelessness; this sadness, provoked by the platitudes of existence compared with the unrelenting lessons of death, of which Tchekoff speaks with such a nervous terror, can be found in almost all the works of the best known Russian writers. We find it in Byronian Lermontov, who sees nothing in life but "une plaisanterie;" in Dostoyevsky, who has written so many striking pages of realism on the bitterness of a life without religious faith; and in the realist Turgenev, we find the same kind of thing. Turgenev even reaches a stage of hopeless nihilism, and one of his heroes, Bazarov,—in "Fathers and Sons,"—reflecting one day on the lot of the peasant, considering it better than his, says sadly, "He, at least, will have his little hut, while all I can hope for is a bed of thorns." Finally, all the tortuous quests of the ideal toward which Tolstoy strove, were suggested to him, as he himself says, by his insatiable desire to find "the meaning of life, destroyed by death."
It is sometimes maintained that this state of intellectual sadness is innate in the Russians; that their sanguinary and melancholy temperaments are a mixture of Don Quixote and Hamlet. Foreign critics have often traced this despair to the so-called mysticism peculiar to the Slavonic race.
What is there mystical in them? The consciousness of the nothingness, of the emptiness of human life, can be found deep down in the souls of nearly all mankind. It shows itself, among most people, only on rare tragic occasions, when general or particular catastrophes take place; at other times it is smothered by the immediate cares of life, by passions that grip us, and, finally, by religion. But none of these influences had any effect on Tchekoff. He was too noble to be completely absorbed by the mean details of life; his organism was too delicate to become the prey of an overwhelming passion; and his character too positive to give itself over to religious dogmas. "I lost my childhood faith a long time ago," he once wrote, "and I regard all intelligent belief with perplexity.... In reality, the 'intellectuals' only play at religion, chiefly because they have nothing else to do." Tchekoff, in his sober manner, has seen and recognized the two great aspects of life: first, the world of social and historical progress with its promise of future comforts; secondly, an aspect that is closely related to the above, the obscure world of the unknown man who feels the cold breath of death upon him. He was an absolute positivist; his positivism did not make him self-assertive nor peremptory; on the contrary, it oppressed him.
But why should this sad state of mind, which has been expressed by great men in all literatures, be so exceptionally prominent among the Russians, and particularly among the modern ones? The reason is, without a doubt, because the political and social organization of Russia has always been a prison for literature. Oppression had reached its height during Tchekoff's life. This period was the moment of suffocation before the storm. If Tchekoff were alive to-day, now that the tempest has burst forth, his sadness would be lessened, or it would at least have before it the screen which, according to Pascal, people wear before their eyes that they may not see the abyss, on the edge of which they pass their lives. Up to the present time, the Russians have lacked these screens.
"A long time ago, on a dark autumn evening, I was being rowed down a rather uninteresting Siberian stream. Suddenly, at a bend in the river, I saw a bright fire burning ahead of us at the foot of some black mountains. It did not seem far away.
"'Thank Heaven,' I cried with joy, 'we have nearly reached our stopping-place!'
"The boatsman turned, looked at the fire over his shoulder, and again grasped the oars with an apathetic gesture:
"'That is still a long way off,' he murmured.
"I did not believe him, for the fire seemed to stand out very clear against the infinite shadows. However, he was right; we were still far away.
"Just so those fires, the conquerors of darkness, deceive us into thinking that they are near, while they only cast their distant, illusive rays into the night...."
It is with this sober description in "Little Fires" that one of the last volumes of Korolenko's "Sketches and Stories" opens. This simple picture makes a warm and clear impression on one's very soul. It is itself a precious and welcome light.
At times when life is sombre, and when shadows fill the heart, when, under the blows of despair and anguish, courage finally fails, the mere existence of some brave spirit suffices to give a new birth to hope and to rekindle the flame so that the distance is again lighted up, and we again put our shoulders to the wheel.
Thus for more than thirty years in Russian literature Korolenko has played the part of one of these clear, alluring lights. He has not written a single book in which we do not find a fire that warms us with its caresses even from afar, not one in which we do not feel the vibration of a loving heart, which dreams of giving light and joy to all unfortunates, and is confident that if they have not yet had their equal share, they will surely have it some day.
Korolenko was born in 1853 in Zhitomir, in Little Russia. On his father's side he is descended from an old Cossack family, and by his mother he is related to Polish nobility. This double origin, so to speak, is shown very clearly in his works, which are filled with the melancholy and dreamy poetry of the Little Russians, and also with the perennial hope so common among the Poles.
His father was a judge and enjoyed a reputation for strict integrity. It was, in fact, often hard for him to ward off those who wanted to thank him for his services. One day he had to accept a gift. A merchant, whose case he had won, sent him a cart filled with various objects, among which was a beautiful large doll. The little daughter of the judge saw it, and at once took possession of it. The judge, when he found out what had happened, ordered the gifts to be returned immediately; but, because of the grief of the little girl, they had to give up all thoughts of returning the doll.
The judge, who was a man of firm principles, maintained a severe discipline in his family. He made a special study of medicine and hygiene, and put his knowledge into practice by treating the sick of the neighborhood. His children, although always well dressed, had to go around barefoot. Their father was convinced that this was the best way to toughen them. Besides, they were compelled, every morning, summer and winter, to take a cold plunge bath. The children did not like this way of doing things. Early in the morning they used to run to the stable in their shirts, and there, cowering in a corner, trembling with cold, they would wait for their father to leave the house.
Korolenko remembers well this Spartan-like education, which inured him to the severity of the seasons. Without this training he certainly would have perished in savage and freezing Siberia, where he lived in exile for several years.
At the death of the father, the family with its six children was left without resources. The mother, a very good and kind woman, opened a boys' boarding-school, and Vladimir, then fifteen years of age, helped her as well as he could, and also earned money by giving lessons outside.
In 1870, after having finished his studies in his native town, Korolenko entered the Technological Institute at St. Petersburg, where he spent two years in extreme poverty. He had to earn his living as well as he could, by giving lessons or doing copying. His mother could not help him at all, as she herself had to struggle against adversity. The following will show how sparingly he had to live in his youth: during his two years, he had a real substantial meal only about once in two months, and then in a restaurant run on philanthropic principles, where he paid only 30 copecks (about 30 cents). His regular meals consisted of bread, tea, sausage and potatoes. But this was an epoch in which living was cheap: the wave of democracy was spreading, and the "intellectuals" were trying to get into closer touch with the people. The movement was so powerful that many of the younger generation who could have done other things took up this work; others, on principle, married humble peasants. In 1872 Korolenko left for Moscow, and there entered the Academy of Agriculture. He was expelled after two years and sent to Kronstadt for having taken part in student manifestations. Several years later, we find him again in St. Petersburg without a permanent position; he was employed as a reader in a publishing house, and was also attempting to do some writing. His first efforts took the form of a series of sketches, published under the title, "Episodes in the Life of a Seeker." He was at this time accused of being too much inspired by the scenes of sadness and injustice of which he had been a witness. In 1879 he was imprisoned and then deported to Viatka. He remained there a year. Thence he was sent to the miserable town of Kama, and a few months later to Tomsk, where he learned that they wanted to exile him to Siberia. In a letter, published by a newspaper, he eloquently protested against the persecutions of which he was the unhappy victim. His protestation was answered by his transfer to the frozen region of the province of Yakutsk in Eastern Siberia! He passed three years in the midst of the "taiga," the immense virgin forest which covers this country, in a village of nomads whose miserable huts, very low and smoky, were scattered along the shores of the Aldane. Here he wrote several stories, and the "Dream of Makar," which was published two years later, and greatly praised by the critics for its originality and its setting. The dreary country around Yakutsk and the life that is lived there made such a profound impression on the young man that even to-day he speaks of that time with real emotion.
"My hut was at the extreme end of the town. During the short day one could see the small plain, the mountains which surrounded it, and the fires in the other huts, in which lived people who were either descended from Russian colonists or deported Tartars. But in the morning and evening a cold grey mist covered everything so thickly that one could not see a foot ahead.
"My little hut was like a lost island in a boundless ocean. Not a sound about me.... The minutes, the hours passed, and insensibly the fatal moment approached when the 'cursed land' pierced me with the hostility of its freezing cold and its terrible shadows, when the high mountains covered with black forests rose menacingly before me, the endless steppes, all lying between me and my country and all that was dear to me.... Then came the terrible sadness ... which, in the depths of your heart, suddenly lifts up its sinister head, and in the terrible silence among the shadows murmurs these words: 'This is the end of you ... the very end ... you will remain in this tomb till you die....'
