Petersburg The Institution

The Institution …

Someone instituted it; since that time it has existed; while before that time there was nothing but the days of yore. Thus does the ‘Archive’ inform us.

The Institution.

Someone instituted it, before it existed there was darkness, someone moved above the darkness; there was darkness and there was light – circular number one, at the foot of the circular of the last five years was the signature: ‘Apollon Ableukhov’; in the year 1905 Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was the soul of circulars.

The light shines in darkness. Darkness has not embraced it.

The Institution …

And – the torso of a goat-footed caryatid. Since the time when a carriage drawn by a pair of lathered black horses flew up to its front steps, since the time when a court lackey in a tricorne hat donned obliquely on his head and a winged greatcoat opened wide, for the first time the lacquered, embossed flank and, with a click, the door threw aside its coat of arms adorned with crown (a unicorn goring a knight); since the time when out of the funereal cushions of the carriage a parchment-faced statue placed its shoe on the entrance-porch granite; since the time when, for the first time, returning bows, a hand invested in the leather of a glove touched the brim of a top hat: – since that time the Institution that cast over Russia its mighty power had weighed down with a power even mightier.

Section marks5 that had been buried in dust arose.

I am struck by the very outline of a section mark: on to the paper fall two coupled hooks, – reams of paper are destroyed; the section mark is a devourer of papers, that is, a paper phylloxera; the section mark bites into the tyranny of the obscure abyss like a tick, – and truly: there is something mystical in it: it is the thirteenth sign of the zodiac.

Above an enormous portion of Russia a headless frock-coat was multiplying like a section mark; and a section mark swollen like a senator’s head was rising – above starched neck-linen; through the white-columned, unheated halls and upon the stairs of red cloth a headless circulation passed, and that circulation was directed by Apollon Apollonovich.

Apollon Apollonovich is the most popular government official in Russia with the exception of … Konshin6 (whose unfailing signature you bear on credit bills).

And so: –

The Institution exists. In it is Apollon Apollonovich: more correctly, was, because he is dead … –

– I recently visited the grave: above a heavy black marble slab rises a black marble eight-pointed cross; beneath the cross is a distinct haut-relief that carves out an enormous head that bores into you loweringly with the emptiness of its eyes; a demonic, Mephistophelean mouth! At the bottom – the modest inscription: ‘Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov – Senator’ … The year of his birth, the year of his death … A god-forsaken grave! … –

– Apollon Apollonovich exists: he exists in the director’s office: he is in it every day, except for the days when he has haemorrhoids.

There exist, moreover, in the Institution offices … of reflection.

And there exist simply rooms; mostly – halls; desks in each hall. At the desks there are clerks; at each desk there are a pair of them; before each: a quill and ink and a respectable pile of papers; the clerk scratches across the paper, turns over the leaves, rustles a leaf and makes his quill squeal (I think that the sinister plant ‘heather’, veresk, derives from ‘squealing’, vereshchanie); like the adversarial autumn wind, which the winds work up – through forests, through ravines; like the rustle of sand – in vacant lots, in the expanses of the salt-marshes – of Orenburg, Samara, Saratov; –

– the same rustling persisted above the grave: the sad rustling of the birches; their catkins, their young leaves were falling on the black marble, eight-pointed cross, and – peace to his ashes! –

In a word: the Institution exists.

It is not lovely Proserpina rushing away through the land to the kingdom of Pluto, where the Cocytus boils with white foam; each day it is the senator, abducted by Charon, rushing away to Tartarus on tangled, lathered, black-maned steeds; above the gates of melancholy Tartarus hangs Pluto’s bearded caryatid. The waves of Phlegethon splash: papers.

In his director’s office, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov sits each day with a tensed vein at his temple, one leg crossed on the other, and a vein-covered hand – at the lapel of his frock-coat; the logs crackle in the fireplace, the sixty-eight-year-old man breathes the bacillus of the section mark, that is to say, the coupling of hooks; and this breathing spreads all over the enormous expanse of Russia; every day a tenth of our motherland is covered by the bat’s wing of the clouds. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, struck by a happy thought, one leg crossed on the other, a hand at the lapel of his frock-coat, then inflates his cheeks like a bladder; then he seems to blow (such is his habit); little blasts of chill air blow through the unheated rooms; tornado-like funnels of multivarious papers begin to wind about; from Petersburg a wind begins, somewhere on the outskirts a hurricane breaks out.

