FIFTEEN cases for the People’s Court have piled up in the back villages of Khvalynsk Volost. That means a hundred peasants, each making a twenty-or thirty-verst journey down from the hills to Khvalynsk.
‘Instead of coming to you, we are asking the Court to come to us.’ This is the request that Red-beard Lopukhov from Pine Tar Village delivers to Judge Khonin.
‘But the Court has no funds for travel,’ explains the Judge.
‘If you will come, we will furnish horses, food, lodging,’ says the emissary.
‘Agreed,’ replies the Judge.
A bitter cold December day when the yemshik drew up before our doors. I fitted myself into the prosecutor’s felt boots (valenki), the prosecutor into the Judge’s; the Judge confiscated his boy’s. Loading ourselves into a twig basket resembling a bathtub on runners, we climbed up the gully road. A long drive buffeting the wind on the high plateau above the Volga, and at last Pine Tar Village and into a big wall-on-wall fight proceeding in honor of the first fall of snow.
Pine Tar is a big village — six hundred and fifty houses, and a centre for many near-by hamlets.
A well-to-do village. Drawing a double income by adding to its grain fields great onion beds irrigated by many springs.
A cunning village. ‘Six hundred dessiatines sowed’ were the returns officially made to the tax appraiser. Hail beat down the crops, and claims were put in for twelve hundred dessiatines damaged.
A stubborn village. Sixty thousand poods was the grain requisition levied on it in 1919. The village heads announced, ‘Thirty thousand is all that we will give.’ Commissars came, arrested the village heads, sent them off to Khvalynsk. A new assembly was called, new heads elected, but the same reply: ‘Thirty thousand we will give, and not one pood more.’ They in turn were arrested and a Red division billeted in the village. The peasants hid their grain in the earth, sold it to Tatars in the night, carried it off in boots and aprons, distilled it into samogon; anything but give it up to the threatening commissars, who, after a year’s effort, gathered in but fifteen thousand poods — half what the village agreed to give.
An Old Believers’ village. Founded by the Sharpshooters (Streltzi) exiled thither after the revolt against Peter the Great, and enduring century-long persecution from the Orthodox State Church. Their bells were silenced; even the repairing of their prayer house was forbidden; and by special order of the Tsar sentinels were placed at the doors to bar all entrance.
Now the bells swing free, and their soft chiming at evening dusk led me to the prayer house.
Opening the door, I stepped into the Middle Ages — into a big-bearded, black-caftaned peasant mass, whiteframed by long rows of platok-headed women. In the centre an enormous book was held aloft in many upstretched arms, the strange Slavonic script lit by a gigantic green candle, while out of the painted pages forty peasants chanted the ancient liturgy, calling, with incredible rapidity, ‘God’s mercy on us!’ surely not less than a thousand times. Even the Judge, who holds a Tolstoyan animus against the Church, but whom I induced to look in, admitted it was weirdly impressive.
Jeweled ikons, white incense clouds, golden-clad priests swaying with the censers, worshipers in deep prostrations to the floor, endless signing of the cross in unison, hundreds of candle flames pin-pricking the dark, and sombre, big-eyed saints gazing down from their silver frames. I might have succumbed to the mesmerism of the ceremony were it not for profane thoughts about the combustibility of those long beards waving so freely among the candles. Were virgin beards somehow fireproof? Or do they sometimes burn up? For Old Believers this would be a twofold tragedy: the loss of decoration in this world and of a passport into the next.
With these prophet-bearded men in great flowing coats the village looks as though it had stepped out of the Old Testament. And the resemblance is not merely superficial.
It was with the old patriarchal family, the Agaphonovs, that the Court was lodged. Four generations inhabiting two rooms, and on top of them came we — six in number. Samovar and soup were set up by babushka, and out of the Judge’s sausage roll, the prosecutor’s apples, and the defender’s meat, we made a communal feast. After the roster of the morrow’s cases, crimes of the village were called for. The Soviet jurists were young, but they already had a professional taste for crime, like doctors for disease. All that evening we heard the crimes of Pine Tar Village, past, present, and prospective.