"A low and caressing whine brought me out of my heavy stupor: it was my friend, Cerberus, my intelligent and faithful dog, who had been placed as a sentinel near the door. Chilled through and through, he was asking me what was the matter and why, in such terribly cold weather, I did not have a fire.
"Whenever I felt that I was going to be beaten in my struggle with silence and the shadows, I turned to this wholesome expedient,—a large fire."
In 1885, Korolenko, having returned from Siberia, went to Nizhny-Novgorod, and in a relatively short space of time wrote a series of stories which, two years later, were collected in book form. Afterward, he became the editor of the celebrated St. Petersburg review, the "Russkoe Bogatsvo,"—a position which he still holds.
* * * * *
In all of Korolenko's works we distinctly feel the living breath that inspires the artist, and the ardor of a fervent ideal. His god is man; his ideal, humanity; his "leitmotiv," the poetry of human suffering. This intimate connection with all that is human is to be found in his psychological analysis as well as in his descriptions of natural phenomena. Both God and nature are in turn spiritualized and humanized. Korolenko looks at life from a human standpoint; the world which he describes is made up wholly of men and exists for them only. He has a very clear philosophy, and a conscience aware of the duties it has to perform. If he has not opened up hitherto unknown paths, nor made new roads, he has himself nevertheless passed through terrible experiences; he has been a prey to profound sorrows and doubts, and in spite of all, he has kept his love for the people intact, and deeply pities their ignorance and abasement. His work constantly recalls to our minds the theory that the cultivated classes are in debt to the people for the education which they have received at the people's expense. This is the great moral principle which governs the conscience of the Russian "intellectuals." It is in this sense then, that Korolenko may be said to continue the literature of 1870, and to be the successor of Zlatovratsky and Uspensky. But he has reincarnated this past in new forms, which naturally result from the activity of his far-sighted, powerful intelligence. We do not find in his work either the nervousness, often sickly, which pervades the works of Uspensky, or the optimism of Zlatovratsky, which often excessively idealizes the life of the Russian peasant, who is the principal hero of all his works. Korolenko, because he puts a high value on human personality, perfectly appreciates the terrible struggle that man has to make in order to secure his rights. A desire for justice on the one hand, and a defence of man's dignity on the other, form the very essence of the talent of this author, and it is with these feelings that he observes the people on whom injustice weighs most heavily and who have merely remnants of human dignity left in their make-up,—for in general, these people are not those whom fate has overcome. Most of them lead a hard and gloomy life beset with misfortunes. Many of them are vagabonds, escaped convicts, drunkards, murderers, who are bowed down with misery, and have no wish except to escape the mortal dangers of the Siberian forests and marshes. On opening any of Korolenko's books we find ourselves, to use his own words, in "bad company." He does not flatter his heroes, he does not make gentlemen of them; they are not even men, but rather human rubbish.
"Because I knew a lot about the world," he writes, "I knew that there were people who had lost every vestige of humanity. I knew that they were corroded with vice and sunk deep in debauchery, in which they lived contented. But when the recollection of these beings surged through my mind, enveloped in the mists of the past, I saw nothing but a terrible tragedy, and felt only an inexpressible sorrow...."
This author does not give any judgment on life; he does not condemn it and does not nourish a preconceived spite against it, but his sad heart overflows with pity, and, if he approaches this life, it is with the balm of love, in order to try to dress its terrible wounds.
For Korolenko, the sufferings of existence atone for its injustice; he does not perceive the iniquities that surround him except through the prism of sorrow.
* * * * *
From the very beginning of his literary career, in his first book, "Episodes in the Life of a Seeker," Korolenko shows himself to be a seeker after truth. With him, the understanding of life, so ardently sought after, is never summed up in a single solution. He dreams of it constantly; at times, he seems to have found it, but he loses track of it again and starts all over.
This groping about resulted in a moral crisis in which he looked forward to death with joy. Beset with the thought of suicide, he often prowled around railroad platforms and looked at the car-wheels.
"I went there and came back again," he writes, "depressed by my realization of the stupidity of life. The snow was falling all around me, and shaping itself into a frozen carpet, the telegraph poles shivered as if they were cold through and through, and on the other side of the road, on a slope, shone the sad little light of the watchman's tower. There, in the darkness, lived a whole family. Through the shadows the little red fire seemed to be as desolate as the family. The children were scrofulous and suffered; the mother was thin and sickly. To procreate and to bury! Such was the life of the father, probably the most unfortunate of all, because the household depended wholly upon him, and he saw no gleam of hope anywhere. He bore this condition of things, because, in his simplicity, he believed in a superior will, and thought that his misery was inevitable. The resignation of this man, the terrible bareness of his obscure existence, oppressed me. If I could bear the sight of it, it was only because I hoped; I thought that we should soon find the road which makes life happier, more agreeable to every one. How, where, in what manner? What a mystery! But the future beauty of life was in the search for it."
* * * * *
The observations that Korolenko was able to make were many and diverse. By going all over Russia he gathered inexhaustible riches, in the form of anecdotes and actual experiences. This can be easily realized when we consider the sumptuous variety of his descriptions. Where do we not go, and whom do we not meet in his books? First, we are in a peaceful little town of the southwest, then in the thick woods of Poliyessye, in the snow-covered and frozen Siberian forests, or in the valleys of Sakhaline, inhabited by half-breed Russians and escaped convicts, not to mention the innumerable sectarians who fill the Siberian prisons. And Korolenko never repeats. Not even a detail occurs more than once. Each of his works is a little world in itself. The author, moreover, unlike other writers, is never satisfied with pale sketches; each character is shown in full relief, each picture is absolutely finished. This wholeness, this finish which does not hurt the harmony of the proportions, is a precious quality, very rare in our time.
* * * * *
The "Sketches of a Siberian Tourist," published in 1896, in which bandits of various odd types tell thrilling tales of nocturnal attacks and other adventures, is a kind of artistic novel. The postillion is the most original character in the book. Huge of stature, audacious and clever, he exercises a mysterious influence over the brigands, whom he inspires with a superstitious terror. Most of them, thinking him invulnerable, do not dare attack the travelers whom he is driving.
That same year another work of Korolenko's appeared, called: "In Bad Company,"—a sort of autobiography which added to his renown. The story, poetically simple, is laid in a provincial town. The hero is a little, seven-year-old boy called Volodya. He is the son of the local judge. The mother has been dead for a long time, and the father, in his sorrow, more or less loses track of his children, who roam about unwatched.
The little town has its historic legends; it boasts of the ruins of a castle, which in times gone by was inhabited by rich Polish counts, whose descendants, having become poor, have long since left their manorial home. The castle has served as a refuge for a nomadic population. Expelled by the count's agent, this little band has taken up its abode in a dilapidated chapel in the crypts of a cemetery.
The chief of this barefoot brigade is called Tibertius Droba. He has two children: Vanek, a large, dark-haired lad, whom one sees wandering about the village with a sullen look on his face, and Maroussya, a small and thin child, who is gradually fading away in the darkness of her cellar-like home.
While strolling about one day, Volodya, impelled by his childish curiosity, decides, with two of his friends, to explore the chapel. He meets there Tibertius' children and they strike up a friendship. The description of the ruins and of the superstitious fear of the children gives an opportunity for some exquisite pages. If the little vagabonds are hungry, poor Volodya, who himself is without love or caresses, suffers still more, but every time that he brings the children some apples or cakes he feels that he is less unhappy, because these offerings are accepted with such an outpouring of gratitude. Gradually, the little lad gets to know all the inhabitants, and becomes especially intimate with Maroussya, whose eyes have an expression of precocious desolation.
"Her smile," says Korolenko, "reminded me of my mother during the last few months of her life; so much so, that I almost used to weep when I watched this little girl."
One day, Volodya brings her some apples, flowers, and a doll that his little sister has given him.
"Why is she always so sad?" he asks Maroussya's brother.
"It is on account of the grey stone," he replies.
"Yes, the grey stone," repeated Maroussya, like a feeble echo.
"What grey stone?"
"The grey stone that has sucked the life out of her," explained Vanek, gazing at the sky. "Tibertius says so, and Tibertius knows everything."
"I was very much puzzled, but the force with which Tibertius' omniscience was affirmed impressed me. I looked at the little girl, who was still playing with the flowers, but almost without moving. There were dark rings under her eyes and her face was pale. I did not exactly understand the meaning of Tibertius' words, but I felt dimly that they veiled some terrible reality. The grey stone was, in fact, sucking out the life of this frail child. But how could grey stones do it? How could this hard and formless thing worm itself into Maroussya's very soul, and make the ruddy glow disappear from her cheeks and the brilliancy from her eyes? These mysteries puzzled me more than the phantoms of the castle."
