‘Mr. Gubaryov, at whose rooms I had the pleasure of meeting you to-day,’ he began, ‘did not introduce me to you; so that, with your leave, I will now introduce myself—Potugin, retired councillor. I was in the department of finances in St. Petersburg. I hope you do not think it strange.... I am not in the habit as a rule of making friends so abruptly ... but with you....’
Potugin grew rather mixed, and he asked the waiter to bring him a little glass of kirsch-wasser. ‘To give me courage,’ he added with a smile.
Litvinov looked with redoubled interest at the last of all the new persons with whom it had been his lot to be brought into contact that day. His thought was at once, ‘He is not the same as those.’
Certainly he was not. There sat before him, drumming with delicate fingers on the edge of-40- the table, a broad-shouldered man, with an ample frame on short legs, a downcast head of curly hair, with very intelligent and very mournful eyes under bushy brows, a thick well-cut mouth, bad teeth, and that purely Russian nose to which is assigned the epithet ‘potato’; a man of awkward, even odd exterior; at least, he was certainly not of a common type. He was carelessly dressed; his old-fashioned coat hung on him like a sack, and his cravat was twisted awry. His sudden friendliness, far from striking Litvinov as intrusive, secretly flattered him; it was impossible not to see that it was not a common practice with this man to attach himself to strangers. He made a curious impression on Litvinov; he awakened in him respect and liking, and a kind of involuntary compassion.
‘I am not in your way then?’ he repeated in a soft, rather languid and faint voice, which was marvellously in keeping with his whole personality.
‘No, indeed,’ replied Litvinov; ‘quite the contrary, I am very glad.’
‘Really? Well, then, I am glad too. I have heard a great deal about you; I know what you are engaged in, and what your plans are. It’s a good work. That’s why you were silent this evening.’
‘Yes; you too said very little, I fancy,’ observed Litvinov.
Potugin sighed. ‘The others said enough and to spare. I listened. Well,’ he added, after a moment’s pause, raising his eyebrows with a rather humorous expression, ‘did you like our building of the Tower of Babel?’
‘That’s just what it was. You have expressed it capitally. I kept wanting to ask those gentlemen what they were in such a fuss about.’
Potugin sighed again.
‘That’s the whole point of it, that they don’t know that themselves. In former days the expression used about them would have been: “they are the blind instruments of higher ends”; well, nowadays we make use of sharper epithets. And take note that I am not in the least intending to blame them; I will say more, they are all ... that is, almost all, excellent people. Of Madame Suhantchikov, for instance, I know for certain much that is good; she gave away the last of her fortune to two poor nieces. Even admitting that the desire of doing something picturesque, of showing herself off, was not without its influence on her, still you will agree that it was a remarkable act of self-sacrifice in a woman not herself well-off! Of Mr. Pishtchalkin there is no need to speak even; the peasants of his district will certainly in time-42- present him with a silver bowl like a pumpkin, and perhaps even a holy picture representing his patron saint, and though he will tell them in his speech of thanks that he does not deserve such an honour, he won’t tell the truth there; he does deserve it. Mr. Bambaev, your friend, has a wonderfully good heart; it’s true that it’s with him as with the poet Yazikov, who they say used to sing the praises of Bacchic revelry, sitting over a book and sipping water; his enthusiasm is completely without a special object, still it is enthusiasm; and Mr. Voroshilov, too, is the most good-natured fellow; like all his sort, all men who’ve taken the first prizes at school, he’s an aide-de-camp of the sciences, and he even holds his tongue sententiously, but then he is so young. Yes, yes, they are all excellent people, and when you come to results, there’s nothing to show for it; the ingredients are all first-rate, but the dish is not worth eating.’
Litvinov listened to Potugin with growing astonishment: every phrase, every turn of his slow but self-confident speech betrayed both the power of speaking and the desire to speak.
Potugin did, in fact, like speaking, and could speak well; but, as a man in whom life had succeeded in wearing away vanity, he waited-43- with philosophic calm for a good opportunity, a meeting with a kindred spirit.
