Cement

Fedor Gladkov, Cement. 1925

 

Gladkov’s tale of post-Civil War reconstruction was retrospectively hailed as the first Soviet Socialist Realist novel. The original edition, later edited to reflect the tamer tastes of the Stalinist canon, depicted the struggles of Red soldiers returning to a home front they no longer recognized.

II. Alarm

He would have to find out for himself what the Industrial Bureau was, this impassable bulwark of the Economic Council and the factory administration. This massive rock stood in his path all the time, and his questions rebounded from it unanswered. He decided to go and learn on the spot. If necessary he wouldn’t come back, but would go straight on to Moscow, to Lenin, to the supreme Economic Council, to the Council for Work and Defense-to relate everything, unmask everything, break heads, make a scandal, rouse up everyone, but get what was needed: at all costs to get the factory in real working order.

In the administration of the factory there was nothing but waste, inactivity, sabotage. In the Economic Council, sabotage, bureaucracy, and some invisible internal activity which one could not fathom. The people there were all importantly businesslike, with fat portfolios, clean-shaven, like Communists. The three-storied house shook with the bustling crowds, rushing from door to door, and every day from ten till four, you could see the side-walks near the building blocked with crowds of extraordinarily talkative people-persons who in bygone days used to hang around the cafes and the stock exchange. You only saw this crowd around the Economic Council. There was nothing like it at the Department of Public Health, nor at the Department of Education, or of Social Insurance. But there were quite a lot of people also at the Department of Agriculture, at the Communal Administration and at the Department of Foreign Trade.

Before he left Gleb went round to the Soviet Executive, to the Economic Council and to the Party Committee, collecting materials, specifications, plans and decisions. Badin gave him a letter of introduction to an intimate friend and comrade, a member of the Regional Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party; he also bore a letter from Shidkii to a member of the Regional Control Committee.

He was hurrying along the street on his way home. From the factory to his home was four versts around the curve of the bay. As he walked along it seemed as though he saw the street for the first time. It wasn’t the street of a month ago. Then the shops with their big plate-glass windows had been empty or were used as warehouses by various departments, and the windows were dusty and plastered with mud. But now-they were still empty, but one saw:

A DELICATESSEN SHOP WILL SHORTLY OPEN HERE. CAFE. ORCHESTRAL MUSIC DAILY.

TRADING COMPANY.

COMRADES, STRENGTHEN THE ALLIANCE BETWEEN THE TOWN AND THE VILLAGE!

OPENING SOON.

HE WHO DOES NOT WORK SHALL NOT EAT.

An ironical hand had obliterated the first ” not ” in the last of these sentences, which was on the wall of the Town Hall, and passers-by, unaccustomed to this new combination of words, stopped, laughing, to read: HE WHO DOES WORK SHALL NOT EAT

Workers’ rations … Pipe-lighters and smuggling … Trading Company … Savchuk barefooted and ragged … Starving children in the Children’s Homes … Ruin and the lapse into barbarism … A cafe with a string orchestra … The first shop-windows commencing to bloom …

Gleb stopped suddenly, disquieted, incapable of formulating the great question which was confusedly arising in his mind.

Yes, the New Economic Policy … Regulation and Control … Markets … Food Tax … Cooperatives …

Yes, cafe and string orchestra … but half a pound of rationed bread ? And the Trade Union card entitling you to a share of certain necessities: a yard of chiffon, a moustache binder, or ladies’ suspenders ? Why are the shop-windows filling so quickly ? Why was there such a constraint and alarm in his soul?

On the other side of the street he saw Polya outside a cafe. She was looking in through the window and couldn’t tear herself away. A man in a new tunic came rushing past her with a portfolio-who does not carry a portfolio now ? He jostled her with his shoulder, pushing her away from the window. Without taking any notice she took up her former position.

Gleb crossed the street and stood shoulder to shoulder with Polya. In a minute she would notice him and would start. But she did not notice even him; she was staring into the depths of the window. There in the twilight depths shades rose from the past-seated in pairs and groups at little tables.

Cafe … In a short time … Hot pasties with all kinds of filling …

Out of the darkness beyond the window came the thin sound of phantom violins.

Behind, on the pavement, a nasal voice spoke volubly of business:

With a stabilized currency, only with a stabilized currency. A journey to Sukhum … The goods have just been delivered from abroad, freightage prepaid … Feluccas … The percentage of net profit!”

Gleb looked round and saw the lawyer Chirskii. With him was a former large wine-grower on the coast. He used to meet him in the Economic Council. He met Chirskii there too. What sort of business had they at the Economic Council ?

To hell with them! In the factory there was still the atmosphere of October, and one’s head had not yet recovered from the Civil War. But when one came to town it seemed as though a strange change had taken place and that the world had altered.

Gleb playfully pulled the portfolio from under Polya’s arm. She started and gazed at Gleb in fright. He saw a suppressed shriek in her eyes.

“Not worth looking at those wasters, Comrade Mekhova. Don’t be envious; if you are you’d better drop in and have a bite. Come, let’s go to the Women’s Section.”

“Tell me, Gleb; do you understand it? I was walking along the street and staring at the windows like a fool. What has happened to me ? I can’t understand it, Gleb.”

“Go to the Women’s Section. Let the real fools and scamps do the staring.”

He took her arm and led her along the street. Polya threw frightened glances at the windows and doors of the shops, and her eyes quivered like dew-drops in the wind.

“I shan’t go to the Women’s Section to-day. Dasha’s there. She’s a woman in a thousand, Gleb. She’ll go far, you’ll see. Besides, what can one say about the others, when one doesn’t even know about one’s self ? Yesterday I was one thing and to-day I’m another.”

“It’s shameful, Comrade, for a leader of the Women’s Section to be in a panic. You must hit out and not cry and hop around. If you feel bad, don’t show it. It’ll pass off in a while if you just keep hold of yourself.”

He spoke roughly, but he pressed her hand affectionately.

“What’s the matter with me, Comrade Gleb ? Perhaps you’ve the strength to stand up in all this muddle. It’s as though I were infected with the plague. I feel the earth trembling underneath my feet. You know I’ve been at the front and have seen really terrible things. Twice I’ve been threatened with certain death. I took an active part in the Moscow street fighting. But now I’m going through something that has never happened to me before. It’s as though a vile crowd were jeering at me and I’m ashamed because I cannot protect myself. Perhaps this must be so ? Perhaps it’s inevitable ? It’s the unavoidable result of our struggle and sacrifice ? Is it really so, Gleb ? Perhaps you’re as crazy as I am ? Do tell me frankly. Perhaps, Gleb, you only appear strong, by habit ? ”

They arrived at the House of the Soviets. Polya stopped but could not leave Gleb; it was evident that she feared to be alone and also to be in public. Gleb was troubled. What was agitating him: was it Polya’s words, or was it that she was attracting him to herself ?

To give the factory as a concession. Gleb grew alarmed at this dreadful word.

Nobody knew who had cast this word upon the winds, and he could obtain no explanation. It was but a furtive stammering rumor, which dissolved mistily when one sought to grasp it. But the street screamed the thing, with its staring shop windows and the busy shuffling of speculators and tradesmen. That was another matter. The hoops of the barrel had burst, and through the chinks the stinking slops had run out; out of dark corners and crevices wood lice and worms were crawling. One could not kill this new devilry with a stroke, one must have a sensitive nose and go calmly about cleaning it up.

Source: Fedor Gladkov, Cement (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1929), pp. 208-212.

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