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THE VOLGA FALLS TO THE CASPIAN SEA
by Boris Pilnyak
1. It is 1929. Professor Pimen Sergeyevich Poletika is a man of distinguished age and a Marxist since 1903. He is chief of construction project that will build a dam in Kolomna and reverse the course of the Moscow River. He arrives in Moscow to visit the state planning commission. He learns that working on the dam construction is engineer Edgar Ivanovich Laslo, the man with whom his wife ran off 14 years ago, taking their children. (The eldest son subsequently died at the front in 1919 during the Civil War.) Reminiscing, Poletika visits the Old Pimen Church were he and his wife were married. It is now a warehouse. The auction of the Moscow Municipal Pawnshops is taking place the church.
2. Back at his hotel, Poletika encounters the well-dressed engineer Evgeny Evgenyevich Poltorak, who is dining with foreign engineers. Poltorak comments that, despite all the industrial construction, there is a water shortage in the Donets basin. He also propounds a theory that all life begins and ends in blood and that the same is true for construction projects. Therefore he confidently predicts that blood will be spilled on Poletika's project. Poltorak is also going to Kolomna on business concerned with the State Electrical Trust. Remembering his trip to the Old Pimen church, Poletika buys a church calender to read up on the various St. Pimens. That night he takes the train to Kolomna. In his compartment are two brothers--Pavel Fyodorovich Bezdyetov and Stepan Fyodorovich Bezdyetov--two second- hand traders Poletika saw at the pawnshop auction earlier. During the trip, Poletika thinks about the desertification of European Russia. Also on the train are Poltorak and his companion, Nadezhda Antonovna Sarantseva, an actress. It turns out that Poltorak is already acquainted with the Bezdyetov brothers.
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Kolonma City Site
3. FLASHBACK. Three years ago, Poletika's project began. It's point: to change the profile of the Moscow River and to to use the dam and water from the Oka River to reverse the flow of the Moscow River. The formerly quiet area of Kolomna now buzzed with activity. Whole villages, which were to be flooded, were moved. END FLASHBACK.
4. After breakfast, Poletika reads the newspaper that a rape was committed in the area. He then meets with Fydor Ivanovich Sadykov, a construction engineer risen from the workers who is now the chief engineer on the project. He learns that just yesterday, Maria Feodorovna Laslo, Laslo's second wife and Sadykov's first wife, committed suicide. Poletika also learns that his own ex-wife, Olga Alexandrovna, is alive and living in Kolomna with her daughters Lyubov Pimenovna Poletika and Alice Laslo. Lybov is 23 years old, a communist, and working on an archaeological excavation. A half-mad watchman, Ivan Karpovich Ozhogov, bursts in eager to speak with Poletika.
5. That day at work, all the women lay down their tools and start to march silently to Kolomna. A strike!
6. Poletika's ex-wife and her daughters lived in a house belonging to Rimma and Kapitolina Skudrina, spinsters in their 60s. In the bathhouse lives their younger brother, Ivan Ozhogov (who changed his name from Skudrin). Kapitolina, the older sister, was a petite-bourgeois seamstrees. She was always proper and honorable, and never even kissed a man. Rimma, when she was thirty, had a shameful affair with a drunken, married treasury official. They would meet at the Marina Tower (the tower wherein died Marina Mnishek, the wife of the first pseudo-Dmitri, tsar of Russia 1605-1606). The result of this affair was two daughters--Barbara and Claudia. Rimma's life had been difficult, but now she was very proud of her daughters, both of whom are teachers. Barbara is married to a draftsman.
7. In Kolomna, Griboyedov, the custodian of the museum of antiquity, has many church relics and mahogany furniture seized from the estates of noblemen in his room. One day, he meets with dispossessed landowner Vyacheslav Ivanovich Karazin, who now makes his living selling antiquities. They argue. Karazin is angry that Griboyedov is using a porcelain representation of a nobelman's cap as an ashtray. Throughout the town, bells are being taken down from churches so the metal can be used in industry.
8. The brothers Bezdyetov come from the same street in Moscow where Poltorak lived. They are nephews of a great serf mahogony furniture maker and now work as restorers and antiquarians.
