Citizens are distraught to learn of the latest decree from their leaders: each person is to be evaluated as to whether they deserve to live. Those found “unnecessary for life” will be asked to “leave life within 24 hours.”
Panic is alleviated when citizens learn that Ak, “a luminous person,” will be in charge of the panels that are to evaluate citizens. Surely, only the “human rubbish” would be eliminated.
“The Tale of Ak and Humanity” was translated from Russian by Alex Shvartsman
Yefim Zozulya may be the greatest Russian fabulist you’ve never heard of.
The height of his popularity and success came in the 1910s and 1920s, when Zozulya worked as a journalist and wrote many short stories and several novels. He soon developed a signature style combining elements of the satirical, the grotesque, and the fantastical. At the time, his short stories were referred to as “satire-philosophy fairy tales.” While contemporaries struggled to label his unique style, Zozulya was busy breaking new ground in speculative literature.
Two of his short stories stand out as masterpieces. The first is “The Doom of Principal City,” a tale of oppression, culture clash, and power imbalance. It was originally published in 1918 and translated for the first time in 2016, when it appeared in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
The second is “The Tale of Ak and Humanity.” Noted editor and literary critic Yevgeny Golubovsky proclaims, “Had Zozulya written nothing other than this text, he would have earned his place in Big Literature.” The thinly veiled critique of the Soviet regime, written merely a year and a half after the Bolsheviks gained power in Russia, helped establish the anti-utopia genre, and directly inspired and influenced Zamyatin’s We, which was finished a year later.
Zozulya worked as a magazine editor throughout the 1920s and helped nurture a generation of influential writers and poets in Russia. He wrote several novels and many short stories, but it became increasingly more difficult for him to be published as the Soviet censorship machine grew more pervasive with each year. His career had stalled, and during the 1930s he could only get an occasional short story published in magazines.
When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Zozulya volunteered to fight for his motherland. He was mortally wounded and died two months later, just a few weeks shy of his fiftieth birthday.
His work remained out of print for decades and became virtually forgotten, but was rediscovered in the 1990s alongside other long-proscribed talents such as Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn. Several collections of his fiction have been published since, and virtually all of it—now in public domain—is available online. To this day, his influence on both fabulism and dystopian fiction remains outsized compared to his notoriety.
– Alex Shvartsman
1. The posters were put up.
The streets and houses looked ordinary, and the sky casually shone blue above them with its age-old monotony. The gray masks of the cobblestones were as impenetrable and indifferent as ever while the crazed individuals were putting up those posters, tears flowing down their faces and into buckets of glue.
The text on those posters was simple, ruthless, and inevitable.
Here it is:
To everyone without exception:
Verification of the right to life for all residents of the city will be carried out by district, performed by special panels, each containing three members from the Board of Supreme Determination. Medical and mental surveys will be conducted concurrently. Residents deemed unnecessary for life are obligated to leave it within twenty-four hours. Appeals are permissible within that time frame. Written appeals are forwarded to the Presidium of the Board of Supreme Determination. Decisions will be delivered within three hours or less. For those unnecessary people who cannot leave life, because of their love thereof or due to their weak character, the judgment of the Board of Supreme Determination is to be carried out by their friends, neighbors, or special armed squadrons.
- City residents are obliged to fully obey the actions and decisions of the Board of Supreme Determination. All questions must be answered truthfully and completely. A profile-protocol will be drawn up for each unnecessary person.
- This decree will be carried out with unwavering resolve. Human rubbish that interferes with the restructuring of life on the basis of fairness and happiness must be mercilessly destroyed. This decree applies to all citizens without exception: men and women, the rich and the poor.
- It is unconditionally forbidden for anyone to leave the city for the duration of the verification process of the right to life.
2. The first waves of anxiety.
“Have you read it?”
“Have you read it?!”
“Have you read it?!”
“Have you read it?! Have you read it?!”
“Did you see it?! Have you heard?!”
Crowds gathered in many parts of the city. Urban traffic slowed and weakened. Passersby afflicted by sudden weakness leaned against building walls. Many were crying. Some fainted. By evening, the number of them grew exponentially.
“Have you read it?!”
“How awful! This is unheard-of and terrifying.”
“But we were the ones who elected the Board of Supreme Determination. We were the ones who granted it the highest authority.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“We are the ones responsible for this terrible misdeed.”
“Yes. That’s right. It’s our fault. But we wanted to make life better. Who could’ve known that the Board would approach this problem in such a straightforward and awful manner?”
