THE FOUNDATION PIT
body gets weak without truth.
In a dusty little town, a worker named Voshchev is fired from his job at a small machine
factory. The management says he just stands around thinking while everyone
else is working. Voshchev tries to defend himself,
saying that he is trying to work out a plan for life, a way of achieving
happiness and spiritual meaning which would raise productivity. The trade
union committee is unimpressed, saying that "Happiness will come from
materialism, not from meaning." Further, they ask, "What if
we all suddenly get carried away thinking--who will
be left to act?"
Voshchev protests, saying, "If they don't
think, people act senselessly!"
Having nowhere to go, Voshchev sets off wandering
down the road. He comes upon an isolated road keeper's house. The roadkeeper and his wife are loudly arguing in front of
their young child, who takes it all in silently. Voshchev
rebukes the couple for forgetting what's essential and for not respecting
their child, who, after all, will be around long after they are gone. The
roadkeeper rudely tells Voshchev
to continue on his way. Voshchev resolves to work
out the secret of life and return someday to relate it to the child.
Voshchev continues down the road. He feels his
body going weak without the truth. He needs to know the exact structure
of the entire world and what it is he should aim for.
Voshchev reaches another town. He witnesses a
cripple who has lost both legs harass a blacksmith into giving him some
tobacco. The cripple is named Zhachev.
A column of young Pioneer girls goes marching by. Voshchev watches them with a feeling of shame,
thinking that they probably know and feel more than he does. Zhachev also watches the girls. Thinking that Zhachev might intend harm to the girls, Voshchev tells him to move off. Zhachev
snarls at Voshchev with brutal scorn. It's
obvious to Zhachev that Voshchev
never fought in a war, and he notes, "A man who's never seen war is
like a woman who's never given birth--soft in the head!"
Feeling isolated, Voshchev finds a grassy
field and lies down to sleep in it. Around midnight, he is awakened by a man
with a scythe, who is mowing down the thick grass. The man tells Voshchev that this empty space has now become a building
site and stone buildings will soon be erected.
On the advice of the man with the scythe, Voshchev
finds a workers barracks, full of exhausted,
sleeping men. Voshchev lies down among them to
In the morning, the workers size up Voshchev's
unimpressive physique. They are uninterested when he says, "My body
gets weak without truth."
After breakfast, a trade union representative arrives to give the men a tour
of the town, so they can see the significance of the work they are to
undertake. They will be building the All-Proletarian Home, a single
edifice large enough to house the whole of the local proletariat. The
representative has brought a brass band for the occasion. Comrade Safronov, the most politically active of the workers,
however, angrily tells the trade union representative that they don't need a
band or a tour to raise their consciousness. They know about the squalor
on their own. He calls the representative a toady.
The men go out to the new-mown field and begin to dig a foundation pit,
which had been marked out by an engineer, to whose resourceful, attentive mind
the world had always yielded; and if matter always yielded to precision
and perseverance, this meant that it must be barren and dead.
Voshchev works at a much slower pace than the most
of the men. Only one weak and emaciated man, Kozlov,
works at a slower pace. The other men taunt Kozlov
because he masturbates under the covers at night.
After six hours of labor, the engineer says that because it is Saturday, it
is time to stop. Safronov on the others, however,
saying they have enough energy and enthusiasm, insist on working more.
That night, while the workers are sleeping, Prushevsky,
the work supervisor for the All-Proletarian Home, comes to examine the
foundation pit. In a year's time, the entire local proletariat will leave the
old town and take up residence in the monumental new home. Despite his
knowledge, Prushevsky feels that something is
preventing him from understanding anything further about life, about the
soul. There is no one who really needs him. He is useful to people,
but doesn't make anyone happy. In place of hope, all he has now is
endurance. So he decides to kill himself. But first he has to write a
letter to his sister.
The next morning, digging continues. Pashkin,
the chairman of the Regional Trades Union Council, shows up and reprimands
the men for working too slowly. Prushevsky arrives
up with some more workers. They're all basically unfit--drifters or
reeducated former bureaucrats--but there is a shortage of proletarians,
so they're set to work.