They began with the story of what had happened at this very table around which we sat. Here, one saint’s day, sat two big muzhiks, Vassily Nazarovich and Yegor Luda, celebrating their lifelong friendship in demijohns of vodka. They sang the old songs together, kissed, embraced, calling each other ‘Little red sun,’ ‘Blue dove,’ ‘Little white dove’—all the Russian terms of endearment. But all so inadequate to the exaltation of their feelings! Nothing left but that peculiar means by which the peasant expresses the extremes of his affection — the fists.
‘ For love’s sake, Vassily,’ said Yegor, ‘let’s go out and fight!’
The two giants, squaring off, rushed at each other like bulls, voices crying, bodies crushing, fists thudding, crimsoning the snow with blood. Finally a sledge-hammer blow on Yegor’s temple, knocking him dead.
Vassily, grief-stricken, wanted to kill himself. But so obviously it was ‘a fight for love’s sake’ that Vassily’s sentence was nominal — three months’ jail and the injunction never to fight again.
The greatest tragedy in the village annals was in the blizzard of 1912, on a howling night that muffled every sound. It happened in the izba next door. Zakhar, a sober, God-fearing, industrious muzhik, suddenly picked up the usual instrument of peasant execution, an axe, and proceeded to chop his family to pieces. The sixyear-old son desperately rushed the father, but was shoved out of doors, and beat his way through the storm to the Agaphonovs. When Jacob pushed his way into the house he found blood spurts on the ceiling, the daughter headless, the wife in shreds, and Zakhar on top of the stove, smoking.
The murder has passed into poetry, a long epic ballad that was half sung, half recited by son Jacob in a steady monotone. Under its influence Grandfather Ivan, on top of his stove, drifted off to sleep.
Time for all to turn in. The last baby was put in a springing cradle hung from the ceiling. Father Anton and his wife lay on the bed. Son Jacob and wife stretched out on the floor. Likewise grandson Feodor and tangles of children. Likewise the Court. Removing coats, we stretched out in a row, trying to sleep in the equatorial heat engendered by this mass of humanity and two mammoth stoves. Too much for me. I went out to the cow shed. Later, judge and prosecutor came out to bunk with me in the straw, to brush away the snow that sifted through the cracks, and to speculate upon the ferocious passions that lie latent in these mild, blue-eyed, apostlefaced peasants.
In the morning we found the hall for the court filled with smoke and fumes from a leaking stove. ‘Impossible!’ said the Judge. The schoolhouse was proposed — that meant turning out the children. ‘ Impossible! ’ said the Judge. Someone said, ‘Why not open the windows?’ Attention, skeptics about the advance of revolutionary ideas among the masses! In a Russian village in winter time the windows were opened! As the smoke and fumes went out the crowd came in, and straightway the hail was warming up with a thousand oxygen-burning lungs.
‘Before court opens, let’s have a meeting,’ said the Judge. The theory of Soviet law and legislation was the subject of the Judge’s discourse. It was formal, heavy with verbiage. Deeply impressed were his auditors: A learned man is the Judge. He knows the law.
A practical man is the Judge. He knows peasant life, too. Tins is manifest in the informal talk that follows on the moot questions of the village: why boys steal grain; why families are breaking up; why daughters-in-law have become unmanageable. Homely, colloquial, to the point. The peasants were delighted. The cry, ‘ Pravilno! Pravilno!' (‘ Right! Right! ’) grew louder and louder.
The Judge had attained his end. The competence of the Court had been established.
Meantime Lopukhov individualized for me some outstanding figures in the roaring, surging peasant mass.
Andrew Kooznetzov, the biggest kvas drinker. Zotey, the strongest man: getting under the belly of a horse and clutching the four legs together, he carried it out of the stable. Babinkov, a Russian southpaw, his left fist a battering ram that always smashes a way to victory in the wall-on-wall fighting. Boodilin, one-time hawker of reserved seats in Paradise to the Moravians — ‘Few places left; buy now!’ Gregory Isachev, for thirty years the chief chosen by the village for bribing officials; he never met a judge, surveyor, or chinovnik he could n’t give a present to for the general weal of the village — some commissars to his credit, too. Jacob Beloogin, renowned horse thief, but never caught at it. Nikolai Kolgin, champion samogon distiller, his stuff eighty per cent strong. Vassily Lopukhov, who wants the return of monarchy: ‘The birds,’ he says, ‘have a tsar—the eagle; the bees a queen; even the geese a vozhaty.’ Izaac Emelianov, breathing slaughter against the Orthodox priest who ran away with the Whites to Siberia and now lives in a neighbor parish. Isaac says, ‘Let the priest show his head in Pine Tar and I will kill him.’ Metrophanov, hellroaring cavalryman, soured against Moscow because it does n’t declare war on somebody — Poland, China, Africa, it’s all the same to him.