Volodya's father is not aware that he is spending part of his days in the cemetery, and knows nothing of his son's new friends. But one day the secret is discovered, and a family storm follows. The judge demands a full confession. Volodya heroically remains silent. Finally, Tibertius himself pleads the child's cause so eloquently that Volodya is not scolded and the father allows him to go and say good-bye to his little friend, who has meanwhile died of privation. The day after the little girl's funeral the whole band disappears without leaving a trace behind them. "Later on," says Korolenko, "when we were about to leave our home, it was on the grave of our poor little friend that my sister and I, both of us full of life, faith, and hope, interchanged our vows of universal compassion...."
Another short story, called "The Murmuring Forest," which was published in the same year, made as much of a success as "Bad Company."
* * * * *
But it is in "The Blind Musician" that Korolenko attains perfection. This masterly psychological study does not present a very complicated plot. From the very start the reader is captivated by a powerful poetic quality, free from all artifice, fresh, spontaneous, and breathing forth such moral purity, such tender pity, that one literally feels regenerated.
Here is a brief outline of this exquisite story. One very dark night, a child of rich parents is born in the southwest of Russia. Peter—the child—is blind. His whole life is to be but a groping in the shadows toward the light. The mother adores the poor child and suffers more than he. But she has not enough moral strength to bring him up, and give him the necessary comfort and energy. His father, a countryman, thinks only of his business. Happily, there is on the mother's side an uncle called Maxim, one of the famous "thousand" of Garibaldi, who has a noble and generous disposition. It is he who brings up the child, with a tenderness just touched by severity. Peter's young mind is constantly enriched with new pictures. Thanks to the extreme acuteness of his hearing, he catches the very slightest sounds of nature. When barely five years of age the boy shows his love for music; he spends hours, motionless, listening to the playing of one of the servants who has made for himself a kind of flute. Soon Peter begins to study music, and especially the violin. His rapid progress astonishes his teachers. However, in spite of his love for music and the comfort that it gives him, the blind boy suffers from his infirmity. To distract his mind from his own suffering, his uncle takes him one day to a place where there are some blind beggars. Peter listens to their plaintive melody: "Alms, alms for a poor blind man ... for the love of Christ"; and as if he had heard the voice of some phantom, the child returns home, frightened, confused. From that day, he is transformed. Until then, he had thought only of himself, he had become grey with his own sorrow. Afterward, he suffers for others; his personal sorrow diminishes, and his life becomes an expression of the sorrows of his fellows in misery, an ardent and passionate prayer for others who also are deprived of sight.
For several years he has been friends with a young girl of his neighborhood. They marry, and Evelyn, his wife, brings some happiness to the poor blind man. But soon there comes a time of indescribable anguish. Evelyn gives birth to a boy, and Peter is tortured by a presentiment of impending evil. Will the son be blind like his father? The few moments when the doctors are testing the infant's sight pass like so many centuries. Finally the physician says: "The pupil is contracting, the child is not blind." Peter, seated by the window, pale and motionless, rises quickly at these words. In a moment fear has disappeared and hope is transformed into certainty and fills the blind man's heart with joy. "The child is not blind." One might say that these few words of the doctor had burned a path in his brain.
"His whole frame vibrated like a taut cord which had been snapped. A flash went through him, like lightning in a sunless sky, conjuring up in him strange phantasms. Whether they were sounds or sights he could not determine. But if they were sounds they were sounds which he could see. They sparkled like the vault of the sky, shone like the sun, waved like the rustling, whispering grass of the steppes. These were the sensations of a moment. What followed he was unable to recall. But he stubbornly affirmed that in this moment he had seen. What had he seen? How had he seen? Had he really seen? This always remained a mystery. People said that it was impossible. He, however, affirmed that in that moment he had seen the earth, his wife, his mother, his son, and Uncle Maxim.... He was standing up, and his face was so illumined and so strange that every one around him was silent.... Later on, there remained nothing but the remembrance of a sort of joyous satisfaction, and the absolute conviction that, at that moment, he had seen...."
A year later, at Kiev, at a concert for charity, Peter made his debut. An enormous crowd gathered to hear the blind musician. From the very first the audience was captivated. Moved to its depths, the crowd became frantic. And Uncle Maxim heard something familiar in the playing of his nephew.
He saw a large, crowded street, and a clear, gay wave of scolding and jesting humanity. Then, gradually, this picture faded into the background. A groaning was heard. It detached itself from the clamor of the crowd and passed through the hall in a sweet but powerful note, which sobbed and moved one's heart. Maxim knew it well, this sad melody: "Alms, alms for the poor blind man ... for the love of Christ."
"He understands suffering," murmured the uncle. "He has had his share, and that is why he can change it into music for this happy audience."
"And the head of the old warrior sank on his breast. His work was done. He had made a good man. He had not lived in vain. He had but to look at the crowd to be convinced of that."
* * * * *
Korolenko belongs to the school of Turgenev. In all of his works he remains true to the principles which his master summed up in a letter: "One must penetrate the surroundings, and take life in all its manifestations; decipher the laws by which it is governed; get at the very essence of life, while remaining always within the boundaries of truth; and finally, one must not be contented with a superficial study."
Korolenko lives up to all of these principles. Without tiring, he watches life in all of its phases. He uses a large canvas for his studies of inanimate nature, as well as of individuals in particular and the masses in general. That is why his work gives us such an exact reproduction of life.
Like Turgenev, he describes nature admirably. His descriptions are not irrelevant ornaments, but they constitute an organic and integral part of the picture. In both Turgenev and Korolenko the surrounding country reflects the feelings and emotions of the heroes, and takes on a purely lyric character. One might almost say that these country scenes breathe, speak a human language, and whisper mysterious legends.
Korolenko has given us several splendid landscapes. In some of these nature seems to be in a serene mood, like a good mother whose harmonious strength attracts man and shows him the need of reposing on her bosom. In others, nature is like a strong, free element which incites man to lead an independent life. Thus, in the beautiful prose poem, "The Moment," in which the action passes in Spain, it is the ocean beating against the prison walls that arouses Diatz from his torpor and makes him attempt to escape.
* * * * *
But, in spite of the importance of the background in Korolenko's work, it is really in the conscience of his characters that the essential drama takes place. More than anything else, it is psychology that beguiles the artist; it is only through psychology that Korolenko depicts men and their mentalities. He studies the strong and the weak, the simple and the complex; exaltation, triumph, revolt, and downfall all interest him equally.
A simple analysis of his story, "Makar's Dream," will show his psychological genius to greater advantage than could any critical essay.
In the very heart of the dense woods of the "taiga," Makar, a poor little peasant, who has become half savage by association with the Yakutsk people, dreams of a better future.
Makar does not dream, however, when he is normal; he hasn't time to, for he has to chop wood, plough, sow, and grind grain. He only dreams when he is drunk. As soon as he is under the influence of liquor, he weeps and says that he is going to leave everything and go to the "sacred mountain" to gain salvation for his soul. What is the name of this mountain? Where is it? He does not know exactly; he only knows that it is very far away. On Christmas eve, Makar extorts a ruble from two political refugees, and, instead of bringing them some wood for the money, he quickly buys some tobacco and brandy. After drinking and smoking a great deal, Makar goes to sleep and has a dream. He dreams that the frost has got the better of him in the woods, that he has died there, and that the priest Ivan, who has also been dead a long time, takes him to the great Tayon—the god of the woods—to be judged for his former deeds. Even there his natural knavery does not forsake him; he tries to fool Tayon. But the latter has everything that Makar has ever done, both good and bad, written down, and becoming angry, he says: "I see that you are a liar, a sluggard, and a drunkard."
He orders Makar to be transformed into a post-horse, to be used by the police commissioner. And Makar, this Makar who never in his lifetime was known to say more than ten words at a time, suddenly finds that he has the faculty of speech. He begins by saying that he does not want to be a horse, not because he is afraid of work but because this decision is unfair. If one works geldings, one feeds them with oats; but people have imposed upon him and tortured him all his life and have never fed him, no, not even with oats.
"Who imposed upon you and tortured you?" asks old Tayon, moved by compassion.
"Everybody! The men who demanded taxes, the heat and the cold, rain and dryness, the pitiless earth, and the forest."
The beam of the balance wavers; the wooden dish, filled with sins, rises, while the golden one sinks.
