In the beginning of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel Hard to Be a God, the protagonist, Anton, goes down a country road, disobeying a "wrong way" sign, and finds a skeleton of a fascist chained to his machine gun - a remnant of The Great Patriotic War.

“Toshka, what was there, beyond the sign?”

“A blown-up bridge,” answered Anton. “And the skeleton of a fascist, chained to a machine gun.” He thought a moment and added, “The machine gun had sunk into the ground.”
Hard to be a God, translated by Olena Bormashenko, Gollancz, page 15.

In the epilogue Anton's life-long friend Pasha wonders about the significance of this childhood experience:

“Anka,” Pashka said. “Do you remember the anisotropic highway?” Anka frowned. “What highway?”

“Anisotropic. The one with the do-not-enter sign. Remember, the three of us went there?”

“I remember. It was Anton who said that it was anisotropic.”

“That was the time Anton went through the sign, and when he came back, he said that he found a blown-up bridge and the skeleton of a fascist chained to a machine gun.”

“I don’t remember that,” said Anka. “So what?”

“I often think about that highway nowadays,” said Pashka. “Like there’s some connection. The highway was anisotropic, like history. You weren’t supposed to go back. But he did go back. And stumbled on a chained skeleton.”
Ibid, pages 230-231.

What is the meaning of the skeleton, and the anisotropic road with the one-way sign, in context of the events in Arkanar?

  • 2
    You say "the skeleton of a fascist", but how do you know the German was a WWII soldier? (Also, it's not fair to call every German WWII soldier a fascist - many of them must have been conscripted youngsters who knew nothing about Nazi ideology - but even leaving that aside.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 22:15
  • @Randal'Thor fair commentary. I took this excerpt from another e-book version. It appears that the original, and the most recent translation both explicitly use the word "fascist". I quoted another version but had the original Russian in mind. I'll update the excerpt with the recent translation Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 5:22
  • What's the russian word for anisotropic (i.e. the word used in the original russian version)?
    – user111
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 6:40
  • @Hamlet "анизотропное шоссе" - anisotropic highway. Same word. Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 8:10
  • Regarding the bounty: disregard the "credible/official" thing. All I'm looking for is an answer that would explain the meaning of the things mentioned using the novel itself. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 8:46

3 Answers 3


I interpreted the scene with the highway and the skeleton as a subtle bit of foreshadowing. It'll take some inference to get there, so bear with me if you will.

The highway is the progress of history

Pavel says as much in the given quote: "The highway was anisotropic, like history. You weren’t supposed to go back."

However, going back through history is exactly what Anton does. He immerses himself in the society of Arkanar, which the people of Earth consider to be at an earlier point of historical progression. More than Don Condor or Pavel himself, Anton goes native. He has real friends among the natives, like Baron Pampas. He falls in love with Kira, a native woman. He even adopts the passionate hatred of the natives, abandoning the more appropriate dispassion and pity, as he himself notes in Chapter 5:

Why? What has happened to me? Where did it go, my nurtured-since-childhood respect and trust in my own kind, in man— the amazing creature called man? Nothing can help me now, he thought in horror. Because I sincerely hate and despise them. Not pity them, no— only hate and despise. I can justify the stupidity and brutality of the kid I just passed all I want— the social conditions, the appalling upbringing, anything at all— but I now clearly see that he’s my enemy, the enemy of all that I love, the enemy of my friends, the enemy of what I hold most sacred. And I don’t hate him theoretically, as a “typical specimen,” but him as himself, him as an individual.

And a little further on in the same long monologue:

I came here to love people, to help them unbend, see the sky. No, I’m a bad operative, he thought remorsefully. I’m a no-good historian. When exactly did I manage to fall into the swamp that Don Condor was talking about? Does a god have the right to feel anything other than pity?

Even though Anton has not literally traveled through time, he's absorbed himself so thoroughly in historical conditions that he's started to adopt historical ways of thinking—hatred, vindictiveness—even while he keeps his values. Anton still values the things he was taught to value on Earth, like learning, curiosity, discovery, and peace, but he despises those who don't embody those values, instead of just condescendingly pitying them and hoping for the enlightenment of their descendants. It becomes so bad that he fantasizes about killing Don Reba and starting his own rebellion in Chapter 3:

But the very thought that thousands of others— maybe less talented but also honest and truly noble people— were fatally doomed caused an icy chill in his chest and an awareness of his own vileness. Sometimes this awareness became so acute that his mind would become clouded, and Rumata could almost see the backs of the gray bastards illuminated by lilac flashes of gunfire, and Don Reba’s eternally insignificant, pale visage contorted with animal terror, and the Merry Tower collapsing on itself. Yes, that’d be sweet. That would be actual work. An actual macroscopic impact.
Hard to Be a God (Rediscovered Classics) (p. 77). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

