The Great Cleansing

Now came the time referred to as The Great Cleansing. It started with the usual marking of doors, arrests of the heads of labor unions, and trials that were over as quickly as they had begun. This had all been happening for months, however, and the people were almost accustomed to it. But soon, the arrests became more widespread. A crate of weapons disappeared and an entire munitions plant was accused of sabotage. They were sentenced to twenty years of hard labor. The potato crops having failed to produce their expected yield that year, the Kollective of Potato Farmers was ordered to produce an explanation. They blamed that summer’s drought; the Ministrie of Justice was not convinced. The farmers were sentence to ten years of hard labor. Soon certain members of the Ministrie of Agriculture joined them. The Great Cleansing had now spread to the highest levels of government. Ministers accused their subministers in an effort to protect themselves. The subministers accused whoever was closest at hand. The profession of the law became more profitable than ever—until a number of lawyers were arrested for having the bad judgment to represent clients accused of crimes against the state. Soon, trials were done away with all together as being an inefficient middle step. Better to house the accused in some subterranean facility, extract a “confession,” and dole out the appropriate sentence: five to thirty years hard labor, depending on the nature of the crime and the mood of the presiding judge. Not even the Ministrie of Justice was safe from its own verdicts. If a judge was too lenient with his sentence, he might be rewarded with a harsher one for himself. Better to err on the side of patriotism. Five-year sentences became rare—reserved for minor crimes such as the theft of a head of cabbage or a school teacher who “forgot” to have his students recite the Joshuan Loyalty Oath first thing in the morning.

Some segments of society were hit harder by The Great Cleansing than others. Joshua University had more than its share of arrests. The Ministries of Justice, Defense, and Intelligence had always viewed it as a potential hotbed of subversive activity and thought; here skolarship students mixed with the wealthy; and the young, always more susceptible to the virus of dissent, had no other responsibility than to read books filled with dangerous thoughts. Many of the professors were notorious liberals and freethinkers. And with the conscription, the unrest on campus had become widespread. Draft resisters were arrested in mass, not just on campus but all over the city. Some had very practical reasons for resisting the draft: fathers had families dependent on them; sons had sick parents. Others, students mostly, simply did not want to fight for a cause they did not believe in. Many had witnessed firsthand the shooting of the Joshua Ten, as those ten skolars who had stood with their arms linked on the steps of the library came to be called. The Joshua Ten became a symbol of resistance in the face of hopeless odds. Any mention of them was cause for immediate arrest, and still their names were whispered at the back tables of The Samovar, in The Nameless Tavern, or anywhere that like-minded people meet and spoke freely.

Yes, speaking freely was the greatest crime of all. And who more guilty of that crime than the artist? Perhaps no segment of society was more thoroughly “cleansed” during this time than the arts. The state could not and would not tolerate the anarchy, the resistance to circumscribed thought, inherent in artistic invention. A painter dropped a wild slash of purple across an otherwise pastoral depiction of The Baikal Sea? Arrest him. A musician composed a symphony that never resolved back to the root chord? Arrest him. A group of writers dared depict humanity in all its complex moral shades? Arrest them all. Art galleries were closed and paintings seized as contraband; theaters were blacklisted for performing decommissioned plays; dance studios were stripped of their license for teaching a style too “subjective” and “personal”; the College of the Arts was cleansed; the Ministrie of Aesthetics was cleansed; the Academy of the Arts was cleansed. This last group was suspected of the distribution of a notorious pamphlet on water-rights. It seems that a certain municipal poet laureate had been unable to disguise rhetorical flourishes distinctive to his style. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to. Perhaps he thought he did not need to. Perhaps he thought, in the hubris of his relative youth, that he was beyond suspicion or punishment. No, he was not that naïve; he simply let his righteous anger affect his better judgment.

But this is not the time or place to examine his—my—motivations of so many years ago. Suffice it to say, esteemed reader, that it was during The Great Cleansing that I, Aleksandr Tuvim, suffered the arrest and mock execution I described at the start of this narrative.

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