One of the workers, Chiklin sees that nearby
there is a gully which is pretty much the right size for them to use as the
foundation pit. He makes this suggestion. After all, it would save them some
work. Safronov wants to know where Chiklin gets off thinking up things the educated people
haven't thought of. All Chiklin can say in defense
is, "When you've nothing to live for, you get to thinking inside your
head." Prushevsky, who is basically
indifferent to things now that he expects to die soon, orders the men to take
some soil samples from the gully.
Voshchev brings soil samples to Prushevsky.
He asks the engineer if he knows what nature's all
about, how the world was constructed. Prushevsky
says he was taught only about the dead bits of this and that, never about
the inside of anything or about things as a whole.
Free both of hope and of any desire for satisfaction, Prushevsky
spends longer than usual examining the soil samples. "All he wanted was
to busy himself with objects and structures, so that they, rather than
friendship and personal attachments, would fill his mind and his empty
the time of the Revolution, dogs howled day and night all over Russia
Zhachev hobbles over to Pashkin's
house to collect his regular ration. He crudely abuses Pashkin
and Pashkin's wife the whole time. Pashkin's wife is irritated but doesn't say anything,
remembering that Zhachev once denounced Pashkin to the Regional Party Committee. Pashkin was cleared, but the investigation dragged on for
months, and a big to-do was made over Pashkin's
name and patronymic--"Leon Ilych"
("Just whose side is he on?" some asked.)
Zhachev goes off to the workers' barracks and eats
some kasha with the men, mainly to demonstrate his equality with the others.
Safronov looks at the bleak landscape and wonders,
"why do the fields all look so dreary? Does the world have nothing
inside but sorrow?"
Voshchev complains that all they do is dig and
sleep. He thinks he would be better off begging around the collective farms.
He says, "Without truth I feel ashamed to be alive."
Safronov tries to sympathize with Voshchev, but, he ponders, "Was it not the case that
the truth was simply a class enemy? Nowadays, after all, the class
enemy was quite capable of sidling its way into your imagination and even
Prushevsky, frightened and sad at home, comes to
the barracks and sleeps with the workers.
In the morning, Kozlov is shocked to see that Prushevsky--a man from the leadership--is sleeping with
the common workers. Kozlov sees this as a violation
of the social order and threatens to complain.
In talking with Chiklin, Prushevsky
recalls a girl he saw many years ago in the pre-Revolutionary days. He can't
recall what she looked like, but remembers taking a liking to her as she
passed him by, never stopping. Prushevsky wishes he
could see this girl again. Chiklin says the girl
was probably the daughter of the Dutch-tile factory boss. Chiklin had had his own run-in with this girl when he was
working at the factory. One day, she came up to him and kissed him.
Thinking her brazen, Chiklin did not respond
and just kept walking past her. Prushevsky and Chiklin suppose that by now this girl has grown old
Kozlov decides to go to the Social Security office
to get himself an invalid's pension. That way, he will have more free time to
keep an eye on everything so as to keep society safe from harm and make sure
there aren't any petty-bourgeois uprisings. Safronov
brands Kozlov a "parasite...an unprincipled
opportunist bent on abandoning the working masses." Kozlov shoots back that Safronov
is a wrecker who tried to undermine collectivization by once inciting a poor
peasant to slaughter and eat a cock. Safronov
ignores this and walks away. "He didn't much like it when people
Work on the foundation pit continues. Worn out by the heavy labor, Voshchev is more resigned to his situation. "He
contented himself with going out on his days off and collecting all kinds of
unfortunate little scraps of nature as documentary proof that the world
had been created without a plan, as evidence of the melancholia in every
living breath." He tells Safronov that he
wants truth so as to increase the productivity of labor. Safronov
admonishes him that what the proletariat really lives for is enthusiasm
for labor. Chiklin goes to the old Dutch-tile
factory, which is abandoned and falling apart. In a remote part of the
factory he finds the boss's daughter, who had kissed him so many years ago.
She is now a toothless old hag on the brink of death. She is being
tended to by her young daughter, named Nastya.
The woman (Julia) tells Nastya never to reveal her
bourgeois origins. Nastya falls asleep. Chiklin creeps up and kisses Julia, who dies.
