THE PIATNITSKY PHENOMENON AND METHAPHYSICS OF ABSOLUTE EVIL
An article by A. Piatigorsky. Unpublished
“The Absolute Evil is a state which does not disciminate between evil and good.”
The end of June, 1937. Crouching on the window sill of my flat I, then an eight-year-old boy, could have discerned, using my binoculars, through the open window of the Pyatnitsky’s flat in the House of the Government, the rushing shadow of Yulia and the grey figure of her husband, Osip, stooped over his desk reading Pavlenko’s In the East (the latter, of course, wouldn’t be possible to decipher even today, using all the modern spy equipment of long distance observation – but don’t mind, it is my imagination!). But, hell, how long ago it was! Not only are the Pyatnitskys dead and buried in un-named common graves, if graves they were, but their elder son, Igor, also dead, and the secret police interrogators who tortured the Pyatnitskys, and those of the Bolshevik old guard who survived their interrogations and camps, and almost everybody else, denounced and denouncing, crying for justice and imploring for a minute of respite, the victors of the glorious past vanquished in the present of thirties, victims, all of them, of the Grand Cause which became the Absolute Evil, they are out of this life. And even I, the author of these introductory lines, I am also out of ~ life of theirs, being at least a generation and a half younger, and having absconded to the mists and fog of London from the radiant light of the future promised by the Pyatnitsky’s Cause.
But the Cause remained with them till the last minute of their lives. “He was expecting to be arrested, and I was also prepared for it,” she writes. What follows is a set of alternatives, possible ‘solutions’ which she offers herself and her husband at the hour of disaster. The first was to commit suicide “the two of us together” (“but he refused categorically, declaring that he was as pure a Party member as freshly fallen snow in the field …”). The second, which to any person with the remnants of sanity would have appeared as a sheer bout of self-deception: “there was no way out … but to pin our hopes in Ezhov …” for Pyatnitsky’s “innocence … would be clear to both Ezhov and Stalin” (the only mention of God’s name in the Diary)–so she speaks of those whose murderous activity had, by that time, been widely known in their milieu of Old Bolsheviks. Then, a week later, the long awaited arrest seemingly, though not assuredly, by Ezhov himself, and her concluding phrase: “…just the realization that I would never see him again and a terrible sense of the futility and the righteousness of his life, his unrelenting service to the ~ …” She wrote it when, in her own words “she came to her senses. “~I Why did she put ‘futility’ and ‘righteousness’ side by side with reference to the Cause, and what, then, kind of Cause was it that made them equal to one another, almost the same.
No, even in her mortal anguish she would never dare to call the Cause futile: it is the wasted life of hers and her husband’s, which had had any meeting whatsoever only if entirely and unreservedly devoted to the cause, and being one with it. Once torn away from the Cause and the Party a life, even the most meaningful one, becomes futile. Individual consciousness, personal self-awareness, simply do not exist. OSip used to tell his wife: “Remember, I serve only the working class, not individual people.” And when in the next paragraph she complains bitterly that “it only needed some lousy spy to point the finger at my husband and they all believed in the possibility,” she clearly exhibits the ‘collective’ thinking of the people of the Cause: as she believed in the existence of the ‘lousy spies’, so ~ believed that her Osip is one of them. Was the individual self-awareness of the people of the Cause eradicated by the Cause or by the people themselves? The notes written by the Pyatnitskys’ son, Igor, long after the Cause had ceased to exist clearly proved the truth of the second answer. No, insists the already defunct son, my parents died for the Cause, it was Stalin who betrayed it.
