Rubashov thinks of a time, not long before his arrest, when he went to a picture gallery in a southern German town in order to meet a young man. It was 1933, and the Party had been outlawed there, its members hunted and killed. However, the Party continued to exist in small pockets of people who met in clubs, railway stations, and cellars to print pamphlets or write slogans on walls. Gradually these people started to put out feelers again: the Party was dead, but its hair and nails continued to grow.
The reference to the Pietà that ended the last chapter leads to Rubashov’s first major flashback to the time before his arrest, when he was an important diplomat responsible for spreading the Party message and fomenting revolution abroad. It’s around this time that Nazism is clamping down on opposition in Germany.
Rubashov paces up and down his cell as he remembers sitting on the plush sofa in the art gallery. The young man, Richard, the leader of the Party in the town, came a few minutes late and noticed Goethe’s Faust on Rubashov’s lap. He sat down and Rubashov asked him about the list of his people. Richard said that he has the list in his head but that he also gave a list to his wife Anny, who was arrested last night. Rubashov saw the dull hope in Richard’s eyes that Rubashov might help him. Anny managed to pass the list to her sister-in-law in the flat, an ally, Richard said.
The descriptions of Rubashov’s pacing throughout his prison cell will serve, throughout the book, as a periodic reminder that the subsequent scenes are located in his memory. Rubashov and Richard have met on Party business, and Rubashov seems slightly irritated by the fact that Richard is clinging to hope for an individual, personal favor that has no relevance to revolution.
Richard told Rubashov about Anny’s arrest while Rubashov stared at a “Last Judgment” painting behind him. Then Rubashov had him recite the list of the Party’s members: Rubashov wrote down several addresses, then asked for Richard’s report on their activities, while a Virgin Mary stretched out her thin hands behind him. Of the 30 people, only 17 remained: two had killed themselves when the police came to get them, and some had left the Party in protest or had been arrested already. Richard didn’t know then that the Central Committee had their own man in the group who had long since informed Rubashov of all of this, or that this man had been having an affair with Anny. Of course Rubashov would have all this information in advance: the Intelligence and Control Department was the only part of the Party that still functioned well, and Rubashov was at its head.
While Richard continues to relate his worries about his wife, Rubashov tunes out: he prefers to concentrate on the purely aesthetic enjoyment of the painting rather than deign to listen to one individual’s sob story. At the same time, Richard is shown to be one of the few remaining people leading the Party in this part of the country. This information comes from Rubashov, though, not Richard: no one, even a Party member and organizer himself, can be fully exempt from the surveillance that embodies the Party’s policy.
Steps are approaching in the prison corridor: Rubashov sees a peasant with a swollen eye being locked into a cell. Rubashov thinks himself back to the gallery, where he told Richard that the pamphlets Richard had made were known to the Central Committee and they contained unacceptable phrases. He asked why Richard hadn’t distributed the Party’s material.
Back in the prison, Rubashov does, for the first time, see evidence of some kind of torture. This scene is juxtaposed to another kind of condemnation, though this one enacted by Rubashov on Richard for his non-conformism.
Increasingly distressed and stammering, Richard said that the tone of the Party’s propaganda material was wrong. Rubashov ordered him to calm down, as a uniformed man strutted in with his girlfriend. Rubashov instructed Richard to breathe slowly and deeply and told him that one must control oneself. Richard began frantically asking if Anny would be safe, as she was pregnant. Then the young officer turned to look at them, before turning back out, the girl giggling: Rubashov looked back to the Virgin painting, with her thin, meager arms raised.
While Rubashov remains calm, cool, and collected, Richard becomes more and more agitated, as he begins to realize that, although he thought he was working in service to the Party, its leaders may not think so. Rubashov has no pity for Richard or his pregnant wife, choosing again to concentrate on the beauty of the painting rather than on Richard’s plight.
Rubashov said that certain consequences would come from Richard’s decision. Reddening, Richard told Rubashov that he knew the material was full of nonsense, with its emphasis on the will to victory in a place where the Party was so beaten down. He must know that, Richard told Rubashov, but Rubashov drily told him not to ascribe to him an opinion not his own. Whoever is weak or spreads fear doesn’t belong with them, he said: the pamphlets were defeatist and demoralizing. Richard said he only knows that people must be told the truth.
Richard wants to spread the Party’s message in the way he thinks its best: Rubashov’s point is that the Party knows what’s best. The official line of optimism as opposed to defeatism is the only truth and it cannot be questioned. Here, Richard proposes a different understanding of “truth,” one that is outside Party policy.
But Rubashov ignored Richard, saying that the last Party congress announced that the Party didn’t suffer defeat, it merely retreated strategically. Richard exclaimed that this is rubbish, and then more calmly said that the Party leadership is simply mistaken. Rubashov replied that the Party can never be mistaken: it’s the embodiment of the “revolutionary idea” in history, and history makes no mistakes.
Rubashov listed the various wrong-headed elements written in Richard’s pamphlets, stating that one cannot lead politics in passion and despair, and that one false step would cause them to lose their way. Now tired, Richard said flatly that what he said is true, but he still knows that they’re beaten. After a silence, Richard asked what would happen to them now. Rubashov told Richard that he was no longer a member of the Party. Richard asked nervously if he should no longer live with his friend (the Central Committee member) and Rubashov said he had better not, then bid him good-bye. On the way out he realized that he’d forgotten to look closely at the Pietà: now he’d only remember the detail of the arms.
After glossing some of the major points of Communist ideology and its peculiar definition of truth, Rubashov now demonstrates that view by parroting the party line as he details what exactly was wrong with Richard’s pamphlets. Richard now recognizes that there’s no room for his individual beliefs or alternate understanding of the facts. Although he continues to be upset, Rubashov seems unfazed by the conversation he’s just had, as he is still focused on the art.
Richard raced outside as Rubashov was hailing a taxi, asking if that was a warning. Again beginning to stammer, Richard begged Rubashov not to denounce him to the Party. Rubashov didn’t answer, but instead got into the taxi and drove off, knowing Richard was standing there staring after him. At the end, the driver said the cost was nothing for people like Rubashov: he bid him good luck, holding out his hand and smiling sheepishly. Rubashov saw a porter leaning against a post, watching them: rather than take the driver’s hand, he put a coin into it and got out at the train station. During the trip he dreamed that Richard and the taxi-driver wanted to run him over: he’d cheated them of the fare. He woke up feeling nauseous, his tooth aching. He was arrested a week later.
Richard now realizes that he did not just make a minor mistake—it was one that may well cost him his Party membership or even his life. Still, Rubashov remains cold and unfazed by Richard’s anxiety and confusion. Meanwhile, the taxi driver seems to recognize Rubashov’s Communist affiliation, and tries to show his loyalty. But for Rubashov, security wins out over loyalty, and he prefers to dismiss the driver’s show of commitment in order to make sure that the observer doesn’t suspect anything.