‘Yes, yes,’ he began again, with the special dejected but not peevish humour peculiar to him, ‘it is all very strange. And there is something else I want you to note. Let a dozen Englishmen, for example, come together, and they will at once begin to talk of the sub-marine telegraph, or the tax on paper, or a method of tanning rats’ skins,—of something, that’s to say, practical and definite; a dozen Germans, and of course Schleswig-Holstein and the unity of Germany will be brought on the scene; given a dozen Frenchmen, and the conversation will infallibly turn upon amorous adventures, however much you try to divert them from the subject; but let a dozen Russians meet together, and instantly there springs up the question—you had an opportunity of being convinced of the fact this evening—the question of the significance and the future of Russia, and in terms so general, beginning with creation, without facts or conclusions. They worry and worry away at that unlucky subject, as children chew away at a bit of india-rubber—neither for pleasure nor profit, as the saying is. Well, then, of course the rotten West comes in for its share. It’s a curious thing, it beats us at every point, this West—but yet we declare-44- that it’s rotten! And if only we had a genuine contempt for it,’ pursued Potugin, ‘but that’s really all cant and humbug. We can do well enough as far as abuse goes, but the opinion of the West is the only thing we value, the opinion, that’s to say, of the Parisian loafers.... I know a man—a good fellow, I fancy—the father of a family, and no longer young; he was thrown into deep dejection for some days because in a Parisian restaurant he had asked for une portion de biftek aux pommes de terre, and a real Frenchman thereupon shouted: Garçon! biftek pommes! My friend was ready to die with shame, and after that he shouted everywhere, Biftek pommes! and taught others to do the same. The very cocottes are surprised at the reverential trepidation with which our young barbarians enter their shameful drawing-rooms. “Good God!” they are thinking, “is this really where I am, with no less a person than Anna Deslions herself!”’
‘Tell me, pray,’ continued Litvinov, ‘to what do you ascribe the influence Gubaryov undoubtedly has over all about him? Is it his talent, his abilities?’
‘No, no; there is nothing of that sort about him....’
‘His personal character is it, then?’
‘Not that either, but he has a strong will. We Slavs, for the most part, as we all know,-45- are badly off for that commodity, and we grovel before it. It is Mr. Gubaryov’s will to be a ruler, and every one has recognised him as a ruler. What would you have? The government has freed us from the dependence of serfdom—and many thanks to it! but the habits of slavery are too deeply ingrained in us; we cannot easily be rid of them. We want a master in everything and everywhere; as a rule this master is a living person, sometimes it is some so-called tendency which gains authority over us.... At present, for instance, we are all the bondslaves of natural science.... Why, owing to what causes, we take this bondage upon us, that is a matter difficult to see into; but such seemingly is our nature. But the great thing is, that we should have a master. Well, here he is amongst us; that means he is ours, and we can afford to despise everything else! Simply slaves! And our pride is slavish, and slavish too is our humility. If a new master arises—it’s all over with the old one. Then it was Yakov, and now it is Sidor; we box Yakov’s ears and kneel to Sidor! Call to mind how many tricks of that sort have been played amongst us! We talk of scepticism as our special characteristic; but even in our scepticism we are not like a free man fighting with a sword, but like a lackey hitting out with his fist, and-46- very likely he is doing even that at his master’s bidding. Then, we are a soft people too; it’s not difficult to keep the curb on us. So that’s the way Mr. Gubaryov has become a power among us; he has chipped and chipped away at one point, till he has chipped himself into success. People see that he is a man who has a great opinion of himself, who believes in himself, and commands. That’s the great thing, that he can command; it follows that he must be right, and we ought to obey him. All our sects, our Onuphrists and Akulinists, were founded exactly in that way. He who holds the rod is the corporal.’
Potugin’s cheeks were flushed and his eyes grew dim; but, strange to say, his speech, cruel and even malicious as it was, had no touch of bitterness, but rather of sorrow, genuine and sincere sorrow.
‘How did you come to know Gubaryov?’ asked Litvinov.