In the sea of peasant gray was one fleck of vivid color, the new redslashed uniform of the ‘militioner.’ He was a singularly aloof individual. Only his uniform to indicate that he had any connection with the Court and with the prisoners. In reality there were no prisoners. For in a Russian village one’s share of the land is more binding than bail or prison bars. The procedure is very simple. An inspector investigates, draws up a protocol; the accused is notified when to appear for trial.
Everything is ready. Khonin introduces the cojudges (zasedateli), the peasants Kootishev and Damitov, who, as they are drawn from another village, Boltinovka, are assumed to be without partiality or prejudice. He explains that he acts as President of the Court, the cojudges having equal powers with himself. He declares the court open and calls the first case.
‘Gorbooshev—Anisim Simonovitch.’ ‘Birthplace?’ ‘Pine Tar Village.’ ‘Age?’ ‘Thirty-three.’ ‘Married?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Property?' ‘Boots and clothes I stand up in.’ ‘Do you challenge any member of the Court?’ ‘ No.’ ‘Do you have confidence in your judges to give you a fair trial?’ ‘I do.’
Gorbooshev has a peasant’s body, big, well built. A peasant’s face, broad and smiling. But in voice and bearing is all the urbanity of a man of affairs. And so he is — or was. One-time Tsar officer, one-time Red Commander, onetime Communist, one-time Moscow Coöperator. Now standing before the bar of Pine Tar Village.
Drunk in the Khvalynsk market. Singing drunk on the Volga steamer. Sprawling drunk on the herring wharf at Volsk. But what of that? In Russia a man preserves the inalienable right to get drunk. Gorbooshev has inherited rights as well. He comes from a long line of notorious drinkers. His father, a most religious man, — compelling his family every morning to rise at three o’clock and pray before his forty ikons until five, — was a drunkard. So were his grandfather and great-grandfather. Gorbooshev’s appetite has come down a long way and grown in the coming.
It is not drunkenness, however, that Gorbooshev is charged with, but his drinking up nine hundred rubles of the Pine Tar Coöperative, of which he was president and buyer. Sometimes it was a whiff from a samogon still that started up his thirst. Sometimes private traders primed the willing victim with vodka, and he sold them the wares of the Coöperative cheap in order to get money for more vodka.
All these exploits Gorbooshev explains in detail. He palliates nothing, conceals nothing, confesses all. All so objectively that it might be the misdeeds and debauches of someone else he is describing — so completely identifying himself with the community that he actually gets to grieving with it over the misfortune of having such a president. Their affliction is his affliction. And by a reverse process his weakness is their weakness. All of them — somehow the Court, too, whom he addresses as ‘Comrade judges’ — are in the muck together, and somehow all together they must get out of it.
Now the defender, Vasiyev. He shows that Gorbooshev’s vodka spreeing was not unmitigated evil. True, certain traders plied him with vodka for their ends; but he in turn plied other traders with vodka, selling them onions at fifty kopecks above the market price, on this one deal alone making an extra profit of sixteen hundred rubles for the Pine Tar onion growers.
Next the prosecutor, Bolshakov. He picks up the onions and, so to speak, rubs them into the defender’s eyes. He shows that the onion buyers Gorbooshev corrupted were agents of the main Coöperative. ’Out of the main Coöperative come all our goods; out of this corruption come higher prices. Cloth leaving Moscow at thirty kopecks brings fifty kopecks in Pine Tar — thanks to these criminals. As once horse stealing was epidemic in the village, now it is Coöperative stealing. Moscow cries out, “Stop these thieves!” There they stopped them with bullets, shooting sixteen of these enemies of the Soviet. We don’t ask you to shoot Gorbooshev, but to put him where such birds belong — in a cage.’
