What is the best way to utterly crush the human spirit? During his time at katorga—a Siberian hard labor camp—Dostoevsky observed that convicts preferred to be given a specific task rather than told to work for a set amount of time. Completing the task before the deadline gave them some free time, but that was not the sole reason why they favored this way of working. A specific task gave them a sense of purpose and autonomy, something that would be taken from them whenever they were forced to work set hours. In addition, most prisoners practiced their own crafts in their free time, e.g. wood carving, and would sell their products in the nearby town. As Dostoevsky writes in The House of the Dead: “If it were not for his own private work to which he was devoted with his whole mind, his whole interest, a man could not live in prison.” Dostoevsky then follows this thought through to its conclusion:
The idea has occurred to me that if one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly … one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character … [I]f he had to pour water from one vessel into another and back, over and over again, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another and back again—I believe the convict would hang himself in a few days or would commit a thousand crimes, preferring rather to die than to endure such humiliation, shame and torture.
First published in a digest by “Курьер” (“The Courier”) in 1903, Leonid Andreyev’s “At the Station” is a short story that brilliantly captures the contrast between working on a specific task, exercising one’s creativity to build something and solve a problem, and the pointlessness and soul crushing tedium of certain kinds of administrative work, which, unlike in the case of Dostoevsky’s time in Siberia, where such work was set as punishment for the convicts, is nowadays applied to whole sections of society, not as punishment, but as an opportunity to make a living. It is written in the style of Andreyev’s characteristic satire, but one can sense Dostoevsky’s ominous warning peering through in places through the cracks of the comic facade.
Here is my translation of the story.
At the Station
It was early spring when I arrived at my summer cottage, and the paths were still covered with last year’s dark leaf. There was no one with me; I walked alone amid the empty summer cottages, their windows reflecting the April sun, I ascended the broad, bright terraces and wondered about the people who will be living here under this green tent of birch and oak. And whenever I shut my eyes, it seemed to me that I could hear quick, cheerful steps, youthful song and sonorous women’s laughter.
And I would oftentimes go to meet the passenger trains at the station. I was not waiting for anyone, and there was no one to visit me; but I love those iron giants when they rush past me, swaying their shoulders a little and waddling on the rails from their colossal power and weight, carrying away someplace people whom I do not know, but who are near to me. They seem alive and extraordinary to me; in their speed I feel the magnitude of the earth and the power of man, and, when they cry imperiously and freely, I think: thus do they cry in America, and in Asia, and in fiery Africa.
The station was small, with two short sidings, and, whenever a passenger train left, it would become quiet and empty; the forest and the radiant sun took possession of the low platform and the empty paths and filled them with silence and light. Chickens wandered around on the siding, under an empty, sleeping train car, rummaging near its iron wheels, and, gazing at their calm, meticulous work, one could not believe that there is such a thing as America, and Asia, and fiery Africa… In a week I got to know all of the inhabitants of the little corner and would bow to them as to acquaintances, to the watchmen in blue jackets, and to the silent switchmen with dull faces and copper horns shining in the sun.
And every day I saw a gendarme at the station. This was a healthy and strong young man, as they all are, with a broad back, wrapped tightly in his blue uniform, with huge arms and a youthful face, on which a blue-eyed naivety of the village still peered through a stern, officious sense of importance. At first he would search me mistrustfully and darkly with his eyes, make an unapproachably stern, unindulgent face, and whenever he went by me his spurs sounded especially sharp and expressive—but he soon got used to me, just as he had gotten used to the poles that propped up the roof of the platform, to the empty paths and to the abandoned train car, under which the chickens were rummaging. Things quickly become familiar in quiet little corners like these. And when he stopped noticing me, I saw that this man was bored—bored, like no one else in the world. Bored by the dull station, bored by an absence of thought, bored by a strength consuming idleness, bored by the exclusiveness of his position, which lay somewhere between the inaccessible station managers and the unworthy laborers of the lowest ranks. Disorder gave his soul life, but on this tiny little station nobody disturbed the order, and every time a passenger train left without any adventures, the gendarme’s face expressed the sadness and disappointment of a deceived man. He stood for a few minutes indecisively in one spot and then walked listlessly to the other end of the platform—without a purpose. On the way there he stopped for a second before a peasant woman who was waiting for her train; but the peasant woman was as peasant women are, and, frowning, the gendarme walked on. He would then sit down sluggishly and tightly, as if he was stewed, and one could feel how soft and languid his idle arms were under the cloth of his uniform, how his strong body, created for work, languished in the agonizing listlessness of idleness. We are bored only in our minds, but he was bored throughout, top to bottom: his cap was bored, shifted to the side with aimless youthfulness, his spurs were bored, strumming disharmoniously in discord, as if they were deaf. Then he began to yawn. Oh how he yawned! His mouth grimaced, tearing itself from one ear to the other, widening, growing, consuming the whole of the face; it seemed that, a second more and—through this growing opening one would be able to see his very entrails, filled with porridge and fat cabbage soup. Oh how he yawned!