9. The Bezdyetov brothers come to spend the night at the home of Yakov Karpovich Skudrin, Ozhogov's older brother. Yakov's wife is Maria Klimonovna, and his daughter is Katerina.
10. The Bezdyetovs go around town buying stove tiles, mahogany furniture sets, tapestries, etc. They come to the house of Karazin, who angrily denounces them as scoundrels, but leaves the room so that his wife can bargain with them.
11. Yakov Skudrin was 85 years old, cunning, remembered everything, and outlived his five sons, who all came to bad ends because of the revolution. Only his 19-year-old daughter Katerina was left. He was the cruel master of his house.
12. Yakov goes to the train station to arrange for the packaging of all the things the Bezdyetovs bought. While the Bezdyetovs sleep, many people come to the house with old lamps, opera glasses, etc., they want to sell. Katerina tells them to leave the things for the brothers to examine when they awake. When Yakov returns home, he is dancing happily, something his wife has never seen before.
13. Yakov takes the Bezdyetovs into his study and tells them of the women's strike. The women marched silently into town and followed the coffin of Laslo's wife. Poltorak arrives and the group discusses their plan of causing an explosion at the construction site. Yakov considers that they may murder because they have no conscience. Ivan Ozhogov makes a brief appearance, saying he knows they are all counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs, but no one will believe him. He leaves. The plotters agree to meet again at 1 A.M.
14. Katarina tells Stepan Bezdyetov that she is pregnant, the result of drunken orgies in the bathhouse that the Bezdyetovs engaged in with Katarina and Claudia on their previous visits.
15. In the village of Akatyevo, destined to be innundated by the river project, Nazar Sysoyev gets up at night and harnesses his horses. He thinks about the river diversion project, not believing that it can really happen.
16. FLASHBACK. Poltorak has a wife Sofia, children, and a house full of mahogany furniture in Moscow. He tries to cling to the old way of life. His sister-in-law, Vera, was being treated for tuberculosis at a sanatarium in Yalta. The doctor telegrammed to say she would die soon. Poltorak went to Yalta to bring her back to Moscow and, on the train trip back, he seduced her. When they get to Moscow, Poltorak leaves his wife with her dying sister and goes out to call on his mistress. END FLASHBACK.
17. On the night of their arrival in Kolomna, Poltorak and his mistress, Nadezhda, watched the dawn from their hotel room. Nadezhda claims she has several husbands, but loves no one expect herself and that she takes like a man.
18. FLASHBACK. Three years ago, Poltorak tried to woo Lyuov Poletika, then a girl of 20. But she was pure. She confessed she loved him but she would not let him even kiss her hands unless he admitted his loved openly to the world, including to his "former" wife and his children. So, they parted. FLASHBACK ENDS.
On the morning of his arrival in Kolomna, Poltorak--as representative of the State Electrical Trust--spoke to a factory workers conference about a proposal to transfer some work to the Trust. The workers disapproved of and voted down the proposal. Poltorak was furious that he had become subserviant to workers.
19. At the Skudrin sisters' house, Lyubov is caring for her mother and younger sister. It turns out that Laslo had abandoned her mother only one and a half months ago for Maria, who is now being buried. Rimma arrives with news of the women's strike and their intended boycott of Laslo as a murderer. Poltorak then arrives. Lyubov is excited to see him and embraces him. He says he has returned to her "forever". Then, in a state of mental agitation, he runs away. Ivan Ozhogov, who witnessed the scene, warns Lyubov against Poltorak, noting that he has a mistress in the hotel room and that he is part of a plot to blow up the dam. Lyubov doesn't believe him and is insulted by his remarks.
20. After leaving Lyubov, Poltorak returns to Nadezhda at the hotel. Nadezhkda says she's going to have a baby and doesn't know, or care, who the father is. She comments on Maria's funeral, which she was earlier passing through the square. She imagines that the women were burying antiquity. Poltorak says they were burying himself and Nadezhda and their civilization. Poltorak then receives a telegram from his wife which reads: "Vera just died. Both of us say be accursed, you scoundrel."
21. TIME SHIFT TO BEFORE VERA'S DEATH. Before she dies, Vera tells her sister about Poltorak's seduction. The first thing Sofia does is send the telegram to her husband.
