Petersburg The Mass Meeting

In the spacious vestibule of the gloomy building there was a desperate crush.

The crush carried Angel Peri, swaying her back and forth between someone’s back and chest, and she made desperate efforts to stretch out her hands to Varvara Yevgrafovna: but Varvara Yevgrafovna, who could not hear, was somewhere over there, flailing, struggling, pushing; and then she suddenly vanished in the crush; along with her vanished the chance to question her about the letter. What need had she of the letter! In her eyes the stains of the sunset still shone crimson; and there, there: somehow strangely turned towards her on the front square of the palace in the light crimson glow of the last rays of the Neva, stooping, hiding his face in his collar, stood Nikolai Apollonovich with a most unpleasant smile. No! In any case he cut a rather ridiculous figure: looked round-shouldered and somehow lacking arms with that wing of his overcoat that was so preposterously dancing in the wind; she felt like crying from deep offence, as though he had struck her painfully with a small silver whip, that same silver whip which the dark, striped bulldog carried in its teeth, snorting; she wanted her husband, Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, to go up to that scoundrel and suddenly strike him in the face with a cypress fist and say, apropos of this, his officer’s word; in her eyes the small clouds of the Neva still fleeted like fine impressions of broken mother-of-pearl, between which evenly poured the turquoise all.

But in the crush the most delicate reflections died, from all sides chests, backs and faces came surging, a black darkness into a foggy yellowish murk.

And the individuals kept barging and barging, the shaggy hats and the young ladies: body barged into body; nose flattened against back; the small head of a pretty female gymnasium pupil squeezed against one’s chest, while at one’s feet a second-form boy cheeped; under pressure from behind, an outrageously extended nose was pierced by a hat-pin, and there too a chest was threatened with puncture by the perforatingly sharp angle of an elbow; there was nowhere to take one’s coat off; steam hung in the air, illumined by candles (as it proved later, the electricity suddenly broke down – the electric power station had evidently begun to get up to mischief: soon it would get up to mischief for a long time).

And everyone barged, everyone struggled: of course, Sofya Petrovna got stuck for a long time at the foot of the staircase, but Varvara Yevgrafovna fought her way out, of course, and was now pushing, struggling and beating somewhere high up at the top of the staircase; some kind of highly respectable Jew in a lambskin hat, with spectacles and very grey hair had fought his way out together with her: swinging round to face backwards, in utter horror he pulled his own coat by the skirts; and could not pull it free; failing to do so, he started to shout:

‘A fine public; not a public, but a schweinerei! A R-russian schweinerei! …’

‘Vell, and what are you up to, vy are you in our R-r-assia?’ was heard from somewhere below.

This was a Bundist-socialist19 Jew arguing with a Jew who was not a Bundist, but was a socialist.

In the hall body sat upon body, body pressed against body; and the bodies swayed; they were agitated and shouted to one another that in this place and that place and that place there was a strike, that in this place and that place and that place a strike was in preparation, that people were going to strike – in this place, in this place and this place: were going to strike right here, in this very place: and – not to budge!

First a party worker from the intelligentsia spoke about this, and then a student repeated the same thing after him; after the student a coursiste; after the coursiste a class-conscious proletarian, but when a non-class-conscious proletarian tried to repeat the same thing, a representative of the lumpen proletariat began to trumpet to the whole hall, as out of a barrel, in such a great, thick voice that everyone started:

‘Com … rradds! … I’m a poor man – a prrroletarian, com … rrraddds! …’

Thunderous applause.

‘Yes, com … rradds! … And that means that this is government … tyranny … yes! yes! I’m a poor man, and I say: strr-ike, comrradds!’

Thunderous applause (True! True! Stop him speaking! It’s an outrage, ladies and gentlemen! He’s drunk!).

‘No, I’m not drunk, comrradds! … And that means that this bourgeoisie … how can you work, work … One single word; grab his legs and into the water with him; that’s to say … strike!’

(Blow of fist on table: thunderous applause).

But the chairman stopped the worker from speaking any more.

The best speaker of all was the respected collaborator on a certain respected newspaper, Neintelpfain: he spoke, and at once vanished. Some kind of little boy made an attempt to proclaim a boycott from the top of the four steps of the rostrum: but the little boy was laughed down; was it worth bothering with nonsense like this when there were strikes in this place and that place and that place, when there was a strike right here – and not to budge? And the little boy, almost weeping, came down from the top of the four steps of the rostrum; and then a sixty-five-year-old female zemstvo official mounted those steps and told the assembly:

Sow the useful, the good, the eternal,

Sow, and the Russian people will give you a heartfelt

Thank you!20

But the sowers laughed. Then someone suddenly proposed the destruction of everyone and everything: he was a mystical anarchist.21 Sofya Petrovna did not hear the anarchist, but was pressed back, and it was a strange thing: Varvara Yevgrafovna had explained to Sofya Petrovna more than once that at mass meetings the useful and the good were sown, which deserved a hearty thank you on her part. But oh no, oh no! They all laughed wildly at the old female official of sixty-five who told them the same thing (about sowing); for then why had the seed not sprouted in her little heart? What had grown, obscurely, were some kind of nettles; and her little head ached dreadfully; whether because she had seen him before, whether because she had such a tiny forehead, or whether because some kind of possessed individuals were staring at her from all sides, individuals who had gone on strike in this place and that place, and had now come to go on strike here, to stare at her out of the yellow, foggy murk, to bare their teeth in loud laughter. And this chaos awoke within her an anger that was incomprehensible even to herself; after all, she was a lady, and one ought not to arouse chaos in ladies; this chaos concealed all kinds of cruelties, crimes, falls; in every lady at that time a criminal lurked; something criminal had long lurked within her.

Now she was approaching the corner together with an officer who was walking with her, whom people regarded with a smile, whispering condescendingly to one other, and who suddenly took offence at the boycott that had been declared by the little boy, and offended, quickly walked away – she was approaching the corner, and as she did so a detachment of Cossacks flew out in front of her at full gallop from the gateway of the house next door on their unkempt horses; blue bearded men in tall, shaggy Astrakhan hats and with rifles at the ready, real ragamuffins, dancing brazenly, mutely, impatiently in their saddles – there, to the building. Seeing this, some sort of worker came running towards the officer from the corner, stretched out his hand to him and began to say, panting:

‘Mr Officer, Mr Officer!’

‘Sorry, I’ve no small change …’

‘Oh, that’s not what I want: what’s going to happen there now? … What’s going to happen? … Those defenceless young ladies there – the coursistes …’

The officer grew embarrassed, turned red, for some reason touched his cap in salute:

‘I don’t know, to tell you the truth … That’s not why I’m here … I’m only just back from Manchuria; look – here’s my St George’s medal …’

And something had already happened over there.