Makar continues: "You have everything written down, have you? Well, look and see whether Makar has ever had any kindness shown to him. He is here before his judges, dirty, his hair disordered, and his clothes in rags. He is ashamed. However, he realizes that he was born just like the others, with clear eyes in which both heaven and earth were reflected, and with a heart ready to open and receive all the beauty of the world."
Makar thus passes in review his miserable life. Old Tayon is moved.
"Makar, you are no longer on earth, and you shall receive justice."
Makar begins to weep, and Tayon weeps too.... And the young gods and the angels, they also shed tears.
Again the balance moves. But this time it is in the opposite direction.
Makar has received justice from the hands of Tayon.
* * * * *
Korolenko does not try to reconcile us to reality, but to mankind. In all of the catastrophes in his books, in the most sombre descriptions, he comforts us with a consolation, an ideal, a "little fire" that burns in the distance and attracts us. But to get to that fire we have to fight against evil. And it is perhaps in answer to Tolstoy's doctrine of passive resistance that Korolenko wrote that beautiful story called, "The Legend of Florus," the subject of which was probably taken from "The War of the Jews," by Flavius Josephus.
This work takes us back to the time when Judaea was bowed down under Roman rule. The Jews bear their lot without a murmur, and this resignation encourages Florus, the governor of Judaea, to oppress them more.
Soon there are two parties formed: the "pacifics" want to rid themselves of Roman cruelty by humble submission, while the others advise opposing this cruelty to the utmost. The chief of the latter party is Menahem, the son of a famous warrior who has inherited from his father his generous passions and his hatred of oppression. Menahem's words inspire respect even in his enemies. But he does not succeed in making peace among his people. In vain he cries to them, as his father before him had cried: "It is disgraceful to bow down to sovereigns, especially since these sovereigns are men; no human being should bow down to any one excepting God, who created men that they might be free." With great trouble he finally succeeds in rousing a part of the people to rebellion. Then he leaves the city with his followers, resolved to defend his country. Menahem has no illusions as to the outcome; he knows that he will be conquered by the Romans. Nevertheless he is fearless, for his whole being is filled with a single thought,—the idea of justice, which imposes upon men certain obligations which they must not scorn.
During his stay in Siberia Korolenko had a very good chance to observe the deported convicts. Most of them are thieves, forgers, and murderers. The others, urged on by a heroic desire to live their own true lives, have been sent to this "cursed land" because of "political offences."
Korolenko is not resigned to the sadness of life, he is not an enemy to manly calls to active struggle, but he neither wants to, nor can he, break the ties that bind him to the real life of the present. He does not wish either to judge or to renounce this life. Nor does he try, by fighting, to perpetuate a conflict which is in itself eternal. If he struggles, it is rather in discontent than in despair. Not all is evil in his eyes, and reality is not always and entirely sad. His protestations hardly ever take the form of disdain or contempt; he does not rise to summits which are inaccessible to mankind. In fact, his ideal is close to earth; it is the ideal which comes from mankind, from tears and sufferings. If the thoughts and feelings of the author rise sometimes high above the earth, he never forgets the world and its interests. Korolenko loves humanity, and his ideals cannot separate themselves from it. He loves man and he believes that God lives in their souls.
We find these theories in the sketch called "En Route." The vagabond, Panov, is one of a party of deported convicts. At one of the stops, an inspector arrives who remembers having seen Panov when a young man. The old man goes over the history of his life, which has been marked with constant success, with pleasure. He shows the vagabond his little son, and with cruel egotism boasts of his happiness. Standing before him, his back bent, and a sad light in his eyes, Panov listens to the story. He feels vaguely that he has not lived and that he lacks personality. There is nothing in store for him except the useless existence of prison life. The egotistical and debonair inspector, in his simplicity, does not understand the anguish of the homeless prisoner, and, by his amicable chatter, subjects him to horrible moral torture. It is too much for Panov. When the inspector leaves, Panov, gripping the edge of his hard cot in his convulsive hands, falls to the ground. He breathes heavily, his lips move, but he does not speak. "That night Panov got drunk."
Two very different types appear in the novel called, "The Postillion of the Emperor." We have here the idealist Misheka and the sectarian Ostrovsky, a transported prisoner who is embittered by his hard lot, and by life in general.
If Misheka protests against the complicated conditions of life to which he cannot entirely submit, it is rather by instinct than through reason. He is attracted by something invisible, something distant and strange, to the repugnant world which surrounds him. As a postillion of the State he has frequent communications with the distant world which glows vaguely on his mental horizon. Everything displeases him: both the savage country in which he has to live, and the world of stupid, degenerate, and miserable postillions whom he mercilessly criticizes. His random attempts to get away fail. Despairing, he becomes an accomplice in a crime so that he can leave this solitary place and go where his restless soul leads him.
At the side of Misheka we have the tragic figure of Ostrovsky, who is the exasperated victim of the evil all around him.
The author and the travelers, driven by Misheka, have seen the burning of Ostrovsky's house, which the latter burned himself so that no one could profit by it. This action strikes Misheka as wonderful.
"He begins to tell the story of the fire. Several years before, Ostrovsky had been deported for having given up the orthodox faith. His young wife and child followed him. They had been given a plot of land in a broad and deep valley, between two walls of rock. The place seemed fertile. It was not hard to sell wheat to the miners and Ostrovsky worked diligently and steadily. But the inhabitants had kept something from him: although the wheat grew in the valley, it never ripened, because each year, without fail, in the month of July it was destroyed by the cold winds from the northeast."
The first few years Ostrovsky attributed his failure to chance. He carefully cared for his crop in the hopes of a better season.
Alas, his wife died of sorrow, and autumn brought him nothing but straw. Ostrovsky, without weeping, dug a grave in the frozen ground and buried his wife. Then he asked permission to go to the mines, and borrowed some money for the trip from his neighbors. The latter gladly loaned it to him, thinking thus to get rid of him and to get the profit of his house and goods. But Ostrovsky fooled them in their naive simplicity; he heaped up all of his possessions in his little cottage and then set fire to it. He no longer thought of justice; he was nothing but a despairing man.
The patriarch of the village in which he had taken refuge tried to recall to him the faith for which he had been exiled:
"Do you remember," answered Ostrovsky, "the first visit I paid you to ask for advice? Ah, so you have forgotten that and you speak of God.... You are nothing but a crafty dog! All of you are dogs! There is nothing here but woods and rocks, and you are all just as insensible as the very rocks that surround you.... And your cursed land, and your sky, and your stars...." "He wanted to say something more, but he did not dare blaspheme, and there was silence again in the little cottage...."
This Ostrovsky is among the very best of Korolenko's heroes. The sight of this despairing and lonely man, who wanders about in the Siberian forests with his little daughter, calls louder for justice than all the speeches in the world.
* * * * *
Through the wealth of his talent and knowledge, Korolenko is of tremendous social value in three fields of work,—practical affairs, journalism, and art.
Among the many services which he has rendered to humanity, let us first mention his brilliant defence of the half-savage Votiaks, accused of ritual murder in the famous Malmige case. Although he had just suffered great grief himself—he had lost two children—he traveled to a distant town in order to be at the trial. He took his seat on the bench of the defenders. He used all of his knowledge, and all the love in his heart to defend the unhappy Votiaks, whose acquittal he succeeded in securing.
As a publicist, he has written some very valuable articles. Among them are observations on the famine year (he spent two months in one of the worst districts). In other articles he has analyzed a moral malady peculiar to our state of society:—honor. In the recent Russian duels he studied the perverse notions of honor and the moral changes produced by sickly egotism. He has studied the causes that bring about the complete loss of individuality. Finally, in 1910, he published under the title, "Present Customs (Notes of a Publicist under Sentence of Death)" a series of documents gathered here and there, which constitute an eloquent and passionate plea in favor of the abolitionist thesis.
When the great Tolstoy read the preface of this work, he wrote to Korolenko, "I often sobbed and wept. Millions of copies of this work ought to be distributed; it ought to be read by every one who has a heart. No discourse, no novel or play, can produce the effect that your 'Notes' do."
But above all, it is as the pure artist that Korolenko merits most attention. It is his talent that has already made him famous, and it is his talent that will make him immortal in Russian literature.
Korolenko is at present one of the most popular writers among the educated classes. They have amply proved this to him, especially in 1903 and 1908, when they celebrated his 50th birthday and the 30th anniversary of his literary activity. On the occasion of these celebrations, delegations from many cities and universities came to St. Petersburg to congratulate and to thank the author who, through so many trials, had never ceased to uphold the cause of truth and goodness, and to claim for each human being the right to work, happiness, and free thought.