Of course, having inherited that trend of ‘non-self-consciousness’, Igor went on debating who was and who was not right in the sense of that very never questioning ‘non-awareness’ of theirs. And Anatoly Rybakov, the author of The Children of the Arbat, though still alive and kicking, exhibits the same naive conviction–he too knows exactly who kept the truth in his pocket. The answer to the last question could be only one–nobody! For where there is no individual self- awareness, there can be no truth, moreover, no true answers. However, the book published in Russia by Chalidze in the States is absolutely unique of its kind, for its author directly, though non- consciously, witnesses to the Absolute Evil of which she, herself, is a part. For in such a witnessing there can be no outsiders because the differences between an outsider and an insider has already been obliterated by the very nature of the Absolute Evil itself. But isn’t it enough said and written about Evil? Hasn’t the theme exhausted itself? Well, it almost has. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, genocide and holocaust, world terrorism and world self-indulgence, television programmes urging us not to forget the Evil, and next moment television programmes urging us to forget the bloody thing altogether and to learn how to ‘relax and take it easy’! And indeed, what could be more foul and revolting than to show, first, the scenes of violence and rape, murder and torture, and the next moment to stage before the same audience a pseudo-scientific ‘discussion’ devoted to the problem of whether these very scenes may affect the moral, emotional, and intellectual standards of the same audience, and if so, how could the affect them.
Wouldn’t all this fashionable show of ethical relativism breed, in the end, a new brand of Absolute Evil? What, then, these notes of terror and despair, written more than fifty years ago with shaking hand and distorted mind, could add to that theme? Aren’t we even without them quite fed up with the second-hand wisdom of the great sufferers of the past, who knew all but themselves.
The Pyatnitsky Diary merits publishing not because it warns the modern man that “it may happen again, to all of you, the reader included”–such warnings have been galore since the late fifties. And not because its bare facts may serve as an historical lesson to be learnt that nobody is guaranteed against or will be exempt from the threat of another totalitarian regime, yet to come or already incipient, though still unknown. The Diary appears to me as worthy of reading first and foremost because it demonstrates, as no other document of that epoch and place, that the main threat is not in totalitarianism conceived as an alien and hostile force, but in ourselves, the reader included. It lurks in the seeds of mental sloth, emotional primitivism, and ethical relativism sown in most human minds and only waiting for a favourable configuration of events and coincidence of circumstances to come into full blossom.
Do the dread and terror of the following pages need to be explained? Would all this suffering, blood and humiliation not be enough to speak for themselves? And if not what such an obscure and affected expression as ‘metaphysics of Absolute Evil’ would have to do with moral degradation, intellectual impotence and mental frenzy exhibited in the Diary? Usually the reader needs an explanation (introduction, conclusion, commentary, etc.) when he does not know the context of that which he reads. He cannot understand an ‘inside’ story, for he lacks in the knowledge of the causes and motivations which caused and motivated not only the actions of the narrator and his contemporaries but their understanding of their own actions and reactions. Then we would supply the reader with a lot of detail concerning the relevant historical events and personal circumstances helping him, thereby, to understand the understanding of the narrator first, and second to enable him to work out his own point of view with respect to what he is reading. This implies, however, that not only the author of an autobiographical text has his own point of view but also that some, at least, of his contemporaries differ in their understanding of the same events or persons from the author.
Then the function of explanation would be to create a ‘third’ point of view different from the points of view of both the author and his opponents, which may eventually help the reader to get a somewhat more objective picture of the events and persons described in the text. But unfortunately, this is not the kind of explanation which would be possible to try in our case–nothing of the kind. The reader, overwhelmed, would in vain try to find any difference in the understanding of the fatal events of the fated thirties, between the author and other people. All of them, the tortured and the torturers, the interrogated and the interrogators, the jailed and the jailers, the servants and their masters, the intellectuals and the so-called ‘simple citizens’, the highly moral individuals and the scum–all of them were one with the Cause, one with the post- revolutionary situation and a totalitarian regime engendered by it. Or, in other words, there was no difference between the situation– as far as you have already found yourself involved in it–and that which you thought and felt about that situation. [And if you tarried a little with your involvement the situation will find you out and see to it that you get involved pretty soon.] So it is not only the unanimousness of the people of the Cause as regards the situation of the thirties, but the fact that their understanding of this situation and situation itself were one thing, drastically changes the character of the explanation. We may even go as far as to assert that it is that undifferentiating, undiscriminating understanding which made such a situation possible and then merged with it and became one thing unconscious of itself.
