One Sunday Dr. Blagovo turned up unexpectedly. He was wearing a
military tunic over a silk shirt and high boots of patent
"I have come to see you," he began, shaking my hand heartily
like a student. "I am hearing about you every day, and I have
been meaning to come and have a heart-to-heart talk, as they
say. The boredom in the town is awful, there is not a living
soul, no one to say a word to. It's hot, Holy Mother," he went
on, taking off his tunic and sitting in his silk shirt. "My dear
fellow, let me talk to you."
I was dull myself, and had for a long time been craving for the
society of someone not a house painter. I was genuinely glad to
"I'll begin by saying," he said, sitting down on my bed, "that I
sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart, and deeply
respect the life you are leading. They don't understand you here
in the town, and, indeed, there is no one to understand, seeing
that, as you know, they are all, with very few exceptions,
regular Gogolesque pig faces here. But I saw what you were at
once that time at the picnic. You are a noble soul, an honest,
high-minded man! I respect you, and feel it a great honour to
shake hands with you!" he went on enthusiastically. "To have
made such a complete and violent change of life as you have
done, you must have passed through a complicated spiritual
crisis, and to continue this manner of life now, and to keep up
to the high standard of your convictions continually, must be a
strain on your mind and heart from day to day. Now to begin our
talk, tell me, don't you consider that if you had spent your
strength of will, this strained activity, all these powers on
something else, for instance, on gradually becoming a great
scientist, or artist, your life would have been broader and
deeper and would have been more productive?"
We talked, and when we got upon manual labour I expressed this
idea: that what is wanted is that the strong should not enslave
the weak, that the minority should not be a parasite on the
majority, nor a vampire for ever sucking its vital sap; that is,
all, without exception, strong and weak, rich and poor, should
take part equally in the struggle for existence, each one on his
own account, and that there was no better means for equalizing
things in that way than manual labour, in the form of universal
service, compulsory for all.
"Then do you think everyone without exception ought to engage in
manual labour?" asked the doctor.
"And don't you think that if everyone, including the best men,
the thinkers and great scientists, taking part in the struggle
for existence, each on his own account, are going to waste their
time breaking stones and painting roofs, may not that threaten a
grave danger to progress?"
"Where is the danger?" I asked. "Why, progress is in deeds of
love, in fulfilling the moral law; if you don't enslave anyone,
if you don't oppress anyone, what further progress do you want?"
"But, excuse me," Blagovo suddenly fired up, rising to his feet.
"But, excuse me! If a snail in its shell busies itself over
perfecting its own personality and muddles about with the moral
law, do you call that progress?"
"Why muddles?" I said, offended. "If you don't force your
neighbour to feed and clothe you, to transport you from place to
place and defend you from your enemies, surely in the midst of a
life entirely resting on slavery, that is progress, isn't it? To
my mind it is the most important progress, and perhaps the only
one possible and necessary for man."
"The limits of universal world progress are in infinity, and to
talk of some 'possible' progress limited by our needs and
temporary theories is, excuse my saying so, positively strange."
"If the limits of progress are in infinity as you say, it
follows that its aims are not definite," I said. "To live
without knowing definitely what you are living for!"
"So be it! But that 'not knowing' is not so dull as your
'knowing.' I am going up a ladder which is called progress,
civilization, culture; I go on and up without knowing definitely
where I am going, but really it is worth living for the sake of
that delightful ladder; while you know what you are living for,
you live for the sake of some people's not enslaving others,
that the artist and the man who rubs his paints may dine equally
well. But you know that's the petty, bourgeois, kitchen, grey
side of life, and surely it is revolting to live for that alone?
If some insects do enslave others, bother them, let them devour
each other! We need not think about them. You know they will die
and decay just the same, however zealously you rescue them from
slavery. We must think of that great millennium which awaits
humanity in the remote future."
Blagovo argued warmly with me, but at the same time one could
see he was troubled by some irrelevant idea.
"I suppose your sister is not coming?" he said, looking at his
watch. "She was at our house yesterday, and said she would be
seeing you to-day. You keep saying slavery, slavery . . ." he
went on. "But you know that is a special question, and all such
questions are solved by humanity gradually."
We began talking of doing things gradually. I said that "the
question of doing good or evil every one settles for himself,
without waiting till humanity settles it by the way of gradual
development. Moreover, this gradual process has more than one
aspect. Side by side with the gradual development of human ideas
the gradual growth of ideas of another order is observed.