He also thinks how he envies Arata, the consummate rebel who struggles against the crown:

Arata was the only person here for whom Rumata felt neither hatred nor pity, and in his earthling’s dreams— the feverish dreams of a man who had lived for five years surrounded by stench and blood— he often imagined himself as such an Arata, having received the high right to murder the murderers, torture the torturers, and betray the traitors for having passed through all the hells of the universe.
Ibid pp. 213-214

The only thing that ends his fantasies is foreknowledge of the rapine that would follow such an uprising:

Then the inevitable. Bloody chaos in the country. The surfacing of Waga’s night army, ten thousand thugs excommunicated by every church— rapists, murderers, and sadists; hordes of copper-skinned barbarians descending from the mountains and destroying everything that moves, from newborns to the aged; huge crowds of peasants and townspeople, blind with terror, fleeing to the forests, mountains, and deserts [...]
Ibid, p. 77.

Neither Anka nor Pavel follow Anton up the highway. Neither feels the same temptation he does: Pavel manages to maintain a proper distance from his work, while Anka stays on Earth, ever the cautious one.

The skeleton represents figures like Don Reba who obstruct the progress of history

In Chapter 10, Anton sums up Reba thusly:

We’ve been racking our brains, vainly trying to squeeze the complicated, contradictory, enigmatic figure of our eagle Don Reba into the ranks of Richelieu, Necker, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Monck, and he turned out to be a petty hoodlum and an idiot! He betrayed and sold out everyone he could, got tangled up in his own schemes, got scared to death, and ran to the Holy Order to be saved. In half a year he’ll be slaughtered, and the Order will remain.
Ibid, pp. 220-221.

Don Reba's determination to fight, to impose his own will on the country, led to his own death; he purposefully chained himself to his weapon by refusing to stop weaving schemes within schemes, trying to improve his own lot; but in the end, chained to the gun, he couldn't stop fighting, and he had to take things to their bitter conclusion. His legacy ended there as he sank into the ground, pulled down by his weapon, the Holy Order.

The bridge represents the dark age that Arkanar has fallen into by the end of the book

Since the highway is the progress of history, the bridge was what allowed civilization to move smoothly from one age into the next. But the bridge was blown up, probably in the same battle that the fascist died in.

Without the bridge, making progress up the road is difficult. But it's not impossible to ford a river or wade through a swamp or trundle through a valley. It's slow, dangerous, and many more will die than would have walking across the bridge. But some can still make it to the other side.

This is Arkanar at the end of the novel: their society's bridge to the next era of history has been blown up thanks to Don Reba. People who would have survived into the next age will now die, and the path for those who survive will be much harder than it would have been. But because Anton and his colleagues managed to save at least a few of the people who will usher in the next era, it's still possible for their society to finally come out on the other side and continue down the road of history.

  • This is awesome! It all makes sense. I think there's anothe quote you might find useful: when Arata visits Rumata, the latter's thoughts show that he sees himself an Arata in dreams, someone who has "earned the right to torture torturers and betray traitors". Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 6:21
  • @Gallifreyan Thanks, glad it was helpful! I'll see about finding that quote and maybe refine some of the ideas in this answer a little more.
    – Torisuda
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 15:58
  • I really don't get your interpretation of Don Reba as the skeleton. That puts him as a victim, and he definitely isn't a victim. Besides the idea of a fascist tied to a machine gun has some history, and I doubt that the Strugatskys would not be alluding to that. Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 20:26
  • 2
    @Gilles I wasn't aware of that historical practice of chaining soldiers to guns, so I came up with my own interpretation. In my interpretation, Don Reba is a victim, of his own desire for domination, which comes from his primitive worldview (from the perspective of the people of Earth). The machine gun represents the Holy Order, which is the weapon he chooses to wield to achieve those ends, but using them leads him to be chained to them, which later causes his own death.
    – Torisuda
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 21:52

In the context of the Soviet Union, which is where the book was written and where the framing story is presumably taking place, a “fascist” is someone from the Axis, an enemy in a war that had an especially heavy toll count. A “fascist” is also an ideological enemy, someone who opposes communism. I don't remember the text explicitly specifying that the skeleton dates back from the Great Patriotic War (i.e. World War II), it could be a later war, however the fact that only a skeleton is left and it has partly sunk into the ground may indicate that the skeleton is old and so the war was a long time in the past.