Chiklin brings Nastya to
live in the barracks. He then brings Prushevsky to
the Dutch-tile factory and shows him the dead Julia. Prushevsky
is unmoved. In fact, he doesn't even recognize the woman as the young girl he
saw long ago. But, he notes, "I never recognized people I loved once
I'd got intimate with them--I just yearned for them from a
Chiklin respectfully covers the doorway to the old
woman's room with bricks and chunks of rock. "The dead are people,
too", he says.
That evening, the men turn their attention to Nastya
who is now in their midst. Zhachev secretly decides
that once the girl and other children are grown up a bit, he will kill all
the local adults--most of whom are egoists and future bloodsuckers.
Safronov questions Nastya
about her parents. But Nastya, remembering her
mother's warning, says only that when there were bourgeoisie she wasn't born
because she didn't want to be; but as soon as Lenin came along, she was
happy to be born. Safronov happily concludes,
"If kids can forget their own mothers but still have a sense of comrade
Lenin, then Soviet power really is here to stay!"
Nastya falls asleep. All the men decide to start
working a hour earlier
tomorrow on the foundation pit, so that the new home will sooner become a
reality and "underage personnel" such as Nastya
can be protected. Zhachev approves of the idea,
telling the workers, "You're going to wind up stiffs whatever you
do...so why not love something small and living and flog yourself to death
with labor? Do something decent for once!"
our coffins that keep us alive--they're all we've got left.
While digging in the gully, the workers
unearth 100 empty coffins. Chiklin gives two
to Nastya--one for a bed and the other to keep her
toys and whatnot in. The next day, a peasant named Yelisey
shows up demanding that the coffins be returned to his village. They were all
properly measured and premade for the people in his village, including the
children. "It's our coffins that keep us alive--they're all we've got
left", he says.
The 98 remaining coffins are tied together in one long line and Yelisey hauls them off by himself. Some
time later, Voshchev sets off down the road,
following the trail left by the coffins.
Kozlov shows up at the construction site, wearing a
three-piece suit and arriving in a car driven by Pashkin.
Since leaving the barracks and getting his grade-one pension, Kozlov has become a known and respected active force in
society. Each morning, he memorizes little formulae, slogans, lines of
poetry, quotes from official documents, etc. Then he goes out and about,
uttering these phases in public places and thereby inciting respect and
terror. Enigmatically criticizing a food cooperative, he suddenly found
himself appointed Chairman of the cooperative's Trade Union Council.
At the foundation pit, Pashkin informs the workers
that the peasants in the nearby village are longing for a collective farm. It
is decided to send Safronov and Kozlov
to the village to keep the blaze of class struggle burning hot.
The foundation pit is complete. All that remains is to fill it in with
rubble. Pashkin, however, decides that it's not big
enough, since socialist women will soon be brimming with freshness and the
entire surface of the earth will soon be swarming with infant persons.
The town boss authorizes making the pit four times bigger. On his own
initiative, Pashkin decides to make it six times
Voshchev and a sub-kulak return from the village
with the news that Safronov and Kozlov
died in a hut. They take Nastya's two coffins to
bury them in. Nastya is angry and doesn't
understand why the dead get to have the coffins. Chiklin
explains, "Once people die, they get to be special."
Chiklin and Voshchev take
the coffins to the village, where everything is steeped in the decrepitude
of poverty. In the village, the local activist (a bungling and
incompetent but nonetheless enthusiastic organizer) tells Chiklin
to go to the village Soviet and stand guard over Kozlov
and Safronov's corpses, to prevent them from being defiled
by a kulak.
When he gets to the village soviet, Chiklin sees
that his comrades died of ghastly wounds.
In the morning, the Yelisey
and a yellow-eyed peasant come to wash the bodies. Chiklin
asks who killed his comrades. The peasants say they don't know. Not satisfied
with this answer, Chiklin punches the yellow-eyed
peasant. The peasant willingly takes the beating, hoping to receive some
serious injury and so win entitlement to a poor peasant's right to life.
Chiklin winds up killing the peasant.
Another peasant mysteriously turns up dead. The village activist identifies
the new corpse as the peasant element responsible for the deadly wrecking
of Kozlov and Safronov.
The activist is confident he would have unmasked this peasant in about
thirty minutes anyway.