“But think of the names the Board is composed of. Such great names!”
“How do you know? Has the list of the Board members already been published?”
“An acquaintance has told me. Ak was chosen to preside over the Board!”
“Oh! You don’t say. Ak? How wonderful!”
“Yes. Yes. That’s a fact.”
“How wonderful! He’s such a luminous person.”
“Of course! We needn’t worry. Only the human rubbish will be made to leave life. There will be no room for injustice.”
“Dear sir, do you think I will be allowed to live? I’m a very good person. You know, there was a shipwreck once and twenty people were escaping on a lifeboat. But the boat couldn’t carry so much weight, and doom hung over everyone. To save fifteen, five had to throw themselves into the sea. I was among those five. I jumped overboard voluntarily. Don’t look at me with such doubt. I’m old and weak now. Back then, I was young and brave. Haven’t you heard about that incident? It was in all the papers. Four of my comrades perished. I survived only by random chance. What do you think, will they let me live?”
“What about me, sir? Me? I gave away all my belongings and my money to the poor. This was a long time ago. I’ve got the documents to prove it.”
“I don’t know, truly. It all depends on the point of view and the goals of the Board of Supreme Determination.”
“Let me inform you, dear citizens, that basic usefulness to others alone doesn’t justify the person’s existence on this earth. That way, any stupid nanny would have the right to exist. That’s old-fashioned thinking. You’re behind the times!”
“Then what makes a person valuable?”
“What is the worth of a man?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, so you don’t know? Then why do you interject with your explanations, if you don’t know?”
“I’m sorry. I’m explaining the best I can.”
“Citizens! Citizens! Look! The people are running! Such confusion! Such panic!”
“Oh, my heart, my heart…Ahh! Save yourselves! Save yourselves!”
“Don’t contribute to the panic!!”
3. They ran.
The crowds ran in the streets. Red-cheeked young men ran, their faces marred with boundless horror. Humble employees of offices and organizations. Bridegrooms wearing clean cuffs. Hobbyist choir singers. Dandies. Storytellers. Billiard players. People who go to the cinema in the evenings. Careerists, troublemakers, crooks with white foreheads and curly hair. Sweaty, good-natured libertines. Belligerent drunks. Funny guys, hooligans, beauties, dreamers, lovers, cyclists. Broad-shouldered eristics, talkers, liars, long-haired hypocrites, brooding losers with sad black eyes and cold emptiness behind those eyes hidden beneath the veneer of youth. Young curmudgeons with full, smiling lips. Wanton adventurers, freeloaders, quarrelers, kind underachievers, clever villains.
The women ran. Fat, gluttonous, and lazy. Thin hags, demanding and annoying, bored, the wives of geniuses and fools, gossips, traitors, envious and greedy, and now equally disfigured by fear. Proud fools and kind nobodies. Those who dye their hair out of boredom, indifferent debauchees, lonely, helpless, arrogant, pleading, those robbed by fear of their graceful façades.
The gnarled old people ran; fat, short, tall, handsome, and ugly.
Building managers, pawnshop appraisers, iron traders, carpenters, craftsmen, jailers, grocers, gracious brothel keepers, gray-haired dignified butlers, respectable patriarchs mired in turpitude and deceit, experienced cardsharps, and corpulent scoundrels.
They ran in a thick, swift, solid, and rigid mass. Pounds of rags enveloped their bodies and limbs. Hot steam gushed from their mouths. Vitriol and screams echoed across the lurking indifference of abandoned buildings.
Many ran with their belongings. With crooked fingers they dragged pillows, boxes, bins. They grabbed their valuables, children, and money. They returned, wrung their hands in horror, and ran again.
But they were turned back. All of them. People who were just like them shot at them, cut them off, beat them with sticks, with fists, with rocks, bit them, and shouted mightily at them. The crowds shrank back, shedding the wounded and the dead.
By evening the city had returned to its usual state. Shivering people returned to their apartments and jumped into their beds. A brief and sharp hope pulsated desperately within their cramped, hot skulls.
4. The procedure was simple.
“I stuff cigarette tubes with tobacco.”
“Tell the truth!”
“I’m telling the truth. I’ve held an honest job for fourteen years, supporting my family.”
“Where’s your family?”
“Here they are. This is my wife. And this is my son.”
“Doctor, examine the Boss family.”
“Well, how are they?”
“Citizen Boss is anemic. His overall health is average. The wife suffers from headaches and rheumatism. The boy is healthy.”
