‘The Revolutionist’ by Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev: Short Story Analysis
‘The Revolutionist’ is a realistic short story written in 1915 in the naturalism literary style by Russian writer Mikhail Petrovich Artsybashev also known as Mikhail P. Artsybashev. He published this short story just two years before the October Revolution. Artsybashev was highly influenced by contemporary Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov. ‘The Revolutionist’ depicts the atrocities committed during the Russian Revolution where many innocent civilians were shot at point blank range or were flogged. The short-story also brings out how a revolutionary is born and how he allows his conscience to die as he avenges the death of innocents using the mode of violence: An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth policy – Exodus. Gabriel Anderson, the school teacher who represents the intellectual section of Russian society, is moved to become a revolutionary as he witnesses his innocent countrymen’s deaths and floggings, which ultimately led to his own terrible and painful death. ‘The Revolutionist’ is an indictment of how dictators and people in power treat those who try and fight for their rights.
‘The Revolutionist’ is similar in theme to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writings and uses Western European short-story writers’ descriptive style to paint the gruesomeness of the death scenes in this moving and brave short-story. You can check out my analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short stories here. This story is very descriptive and emotive. It uses the naturalist form of literary style. Naturalism is a literary movement that began in the late nineteenth century and is similar to literary realism in its rejection of Romanticism but distinct in its embrace of determinism, detachment, scientific objectivism, and social commentary. The movement primarily traces to the theories of French author Émile Zola.
Gabriel Anderson, the school teacher, who would otherwise spend his time in his school-house writing poetry, which was his mode of expressing his art, one bright early spring snowy day witnesses the killing of two tall young soldiers and a small, frail boy. The gruesomeness of the killings and especially the dead still eyes of the victims moved Gabriel. The scene haunted him and tormented his conscience. He had only heard rumors of such atrocities being committed in Russia. That day he was an unfortunate witness to it happening on his turf.
Gabriel had no earlier connection to violence. He looked like a comical character of intellectualism with his glasses, cane, and short stature. However, after witnessing his village people, whom he knew personally as innocent, become victims of the state, he was moved enough to become a revolutionary. But there is a great paradox in this short story because although Gabriel is moved by the shootings of the two men and the child, he is unmoved by the death of the officer he mercilessly rams to death with his cane. Nor is he moved by his betrayal of the fifteen soldiers who got killed because of him. But this is how revolutionaries are born:
- Seeing the good, poor, and innocent being targeted.
- Witnessing injustice being done with no human or Godly redemption to be had in this lifetime.
- Witnessing day-to-day abuse of civil rights and liberties.
- When they see their country being turned into a macabre dictatorship that does not tolerate freedom of expression or thought in any way, including the words and values of intellectuals like Gabriel himself.
Therefore, one fine day Gabriel joins the local revolutionaries and kills fifteen soldiers. He is devoid of all emotion while doing so because the atrocities committed by those in power have alienated him and have driven humanity, compassion, and forgiveness from his mind and heart. But what about the paradox in this case? After the first shooting Gabriel witnessed, he calmed himself when back in the school-house with lines from Lord Jesus’ Passion mentioned in the Bible:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.—Luke 23: 34
He tries taking recourse to his Orthodox Catholic faith and in the Passion of Christ. However, after he witnesses the ruthless and bloody flogging of seven of his village peasants, his mind is no longer his to take control of. The reason why the floggings and the previous shootings so moved him was:
- Because they were so gruesome, brought out very well by the scandalous and gory depictions of the dead bodies and the floggings by Artsybashev, who uses the naturalistic form wonderfully to depict the pounding of the peasants’ backs into a bloody pulp that it is impossible to read the short-story without emerging from it as enraged and indignant as Gabriel the school-teacher was.
- Gabriel realized that the people who were being flogged were the people he had known all his life, and he was quite aware that they were innocent and were just pawns in the hands of the Russian soldiers. They were peasants, the poor, a much-targeted class of people by the Tsars, the Red Army, and the USSR that came later. Gabriel’s amity and friendship with these people made him feel what they felt as they were being scourged. He felt their shame when their bare bodies were beaten into a bloody pulp of oozing blood and red flesh. He felt their nakedness, their helplessness, and their fear.