Veressayev is well known in France for his "Memoirs of a Physician," a work that has been translated into almost every language. However, his reputation in Russia is not based on this book, which is considered his masterpiece, but rather on his stories and tales. Let us, however, first take a glance at the life of this author, a life so closely connected with the subjects of his works that it forms an indispensable commentary on them.
Veressayev, whose real name is Vikenty Smidovich, was born in 1867, in Tula. His father was a Pole and his mother a Russian. His father, a very pious and strictly moral man, was a well known and well liked physician. In 1877, the boy entered the local school and received his degree there seven years later. In 1884, he left for the University of St. Petersburg, where he enrolled in the department of historical sciences. Four years later, when he was twenty-four and a half, he received his degree of licentiate of letters. Most of his class-mates became school-teachers, but he preferred to pursue his studies. Medicine tempted him. He left for Zhouriev (formerly Dorpat, already famous for its department of medicine) and entered the university, where, at the end of six years, he received his doctor's degree.
 On the continent of Europe, a university degree between that of bachelor and of doctor.
Two years before, in 1892, a cholera epidemic had broken out in Russia. Young Smidovich, then a fourth-year student, asked to be sent immediately to a province in the East, where the epidemic was spreading like wildfire. He remained there several months, in fact until the plague had gone. As a doctor's assistant in an infirmary organized in one of the mining districts of the government of Ekaterinoslav, he witnessed a peasant revolt in which several doctors were killed and others cruelly burned by the exasperated and ignorant mob. Veressayev has traced these sad events with tremendous power in his story, "Astray."
His doctor's degree in his pocket, he went to Tula, where he practised for several months, but soon the position of house-surgeon was offered to him in the Botkin Hospital in St. Petersburg. He remained there seven years, till 1901, when, by order of the Minister of the Interior, who has charge of all hospital appointments, he was forced to retire from office and was expelled from St. Petersburg and forbidden to reside in either of the two capitals, Moscow or St. Petersburg. The reason for this was, that the name Veressayev appeared on the petition of the "intellectuals" which had been given to the Minister of the Interior, protesting against the brutal attitude of the police during a student manifestation in the Kazan cathedral on March 4, 1901. This petition brought severe punishment to almost all the people whose names were signed to it. Veressayev went abroad; he visited Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland.
Gifted with poetic inspiration, he had begun writing at an early age. He was not more than fourteen when he translated some poems of Koerner and Goethe into Russian verse. Later, when at college, he wrote some short prose tales, which were published in various papers. But it was in 1896, when the "Russkoe Bogatsvo," the large St. Petersburg review, had published his two important stories, "Astray" and "The Contagion," that renown came to him. It came so suddenly that it troubled him and was almost a blow to his modesty, which is one of the sympathetic traits of his personality.
In fact, there came a time when the attention of the literary world, especially among the younger generation, became so wrapped up in his works that Gorky and Tchekoff sank to a second level. This enthusiasm was caused by the fact that Veressayev's works answered a general need. They brought into the world of literature a series of characters who summed up the rising fermentation of new ideas and seemed to be spokesmen, around whom the Russian revolutionary forces gathered,—forces which, up to this time, had been scattered. An era of struggle for liberty began.
It is rather important, I think, for the proper understanding of this period to say a few words concerning its history.
The struggle of the younger generation against the autocracy began about 1860, at the time of the freeing of the serfs, a period known in Russia as the "epoch of great reforms." These ameliorations, which extended into almost every domain of Russian life, left intact the autocracy, which, under pretence of protecting itself, fought successfully against all activity and thus brought about, among the younger generation, a general movement towards freedom and socialism. But the autocracy found its best help in the ignorance of the people. Urban commerce, little developed at that time, practically interested only the peasants—which means nine-tenths of the population of Russia. It was natural, then, that the peasants should become the principal object of the revolutionary propaganda, and that tremendous efforts should be made on all sides in order to awaken them from their dangerous sleep.
The peasant uprisings in the history of Russia, especially the two revolts directed by Stepan Razin in the 17th century, and Pugachev in the 18th, proved the fact that the masses could unite in a general insurrection. This time, the "intellectuals" joined. As they advocated a sort of communism, periodic redivisions of land according to the growth of the population, and as they harped on the tradition that land was a gift of God which no one had a right to own, we can easily see that the agricultural proletariat would welcome with open arms the socialistic ideas.
Although this popular movement did not affect many people, it was attacked with such pitiless cruelty, that the revolutionists decided to have recourse to the red terror in order to fight the white terror which was cutting down their ranks. The secret goal of this movement was to replace the autocratic regime with political institutions emanating from the will of the people. In order to accomplish its reforms more quickly, this party, which called itself the "Popular Will," incited several attempts at murder; Russia then witnessed dynamite outrages against imperial trains and palaces, and finally, the assassination of the Emperor Alexander II. For a moment the autocratic regime seemed to totter under these sudden and fierce blows, but it soon recovered. The white terror proved to be stronger than the red. Many executions and banishments helped to crush the partisans of the "Popular Will;" then, when the movement had been checked, the authorities began to repress even the slightest desire for independence on the part of the press, the universities, or any other institutions which could do good to the people. Dejection and disillusion dominated this period from 1880 to 1900, which has been so faithfully portrayed in the works of Tchekoff.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that their ideals had come to nought, those of the red terror had not disappeared, and hope remained in their breasts.
Tchekoff was still living when new symptoms of fermentation appeared in Russia, and he could have alluded to this in his later works. But he did not have a fighting nature, and, in his solitude, he looked at conditions with melancholy scepticism. There was need of a man, a writer—like Gorky several years later—born right in the midst of this movement, who would be the very product of it, and for whom its ideas would be a reason for existence.
Veressayev was this man and writer, and it is as much by his political opinions as by his literary talents that he gained such a wide-spread reputation. If his works are not always irreproachable from a literary standpoint, they are always accurate in describing exactly what the author himself has seen and lived through.
* * * * *
Veressayev, in three great stories, gives us the three phases of the movement between 1880 and 1900. These three stories, "Astray," "The Contagion" and "At the Turn," are of such extreme importance, that in the following pages there will be a detailed analysis of each of them.
The two protagonists of the story, "Astray," are Dr. Chekanhov and his cousin Natasha. The former is at the end of his moral life, the latter is on the threshold, and both of them are "astray," because the one has not found the road on which to travel through life, and the other is just beginning to look for it. The entire existence of Chekanhov is dominated by the idea that it is his duty to serve the people, which was the basis of the activity of the "narodnikis." According to him, the "intellectuals," who represent a small and privileged fraction of the population, are the debtors of the people and ought to pay their debt by giving the people knowledge and comfort. This theory is burned into his very soul; it is the leading thought that directs all of his actions. At this epoch, few men showed such absolute devotion. From 1880 to 1890, after the cruel suppression of the movement of the "narodnikis," there was a stop in this revolutionary activity. Unaware of this pacification, Chekanhov makes great exertions; as a doctor, he combats disease and saves several people. But how exhaust the source of this evil, this misery, which is increased by a despotic social order? Chekanhov spends his energy in vain; where else shall he apply his strength?
The famine of 1891! Dr. Chekanhov speaks only of his despair: "A terrible malady beats down on one after another of the inhabitants; it is an epidemic of typhoid caused by the privations which left us numb and weak." In 1892 an epidemic of cholera broke out. In spite of the prayers of his parents, the young man rushes off to the most infected district. One day, he penetrates into an infected hovel. The children are sprawling everywhere, the mother is foolish and stupid, and the father, weakened by prison labor, has come down with cholera. The wife forbids the doctor, whom she accuses of poisoning the sick, to approach her husband. Scorning the danger, in order to encourage the sick man, the doctor drinks out of the very cup which the invalid has used. Nothing counts with him as long as he can inspire confidence and save people from death.
"What good is there in love between good and strong people," adds Chekanhov, after having noted down this cure in his "Journal," "since it results only in miserable abortions? And why are the people held down to work which is so rough and unpleasant? What motive supports them in their painful labor? Is it the desire to preserve their infected hovels?"
At the end of these reflections could not Chekanhov, absolutely in despair, have abandoned his task? No, he knew how to keep up his devotion. Sacrificing his life for others, Chekanhov begins to love life again. He says to himself: "Life is good ... but will it be for a long time?" We do not catch the answer.
Furious voices are heard, and a savage and cruel mob calls him a poisoner and hurls itself upon him, beating and striking him.
