The Revolutionist by Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev

Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev

Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev is a writer and playwright, known for his work in the literary movement called naturalism. This particular literary movement used detailed realism to describe and suggest that human characters are shaped by their social conditions, environment and heredity.

He was born in the Kharkov Province, which is now part of the Ukraine. His works are often compared to or said to be influenced by Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.

Interestingly enough Artsybashev had his own frank and very clear views on which literary greats had nfluenced him the most. He agreed that he had been influenced by Leo Tolstoy, Fydor Dostoevsky, Max Stirner, Anton Chekov, Viktor Hugo and Johann Wolfgang von Geothe, but couldn’t understand the comparison to Nietzsche at all.

“It is often thought here (in Russia) that Nietzsche exercised a great influence over me. This surprises me, for the simple reason that I have never read Nietzsche. This brilliant thinker is out of sympathy with me, both in his ideas and in the bombastic form of his works, and I have never got beyond the beginnings of his books. Max Stirner is to me much nearer and more comprehensible.” 

Artsybashev is perhaps most known for his book Sanine, which was banned and condemned in many countries. He was openly critical of the Bolshevik regime in statements and in his literary works, which was probably the real reason he was expelled from Russia, as opposed to the ‘decadence’ they accused him of.

The Revolutionist is a short story about a man, who believes in the good of mankind, the beauty of nature, and that God will protect and reward good men. His views and beliefs begin to crumble in light of the atrocities showered upon the common man by the military regime.

The man, a teacher, finds himself filled with rage at the persecution of innocent men, women and children. It changes his perspective and it also changes the way he reacts to the actions of the soldiers and the regime. He becomes what they seek to destroy. In essence it is the development of a rebel, of a revolutionist.

Gabriel Andersen was rather given to sentimental poetising. He walked with his hands folded behind him, dangling his cane. Gabriel had only walked a few steps when he noticed a group of soldiers and their horses.

At first glance he thinks nothing of it, but his inner voice and gut just know there is something awful about to happen.

It was an ugly errand they were upon, an instinct rather that his reason told him. Something unusual and terrible was to happen. The same instinct told him to hide away, out of sight of the soldiers. They seemed to bring an aura of menace with them.

The officer was ordering his group to harm the people within their midst. Two alleged rebels and a young boy. Andersen can hear the men pleading with the officer.

“Officer,” a quiet, restrained, yet distinct voice came from among the soldiers, “you have no right—It’s for the court to decide—you aren’t a judge—it’s plain murder, not—”

Gabriel, the calm introverted teacher, is shocked by the extremes. The tranquil beauty of nature and the ugly face of brutality.They meet face to face..

“It’s so bright, so beautiful—the snow, the field, the woods, the sky. The breath of spring is upon everything. Yet people are going to be killed. How can it be? Impossible! He had the sensation of a man suddenly gone insane, who finds he sees, hears and feels what he is not accustomed to, and ought not hear, see and feel.

The two men beg for the life of the boy, protesting his innocence, but their words fall on deaf ears. Andersen watches the tragedy unfold. Even in those moments his inner structure of belief is beginning to crumble slowly.

There followed a scene savage and repulsive in its gruesomeness. An unexpected, oppressive silence ensued. The boy was being pushed forward. Then there came a deafening report.

People appeared from all sides of the town, as soon as the soldiers had disappeared.Emerging from their hiding places.The fear of discovery being greater than the need to help.

The bodies lay at the roadside on the other side of the railing, where the snow was clean, brittle and untrampled and glistened cheerfully in the bright atmosphere. There were three dead bodies, two men and a boy.

The pure mind of the docile teacher is filled with thoughts of gloom. His fingers are no longer eager to write the poetic prose that speaks of all things beautiful.

That night Gabriel Andersen in his little room in the schoolhouse did not write poems as usual. And his thoughts were confused, gloomy, and heavy as if a cloud had descended upon his brain.

This is where the first thoughts of rebellion and dissension arise. Fuelled by the injustice he has seen and experienced. The heart of a revolutionary is born within the folds of the disappointed common man.

