Light in Captivity

Paraphrased from an interesting article I just read:

In the early 1920s, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky recounted a story about a priest named Zolotnitsky from the last days of the Tsars. Zolotnitsky was imprisoned for thirty years “for some sort of heretical thoughts.” His one consolation and companion was a tiny fire in the stove in his cell. After he was finally released, the old man began to worship fire and lived to watch the dancing flames. When he encountered electric light for the first time, he was horrified to see electric fire “imprisoned” in a glass bulb. The old priest cried piteously, “And him too–oh!–and him too … What did you imprison him for?” He appealed to those around him. “Oh, slaves of God … you are holding a little sunbeam captive! … O, you people! Fear his fiery wrath!” Finally, he collapsed, trembling and sobbing, “Oh, let him go…”

The article is Julia Bekman Chadaga, “Light in Captivity: Spectacular Glass and Soviet Power in the 1920s and 1930s,Slavic Review 66:1 (Spring 2007). Gorky depicts the priest as a relic of the old world who cannot understand the icons of the new. (Lenin: “Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification.”) Chadaga uses Gorky’s story to introduce her analysis of ways the Soviet state employed spectacles of glass and electric light. I’ve retold it here simply because it’s cool.

(Chadaga also mentions that Soviet factories in the 1930s produced light bulbs with grotesquely high wattages–she cites a story about blazing four-hundred watt lights in closets and toilets–in order to meet power consumption quotas.)


  1. Picture, for instance, the story illustrated by Mike Mignola at the outset of a Hellboy/BPRD comic.

  2. It’s funny you mention the 400W bulbs… I’m working on a documentary about the gulags right now, and it’s just amazing, sobering stuff… the 5 year plans, the White Sea canal… man, ultimate power does corrupt ultimately.

  3. Richard Feynman’s book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” has a chapter called, “Is Electricity Fire?” He was asked this by an Orthodox Jew [Feynman was Jewish, the main reason Bell Labs wouldn’t hire him, so he went to work on the Manhattan Project instead] because of the “don’t make fire on the Sabbath” law. As usual, Feynman was able to provide reasoning to answer both yes [something about condensers and sparks] and no [finally settling on “no”], but was disappointed the man wasn’t interested in science, but only wanted to know if he was allowed to turn on his bathroom lights while taking a whizz on the Sabbath. Luckily, there’s no “don’t take a whizz on the Sabbath” law.

  4. There is a story that in the early days of the revolution they put together a map of the whole of the Soviet Union dotted with light bulbs to demonstrate their electrification plans…

    But in order to switch this plan on… they had to turn off the rest of electricity in the whole of Moscow…

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