I Speak From the Grave

Unpublished last chapter from Leonid Andreyev’s “The Story of the Seven Hanged” (1908), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2016)

The paper, composed by Werner, was immediately inspected, but due to the lack of any new factual information therein it was put aside and appended to the case file “on the five.”

It appears that the writer was in a great hurry and distress: the fast flowing, confident script, which in individual words and letters still retained a firmness of stroke, was oftentimes broken, becoming extremely illegible, and the running letters all began to tilt in one direction. Some words were left unfinished; others were written out larger and firmly underlined; a large part of the letter, nearer the end, was impossible to decipher—the underlines, additions, unfinished words, they all presented a muddy black chaos devoid of meaning.

Here is that paper.


I, the unidentified, known by the alias Werner, condemned to death by hanging, and hanged on Friday, 20th March, the year 1908 from the Birth of Christ (the words “from the Birth of Christ” were crossed out, and then written again),—I implore that people understand that the death penalty must never, in no case and in no circumstances, exist in human society.

I ask you not to pity me, I was always ready for death, and now, when I have come to understand what the death penalty is, I leave life with joy and with necessity. I have come to understand something in people after which I cannot live as I once did, and I know of no other life. I have come to understand that a person’s brain is small and is encased in an iron chest from which there is no escape. I have come to understand that all people are mute, that they don’t have a tongue, and that that which they call their speech serves only for the common deception, and this makes people’s lives worse than those of animals, who can speak and understand through their eyes. And I have also come to understand that all people are blind and deaf and that they have neither an eye nor an ear, and that that which they call sight and hearing serves only for the common deception; and this makes every man a sepulcher of truth, and between men walks only Falsehood. And from this they see life, and don’t know what life is; they see death—and don’t understand; they see man—and don’t know what man is.

I have to hurry. That which I’ve seen will soon make me completely insane, and then I won’t understand that truth which is inside me. That truth is that I, a man, must not be put to death.

Here I am in prison, and if I begin to scream then nobody will hear me, and, perhaps, the guards will come and place a gag in my mouth to stop me from screaming. But if I was at a public square, during the day, and I again began to scream, then, likewise, nobody would hear me, and, perhaps, they’d put me once more into prison for being loud. It’s all the same whether at a public square or in prison. I was just trying to explain to you why you cannot put people to death, but now I’m thinking whether or not I should bother, because in any case you won’t hear me. After all, it’s quite probable that the dead in their graves are also screaming, but who can hear them? That’s why they rot. And I, too, was alive, and now I’m dead—and you should listen to me for I speak from the grave. But please, don’t flush my paper down the toilet, but instead burn it or rip it apart.

But, it may be that people don’t exist at all, and that I am only seeing things. When the hours strike…

(Here a few lines are heavily smeared with ink.)

To kill is not at all the same thing as to execute, there’s a terrible difference. Killings happen everywhere, but only man executes, and that makes man the most terrible thing in the world. It makes no difference to me whether I am killed or whether I die from typhus or old age, it makes no difference because until the very death I will not know that I’ll die. Even if I am terminally ill and they tell me this, the fever or the illness would put me in such a state that I will not believe it, and until the very death will not know that I’ll die. And right now I, not being ill and without a fever, know that in ten hours I’ll die. It’s impossible. Then you’ll have to destroy all the clocks and stop the sun from rising. In any case, before the execution people must be—this is a practical thought which I am seriously recommending—kept for two months in absolute darkness and within such strong walls that time could not be perceived at all. No, my thoughts are getting confused, this won’t help, man will count his pulse and will know the time. The sun must be stopped from rising.

(Further on the text is crossed out.)

You have mangled my mind. You’ve placed my thought on a razor edge, revealing two abysses at once—life and death.

(Then further again the text is crossed out. The only thing one can make out are the words which appear several times: “two abysses.” Further the letters soon begin to tilt to the right; and at the end they are almost lying down.)

I can hear the rotation of the earth. I can hear how quickly it’s turning, the black shadow of the night running back over its surface, and it’s turning the side on which I am on ever closer towards the sun. Is this an alien earth or not, that’s what’s important to know. I am moving at such speed that my head is spinning, as if I’m on an air balloon. You have to accept me, earth. You must not be alien to me.

Strange: it seems like I’ve lost my hearing. Just now some person entered and opened his mouth, and I couldn’t hear anything. And then I figured it out rather than heard it—his words were so faint and unclear, though I think he was screaming—that it’s time to finish up.

What’s with me?! What’s with me?! He came again and said that an hour had passed, and I have written only these four lines. But I still need to explain to you why you must not put people to death—must not—must not.

You have mangled my mind. Where does this bent of yours for crucification come from—you have crucified my thought. Wow, Werner, you don’t have a head, you’ve got a drum. They have crucified my thought, stretched it over a drum, and are striking it with their fists: boom-boom-boom!

Man, you’re a great clown. You take the brains of someone near to you, stretch them, like hide, across a drum, and strike it with fists: boom!—boom!—boom!

Come here, quick! Here’s a great clown, the best, the wittiest clown. Boom-boom-boom! You think this is donkey hide? No, it’s the brains of a man, stretched over a drum, and with anger do I strike with my fists: boom!—boom!—boom! Daily spectacle, every morning—every evening! Women and children get free access! Women and children, do come here—access is free! You’ll get laughs aplenty when I show you a stupid grimace, stick out my tongue and lift up both my hands—and strike the drum—and rip right through it!

Who said that this is man’s brains? It’s donkey hide, tanned donkey hide, stretched over an iron hoop. And if you tear through it you’ll discover only emptiness. Clown, be careful, don’t strike so hard—there’s only emptiness. There’s—emptiness.

(Further—the thin, gray paper is strongly and sharply crossed out and ripped up with the quill. What comes next is written with a steady hand, the letters upright and orderly.)

No, not to them will I address my last word,—but to you, my dear comrades: you, Musya,—you, Sergei,—you, poor Vasya,—and you, Tanya! Tomorrow I won’t tell you anything to make sure I don’t torture you with a hopeless and cruel kindness, and you won’t ever read or know what I have written for you,—but let these words, if only for an instant, come to life on this dead paper. Who knows? Maybe, somehow, they will reach your heart. My dear comrades, I love you very much. I, stupid Werner, did not previously understand what execution was, and thought: well, death is death, and I did not pity you.—Now I’ve come to understand what it truly is, and I love you very much, and I pity you very, very much. Let them remain living, if they are not yet afraid to live,—we however, my dear comrades, are going into death. I do not wish to comfort you, but who knows? I don’t know myself—maybe the earth is not alien to us after all. Because they’ve mangled my mind, and right now I am a little insane, or because from the apex of death I can cast an eye over the whole of my life,—it appears to me a stupid and burdensome dream. And it will end, this dream, with its gallows and executioners, with its senselessness and savage clownery—and then will come the awakening.

And perhaps death itself is a stupid and burdensome dream, just as life, and there is a third of which we know nothing, which is neither life nor death, and which awaits us at the end of our great and sorrowful journey? Who knows, who knows! The next step is opening up before us, but does it lead up, towards the heavens, or down, into the underworld,—this we will all learn tomorrow…

Goodbye, my dear comrades.

They’re coming.

You must not execute! You must not ex…”

May 2016