By Arthur Koestler
Translated by Daphne Hardy
New York: Scribner Classics, 2015 from 1941 original
ISBN # 978-1-4767-8555-4
272 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2016

Nicholas Salmanovich Rubashov, an ex-commissar of the people has been arrested and thrown into jail. This is not the first time, but he realizes that his days as an important figure in the Russian government is deeply threatened. It is 1938 and Stalin has been purging the party of older and suspect leaders, partly because he has a somewhat different view of communism and partly because he fears their former power in the party.

Rubashov is in his 60s and had been a very important figure from early 1933 onward.

Rubashov’s memories flash back to 1933 when he in a southern German town and met young Richard, who, with his wife, was part of the movement, but they’ve strayed from the version Rubashov approved. However soon after this meeting Rubashov, himself, was arrested.

“We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but wherever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared. Our will was hard and pure; we should have been loved by the people. But they hate us. Why are we so odious and detestable?”

Rubashov is suspect of the newer comrades seeing them as a new species: “militant philosophers.”

He shares the long and fascinating story of “Little Loewy” and his wanderings in Western Europe trying to serve the party. The world he described very much reminded me of the days before the European Union when travel was more complex with each nation requiring visas, passports and such for everything and multiple currencies and the need to change money at every border crossing and so on.

However, Rubashov does allow that he is suspected of having been behind Loewy’s death. He never really denies this charge.

“The Party knew only one crime; to swerve from the course laid out; only one punishment: death. Death was no mystery in the movement; there was nothing exalted about it: it was the logical solution to political divergences.”
Soon however he is arrested and an old friend, Ivanov, is questioning him. He wants Rubashov to come to realize that he can confess to something, and not get himself killed. They would then “reform” him at the same time. However, Ivanov’s underling, Geletkin, is convinced that this is a bad tactic. Punishment and death are the way for Rubashov. Ivanov vigorously disagrees but he is somewhat cautious about this younger underling.

However, before the interrogation of Rubashov advances, Ivanov is deposed and the younger Geletkin takes over and is in charge of the interrogation. He has a dramatically different view of the past, and what the current attitudes of the Communist party and direction should take. Thus Rubashov is being accused of crimes against the party and he realizes he is facing the possibility of a death sentence.

The essence of the novel’s position is that this is a period of time when the Russian Communist party was undergoing an important period of change. The older generation of leaders which included both Ivanov and Rubashov had views that the younger generation, now taking over power, abhor. The older generation of Ivanov and Rubashov wanted to spread communism to the other European nations and make Russian-style Communism the European continent’s way to be. The younger generation believes that the spread of communism cannot, as the older generation assumes, become universal, even in Europe at this particular time. Rather, the Russian nation should consolidate its own communist position and bide its time until the historical movement is ripe for them to begin to spread communism abroad. Thus leaders like Ivanov and Rubashov must be removed from power and from life itself.

The novel follows the history of Rubashov’s earlier days as an important and powerful member of the Russian Communist Party, and especially some of his work in Western Europe, which is precisely what the new generation of Russian communists is backing away from. The purge is on and Rubashov is caught in this difficult moment of history.

Early in his days in prison Rubashov is naively confident. He is being interrogated by Ivanov, and while they have some relatively minor differences on some issues, they share a very similar view of the history and future of communism. Thus he figures that he will go through this interrogation, receive some relatively minor prison time for some of his actions, but that in the end he will be reinstated, even if retired. He just isn’t very worried about the interrogation.

However within a couple of days he has to radically revise his position and his prospects. After only one single interrogation session with Ivanov, he discovers that Ivanov himself has been arrested and is undergoing interrogation, and that the younger Geletkin has taken over the interrogation and he views both Ivanov and Rubashov as figures of the past with views of the future of Communism which Geletkin and his generation have repudiated and that these “old-timers” are a threat and must be eliminated. The interrogation of Rubashov is classical in the literature of Russian communism. It goes on over several days, all hours of the day and night with the prisoner being allowed only a few hours of sleep here and there, and never on any schedule. He is grilled on his actions, denounced and his arguments and claims repudiated by other witnesses who are willing to say whatever it takes to get the “suspect” convicted (and themselves saved, at least for the time being).

In the early interviews Rubashov is convinced that he can deal with Geletkin whom he does not view as very bright, and believes that he just has to stay calm and make no mistakes in his replies.

However, the age difference is in Geletkin’s advantage. He is much younger, more fit and can deal with the sleep deprivation much better than the older Rubashov. Further, Geletkin is in charge. He knows when he (and thus also Rubashov) can rest and when Rubashov will be awaken and brought before Geletkin for further interrogation. Thus in the psychological battle between the two men, the younger man who is in control of the interrogation has a decided advantage. Even Rubashov notes that Geletkin never shows any signs of fatigue at all.

He is beaten down and Rubashov begins to realize that he will lose this battle. Nonetheless he fights on, desperately trying to defend himself.

“He had to follow the road until the end. Then, only, when he entered the darkness with open eyes, he had conquered the right to sleep, and not to be wakened anymore.”

Geletkin maintains that Rubashov and this “first” generation erred in thinking they could export the revolution. Geletkin and his contempories believe it can only apply to Russia, and must be maintained and cannot be exported, at least not until the world historical situation is ready for such a wider movement.

The world, on Geletkin’s view is not ready:

“. . . everything depended on surviving the period of world reaction and keep the bastion . . . it (the wait) might last ten years, perhaps twenty, perhaps fifty years, until the world was ripe for a fresh way of revolution. Until then we stand alone. Until then we have only one duty: not to perish.”

However, to emphasize this new turn in Russian Communist theory the deaths of people like Rubashov and Ivanov are needed.

The novel is gripping, convincing, revealing and chilling. Once I began to read I would hardly stop and read the book within a two day period, often not even wanting to stop reading to prepare and eat a meal or do much else of my everyday routines.

It was intellectually challenging and fascinating. I come away from the novel, however, simply wondering: is the novel historically accurate? Was this split between the “early” generation of Communist leaders and the “second” generation an accurate historical portrayal? Further, if so, where, in relation to this particular issue does the current Communist party in Russia stand on its plans for the spread of Communism today? Alas, I have no answers to these questions.

This is a novel well worth reading, but wheeee, it is frightening as well.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu