RESTORING THE GOSPEL
At the end of autumn, when the steamboats stopped running, I became an apprentice in an ikon workshop. I had not been there a day when my drunken old mistress said to me in her Vladimir accent:
'The days are short now and the evenings are long. During the day you'll be working in the shop and in the evenings you'll study!'
I was put in the hands of a small, nimble-footed assistant. He was a young man with a face that was handsome in a sickly sort of way. In the cold darkness of dawn I used to go right across the town with him along the steep Ilinka street, where the merchants lived, to Nizhny market.
The ikon shop was on the first floor. It was a converted warehouse, very dark, with an iron door and one small window looking out on to a gallery covered in with an iron roof. The shop was crammed full of ikons of different sizes, ikon cases, and books printed in Church Slavonic and bound in yellow leather. There was another shop next door to ours which sold ikons and religious books as well and it was owned by a black bearded relative of a Bible scholar from the Old Believers, who was well known on the other side of the Volga, especially in the Kerch region. The shopkeeper was helped by his dried-up looking, quick-witted son who had the small grey face of an old man and the darting eyes of a mouse. After opening the shop I had to fetch hot water from the pub. When they had drunk their tea I had to tidy up, dust the ikons and then hang around in the gallery outside to keep an eagle eye on prospective customers and stop them from going into the shop next door.
'Customers are idiots,' the assistant used to say in a voice full of conviction. 'They couldn't care less where they buy, as long as it's cheap, and they haven't a clue what they're paying for.'
He would snap his finger on some ikon boards, boast about his expert knowledge of the trade and start giving me lessons:
'This is a fine little piece and cheap at the price. Six or seven inches high... doesn't need a stand... and another, ten to
eleven inches high... doesn't need a stand either... Do you know your saints? Remember: Vonifaty guards against drunkenness. Varvara the Martyr against toothache and sudden death. Vasily the Blessed against fevers. Know your Virgins? Look: there's the Virgin of the Sorrows, the Virgin of the Three Arms, the Virgin of the Abalatskaya Apparition, Do not Mourn for Me, Soothe my Grief, the Kazan Virgin, Pokrova, Semistrelnaya...'
I soon memorized the value of the different ikons according to their size and the quality of their craftsmanship, and I learnt how to tell the difference between ikons representing the different types of Virgin. But it was very difficult to remember what each saint stood for. I would be standing by the door lost in thought when the assistant would suddenly start testing my knowledge:
'Who helps with a difficult birth?'
If I answered wrongly he would disdainfully ask:
'What have you got a head for, eh?'
It was even harder enticing customers into the shop. I did not like those crudely painted ikons and it was awkward selling them. From what Grandmother told me I imagined the Holy Virgin as young, beautiful and kind. She looked like this in pictures in journals, but in ikons she was old and forbidding, with a long crooked nose and wooden arms. On Wednesdays and Fridays -- which were market days -- trade was brisk and now and again peasants and old women appeared in the gallery, sometimes whole families. All of them were Old Believers from across the Volga, and they were a distrustful, gloomy lot who lived in the forests. One would see a cumbersome-looking man draped in a sheepskin and thick home-made clothes making his way along the gallery so slowly that he seemed frightened of falling through. He made me feel awkward and ashamed. After a great effort I would bar his path, dart around his heavy boots, buzzing like a mosquito:
'What would you like, sir? Psalters with commentaries, the works of Efrem Sirin, Kirillov's canon law, prayer books? Please have a look round, sir. Any kind of ikon you like at all prices, best workmanship, fine dark colours. We can paint any ikon to order, all the saints and Virgins. Perhaps an ikon for a
birthday or for the family? This is the best workshop in Russia! The busiest shop in town!'
The apathetic, phlegmatic customer would stand for a long time without saying a word, eyeing me up and down as though I were a dog and then he would suddenly brush me aside with the dead weight of his arm and go into the shop next door, while the assistant would rub his big ears and growl angrily at me:
'You've gone and lost a cust-om-er...'
Next door I would hear a soft, cloying voice droning away, and intoxicating words:
'We don't sell sheepskins here, or shoes, but God's blessing, which is purer than silver or gold! You can't put any price on it!'
'To hell with it!' my assistant would whisper with envy and admiration in his oily voice. 'He knows how to smooth that old peasant over all right! Take a lesson from him!'
Now I was a very conscientious apprentice: if one did a job then it had to be done properly. But I had little success in luring customers into the shop and selling the ikons. I really felt sorry for those gloomy taciturn peasants, those little rat-like women who seemed in a perpetual state of terror with heads downcast. I wanted to tell them, in secret, what the ikons were really worth and I just did not want to try and get an extra twenty kopeks out of them. All of them struck me as poor and hungry, and it was strange to see them paying three and a half roubles for a psalter -- a book that they used to buy more than any other. They amazed me with their knowledge of religious books and ikon painting. Once a greyish old man whom I had managed to coax into the shop said to me abruptly:
'It's just not true that your workshop makes the best ikons in Russia. The best is Rogozhin's, in Moscow!'
I was so taken aback that I stepped to one side but he quietly went on his way without even going into the shop next door.
'Did he rise to the bait?' the assistant asked me spitefully.
'You didn't tell me about Rogozhin's workshop.'
He started swearing:
'Those bloody hypocrites loaf around all day and think they
know everything! To hell with them! They understand everything, those old dogs!'
He was a handsome, well-fed, proud man and he hated peasants. At times he would complain:
'I'm clever. I like clean things, nice smells -- like incense, eau de cologne. And yet I have to bow and scrape to some stinking peasant just to make him cough up another five kopeks for the mistress! Do you think I like it? What is a peasant anyway? Moth-eaten wool, a louse... but -- they're our living!'
He lapsed into angry silence.
I liked the peasants and I felt that each one had something mysterious about him, like Yakov. A ponderous looking figure in a kaftan would come creeping into the shop. He would be wearing a half-length fur coat, a shaggy cap, and would cross himself with two fingers as he looked into the corner where the everlasting lamp flickered, trying not to lay his eyes on the unsanctified ikons and peering round the shop. Then he would say:
'Give me a psalter with a glossary.'
He would roll up the sleeves of his kaftan and stand there a long time reading the title page, twitching his dark, cracked and bleeding lips.
'Haven't you anything older?'
'Old ones cost thousands of roubles, you know very well.'
'Yes, I know.'
He would wet a finger and turn over a page, leaving a dark smudge where he had touched it. The assistant would glare down at him and say:
'All holy writings are ancient... God never changed his word!'
'Yes, so I've heard. God didn't change his word, but Nikon* did.'
And the customer would shut the book and leave without saying another word.
Sometimes those people from the forests would quarrel with
* A famous archbishop of the seventeenth century who revised the spelling in church books, and varied points of ritual. This led to a great schism in the Church. Those who opposed him were called 'Old Believers'. (Trans.)
the assistant and it was dear to me that they knew their Bible better than he did, and he would snarl and say:
'Those heathens from the swamps!'
I could see as well as he did that although peasants did not like new books, they treated them with respect, touched them carefully, half-expecting them to fly away at any moment like a bird from their hands. I loved to see them do this, since for me books were indeed something wonderful, and I thought that the soul of the writer was locked away in them: when I opened a book I was able to set this soul free and then it would have a secret conversation with me.
Very often old men and women would bring ancient books from the times before the Schism or copies of them which they wanted to sell. These books were beautifully made by hermits in Irgiz or Kerzhenets. They would bring copies of prayer books without Dmitry Rostovsky's corrections, ikons bearing ancient inscriptions, crosses, enameled bronze triptychs which had been cast in village workshops, and silver ladles presented by the princes of Muscovy to wine merchants. All of these were offered in secret and the people who brought them kept anxiously looking round the whole time and hid them under their clothes. Both the assistant and our neighbour kept a close watch on them and tried to stop them going into each other's shop. They would both buy ancient objects for ten roubles and sell them in the fair to rich Old Believers for a hundred. The assistant used to give me instructions:
'Follow those devils and sorcerers, watch them as hard as you can! They bring happiness with them!'
When one of them turned up the assistant would ask me to go and fetch Pyotr Vasilich, a Bible scholar and an expert in old books, ikons and all kinds of church antiquities. He was a tall, old man with a long beard like Vasily the Blessed, clever eyes and a pleasant face. A bone in one foot had been cut away and he walked with a limp and had to use a long stick. Winter and summer he went around in a light coat that looked like a cassock, and wore a weird velvet cap resembling a saucepan. He was a strong, healthy old man, and as he strode into the shop he would stoop a little, gently sigh and frequently cross himself
with two fingers, mumbling prayers and psalms. This mixture of piety and senile decay at once inspired confidence.
'How's business?' he would ask.
'Someone brought an ikon, said it was a Stroganov.'
'What ? '
'A Stroganov!' 'Oho... I'm hard of hearing... The good Lord's made me deaf, so I can't hear those filthy things Nikonites keep saying...'
After he had taken his cap off he would hold the ikon horizontally, look at the wording from the side, at the joint in the back-board, blink and mutter:
'Those godless followers of Nikon knew how we loved ancient workmanship and were taught by the devil to practise malicious deceit. Now they forge holy images. They're very good at it, very good! At first sight one of their ikons really looks as if it's a Stroganov or an Ustyug, even a Suzdal, but if you examine it with your inner eye, then you'll see it's a forgery!'
If he called an ikon a forgery, it meant it was rare and valuable. A system of signals worked out beforehand told the assistant how much he should offer for an ikon or a book. I knew that 'gloom and dejection' meant ten roubles, 'Nikon the Tiger' meant twenty-five. I was ashamed to see how these people were taken in, but the Bible scholar's clever game fascinated me.
'Those followers of Nikon, that black offspring of Nikon the Tiger, are capable of anything, and are led by the devil. Now you might think this priming was genuine and the clothes painted by the same hand. But just take a closer look at the face -- that's the work of a different brush. The old masters, even if they were heretics, like Simon Ushakov, painted the whole ikon themselves, including the clothes and face. And they planed the lynch-pin and primed the woodwork. But nowadays the miserable devils aren't up to it. Ikon painting used to be holy work, inspired by God, and now it's just another form of painting.'
Finally he would carefully place the ikon on the counter, put his cap on and say:
'It's a sin,' which meant: 'Buy it!'
The seller would be drowned by a river of words which were
sweet to him and he would be astonished by the old man's knowledge. Then he would ask respectfully:
'What about the ikon itself then, holy father ?'
'The ikon... it's the work of the Nikonites.'
'That's impossible! My grandfather and great-grandfather prayed to it!'
'Old Nikon lived before your great-grandfather.'
The old man would lift the ikon up to the seller's face and say solemnly:
'Don't you see how gay it is? Call that an ikon? It's nothing but an ordinary picture, the work of a blind man, something the Nikonites painted to amuse themselves. It has no soul! Do you think I would lie to you? I'm an old man, I've been persecuted for my faith, my time will soon be up, so what have I to gain by being hypocritical?'
He would go out on to the gallery terribly offended by the fact that people did not trust his judgment. The assistant would then pay a few roubles for the ikon and the customer would bow low to Pyotr Vasilich as he left. They would send me off to the pub for some hot water for tea. When I came back the Bible scholar would be in a lively and cheerful mood, lovingly scrutinizing his purchase and telling the assistant:
'Look now: disciplined workmanship, finely painted from the fear of God. Nothing that would remind you of a mere mortal in that...'
'Who painted it?' the assistant would ask, beaming all over and jumping up and down.
'That's none of your business.'
'But how much would an expert give?'
'That I don't know. Come on, I'll offer it to someone.'
'Oh, Pyotr Vasilich!...'
'If I sell it, there'll be fifty roubles for you and anything above that'll be mine!'
'Stop your oh-ing.'
They would drink their tea, shamelessly haggling and looking at each other with roguish eyes. The assistant was completely at the mercy of the old man, that was clear, and when the old man had gone he would say:
'You there, mind you don't go blabbering to the mistress about what I've bought!'
When they had agreed on the price the assistant would ask:
'Any news from the town, Pyotr Vasilich?'
The old man would smooth his beard back with his yellow hand, revealing his oily lips, and start telling stories about the lives of rich merchants, about their business successes, their drunken sprees, illnesses, and weddings, about the infidelity of husbands and wives. He would tell those colourful stories swiftly and skilfully, like a good cook making pancakes, and his hissing laughter made a piquant sauce for them. The assistant's little round face would turn greyish brown with envy and rapture, and his eyes would mist over dreamily. Then he would sigh and say pathetically:
'Some people know how to live! But as for me...'
'Everyone has his allotted destiny,' the old man would drone away in his deep voice. 'One person's destiny is forged by the angels with little silver hammers, while another's is made by the devil, who uses the blunt end of an axe...'
That strong, sinewy old man knew everything that was going on in the town, all the secrets of the merchants, derks, priests and townspeople. His eyesight was as sharp as a bird of prey and he had something of the wolf and fox in him. I always tried to annoy him but he would merely look at me as though he were standing a long way off and peering at me through a mist. He seemed to be surrounded by a boundless void: if I went close up to him I was sure I would fall into some deep hole. I felt that he had something of the stoker Shumov in him. Although the assistant deeply admired his intellect when he came to the shop or when he was away in the town there were times when, like myself, he wanted to provoke and insult the old man:
'You like cheating people,' he said suddenly, looking the old man straight in the face.
The old man smiled lazily and retorted:
'Only God doesn't live by cheating, but we ordinary mortals have to make our living from fools: if you can't swindle a fool then he's no use to you...'
The assistant flared up:
'But not all peasants are fools. Even some merchants were peasants once.'
'I'm not talking about merchants. Fools don't live by swindling: A fool is holy, only his brain's asleep!'
The old man spoke more and more lazily and this was exceedingly irritating. He seemed to be standing on a clump of earth surrounded by a quagmire. It was impossible to make him angry: either he was completely impervious to insults or he was an expert at controlling his temper. But very often he himself would start teasing me and he would come right up to me, grin into his beard and say:
'What was the name of that French writer? Ponos *?'
This filthy trick of distorting names almost drove me mad but I just managed to control myself and answered:
'It's Ponson du Terrail.'
And he would make another horrible pun.
'Don't be so stupid, you're not a child,' I would exclaim.
'True. I'm not a child. What are you reading there?'
'And who writes better, your godless authors or this one?'
I could not answer this question.
But he persisted:
'What do your godless authors write about mostly? '
'About everything that happens in life.'
'Then they must write about dogs, horses... they're all part of life!... they all happen...'
The assistant guffawed, but I was fuming. All this was very trying and most unpleasant for me, but if I made any attempt to leave, the assistant would stop me.
'Where do you think you're going?'
Then the old man would start testing me:
'Come on, you're supposed to be able to read and write. Get your teeth into this one: a thousand nude people are standing in front of you, 500 women, 500 men, and among them are Adam and Eve. How would you find Adam and Eve?'
He would try for a long time to get an answer out of me and in the end would triumphantly announce:
*An untranslatable pun on the name Ponson. Ponos means diarrhoea in Russian. (Trans.)
'You fool, they weren't born but created, which means Adam and Eve don't have navels.'
The old man knew countless 'conundrums' like that and used them to torment people.
During my early days in the shop I used to tell the assistant about the few books I had read, and now they were turned against me and the assistant retold the stories in them to Pyotr Vasilich in a deliberately garbled and distorted version. The old man was very good at helping him by asking obscene questions. Their sticky tongues showered filthy words on Eugenie Grandet, Lyudmila, Henri IV. I realized that they did not do this from malice, but out of sheer boredom. But this did not help matters as far as I was concerned. They created piles of muck and wallowed in it like pigs, grunting delightedly from the pleasure of soiling and dirtying all that which was beautiful and therefore totally alien, incomprehensible and comical to them.
The whole shopping centre, all the people who lived there -- the merchants and their assistants -- lived strange lives, full of stupid, childish amusements which nonetheless caused much misery. If a peasant who had come up from the country for the day happened to ask the quickest way to some part of the town they invariably gave him wrong directions: they were so used to this 'diversion' that they no longer derived any pleasure from it. They would catch a pair of rats, tie their tails together, put them down in the road and watch them bite each other as they tried to free themselves. Sometimes they poured kerosene over a rat and set fire to it. Then they would tie a broken metal bucket to the tail of a dog so that it yelped and tore off in mad terror while the people looked on and laughed. There were many other pastimes like these and it seemed that everyone, especially the people from the country, lived solely for the amusements offered by the shopping arcades. One felt that they had an insatiable desire to laugh at other people, to hurt and embarrass them. And it seemed rather strange to me that those books I had read said nothing about the way people were always trying to make laughing-stocks of one another.
One of the amusements in the market was particularly disgusting. Below our shop there was an assistant who worked for
a woollen and felt shoe merchant and he amazed the whole of the Nizhny market with his gluttony. His master used to boast about his assistant's 'talent' in the same way people boast about a fierce dog or a strong horse and he often used to place bets with neighbouring merchants.
'Who'll bet ten roubles? I bet you Mishka can eat ten pounds of gammon in two hours.'
But everyone knew that Mishka was capable of this and they would reply: 'We don't want the bet. Buy the ham though, and let him eat it. We'll watch! Only it must be all meat and no bones.'
They would argue lazily for a short while and then a thin, beardless boy with prominent cheekbones would emerge from the dark warehouse wearing a long overcoat made from thick cloth, tied round with a red sash and covered all over with bits of wool. He would respectfully take his cap from his little head and, without saying a word look vaguely with his deep-sunken eyes at his master's round face, which was flushed purple and overgrown with thick, wiry hair.
'Can you eat ten pounds of gammon?'
'In how long?' Mishka would ask in a businesslike, thin little voice.
'That's a tough one!'
'But not for you.'
'Give me two glasses of beer then.'
'Get weaving,' the master said, boasting to everyone for all he was worth. 'Don't you think for one moment that he's going to do this on an empty stomach. Far from it. Only this morning he stuffed himself with two pounds of bread and he had lunch as well of course...'
They would bring the ham and a crowd would gather round -- stout merchants, tightly wrapped up in heavy fur coats and looking like enormous weights, and people with big bellies. All of them had tiny eyes misted over with a film of sleepiness and insurmountable boredom. They would sit round the champion glutton in a small circle, with their hands in their pockets, while he armed himself with a knife and a large crust of rye bread. He would fervently cross himself, sit down on a
bale of wool, put the ham on a box next to him and measure it with his vacant eyes. After cutting off a thin slice of bread and a thick lump of meat he would carefully make a sandwich out of it and lift it to his mouth with both hands. His lips would tremble as he licked it with his long, doglike tongue, showing his fine, sharp teeth. He looked just like a dog as he bent over the meat.
'Keep an eye on the clock!'
All eyes were riveted on the glutton's face, on his lower jaw, on the round swellings near his ears. They would watch his pointed chin rise and fall regularly and emptily remark:
'Eats just like a bear!'
'Have you ever seen a bear eat?'
'You know very well I don't live in the forest! But that's what they say: "guzzles like a bear".'
'You mean a pig don't you?'
'Pigs don't eat ham...'
They would laugh grudgingly and immediately some expert would correct them.
'Pigs eat everything, including their piglets and their own sisters.'
The glutton's face grew browner and browner, his ears turned blue, his bulging eyes seemed to roll out of their bony sockets. He breathed heavily, but his jaw still kept moving with a regular rhythm.
'Get a move on, Mikhailo, not much time left!' they said, egging him on.
He anxiously estimated how much meat was left, drank some beer and started chewing again. The crowd livened up, and looked more often at the watch that Mishka's master was holding. Then they started giving orders:
'Mind he doesn't turn the watch back!'
'Take it away from him.'
'Watch Mishka doesn't stuff some ham up his sleeves.'
'He'll never finish in time.'
But Mishka's master would urge him on:
'I bet you twenty-five roubles! Mishka, please don't let me down.'
The crowd provoked the master more and more but no one placed any bets.
Mishka kept on chewing and chewing, and his face began to look like a piece of ham; his sharp, gristly nose made a mournful whistling sound. It was terrible watching him and I thought that at any moment he would shout out loud and start screaming: 'For God's sake, have pity!' or that he might get a piece of meat stuck in his throat, fall down at the people's feet and die.
In the end he ate everything, and his drunken-looking eyes bulged as he gasped:
'Give me something to drink!'
But his master looked at the watch and growled:
'You're four minutes over, you devil.'
And the crowd started teasing him:
'Good job we didn't make any bets, we would have lost!'
'But what an animal of a boy!'
'Yes, he should be in a circus.'