“Very good. You may go, doctor. Citizen Boss, what’s your pleasure? What do you love?”
“I love people, and I love life overall.”
“Be more precise, Citizen Boss. We’re short on time.”
“I love…? What do I love…I love my son…He plays the violin so well…I love to eat, though truly, I’m no glutton…I love women. It’s nice to see a beautiful woman walk down the street. I love to rest in the evenings, when I’m tired…I love filling cigarette tubes. I can fill five hundred tubes in an hour…I love a lot of things…I love life…”
“Calm down, Citizen Boss. Quit crying. What say you, psychologist?”
“Nonsense, colleague. Trash. These are the most ordinary of creatures. Wretched existence. The temperament is semi-phlegmatic, semi-sanguine. The activity is weak. Lowest class. There’s no hope for improvement. Passivity seventy-five percent. Madame Boss is even lower. The boy is vulgar, but perhaps…How old is your son, Citizen Boss? Quit crying.”
“Don’t worry. Your son can remain, for now. A five-year deferment. As for you…Well, that’s none of my business. Your call, colleague.”
“In the name of the Board of Supreme Determination, and in order to cleanse life of unnecessary human rubbish, indifferent creatures that slow down progress, I order you, Citizen Boss, and your wife to leave life in the next twenty-four hours. Quiet! Don’t shout! Orderly, calm the woman down. Call the guards. These two are unlikely to manage without their help.”
5. The profiles of the unnecessary were kept in a gray cabinet.
The Gray Cabinet was located in the corridor at the headquarters of the Board of Supreme Determination. It had an ordinary, solid, pensively stupid look, like all cabinets. It was less than seven feet wide and less than seven feet tall, but it was the grave to tens of thousands of lives. There were two short inscriptions on it:
The Catalog of the Unnecessary
The catalog had many sections, including the following:
Impressionable but clueless.
The passive ones.
The profiles were brief and objective. However, there was an occasional harsh comment. Without fail, it was accompanied by a red pencil mark by Board president Ak, noting that the unnecessary shouldn’t be scolded.
Here are several of the profiles:
Unnecessary No. 14741
Average health. Visits acquaintances without being necessary or interesting to them. Offers advice. In his prime he seduced some girl and abandoned her. Considers the acquisition of new furniture for his apartment to be the biggest event in his life. Sluggish, lax brain. Inefficient worker. When ordered to tell the most interesting thing he knows about life or has seen, talked about the Quisisana restaurant in Paris. The simplest of creatures. The category of lowest inhabitants. Weak heart. – In 24 hours.
Unnecessary No. 14623
Works in a cooperage. Class—mediocre. Doesn’t love his work. Thought process in all areas follows the path of least resistance. Physically healthy, but mentally ill with the most basic of afflictions: he’s afraid of life. Afraid of freedom. On holidays, when he’s free, he becomes inebriated. During the revolution he showed initiative: wore a red bow, bought potatoes and everything that was available, was afraid there wouldn’t be enough. Was proud of his working-man background. Did not take an active part in the revolution; was too afraid. Loves sour cream. Beats children. Dull and steady pace of life. – In 24 hours.
Unnecessary No. 15201
Speaks eight languages, but is boring to listen to even in one of them. Likes fancy cufflinks and lighters. Very self-confident. Derives that confidence from his knowledge of languages. Demands respect. Gossips. Oxlike in his indifference toward living real life. Fears the paupers. Unctuous in his communications, out of cowardice. Loves to swat flies and other insects. Rarely experiences joy. – In 24 hours.
Unnecessary No. 4356
Shouts abuse at the hired help out of boredom. Secretly eats the lactoderm layer from boiled milk and the fatty top layer from broth. Reads trashy novels. Sprawls on the couch all day. Greatest aspiration: to sew a dress with yellow sleeves and wide skirts. A talented inventor was in love with her for twelve years. She didn’t know what he did and thought he was an electrician. She left him and married a leather merchant. Has no children. Often cries and complains without cause. Wakes up at nights, orders the samovar to be put on, drinks tea and eats snacks. An unnecessary existence. – In 24 hours.
6. At work.
A crowd of specialist employees formed around Ak and the Board of Supreme Determination. These were doctors, psychologists, observers, and writers. They all worked extraordinarily quickly. In some cases, a small group of specialists sent a hundred people to the next world in a matter of an hour. A hundred profiles added to the Gray Cabinet, clarity of expression rivaling boundless self-confidence of its authors in each one.
