Then Raise the Dead Man High
In a place where even voices of the dead are subject to tyranny of the present, how does one even begin to hope for a better world ahead?
January 4, 2023
Is this book for me?
The USSR from the 1920s to 1950s wasn’t an upbeat time or place. Yes, there’s a speculative element in Then Raise the Dead Man High, but this book is written in the style of intensely realist Soviet-era lit (think Grossman, Platonov, Serge, Shalamov, and Solzhenitysn, if you’re familiar).
That kind of writing is useful for depicting the mentality of people who learned to self-censor before state officials could break them further, but this way of presenting bleak events might disturb Western readers. There’s little room in this kind of storytelling for the plucky individualism of persevering and enterprising characters. You won’t find many people here who have any confidence in their agency, or who unquestioningly struggle against whatever fate befalls them.
That’s precisely why I chose this time and place: to find a way through bleakest night to better days.
But spending a whole book with people trapped in mental prisons (one, a student ashamed that she can’t muster the full fervour of fellow Soviet youth; one, a KGB officer who has committed atrocities, and betrayed loved ones; one, a prisoner in gulag who, having been hurt, now hurts others in turn)?
Well, that might not be for you. Maybe consider A Tower for the Coming World: Stories instead?
By day, the luminarium hummed from the output of at least a dozen active altars: a buzzing that confused the birds and left a pointed absence of other animal life around the neighboring trees. When Valentina had first come to the Institute, an older engineering student had teased her by declaring that, if ever all thirty-four stations were in use at the same time, the whole building—and every student, instructor, and technician working within it—would light up like incandescent bulbs, or something out of the radium factory in Tatarstan. But when the young man saw that he had been believed by the campus novice, he sobered at once, and corrected her misapprehension.
“It might be fine to fancy such a thing,” he’d said. “The glory of our discipline made plain for all to see! Each engineer pouring out of the building like a living Ilyich lamp to guide the rest along their way! But you must take care, Comrade, not to mythologize what it is we do here. We need facts, not fables, to hasten the way to true Communism.”
At the time, Valentina had been irritated by his lecture—if we just need facts, why don’t you stick to them, instead of lecturing me for taking you at your word? —but quickly, she learned that little was cut and dry about her discipline, and nothing ever fully without contention. Even the name of the field was undergoing transformation, with administrators increasingly favouring “incorporeal” to “necromantic” engineering—for although both were fair descriptions of the subject matter, one carried the weight of hundreds of folk tales about magic and the dead. For now, “necromantic” was still acceptable, but the students who favoured the term took great care, even without overt chiding from the Institute or Young Communists, to speak with technical precision about their work in the luminarium.
The name, after all, was not of the utmost consequence. What mattered was that the only nation truly striving to perfect its Communism had been the first to quantify the afterlife. That was the point of pride for all to linger on, to throw laughing and triumphant in the smug faces of Western capitalists and Soviet class traitors alike. No matter what the fate of the discipline’s founder, or the reasons for his initial research, or the specific terms for his discoveries from season to season, still there remained this core truth for all good Soviets to harbour in their hearts.
Let us not dwell on the past, her teachers had said, when it paves so great a way!
And that great way was still being paved as Valentina rounded the last turn of the luminarium staircase, and saw rows four through six filled with other students. Two were engaged in active summonings across the centuries, a terrific thrum rising from their altars, while the rest made notes and organized files upon their U-shaped desks, in preparation for the expulsion or advancement of other spirits in the catalogue. How easy it was to forget the extraordinary business that proceeded here, when it was all carried out in so orderly, so professionally detached a manner. Valentina remembered the excitement of her first visit, her first solo summoning… but over subsequent months the experience had grown, as it did for all, merely functional: a matter of managing input and output piles, filing rosters and weekly debriefs, and sometimes fiddling with bits of wire amid the fickle press of both heat and light upon the machines’ most delicate internal mechanisms.
This time, though, the sheer sight of Altar 14—devoid of both life and afterlife—invoked a wrenching feeling under Valentina’s ribcage: a nervous sense of urgency that lingered as she slid into the seat that Tatyana had used to such exclusion; as if expecting Tatyana to catch her any second now. And how far, really, could Tatyana’s soul have wandered in these scant few days? She had thrown herself off a roof so close in time and space to these machines that maybe… if Valentina cast her random search wide enough…
But at the mere contemplation of such a crime, Valentina shivered: her thoughts were such a cacophony of counter-revolutionary impulse that she could scarcely believe another student hadn’t heard her seditious mind at work. Would it ever be legal to commune with the dead mere days, and not years or decades, after their passing from this plane? The question had never been asked in her classes—meaning that this question could not be asked; meaning that even asking the question might be seen as a declaration of intent to subvert the wisdom of the State. And yet, as she scanned Tatyana’s desk to quell the quiet impulse simply to start up the machine, Valentina felt there was something just as subversive about trying to commune with the dead through any special items they’d left behind.
Not that Tatyana’s way of things made such an effort easy: her workspace was a marvel of mechanical action, with files neatly stacked on either side of the altar, twine bindings arranged in perfect little bows, and plain brown pencils sharpened in a tidy line to the far-right side. There weren’t even shavings in the vicinity to suggest the extent of Tatyana’s work between one turn of the blade and the next. Amid all this sterility, only two details stood out as affirmations of a human presence: a notebook on the floor—the one, perhaps, that had fallen the night before—and a stray coin, a ½ kopeck piece between two sets of folders. The first was less a sign of Tatyana, though, than of Comrade Durova, which left Valentina wondering what, if anything, remained of her fellow necromantic engineer.
Secondary Media Recommendations
Forthcoming. (Playlist and historical readings in the works!)