- Gabriel could not forget the little boy’s shooting and the way they left the three dead bodies to rot in the snow. Artsybashev does a beautiful job in describing in great colorful detail the dead bodies and lifeless eyes of the two tall men and the little boy. It was, however, their dead white eyes looking towards the moon that moved Gabriel, making him more than anything else, angry at this violence and breach of trust on the part of the soldiers who were supposed to protect the civilians and follow the justice of the courts and not their own laws or vendetta.
- In some way, he had lost his conscience. He knew that he too would undoubtedly be in the place of the others one day, then why wait when one could die with one’s head held high? Why die like a goose when one could die like a hero, even if only the person who would recognize one’s heroism were one’s own self? That is why when he was put in front of the iron railing outside his village to be shot, Gabriel had no remorse. He held his head high, placed his glasses neatly on his nose, hands behind his back like a gentleman, and stood erect for the soldiers to shoot him.
Gabriel became a revolutionary or a revolutionist not out of personal conviction but because of desperation; the Russia he had lived in all his life was changing. He could not bear to see things happening in his village, where everyone used to live in harmony with each other. Here are a few quotes on revolutionaries which we can dwell on in the context of this short-story titled ‘The Revolutionist’:
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.—John F. Kennedy
When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.—Victor Hugo
You can jail a Revolutionary, but you can’t jail the Revolution.—Huey Newton
People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.—Raoul Vaneigem
Revolution is like Saturn; it devours its own children.—Georg Buchner
I want to focus on the last quote by Karl Georg Büchner, a German dramatist and writer of poetry and prose. Gabriel was a child of the revolution. Revolution killed him like it always does. One cringes when one reads the last part of the short-story where Gabriel is shot several times but is not being killed. This is symbolic of his own internal battle, the battle between right and wrong, and the battle of every nation that wrongs their revolutionaries or forces their citizens to become revolutionaries because of despotism. This was evident in the Russia of Artsybashev’s time. When you see people dying like flies during a revolution, brave writers like Artsybashev prevent us from glossing over these deaths like we usually do. He takes us to the heart of their pain, suffering, and the gruesomeness of their death because today it was them; tomorrow, it could be us.
Coming to the way Gabriel betrayed fifteen soldiers, that was a painful read. One would tend to side with Gabriel, but in the end, he too had become like them; he too had fallen for the ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ policy that, as Mahatma Gandhi says, begets only death and destruction and no lasting peace.
An eye for an eye will make the whole world go blind.—Mahatma Gandhi
One does not solve a problem with violence; one only compounds it further. Then the revolution becomes like Saturn, killing off its people without remorse, and that is not what we want and what is required. Gabriel’s choice was erroneous; there is no solution in a violent revolution. Only a non-violent revolution can genuinely bring about some semblance of a victory in this world of power-bashing politics. When we see how Gabriel canes the young beardless officer, and the officer covering his head from the blows with his hands, one sees the little boy or child killed or shot at point-blank in the field. If Gabriel were not so devoid of compassion, maybe he too would have seen the dead child in that gesture or rather reflex of the young beardless officer.
The story ends with the gory and gruesome death of Gabriel himself. It leaves us with a startling question. Was he vindicated, or was his contribution a waste? That depends on whether one understands that one is neither cannon fodder for despots nor so-called violent revolutionaries. Nothing can come from violence; those who live by the sword die by the sword. There is no other sugar-coated way of looking at it. But there is suffering, and one must be human enough to understand that. Artsybashev, through this short-story, teaches us compassion and how citizens of a country can suffer because of those in power.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short-story by Russian writer Artsybashev. I have many pre-and post-revolution Russian literary works that I hope to read, review, and analyze for you. I live a life of seclusion and scholarship with about 32,000 books. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on my blog’s products page. I hope to read and review more works by Artsybashev soon; he is a fascinating writer.
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