Saturday, March 19, 2011

Making sense of Simonov: THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.


... and quoting from "Ivan's War":

As well as working as the party's spy, an individual politruk was likely to combine the functions of a propagandist with those of army chaplain, military psychiatrist, and school prefect. "The politruk," the army's orders stated, "is the central figure for all educational work among soldiers." The range of topics they taught was wide indeed. Politruks were present at classes in target shooting, drill practice, and rifle disassembly. They were the individuals who typed up individual scores, noting how many men were "excellent" in any field and inventing excuses for the many who were not. They wrote monthly reports on their units' discipline, on morale, and on "extraordinary events," including desertion, drunkenness, insubordination, and absence without leave. They were also the men behind the party's festivals, including the anniversary of the October Revolution..., Red Army Day (23 February), and the workers' carnival on the first of May. Enlisted men looked forward to these holidays. The lecture they had to sit through from the politruk was just a prelude, after all, to a bit of free time and some serious drinking.

A politruk who really thumped the propaganda drum was bound to meet resistance. It is impressive that some — earnest, ambitious, or just plain devout — tried everything to mold their men according to the rules. They kept up a barrage of discussions, meetings, and poster campaigns. They read aloud to the troops in their spare time... Some managed small libraries, and almost all ran propaganda huts where posters were designed and banners hung. Political officers in all units taught basic literacy, too, as well as investigating complaints and answering the men's questions about daily life. Their work was never easy. Like every other type of officer, the politruks battled with shortages. "We do not have a single volume of the works of Lenin," one man informed his commissar in 1939... Although they seem absurd in retrospect, some of these politruks ... believed in their mission and made real sacrifices in its name. Maybe a few soldiers appreciated their presence... But more looked at the politruks' clean boots, smooth hands, and unused cartridge belts and sensed hypocrisy.

The politruks were hated, too, because they had an overall responsibility for discipline. Denunciations often originated with them, and it was usually their reports that brought the military police, the Special Section, into a messroom or barracks. Their obligation to inform was in direct conflict with another of the politruks' roles, which was to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust.

Further discussion yielded the unexpected result: it looks like the correct translation of the novel's title into English would have been "The Quick and the Dead", because the original novel's title is actually hinting at the Creed:

"does the title of the novel echo, to a Russophone ear, "живым и мертвым" in the Slavonic version of the Creed?

Well, it must, for those who had to learn the Creed by heart at some point. It very likely did for the author, who had been attending church services in his childhood. Furthermore, several characters in the novel use other Christian allusions, and the title phrase is actually uttered by one of them in the scene of an improvised court-martial as "and we, sinners, dead and alive" ("и мы, грешные, живые и мертвые"); this is a very curious psychological trait of the atheist and the communist, perhaps a testimony to the religious overtones of Communism."

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