Acid, stinging words, taking the smile off the face of Gorbooshev. Like a great hurt child, he stands fingering the Lenin badge on his coat.
‘Enemy of the Soviet’? Didn’t he twenty times risk his life for that Soviet, leading his troops against the Whites? ‘Criminal’? Wasn’t it he who put his feeble Coöperative on its feet, raising its capital from one hundred to twelve thousand rubles? ‘Thief’? He had n’t forged any documents, falsified any accounts. True, he took a little money. Not for his pocket, but for his throat, to slake the burning thirst there. And everybody else’s thirst also.
’If he had only one bottle of vodka, he would give you half of it,’ whispers a peasant to me. Greater love hath no man than this.
‘How am I to blame? With the same thirst, in the same position, anybody might have done the same.’ That’s the way he feels. And that’s the way most of the peasants feel, touched with pity when Gorbooshev, discouraged by the grilling, gives it up and throws himself upon the mercy of the Court. Had he turned round and thrown himself upon the mercy of the peasants, the Court in all probability would have been assailed by a storm of voices crying, ‘Forgive! Forgive!’ Knowing his peasants, Gorbooshev knows this well. He has fallen a long way, but not so far as this.
The case is closed. The judges retire to prepare the verdict. There are calls from the floor: ‘The American! The American! Tell us about your land across the sea!’
I compare the two countries, peoples and food, incidentally touching on the relative leanness of Americans. A voice calls out: ‘If, as you say, the Americans are thinner than we are, why is it that you, citizen Williams, are so full-blooded?’ (Polnokrovny — polite word for ‘fat.’)
I explain: ‘It’s because I’ve been in Russia three years and eaten much bread and kasha.'
‘And drunk much vodka and samogon,’ mumbles a muzhik in the centre.
I break to them the dread news that in America all liquor — vodka, whiskey, wine, beer — is forbidden. A general groan, and an old man rising to ask, ‘Is this the reason, then, comrade, you came to live with us in Russia?’
‘And if it is a free country,’ puts in another, ‘why do they stop vodka?’
One reason I offer is the vast number of factories, trains, and automobiles in America. A worker a little unsteady from alcohol may kill many people and destroy valuable machines.
‘That means, brother muzhiks,’shouts a voice from the back, ’if we are going to have tractors we must give up vodka.'
Bursts of laughter and cries of ‘Never! Never!'
Our pleasant colloquy is interrupted by the cry: ‘The Court assembles! The peasants rise, and Khonin reads the verdict: —
‘In the name of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republics, the People’s Court of the Sixth District [and so forth], hearing the case of Gorbooshev, age 33 [and so forth], for misappropriation of funds [and so forth], declares him guilty, and sentences him to one year in prison. But taking into consideration his services in organizing the Coöperative, his frank confession [and so forth], ten months of this term arc made conditional. Two months to serve.'
From the formal decision the Judge at once passes to an informal interpretation. ‘We bring in a sentence of guilty on one man. It might well be a sentence of guilty on a thousand men — upon all of you. You saw your president drinking. Some of you drank with him. You knew vodka costs money. You knew where he got it. But you did nothing about it. Never shall we have social institutions until we have social responsibility.’ Pointing the moral of the strong man broken by strong drink, he declares a recess.
Now the peasants’ verdict on the verdict.
‘Too hard! Sitting in a cage — what good will that do?' Against this majority a few voices declare the sentence too soft. Gorbooshev’s wife thinks he ought to have a year. Gorbooshev himself thinks it about right. At any rate, he can’t get anything to drink for two months.
‘Goorlev!’ calls the secretary clerk.
An overcoat less peasant, carrying a silver-headed cane, steps forward. He is charged with ‘ insulting the Government’ in the person of five members of the Soviet of Yelkhovka, a near-by village. They testify that he called them ‘impostors, bandits, and thieves,’ and that when they refused his demands he cried out: ‘I’m a Communist, and I’ll show you who runs Russia.’ This is an old feud. Even here the five peasants keep slyly baiting hot-tempered Goorlev. Maybe they will provoke another explosion.
