Arkady gaidar and his books


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II. EXCITING TIMES


Chapter One


On February 22nd, 1917, the court martial of the Sixth Army Corps sentenced private Alexei Gorikov of the Twelfth Siberian Rifle Regiment to be shot for deserting the theatre of military operations and for subversive propaganda.

The sentence was executed on February 25th, and on March 2nd a telegram arrived from Petrograd saying that the autocracy had been overthrown by the insurgent people.

My first clear glimpse of the revolution was the fiery glow of the Polutins' burning manor house. Till late at night, through the dormer window, I watched the tongues of flame sporting with the fresh spring breeze. I softly stroked the smooth warm hilt of the pistol in my pocket. It was now my dearest token of remembrance from my father. I smiled through my tears, which had not dried yet after my grievous loss, as I thought of the "exciting times" that were coming.

During the early days of the February revolution our school resembled an ant heap into which a smouldering brand had been thrown. After prayers supplicating victory, some of the pupils started, as always, to sing "God Save the Tsar", but the others shouted them down, whistling and whooping. Pandemonium reigned, the pupils broke ranks, someone threw a bun at the portrait of the Tsarina, while the first formers, glad of a chance to kick up a dust with impunity, began caterwauling and bleating.

The bewildered Inspector could not make himself heard above the hideous noise. The yells and catcalls did not cease until Semyon, the caretaker, took down the portraits of royalty. With wild screeches and a stamping of feet the excited boys ran off to their classrooms. Red bows appeared from somewhere. The boys of the senior forms demonstratively tucked their trousers into their high boots (formerly this was forbidden) and gathering outside the lavatory started smoking deliberately under the eyes of the form masters. Officer Balagushin, the drill teacher, went up to them. He was offered a cigarette, which he accepted. At this unprecedented spectacle of unity between the school authorities and the pupils a loud cheer went up.

At this stage, all that the pupils gathered from these happenings was that the Tsar had been deposed and the revolution was beginning. As to why the revolution was something to be rejoiced at and what good there was in the overthrow of the Tsar, before whose portrait the choir, only a few days ago, had fervently sung the national anthem—this, most of the boys, especially those of the junior forms, failed to understand.

For the first few days there were practically no lessons. The boys of the senior forms joined the militia. They were given rifles and red arm-bands, and proudly paraded the streets, maintaining public order. For that matter, no one thought of disturbing public order. The bells of all thirty churches pealed forth a paschal song. Clergymen in brilliant chasubles administered the oath of allegiance to the Provisional Government.

People appeared in red shirts. The son of priest Iona, seminarist Arkhangelsky, two rural teachers and three others, who were strangers to me, called themselves S.R.s. (Socialist-Revolutionaries, abbreviated S.R.s.—Tr). People also appeared in black shirts, mostly senior form students of the Teachers' and Theological seminaries, who called themselves anarchists.

Most people in the town immediately joined the S.R.s. Credit for this was in no little measure due to the Rev. Pavel, who, during his sermon at the cathedral after the prayer for the prolongation of the days of the Provisional Government, declared that Jesus Christ, too, was a socialist and a revolutionary. And as the inhabitants of our town were pious people, mostly merchants, artisans, monks and pilgrims, this interesting sidelight on Jesus Christ aroused their quick sympathy towards the S.R.s, especially since the S.R.s did not have much to say about religion and spoke mostly about liberty and the need for carrying on the war with redoubled energy. The anarchists, though they said the same things about the war, spoke ill of God. Seminarist Velikanov, for instance, bluntly declared from the speaker's platform that there was no God, and if there was a God, then let him accept his, Velikanov's, challenge and show his might. At these words Velikanov threw back his head and spat straight into the sky. The crowd gasped, expecting the heavens to cleave asunder at any moment and fling thunderbolts upon the head of the blasphemer. But as the heavens did not cleave asunder, voices were raised in the crowd suggesting public chastisement by a kick in the anarchist pants without waiting for divine retribution. Hearing such talk, Velikanov judiciously beat a hasty retreat, receiving only a feeble punch from Maremiana Sergeyevna, a spiteful old woman, who sold curative oil from the lamps of the Sarovo icon of the Mother of God and dried crusts with which that Holy Man Serafim of Sarovo fed the wild bears and wolves out of his own hand.

On the whole, I was astonished at the number of revolutionaries that were to be found in Arzamas. Absolutely everybody was a revolutionary. Even Zakharov, the former Rural Superintendent, pinned a huge red bow made of silk to his jacket. In Petrograd and Moscow there was fighting, and the police shot at the people from the roofs, but our police gave up their arms voluntarily, and changing into civilian clothes, peacefully walked about the streets.

One day, in the crowd at a meeting, I met Yevgraf Timofeyevich, the policeman who had taken part in the arrest of my father.