22. Alice and a local boy, Misha visit an overgrown tower in the local kremlin. It is the Marina tower, site of Marina Mishek's death and of the rendezvous Rimma had with her lover.
LEGEND OF MARINA MNISHEK
Marina Mnishek, wife of the first pseudo-Dmitri, was protecting her wealth in the tower. The clerks of the Kolomna voyevoda Daniel and the priests with their bishop, having learned that Marina could turn into a mag-pie crow, came at once into the tower of Marina, found her asleep, scantified the windows, the embrasures, and the doors with holy water, so that Marina could not fly out of the tower as a crow. And thereby the voyevodas made a mistake, because at the moment of the sprinkling with holy water, Marina was not asleep, but only the body of Marina was lying in the tower while her soul was flying over Russia in the shape of a crow. Since then, until this day, the soul of Marina has been flying in the shape of a crow all over Russia, around the towers, and cannot unite with its body, which has rotted long ago. All the crows over Russia are the souls of Marina.
23. In the hotel room, Poltorak, holding the telegram from his wife, again rants about blood. He declares himself a Russian nationalist, a disciple of Solovyev. He and Nadezhda agree they are like wolves. The wolves eat their old ones when the old ones deviate from the laws of equality with their senility and moral collapse. Nadezhda says the Revolution taught her that the world is great and that life is great--she doesn't understand it, but fears it. Lyubov arrives, politely questions Nadezhda to determine that she is in fact Poltorak's mistress. Lyubov then declares she doesn't want to see Poltorak anymore and leaves.
24. Poltorak goes to Yakov's house to meet with him and the Bezdyetovs. They determine to meet that night at 1 AM. Poltorak now knows that death may come without blood just as constructions may be based not only on blood. Poltorak then wanders around in a delirum. He rants about wolves being hunted. He collapses in a meadow destined to be flooded by the construction project.
25. Ozhogov goes to the underground chamber near the furnace of a brick factory where he lives with other madmen, beggars and drunkards, all claiming to be true communists, who have elected Ozhogov as their president. As they drink vodka, Ozhogov reports that he has beaten up Poltorak. He also reports on the women's strike and he sympathizes with the plight of women, constantly subject to sexual harassment. Ozhogov's long, difficult proletarian life is recalled: how he was sent out to beg alms as a child; how was sent to the front; how he became a socialist; was sent into exile; after the October revolution, he became chairman of the Kolomna Executive Committee. Later, Ozhogov returns to the banya at his sisters' house, where his dog, Arab, is very glad to see him. Poletika is visiting his ex-wife and daughter
26. The construction of the dam--which will reverse the course of the Moscow River, emblematic of the construction of socialism--was coming to an end.
27. Earlier, in the evening, Laslo lies in his study, surrounded by shelves of books. "Every book is surely a human convulsion of human genius, of human thought breaking the law of death". He recalls his wife's funeral and the women's demonstration. He thinks, "The workers have renounced me. Yet, tomorrow I have to go to work." He hallucinates that his dead wife enters the room with Sadykov, her first husband. He decides that the books must be removed. Or should he kill himself?
"Lenin is dead, but his
books grow and grow."
28. FLASHBACK. Near the beginning of the construction project, Sadykov and Laslo, friends and fellow engineers, both communists, were out exploring the rivers and, along with other members of the team, staying in a large abandoned manor house. Sadykov took ill and was lying sweating in his cot. Laslo, drunk, wanders upstairs and finds Sadykov's wife, Maria, also drunk. They have sex. Laslo then returns downstairs. He pours vodka and drinks a toast with Sadykov.
29. Then the construction began. Laslo and his wife went back to Moscow. Maria went to Kolomna with Sadykov, where he began his work as chief engineer. Lyobov also came to Kolomna to do archeological work. A year later, Laslo and family came. In the evenings, Laslo speaks to his wife, Olga, in German. He says, "Ich denke das Leo Trotsky unrecht hat." Sadykov would often visit, and they would discuss the revolution, history, morality, etc. He loved his wife and daughter. "The peace of Laslo's home was solid and settled."
"That bloodless war for socialism, in which the first and formost consideration was man, in which construction was carried on by human labor to refashion nature, labor, and man--for the sake of man."
