Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ethics 2 - The Man On The Cutting Room Floor

Foreword - A word of warning

Nothing has so divided me as the question of whether to include this short story or not on my blog. As mentioned previously, it is a short story written before this blog began and deals with something wholly unpleasant.

I like to consider this blog is overall fun and positive. The story that follows is by necessity neither, and quite dark throughout.

The story came about as I wanted to write a companion piece to my story on Wernher von Braun by talking about the life of Sergei Korolev, his Soviet rival. However I soon realised it was going to be just too similar, and I'd “been there, done that”.

One detail of Sergei's life which fascinated me was about his time in the Russian gulag. At the time, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had just died, and so it led me to do a lot of research around them. I was shocked at how brutal they were, they were essentially death camps almost on a par with the concentration camps of the Nazis (they didn't have the mass exterminations, but life expectancy was still brutally short).

I'd also seen a documentary about Joseph Stalin, talking about the terror and censorship during his reign, and how anyone he felt threatened by would be written and painted out of history, and sent to either the gulag prison camps or the firing squad. George Orwells world of Nineteen Eighty-Four would have a similar concept called “vapourising” where traitors became an “unperson”, written out of history.

And so the idea came about for a story about an artist who'd censored and written so many faces finding themselves in the gulag, waiting their turn to be written out of history ...

The Man On The Cutting Room Floor

The bitter wind rattled and spat through the gaps in the wooden walls. The hut they lived in was poorly put together, but what else could Siberian slaves expect? They weren’t here to be comfortable, but to be punished and through their suffering redeem their crimes by making glorious State strong.

Welcome to the gulags of Siberia.

Nikolai Sevnik, scuttled across the room of the slave barracks like a rat, looking for his beloved loose floorboard. He found it, teased it up, and retrieved his personal possessions – a few scraps of paper and the smallest remainder of a pencil. It had been another exhausting day.

He pocketed his possessions and took his food into a corner to eat. It had been a bad day in the mines, and he’d failed to collect his quota of ore. This was punishable in the gulags with half rations. That was a joke, as at the best of time a full ration was never enough to combat the hunger after a twelve hour shift in the mines.

It had been a bad day indeed – three of the fingers of his left hand had been broken in a rockslide, and yet he’d been the lucky one. A couple of other slaves had been caught underneath and had been instantly crushed – no-one had tried to rescue them, it was not the Siberian way. A doctor who’d reeked of vodka had inspected him, tied dirty cloth around his hand and told him “you are healthy, go back to work”.

Nikolai had tried to complain about his rations, saying about the landslide and how hard it had been to work with a broken hand. One of the guards jammed the but of his rifle into Nikolai’s stomach, then kicked him in the head as Nikolai bend over in pain.

“You lazy Trotskist. You want to eat you must work first!” The guard had spat at him. Nikolai shouldn’t have been surprised. Mercy and compassion were in short enough supply in Russia in these days of Stalin. But in the Siberia workcamps, they were non-existent.

Nikolai started into his food. The small chunk of bread was black and stale, and he had a small dish of watered down porridge. Nikola had lost many of his teeth since his arrival at Dzhezkazgan, so dunked his bread into his porridge, hoping to soften it a little before chewing it.

He took up the pencil in his good hand. His handwriting wasn’t as steady as it once was, the constant use of a pick these last 18 months caused constant tremors in his hand. Every night he wrote a little – it was his only way to remember that he’d had a life outside of Dzhezkazgan, a life outside the slave camp with it’s barbed wire, sentry towers and harsh weather.

He’d fallen from grace – so many here had. Before this, he’d been an artist in Lenningrad, a good one. But his skills had caught the eye of important members of the Communist party. They needed good artists to tell the bold story of how comrade Stalin was changing Russia for the better. People needed to understand how much their government were doing for them. The Communist party needed bold art, posters, postcards, books to help teach and indoctrinate the people.

In the past, Nikolai had always struggled as an artist, having to supplement it with work in various factories when needed. But for the first time he had found himself comfortable with regular work. It had been a happy time – he, his wife and their little girl Ania had moved into a decent apartment.

Then came the first of the “special assignments”. His work was always brought over to his apartment come studio by his party handler Sergei. Nikolai never learned his last name – but he was a powerful figure in the Communist party, that much he knew.

Sergei had arrived, and seemed unusually reticent to hand over the wrapped assignment.

“What is it comrade?” Asked Nikolai. Sergei’s nervous disposition had piqued Nikolai’s curiousity. Sergei fumbled hesitantly with his moustache whilst Nikolai tore open the brown paper – this was something new … a large photograph of an open air speech. “I see it’s comrade Lenin”, he observed.