Exhausted by the blows and jeered at by those whom he had considered his brothers in need and for whom he had put himself in constant peril, he lies stretched out on his bed, suffering severely; but he nourishes no grudge against his tormentors; on the contrary, his apostle-like character is moved with pity at the thought of these uncultured and ignorant beings so unconscious of the evil that they are doing. And several days before his death he writes the following tragic words in his "Journal," almost terrifying in their simplicity:
"They have beaten me! They have beaten me like a mad dog because I came to help them and because I used all my knowledge and strength, in one word, gave all that I had. I am not thinking now about how much I loved these people and how badly I feel at the way they have treated me. I simply did not succeed in gaining their confidence; I did succeed in making them believe in me for a while, but soon a mere trifle was enough to plunge them back among their dark shadows and to awaken in them an elemental, brutal instinct. And now I have to die. I am not afraid of death, but of a tarnished life full of empty remorse. Why have I struggled? In the name of what am I going to die? I am only a poor victim stripped of the strength of an ideal and cared for by no one.... It had to be so, for we were always strangers to them, beings belonging to another world; we scornfully avoid them, without trying to know them, and a terrible abyss separates us from them."
It is interesting to note how Chekanhov is regarded by the new generation and especially by the woman he loves, his cousin Natasha. She believes in him, she expects a gospel of life from him; but Chekanhov cannot respond to her; he adheres to such vague expressions as: "work," "idea," "duty towards the people." He says to her: "You want an idea which will dominate you entirely and which will lead you to a definite goal; you want me to give you a standard and say: 'Fight and die for it.' I have read more than you, I have had more experience than you, but like you, I Do Not Know, and that is our torture." According to Chekanhov, all of his generation are in the same position: it is Astray, without a guiding star, it is perishing without realizing it.... Finally, in order to avoid the pressing questions of Natasha, who would like to work and sacrifice herself for the poor, he points out to her the salutary work of the village school-mistress. A few days later he dies, welcoming death with joy.
* * * * *
While the people who were ending their existence and those who were beginning it were so carefully looking for a field of action, the uncultivated ground of Russian life was gradually being cleared by the slow evolution of an economic movement. Between 1895 and 1900, as a result of the natural development of national commerce, the number of city workingmen grew to vast proportions and they formed an important class, which, on account of its situation, was much more qualified than the peasants to interest itself in the ideas of socialism and liberty. So from the very midst of the people certain individuals appeared capable of adopting progressive ideas; Marxism awaited them, the theory which is the basis of European democratic socialism. This doctrine was nothing new in Russia. But formerly, the proletariat of the cities had been very little developed and the Marxian doctrines had been of theoretical interest only.
"The Contagion" has for its heroine Natasha,—the Natasha that we have already met, but how transformed! She has at last found her bearings. If, in 1892, she was waiting for the right road to be shown to her, in 1896 she was enthusiastically following the new road opened by the doctrines of Marx.
In Zharoshenko's famous picture, "The Student," Uspensky notes something new in this type of femininity. He calls it "the masculine trait"; it is the mark of thought. He sees there the harmonious fusion of a young girl and an adolescent boy, with an expression neither feminine nor masculine, but exceptionally human. And this transforms Zharoshenko's "Student" into a luminous personification, unknown up to this time, a type which synthesizes "le type humain."
In the work of Veressayev this student is Natasha. Reflection has ripened her mind since her last talk with poor Chekanhov. She has become a regular "mannish woman," having seen and thought a great deal. She has traveled; she has lived in St. Petersburg and in the south of Russia. Full of courage and energy, she claims to be fully satisfied with her lot; she begs her companions to follow the road she has found, and when they refuse she becomes angry with them. In company with her comrade Dayev she vigorously attacks the convictions of the men of Kisselev, who see sufficient safety in the workingmen's associations; she rises up, in the name of Marxism, against the "narodnikis," whom she considers ingenuous idealists; she refuses to endorse the theories of the "intellectuals," who oppose the thought of any great work, since they believe that smaller deeds are more immediately realizable. When one of them, a doctor, Troitsky, ends his conversation with her with these words: "It is not necessary to wear one's brains out trying to solve difficult problems while there is so much immediate need and so few workers," she puts an end to the discussion. Shrugging her shoulders, in a trembling voice she answers: "How can you live and think as you do? New problems confront us, and you stand before them and do nothing, because you have lost confidence. I can't work any longer with you, because it would mean dedicating myself blindly to 'spiritual death.'"
Veressayev does not show us how she solves the problems of which she speaks. The adepts of this sort of social apostleship usually propagate their ideas among the workingmen, help them, and play a part in conspiracies. Natasha offers herself up. But the censorship has not allowed Veressayev to carry his subject on, and he has limited himself to showing us Natasha in company with her friends and disciples, giving herself up to oratorical tilts, discussing principles, and uttering long discourses full of passion, faith, and juvenile impatience,—discourses which unfortunately are mistaken in their reasoning.
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In realizing from the socialist ideal the logical and inevitable consequence of capitalism, which continues according to a law independent of human will, the Marxian doctrine dissipates the doubts and consolidates the faith of those who adopt it. According to this faith, the socialists do not have to create socialism, they only have to cooeperate in the historical process which will inevitably make socialism grow. In thus recognizing the supremity of the law of history, socialism, utopian up to this time, becomes scientific and, under its new form, it is no longer subject to the influence of personal opinions, no matter how full of genius they may be. But this "scientific socialism," which, on account of the backwardness of political economy, could be only a step ahead, was taken by the younger generation of Russia as the "dernier mot" of the science. The result was, that several narrow and exclusive dogmas were grafted on this doctrine. Thus, the theory of "class struggle" transformed itself into the absolute negation of all community interests between the diverse social strata. The "materialistic"—or rather "economic"—point of view, according to which the products of spiritual activity in the history of humanity lose all independence, being only the consequences of economic organization, generated scorn for all idealism; and the proletariat character of the socialistic movement impelled society to divide into two hostile and irreconcilable parts, one of which is made up of the proletariats, the other of the elements opposed to socialism. To this last party the enormous mass of half-starved peasants joined itself. The peasants, according to the Marxian doctrine, cannot understand socialism until they have become proletariats themselves, instead of becoming miserable landed proprietors. And this "proletariazation" of about 100,000,000 peasants, the fervent Marxists consider a fatal and desirable event in the near future.
These theories, carried to excess, were sure to excite a reaction. It manifested itself by a neo-idealistic movement, which found the principal cause of social progress in the tendency of humanity to attain supreme development and perfection. Then there were the "narodnikis" who considered the "proletariazation" of the Russian peasant impossible and inopportune. There were also the various groups of Socialists who applauded the criticism that Bernstein made on the Marxian orthodoxy. So several deviations were made from the original theory; there were grave dissensions and interminable and bitter controversies. All this occupies a large part of "At the Turn," one of Veressayev's novels, in which these events are traced with almost stenographic exactitude.
The characters are, Tanya, a fanatic Marxist; her brother, Tokarev, whose soul is a field for spiritual battles; and Varenka, a village school-mistress. There are several eccentric characters around them, such as Serge, a young apostle of a somewhat Nietzschean egoism, Antsov and others. Tanya is none other than Natasha of "Astray," with this great difference, however, that Tanya has found truth already formulated for her, and does not have to grope about for it. Nevertheless, the essential characteristics of the two girls are the same. They both have the same joyous self-denial, the same love of life, the same courage in face of difficulties, and also the same faith in a better future. Tanya has lived during the whole winter with her comrades in a region devastated by the famine, and she has spent there all that she possesses. At Toliminsk, where she arrives after a long walk, she speaks of her meagre living and tells amusing stories without suspecting her wonderful heroism.
But this young girl, full of the joy of life and ready for any sacrifices, is pitiless towards her theoretical adversaries and has absolutely no compassion for them. The passage in "Crime and Punishment," in which Dostoyevsky depicts one of his heroes in the following manner: "He was young, he had abstract ideas, and was, consequently, cruel," perfectly fits Tanya. Veressayev tells the following incident: "One day, when she was at the station, some peasants rushed down from the platform. A railroad guard struck one of the peasants. The peasant put his head down and ran off.... Tanya, knitting her brows, said: 'That's good for him! Oh, these peasants!' And her eyes lighted up with scorn and hate...."