30. Laslo continued his secret affair with Sadykov's wife, Maria, living two separate lives and switching seamlessly between them.
"Every man knows the happiness of possessing a woman and every man knows the still greater happiness of taking possession of a human soul."
31. In the final year of construction, Sadykov calls both Maria and Laslo into his office. He announces that he's known about their affair since the beginning. Russia is building a new morality. He does not blame them, and admits his own fault in his dealings with Maria. He regards it as the duty of communists to be honest and honorable with others. He releases Maria and expects them to be married. Sadykov immediately continues with his work, casually and opening telling all that Maria and Laslo are to be married. Maria and Laslo leave, silent and stunned. Laslo realizes that, for him, Maria is a stranger. They meet Griboyedov, the custodian of the museum, who invites them to his home to see an ancient stone woman just uncovered by Lyobov.
32. In the evening, Sadykov meets Lyubov and sits with her in the silence near the Marina Tower. He says it was a difficult day for him and that Lyubov may hear some distressing news when she gets home. He returns to his office, feeling hurt. He makes some calls, then goes to sleep. Maria is still at Griboyedov's, crying. Laslo, walking, decides he must take up the gauntlet of honor thrown down by Sadykov. He cares most of all for Alice. Maria is only an abstraction, as she was for Sadykov.
33. Laslo was writing an article on the transformation of the psychology of workers. The seasonal workers, semi-peasants, here on the site for three years, were being changed into real proletarians--becoming literate and putting sheets on their beds. In the women's barracks, they talk of Laslo, Sadykov, and Maria. One woman says that Laslo will now kill Maria because she is in his way. The women complain of the harassment by men. Nazar Sysoyev visits his son, one of Ozhogov's communists in the cave. He still cannot believe that the river's course will be changed and his village moved. Ozhogov says they all must come to know the new morality, about which Sadykov spoke to Laslo.
34. Laslo returns home and explains himself to Olga Alexandrovna. Laslo knows that Olga could never be a mistress, unlike Maria who had reconsiled herself to be a secondary wife. Laslo thinks Maria will make a bad wife. Laslo says he must marry Maria because, "I am first and foremost a communist. I must suppress my feelings...It is my duty." Lyubov says his honor is the honor of a coward and a thief and says he is no comrade to her.
"Fyodor acted cruelly and honestly in accordance with communist morality."
35. Laslo joins Maria, who is at Griboyedov's, where she was waiting with the statue of the naked Christ and the ancient stone woman that was recently found. He says they are married by Bolshevik love and promises to take her to the theater tomorrow. Maria is afraid to be alone or with people.
36. Laslo and Maria celebrate their wedding in the shadow of the dam. Sadykov calls on Olga and Lyubov because they all feel bad. Laslo, who is moving out his belonings, is annoyed at Sadykov's humaneness. Sadykov invites Lyubov to go with him to the tower again. She declines the offer. Sadykov, Lyubov, and Olga all have tea.
37. To himself, in his study encrusted with books, Laslo admits that Mariya is for him an unnecessary burden. Mariya senses this, but Laslo denies it, embrassing her so tightly it brings tears to her eyes. Laslo finds himself attracted to Dasha, the healthy, young serving girl, who is a striking example of the transformation of a seasonal worker into a proletarian.
DASHA'S SONG"Of my beauty, of my charm
I am certain as can be.
If Trotsky will not, there's no harm
Chicherin then will marry me."
38. Alone at home during the day, Mariya tries to hang some blinds. She falls and cuts her hand. Her dog, Volk, come to her and licks the wound. Marya embraces the dog, sobs, and falls asleep. She dreams Laslo is made of snow and walking away from her. Sadykov is also made of snow, but remains motionless. That night, Laslo does not notices Mariya's cut. The dog remains close to Mariya and growls at Laslo. Mariya tells Laslo to kill her. He says, "Don't talk nonsense", but does not look up from his book.