‘I have known him a long while. And observe, another peculiarity among us; a certain writer, for example, spent his whole life in inveighing in prose and verse against drunkenness, and attacking the system of the drink monopoly, and lo and behold! he went and bought two spirit distilleries and opened a hundred drink-shops—and it made no difference!-47- Any other man might have been wiped off the face of the earth, but he was not even reproached for it. And here is Mr. Gubaryov; he is a Slavophil and a democrat and a socialist and anything you like, but his property has been and is still managed by his brother, a master of the old style, one of those who were famous for their fists. And the very Madame Suhantchikov, who makes Mrs. Beecher Stowe box Tentelyev’s ears, is positively in the dust before Gubaryov’s feet. And you know the only thing he has to back him is that he reads clever books, and always gets at the pith of them. You could see for yourself to-day what sort of gift he has for expression; and thank God, too, that he does talk little, and keeps in his shell. For when he is in good spirits, and lets himself go, then it’s more than even I, patient as I am, can stand. He begins by coarse joking and telling filthy anecdotes ... yes, really, our majestic Mr. Gubaryov tells filthy anecdotes, and guffaws so revoltingly over them all the time.’
‘Are you so patient?’ observed Litvinov. ‘I should have supposed the contrary. But let me ask your name and your father’s name?’
Potugin sipped a little kirsch-wasser.
‘My name is Sozont.... Sozont Ivanitch. They gave me that magnificent name in honour of a kinsman, an archimandrite, to whom I am-48- indebted for nothing else. I am, if I may venture so to express myself, of most reverend stock. And as for your doubts about my patience, they are quite groundless: I am very patient. I served for twenty-two years under the authority of my own uncle, an actual councillor of state, Irinarh Potugin. You don’t know him?’
‘I congratulate you. No, I am patient. “But let us return to our first head,” as my esteemed colleague, who was burned alive some centuries ago, the protopope Avvakum, used to say. I am amazed, my dear sir, at my fellow-countrymen. They are all depressed, they all walk with downcast heads, and at the same time they are all filled with hope, and on the smallest excuse they lose their heads and fly off into ecstasies. Look at the Slavophils even, among whom Mr. Gubaryov reckons himself: they are most excellent people, but there is the same mixture of despair and exultation, they too live in the future tense. Everything will be, will be, if you please. In reality there is nothing done, and Russia for ten whole centuries has created nothing of its own, either in government, in law, in science, in art, or even in handicraft.... But wait a little, have patience; it is all coming. And why is it coming; give us leave to inquire? Why,-49- because we, to be sure, the cultured classes are all worthless; but the people.... Oh, the great people! You see that peasant’s smock? That is the source that everything is to come from. All the other idols have broken down; let us have faith in the smock-frock. Well, but suppose the smock-frock fails us? No, it will not fail. Read Kohanovsky, and cast your eyes up to heaven! Really, if I were a painter, I would paint a picture of this sort: a cultivated man standing before a peasant, doing him homage: heal me, dear master-peasant, I am perishing of disease; and a peasant doing homage in his turn to the cultivated man: teach me, dear master-gentleman, I am perishing from ignorance. Well, and of course, both are standing still. But what we ought to do is to feel really humble for a little—not only in words—and to borrow from our elder brothers what they have invented already before us and better than us! Waiter, noch ein Gläschen Kirsch! You mustn’t think I’m a drunkard, but alcohol loosens my tongue.’
‘After what you have just said,’ observed Litvinov with a smile, ‘I need not even inquire to which party you belong, and what is your opinion about Europe. But let me make one observation to you. You say that we ought to borrow from our elder brothers: but how can-50- we borrow without consideration of the conditions of climate and of soil, the local and national peculiarities? My father, I recollect, ordered from Butenop a cast-iron thrashing machine highly recommended; the machine was very good, certainly—but what happened? For five long years it remained useless in the barn, till it was replaced by a wooden American one—far more suitable to our ways and habits, as the American machines are as a rule. One cannot borrow at random, Sozont Ivanitch.’
Potugin lifted his head.