The fact that, specifically, the machine gun has sunk into the ground is I think symbolically indicating that in the world where Anton and the other children grow up, war is a thing of the past. History has reached its last stage, with everyone living happily in a worldwide communist society. The machine gun is no longer relevant, but the history is remembered — and this memory of a painful history in the protagonists' world is why they go and help other worlds through the difficult parts of their history.

The road itself is styled as “Forgotten Highway”, which conveys the idea that the horrors of war against fascism belong to the past more forcefully than the fact that the machine gun has sunk. The sinking of the machine gun does however indicate that the emotional feeling over the horrors of war is forgotten, the history that remains is more intellectual, more abstract.

The fact that the skeleton of the fascist is chained to a machine gun is quite significant. Soldiers were chained to machine guns to avoid them running away as far back as World War I1,2,3. I don't know how much of that is historical fact and how much is propaganda or rumors4, but regardless it is cultural background that should be familiar to the intended audience of the novel. The fact that the soldier was chained to a machine gun indicates that he was not fully willing. He may have been reluctant, or outright forced to fight. The evil side, the responsibility for the war against good, is not on ordinary soldiers who are mostly deluded or coerced, but on their leaders.

Young Anton saw this gruesome remainder of the horrors of war, and this undoubtedly made him more sensitive to the suffering of others than his fellow historians. (We only have Anton's word of what he saw, actually, but even if he made that up, it shows that the topic was preying on his mind.) This explains why, later in life, he struggles with the non-intervention policy of the Institute of Experimental History. He can't stand to see more people tied to a machine gun to fight for fascism.

An anisotropic5 road is one which is different depending on which direction you travel in. My understanding of it is that since the highway is anisotropic, going there and back again does not necessarily get you back to your point of origin. When Anton returns, he has been changed by what he saw.

As Pashka puts it at the end, Anton wasn't supposed to get emotionally involved with the concrete suffering of the pre-communist eras. But he did as a child, and this explains why he did as an adult.

1 Ilkley Gazette – October 13th 1916: German Chained to a Machine Gun.
2 Sebastian O'Kelly on photos of the Spanish Civil War by Amedeo Guillet: “There was also a gruesome picture of a dead youth chained to a machine gun so he could not run away.”
3 A biography of Leytenant Ivan Zabolotny: “Ivan was very grateful when, upon reaching the other side of the river, he found an Italian soldier who was chained to a machine gun, surrendering instead of firing.”
4 See for example the forum thread “Japanese soldiers chained to their machine guns” for speculation on this topic.
5 A direct translation of the Russian original, and a rather technical word so there is no subtext to it other than the literal meaning.

  • "I don't know what Russian word is translated by anisotropic in the description of the highway" - see this question. (Also, nice answer!)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 22:42
  • 1
    Good answer. It's good to see that people are answering the same question from different perspectives: the cool thing about literature is that multiple different answers can all be correct!
    – user111
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 23:28
  • This is an awesome answer! Both your and Torisuda's are equally valid. Dilemma... Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 7:21

While it is hard to say what they wanted to say (even my commented edition does not have any special remarks on it), I would interpret it as a contraception part of the character in “The Experiment”, Fritz Geiger who was a Nazi by hearth.

Chained to the machine gun I would interpret as that he was forced to fight, no matter whether he stood behind the ideology or not. Just like many people in Arkanar.

Please note that this is my interpretation, considering also the works The Experiment and The Kid From Hell.

Also note that this was one of the first novels with their ideas of extraterrestrial influence from a more advanced civilization, it could be that they just used the framework to bring the reader closer to the idea of the main story.

  • There's a commented edition? 0.o Also, while I can't agree or disagree with your answer because I haven't read the things you reference, I'd still like to point out that I'd prefer answers that also address the fact that the road was "anisotropic" (whatever Pavel means by that). Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 17:17
  • @Gallifreyan The german collected works of them (Heyne Verlag, Vol. 4, 978-3-453-52686-0). They have comments from Boris and additional information from Erik Simon (who tried to translate all their works based on uncensored manuscripts/editions)
    – Swizzler
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 17:26
  • This is an interesting insight, but I'm fairly sure Pavel meant something else when he said there was something symbolic in the skeleton and the anisotropic road. Can you elaborate on that? Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 14:33
  • @Gallifreyan I doubt that we can find an answer from within the book. Maybe the 2013 movie gives more insight.
    – Swizzler
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 9:03
  • And I think we can, otherwise Pavel wouldn't bother mentioning it. I just can't put my finger on it... Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 10:45

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