The activist is glad that there are two dead peasants, saying, "The
Center would never have believed me if I said there was one murderer. But
two's another matter altogether--that's an entire kulak class and
After the dead are buried, Chiklin receives a
letter from Prushevsky. He informs Chiklin that Nastya has started
attending nursery school. Nastya herself traced out
LIQUIDATE THE KULAKS AS A CLASS.
LONG LIVE LENIN, KOZLOV AND SAFRONOV
GREETINGS TO THE COLLECTIVE FARM,
BUT NOT THE KULAKS.
The next morning, the activist gathers together the fifty or so rag-tag
members of the collective farm. He plans to march them, in star formation,
through neighboring villages, where people are still clinging to their
private holdings. The weather is dank and windy, and the activist grumbles, "So
much for the organization of nature."
The activist had received no directives the previous evening, so he is
terrified both of overlooking something and of being overzealous. He
had so far collectivized only the village horses, although he agonized over
the solitary cows, sheep, etc., since in the hands of a rampant kulak,
even a goat could be a level of capitalism.
After the collective farmers set off on their parade, the collectivized
horses--on their own initiative and with no human involvement--set off to a
ravine to drink and wash themselves. Then they march
back into the village and gather up mouthfuls of food. Together they march
back into the collective farm yard, drop all the food into a common pile, and
only then begin to eat.
Voshchev and Chiklin
enter a hut and find a feeble old man lying motionless on a bench. He claims
that his soul has left him ever since his horse was collectivized.
In a second hut they find a man lying in a coffin. For several weeks now
he has been trying to die, and now, in front of Voshchev
and Chiklin, he finally succeeds, and his body goes
Later, Voshchev and Chiklin
attend a literacy lesson for women and girls, taught by the activist.
Strangely, he has the women write all "good", socialist words with
a hard sign (tvordii znak)
at the end (in violation of the
orthographic reform promulgated by the Bolsheviks--ed.). As the activist sees it, "We can't
do without the hard sign--it makes a slogan tough and precise. It's the
soft sign that should be abolished."
The activist wants a light for his pipe. Chiklin offers
to get it for him. Chiklin takes the pipe and goes
to the dilapidated church. There he finds the former priest, sitting on the
pulpit smoking. The priest says, however, that he has renounced his soul and
is doing probation before he can join the Atheist Club. He spends his
days in the church selling candles and making a list of anyone who crosses
themselves or bows down before the heavenly powers. The list is then handed
over to the activist.
Just on principle, Chiklin punches the priest.
The priest collapses to the floor and starts praying and crossing himself.
The activist has Chiklin and Voshchev
start making a raft. As they work, the activist gathers all the organized and
unorganized peasants together. He announces that the kulaks are about to be liquidated
as a class, to wit, they are to be put on the raft and sent off down the
The activist draws up a list of those to be liquidated, and he writes a
resolution on the matter. He is unable to use commas, since there had
been none in the original directive.
The middle-peasant women weep and wail. An old ploughman named Ivan Semyonovich Krestinin kisses
the saplings in his orchard, then rips them out by the roots, saying, "These
trees are my own flesh, and my flesh must suffer now--it doesn't want to be
taken prisoner and collectivized."
Expecting the collectivization, many peasants stopped feeding their horses
long ago. One such horse stands in her stall, almost--but not quite--dead on
her feet. Some dogs come in and start gnawing on her feet. Pain keeps her
alive, as does hunger when someone waves hay in front of her nostrils.
All other livestock animals were slaughtered and eaten so as not to be
collectivized. Some of the peasants had become bloated from all this meat
eating and were lumbering around like sheds. Others couldn't stop
The night is so foul that Chiklin has to stop
working on the raft. Voshchev stops, too, grown
weak from lack of ideology.
The activist calls the kulaks together and gives them a last chance to say
their farewells. The peasants emotionally hug and kiss everyone--most of them
total strangers--as if they were dearest friends and closest relatives. One
of them remarks, "We lived like swine, but we're dying in good
Announcing that they are ready, the peasants say, "We can't feel
anything--all that's left inside us is dust." Voshchev
happily responds, "Now you're like me--I'm nothing, too."
Everyone falls asleep.
When Chiklin awakens, he sees that Prushevsky has arrived, sent by Pashkin
as a cadre of the cultural revolution. Along with him have come Zhachev and Nastya.