‘They are all koolaks conspiring against me!’ he declares. Swathed in enormous tooloops, they do have a distinctly koolak look. But it turns out that not one has more than a single horse or two cows. They are ‘middle peasants. Beaten on point after point, the Communist calls up his record in the Revolution. While these five skulked at home, he fought. ‘ Are not my services to be taken into consideration?’
‘When you stand before a commission of the Communist Party, they are,’ replies the Judge; ‘but not here. This is a Soviet court. In it you stand like any other citizen.’
The Court’s verdict, however, is inconsistent with this statement. ’Fifteen days of compulsory labor. Taking into account that Goorlev is a Communist, thirty days extra. A copy of this sentence to be sent to the Party.’
Next came two lads up for insulting a girl. They had painted her door with tar — in a Russian village no slur is worse than this. As is smeared the peasant’s door, so is smeared the peasant’s daughter. The culprits, frightened, declare they will never do it again. They are let off with a lecture on hooliganism and staying up all night till rooster crow.
Next, a village baba who performed criminal operations. Wires and spindles were her surgical instruments. Taking court exhibit A, a bent, rusted knitting needle, which she used in her last case, the Judge asked: —
‘Is this clean?’
‘According to us — clean.’
‘Where did you keep the needle?’
‘On the ikon shelf.’
‘Did you ever disinfect it before using?’
‘Sometimes sprinkled it with holy water.’
She is given six months, but when she promises to cease the practice, sentence is made conditional.
‘Now,’ says the Judge, ‘let us look into this evil. We hold that the right to bear a child or not rests with the woman. If she is sick, or has too large a family, or there is dire necessity, she can come to the Khvalynsk hospital, where skilled physicians will perform the operation free. But how is it generally done? By ignorant babas like this one, often crippling or killing the mothers. Who is to blame for that? You men — you fathers. A girl goes “walking”; nature takes her course. Something happens. The frightened girl must hide it or be driven from home, beaten half to death by her father. But did none of you men go walking before you were married? Do you drive your sons from home, beat them half to death, when they go walking? How is the woman more to blame than the man? Equal rights for all. This is the Soviet position. The village too must come to this.’
Through such homilies the Judge attains one of the objects set before the People’s Court. It becomes a school of citizenship. When the attention of the hearers flagged, he would refresh the courtroom — and himself—with a story. Most of the stories were like the following, ironic reflections upon the old order.
In Ivanovka Village the old starosta was in trouble over the taxes. One night the inspector, a fierce, moustached, foot-stamping giant, came driving up in his troika.
Without seeing the starosta, he put up at the pope’s house. A sleepless night for the already worried starosta. Worse still, in the morning a poor muzhik tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in his shed. He was cut down, still breathing, and the starosta, terribly wrought up, ran off to the inspector to report. Dripping sweat, cap in hand, he stood quaking before the door for a long time, not daring to knock. Finally, crossing himself, he pushed it open, thrust his white head in, and, coughing slightly to attract attention, mumbled: —
‘Your Highness, I’m the starosta.’
‘Well!’ roared the inspector, turning to him.
‘Please, sir, there is a muzhik who just hanged himself out there.’
‘What did you do?’
‘We took him down, Your Highness.’
‘Took him down?’ bellowed the inspector, pounding the table. ‘ Svoloch, pig! By what right? You should have placed guards and reported to the authorities. I’ll teach you —'
But the starosta was off to the shed, where he found the muzhik just gaining consciousness. Taking on the tone and manner of the inspector, he roared to the crowd: ‘Svoloch, pigs! Go home! Disperse! And you guards pick up the man and hang him again.’
‘But he’s alive!’ they protested.
‘No matter. The inspector has commanded it. Hang him up, and you guards stand at attention.’
Hardly was the gasping victim strung up when the inspector arrived on the scene.
‘Your Highness,’ said the starosta, again crossing himself and bending low, ’he begged not to be hung up. But we did it just as Your Highness ordered.’