“Yes, yes …” Muttered Sergei, as if trying to put something delicately which could be a matter of life and death. “Lenin is giving a rousing speech to the troops in 1920. It’s an important photograph for the state … the problem is that man!” He pointed nervously to a face nearby Lenin, Nikolai recognised it. “The traitor Trotski”, explained Sergei.

“Yes the traitor.” Mused Nikolai half-heartedly. How quickly times change. Under the days of Lenin, Trotski had been his right hand man and natural successor to his legacy. But since the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin, Trotski had been denounced a traitor of the revolution, and had fled in fear of retribution from Stalin’s regime.

“It’s a great shame he’s there …” Sergei continued in a fake empathic voice. Nikolai felt himself being slowly and skilfully backed into the corner. “The presence of such a traitor in such a historic picture. It undermines not only Lenin, but the whole Revolution. If only he could be … removed from it?”.

Nikolai knew where this was going. He carried it over to the window where he could get a better look, and held it close to his face. “It would be difficult … “

“But can it be done?”

“I don’t see why not. Might take some time though …”

Sergei gave out a huge sigh of relief like a condemned man just pardoned. “Thank you comrade … the People will not forget this”.

It wasn’t something Nikolai had tried before – canvas and paper had been his usual medium. He managed to get some other photographs to experiment with, calling in a few favours with a friend who developed photographs in his apartment. He tried using brushes, but the brushwork was always too obvious. It was only with airbrushing in subtle, small jets that the work appeared seamless. It was almost fascinating how in little puffs the face of the traitor slowly fade away, until at last hidden from the eyes of history.

Nikolai managed it, and a week later was handing over a new, airbrushed copy of the same photo, sanitised for the good of the Revolution. Sergei was pleased “this is quite an achievement, you have the thanks of the State for this” he beamed, it will not be forgotten.

And that was that thought Nikoli. He was sure it would be a one-off. But he was soon to be proved wrong. It the purges and the terror, it became a mini-industry. More were to follow, others Nikoli had never heard of. So many criminals and traitors to the state, and he removed them one by one from history. He called them the men on the cutting room floor, edited from the film reel of history.

It got that he barely was surprised anymore. One week he’d be reading about one man’s heroics in Pravda, and then airbrushing him from history barely a month later. You couldn’t help but be cynical about it, but Nikolai knew to voice it would be a death sentence. It was almost impossible to keep up with who was hero and who was traitor at any given moment.

And the crimes of these people. One person was charged and sent to Siberia for burning down a State building a month ago. Yet Nikolai had passed that very same building to find it very much standing and unscathed.

It was like insanity – just an accusation was enough. There was never any shortage of crimes you could be charged with. And evidence was never really an issue, everyone who appeared in the court was always found guilty.

Every other week you heard of another traitor being denounced in Lenningrad. It felt almost like a quarter of the city had been shipped off now, so many windows boarded up. Everyone was terrified of their neighbour, and quick to denounce them as a traitor before they themselves were accused.

One week, a new handler arrived to meet Nikolai, explaining “What a terrible business about comrade Sergei”. It came as no surprise. Nikolai did not even bother to ask the man’s name or the fate of his old handler.

Yet somehow he thought if he remained useful and kept quiet, he’d be safe from the terror sweeping the country. He was wrong.

They came for him in the night, and they didn’t just take him. They took them all, him, his wife, his daughter. He had stood before the judge the next morning charged with manufacturing Troskist propaganda. He’d argued his loyalty was unswerving, and he’d been working tirelessly for the state.

His first commission was brought out. He was charged with doctoring a photo of Lennin talking to the troops, and doctoring it to look like the traitor Trotsky was present. Nikolai had tried in vain to argue that was the original photograph. But the judges had already made up their mind – 20 years in Siberia for him, and all the traitors in his family who’d conspired with him.

He never even got to see his wife or his little 13 year old Ania at the trial. They were kept elsewhere. He was loaded on a train for Siberia that very afternoon. A train of the doomed traitors. So many of them crammed in there, it was crushing, the air was foul and there was no water. Half of them died on the way, and only at their destination had the living been separated from the dead.

They’d been made to carry out the dead, and pile their bodies up. Some of the guards looted through the pockets of the dead, looking for anything of value. And then at gunpoint the living prisoners buried the dead.