Yelisey takes Chiklin and
Nastya to see the collective farm's only hired farm
laborer (proletarian)--a blacksmith's hammerer, who, it turns out, is in fact
a bear. The bear is apparently adept at sniffing out kulaks. Chiklin, Nastya, and the bear
set out in a snowstorm to find kulaks. The bear finds a family of them in a
hut--a man, a woman, and little boy, who is sitting on a potty. The bear
growls and Chiklin orders the kulaks out. Curious, the
bear sits down on the potty to try it out, but feels uncomfortable.
Chiklin, Nastya, and the
bear continue on and find another kulak. They toss him out of his hut,
liquidating him. The kulak shouts back, "It's me today, but it'll be you
tomorrow. And that's how it'll be--the only person who'll ever reach
Socialism is that leader of yours!"
Chiklin and the bear liquidate various other kulaks
then return to the collective farm. Prushevsky has
completed the raft. The kulaks are loaded onto the raft and sent floating down the river.
The activist sets up a loudspeaker in the yard and plays music. The peasants
from the collective farm--as well as peasants from nearby villages who were
ordered to attend--begin dancing. Even the collectivized horses kick up their
heels in the fun.
In the merriment, one peasant calls the USSR a saucy, canny wench. Zhachev whacks the peasant and tells him, "Don't you
dare think anything that comes into your head. The now-frightened peasant
responds, "I'll never think anything again, comrade cripple."
The music stops, and a voice over the loudspeaker announces, "You must
all lay in stocks of willow bark!" The activist
takes note of this and prepares for the upcoming willow bark campaign.
The radio breaks down. The peasants, however, keep singing on
their own. To put an end to the party, Zhachev
resorts to peasant-tipping, knocking them over one-by-one and in
Voshchev walks around the village gathering up all
sorts of wretched little cast-off objects. He brings them to the activist so
he can catalog them--all the forgotten bits and pieces that had no name or
identity, so Socialism could avenge them. These were the material remains of
the lost people who, like Voshchev, had lived
without truth and who had perished before the final victory. Making lists of
these items, Voshchev hoped, would avenge those
lost, dead people through the organization of eternal human meaning.
Chiklin feels sorry for these nameless dead and
asks Prushevsky if the success of higher science
will be able to resurrect people back after they've decomposed. Prushevsky says, "No", but Zhachev
immediately calls him a liar, saying that "Marxism can do
everything" and noting that Lenin, entombed in Red Square, is
merely waiting for science to come and resurrect him.
For some reason, the bear wakes up in the middle of the night begins
hammering away and roaring as if in song. Because of this, no on can get any sleep.
In the morning, the bear is still hammering away. Everyone gathers to watch
him work. Working in a frenzy, he is pounding
way too hard. The peasants tell him to ease up,
otherwise the metal will be too brittle and break easily. The bear merely
roars angrily, and the peasants back off fearfully. Chiklin
is helping the bear, but he doesn't know what he's doing either.
Worried about the great waste of iron, Yelisey
and the other peasants finally overcome their hesitation and take over the
work, doing it the right way. Even Voshchev joins
in, forgetting himself in the patience of labor.
The only one who stays aloof from the common labor is Prushevsky.
He chooses a definite date and time for his death, for there is nothing that
could overcome the impoverishment of his soul.
An eager young woman, hungry for knowledge of the world, comes up to Prushevsky and asks if he has come to teach them the
cultural revolution. He sighs, agrees, and goes off with her.
The members of the collective farm burn up all the coal and use all the iron
in making useful objects. The bear collapses and falls asleep. Voshchev, now that he has stopped working, begins
thinking again. Chiklin angrily tosses Voshchev down on the ground next to the bear, telling him
to lie down and shut up. He says, "The bear just lies there and
breathes, so why can't you? The proletariat gets on with life, but you're too
scared. You bastard!"
The activist receives a dispatch from Provincial Headquarters, warning that
the middle peasants' eagerness to join the collective might be an indication
of some secret plot being hatched by sub-kulak forces to wash away the
leadership. The directive points to the activist at the General Line
Collective Farm, who, it says, has fallen into the leftist quagmire of
rightist opportunism. It says the collective activist was aspiring to a
higher form beyond the collective and the commune. Such an activist, the
provincial leaders say, is undoubtedly a wrecker and an objective enemy of
the proletariat. The activist weeps.