Apollon Apollonovich sits in his study … and blows.

And the backs of the clerks bend; and the leaves of paper rustle; thus do the winds race – about the stern, pine-covered summits … Then he draws in his cheeks; and everything – rustles: a dry flock of papers, like a fateful fall of leaves, gathers speed from Petersburg … to the Sea of Okhotsk.

The cold pandemonium spreads – over fields, over forests, over villages, in order to hoot, to attack, to roar with laughter, in order to sting with hail, rain and black ice the paws and hands – of birds, animals, wayfarers, to overturn on him the striped posts of the toll-bars – to leap out from the canal on to the high road like a striped milestone, to lord it like a grinning cipher, to uncover the homelessness and endlessness of the road and to stretch out gloomy nets from streaming darkness …

North, familiar north! …

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov – a man of the city and a fully well-bred gentleman: sits in his office while his shadow, piercing through the stone of the wall … pounces on passers-by in the fields: with a mettlesome, buccaneer whistling it carouses through the expanses – of Samara, Tambov, Saratov – in gullies and in yellow sands, thistles, wormwood, or in the wild tatarnik, exposing the sandy bald patches, tearing the high-topped haystacks, fans a suspicious flame in the barn; the red village cockerel is born from it; the native, spring-water well is blocked up by it; woodlice will appear; when it falls on the crops with harmful dews the crops grow thin; the cattle rots …

Multiplies the number of ravines and digs them.

Wags would probably say: not Apollon Apollonovich, but … Akvilon Apollonovich.

The multiplication of the quantity of paper that has flown before a clerk within the space of a day, blown out of the doors of the Institution, the multiplication of that paper by the paper of the rushing clerks forms a production, or rather a manufacture of paper that must be carried out not in carts, but by Furies.

At the foot of each paper is the signature: Apollon Ableukhov.

That paper rushes along the railway branches from the railway centre: Saint Petersburg; and – to the principal town of the province; having fluttered his flock about the corresponding centres, Apollon Apollonovich creates in those centres new breeding grounds of paper production.

Normally a paper with (X’s) signature circulates as far as the offices of the provincial administration; the paper is received by all the civil servants (they are councillors, I think): the Chichibabins, the Sverchkovs, the Shestkovs, the Teterkos, the Ivanchi-Ivanchevskys; from the principal town of the province Ivanchi-Ivanchevsky correspondingly sends papers to the towns of: Mukhoyedinsk, Likhov, Gladov, Morovetrinsk and Pupinsk (all district towns); Kozlorodov, the assessor, also receives the paper.

The whole picture changes.

Kozlorodov, the assessor, having received the paper, ought at once himself to get into a britzka, a cabriolet or a jolting droshky, in order to go dancing over the potholes – through fields, through forests, through villages, through mire, – and slowly get bogged down in clay or brown sand, submitting himself to the assault of striped, raised milestones and striped toll-bars (in the wilderness Apollon Apollonovich assaults the wayfarers); but instead of this, Kozlorodov simply stuffs Ivanchi-Ivanchevsky’s inquiry into his side pocket.

And just goes off to his club.

Apollon Apollonovich is lonely: and so already he is reproducing himself a thousandfold in the milestones; and he will not get there on his own; neither will Ivanchi-Ivanchevsky get there. There are thousands of Kozlorodovs; behind them stands the ordinary man in the street, of whom Ableukhov is afraid.

That is why Apollon Apollonovich smashes only the boundary marks of his horizon: and of their places are deprived – the Ivanchevskys, the Teterkos, the Sverchkovs.

Kozlorodov is permanent.

Existing beyond reach – beyond the ravines, beyond the potholes, beyond the forests – he goes out and plays vint7 in Pupinsk.

It is also good that he is playing vint for the meantime.