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215 2 An Icon with Death In concluding his summation in defense of Vera Zasulich, Peter Alexandrov had emphasized that all of the preceding arguments were made not for the benefit of his client, but rather only for the purpose of helping the jury resolve “the questions standing before it.” As for Zasulich, the ultimate proof of her selflessness was her complete indifference to the outcome of the trial: “for her it is all the same to be buried according to this or that law.” He continued: “When she crossed the threshold of the governor’s house with the determined intention to allow the thought that was tormenting her, she knew and understood, that she was sacrificing everything—her freedom, the remains of her broken life, all of that small portion given her by stepmother fate.”1 Ivan Turgenev, the renowned author of Notes of a Hunter (Zapiski okhotnika) and Fathers and Sons (Otsi i deti), regarded the furor surrounding the Zasulich affair from France.2 An avowed liberal and devoted champion of reform, Turgenev recoiled from acts of revolutionary violence and terror.3 Nevertheless, he, like Dostoevsky, was swift to temper his condemnation of the revolutionaries by implicating the government’s mishandling of sedition as well as general misrule in the escalation of anti-state violence. Turgenev regarded the “Vera Mania” that swept Western Europe (especially France) in spring 1878 with ironic bemusement and cannily refused requests to serve as the resident expert 216 Part Four: The Beautiful Dead (Deed) on nihilists. On April 30 he reported to Stasiulevich: “From Germany I have received a pressing request to write an article on the trial [of Zasulich ] because all the newspapers see a close link between Zasulich and Marianne in Virgin Soil (Nov’, 1877). I have even been nicknamed der Prophet. I naturally refused.”4 As natural as his refusal might have been, Turgenev did not entirely let slip the opportunity to immortalize his prophetic vision in a prose poem that embraced Trepov’s threshold as a metaphor for the double-edged “moral choice” to sacrifice the self and another. Порог Я вижу громадное здание. В передней стене узкая дверь раскрыта настежь, за дверью—угрюмая мгла. Перед высоким порогом стоит девушка . . . Русская девушка. Морозом дышит та непроглядная мгла; и вместе с леденящей струей выносится из глубины здания медлительный, глухой голос. —О ты, что желаешь переступить этот порог,—знаешь ли ты, что тебя ожидает? —Знаю,—отвечает девушка. —Холод, голод, ненависть, насмешка, презрение, обида, тюрьма, болезнь, и самая смерть? —Знаю. —Отчуждение полное, одиночество? —Знаю. Я готова. Я перенесу все страдания, все удары. —Не только от врагов—но и от родных, от друзей? —Да . . . и от них. —Хорошо. Ты готова на жертву? —Да. —На безымянную жертву? Ты погибнешь—и никто . . . никто не будет даже знать, чью память почтить! —Мне не нужно ни благодарности, не сожаления. Мне не нужно имени. —Готова ли ты на преступление? Девушка потупила голову . . . —И на преступление готова. Голос не тотчас возобновил свои вопросы. —Знаешь ли ты,—заговорил он наконец,—что ты можешь разувериться в том, чему веришь теперь, можешь понять, что обманулась и даром погубила свою молодую жизнь? —Знаю и это. И все-таки я хочу войти. —Войди! An Icon with Death 217 Девушка перешагнула порог—и тяжелая завеса упала за нею. —Дура!—проскрежетал кто-то сзади. —Святая!—принеслось откуда-то в ответ.5 The Threshold I see an enormous building. At the front a narrow door is flung open: behind the door—forbidding gloom. A girl stands before the high threshold . . . A Russian girl. The impenetrable doom breathes frost; and with icy streams a deliberate hollow voice resounds from the depths of the building. “O you who wish to cross this threshold, do you know what awaits you?” “I know,”—the girl answers. “Cold, hunger, hate, ridicule, contempt, humiliation, prison, disease, and death itself?” “I know.” “Total isolation, loneliness?” “I know . . . I’m prepared. I will tolerate all the suffering, all the blows.” “Not only from enemies—but also from family, from friends.” “Yes, from them as well.” “Good. Are you prepared for sacrifice?” “Yes.” “For anonymous sacrifice? You will die—and no one . . . no one will even know, whom to commemorate.” “I need neither gratitude nor pity. I do not need a name.” “Are you prepared to commit a crime?” The girl lowered her head . . . “And I’m prepared to commit a crime.” The voice did not immediately resume its questions. “Do you know,” the voice began at last, “that you may lose faith in what you believe now, that you may come to understand that you deceived yourself and that you destroyed your young life in vain?” “I know that also. And nevertheless I want to enter.” “Enter!” The girl crossed the threshold and a heavy curtain fell behind her. “Fool!” screeched someone behind. “Saint!” came from somewhere in answer.6 In the last years of his life, Turgenev was accumulating what he referred to as “prose poems” under a working title, which alternated between the doleful Posthuma and Senilia. “The Threshold,” written a 218 Part Four: The Beautiful Dead (Deed) month-and-a-half after Zasulich’s acquittal, was prudently consigned to the desk drawer, but then submitted to Stasiulevich for publication at an equally inauspicious time—just a year after the assassination of Alexander II. As in the case of Polonsky’s “Female Prisoner,” the cautious Stasiulevich made a number of changes. In order to disclaim any possible historic reference, Stasiulevich added the subtitle “dream” (son). To give the impression of impartiality and create balance between the two contesting voices at the end of the poem, he replaced “screeched” with the neutral “said” (govoril), and the “came from somewhere in answer” with “came...


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