“What would we do without you, Vorobeyev?” asked Captain Kuriczamatin, and he was not joking. Lieutenant Vorobeyev could not shoot or read a map or remember the signal codes; he spoke to his superiors just as he spoke to the men and neither really understood him; he was active and excitable like a man with a fever. The war had lifted him from a coffee house in St Petersburg, dropped him into the Second Army and made him a lieutenant because he was an educated man, but it had not made him a soldier. Nevertheless: he was brave, and even in our current fatal position his cheerfulness never faded.
“Let me do it, sir.”
“I will consider the position in the morning.”
“It will be too late in the morning, sir. Then you’ll only have two choices —”
“That’s not for you to say,” Kuriczamatin protested, but Vorobeyev continued:
“— and you may as well surrender, because it won’t serve much purpose for all these good fellows to die.”
“Either way, you should be here,” Kuriczamatin said, because he cherished Vorobeyev. “Do you not think so, Sergeant?”
Our Captain was a reservist who had been called to his commission only eight weeks before. Three weeks’ marching here and nowhere in the Prussian woods had not yet trimmed all the cake from his paunch; his military strongpoint was his moustache. Yet I did not mind him too much. He loved the Tsar, he did his duty and he was not too proud to ask me a question. It was not his fault that we were up to our necks in pigshit. A regular army Captain would have pretended that we were in the shit because he liked the smell. He would have silenced Vorobeyev with a word or a blow. But what good would that have done?
“Ask Utkayev,” I said.
Utkayev was lying at the bottom of the hill, God rest his soul.
“I will go the other way — straight at them. They won’t expect that. Before dawn. They won’t see me,” Vorobeyev said.
“It’s not a game of hide and seek!” said Captain Kuriczamatin.
“But yes, it is a game of hide and seek,” Vorobeyev said.
I addressed the Captain:
“If it please Your Honour, it’s been three days since the column marched forward, and not a word since. That fellow who found his way here from Martov’s Corps, lost as a sheep — he said it was every man for himself. We’ve seen nothing but Germans for two days. There is no command post. Even if Vorobeyev makes it all the way to Neidenburg, he will find nothing.”
“You can’t know that, Sergeant.”
It is insubordinate to shrug at an officer, so I bowed. He had heard the shelling as much as I. First it came from the west, then also the north and the south, and finally from the east. No-one doubted that the Germans had won the battle. Second Army was smashed.
Lacking a cigarette, Captain Kuriczamatin pulled at his lip while he thought.
“I won’t stop you,” he said to Vorobeyev at last.
Vorobeyev showed a flash of surprise before his smile. “Thank you sir.”
The Captain kicked over a map case and turned away.
“Excuse me sir,” Vorobeyev said. “I would like to give a little talk this evening before I leave.”
“A little talk. To any of the officers and men who might be interested.”
“The future of Russian art.”
Signaller Duvchev laughed. Vorobeyev smiled. “I’m not surprised that the good soldier laughs at art. But this will change. At least, that is my thesis.”
“Your thesis?” Captain Kuriczamatin said. “Peter Vasilich, I know that you were a student before the war, but I think you might have left your thesis behind you.”
“It will pass the time at least.”
“Say nothing against the Tsar.”
Around five o’clock the Germans opened fire with mortars and machine guns. For five minutes they soaked us, and then they shouted up the hill:
“Come down, Russians! Don’t make us come and get you.”
We had nothing to fire back at them.
“Thank you, Germans. Stay where you are, please. A fight now would spoil all our dinners” Vorobeyev shouted back, in German — and then he told the men what he had said, which made them laugh. They slumped behind the timbers and stones they had heaped up and chewed on grass or bark, according to their taste. Vorobeyev went back and forth, inviting them to listen to his talk.
There would be no light once the sun dropped below the horizon. Apart from the appointed sentries, nearly everyone seemed to have gathered in the little clearing beaten out by the Captain’s tent. Captain Kuriczamatin was seated on a camp stool, with the signallers gathered around him like chicks. The riflemen were scattered here and there, some flat on the ground as if sleeping, some propped against the trunks of trees, others crosslegged or squatting on their heels. Despite their uniforms, they looked like peasants, peasants exhausted by famine — and why not? They were peasants before, and if the war did not kill them soon, they would be peasants again.
Vorobeyev stood in a central position, without his cap, and with his tunic unbuttoned at his neck.
“Gentlemen, it is good of you to come.”
This manner of address raised a few heads.
“I would like to begin with a poem:
Just below my window
Stands a birch-tree white,
Under snow in winter
Gleaming silver bright. ”
He broke off and staged a theatrical yawn.
“Poor stuff, isn’t it? Let’s try another. This is called ‘Machine’:
eenkaOng Chiponk! Chakaka Ya! Ya! —”
And on he went, popping his cheeks, screwing up his eyeballs, swivelling his moustache. His arms windmilled, his feet stamped. He finished with a grating sound deep in his throat like the crashing of gears, followed by ‘ZHOOSH’, trailing away to a hiss.
The soldiers laughed.
“Oh, Vorobeyev,” Captain Kuriczamatin said in a tone of mild reproach.