Nastya wakes up, feeling cold and damp and asking
for her mother. The world around her would have to become immeasurably kinder
and gentler for her to have any chance of staying alive. Chiklin
puts his coat, Zhachev's coat, and the activist's
coat over Nastya to keep her warm.
The activist feels upset, lonely, and abandoned by the masses, so he
snatches his coat away from Nastya.
Reading the directive from Provincial Headquarters, Zhachev
suggests they get an iron bar and deal with the activist. Chiklin
objects, saying he doesn't hit people with lumps of metal--that way he
wouldn't get to feel justice. Instead, he wallops the activist in the chest
with his sledgehammer fist. The activist crumbles to the floor.
Outside, the collective farm folk furiously sweep away all the snow as a
Doubtful elements who had been confined in
storerooms and various other places, take advantage of the activist's absence
and sneak out to return to their daily lives.
A whining sound is heard. It is the bear. As Voshchev
explains, all the bear is fit for is work. The moment he takes a rest
he starts thinking and then he gets all down in the mouth. Voshchev intends to add the bear to his scrap collection.
Voshchev examines the activist and determines that
he is dead. The collective farmers aren't upset by this (after all, the
activist was a reptile) but they aren't pleased either, since he was
the only one who knew the law and took care of them.
Voshchev realizes that the activist had functioned
in a predatory manner, monopolizing the whole of universal truth in himself. Voshchev calls the
activist vermin and shouts out, "So that's why I never knew the meaning
of anything! It wasn't just me you sucked dry, you arid soul, it was the
whole of our class!"
Voshchev announces that from now on he will take
care of the collective farmers, and they are agreeable to the idea. Voshchev orders the peasants to send the activist's body
down the river with the kulaks.
Nastya, who has fallen ill, keeps asking for her
mother. Chiklin says it's time to go back to the
town. Prushevsky wants to stay, however, because he
hasn't finished teaching the village youth.
In order to make the best possible time, Chiklin
carries Zhachev and Yelisey
They arrive in town. The foundation pit is fully covered with snow, and the
barracks is dark and empty. Chiklin tries to make a
fire to keep Nastya warm. Nastya
keeps saying, "Bring me my mommy's bones." She also asks why
she always feels her mind. Chiklin suggests that it
is because she's never seen anything good.
Suddenly, Nastya kisses Chiklin,
just as her mother had done so many years ago. The girl then falls asleep.
The next morning, it is freezing cold. Nastya is dead.
Chiklin is overcome with an urge to dig. He goes to
the foundation pit and digs feverishly in the ground, which is frozen solid.
He digs and digs because he wants to forget his mind and to forget the
fact that Nastya is dead.
Voshchev unexpectedly shows up with the whole
collective farm, including the collectivized horses. Voshchev
has come to give Nastya a sack of his collected
scrap, each item an eternal reminder of someone who was now forgotten.
When he sees that Nastya is dead, he is bewildered.
He doesn't understand how Communism could ever come to exist if it didn't
appear first of all in a child's feelings and conviction.
Zhachev wants to know why Voshchev
brought along the whole collective farm. Voshchev
says the peasants want to enroll as proletariat. Chiklin
agrees to the idea. Now, he says, they will have to dig the foundation pit
wider and deeper because they'll have to build a house big enough for anyone
who comes along, workers or peasants. Chiklin
resumes digging in the foundation pit, and the peasants all join in. They dig
with a furious zeal for life, as though they were seeking eternal
salvation in the abyss of the foundation pit. Even the horses joined in.
The only one who doesn't join in the work is Zhachev.
"I don't believe in anything any more,"
he explains. "I'm a freak of Imperialism....But Communism's something
for the kids. That's why I loved Nastya."
As his final act, Zhachev plans to go off and kill
Chiklin spends 15 hours digging a grave deep enough
for Nastya so that neither worms nor roots nor the
noise of life from earth's surface would ever disturb her. It is night as he
lays her in her grave. Everyone is asleep except for the bear. Chiklin allows the bear to touch Nastya
for one last time.