From the Archive — From the July 2014 issue

Interrogation

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If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that human beings would be lowered into acid baths; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that ramrods heated over primus stoves would be thrust up their anal canals (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end, because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

And not only Chekhov’s heroes — what normal Russian at the beginning of the century, including any member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, would have believed, would have tolerated, such a slander against the bright future? What had been acceptable under Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich in the seventeenth century, what had already been regarded as barbarism under Peter the Great, what might have been used against ten or twenty people in all during the time of Biron in the mid-eighteenth century, what had already become totally impossible under Catherine the Great, was all being practiced during the flowering of the glorious twentieth century — in a society based on socialist principles, and at a time when airplanes were flying and the radio and talking films had already appeared — not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims.

Was it only that explosion of atavism now evasively called “the cult of personality” that was so horrible? Or was it even more horrible that during those same years, in 1937 itself, we celebrated Pushkin’s centennial? And that we shamelessly continued to stage those selfsame Chekhov plays, even though the answers to them had already come in? Is it not still more dreadful that we are now being told, thirty years later, “Don’t talk about it!”? If we start to recall the sufferings of millions, we are told, it will distort the historical perspective! If we doggedly seek out the essence of our morality, we are told it will darken our material progress! Let’s think rather about the blast furnaces, the rolling mills that were built, the canals that were dug. We can talk about anything, so long as we do it adroitly, so long as we glorify it.

It is really hard to see why we condemn the Inquisition. Wasn’t it true that beside the autos-da-fé, magnificent services were offered by the Almighty? It is hard to see why we are so down on serfdom. After all, no one forbade the peasants to work every day. And they could sing carols at Christmas, too. And for Trinity Day the girls wove wreaths . . .

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