I was glad to finally get around to this novel. I wish I read it back when I was in high school in the 80’s (alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Brave New World, Crime and Punishment) as Koestler’s novel examines the communist state and an apparatchik mindset. On the other hand, by waiting until now I was able to read the new English translation from a recently rediscovered original manuscript written by Koestler in 1940.
While the name of country is never mentioned, Koestler makes it clear the novel takes place in the Soviet Union in the 1930s during Joseph Stalin’s premiership. Koestler was inspired by the show trials of Nikolai Bukharin and other Communist Party officials accused of crimes against the state that took place during the Great Terror, ending in executions for all of the accused. In those public trials, Bukharin confessed guilt to crimes he likely did not commit and thereby leant credibility to Stalin’s purges and iron fisted rule.
Darkness at Noon has an appeal to me because my interest in the history of this time period. The more I study the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the more I see the walls of the structure we dwell in today. Russia’s communist experiment is one of the pillars, permeating the history of the era, its consequences shaping our world, and its impact living on in our imaginations. Rubashov’s imprisonment and execution is certainly not a tragic story on a character level; rather, it’s a microcosm in the monstrous tragedy of Russian and international communism.
Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov is one revolutionary old guard that won the civil war and founded the communist regime. After years of service to the state Rubashov falls victim to a purge and is arrested and imprisoned. A true believer, the novel recounts formative experiences in Rubashov’s life after the ascension of Number One, the Stalin figure who leads both the party and the state. As a member of the party’s elite Rubashov brought about a trail of misery: denouncing (and perhaps betraying) hapless Richard for straying from party propaganda by telling the truth; denouncing Little Löwy’s dockworkers’ cell for opposing Russia’s sale of oil to fascist Italy, leading to Little Löwy’s suicide; testifying against his secretary and lover Orlova leading to her execution. Rabashov’s interrogations reveal his arrogance, perhaps due to both his intellect and status as a revolutionary and civil war hero. Although a devout socialist, his “sin” was being a contrarian who spoke his mind too often, failing to demonstrate blind loyalty to Number One. His conversations with Ivanov prove a shared generational mindset: patriotic believers in socialism but realists who know Number One is ephemeral and leadership eventually changes–so it was best to get along to go along.
Ignoring the advice to “die in silence,” Rubashov decides to capitulate and take Ivanov’s deal to confess to false charges and thereby avoid execution. He comes to this decision after taking two weeks to apply his rationality and reflect on civilization and its historical processes, applying Marxist reasoning to write a new political treatise on the “political maturity of the masses.” In doing so Rubashov makes intellectual justifications for Number One’s communist dictatorship and its brutality, and thereby supplies himself with a rationale to confess and submit to a show trial. However, unfortunately for Rubashov by the time he decides to cooperate, Ivanov has also fallen victim to Number One’s purge and has been executed. Officer Gletkin, symbolic of the brutal, younger generation with no memories of the Czarist era, takes over the interrogation to secure Rubashov’s confession to charges that would lead to his execution.
Koestler’s brilliance was to make Rubashov a somewhat sympathetic character, an old man trapped by intellectual ideas that justified his role in creating and leading a totalitarian state. Knowing his execution is inevitable, Rubashov reasons he will further the righteous cause of state socialism and its workers’ paradise if he confesses to the false charges and takes part in a show trial. He allows himself to think history will eventually reveal his heroic service to the cause. After the trail, Rubashov accepts he is going to die, but in his final days he questions his life’s work and the limits of the strict rationality he has always lived by. He considers the importance of the “oceanic feeling” of individuality and the the need for a moral system that goes beyond the economic fatalism of the Marxist dialectic. He goes to his execution questioning his life’s work and wondering what he had to show for it.
Needless to say Rubashov is anything but a heroic figure, and in the end his execution feels more like euthanasia. Though falsely charged, ultimately Rubashov faces justice by dying under the cruel system he helped create. His journey is internal and only in the end does he start to ask the right questions.