'The freaks that God sends into this world!'
'Come on, let's go and have some tea.'
And off they would sail to the pub, just like barges along the river.
I wanted to find out what had made those heavy people, who seemed to be made of cast iron, gather round that unfortunate boy and why his morbid gluttony amused them so much.
It was dark and miserable in that narrow gallery piled high with wool, sheepskins, hemp, rope, felt shoes, saddles and harness. It was separated from the passage-way by clumsy looking stout brick pillars that were eaten away by time and spattered with mud from the street. I must have made a mental note of every brick and the chinks in between them thousands of times, and the monotonous network of their ugly patterns settled in my memory for ever. People walked between the shops without hurrying, and carts and sleighs laden with merchandise moved slowly down the street. Behind the street there was a square formed by two-storeyed red-brick shops and it was always littered with boxes, straw, torn wrapping papers, and covered with filthy trampled snow. Everything there, despite the movement of people and horses, seemed motionless
to me -- lazily rotating on the same spot to which it appeared to be fastened by invisible chains. I suddenly felt that this was an almost completely silent life, sadly lacking in any sounds of animation. The sleigh runners would screech, shop doors would slam, women selling pies and spiced tea would call out, but those voices were dreary, apathetic and monotonous, and one quickly grew so used to them that one did not even hear them. The church bells hummed as though they were ringing for a funeral and for a long time afterwards I could hear that mournful sound. It seemed to be perpetually floating in the air above the market, from morning till night, insinuating itself among all my thoughts and feelings, stifling every sensation, like a thick deposit of metal filings. Wherever I went I could sense a cold, tedious boredom which drifted upwards from the earth beneath its layer of filthy snow, from the grey drifts on the roofs, from the flesh-coloured bricks of the buildings. Boredom rose from the chimneys in a grey haze and climbed up into the greyish, empty, low sky. The horses sweated boredom, people breathed it. It had its own peculiar smell -- the dull, heavy smell of sweat, fat, linseed oil, oven-baked pies and smoke. That smell seemed to press heavily against one's head, like a warm, tight-fitting hat; it seeped down into the chest and brought with it a strange feeling of intoxication, arousing a vague desire to close one's eyes, cry out loud in despair, to run off, to take a running jump head first at the nearest wall. I would peer into the merchants' fat, well-fed faces, which were flushed with thick rich blood and bitten by the frost, and quite motionless, as though they were all dreaming. The people there would never stop yawning, opening their mouths wide like fish thrown up on to dry sand. In the winter business was slack and the traders did not have that alert, predatory sparkle in their eyes which lent a little life to their faces during the summer months. Those heavy fur coats only cramped their movement and made them stoop towards the ground. They had a lazy way of speaking and when they became angry they would have arguments. I thought that they did this on purpose, just to show each other that they were alive! It was obvious that they were stifled by boredom, killed by it, that their cruel, stupid amusements could only be interpreted as a futile struggle against its all-consuming power.
Sometimes I would chat with Pyotr Vasilich about them. Although he usually mocked and ridiculed me, my passion for books appealed to him and sometimes he would condescend to have a serious talk with me, just like a teacher.
'I don't like the way those merchants live,' I would say.
He would curl some hair on his beard with a long finger and ask me:
'How do you know what kind of life they lead? How often do you go and watch them? This is a street and men don't live in it. Here they only do their trading and then clear off home as quick as they can. People dress up when they come out into the street, but you don't know what they're like under their clothes. A man lives openly in his own house, within his own four walls, but you can never know what kind of life he really leads there!'
'But don't people have the same thoughts, whether they're at home or in the streets?' I asked.
'Who knows what the next person's thinking?' he said, opening his eyes wide and speaking in a deep bass voice. 'Thoughts are like fleas -- you can never count them. That's what old men say. Perhaps, when a man gets home, he falls down on his knees and cries, and asks God: "Forgive me, oh Lord, I've sinned on your holy day." Perhaps his house is a kind of monastery for him and he lives there alone with his God. Yes I Each little spider must know its place, weave its own web and know how much weight it can take...'
When he spoke seriously, his voice sounded even lower and deeper, as though he were telling some very important secrets.
'Here you are arguing away! You're too young for that! At your age you should rely on your eyes, not your brain. You should look, remember and keep your mouth shut. The brain's for practical things, but for the soul you need faith! Reading books won't harm you, but you must not overdo it -- as with anything else. Some people read until they go mad and lose their faith in God.'
To me he seemed immortal and it was hard to imagine that he would ever grow old and look different. He loved telling stories about merchants, bandits and banknote forgers who had become famous. I had already heard many similar stories from Grandfather, who was better at telling them than the
Bible scholar. But their meaning was the same: riches are always acquired at the price of sinning against people and against God. Pyotr Vasilich had no compassion at all for people, but he spoke about God with deep feeling and he would sigh and cover his eyes.
'Some people manage to deceive God, but the Lord Christ sees it all and weeps. My people, oh my poor people, hell is waiting for you!'
Once I had the impertinence to tell him:
'But you swindle peasants as well...'
But he took no offence at this and gave me an answer:
'But is that very important?' he said. 'I might steal three or five roubles -- but I don't keep them for very long.'
When he caught me reading he would take the book from me, ask carping questions about what I had read, and then tell the shop assistant disbelievingly:
'You see, he understands books, the little devil!'