‘I did not expect such a criticism as that from you, excellent Grigory Mihalovitch,’ he began, after a moment’s pause. ‘Who wants to make you borrow at random? Of course you steal what belongs to another man, not because it is some one else’s, but because it suits you; so it follows that you consider, you make a selection. And as for results, pray don’t let us be unjust to ourselves; there will be originality enough in them by virtue of those very local, climatic, and other conditions which you mention. Only lay good food before it, and the natural stomach will digest it in its own way; and in time, as the organism gains in vigour, it will give it a sauce of its own. Take our language even as an instance. Peter the Great deluged it with thousands of foreign words, Dutch, French, and-51- German; those words expressed ideas with which the Russian people had to be familiarised; without scruple or ceremony Peter poured them wholesale by bucketsful into us. At first, of course, the result was something of a monstrous product; but later there began precisely that process of digestion to which I have alluded. The ideas had been introduced and assimilated; the foreign forms evaporated gradually, and the language found substitutes for them from within itself; and now your humble servant, the most mediocre stylist, will undertake to translate any page you like out of Hegel—yes, indeed, out of Hegel—without making use of a single word not Slavonic. What has happened with the language, one must hope will happen in other departments. It all turns on the question: is it a nature of strong vitality? and our nature—well, it will stand the test; it has gone through greater trials than that. Only nations in a state of nervous debility, feeble nations, need fear for their health and their independence, just as it is only weak-minded people who are capable of falling into triumphant rhapsodies over the fact that we are Russians. I am very careful over my health, but I don’t go into ecstasies over it: I should be ashamed.’
‘That is all very true, Sozont Ivanitch,’ observed Litvinov in his turn; ‘but why inevitably-52- expose ourselves to such tests? You say yourself that at first the result was monstrous! Well, what if that monstrous product had persisted? Indeed it has persisted, as you know yourself.’
‘Only not in the language—and that means a great deal! And it is our people, not I, who have done it; I am not to blame because they are destined to go through a discipline of this kind. “The Germans have developed in a normal way,” cry the Slavophils, “let us too have a normal development!” But how are you to get it when the very first historical step taken by our race—the summoning of a prince from over the sea to rule over them—is an irregularity, an abnormality, which is repeated in every one of us down to the present day; each of us, at least once in his life, has certainly said to something foreign, not Russian: “Come, rule and reign over me!” I am ready, of course, to agree that when we put a foreign substance into our own body we cannot tell for certain what it is we are putting there, bread or poison; yet it is a well-known thing that you can never get from bad to good through what is better, but always through a worse state of transition, and poison too is useful in medicine. It is only fit for fools or knaves to point with triumph to the poverty of the peasants after the-53- emancipation, and the increase of drunkenness since the abolition of the farming of the spirit-tax.... Through worse to better!’
Potugin passed his hand over his face. ‘You asked me what was my opinion of Europe,’ he began again: ‘I admire her, and am devoted to her principles to the last degree, and don’t in the least think it necessary to conceal the fact. I have long—no, not long—for some time ceased to be afraid to give full expression to my convictions—and I saw that you too had no hesitation in informing Mr. Gubaryov of your own way of thinking. Thank God I have given up paying attention to the ideas and points of view and habits of the man I am conversing with. Really, I know of nothing worse than that quite superfluous cowardice, that cringing desire to be agreeable, by virtue of which you may see an important dignitary among us trying to ingratiate himself with some little student who is quite insignificant in his eyes, positively playing down to him, with all sorts of tricks and devices. Even if we admit that the dignitary may do it out of desire for popularity, what induces us common folk to shuffle and degrade ourselves. Yes, yes, I am a Westerner, I am devoted to Europe: that’s to say, speaking more accurately, I am devoted to culture—the culture at which they make fun so-54- wittily among us just now—and to civilisation—yes, yes, that is a better word—and I love it with my whole heart and believe in it, and I have no other belief, and never shall have. That word, ci-vi-li-sa-tion (Potugin pronounced each syllable with full stress and emphasis), is intelligible, and pure, and holy, and all the other ideals, nationality, glory, or what you like—they smell of blood.... Away with them!’
‘Well, but Russia, Sozont Ivanitch, your country—you love it?’
Potugin passed his hand over his face. ‘I love her passionately and passionately hate her.’