Thus, when one says that “there are a lot of spies in the People’s Commissariat [1.e. Ministry] of Defence,” no one doubts it because there must be spies everywhere–such is an ideological [I use the word for the lack of a better] premise. A difference in opinion might arise only as to ~ are spies. It is this premise which, once there, will become, very rapidly, a political reality being, at the same time, an interpretation of that political reality. And this ultimate ‘Reality of Absolute Power’ (almost everything was ‘absolute’ in the glorious thirties) remains ~ with the helplessness, horror and torment of its victims and with the sadistic cruelty of their tormentors. But both belonged, or were made to belong. to the same reality of power. and both were unanimous in the belief that “there must be spies everywhere”. Sometimes victims and tormentors changed their places if, of course. the first managed to survive.
All this, however. would never have assumed the scale and proportions of Absolute Evil had it not been for one, probably most powerful factor which underlay and still underlies almost all modern totalitarian regimes; the factor from which the very idea of totalitarianism derives historically and to which it might be reduced phenomenonologically, to wit: a psychological, and not only ideological indifference to all individual mental differences, to all differences in thinking between one person and another. This entails, ideally, the elimination of any difference between an ideal (aim, purpose) and means (material or ideal), and in the final analysis results in a complete cancellation of the difference between an individual and society, society and state, art and ideology, ideology and psychology, etc. The crux of the matter, however, is that in a totalitarian society (particularly in a young one), any idea, even one not yet spelled out and communicated, once in one’s head, is regarded–not even by one’s society but by its individual ‘carrier’ himself–as already ‘social’ or ‘anti-social’ (even prior to its being actually ‘socialized’!), ‘politically right’ or ‘politically wrong’, etc. So, for instance, if I believe that “there are a lot of spies in the People’s Commissariat of Defence”, but, still cannot bring myself to believe that Comrade X., an old Bolshevik, a close friend of mine and a Deputy Commissar, is ‘one of them’, then objectively–i.e. from the point of view of the already established and generally accepted truth that “there must be spies everywhere”–I myself, may have been a spy or enemy of the people. For the difference between social thinking and social behaviour has been eliminated too.
So, we might go on indefinitely in our mental practice of ‘non- descriminating’, moving towards a utopian–and always receding into future–ideal of the total and universal non-discrimination until, of course, we are stopped (very abruptly as a rule) by the historical course of events, the death of our society, or our own death. The stop which is not and should not be taken into account by the Great Cause, and which quite belatedly, more often than not, will return us from our wild utopia back, within the fold of historical reality and banality of everyday life.
Let us show now the individual history of the heroes of the Diary, starting from the early 1900s, when history itself had not yet been eliminated entirely in the minds of the perpetrators of its elimination. Then we will see how they, husband and wife, followed, stage by stage, the consolidation of the Cause, how they were becoming more and more one with the Cause in its becoming more and more absolute and one with the Absolute Evil.
When Osip Tarshis (Pyatnitsky) began his revolutionary career, revolution had not yet become the preserve of clinically certifiable maniacs. No more than twenty years had elapsed since the very young V. Lenin, after his brother Alexandr was hanged for terrorist activity, pronounced on the uselessness of individual (mind the adjective!) terrorism: “No, we will take quite another path!” And the revolutionary cause itself has not yet assumed its absolute character. However–and this is a circumstance of immense, not only psychological but also symbolical significance6–the revolutionary biographies of both Pyatnitsky and his wife started with tqrture. No matter that in the case of Osip Pyatnitsky it was his friend Solomon Rogut who, after being brutally tortured by the police, hanged himself, and in the case of Yulia it was her self-inflicted torture. What really matters was that both of them identified themselves with the cause through torture only to end their lives under torture inflicted on them by the same cause.? It is only after the cause had become identified with ~ party or even, strictly speaking, with one section of the same party, that it started becoming absolute. For no absolute can be reached without inner purificatiqn, without a kind of symbolical, again, self- mutilation which, from 1903 onwards,B through the ‘minor’ purges of the twenties, ‘larger’ purges of the early and middle thirties, great purges of 1937-38, and till the end of Stalin’s era, constituted one of the most outstanding features of the Cause that became the Party.