And he would start lecturing me very sensibly, trying to make sure that I would never forget:
'Listen to my words, they'll come in useful some day: There were once two Kirills, both of them bishops, one from Alexandria, the other from Jerusalem. The first fought against the cursed heretic Nestorius, who was responsible for the obscene story that the Virgin was an ordinary woman and therefore couldn't have given birth to God, but bore a human being instead who was Christ in name and deeds, that's to say the saviour of the world. Of course, she couldn't be called mother of God but mother of Christ -- understand? That is what you call heresy! The Kirill who came from Jerusalem fought against the Arian heresy...'
I was enthralled by his knowledge of church history. He would tug his beard with his smooth priestly hand and boast:
'I'm an expert in these matters. Once, at Whitsun I went to Moscow to take part in a verbal argument with those venomous learned followers of Nikon, with priests as well as laymen. Although I was only a young man then, I even discussed these things with professors. Oh yes! I flayed one of those priests with my verbal whip until his nose bled, so there!'
His cheeks grew flushed and his eyes sparkled. Making an
opponent's nose bleed was considered the peak of his success, the brightest ruby in the golden crown of his fame and he spoke about it almost voluptuously.
'He was a handsome little priest and very strong! He was standing in front of the pulpit and the blood just dripped from his nose! But he was blind to the disgrace of it all. He was a violent man, like a lion in the desert, and his voice was like a great bell! I attacked him very slyly and aimed straight at his soul. My words stabbed him right between the ribs, like awls! He got very heated up inside with all that heretical evil -- just like a stove! Ah, we had real arguments in those days!...'
Other Bible scholars used to come into the shop: Pakhomy, a big-bellied man who wore a soiled, sleeveless coat; he was blind in one eye, fat and flabby, and he grunted like a pig. Then there was Lukian, a friendly, lively little old man who looked as smooth as a mouse. He would come with a large gloomy-looking man, who resembled a cabdriver, with a black beard, a lifeless, unpleasant but nonetheless handsome face, and eyes that never moved.
They almost always brought old books for sale, ikons, censers, and various kinds of chalices. Sometimes they brought some people with things to sell -- usually old men or women from across the Volga. When business was over they would sit by the counter like crows on a hedge, drinking tea with rolls and boiled sugar and they would tell each other about the way the Church of Nikon was persecuting everyone: in one town a church was raided, and prayer books were confiscated. In another the police closed a chapel and arrested the priests in charge under Article 103. This Article was the most frequent topic of conversation, and they spoke very calmly about it, as though it were something inevitable, like the winter frosts. Again and again I heard the words 'police', 'raid', 'prison', 'court', 'Siberia' in their discussions about religious persecution and they burned my soul like hot coals, kindling sympathy and compassion for those old men. The books I read had taught me to respect people who persevered until they achieved their goal and to value steadfastness and firmness of spirit. I forgot all the bad things I saw in those people who taught about life and I was conscious only of their calm persistence,
which concealed -- or so it seemed to me -- an unshakable belief that what they were teaching was the truth, and they were ready to suffer all sorts of torment for it.
Later, when I had the opportunity of seeing many similar custodians of the old faith, both among the common people and the intelligentsia, I came to understand that this stubbornness was really the passiveness of people who had nowhere to go, and who in fact did not want to go anywhere, as they were firmly fettered by archaic words and outmoded ideas which had finally stupefied them. Their will had become static, incapable of any movement: when some blow from the outside world shifted them from the places they were used to, they would mechanically roll downwards, like stones on a hill. They were kept in the graveyard of their own obsolete beliefs by the sheer inertia of their memories, by their morbid love of suffering and oppression. But if one tried to deprive them of any possibility of suffering, then this would destroy them and they would disappear like clouds on a fresh windy day. The faith for which they were ready to suffer willingly and very proudly was undeniably strong, but it put me in mind of a worn-out dress which was so thickly soiled with every kind of filth that it would never be touched by the destructive power of time. In both thought and feeling they had grown used to their tight, heavy cocoon of prejudices and dogmas: although they had lost their wings and had been mutilated in their struggles they still had a cosy, comfortable resting-place. A belief which is based on force of habit is one of the saddest and most harmful phenomena of our time -- as in the shade of a stone wall everything new grows slowly, becoming stunted, lacking the sap of life. There were too few rays of love in that faith, too many insults, too much animosity and too much envy, which always goes hand in hand with hate. And the light emanating from that faith was nothing but the phosphorescent glow of putrefaction.
But to convince myself that this was so I had to live through many difficult years, stamp out many things in my soul and erase them from my memory altogether. And when I first met those 'teachers of life' in the midst of that boring and shameless reality that surrounded me they seemed to be people of great spiritual strength, the best people in the world. Each one
of them was awaiting some verdict, was in prison or in exile, wandering with convicts along the road to Siberia. They all lived cautiously and were continually in hiding.