He carried a basket from which peeped a bottle of vegetable oil and a cabbage. He was standing listening to what the socialists were saying. Seeing me, he touched his cap and gave me a polite bow.

"How's life?" he said. "You've come to listen, too? Well, well, listen. . . . You young people must find it interesting. Even we oldsters do. See how things have turned out!"

"Do you remember how you came to arrest Father, Yevgraf Timofeyevich?" I said. "You spoke then about the law, one couldn't go against the law, you said. But where's that law of yours now? Your law is finished with, and all you policemen will stand trial too."

He laughed good-humouredly and the oil shook in the neck of the bottle.

"There was law before and there'll be law now. You can't be without a law, young man. As for trying us, well—let 'em. We won't be hanged. Not even our chiefs are being hanged. The Tsar himself is only under house arrest, so what can you expect of us! Just listen. The speaker says there should be no vengeance, men should be brothers, and now, in free Russia, there should be no prisons, no executions. That means there'll be no prisons or executions for us either."

And he ambled off.

I watched him going, thinking: "How can that be? Do you mean to say that if Father had got out of jail he'd allow his jailer to walk about calmly and wouldn't touch him only because all men had to be brothers?"

I asked Fedka about it.

"What's your father got to do with it?" he said. "Your father was a deserter and there was a stain on him all the same. Deserters are being hunted down now too. A deserter is not a revolutionary, he's just a quitter who doesn't want to fight for his country."

"My father wasn't a coward," I answered, paling. "You're talking through your hat. My father was shot for propaganda as well as for running away. We've got a copy of the sentence at home."

Fedka looked put out. He said in a conciliatory tone:

"I didn't make it up myself, did I? All the newspapers are writing about it. You read Kerensky's speech in Russkoye Slovo. A fine speech. When it was read out at the general meeting in the Girls' School it had half the hall crying. It speaks about the war, too. About how we must exert all our strength, about deserters being a disgrace to the army and that 'over the graves of those who have fallen in the fight against the Germans free Russia will erect a monument of imperishable glory'. That's what it says—'imperishable'! And you argue!"

Speakers took the platform one after another. They spoke about socialism in voices that had gone hoarse. There and then they wrote down people who wanted to join the party and volunteered for the front. There were speakers who got on to the platform and spoke until they were dragged off. New speakers were pushed forward in their place.

I listened and listened and felt my head swelling with all that I heard, like an empty ox bladder. The speeches of the different orators got all mixed up in my head. I just couldn't make out how to distinguish an S.R. from a Cadet, a Cadet from a Popular Socialist and a Trudovik from an anarchist, and all that remained of all the speeches was the one word: "Liberty ... liberty ... liberty. . . ."

"Gorikov," I heard a voice behind me and felt a hand upon my shoulder.

Next to me, who should I see but our manual teacher Jackdaw.

"You?" I said, overjoyed. "What are you doing here?" "I've come from Nizhni Novgorod, from prison. Come down to my place, my dear boy. I've taken a room not far from here. We'll have some tea, I've got a white loaf and honey. I'm so glad that I've met you. I arrived only yesterday and was going specially to call on you today."

He took my arm and we made our way through the noisy crowd.

At the adjoining square we ran into another crowd. Bonfires were burning here and knots of curious bystanders stood around them.

"What is this?"

"Oh, tomfoolery," Jackdaw said, smiling. "The anarchists are burning the tsarist flags. They'd do better to tear up the cloth and give it away. The peasants are grumbling. You know how precious every bit of rag is nowadays."

Jackdaw's arms were long and skinny. He spoke rapidly as he brewed the tea, every now and then smiling.

"Your father died too early. We were both in the same cell until he was sent to the Corps Tribunal."

"Semyon Ivanovich," I said over the tea, "you say that you and Dad were Party comrades. Was he in the Party? He never spoke to me about it."

"He didn't speak about it because he couldn't."

"You didn't speak about it either. When you were arrested, Petka Zolotukhin said you were a spy."

Jackdaw laughed.

"A spy! Ha-ha-ha! Petka Zolotukhin? Ha-ha! It's pardonable in the case of Zolotukhin, he's a silly boy, but when big fools now are spreading rumours about our being spies—that's still funnier, my dear chap."

"About who are they spreading rumours, Semyon Ivanovich?"

"About us Bolsheviks."

I glanced askance at him.

"Are you Bolsheviks then—I mean, so Father, too, was a Bolshevik?"

"He was."

"Why did everything go wrong with Father, not like with other men?" I said regretfully, after a moment's thought.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, other men are soldiers as soldiers go. If they're revolutionaries they are real revolutionaries, and nobody can have a bad word to say of them. Everybody respects them. But Father—at one moment he's a deserter, the next he turns out to have been a Bolshevik. Why a Bolshevik, and not a real revolutionary, like the S.R.s, say, or the anarchists? As if on purpose, he had to go and be a Bolshevik! At least I could then have told everyone that my father was shot for being a revolutionary, and everyone would shut up and nobody would point a finger at me. But if I said Father had been shot because he was a Bolshevik everyone would say 'serves him right', because it's written in all the newspapers that the Bolsheviks are German agents and that Lenin of theirs is working for Wilhelm."