“The time will come some day,” he thought, “when the killing of people by others will be an utter impossibility”

Gabriel is convinced the soldiers will one day see the errors of their ways. Acknowledge the guilt and perhaps even be confronted with bestiality in kind. Karma is a funny thing, especially when the karma is man-made.

A large pity pierced his heart for the three victims whose eyes looked at the moon, sad and unseeing. A feeling of rage cut him as with a sharp knife and took possession of him.Gabriel Andersen quieted his heart, whispering softly, “They know not what they do.” And this old and ready phrase gave him the strength to stifle his rage and indignation.

As if the murder of innocents wasn’t enough to gain his ire, Gabriel is also witness to the humiliation and dehumanisation of his fellow townsmen. The soldiers have come to flog some peasants, perhaps even for the sheer pleasure of it.The rage wells within him at his own inability to step in and help.The feeling of utter powerless and helplessness is mixed with fear and shame.

‘Gabriel Andersen, who was soon to behold this horror, this disgrace, and would do nothing, would not dare to do anything…. a sense of cold, intolerable shame gripped him as between two clamps of ice through which he could see everything without being able to move, cry out or utter a groan.’

Shame, at not wanting to speak up and become one of the victims. Guilt, for not being brave enough to speak up for the others. He has to weigh up his own survival against that of his fellow townsmen. Speak up and be flogged or stay quiet and live another day. Of course, as in most cases the instinct for self preservation kicks in, but that just intensifies his anger.

A sense of shame permeated his whole being. It was a humiliating feeling, having to escape being noticed so that they should not catch him and lay him there on the snow and strip him bare—him After seeing this a man must die, he thought.

This is where it turns, both for the man and the story. The teacher, the poet, the thinker and the believer in the beauty of life becomes the avenger. He no longer wants to merely stand at the sidelines and watch.

Gabriel Andersen, wearing an overcoat and carrying his cane behind his back, approached them.

He approaches the camp of soldiers in an attempt to distract them from their impending fate. His is the only face they will see and be able to recognise if anyone survives. The others are merely shadows of the night.

Behind him people moved about quietly and carefully, bending the bushes, silent as shadows.Nothing stirred in Andersen’s heart. His face was cold and motionless, as of a man who is asleep. Andersen, as if he were thinking of something else, raised his cane. With all his strength he hit the officer on the head, each blow descending with a dull, ugly thud

Like lambs to the slaughter. No thought for consequence or repercussions, just the need for vengeance. Perhaps even the need to make a statement to all the other innocents and future rebels.

The shots ceased. Black men with white faces, ghostly grey in the dark, moved about the dead bodies of the soldiers, taking away their arms and ammunition. Andersen watched all this with a cold, attentive stare. Gabriel knows that given a second chance he would do the same thing again.

Isn’t that how all great revolutionaries become the martyrs of nations? Putting aside their needs for those of others and willing to gift the people with the greatest sacrifice, their life.

He thought of how he, Gabriel Andersen, with his spectacles, cane, overcoat and poems, had lied and betrayed fifteen men. He thought it was terrible, yet there was neither pity, shame nor regret in his heart.

Does that not make him equal to the men he has killed? Gabriel has no further thoughts on the matter. as far as he is concerned he has done right by his conscience and by his country.

Of his own death he did not think. It seemed to him that he had done with everything long, long ago. Something had died, had gone out and left him empty, and he must not think about it. He straightened himself to the full height of his short body and threw back his head in simple pride. A strange indistinct sense of cleanness, strength and pride filled his soul, and everything—the sun and the sky and the people and the field and death—seemed to him insignificant, remote and useless.

And so he dies with his head held high, at least until they fill him with bullets. Gabriel has regained the sense of pride he lost. The sense of shame and guilt is no more. For he is no more.

Download The Revolutionist  or Sanin by Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev at Feedbooks. Or listen to The Revolutionist at Librivox. Or read Sanine, Breaking Point, The Millionaire or Tales of the Revolution  by Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev at the Internet Archive. Want to read more public domain pieces by Russian writers? Read Little Girls Wiser Than Men by Tolstoy, The Barber, the Major and the rebellious Nose based on the The Nose by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol,

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