Arthur Koestler was an articulate witness of the atrocities of the twentieth century; and much of what he witnessed was terrible. Reading his books gives one an intense and personal vision of fascism, dictatorship, mass murder, starvation, and cruelty on a monstrous scale. As George Orwell wrote of Koestler’s books in 1944, “The subject-matter of all of them is similar, and none of them ever escapes for more than a few pages from the atmosphere of nightmare” (link). Koestler worked as a Communist journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s during the rise of the brown shirts; he was the first European journalist to travel through the Ukraine to witness the results of famine in Stalin’s war against the Kulaks (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside); and he observed the Spanish Civil War, where he was arrested after the fall of Malaga, imprisoned, and sentenced to death as a Red. (Here is an earlier post on Koestler.)
These experiences are described in his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, and the narrative of his experiences in Spain is presented in Dialogue With Death. But Koestler’s best known book is a novel, Darkness at Noon, which is the story of the final weeks of life of the fictional Soviet revolutionary Rubashov in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and the Moscow show trials. After a life as leader, theorist, and agent in service of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, Rubashov is arrested for fictitious crimes of conspiracy and betrayal against the State. He is arrested before dawn; it takes him quite a while to find his pince-nez. He is thrown into a Soviet political prison — it is reminiscent to him of the fascist prisons in which he had suffered beatings and torture years earlier. He is brought to confess to these crimes and others under interrogation by his former comrade-in-arms, Ivanov, and the new Soviet thug, Gletkin. Ivanov is psychologically manipulative; Gletkin is brutal; but both strive to break Rubashov and compel his confession. They are successful; Rubashov confesses to betraying the Revolution; and like Bukharin, he is convicted and summarily shot in the back of the neck. Along the way there is quite a bit of debate about history, the individual, the Party, and the Future of Humanity. The key question of the novel is the puzzle: why did Rubashov confess rather than following the secret advice of the prison barber — “die in silence!”?
Koestler himself was a committed Communist agent in Berlin in the 1930s; so his descriptions of Rubashov’s activities in eastern Europe have the ring of truth — including Rubashov’s betrayals of Richard and Little Loewy in the name of socialism. The novel recreates the Moscow show trials of 1937 with uncanny insight. Rubashov is loosely based on Nikolai Bukharin, one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Russian Revolution. Koestler’s novel was written only two years after the trial and execution of these leaders of the Russian Revolution at the hands of Stalin’s functionaries. Here is what he says about the central character:
The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory. Paris, October, 1938-April, 1940
But here is what I find fascinating. Koestler’s fictional recreation of the arrest and trial of the top Party officials, in the person of Rubashov, and the background assumptions and rationalizations assumed by the prosecutors and interrogators, is remarkably close to the historical reality. Here is Koestler’s description of his own arrest and arrival in a Spanish fascist prison in Malaga:
It is a unique sound. A cell door has no handle, either outside or inside; it cannot be shut except by being slammed to. It is made of massive steel and concrete, about four inches thick, and every time it falls to there is a resounding crash just as though a shot has been fired. But this report dies away without an echo. Prison sounds are echo-less and bleak.
When the door has been slammed behind him for the first time, the prisoner stands in the middle of the cell and looks round. I fancy that everyone must behave in more or less the same way.
First of all he gives a fleeting look round the walls and takes a mental inventory of all the objects in what is now to be his domain:
- the iron bedstead,
- the wash-basin,
- the W.C.,
- the barred window.
His next action is invariably to try to pull himself up by the iron bars of the window and look out. He fails, and his suit is covered with white from the plaster on the wall against which he has pressed himself. (Dialogue with Death, 59)
And now turn to Rubashov’s first few minutes in Stalin’s jail cell:
Rubashov walked up and down in the cell, from the door to the window and back, between bunk, wash-basin and bucket, six and a half steps there, six and a half steps back. At the door he turned to the right, at the window to the left. It was an old prison habit; if one did not change the direction of the turn one rapidly became dizzy. …. Rubashov stood hesitantly in the middle of the cell, then put his pince-nez on again and propped himself at the window. (Darkness at Noon, 14, 18)
Much of the drama of Darkness at Noon is the series of interrogations Rubashov undergoes, and the mental transformation that they bring about in this courageous man to bring him to confess to the most farfetched and unbelievable crimes. The transcripts of Bukharin’s prosecution exist; Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen’s THE GREAT PURGE TRIAL provides extensive transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin and other show trial victims. It is striking to compare the interrogation of Bukharin with the interrogation of Rubashov. Consider this bit of interrogation of Rubashov, beginning with the voice of prosecutor Ivanov:
“To return to more tangible things: you mean, therefore, that ‘we’ — namely, Party and State — no longer represent the interests of the Revolution, of the masses or, if you like, the progress of humanity.”