“Gentlemen, laugh, please laugh. You did not want to laugh at the birch-tree white did you? No, you were bored and you wanted to go to sleep. But you are awake now, aren’t you? Remember the first time you saw a motor car? I remember my first. It was a 1903 Renault with red wheels. Red! And it made a noise like nothing I had ever heard before: TackaTackaTackaTacka. When I heard that noise and saw the intrepid motorist armoured in his gauntlets and goggled helm, I knew that the world had changed forever. The future reached out with bright steel hooks and dragged me out of the past. And I laughed. You will greet the future with a laugh!
“We all know the past. It is a little dusty. The past is dressed in black, in mourning for itself. It has a patched knee. It goes crooked and slow to the fields and comes home bent under the weight of itself. The past has been the same for hundreds of years. But Russia is leaving the past. Man is being remade by the Machine! The motorist hurtles across a landscape flattened in his honour. The aerialist looks down on eagles. The locomotive driver takes a village in his train and crosses the country with it. The telegraphist speaks across the globe. The industrialist achieves the alchemical dream. Raw materials of the world stream into his factories, from India, from America, from Africa, and they emerge as tea sets, binoculars, false teeth, billiard balls, torpedoes, mosquito nets, fountain pens, bicycles, bullets — all the million things of modern life, a life unlike any past life. A life of the future.”
“I don’t see much of that,” said Private Putkin.
Vorobeyev asked him where he was from and Putkin named a village “beyond Kubyshev”, which is to say, as much nowhere as anywhere in our great country. Vorobeyev nodded.
“Yes, our villages, our farms are very sleepy. But that is the great thing about the war. Haven’t you seen more life since the war began than you ever saw before?”
“More life, and more death too,” I said.
“We are all going to die,” Vorobeyev said, “but the important thing is that we should really live first. In the future, we will all live bright shiny lives, illuminated by electric lamps, accelerated to the beat of machines, vivified by the exhilirating terror of war —”
I snorted. Vorobeyev clapped and went on.
“What is war? It is the workshop of the world. See the flowers of the guns, the bright red flowers. Hear the crash of shells, like giant hammer blows, shaping the steel of our souls. After this war, we will be changed. The past will be smashed. New men will stride into the radiant future.”
“Enough of this, Vorobeyev,” Captain Kuriczamatin objected. “I thought you were going to talk about Art.”
“I beg your pardon, your honour. I am talking about Life, but that is because the new Russian Art is all about Life. Or rather, it is not about Life, it is Life, it is the Art of Life.”
Vorobeyev’s ‘talk’ continued into the night. I fell asleep, and awoke later to hear him, still talking. I am sure many of the soldiers went away to find some quiet rest, but a surprising number stayed with him, and even began to argue. He was full of absurd sentiments, but he spoke with such foolish enthusiasm that it was impossible to take offence. He talked about a new language that would perform the actions of which it spoke. He said there would be cities full of the machine music and that everyone would travel to strange places, living lives of unending novelty, and destined, even if they returned home, to die in a landscape made unrecognisable by ceaseless change.
At last the darkness ceased darkening and the horizon began to show between the trees.
“I have to go,” Vorobeyev said. He buttoned up his tunic and put on his cap. “Don’t wake the Captain.”
A few of us followed him to the western edge of the hill. On this side the slope was steep. At the bottom was a field of rounded stones where the two streams that flanked us came together. It was too dark to see the German positions beyond.
“You can ford the stream there,” I said, pointing. “but they have machine guns right and left.”
He had some sort of plan, but he did not share it. His face was very pale, with dark rings under both eyes.
“You’re too tired for this,” I said.
“Goodbye fellows” he said. “I will bring back reinforcements. Or … if you must surrender, don’t worry. You will still fight the war after you surrender.”
A sudden desolation filled us all.
“Stay, Vorobeyev, stay,” we whispered. For if he went, we would still have to fight the war, and how would we do that without him? Our previous hopelessness now seemed only the shadow of hopelessness, and the blackness that promised to swallow him up was poking its fingers into our mouths.
“No, it’s all right,” he said, and he stepped away from us down the slope. I was pleased to see that he kept low, and moved cautiously. I imagined him marching down the hill waving his arms and pop-popping his ridiculous poem. Perhaps that would have been better, I thought. Who would shoot such a fool?
While I dreamed, he disappeared from sight. We hardly breathed.
“Halt!” the Germans shouted.
“Surrender! We surrender!” I shouted.
And there were flowerbursts of red light.
Note on this story:
In the first month of World War One, the Russian First Army and Russian Second Army advanced into Prussia, the Tsar hoping to achieve a rapid victory over the Germans. Despite being outnumbered, the German Eighth Army achieved a spectacular victory in what became known as the Battle of Tannenburg (23-30 August, 1914). The Russian Second Army was surrounded and destroyed. Thousands of Russians were killed, wounded or captured. Russian hopes of a glorious victory turned to ash, and in a little over three years, the Tsar was dead, the Bolsheviks ruled, and Russia was suing for peace.
This story takes place in one tiny part of the battle, when an isolated Russian company waits without hope for relief.
Who knows how many visionary modernists expired in the battles of world war one? In my story, an optimistic futurist rushes to embrace his fate.
The onrush of modernity was both accelerated and impoverished by the first world war.