"Who's the 'everyone'?" Jackdaw said. Throughout my vehement speech he had been looking at me with smiling eyes.

"Yes, everyone. Anyone you meet. All the neighbours, and the clergyman in his sermon, and these speakers here. . . ."

"Neighbours! Speakers!" Jackdaw broke in. "Silly boy. Why, your father was ten times a more real revolutionary than all these speakers and neighbours of yours. Who are your neighbours? They are monks, corn-dealers, merchants, pilgrims, market butchers and all kinds of petty folk. The trouble is there is hardly a right-minded person among all these neighbours of yours. We don't even try to win over this mob. We leave it to those red-shirted gas-bags to suck up to them. We can't waste time with them. All the same, these monks and merchants will never be our allies. You wait, I'll take you to places where we hold meetings. Places like barracks for the wounded, soldiers' barracks, the railway station and the villages. That's where you will hear things! Talk about judges here! Neighbours!" Jackdaw laughed.

Timka Shtukin's father was released at the beginning of the revolution, but he was not reinstated in his old job. The church warden Sinyugin ordered him to vacate the lodge immediately for the newly employed man.

None of the merchants wanted to employ the caretaker. He tried here and there, but there were no jobs going either as furnace-man or yard-keeper.

Sinyugin, he said bluntly:

"I'm helping the Russian army. I've made a donation of a thousand rubles to the Red Cross and distributed over two hundred rubles' worth of gifts, flags and portraits of Kerensky among the military hospitals, while you are encouraging deserters. I have no job for you."

This was more than the caretaker could stand, and he answered back:

"I am much obliged to you for those words. But allow me to tell you that flags and portraits won't help you. You'll get what's coming to you all right. And don't you yell at me!" Uncle Fyodor suddenly went up into the air. "You think because you've grown a fat belly, put in a telescope and feed that crocodile o' yours with beef, that you're mightier than tsar or God? Don't you believe it. You just listen what the people are saying at those mills of yours. We've taken a smack at 'em, they say, now what about giving 'em the works?"

"I'll ... I'll have you jailed!" Sinyugin stammered, thunderstruck. "So that's what it is! I'll write a complaint. . . . My factory's working for the army. The new authorities, too, think well of me, and you. . . . Get out of here!"

The caretaker put his cap on and went out.

"And they call this a revolution. All the dirty scum are still in their old places. And he dares to tell me off, when he and the military chief and the town council nobs are as thick as thieves. What they want is a good scraping down with nails. Patriot!" he growled as he strode down the streets. "Made thousands out o' rotten boots. Bought his son off from military service. Slipped the chief three hundred and the hospital doctor five hundred. Boasted of it himself when he was tipsy. You're all good at fighting the war with other men's hands. Bought portraits of Kerensky. You and that Kerensky of yours ought to be strung up on the same tree. This is the liberty we've been waiting for! Three cheers!"

Everybody seemed to have gone crazy. All you heard was: "Kerensky, Kerensky."

Every issue of the newspapers carried his portraits: "Kerensky makes a speech", "The populace strews Kerensky's path with flowers", "A delighted crowd of women carry Kerensky in their arms". Feofanov, a member of the Arzamas Town Council, went to Moscow on business and shook Kerensky's hand. People ran after Feofanov in droves.

"Do you mean to say he shook hands with you?"

"Yes, he did," Feofanov answered proudly.

"Actually shook you by the hand?"

"Yes, he shook my right hand."

"There!" came an excited whispering among the crowd. "The Tsar would never have done it, but Kerensky did. Thousands of people come to see him every day and he shakes hands with all of them, but before—"

"Before, there was tsarism."

"Sure. Now we have liberty."

"Hurray! Hurray! Long live liberty! Long live Kerensky! Let's send him a telegram of greeting."

It should be said that by this time one telegram out of ten passing through the post office was a telegram of greeting addressed to Kerensky. They were sent from public meetings, from school gatherings, from meetings of the Church Council, the Town Council, the Gonfaloniers' Society—from absolutely everywhere, even if it were only a group of several people.

One day the rumour spread that the Arzamas Society of Poultry-Breeding Lovers had not sent a single telegram to the "dear leader". The local daily printed an indignant denial by the Society's president Ofendulin. Ofendulin flatly declared that the rumour was a vicious slander. Actually two telegrams had been sent, the editors certifying in a special footnote that Mr. Ofendulin's statement was supported by evidence in the shape of appropriate receipts bearing the stamp of the post and telegraph office.


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