Morning to evening, work was in full swing at the headquarters. Residency committees came and went, execution squads came and went, while dozens of people sat at the tables as though in an enormous newsroom. They wrote with quick, firm, unthinking hands.
Ak looked at all of this with his narrow, strong, impenetrable eyes and thought his private thoughts, which made his body hunch over and the hair on his large, rebellious, stubborn head grow ever more gray.
Something was brewing between him and his employees, something standing between his tense, sleepless thoughts and the blind, unthinking hands of the bureaucrats.
7. Ak’s doubts.
One time, members of the Board of Supreme Determination arrived at the headquarters, intending to make another report to Ak.
Ak wasn’t at his usual place. They looked for him but couldn’t find him. They sent for him, called on the phone and still couldn’t find him.
Two hours later they accidentally found him inside the Gray Cabinet.
Ak sat in the Cabinet atop a pile of grave profiles of those killed, and thought with an unprecedented—even for him—intensity.
“What are you doing here?” they asked Ak.
“Can’t you see I’m thinking?” Ak replied wearily.
“But why in the Cabinet?”
“This is the most suitable place. I am thinking about people, and one can only think fruitfully about people while perched directly atop the acts of their destruction. Only while sitting on the documents of a person’s destruction can one study their extremely strange life.”
Someone laughed, a flat and empty sound.
“Don’t you laugh,” Ak warned. He brandished someone’s profile. “Don’t laugh. The Board of Supreme Determination seems to be in crisis. Studying those who have perished has led me to search for new paths toward progress. You have all learned to concisely and venomously prove the uselessness of a person’s existence. Even the least talented among you can convincingly prove it in a few sentences. And so I sit here and think whether we’re on the right path.”
Ak pondered this, sighed bitterly, and spoke quietly.
“What to do? What’s the solution? When you study living people, you come to the conclusion that three-quarters of them should be culled. But when you study the slaughtered, you don’t know: perhaps they should’ve been loved and pitied instead. This, in my opinion, is the dead end of the human question, the tragic dead end of human history.”
Ak mournfully fell silent and buried himself in the mountain of profiles of the perished, painfully reading their eerily standardized laconic entries.
The Board members withdrew. No one objected. First, because it was useless to object to Ak. Second, because no one dared object to him. Everyone felt that a new solution was brewing, and almost everyone was dissatisfied. There was an established process, clear and definitive, that would probably have to be replaced with something else. But with what?
What else would this madman, who had such unprecedented control over the city, think of?
He always disappeared when he needed to think. They searched for him everywhere but couldn’t find him. Someone said that Ak sat in a tree outside the city and cried. Someone else said that Ak ran on all fours in his garden and gnawed at the ground.
The productivity of the Board of Supreme Determination had weakened. With Ak gone, something went awry with their work. Residents put up iron bolts on their doors and refused to let commission inspectors in. In some neighborhoods the Board members’ questions about the right to life were answered with laughter. In some instances, the unnecessary people grabbed the members of the Board of Supreme Determination and checked their own right to life, mockingly writing profile-protocols that weren’t much different from the ones stored in the Gray Cabinet.
Chaos descended upon the city. Unnecessary, insignificant people who hadn’t yet been culled grew so impudent as to appear freely in the streets, began to visit each other, have fun, engage in all sorts of entertainment, and even get married. They congratulated each other in the streets:
“It’s over! It’s over! Hurray!”
“The verification of the right to life has ended.”
“Don’t you find, fellow citizen, that life has become more pleasant? There’s less human rubbish. It’s become easier to breathe.”
“Shame on you, citizen! Do you think only those who had no right to life have died? Oh! I know those who have no right to live for even an hour and yet they live on and will live for years, while on the other hand so many worthy individuals have died. If only you knew!”
“This means nothing. Mistakes are inevitable. Tell me, do you know where Ak is?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ak sits in a tree outside the city and cries.”
“Ak runs on all fours and gnaws at the ground.”
“Let him cry!”
“Let him gnaw!”
“You rejoice too soon, citizens. Too soon. Ak is coming back tonight, and the Board of Supreme Determination will resume its work.”
“How do you know?”
“I know! There’s too much human rubbish remaining. We must cleanse and cleanse and cleanse!”
“You’re very cruel, citizen.”
“I don’t care.”
“Citizens! Citizens! Look! Look!”
“They’re putting up new posters.”
“Citizens! What happiness! What joy!”