However, I could see that while they complained of spiritual persecution at the hands of the Nikonites, the elders themselves were quite ready to persecute each other and even took pleasure in it. When the one-eyed Pakhomy was drunk he loved to boast about his memory, which was really quite staggering. He knew a few books by heart, just like a pious Jew knows the Talmud. He could put his finger on any page and start reading by heart in his soft, snuffling little voice. When he recited he always looked down at the floor and his one eye would scrutinize it anxiously, as though he were looking for something very valuable. He liked most of all to show off with Prince Myshetsky's Russian Vineyard as he knew the 'very patient and very brave sufferings of wonderful and valiant martyrs' particularly well. Pyotr Vasilich was always trying to catch him out:
'You're Iying. That wasn't Kiprian the Blessed Fool but Denis the Chaste.'
'What Denis? It says Dionysus...'
'Don't make a fuss over one word!'
'And don't you start teaching me!'
A minute later they would be staring at each other, boiling with rage and saying:
'You glutton, look at the belly on you, old fat-face!'
Pakhomy would answer him just as though he were counting on an abacus:
'And you are a lecher, a randy goat and womanizer!'
The assistant would hide his hands in his sleeves, smile maliciously and encourage those guardians of ancient piety just as though they were boys:
'Go on, at him! Again!'
Once they came to blows. Pyotr Vasilich slapped his friend on the cheeks with a sleight of hand that was totally unexpected and forced him to beat a hasty retreat. He wearily wiped the sweat from his face and shouted as Pakhomy ran from the room:
'Watch out, that's another sin to account for! You
devil, you made me sin with my hand. To hell with you!' He was particularly fond of telling his friends that their faith was not strong enough and that they were all succumbing to 'negativism'.
'That's all Alexander's work -- crowing just like a cock.'
'Negativism' annoyed him and, so it seemed, frightened him as well, but when he was asked what the essence of it was he was unable to give a very intelligible reply:
'Negativism is the worst kind of heresy. It acknowledges reason alone, with no place for God. Down where the Cossacks live they don't read anything except the Bible, but it's the Bible preached by the Germans in Saratov, the Bible of Luther, about whom it is said: "Luther is the right name for you, coming from 'Lut *." The people who preach negativism are usually called a load of idlers, and also Stundists. ** All of this comes from those heretics in the West.'
He would stamp his crippled foot and say in a cold, weighty voice:
'They're the ones the Church of the new order should persecute! They're the ones who should be burned! But not us, we've always been Russian. Our belief is the true one. It comes from the East and it is the original Russian faith. But all that nonsense from the West is distorted free thinking! What good ever came from the Germans or the French anyway? Take 1812 for example...'
As he grew more and more carried away he would forget he was talking to a little boy. He would put his arm round my waist, pull me towards him and then push me away, talking in that fine, excitable, passionate young voice of his:
'The human reason can go astray in the thick undergrowth of its own fantasies. Like a fierce wolf it wanders about in the power of the devil who tortures the soul, which is God's gift to man! What did those diabolical monks think up, do you imagine? The Bogomils, through whom all this negativism was
* An untranslatable pun: luty means 'fierce'. (Trans.)
** The Stundists were a religious sect who lived in the Southern Ukraine. Their teachings were based on those of the German Baptists. They broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1870. (Trans.)
handed down, taught that Satan was the son of God, the elder brother of Jesus Christ -- that's what they came to believe in the end! They also taught that one shouldn't obey authority, that one shouldn't work, and that one should abandon one's wife and children. They say man needs nothing, no laws, but should live just as he likes, as the devil directs. It's that Alexander again -- Oh... you worms!'
At that moment the assistant would give me a job to do and I would leave the old man, who remained in the gallery talking to the blank walls:
'Oh, souls without wings, oh, blind kittens, how can I escape from you?'
Then he would toss his head back, rest his hands on his knees and stay quite still for a long time without saying anything, simply staring into the grey winter sky.
Later he began to pay more attention to me and treat me more affectionately. When he found me reading a book he would stroke my shoulder and say:
'Read, read, my boy, that's very good! You seem to have brains. A pity you don't respect your elders! You pick fights with everyone! Do you think you'll get far with your impudence? As far as the convict battalions, that's where! Keep reading books, but remember that a book's only a book, and you should learn how to think for yourself. Those Flagellants had a teacher called Danilo and he got the idea in his head that neither old nor new books were necessary, so he collected all he could in a sack and then threw them in the river. Yes, I know that's just as stupid. Now that devil Aleksasha's * started stirring things up...'
He mentioned that Aleksasha more than anyone else and once, when he came into the shop with a worried, forbidding look on his face, he announced to the assistant:
'Alexander Vasilyev is in town, arrived yesterday. I looked and looked but couldn't find him. He must be hiding somewhere! I'll wait a bit, and see if he pokes his nose out somewhere...'
The assistant replied in a hostile voice:
* Diminutive form of Alexander. (Trans.)
'I don't know anything, don't know anyone!'
'All right then. For you everyone's a buyer or a seller, and no one else exists! Now, how about some tea?'
When I brought in the large brass pot full of hot water some other visitors had turned up. There was the old man Lukian, who smiled cheerfully, while on the other side of the door, in a dark corner, sat someone I did not know. He was wearing a warm overcoat and high felt boots, a green belt and a hat which was awkwardly pushed over his eyebrows. His face was rather insignificant and he seemed quiet, withdrawn, like a shop assistant who had just lost his job and was feeling very miserable. Pyotr Vasilich did not look at him and said something in a stern, weighty voice, while the newcomer kept on moving his hat forward with convulsive movements of his right hand. He would lift it as though he was about to cross himself and push it back, more and more, until it almost touched the crown of his head. Then he would pull it down tight towards his eyebrows. That convulsive movement reminded me of the fool 'Igosha Death in the Pocket'. *
'There are different fish swimming about in the muddy river and they are making it even muddier,' Pyotr Vasilich said.
