An Excerpt from Hadji Murat
(The best story in the world, Harold Bloom)
|Chechnya: Image source|
The detachment ordered for the raid consisted of four infantry battalions, two companies of Cossacks, and eight guns. The column marched along the road; and on both sides of it in a continuous line, now mounting, now descending, marched Fagers [Muslim warriors in the service of Russia] in high boots, sheepskin coats, and tall caps, with rifles on their shoulders and cartridges in their belts.
As usual when marching through a hostile country, silence was observed as far as possible. Only occasionally the guns jingled jolting across a ditch, or an artillery horse snorted or neighed, not understanding that silence was ordered, or an angry commander shouted in a hoarse subdued voice to his subordinates that the line was spreading out too much or marching too near or too far from the column. Only once was the silence broken, when from a bramble patch between the line and the column a gazelle with a white breast and grey back jumped out followed by a buck of the same color with small backward-curving horns. Doubling up their forelegs at each big bound they took, the beautiful timid creatures came so close to the column that some of the soldiers rushed after them laughing and shouting, intending to bayonet them, but the gazelles turned back, slipped through the line of Fagers, and pursued by a few horsemen and the company’s dogs, fled like birds to the mountains.
It was still winter, but towards noon, when the column (which had started early in the morning) had gone three miles, the sun had risen high enough and was powerful enough to make the men quite hot, and its rays were so bright that it was painful to look at the shining steel of the bayonets or at the reflections — like little suns — on the brass of the cannons.
The clear and rapid stream the detachment had just crossed lay behind, and in front were tilled fields and meadows in shallow valleys. Farther in front were the dark mysterious forest-clad hills with craigs rising beyond them, and farther still on the lofty horizon were the ever-beautiful ever-changing snowy peaks that played with the light like diamonds.
At the head of the 5th Company, Butler, a tall handsome officer who had recently exchanged from the Guards, marched along in a black coat and tall cap, shouldering his sword. He was filled with a buoyant sense of the joy of living, the danger of death, a wish for action, and the consciousness of being part of an immense whole directed by a single will. This was his second time of going into action and he thought how in a moment they would be fired at, and he would not only not stoop when the shells flew overhead, or heed the whistle of the bullets, but would carry his head even more erect than before and would look round at his comrades and the soldiers with smiling eyes, and begin to talk in a perfectly calm voice about quite other matters.
The detachment turned off the good road onto a little-used one that crossed a stubbly maize field, ant they were drawing near the forest when, with an ominous whistle, a shell flew past amid the baggage wagons — they could not see whence — and tore up the ground in the field by the roadside.
“It’s beginning,” said Butler with a bright smile to a comrade who was walking beside him.
And so it was. After the shell a thick crowd of mounted Chechens appeared with their banners from under the shelter of the forest. In the midst of the crowd could be seen a large green banner, and an old and very far-sighted sergeant-major informed the short-sighted Butler that Shamil himself must be there. The horsemen came down the hill and appeared to the right, at the highest part of the valley nearest the detachment, and began to descend. A little general in a thick black coat and tall cap rode up to Butler’s company on his ambler, and ordered him to the right to encounter the descending horsemen. Butler quickly led his company in the direction indicated, but before he reached the valley he heard two cannon shots behind him. He looked round: two clouds of grey smoke had risen above two cannon and were spreading along the valley. The mountaineers’ horsemen — who had evidently not expected to meet artillery — retired. Butler’s company began firing at them and the whole ravine was filled with the smoke of powder. Only higher up above the ravine could the mountaineers be seen hurriedly retreating, though still firing back at the Cossacks who pursued them. The company followed the mountaineers farther, and on the slope of a second ravine came in view of an aoul [a mountain village].
The officers sat down at some distance beyond the smoke, and lunched and drank. The sergeant-major brought them some honeycombs on a board. There was no sigh of any Chechens and early in the afternoon the order was given to retreat. The companies formed into a column behind the aoul and Butler happened to be in the rearguard. As soon as they started Chechens appeared, following and firing at the detachment, but they ceased this pursuit as soon as they came out into an open space.
Not one of Butler’s company had been wounded, and he returned in a most happy and energetic mood. When after fording the same stream it had crossed in the morning, the detachment spread over the maize fields and the meadows, the singers of each company came forward and songs filled the air.
“Verry diff’rent, very diff’rent, Fagers are, Fagers are!” sang Butler’s singers, and his horse stepped merrily to the music. Trezorka, the shaggy grey dog belonging to the company, ran in front, with his tail curled up with an air of responsibility like a commander. Butler felt buoyant, calm, and joyful. War presented itself to him as consisting only in his exposing himself to danger and to possible death, thereby gaining rewards and the respect of his comrades here, as well as of his friends in Russia. Strange to say, his imagination never pictured the other aspect of war: the death and wounds of the soldiers, officers, and mountaineers. To retain his poetic conception he even unconsciously avoided looking at the dead and wounded. So that day when we had three dead and twelve wounded, he passed by a corpse lying on its back and did not stop to look, seeing only with one eye the strange position of the waxen hand and a dark red spot on the head. The hosslmen appeared to him only a mounted dzhigits from whom he had to defend himself.
“You see, my dear sir,” said his major in an interval between two songs, “it’s not as it is with you in Petersburg — ‘Eyes right! Eyes left!’ Here we have done our job, and now we go home and Masha will set a pie and some nice cabbage soup before us. That’s life — don’t you think so? — Now then! As the Dawn Was Breaking!” He called for his favorite song.
There was no wind, the air was fresh and clear and so transparent that the snow hills nearly a hundred miles away seemed quite near, and in the intervals between the songs the regular sound of the footsteps and the jingle of the guns was heard as a background on which each song began and ended. The song that was being sung in Butler’s company was composed by a cadet in honor of the regiment, and went to a dance tune. The chorus was: “Verry diff’rent, very diff’rent, Fagers are, Fagers are!”
Butler rode beside the officer next in rank above him, Major Petrov, with whom he lived, and he felt he could not be thankful enough to have exchanged from the Guards and come to the Caucasus. His chief reason for exchanging was that he had lost all he had at cards and was afraid that if he remained there he would be unable to resist playing though he had nothing more to lose. Now all that was over, his life was quite changed and was such a pleasant and brave one! He forgot that he was ruined, and forgot his unpaid debts. The Caucasus, the war, the soldiers, the officers — those tipsy, brave, good-natured fellows — and Major Petrov himself, all seemed so delightful that sometimes it appeared too good to be true that he was not in Petersburg — in a room filled with tobacco smoke, turning down the corners of cards and gambling, hating the holder of the bank and feeling a dull pain in his head — but was really here in this glorious region among these brave Caucasians.
|Tzar Putin's 20th Century War in Chechnya|
The inhabitants of the aoul were confronted by the choice of remaining there and restoring with frightful effort what had been produced with such labor and had been so lightly and senselessly destroyed, facing every moment the possibility of a repetition of what had happened; or to submit to the Russians — contrary to their religion and despite the repulsion and contempt they felt for them. The old men prayed, and unanimously decided to send envoys to Shamil asking him for help. Then they immediately set to work to restore what had been destroyed.