Serfdom is no more, but the capitalist system is growing. And in
the very heyday of emancipating ideas, just as in the days of
Baty, the majority feeds, clothes, and defends the minority
while remaining hungry, inadequately clad, and defenceless. Such
an order of things can be made to fit in finely with any
tendencies and currents of thought you like, because the art of
enslaving is also gradually being cultivated. We no longer flog
our servants in the stable, but we give to slavery refined
forms, at least, we succeed in finding a justification for it in
each particular case. Ideas are ideas with us, but if now, at
the end of the nineteenth century, it were possible to lay the
burden of the most unpleasant of our physiological functions
upon the working class, we should certainly do so, and
afterwards, of course, justify ourselves by saying that if the
best people, the thinkers and great scientists, were to waste
their precious time on these functions, progress might be
menaced with great danger."
But at this point my sister arrived. Seeing the doctor she was
fluttered and troubled, and began saying immediately that it was
time for her to go home to her father.
"Kleopatra Alexyevna," said Blagovo earnestly, pressing both
hands to his heart, "what will happen to your father if you
spend half an hour or so with your brother and me?"
He was frank, and knew how to communicate his liveliness to
others. After a moment's thought, my sister laughed, and all at
once became suddenly gay as she had been at the picnic. We went
out into the country, and lying in the grass went on with our
talk, and looked towards the town where all the windows facing
west were like glittering gold because the sun was setting.
After that, whenever my sister was coming to see me Blagovo
turned up too, and they always greeted each other as though
their meeting in my room was accidental. My sister listened
while the doctor and I argued, and at such times her expression
was joyfully enthusiastic, full of tenderness and curiosity, and
it seemed to me that a new world she had never dreamed of
before, and which she was now striving to fathom, was gradually
opening before her eyes. When the doctor was not there she was
quiet and sad, and now if she sometimes shed tears as she sat on
my bed it was for reasons of which she did not speak.
In August Radish ordered us to be ready to go to the
railway-line. Two days before we were "banished" from the town
my father came to see me. He sat down and in a leisurely way,
without looking at me, wiped his red face, then took out of his
pocket our town Messenger, and deliberately, with emphasis on
each word, read out the news that the son of the branch manager
of the State Bank, a young man of my age, had been appointed
head of a Department in the Exchequer.
"And now look at you," he said, folding up the newspaper, "a
beggar, in rags, good for nothing! Even working-class people and
peasants obtain education in order to become men, while you, a
Poloznev, with ancestors of rank and distinction, aspire to the
gutter! But I have not come here to talk to you; I have washed
my hands of you --" he added in a stifled voice, getting up. "I
have come to find out where your sister is, you worthless
fellow. She left home after dinner, and here it is nearly eight
and she is not back. She has taken to going out frequently
without telling me; she is less dutiful -- and I see in it your
evil and degrading influence. Where is she?"
In his hand he had the umbrella I knew so well, and I was
already flustered and drew myself up like a schoolboy, expecting
my father to begin hitting me with it, but he noticed my glance
at the umbrella and most likely that restrained him.
"Live as you please!" he said. "I shall not give you my
"Holy Saints!" my nurse muttered behind the door. "You poor,
unlucky child! Ah, my heart bodes ill!"
I worked on the railway-line. It rained without stopping all
August; it was damp and cold; they had not carried the corn in
the fields, and on big farms where the wheat had been cut by
machines it lay not in sheaves but in heaps, and I remember how
those luckless heaps of wheat turned blacker every day and the
grain was sprouting in them. It was hard to work; the pouring
rain spoiled everything we managed to do. We were not allowed to
live or to sleep in the railway buildings, and we took refuge in
the damp and filthy mud huts in which the navvies had lived
during the summer, and I could not sleep at night for the cold
and the woodlice crawling on my face and hands. And when we
worked near the bridges the navvies used to come in the evenings
in a gang, simply in order to beat the painters -- it was a form
of sport to them. They used to beat us, to steal our brushes.
And to annoy us and rouse us to fight they used to spoil our
work; they would, for instance, smear over the signal boxes with
green paint. To complete our troubles, Radish took to paying us
very irregularly. All the painting work on the line was given
out to a contractor; he gave it out to another; and this
subcontractor gave it to Radish after subtracting twenty per
cent. for himself. The job was not a profitable one in itself,
and the rain made it worse; time was wasted; we could not work
while Radish was obliged to pay the fellows by the day. The
hungry painters almost came to beating him, called him a cheat,
a blood-sucker, a Judas, while he, poor fellow, sighed, lifted
up his hand to Heaven in despair, and was continually going to
Madame Tcheprakov for money.