“It was quiet in the cell. Rubashov heard only the creaking of his steps on the tiles. Six and a half steps to the door, whence they must come to fetch him, six and a half steps to the window, behind which night was falling. Soon it would be over. But when he asked himself, ‘For what actually are you dying?’ he found no answer.”
Stalin’s Terror was one of the darkest periods of Russian history. From 1934 to 1939 the Russian leader’s paranoia grew and he became convinced of plots against himself and the Party. This led to public show trials designed to purge those who might have held any unorthodox thoughts. Among those targeted were communist leaders, Party members, and army officers. Anyone even perceived as disloyal to the Party was put to death. Around 13 million people were arrested or executed on trumped up charges including treason, conspiracy, and espionage. More than one third of the Party’s 3 million members and half of the armed forces were brutally murdered.
Based on Stalin’s purges, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon gives us a glimpse of the horror of life as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union. It shows how far the authorities of totalitarian regimes are willing to go to stay in power. The novel’s main character, Nicolas Rubashov, is an old Bolshevik revolutionary hero and a loyal communist. The Party arrests Rubashov during the purges and charges him with a plot to assassinate the leader.
The book revolves around a series of hearings Rubashov endures in which interrogators try to get him to confess to crimes he hasn’t committed. A confession Rubashov regarded “as a formality, as an absurd yet necessary comedy.” His first examiner, Ivanov, is a Bolshevik revolutionary and an old friend of Rubashov. As Ivanov tries to help Rubashov escape his fate, he himself is purged and executed. Rubashov’s case is taken over by Gletkin, who is of a younger generation—one that grew up long after the revolution in a country already isolated from the rest of the world. Unlike Ivanov, Gletkin believes that the best way to achieve his goals is through force and torture, because “human beings able to resist any amount of physical pressure do not exist… the resistance of the human nerve is limited by nature.”
The contrast between the two reflects a larger change in the ideals of the Party; how “the same doctrine became so inhuman” with the Party’s younger generations. During his hearings with Gletkin, Rubashov comes to understand how his loyalty to the revolution’s ideals makes him an enemy of the Party.
Rubashov is put through a series of psychological torture sessions to get him to confess. He is deprived of sleep and forced to sit under a bright light for hours. The Party was willing to use whatever actions it needed to get what it wanted. Darkness at Noon is most powerful when exploring Rubashov’s own personal transformation. “For forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of his order, the Party, and where had it landed him? The Party denied the free will of the individual—and at the same time exacted his willing sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives—and at the same time it demanded that one should constantly choose the right one.” Rubashov’s questioning of the basic ideas and principles of communism come straight from the life of Koestler himself.
Born in Budapest in 1905, Arthur Koestler and his family fled to Vienna after the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. He became a committed communist in the 1930’s and travelled throughout the Soviet Union. After being arrested in England and France for his political views, he was sent to Spain by the Communist Party, where he was captured by dictator Francisco Franco’s fascist government and sentenced to death. The Communist Party ordered Koestler to stay in prison as long as possible or, even better, to become a martyr for the cause. The Party’s actions only succeeded to disillusion him and inspired him to write Darkness at Noon. After being saved by the British and resigning from the Party in 1938, Koestler fought to make the secret Gulag prisons in the USSR more widely known and to prove that Soviet communism was an economic and social failure.
One cannot read Darkness at Noon without keenly sensing the delusion, paranoia, and cruelty within the communist system. The book inspired other critics of totalitarianism like George Orwell. The Economist praised it as “a powerful demolition of communism.” The perverse logic of Party members comes alive through Koestler´s characters, who truly believe that “the Party can never be mistaken.” Most importantly, we see how death is the only solution to political dissent under the communist system.