Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

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An ordinary political prisoner in the forced-labor camps of Kolyma might survive cold, hunger, and disease; he might survive overwork and lack of sleep; he might survive brutal beatings by the camp guards. However, even if he lived through all these things, he might not make it through the encounter with one group of his fellow prisoners—the common criminals, or urkas. Thieves, murderers, and rapists in the outside world, they exercise their talents in the camps as well.

The urka subculture—and here that term is frighteningly literal—dates back to brigand gangs of the seventeenth century and has lived on through revolution and social upheaval. Often bizarrely and profusely tattooed, maimed, and scarred, speaking their own argot, rewarding and punishing according to their own code, the urkas have seemed barely human to many a new arrival in the camps. However, their position is a privileged one. They receive better food, warmer clothing, lighter work—and steal or extort whatever they cannot get “legally.” Anything a political owns is fair game. The urkas live in an uneasy truce—not alliance—with the camp administration, not only because the administration fears them, not only because their absolute amorality terrifies the other prisoners, but also because they are useful in enforcing official policy. They are one more means of breaking the politicals’ spirit. The urkas are told that though they might be guilty, erring, prodigal sons and daughters of the Soviet motherland, they are nevertheless still part of the family, not yet the lowest of the low. The politicals, however, are total outcasts, traitors, filth. An urka can thus rob, brutalize, or even murder a political with virtual impunity—he is actually helping the administration do its job.

However, there is one urka custom that has saved many a “friar,” or intellectual. The urkas love hearing novels, preferably adventure tales or mysteries, and preferably as close to the original as possible. For a lump of bread, some soup, a blanket, and immunity from beatings, an educated prisoner can play Scheherazade to the criminal court, telling and retelling Dumas’s Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846), Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862), and other stories.

Hence, Platonov’s dilemma: Are the compromises that make physical survival possible always the same ones that make moral survival impossible? This is the central question of the story, and this is what races through Platonov’s mind before he gives Fedya his answer. He toys with the idea that perhaps even here he can be useful, can educate, can enlighten in the noble old tradition of the Russian intelligentsia. However, both he and the reader realize immediately that these are the terms of Platonov’s old life, not his new one. He will be saving only himself, and some other unfortunate will be the butt of jokes, curses, and abuse. Is “novel-telling,” then, really any more noble than carrying out the slop bucket? Or is it the moral equivalent of scratching a thug’s feet?

Platonov does not answer the question for himself or for the reader, but he makes his choice and tells his tale. His final words do not resolve the ambivalence, but they do speak in his favor, just as the narrator’s introduction did. Platonov is now safe, albeit temporarily and precariously, and high enough in the hierarchy to exercise some tiny bit of power himself. He can, with a word, arrange for someone else to be beaten, but he chooses not to.