Litvinov shrugged his shoulders.
‘That’s stale, Sozont Ivanitch, that’s a commonplace.’
‘And what of it? So that’s what you’re afraid of! A commonplace! I know many excellent commonplaces. Here, for example, Law and Liberty is a well-known commonplace. Why, do you consider it’s better as it is with us, lawlessness and bureaucratic tyranny? And, besides, all those phrases by which so many young heads are turned: vile bourgeoisie, souveraineté du peuple, right to labour, aren’t they commonplaces too? And as for love, inseparable from hate....’
‘Byronism,’ interposed Litvinov, ‘the romanticism of the thirties.’
‘Excuse me, you’re mistaken; such a mingling of emotions was first mentioned by Catullus, the Roman poet Catullus,1 two thousand years ago. I have read that, for I know a little Latin, thanks to my clerical origin, if so I may venture to express myself. Yes, indeed, I both love and hate my Russia, my strange, sweet, nasty, precious country. I have left her just now. I want a little fresh air after sitting for twenty years on a clerk’s high stool in a government office; I have left Russia, and I am happy and contented here; but I shall soon go back again: I feel that. It’s a beautiful land of gardens—but our wild berries will not grow here.’
‘You are happy and contented, and I too like the place,’ said Litvinov, ‘and I came here to study; but that does not prevent me from seeing things like that.’
He pointed to two cocottes who passed by, attended by a little group of members of the Jockey Club, grimacing and lisping, and to the gambling saloon, full to overflowing in spite of the lateness of the hour.
‘And who told you I am blind to that?’ Potugin broke in. ‘But pardon my saying it, your remark reminds me of the triumphant-56- allusions made by our unhappy journalists at the time of the Crimean war, to the defects in the English War Department, exposed in the Times. I am not an optimist myself, and all humanity, all our life, all this comedy with tragic issues presents itself to me in no roseate colours: but why fasten upon the West what is perhaps ingrained in our very human nature? That gambling hall is disgusting, certainly; but is our home-bred card-sharping any lovelier, think you? No, my dear Grigory Mihalovitch, let us be more humble, more retiring. A good pupil sees his master’s faults, but he keeps a respectful silence about them; these very faults are of use to him, and set him on the right path. But if nothing will satisfy you but sharpening your teeth on the unlucky West, there goes Prince Kokó at a gallop, he will most likely lose in a quarter of an hour over the green table the hardly earned rent wrung from a hundred and fifty families; his nerves are upset, for I saw him at Marx’s to-day turning over a pamphlet of Vaillot.... He will be a capital person for you to talk to!’
‘But, please, please,’ said Litvinov hurriedly, seeing that Potugin was getting up from his place, ‘I know Prince Kokó very little, and besides, of course, I greatly prefer talking to you.’
‘Thanks very much,’ Potugin interrupted-57- him, getting up and making a bow; ‘but I have already had a good deal of conversation with you; that’s to say, really, I have talked alone, and you have probably noticed yourself that a man is always as it were ashamed and awkward when he has done all the talking, especially so on a first meeting, as if to show what a fine fellow one is. Good-bye for the present. And I repeat I am very glad to have made your acquaintance.’
‘But wait a minute, Sozont Ivanitch, tell me at least where you live, and whether you intend to remain here long.’
Potugin seemed a little put out.
‘I shall remain about a week in Baden. We can meet here though, at Weber’s or at Marx’s, or else I will come to you.’
‘Still I must know your address.’
‘Yes. But you see I am not alone.’
‘You are married?’ asked Litvinov suddenly.
‘No, good heavens! ... what an absurd idea! But I have a girl with me.’...
‘Oh!’ articulated Litvinov, with a face of studied politeness, as though he would ask pardon, and he dropped his eyes.
‘She is only six years old,’ pursued Potugin. ‘She’s an orphan ... the daughter of a lady ... a good friend of mine. So we had better meet here. Good-bye.’
He pulled his hat over his curly head, and disappeared quickly. Twice there was a glimpse of him under the gas-lamps in the rather meanly lighted road that leads into the Lichtenthaler Allee.