The story is not so fantastic as might seem. As Nastyrev, a great peasant jurist, says: ‘In the eyes of the muzhik, law is something terrible, mysterious, incomprehensible, in the name of which the Government terrorizes, abuses, and mutilates, whips out arrears in taxes, exiles to Siberia, disembowels corpses, pulls down houses, kills stock, drafts into the army, ad infinitum.' And Kocharovsky, another old authority on peasant life, says, ‘The rôle of law in the life of the peasant is something similar to a dreadful natural phenomenon; the purpose of it is not understood, but its power is felt to be irresistible.’
Every old peasant knows how the officers of the law, arbitrary and aloof and sacrosanct, used to encourage a blind submission to authority, a slavish groveling before them.
In glaring contrast to this old officialdom was the conduct of the new personnel, removing from the court every formality except rising to hear the verdict; wearing no insignia of party or office, unless the red worsted scrolls on the Judge’s Novgorod felt boots may be accounted such; sharing with the peasants the decisions and application of the law; taking them into the secret of the making of laws and of judges.
‘How did you become a judge?’ asked the old Agaphonov.
‘The Party told me to go and be a judge. “How can I?” I asked. “Simple enough,” they answered. “Start judging, and you will be a judge.” So I did — and here I am.’
All barriers with the Judge were down. He made himself utterly accessible. Each day he held court till seven. Then in our quarters a samovar court till midnight, son Jacob dispensing tea, the Judge dispensing stories and counsel to all who came.
It is like a confessional. A newly married soldier suddenly remembering he has a second wife in the Ukraine. A young Tatar bumping his wife off his wagon and stove in order to bring on a miscarriage. Another girl with child. Shall she give birth to it out of wedlock?
‘Of course,’ says the Judge.
‘But it has no means of support,’ says the girl.
‘It has a father, has n’t it?’ says the Judge. ‘If he won’t pay, tell him you will bring him into court and make him.’
Rarely he thus calls up the strong arm of the law, always offering services of mediation, reconciling hastily married and hastily repentant youth, hottempered sons with despotic fathers, and to all would-be litigants quoting the proverb, ‘Don’t go into the courts. The bast shoe will cost more than the felt boot.’
All this good fellowship of the Judge the younger generation accepts in a natural, matter-of-fact way. But the elders cannot get out of their heads the ancient conception of a judge.
One night came a delegation of four, the spokesman the very image of Ilya Moorometz in the Tretyakov Gallery. With beard sweeping the floor as he bowed, he began with the ancient formula of address to officials: —
‘S-sh! Hush!’ mumbled the others, tugging at his coat. This salutation they knew was n’t right. But what is right?
Each salutation, old and new, they try in turn, while the Judge keeps repeating, ‘ Sit down! ’ He has to force them into the chairs. But they could not be at ease. For with them holds strong the old idea of a judge as a dignitary of great power, and incidentally of great venality. A personage to be feared — and to be bribed.
‘A gift to the judge, the case is decided,’ goes an old Russian proverb. Every old peasant knows that, well remembering the old officials junketing with the richer peasants at the Elder’s house. There behind the closed doors, around a demijohn of vodka, many cases were decided, generally in favor of the owner of the demijohn or the man who kept it filled.
Over in Yelshanka another Ilya Moorometz, carrying on the old tradition, slipped the Judge a bottle of vodka. Khonin brought the bottle to court, placed it on the table, and told the peasants what had happened.
‘I’ve got the vodka, and, according to Statute 114 of the Criminal Code, the giver gets one year in prison. However, let him go. He was raised in the old ways. But we want new ways. We Communists are trying to clean out the dishonest and put in the honest; then you come around trying to corrupt us. Men are weak. So long as there are peasant bribe-givers, there will be official bribe-takers. To your cry, “Give us honest officials!” we answer, “Give us honest peasants."'
But Khonin has no cause to complain about his constituency. To a people nurtured in the institutions of autocracy, he comes with the most ultrademocratic of institutions. To a people for centuries kept aloof and in fear of their officials, he comes with ultra camaraderie, hands down and defenseless. I was on the lookout for someone to presume upon this with a gratuitous familiarity, some backslipping act of rustic boorishness. But there was none. These peasants were worthy of the democracy they were getting. The more he democratized his bearing, the more respect and deference he received. Before one’s eyes one could watch the rise of the authority of the Court and the prestige of the Soviet.