39. Sadykov calls Laslo and the president of the workers' committee to his office, where they meet with a representative of the GPU (State Political Administration). The GPUer reveals that Poltorak is connected to a organization dedicated to sabotage, so Ozhogov's ravings about Yakov's dangerous plans may actually be true. Dasha bursts into the office and announces that Mariya has hanged herself. They rush home and Laslo, for the first time, finds genuine, truthful, and sincere words when he embraces Mariya's corpse. Mariya hanged herself from the very nail on which she had cut her hand yesterday. Sadykov takes the dog Volk and leaves. Dasha loudly denounced Laslo, blaming him for Mariya's death. Mariya left a note reading, "Forgive me, Edgar, I am in no way guilty before you." Sadykov continues working as if it were a normal work day. That evening, he takes the dog Volk to Lyobov. He says the dog was Mariya's only faithful friend and asks Lyubov to take care of him. She agrees. As Sadykov leaves, he tells Lybov that her father will arrive tomorrow. She asks him to call again tomorrow. Sadykov does not sleep, but only sits and smokes until it is time to go meet Poletika's train.
40. Lyubov knows that Sadykov is starting to fall in love with her, but she does not want to think of this. She feels lonely and feels her youth passing. At dawn she goes for a walk with Volk. Laslo sat alone in his house all night with Mariya's body, seeing and sensing nothing even as people arrived to close the red coffin and take it to the cemetery. He came to his senses again only when they reached the cemetery.
41. Shortly before the beginning of the women's strike, Poletika is speaking with Sadykov. He speaks of the fact that the desert is advancing on western Siberia, on eastern Russia, and that they must stop this process, or else soon there will be a mass migration of Russians into Europe, in effect a Russian invasion. But Poletika claims to know how to stop the advance of the deserts. His explanation is cut short by the women's strike. At Mariya's gravesite, the women start a meeting, denouncing Laslo. As the women grow more angry, the gravedigger and Griboyedov urge Laslo to sneak away, and he does so. The women's meeting is reported on in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
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42. After the funeral, when Laslo returns to the office, the women present Sadykov with a resolution which states that they are boycotting Laslo. That night, alone in his study, surrounded by his books, Laslo dreams that Mariya is a book which rises in the air and takes a place on his shelf next to Voltaire's "Candide". Sadykov enters, takes down the Mariya book, kisses its binding, and places it back on the shelf. The books falls down, and Sadykov picks it up again, but yet again it falls down. Regaining consciousness, Laslo goes out for a walk. He comes upon Poltorak. They sit and smoke. Laslo mentions that there is information that Poltorak is a sabateur. Poltorak admits it with indifference and says tonight he will blow up the dam.
"Every book is an imitation of a real human life; it is a convulsion of thought; the books are a morgue in whicn genuine life, thoughts, human passions lie buried as in a cemetery."
43. Poltorak, in near delirium, wanders around the fields. He feels himself to be a hunted wolf behind the flags. He feels all of Russia physically moving into socialism. He falls into a ditch and when he crawls out, he is confronted by Ozhogov. Ozhogov says he knows of Poltorak's sabotage plans and orders him to weep. Ozhogov shoves and kicks Poltorak, who hurries away. Poltorak again falls in the field. When he gets up, he sees Laslo approaching.
44. Poltorak admits to Laslo that he is a sabateur. Laslo says, "But you will be shot". Poltorak responds, "You, too, will be shot." Poltorak says that he himself is already dead, a corpse multiplied by zero, but that he is no longer a sabateur, that he doesn't have the strength to light a fuse. He then notes that Laslo is no longer a builder and a revolutionary. He rants about morality, how it is an actual economic unit and has been squandered by the revolution like boots or grain. He claims Russians have no more real morality, but only placards of morality all over the country: "Beware of Pickpockets", "Don't spit", "Don't smoke", "Handshakes abolished", "State your case briefly". Poltorak says he has killed himself, but that Laslo killed Mariya, who in turn killed him. Poltorak says they will soon blow up the dam. But it is already 2:30 AM. He was supposed to meet Yakov and the Bezdyetovs at 1:00 AM.
"Have you ever read the placards in the street-cars? `Instead of beer, take all your savings to the savings bank!' We must assume that formerly beer was taken to the savings banks!"