The man who looked like an assistant asked in a soft, calm voice:
'Are you talking about me then?'
'Do you think I'd want to talk about you?'
'So you must mean yourself then, my man?'
'I only talk about myself to God, and that's my affair.'
'No, it's mine as well,' the new visitor said solemnly and convincingly. 'Don't hide your face from the truth, don't blind yourself deliberately, man, that's a great sin before God and people!'
I liked to hear him call Pyotr Vasilich a man but his gentle, solemn voice worried me. He spoke as good priests do when they read 'Lord of my soul' and he would keep leaning forward all the time, almost falling off his chair and brandishing his arm...
'Don't criticize me.... I'm no more guilty than you when it comes to sinning...'
* Igosha -- the pathetic 'holy idiot' who appears in Chapter 7 of My Childhood. (Trans.)
'The samovar's boiled, just listen to it puffing away,' the old scholar said disdainfully, but the speaker was not deterred and did not let himself be interrupted for one second.
'Only God knows what sullies the springs of the holy spirit. Perhaps that's your sin, you people who read books. I don't read books or anything made of paper... I'm a simple, living person.'
'I know all about your simplicity!'
'You confuse people, distort simple thoughts. You people who read books are Pharisees. Come on, what are you trying to make me say?'
'Heresy!' Pyotr Vasilich said, but the other man moved the palm of his hand in front of his face as though he were reading something on it and said excitedly:
'Do you think that chasing people from one barn to another makes them any better? No, I say, set yourself free! What do your house and wife and all your possessions mean in the face of God? Free yourself from all the things people fight and kill each other for -- from gold, and silver, from any kind of possession, for they are nothing but corruption and filth! The soul will not be saved on the fields of this earth, but in the valleys of paradise! Abandon all this, I say, break all ties and bonds, break the net of this world, these snares made by anti-Christ... I'm following the straight and narrow, and I am no hypocrite. I don't accept this dark world...'
'But what about bread, water, clothing -- do you accept them? Surely they're worldly things!' the old man said spitefully. But Alexander ignored this interruption and continued his speech more enthusiastically than before. Although his voice was not very loud he seemed to be blowing into a brass tube.
'What's dear to you? God alone is dear. Stand before him, unsullied, tear those earthly fetters from your soul and see the Lord. You're alone in this world and so is he! Get close to God, there's only one path! That's where salvation lies. Leave your father and mother, tear out that eye that's leading you into temptation! For the sake of God, strip yourself of material things and live in the spirit. Then your soul will keep burning for ever and ever.'
'Now you go back to your stinking dogs,' Pyotr Vasilich said
as he got up. 'I was beginning to think you'd got a little sense in your head after last year, but you're worse than ever...'
The old man tottered out on to the terrace, which worried Alexander and he quickly asked him in a startled voice:
'You're going! How can you?'
But the kind-hearted Lukian gave him a reassuring wink and said:
'It doesn't matter, it's nothing...'
Then Alexander started on him:
'And as for you, you busybody, you're spreading muck all over the place! Where's the sense in it? The hallelujah with two fingers, three fingers *... well?'
Lukian smiled at him and joined him on the terrace outside, while Alexander turned to the assistant and said confidently:
'They can't stand me! They'll disappear, like smoke after a fire... you'll see!'
The shop assistant gave him a sullen look and observed in a dry voice:
'I refuse to get mixed up in those things!'
This seemed to startle him and he moved his hat forward and mumbled:
'How do you mean, won't get mixed up? But you should try to understand these things... they're very important...'
He sat silently for a minute with his head bowed. Then the other old men called him and all three left without saying good-bye. Alexander would flare up like a bonfire in the night, burn brightly and then disappear. This made me feel there was some truth in his rejection of life.
When evening came I chose the right time and very excitedly described him to the quiet, friendly Ivan Larionovich, the master craftsman in the ikon shop. He listened to what I had to say and then he explained:
'He must be a runner. There are sects like that, and they don't recognize anything.'
'How do they manage to live then?'
* One of the major points raised during the seventeenth-century church controversy was whether a blessing should be made with two fingers -- representing the dual nature, divine and human, that hung on the Cross -- or with three -- representing the Trinity. (Trans.)
'By running away from everything, wandering over the earth. That's why they're called runners. They say that the earth and anything to do with it means nothing to them. But the police think they're dangerous and try to hunt them down.'
Although my life was very hard I could not understand how one could actually run away from everything. Often there was much that was interesting in the life around me and much that was dear And soon Alexander Vasilyev completely faded from my memory. Later, when life was difficult, I would often picture him walking across the fields, along a grey path leading to a forest, violently jerking his stick with his white hand which was not like a workman's at all and muttering: 'I'm taking the straight and narrow. I don't accept anything! I must break the bonds...'
And at the same time I would remember Father as Grandmother used to describe him from her dreams -- with a walnut stick in his hand and a spotted dog running after him with its tongue hanging out.