Just as Tanya brings Natasha to our mind, so does Varenka make us think of Dr. Chekanhov; the same feeling of duty governs them both. But, while Chekanhov wanted to devote himself to the social problem, without ever succeeding in doing so, because he did not exactly see the principles, Varenka was able to devote herself to her work without mental reservation. However, she refuses to, because she has not enough enthusiasm for this sort of research. Her understanding, which is deeper and broader than Tanya's, sees the error, the narrowness of her doctrine; she cannot admit it, and, fired by a desire to devote herself body and soul to some useful work, she chooses the laborious profession of a school-mistress in the village. But this humble and unpleasant career does not satisfy her. Little by little ennui and anguish drive her to suicide.
Between Tokarev, Tanya's brother, and Varenka, the contrast is complete. While still a student, he had accepted, with all the ardor of youth, the idea of duty, and he desired to give himself up to the cause of justice and truth; but, having encountered many obstacles, he felt, when he had reached his thirtieth year, that the sacred fire was going out.
He now dreamed only of his personal happiness, and of poor theories that justified this egoism. An assured material existence, comfort, a happy domestic life, work without risks, without sacrifices, but useful enough in appearance to satisfy the conscience, attracted him irresistibly. He then went to work to tear out his former ideas, which had taken a pretty firm root. Urged on by his conscience, which protested, he forced himself at times to resurrect his youthful enthusiasm; he thought a great deal about morals, about duty, and he read many books treating this subject; he says: "I feel that something extremely necessary has left me. My feelings about humanity have disappeared and nothing can replace them. I read a great deal now, and I am directing my thoughts towards ethics. I try to give morality a solid basis and I try to make clearer to myself the various categories of duty.... And I blush to pronounce the word, 'Duty.'"
Nevertheless, Tokarev tries, at times, to justify his inclinations towards peaceable bourgeois prosperity to the struggling youth who surround his sister Tanya. These cruel young people, however, answer him only with sarcastic remarks, and caustic arguments, and do not hesitate to express their doubts as to the sincerity of his opinions. To his conscience, they are like a living reproach from the past. Once he also was intolerant towards others as these people are towards him to-day. And that is why he suffers under their condemnation of him. He defends himself weakly, and after one of his oratorical tilts, he falls into such spiritual depression, that he almost thinks of suicide.
These, then, are the three main characters of Veressayev's novel. In the background we have the secondary characters. We have the proud proprietor and his wife, both of them liberals; we have the pedagogue Osmerkov, who does not like talented people because they bother everybody; and then there are the respectable inhabitants of Gniezdelovka, Serge's father and mother, who are entirely absorbed with their household and with cards.
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"The Comrades" is a variation on this theme: old school friends, who formerly had been wrapped up in a great ideal, are now living a life of shabby prosperity, and they feel that they have deteriorated, although they do not dare to confess it to each other.
And Veressayev profits by this to generalize on the causes of this fatal fall after the unselfish enthusiasms of youth. He sees them especially in a mysterious force: "The Invisible," already studied by Maeterlinck, Ibsen, Tchekoff, and especially by de Maupassant; and he sees them in the unhappy conditions of Russian history, which created a social and political organization favorable only to those who crawl along and not to those who plan.
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Let us now analyze the stories in which Veressayev describes the life of the people.
The story of "The Steppe" is as follows: One beautiful autumn evening two men meet on the steppe. One of them, the forger Nikita, is returning to his native land; he is wounded in the leg and it is hard for him to walk. He is looking for work. The other is a professional beggar.
The beggar, who is never hungry because he has no scruples, offers Nikita something to eat. After resting a short while, the travelers continue on their way. In the first village that they come to, the pilgrim beggar makes a speech to the inhabitants and sells them certain "sacred properties" which he keeps in his bag. After pocketing gifts of money and various other things, the false pilgrim pursues his way, still accompanied by Nikita. On the road once more, he offers to share with his comrade the fruits of his "work," but the latter refuses.
"What a fool!" cries the beggar, and bursts out laughing. But Nikita, indignant, gives him a heavy blow and leaves him for good.
"For a Home" and "In Haste" gave Veressayev an opportunity to note one of the characteristic traits of the ambitious villagers: their strong desire to preserve their homes and to propagate the race.
In the first of these stories, two old people, Athanasius and his wife, want to marry their daughter Dunka, but the "mir,"—the assembly of peasants,—egotistical and inflexible towards people who are growing weak, oppose them. "We have not enough land for our own children," is the answer of the "mir." Dunka remains unmarried, and dies at an early age. Her mother soon follows her. Old Athanasius lives alone in his freezing "isba," which is in a state of ruin, while the neighboring isbas, solid and austere, "spitefully watch him die."
In the last story, we have a widower who is the father of five children, and is therefore looking everywhere for a woman with some bodily defect, because he knows that other women will not want to have anything to do with him.
It is the same wish to preserve his home that makes a peasant go to the city to earn his living while he leaves his family in the country to take care of the house.
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The peasant is, besides, entirely engrossed with the difficulties of existence. Necessity often urges him to desperate acts.... Some, who are almost starving, ingratiate themselves with the raftsmen. They force wages down by asking only 5 copecks (5 cents) a day.... If they are contented with this absurd pay, it is because they avoid seeing how their little children are suffering at home. "It's hard living at present; there is not enough space; ground is scarce and there are too many people." "Men haven't room enough," says a sad-looking man with prominent cheek-bones. "But," he goes on, "they tell me that sickness has struck our village, and that the men are losing blood! Is that true?" "Yes, it's true!" "So much the better! That will clean out the people; it will be easier to live then," he concludes, thoughtfully. (From "In the Cold Spell.")
In almost all the work of Veressayev a voice proclaims that the Russian peasant is near his end; that he is not useful to any one. The poverty of the villages is painted in the most sombre colors. The people are unanimous in believing that the struggle for life has become terrible. "On what will you live?" one asks the other. "The earth does not nourish us. The holdings are small; in summer, one must cultivate, and in winter the cottages have to be closed while we look for work or charity. What is there to eat? Hay! Let us thank God that the cattle have enough of that. Oats? We have to give four hectoliters and two measures of our oats to the common granary.... And taxes and clothes? coal-oil, matches, tea, sugar? Tell me, how can one live?"
The unfortunates even go so far as to bless war and epidemics. "Everything went better then. Men lived peacefully in the fear of God, the Lord took care of every one. War, smallpox, famine came and cleaned out the populace; those that remained, after having got the coffins ready, lived easier. God pitied us. Now there is no more war; He leaves us to our own poor devices."
Speeches like this abound in the works of Veressayev. A dull sadness, bordering on despair, breathes forth from the pages. It seems, at times, as if the Russian peasant could never awake from his torpor, because the author represents him as full of infinite egoism, without any spirit of solidarity, sacrificing everything for love of his sorry little house and his morsel of ground, which is insufficient to nourish him. But we must remember that the Marxian point of view, which the author takes, explains in part the horror of such pictures.
According to Veressayev the poor peasants can better their position only by getting rid of their land, in order to become free proletarians. But if the peasant class is unfortunate, it is so, for the most part, because it is the most exploited and the most oppressed. It is not, then, the getting rid of their land that will bring the peasants salvation; on the contrary, they must fight for it against their oppressors. The peasants are beginning to understand the necessity of this struggle, and their late uprisings in several provinces have shown that they lack neither solidarity nor organization.
In the story called, "The End of Andrey Ivanovich," which is about the working class of Russia, we see the transformation of a peasant into a "city man." In his new surroundings, it is true, the wine-shop plays an important role, but schools are organized there which inspire a taste for reading, and "thought" gradually awakens.
Andrey has not yet rid himself of his rustic unsociability; however, he is beginning to become civilized, and is receiving city culture. He tries to free himself from his misery, from his degradation. He beats his wife when he is drunk, but, at the same time, he gets angry at a friend when he beats his mistress.... According to his own confession he reads many useless things, nevertheless he can become interested in a serious work. If he drinks to excess, it is to "drive away the thoughts" that torment him. He wants to analyze every question and find out what is at the bottom of it. He is the spiritual brother of Natasha, Chekanhov, and Tanya.
The sequel to this story is "The Straight Road." This time we are transported into the world of factory workers, a world lamentable for its misery, despair, and crime. Andrey Ivanovich's wife, Alexandra Mikhailovna, being without resources after the death of her husband, with a little daughter in arms, enters a book-binding establishment, belonging to a man named Semidalov. But the foreman, a vicious and evil-minded man, reigns as despot. It is he who gives out the work. The young girls who listen to his advances are sure of being shown partiality; the others are badly treated. As Alexandra wants to live honestly, her work in the shop is made very hard. Her best friend, Tanya, who inadvertently spilled oil on some paper and could not pay for the damage, had to give herself to the foreman. Finally Tanya despairs and ends by drowning herself. Alexandra is saved, thanks to a "loveless" marriage with the locksmith, Lestmann. She accepts this union so that she will not have to starve and can remain "straight." Thus, the "straight road" which Alexandra wanted to follow has forced her finally to sell herself, to marry a man whom she does not love.