9. The posters were put up.
People ran through the streets out of breath, with buckets full of glue. Stacks of huge pink posters unfurled with a cheerful crackling rustle and stuck to building walls. Their text was clear, crisp, and so simple.
Here it is:
To everyone, without exception:
From the moment this announcement is published, all citizens of the city are permitted to live. Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The Board of Supreme Determination has fulfilled its solemn duty and is hereby renamed the Board of Supreme Sensitivity. Citizens, you are all beautiful, and your right to life is inalienable.
The Board of Supreme Sensitivity charges special three-member commissions with the task of visiting apartments daily and congratulating the residents on the fact of their existence. They’re to write down their observations in the special Joyous Protocols.
Members of the commission have the right to interview citizens about their lives, and the citizens may, if they wish, answer in detail. The latter is preferred. Joyous observations are to be stored in the Pink Cabinet for posterity.
10. Life returned to normal.
Doors, windows, and balconies opened. Loud human voices, laughter, singing, and music burst from them. Fat, incapable girls studied the piano. Gramophones roared day and night. People played violins, clarinets, and guitars. Men took off their jackets in the evenings, sat with their legs spread wide on the balconies, and hiccupped with pleasure. Urban traffic increased tremendously. Young men and women rode in cars and carriages. Nobody was afraid of appearing in the streets. Bakeries and candy stores sold cakes and soft drinks. Haberdashery shops did a brisk business in selling mirrors. People bought mirrors and enjoyed looking at their reflections. Artists and photographers received portrait commissions. The portraits were framed and hung on apartment walls. Such portraits were even the cause of one murder, written about in the newspapers. Some young man who had rented a room demanded that the portraits of the landlord’s parents be removed from it. The owners took offense and killed the young man, throwing his body into the street from the fifth floor.
Self-esteem and self-love flourished. All manner of conflicts and squabbles became commonplace. In those cases, along with the usual insults, they pestered each other with such newly minted clichés:
“You seem to be living in the world by mistake. It seems the Board of Supreme Determination did a poor job…”
“Very poor job, if someone like you has remained…”
Such squabbles were insignificant overall. Pantries groaned from excess, people made jams. The demand for warm, knitted underwear increased considerably as everyone greatly valued their health.
Members of the Board of Supreme Sensitivity dutifully visited apartments and interviewed residents about their lives.
Many answered that life was good, and even forced proof upon the interviewers.
“Here,” they said, smirking smugly and rubbing their hands. “We’ve got pickles, and marinated herring. Recently I weighed myself and I’ve gained half a pound, thank the Lord…”
Others complained about inconveniences and lamented the poor performance of the Board of Supreme Determination:
“You see, I was on the tram yesterday and—can you imagine?—there were no empty seats. What a disgrace! My spouse and I had to stand. There are too many unnecessary people left over. They swarm everywhere, swarm, and why do they swarm, devil only knows. It’s too bad they weren’t removed during the inquiry…”
Still others were indignant:
“Keep in mind that no one came to congratulate me for existing on Wednesday or Thursday! This is insolence! Unacceptable! Am I supposed to come visit you to get congratulated now?”
11. End of the tale.
In Ak’s office, work was in full swing as ever: people sat and wrote. The Pink Cabinet was filled with joyous protocols and observations. Birthdays, weddings, festivities, lunches and dinners, love stories, all manner of adventures were described in careful detail. Many reports acquired the character and form of stories and novels.
Residents asked the Board of Supreme Sensitivity members to publish them in book form, and devoured those books.
Ak was silent.
He became even more hunched over and his hair even more gray.
Sometimes he climbed into the Pink Cabinet and sat there for a long time, as he used to do in the Gray Cabinet.
One day Ak jumped out of the Pink Cabinet, shouting:
“Slaughter them! Slaughter! Slaughter! Slaughter!”
But when he saw the white hands of his employees hovering over papers, describing the living residents with the same zeal as they used to the dead ones, he gave up, ran out of the office—and disappeared.
There were many legends about the disappearance of Ak. All sorts of rumors abounded, but Ak was never found.
And people from that city—the people whom Ak had slaughtered and then taken mercy upon, and then had wanted to slaughter again, people including those who are real, those who are beautiful, and those who are human rubbish—still continue to live as though Ak had never existed, and no one had ever raised the great question about the right to life.
“The Tale of Ak and Humanity” copyright © 2022 by Yefim Zozulya
Art copyright © 2022 by Juan Bernabeu