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Irving Howe


An Engrossing Novel Describes Its Terror

(14 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 15, 14 April 1947, pp. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Near the Kremlin where Russia’s masters work deep into the night, there is a street known as “the Route.”. This is the street along which the bureaucrats’ limousines speed to their country dachas; it is the most closely guarded spot in Russia. Citizens of the “workers fatherland” unfortunate enough to live here have to get their papers checked each month by the GRU. And every janitress on the street, it is common knowledge, works for the GPU.

It is In this miserable spot, where the extremes of Russian society momentarily meet, that the action of Godfrey Blunden’s novel, A Room on the Route (Lippincott, $3.00) takes place. In the little room of Rachel, fighter in the civil war and one of the few survivors of the heroic revolutionary generation, there gather its central figures. They are largely of the older generation: Rachel, bitter and desperate with hatred for the degenerate regime, her husband at the front and her son in a labor camp because of an indiscreet remark; Lizavetta, a simple old woman returning to God as a source of solace in a time of misery; Gregor, a GPU official who maintains his intelligent perception of the truth though he knows himself trapped and sees no solution but self-destruction; Mitka, a grousing but shrewd peasant type; and finally the Anglo-Saxon Ferguson, who works for a foreign embassy and is drawn to these people out of curiosity.

In a way this group represents a generation, the Witnesses, those who know pre-Stalinist life and who know what Stalinism did, those who can compare the past with the present and whose minds have not been formed by the propaganda machine. No wonder the regime considers the entire generation dangerous and frequently commits sections of it to prison or labor camps. For they were the Witnesses; in the innermost areas of their hearts there must remain hidden a spark of freedom intolerable to the Kremlin.

Describes Fate of These People

The novel presents the criss-crossing fates of these people, their gradual destruction by the regime. It reaches a climax when Rachel’s son Karl returns from his prison company now organized for the war into suicide battalions. His personality as emaciated as his body, he has lost faith in every credo except the assertion of the individual will. If all programs are suspect, there remains only the individual’s heroic, self-destroying act against tyranny. So he decides on the ultimate justification for his death: the destruction of the greatest tyrant of all. He waits in the Room for the limousine which will bear the beloved leader. He will of course die; but the act will have been committed and by its defiance of the authority to which millions have been forced to bow, it will give new courage and confidence to the masses taught to acquiesce.

But Karl’s plan is frustrated by Gregor, the disillusioned GPU agent who is himself waiting to be “taken” by the regime. Gregor instills doubt Into Karl’s mind: even if the Beloved Leader were destroyed, it would be kept secret from the masses. The bureaucracy knows how to preserve itself. Intent on his self-destruction, Gregor provokes Karl to kill him; thereby Karl’s plan is unrealized. Karl and Gregor self-destroyed; Rachel sent to exile; Lizavetta returns to God; Ferguson escapes from the prison-country.

Effect of Blunden’s Book

A Room on the Route belongs to that doubtful category which for lack of a better name we must call the journalistic novel. It is the sort of thing that Koestler specializes in and though it is most questionable in terms of esthetic values, it is perhaps unavoidable in these times. Such novels, spurred by political conception rather than imaginative feeling, may be of only transient literary value, but to their contemporaries they have a special quality of excitement.

This novel produces a terrible hatred for Stalinism in the reader. If we quickly forget Its characters, we cannot as quickly forget the tragic fact it helps underline: this tyranny; this universal cynicism; this equally universal fear; this is what the great dream of the heroic generation has come to.

Perhaps the most remarkable and the one truly realized scene in the book shows a group of older men who have volunteered or been cajoled into the “Peoples Defense Guards” at the time the Nazis are near Moscow. A group of 15 of them becomes detached from its division, which is being slaughtered by the Nazis. The men discover that they are all of the generation of Witnesses, that they have all been sent to prison camps by the new tyranny, and that they have all “confessed” to the most heinous crimes.

This remarkable group of men suddenly discovers that if is alone, that it need not fear a GPU agent – and if there is one among them It makes no difference either, for their respite is temporary and soon they may be killed by a shell. Blunden’s description of how they slowly and then with desperate eagerness begin to talk, to slough off the epidermis of fear which has imprisoned their thoughts, to think and debate honestly, is magnificently effective: it moves one to compassion for these men but even more to hatred, terrible searing hatred for the Stalin tyranny.

What these men say is itself not really very valuable. Cynicism, nihilism, Machiavellianism, attacks on Trotsky for not remaining in Russia (as if he could have!), bewilderment – these are a few of the reactions. But the process of gradual reassertion of personality, of the man free to think and speak his mind is what so moves the reader.

I think, too, that Blunden’s description of the reactions of such men is largely accurate. It seems likely that if the Stalin regime were overthrown and men could again speak freely, there would be pervasive trends to cynicism and nihilism: a people does not go through an experience such as Hitlerism or Stalinism without having its faith in any and all ideas severely shaken.

In Russia there is only deep, corroding cynicism and pervasive fear. Even if the generation of witnesses has largely been destroyed, it has left enough of a tradition to make people deeply skeptical; that they cannot openly express this skepticism does not deny its existence. It is in the light of this fact that Blunden’s description of how the older generation would react, giving an atmosphere of free discussion, seems so credible; it also seems likely that the younger generations who do not even have the residue of revolutionary idealism which persists among the witnesses would be even more cynical.

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