I hastily walked away, but the vile yawning gripped my cheekbones and the trees broke and swam in my teary eyes.
One day a passenger without a ticket was brought out of a postal train, and this was a day of celebration for the bored gendarme. He stretched himself, the spurs gave a sharp and ferocious clank, his face became concentrated and stern—but the happiness did not last. The passenger paid his fare and, muttering, hastily went back to the train car, and behind him tiny metal circles strummed confusedly and pitifully, and an exhausted body swayed feebly above them.
And at times, when the gendarme began to yawn, I would feel very afraid for someone.
For several days already workers were busy clearing an area near the station, and when I returned from the city, having spent two days there, builders were laying a third row of bricks: a new stone building was being erected for the station. There were many bricklayers, and they worked with speed and skill, and it was joyful and strange to see how a straight, neat wall was growing out of the ground. After spreading mortar onto a row, they were laying the next one, picking out bricks of the right size, placing them now by their broad side, now by their narrow side, cutting off their corners, trying them on for size. They contemplated, and their train of thought was clear, their task was clear—and this made their work interesting and pleasant to see. I was watching them with enjoyment, when a domineering voice sounded near me:
“Listen, you! What’s your name? You’re not laying it right!”
This was the gendarme speaking. Bending over the metal lattice, which separated the asphalt platform from the workers, he was pointing at a brick, insisting:
“I’m talking to you! Beard! Use that one instead. See—it’s half the size.”
The bricklayer with the beard, whitened in places by lime, turned around—the gendarme’s face was stern and domineering—he silently looked in the direction the gendarme’s finger was pointing, took a brick, tried it on for size—and silently put it back. The gendarme took a stern look at me and walked away, but the temptation of interesting work was more powerful than decorum: having done two circuits around the platform, he again stopped next to the workers in a pose that was somewhat nonchalant and contemptuous. But there was no boredom on his face.
I went to the forest, and, as I was coming back through the station, it was was one in the afternoon—the workers were taking a break, and it was empty, as always. But next to the wall somebody was pottering about, and it was the gendarme. He was picking up the bricks and laying the unfinished fifth row. I could see only his broad, covered back, but one could feel in it intense contemplation and indecisiveness. Evidently, the work was more difficult than he thought; his unaccustomed eye was deceiving him, and he kept leaning back, shaking his head and bending down to get a different brick, clinking with his lowered saber as he did so. There was one moment when he raised a finger upwards—the classical gesture of a man who has discovered a solution to problem, probably even used by Archimedes—and his back straightened and became more rigid and assertive. But then at once it shrunk back in the consciousness of the impropriety of the task at hand. The whole of his tall figure assumed a lurking appearance, like that of children when they are afraid of being caught.
I carelessly struck a match, lighting a cigarette, and the gendarme turned around in fright. For a second he stared at me perplexedly, and suddenly his young face was gently lit up by a pleading, trustful and tender smile. But just a moment later it grew unapproachable and stern, and his hand reached for his thin mustache, but in it, in this very hand, still lay that accursed brick. And I saw how painfully ashamed he was for this brick, and for his involuntary, telltale smile. Probably he could not blush—otherwise he would have become as red as the brick, which continued to sit powerlessly in his hand.
Half the wall was erected, and one could no longer see what the skillful builders were doing on their scaffolding. And again the gendarme is languishing and yawning on the platform, and when he walks by me, looking away, I can sense that he is ashamed—he hates me. And I am gazing at his strong arms, swaying limply in their sleeves, at his discordantly clanking spurs and his hanging saber—and I keep thinking that it is not real, that in the sheath there is no saber, with which one could hack someone to death, and in the holster there is no revolver, with which one could shoot a man. And his very uniform—it is not real either, it is just for show, a kind of strange masquerade in broad daylight, before the true April sun, amid simple working men and bustling chickens, collecting grain under a sleeping train car.
But at times… at times I begin to feel very afraid for someone. He is just so bored…