To serve the Cause and be one with it the Party became a perpetually self-immolating entity, a Phoenix bathing in fire and each time coming out of it purer, stronger and wiser than before.S The mythical idea of self-purification ~ self-immolation through cutting off its own limbs (i.e. individual members or even the whole organizations) did not take long to become interiorized as a part of (or a myth in) the individual psychology of the Party members, became a stable trend in their way of thinking and a permanent trait in their self-consciousness.
What follows is that heart-tearing psychological and ideological ambigUity that is amply demonstrated throughout the whole Diary. For if on the one hand Pyatnitsky and his wife identify themselves entirely and unreservedly with the Cause (and Party) into which they had been initiated by torture, on the other it is the Cause (and Party) itself that identifies the Pyatnitskys and their like as its victims for the next purge to come. And the absoluteness of the Cause not only decides who is going to be the next victim, but also dictates how you (as an actual or potential victim) should be mentally prepared to meet your ordeal. For, to become absolute a cause cannot remain one-sided, one-directed: it needs all individual responses to correspond precisely to its intentions and actions, and to do it ‘willingly’ and beforehand. That is why Pyatnitsky, though knowing perfectly well that he “…was as pure a Party member as freshly fallen snow in a field,” declared to a friend of his that, “if the Party is in need of a sacrifice, however hard it may be, he will happily make it.” Likewise, his wife knowing perfectly well that Ezhov was a sadistic maniac, torturer and unprincipled scum, wrote, at the time when Pyatnitsky had already been tortured to death: “1 trust my husband, but I have even greater faith in Ezhov.”
Then follows a sentence that illustrates the mythological character of the Cause with an utmost clarity. The worn-out, emaciated woman with “husband in the grave and son (hardly eighteen-years-old) in prison”lO writes: “Even the sun suffers eclipses, but nothing can replace the sun. The Party is the sun in our lives and … if sacrifices are inevitable you must find the strength to remain a human being. ..•• If you say all this is a typical case of a psychosis, or even of clinical schizophrenia- -it would only mean that you have understood nothing in the Pyatnitskys’ phenomenon: the absoluteness of the Cause has already become the absoluteness of evil. For in the mentality of both the innocent victims and sadistic torturers alike, suffering and the inflicting of suffering became one and the same thing.
But we are not, yet, at the end of the day, or more precisely, at the end of the play, but only in the middle of its second act. To the initiation into the Cause through torture and the total identification with the Cause cum Party through its collective self- immolation we have to add one other factor of a great historical importance, the factor without which neither a history of the Cause nor that of individual lives of our personages would remain incomplete: it is the Secret Service, the modifications and changes of which marked the stages in the transformation of the Cause and development of the Party.
