The Russians Were Coming

the russians were coming

In Arthur Koestler’s famous 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, a leader of the Communist Party is awoken in the middle of the night and thrown in prison by his own comrades. They torture him until he confesses to crimes of treason and sabotage that he did not commit. That’s pretty much the story. But the manner of the torture is unusual. Rubashov, the protagonist, has a reputation for being philosophical and stubborn. So instead of using physical torture, the Party breaks him down psychologically. He is isolated in his cell, deprived of sleep, and subjected to endless rounds of harsh interrogation. The interrogations make up the substance of the novel, combining a fierce political and philosophical debate with a final look at Rubashov’s career as a Party higher-up.

What makes the novel scary—like, “all human civilization is inherently doomed” scary—is why the Party is torturing Rubashov. It’s not to punish him, and it’s not to get information out of him. They’re torturing him so he’ll agree to publicly condemn himself as part of the Moscow Trials. The Moscow trials were a sham, staged by the Party, in which former Communist officials were forced to make false confessions and subsequently executed. The idea was to convince the country that Stalin and the Communist Party were infallible and/or omnipotent. Stalin himself, who was once a close friend of Rubashov’s, is a vicious and overwhelming force in the novel, but he never actually shows up, and is never referred to by name. They call him “No. 1.” Darkness at Noon is the story of how Rubashov succumbs to the sinister logic of the Communist Party, and realizes that he must lay down his dignity, his beliefs, and his life—all for a cause he knows is evil.

This is a good book.

In fact, it’s #8 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. But I don’t know anybody who’s read it.

Today people are describing President Obama’s plan for America as “socialist,” calling White House appointees “czars,” and generally saying that we have become Russia. (To believe this you have to imagine that a lot of different things—Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, Karl Marx and Mikhail Gorbachev, czars and Bolsheviks and nuclear weapons—are synonyms for each other.) I’m guessing these people don’t understand the extent of the brutality and fanaticism of the Communist Party under Joseph Stalin. If they did, they’d know there is only one possible response to the comparison:




Filed under Hooray Fiction!

6 Responses to The Russians Were Coming

  1. J. Boyett

    When I looked at photos of American democracy in action as people swarmed to DC to hold up pictures of the President as the Joker and various other pieces of political commentary, I kept hearing Sun Ra and his Arkestra in my head chanting, over and over again, “It’s after the end of the world . . . don’t you know that yet?!” My favorite was a girl holding up a poster that said “Nazi stood for National SOCIALISTS.” Why not just hold up a poster that says “I have never read a book, essay, or article about the Nazi party?” Sweetie–I would say to her–Nazis _killed_ Communists. I know what the word stands for; but Nazis did lie sometimes, shocking as it is. . . . I suppose this is all slightly off-topic, but what can I say? I’m typing this at the office while my boss is sitting right next to me; it’s distracting. . . .

  2. NAZIs don’t lie. Barack HUSSEIN Obama lies. Where’s the birth certificate, Jim? Where?!?!

  3. Oooh, fiction advocate goes political. In the next installment, I demand a series of Dodie Bellamy-esque cunt-ups of congress-people’s Twitter posts.

  4. Nice words about the Russian book.

    Did Jessa mean to write “cut-ups?”

    We’ll never know.


    Confused in Culver City

  5. I did not mean to write cut-ups.
    Not to get all librarian-ish on you, Klaus, but all the information you needed to resolve your anomalous state of knowledge was contained in my post! To get all librarian-ish on you, according to WorldCat, the nearest copy of Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups (LCSH PS3552.E5319 C86 2001 – you’ll want to jot that down before you peruse the stacks!), in which the author augmented William Burroughs incorrigible cut-ups, is at UCSD’s Geisel library, which is apparently a 103 mile haul from Culver City.

  6. Haul, indeed. That 103 mile straight-shot on an eight-lane freeway has been known to take anywhere from 1.5 to 4.37 hours. Urban legend has it that the more of a hurry you’re in to get to SD, the longer it will take you. (4.37 hours? WTF!!?!)

    Not to get all information sciency on you, but rather than tempting the fates with a sojourn to Dr. Seuss’s library, I’ll utilize the interlibrary loan system here on campus, request it from the comfort of my office/living room, and pick it up when I’m there to poison the minds of the XYZ generation.

    And by “poison” I mean “punch.”



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