Article

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.)