Nicholas Rubashov, former commissar of the people and once a power in the party, is in prison. Arrested at his lodgings in the middle of the night, he is taken secretly to cell 404, which bears his name on a card just above the spy hole. His cell is located in an isolation block for political suspects.
At seven o’clock in the morning, Rubashov is awakened by a bugle, but he does not get up. Soon he hears sounds in the corridor. He imagines that someone is to be tortured, and he dreads hearing the first screams of pain. When the footsteps reach his own section, he sees through the eye hole that guards are serving breakfast. Rubashov does not receive any breakfast because he reported himself ill. He begins to pace up and down the cell, six and a half steps to the window, six and a half steps back.
Soon he hears a quiet knocking from the wall of the adjoining cell, 402. In communicating with one another, prisoners use the “quadratic alphabet,” a square of twenty-five letters, five horizontal rows of five letters each. The first series of taps represents the number of the row; the second series the number of the letter in the row. Thus, words can be spelled. From the communications Rubashov has with his neighbor, Rubashov pictures him as a military man, one not in sympathy with the methods of the great leader or with the views of Rubashov himself. From his window he sees prisoners walking in the courtyard for exercise. One of these, a man with a harelip, looks repeatedly up at Rubashov’s window. From his neighbor in cell 402, Rubashov learns that Hare-Lip is a political prisoner who was tortured in a steam bath the day before. A little later Hare-Lip, in cell 400, sends Rubashov his greetings, via the inmate of 402, but he will not give his name.
Three days later, Rubashov is brought up for his first examination. The examiner is Ivanov, Rubashov’s old college friend and former battalion commander. During the interview the prisoner learns that he is accused of belonging to the opposition to the party and that he is suspected of an attempt on the party...
(The entire section is 855 words.)