Practically from the very start the Bolshevik found themselves face to face with the Tsarist secret police, a formidable enemy, at that time. This on the one hand necessitated the formation of a sort of counter-intelligence, for the Bolsheviks, as any other revolutionary organization in Russia at the beginning of the century, were infiltrated by spies, informers, and agents- provocateurs of every sort. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks, being an underground, clandestine and secret organization, could not help but inherit some essential trends and traits from their predecessors, classical Russian terrorist revolutionary movements and groups, and this in spite of Lenin’s severest critique of the last. So terrorism, though ideologically rejected by the Bolsheviks, remained in the background as a possible means in their struggle against Tsarist regime, and, far more importantly, as a potential method of the impending unlimited political power of the ‘Dictatorship of Proletariat’. And it can be very easily traced now how, gradually, step by step, the Cause was reduced to the Party, the Party, to the complex bureaucratical Party apparatus whose political power assumed its, also absolute, character only after being reduced to the uninhibited power of the secret service. In fact, it would take far more than despair, mortal fear or even clinical psychosis for poor Yulia to write in her
Diary about NKVD prosecutors: “How close they are to me; how good it would be if they would believe me …” Because to her the very history of the Cause cum Party was simply impossible without Secret Service psychologically, and not only ideologically. Wasn’t her own first revolutionary job the work as a spy in the Kolchak’s headquarters? Wasn’t Pyatnitsky himself all his life, in one way or another, connected with consecutive Secret Services of the Party: Cheka, O.G.P.U., NKVD? (“After all” writes she, “he worked there for a long time and was involved in it through his work in the Komintern.”)ll And when she says, half-mad and frightened to death: “The only thing that I would like to have is the confidence of the simple working people … and to be trusted by the NKVD”–this reflects one of the most important elements of the Cause which has already fully become the Absolute Evil–the threatening impersonality of the Power, embodied by NKVD.
Isn’t it symbolic that throughout the whole Diary Stalin’s name, which in those times appeared daily in the press and radio thousands of times, appears only~! Why? Because to the People of the Cause it was, in a way, psychologically taboo, while the name of his ‘temporary’ RimIer, Ezhov, is mentioned dozens of times in the Diary. Nor is this surprising for the Great Terror was the everyday reality of Power, while the man who directed the Terror ought to have remained on the most sublime level of the abstract entity of that absolute Cause. His was the ideal function of nurturing the collective psychosis of both victims and perpetrators of the Absolute Evil and his was the name not to be pronounced in vain by both of them. 12 Whereas N. I. Ezhov manifested in himself that very everyday reality which, though inspiring awe and dread, was still regarded as ‘temporal’ so to speak, as temporal (and temporary)1:?oas, say, “the measures taken to improve the seeds for cereal crops, to introduce correct crop rotation, and to improve the work of the machine- tractor stations.
Well, one may argue, what about millions of Russian peasants starved to death or sent to concentration camps in the name of the Cause of which they had, in fact, no idea at all? What about tens of thousands of prison guards, officers and petty officers of NKVD who wouldn’t give a damn about any cause, absolute or not? What about that vague and undemonstrable entity could ‘people’, for the sake of which the Cause itself, as it were, began and went on existing? No answer–they do not exist in the Diary. Conceived as a most abstract utopian idea of the classless society reachable through Proletarian Revolution and then Dictatorship of Proletariat (as a necessary ‘transitional’ stage), the Absolute Cause became the Absolute Evil first of all because of its absolute isolation from and aversion to all concrete forms of human life, ideally, of course. I may have been exaggerating, but the horror-stricken Yulia was not when she m’ote of her husband and herself: “I did not allow myself any displays of sentimentality in my relations with my husband; throughout those days he was to me a sort of strange unearthly being. We had in any case never talked about ordinary everyday matters and feelings.” Wasn’t it that unearthliness that made the Old Bolsheviks such an easy prey in the hands of NKVD investigators and new-type Party functionarl’es, themselves earthly enough and becoming more and more so in the process of ‘de- idealization’ of the Cause, Party and Society?
The Great Purges dealt the mortal blow to the Absolute Cause and Absolute Evil. After having devoured his children formidable Saturn became a most banal tyrant, a common criminal swollen to gigantic proportions. The war with Germany found the Soviet Society in a state close to economic collapse and impending military defeat, but by that time it had already become a ‘normal’, however autocratic and cruel, totalitarian society, politically as absolutist as before, but losing almost all political links with its glorious revolutionary past and ‘non-discriminatory’ revolutionary ideology. The Absolute Evil became the ordinary, vulgar evil of absolute power of Stalin. The Diary is a unique version of the second act of the tragedy. When its author died in 1940, she did not knnow that the third, final act was already being played without any of the old guard of the Absolute Cause among the actors. Her terrible death coincided with the death of the Cause that killed her.