Conversely, too, one may see the authority of the ancient faith and the prestige of the old institutions failing. Each trip has its devastating effect. One expedition of the Judge into the village is about equal to one ton of propaganda literature.
‘ Come to supper! ’ ’Comrade Judge, come over and we’ll set up a samovar.’ Scores of these invitations besiege him. So the Judge enters into the homes of the strictest sectarians, to whom anyone not an Old Believer is unclean, a ‘worldly’ man who contaminates even the dishes out of which he eats. Afterward they must be broken to pieces, or cleansed by a long ceremonial. When an Old Believer baba serves the Judge a plate of cabbage, he warns her, ‘It will cost you forty epitoms or forty kopecks to get a new plate.’
But she laughs. Is n’t the Judge for women? Hasn’t he praised the ‘milk and blood’ cheeks of her ten-year-old Marusya? Somehow the Judge is one of their own, and to him the religious interdictions do not apply. So the breach in the old customs is made. Maybe not always for the common good.
Smoking, for example. As hats for women and razors for men, so tobacco in the Old Believers’ code is forbidden to all. And the Judge smokes. Four years ago he took up the habit, but he carries it on with all the zeal of a new convert. In the intermission after the Gorbooshev case, he asked the peasants: —
At his quarters he always laid the box of Cannon cigarettes on the table. Anybody might take one. But, as befitting Old Believers, no one did. So stood their forbears against tobacco in the days of Peter the Great; so stand their sons to-day. Thus I wrote it down, and thus my testimony would stand had I not observed one night Foma Karpovitch strangely edging his cap over to the box. Presently some cigarettes disappeared. Then Foma disappeared.
A few minutes later I opened the door of the cow shed to find three fortyyear-old muzhiks coughing and blowing smoke through their beards. They tried to look innocent, then laughed, and, like bad boys caught smoking in the barn, swore me not to tell.
‘Papasha,’ said Foma, ‘would abuse us dreadfully; maybe they would try us before the church.’ Foma, however, was not to be caught napping. His line of defense was all laid out. The Old Believers’ interdiction against smoking is based on the text, ‘Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.’
’Look!' said Foma, emitting a stream of smoke through his nostrils to the great admiration of his fellow accomplices. ‘It does n’t come out of my mouth, but out of my nose.'
‘Evidently the making of a firstclass judge in Foma,’ was Khonin’s comment when I told him the story.
A keen sense of the comic spirit in life has the Judge. It makes him look at all things humorously, objectively — even judges.
‘To what end fines and jails?’ he philosophized. ‘How ridiculous to make men good by doing them evil! How presumptuous to make one man arbiter of the fate of his fellow men!’
These are the ideas of Tolstoy, Hugo, Zola, picked up in youth, reflected now in his conversation. Once I heard a public outburst of them. It was at Popovka, where he set forth the theory of Soviet law: —
Not rigid framework into which the peasant must fit his life, but flexible forms, adjusting themselves to the central practice and interest of the peasants. Not codes springing readymade from the brains of autocratic rulers, but rules of life drawn up by the people themselves. Followed a referendum upon the proposed change in the marriage code: to declare all marriages legally valid, whether registered in the Soviet or not. Incidentally, though this would raise the status of Church marriages, ninety-five per cent of the peasants voted against it.
Now rose the peasant Borodin, enthusiastically exclaiming, ‘Who would ever dream that the Court would travel out to us, that it would consult with us about the laws? I tell you, brother muzhiks, that this is good!’
Khonin rose, saying, ‘And I will tell you something better. That is, the day will come when there will be no need for a court to come to you — when there will be no militia or codes or jails; no judges, no prosecutors.’
This is Khonin the dreamer, indulging in visions of the Communist society to be. Khonin the realist knows that, in the society that is, the Court must continue to function; that his task is to make it function more effectively, to make himself more efficient. That’s the reason why, at the call of the Party, this winter, he is reluctantly leaving his village for Saratov, to take a year’s course of study to fill up the gaps in his knowledge.