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Each page of Veressayev's work exists merely to throw light on this or that social question, considered from a well defined point of view. The secret of his success rests mostly in the frank, sincere manner in which he has approached certain problems. At the same time, all of his work breathes forth a deep and tender love for those who suffer. In reality, there is not a single book by Veressayev which might not be a confession; all that he writes he has already experienced himself, and his work vibrates with a delicate and personal emotion. It is only necessary to read "The Memoirs of a Physician," which is almost an autobiography, in order to perceive the moral relationship that exists between Veressayev and the heroes of his stories.
This book is the confession of a physician from the time of his early studies. The young man is astonished at the number of maladies that exist and by the unbelievable variety of keen suffering that nature inflicts upon the human species, man. Soon he is obliged to make a discovery that stuns him: that medicine is incapable of curing many evils. It only gropes about, trying thousands of remedies before it arrives at a sure result. The scruples and anxiety of the student increase, especially after an autopsy on a woman in the amphitheatre, when the professor announces that the woman has succumbed because the surgeon, who was operating, swooned, and ends by saying: "In such difficult operations the very best surgeons are not safe from accidents of this kind." After this, the professor shook hands with his colleague and every one left. At that time, doubt entered the mind of the young man. And so, within a period of ten years, he passes from extreme optimism to the same degree of pessimism.
We follow him in the hospitals, where he is scandalized by the brutality of the teaching, which makes use of the unwilling bodies of sick people. "Not being able to pay for their treatment in money, they have to pay with their bodies." Finally, the student becomes a doctor himself. Full of faith and knowledge, he starts practice in a small market-town of central Russia. But his work soon cools him down; in the clinic he had studied mostly exceptional cases; now he is disconcerted by simple and every-day sicknesses. His ignorance leads to the following tragic case:
One day, a poor and widowed washerwoman brings him her sick child, whom she does not want to take to the hospital because her two oldest children died there. The child is a weak boy of eight years who has caught scarlet-fever. At first, the inside of the throat begins to swell, and, to prevent an abscess, the doctor orders rubbings with a mercurial ointment. The next day, he finds the boy all aquiver and covered with pimples. "There is no mistake," he says, "the rubbing has spread the infection into the neighboring organs and a general poisoning of the blood has taken place. The little boy is lost.... All that day and night I wandered about the streets. I could think of nothing, and I felt crushed by the horror of the thing. Only at times this thought came into my mind: 'I have killed a human being!'" The child lived ten days more. The night before his death Veressayev comes to see him. The poor mother is sobbing in a corner of the miserable room. She pulls herself together, however, and taking three rubles out of her pocket, offers them to the trembling doctor, who refuses them. Then this woman falls down on her knees and thanks him for having pitied her son. "I'll leave everything, I'll give up everything," sobs the doctor.... "I have decided to leave for St. Petersburg to-morrow in order to study some more even if I die of hunger!"
Once the resolution was made to pursue his studies in a more practical manner, he becomes the house-surgeon of a hospital. But even there a mass of problems disturb him. He sees how dangerous the simplest operations are; he is frightened by the unrestraint of the doctors, who try new methods on the sick, methods the effects of which are not known, methods that result in the patient's being inoculated with more sickness. Medicine cannot progress without direct experimentation, and experience is gained at the expense of the more unfortunate. Nevertheless, Veressayev does not argue against this way of working; he shows the facts, and leaves it to the reader to decide. On the other hand, he does not hide his fear of the common ignorance of all doctors. Every individual differs from his neighbor. How distinguish their idiosyncrasies? Once the scope of a sickness is known, what remedy shall be used? Some say this, others, that. How shall one choose? Veressayev has felt all of this; he has tried to harden himself against the unreasonable ingratitude of some, the scepticism of others; he realizes that patience, resignation, and heroism are needed in order to struggle against and support the mortifications in the career of a doctor. How much easier it would be not to consider medicine as infallible; to study it as an art rather than as a science. But people prefer to believe that doctors know everything. They do not want to see the reality, and this is the reason why sad, and at times tragic conflicts arise between patient and physician.
Finally, what could the most perfect medical science and the cleverest doctor do against the enormous mass of sickness and suffering that are the inevitable result of the social evils, of which poverty is the most conspicuous? How can one tell a man that his trade is running him down and that he does not get enough nourishment? How can one order a man to eat better food, to get more sleep and more pure air? First, and most important, is the necessity of curing the social organism.
It is easy to see why this book made many enemies for its author. There is too much frankness and conscientiousness in these studies not to anger those who have their greatest interest in concealing the truth! The upright man who sees primarily in medicine a means to relieve human suffering, cannot realize without sadness the many abuses hidden under the name of this science.
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"In the War," recently published, is the story of Veressayev's campaign in Manchuria. In this work, the author has painted vividly the peregrinations of his moving hospital, and also the terrible sufferings of the Russian army. By the thousands, the starved children of the campaign, the Russian foot-soldiers, stoics and fatalists, sacrificing their lives for a strange and incomprehensible cause, pass before the eyes of the reader. And in the background, detaching themselves from the crowd, in their gold and silver embroidered uniforms, are "the heroes of the war, these vultures of the advance and rear-guard, who enrich themselves at the expense of the unfortunate soldiers." A number of these great chiefs, whose infamy was evident at the end of the war, since they had shown themselves incapable of dealing with the foreign enemy, had distinguished themselves by the ferocity they exhibited in quelling internal troubles. As to the military doctors, the greater number of them went into the campaign only for commercial gain. Among the nurses who accompanied them, aside from those who were real heroines of goodness and devotion, there were many who prostituted themselves shamefully.
Corruption, carelessness, disorder, and cowardice are shown on every page of this story, as well as the terrible suffering endured by the wounded in the hospitals. The wounded were the real martyrs of this frightful campaign.
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Veressayev, like all of his heroes and heroines, wants to help the people, and for this reason he gets in touch with the revolutionists who consecrate their work to political and social regeneration, under the various titles, "narodnikis," Marxists, Socialists, idealists and so on.... Which of these does he prefer? We do not know. We find the influence of Marx in his ideas, but we cannot affirm that he is an absolute Marxian. It seems as if Veressayev, troubled by the innumerable divergencies of opinion, asks himself secretly: "Will this war lead to the unity of opinion and program, so necessary for victory, or by its quarrels will it only retard the harmony so much sought after?"
It is not discussion that will finally lead to unity, but rather life itself, with all its realities.
It would be most interesting to read a sequel to the three famous novels of Veressayev—"Astray," "The Contagion," and "At the Turning"—in which he would give us the psychology of his former heroes under present conditions. To-day, the people are not "astray"; the field is big enough for every one to find the place that best suits his ideas, tastes, and temperament. Dr. Chekanhov, if he were living now, instead of being maltreated by the people, would certainly be their well beloved champion, and perhaps represent them in the Duma; the timid Tokarev, in spite of his aversion to the ideas of the revolutionists, could find a place in the liberal party of the Reforming Democrats, or at least among the Octobrists; the unfortunate Varenka would not be worn out by her work as school-mistress, for she would be supported by the peasants. The peasants themselves are not the miserable and resigned creatures of Veressayev's earlier stories. Certainly, liberty is not yet a legal thing in Russia, and the Duma is still an unstable institution, but the end of absolutism is near, for a great event has taken place in the empire of the Tsar, namely, this awakening of the feeling of human dignity, and the spirit of revolt among the lower strata of the Russian people, which in the past, by its unconsciousness, formed the granite pedestal of autocracy. The struggle is terrible, but confidence in final victory redoubles the energy of the strugglers. A certain Russian was right when he said: "Formerly, life was formidable, but now it is both formidable and gay."
In reading the works of Veressayev, Tchekoff, and other painters of modern Russian society, it is easy to note that not one of them anticipated this sudden change of scenery on the Russian political stage, a change which, however, was being prepared in the souls of the peasants. But let us not reproach them! Russia will always remain an enigma.
There is a very old story about the son of the peasant Ilya Murometz. After remaining lazily resting in his "isba" for thirty years, he suddenly arose, and began to walk with such fury that the earth trembled. How could these writers conceive the time when this lazy giant would make up his mind to walk? It is enough to have the assurance that now, no matter what happens, since he has arisen, he will not lie down again.