Nikolai remembered how nervous he’d felt working at gunpoint. It was amazing how quickly you got used to it. These days you’d hear a gunshot, and hold your breath, and if you were okay you wouldn’t even look around to see who’d aroused the anger of the guards. You kept your head down, and tried to not be noticed.

Life in Lennongrad wasn’t always roses – there’d been times when work was scarce and food was scarer they’d starved. His first child, a son was stillborn. He’d known his share of misery. But it was nothing to the misery of the gulags.

Each day they were marched to the copper mines in the morning. It paid not to be the last or to stumble in the word party, as the guards would often shoot anyone who lagged. Then someone in the work detail would be chosen to bury the dead.

There was no empathy left now, you had to survive, each time a gun went off, you just thanked that it wasn’t you. You carried on. Nikolai hated being chosen to bury the dead. It meant he’d be late to the mines. You only got full food rations when you achieved your quota, and that was difficult enough. When you’d started the day digging a grave through the frozen mud, you were already behind.

The sheds in which they were kept offered poor protection against the Siberian winters, they were more to confine the prisoners than offer luxury. There was little fuel, and the blankets thin, threadbare and lice ridden. You only had the clothes you arrived with. Sometimes if you were lucky you’d be asked to bury someone with better shoes than you, and you could swap as long as you were quick about it. But generally they weren’t. Your clothes would tear and reek, but you’d go on as best you could. You couldn’t complain, because there was no-one here who cared.

Going on as best you could was all you could hope for. 20 years in Siberia when you’re slowly being starved. Everyone knew it would be a death sentence. You knew that after your first week.

There were few things in life to look forward to. But at least there were women here. They would arrive separately from the men – he’d never seen his wife or little Ania arrive, and in his heart he hoped they’d died on the train rather than endure this living hell. Being reduced to little than an unwelcome rat in a farmhouse, scurrying, always scurrying and trying to avoid being exterminated at any moment.

The women would arrive and be stripped naked, paraded for the attentions of the guards. Any they liked the look of would be assigned “special duties”. Sometimes the guards would feel the need to inspect any woman who took their liking, handling them roughly like a buyer at a cattle market inspects a potential buy. The women were all new, not knowing the way of the gulag life. Occasionally one would resist this treatment. When this would happen, the bullet the guards would put in her head acted as a warning to the others. You never saw another women resist the guards once they knew where it got them.

As a man, if you worked well and met your quotas, you were allowed “personal time” with a woman once a month. It’d been four months since Nikolai had last earned that privilege. She’d been a young girl, no more than the age of Ania. Nikolai never spoke to her as he used his privileges with her, her trembling skeletal form beneath him as he excised his lust. There was no tenderness between them or any of the women – how could there be in this savage place.

These days he didn’t even have enough energy to think of being aroused. Lust, love, comfort, they were almost forgotten things, like something in a tale that happened to another people.

The lamps were doused for the evening, and one by one the prisoners settled for the night, knowing another brutal day waited for them tomorrow. Nikolai hid his possessions back under the floorboard, and tried to sleep as best he could, but the pain in his fingers was too much for even his exhaustion. He woke to see his fingers in his dirty bandages nothing more than dirty black swollen sausages, that he could barely move.

His work detail were collected, and he grabbed his tools, but his left hand could not hold them, and they kept slipping from his grasp. One last time he bent down to pick them up, watching the others walk away to the mine.

It was just no use. He was falling behind. It was his time, and there was no use fighting it any more.

He heard the guard behind him, heard them cock their rifle.

He closed his eyes and whispered to himself “I’m coming home Ania”.

He never heard the shot that followed.

A prisoner was fetched to bury the mornings dawdler. He’d seen the dead man around, but didn’t know his name. Would it make any difference if he did? He was disappointed that the dead mans clothes were too worn to salvage, and his shoes no better.

He lowered the dead man into the grave, and shovel by shovel, obscuring the face and identity of whoever this was. As Nikolai had buried the faces in photographs, erasing them with his airbrush, now it was Nikolai’s turn to become the man on the cutting room floor, his name and story obscured for all history.

For when their names have been removed from all records, when their faces have been painted over and their family and friends killed in obscurity. When all this is done, who remembers the men on the cutting room floor?

1 comment:

  1. While dark, this is some very interesting writing. Your description of Nikolai gathering his pencil and paper to write as he eats his very meager dinner was vivid and eery because it's not unlike something I would do, only I live in a cushy apartment, write on a computer and have good food to eat. The fact that Nikolai dies at the end makes me wonder if there isn't more to the story. Will we find out what happened to Ania or his wife? Or has someone re-discovered his history. There are many places you could take this. Good job!