45. Earlier that evening, at Yakov's house, Katerina tells the Stefan Bezdyetov that she is pregnant. She then starts sobbing and howling. Trying to silence her, Stefan starts to beat her. Yakov hears all this and kicks and beats Katerina senseless with a candlestick. The Bezdyetovs leave. Yakov then also goes out and encounters Poletika and Sadykov near the Marian tower. Yakov starts to rant at Poletika about Poltorak and murder. Sadykov recognizes Yakov and hurries Polteika and himself away from him. Poletika notes that between the third and fifteen centuries Russia protected Europe from innumerable Goths, Huns, etc. And now Russia must protect Europe from the advancing desert.
46. Yakov comes upon Poltorak and Laslo in the meadow. Yakov is unceasingly ranting, "Thank you, thank you, thank you...!" Poltorak says, "Here's another corpse. Old as he is, he doesn't want to die." He notes that obviously they aren't going to blow up the dam because Yakov is no good as a sabateur either. Poltorak pulls out a pistol and says, "Who's first?" Laslo says he will shoot Poltorak because he is a sabateur, then will shoot himself because he belongs on the scrapheap. The demented Yakov grabs the pistol and shoots Poltorak and Laslo.
"The sun over Russia, over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, rises for eight solid hours, for when it is midnight in Vladivostok, dawn breaks over Moscow."
47. After leaving Yakov's, the Bezdyetov's go to the hotel and tell Nadezhda that Poltorak is involved in a scandal and that she had better leave on the train with them immediately. She agrees. When they arrive in Moscow, Nadezhda goes with the Bezdyetovs to their home for coffee. She falls asleep and the brothers go to the auction at the Old Pimen church. That evening, Nadezhda calls a girlfriend, and they all dine among the Bezdyetovs' antiques. A drunken Nadezhda rambles on about Sergei Yesenin and Isadora Duncan--how Yesenin lived only by his emotions, "which is decidely different from men of our epoch." They go to the Actors Club and dance to jazz music. Back that the Bezdyetovs, the drunken women undress to put on 18th-century gowns, but they're too drunk to put on the gowns, so they collapse on the sofa. Nadezhda says she will not drink anymore after today. She is pregnant and, with the new morality, it is good that she does not know who the father is. The next day, Nadezhda visits a doctor who says she is pregnant but also ill with syphilis.
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48. On the day of Poletika's arrival in Kolomna, Ozhogov burst in to speak with him. He urgently insists that Poletika tell the people on top that the country needs a new, third revolution of honesty (The October Revolution and the cultural revolution were the first two.) He also begs that Poletika come and visit Ozhogov's communists at the brick factory. After the women's strike, Poletika asks Sadykov to go with him as he visits his ex- wife and daughter.
49. Wanting to be friends with the earth, Olga Alexandrovna was working in her garden. Her daughter Alice painted a moustache on a doll and secretly called it "Daddy". Poletika arrives. He kisses her hands and says, "I have come to you to stay with you forever."
50. Lybov comes and sits next to Sadykov. She says, "It is necessary to look backward in order to see the future" and mentions the ancient stone figure recently discovered. She tells him that she has just said good-bye to the man whose wife she had promised to become. That was why she couldn't go to the tower with him before. She cries and puts her head on his lap.
51. Olga, Lyubov, Sadykov, and Poletika sit to eat. Poletika describes a grand scheme of his to construct a dam across the Volga near Kamyshin, in order to stop and advance of the desert and in fact to transform the barren Transvolga in a rich fertile area. The Volga will flow into the Caspian Sea, not where it does now, but ner Komsomoltsy Bay, and the Caspian Sea will alter its outlines. Lands now submerged will emerge from the bottom of the sea. Such are the possibilities of socialism. As Lybov lays her hand on Sadykov's shoulder, Poletika says he is old and cannot complete this project, but wants Sadykov to take it over. And Lyubov should go with him to dig there, too, for past centuries.
52. On the day the new river was created, meadows and villages were swamped. The house of Rimma and Kapitolina Skudrin was swamped as was the house of old Nazar. The Marina tower was immersed. As the new river formed, Ozhogov took his dog into the underground cave at the brick factory and lay down with him. As the waters advanced, the dog howled and tried to pull Ozhogov up. But at that moment, with a roar and hisses, the green water rushed into the underground cave, smothering both the man and the dog. And at the same time, the boy Mishka, excitedly watching the creation of the new river, was near the Marina Tower.
Biography of Boris Pilnyak