“This time you have grasped it,” said Rubashov smiling. Ivanov did not answer his smile.
“When did you develop this opinion?”
“Fairly gradually: during the last few years,” said Rubashov.
“Can’t you tell me more exactly? One year? Two? Three years?”
“That’s a stupid question,” said Rubashov. “At what age did you become adult? At seventeen? At eighteen and a half? At nineteen?”
“It’s you who are pretending to be stupid,” said Ivanov. “Each step in one’s spiritual development is the result of definite experiences. If you really want to know: I became a man at seventeen, when I was sent into exile for the first time.” (69)
And now a similar moment in the actual transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin.
Vyshinsky: Allow me to begin the interrogation of the accused Bukharin. Formulate briefly what exactly it is you plead guilty to.
Bukharin: Firstly, to belonging to the counter-revolutionary “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.”
Vyshinsky: Since what year?
Bukharin: Roughly since 1928. I plead guilty to being one of the outstanding leaders of this “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.” Consequently I plead guilty to what directly follows from this, the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organization, irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took a direct part, in any particular act. Because I am responsible as one of the leaders and not as a cog in this counter-revolutionary organization.
Vyshinsky: What aims were pursued by this counter-revolutionary organization?
Bukharin: This counter-revolutionary organization, to formulate it briefly …
Vyshinsky: Yes, briefly for the present.
Bukharin: The principal aim it pursued, although, so to speak, it did not fully realize it, and did not dot all the “i’s” — was essentially the aim of restoring capitalist relations in the U.S.S.R. (Tucker, 328)
And now, back to Darkness at Noon and Rubashov; the porter’s daughter reads aloud the newspaper account of the last minutes of Rubashov’s testimony:
“Asked whether he pleaded guilty, the accused Rubashov answered ‘Yes’ in a clear voice. To a further question of the Public Prosecutor as to whether the accused had acted as an agent of the counter-revolution, he again answered ‘Yes’ in a lower voice ….”
Here seems to be Koestler’s own explanation of the puzzle of the confessions:
Some were silenced by physical fear, like Hare-lip; some hoped to save their heads; others at least to save their wives or sons from the clutches of the Gletkins. The best of them kept silent in order to do a last service to the Party, by letting themselves be sacrificed as scapegoats — and, besides, even the best had each an Arlova on his conscience. They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves. There was no way back for them. Their exit from the stage happened strictly according to the rules of their strange game. The public expected no swan-songs of them. They had to act according to the text-book, and their part was the howling of wolves in the night…. (DN, 105)
Fiction and reality are deeply intertwined here. I don’t believe that Koestler had access to transcripts of the show trials at the time he wrote Darkness at Noon in 1940, though he had read accounts of the trials. So the convergence of the fictional Rubashov and the historical Bukharin is remarkable. And the transformation of Koestler’s own experiences — in Communist activism and in fascist prison under sentence of death — into the fiction of Rubashov is very striking.
The state prosecutor who conducted the show trial of Bukharin was Andrei Vyshinsky. Following his success in the show trials, Vyshinsky became a prominent diplomat under Stalin. And after World War II he served as permanent representative to the United Nations during the period that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted and adopted. He led the Soviet Bloc nations in abstention from the vote adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Here is a fragment of the outrageous speech he gave on this occasion:
Human rights could not be conceived outside the State; the very concept of right and law was connected with that of the State. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, 21-22)
I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings — in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented. George Orwell is another of my favorites in this aspect of literature, including especially Homage to Catalonia and A Collection of Essays; so it is very interesting to me that Orwell wrote the short essay about Koestler mentioned above. It is also interesting that they were both published in England by Victor Gollancz, along with E. P. Thompson.
(Louis Menand has an interesting profile of Koestler in the New Yorker this month.)