[From Niva, No. 19, 1873, Vol. 4, 8 May, pg. 269-72. Niva was a popular Russian journal of literature, culture, and current events.]




We were given the order to move to Yevpatoria on the following day. All the necessary instructions were given out, everything was arranged, and I went into my native saklya hut and for the first time in two weeks snatched a free moment to wash thoroughly. Calling Saburov, my soldier-servant, I sat down for a shave.

Saburov, who thanks to his busy duties was now completely sober—at the same time he had the undesirable habit of always being with the first, or sometimes the second, platoon—stood at the door and was silent for a long time, regarding me in a kind of thoughtful way.

“Sir,” he finally said, stepping toward me. “Sir, it is not really that you wish…”

“What’s the matter with you?” I asked, not understanding him. He was very agitated.

“We all walk before God. Alive today, but tomorrow it may be our turn to die.”

“And so? That’s the way it is: ‘ No one will ever experience two deaths, or avoid one.’”

“You are right, Pavel Yegorovich, absolutely right, but I cannot let you go in this way.”

“What do you mean, Saburov. I don’t understand you. What’s the matter with you?” I said, standing up and handing him a towel.

“Sir, if you will permit me. I’m a simple man, but God sees how I love you! How I love you!” And he spread his arms as if to emphasize his words. “Only God knows what will happen with you tomorrow, what these pagans will do to you. It’s your will, but I still cannot let you go.”

“Then tell me, Saburov, what needs to be done!” I said, beginning to lose my patience.

“Please don’t become angry, Pavel Yegorovich. Don’t raise your voice at me, but let me bless you…”

“Thank you, Saburov, many thanks,” I said, touched by this deep concern.

He turned to the corner where an icon was hanging, bowed to the ground three times, and took off from around his neck an image of St. George the Bearer of Victory. He came to me and with tears in his eyes made the sign of the cross over me. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!” And he lowered the image down around my neck.

“Always wear it under your uniform, Pavel Yegorovich. God sees how I love you… My own mother blessed me when I was given up to be a soldier. Really, you yourself couldn’t have left your own home any differently. Ecch! What am I babbling!” he said, waving his hand and turning away to hide the tears in his eyes.

Outside it was nasty and damp; a cold, cutting wind penetrated to the bone and its mournful and drawn-out sound somehow brought thoughts of sad yearnings. There was no singing or playing of tambourines to be heard. Everything was being done silently, as if to conserve strength for the coming business.


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I was riding on my horse, my head down and thinking of home, family, and the people dear to me—would I return to them? What would happen to me? Would I be killed tomorrow or not? …but over my heart hung the image of St. George the Bearer of Victory…

Quietly we marched toward Yevpatoria and passed around the trenches and fortifications that had sprung up in such a short time. The sky was covered with gray clouds. Yevpatoria itself could not be seen.

My double-squadron [divizion] was positioned to cover some light artillery, the gun carriages of which were dug into the ground for protection. I pressed forward, trying to make out the town, but it was impossible.

The artillerymen were quietly talking among themselves.

“Look, Vasya[1], if they kill me, pay them back. Hit them right there in that embrasure. Pay them back for your old uncle[2]. And if you say hello to the people back home, tell them not to cry—that this was ordained from the day I was born and could not be escaped. And that to die for faith and tsar—that is written in scripture...” Thus spoke an older artillery non-commissioned officer[3], turning to a man from his native district.

“What are you going on about, uncle? Dying! They won’t kill you. I won’t let that happen,” said the younger fellow hotly, who had not yet smelled gunpowder fired in earnest.

“You’re a fine young fellow, Vaska! No, I know that they’re going to kill me. My heart feels it. I’ve washed, dressed in clean underclothes, and done everything to be ready. I’ve prayed for my sins to be forgiven.”

“But dear uncle—I’ve done the same.”

“You have. And continue to do so, Vasyuk, before every big battle. Be ready for death, go forward making the sign of the cross—for the tsar our father and Russia our mother, for the true faith!”

I rode onwards to the next gun. There the talk was of an entirely different kind. A soldier from Yaroslavl enthusiastically told of his escapades back home, of his conquests among the womenfolk, and cursed profanely.

“Ecch, what is become of me? That bitch Mary destroyed me. Everything can go to hell now. Once you’ve sold your soul to the devil, you can’t come back.”

“Enough, Serezhka! They’re telling you to stop. You’re a knave. You shouldn’t talk this way before a battle!” said an old soldier.

“It’s said that a damned man has his soul bound, but his tongue is free!”

The old soldier spat with indignation and went off to the side. “You can’t talk any sense into him,” he said reflectively, and lay down next to the gun carriage.

Going further, I was a young junker[4] on his knees next to a gun, praying fervently to God. On the other side of the gun were two soldiers hot and heavy in a game of “three cards”.

A young ensign was sitting on the next gun carriage, looking with tears in his eyes at a miniature painting of some woman. He gazed at the portrait for a long time, kissed it, tucked it into his coat, and stood up, grunted, and stretched. With the words, “All is in God’s hands,” he moved over to a nearby circle of officers.

Reaching my own position, I saw that for the most part the soldiers were sitting quietly, talking in low voices. But for a few exceptions, I only saw serious expressions. But all faces were cheerful and without any particular fear in them. They had the expression of a man who has finished all his reckonings with life and placed everything into the hands of the Creator.

It became a little lighter and not far in front of us there dimly appeared the embrasures of the recently built fortifications of Yevpatoria. Everyone was in his place and waiting for the signal to hurl hundreds of cannonballs, shells, and canister rounds at the work of the French and English. The silence was total, and then suddenly there was a flash. A hissing could be heard, and a signal rocket rose into the air like a flaming snake… There it goes up high—pauses for a second, fades out, and shot breaks out… At that instant a terrible roar is heard and a rain of lead flies whistling and humming from out side into the besieged city. From their side there is no answer.

We fired our salvos many times, and many times fired individually. Hundreds of shots were discharged into Yevpatoria, but all was silent from their side, as if the entire town had died or, as they say in fairy tales, fallen into an enchanted sleep.

Big clouds of smoke from bursting shells hung over Yevpatoria. From burning buildings long tongues of flame sliced upwards, rising to the sky like prayers for vengeance.

Suddenly a ripple of fire ran across the whole front of the fortifications. Tiny flashes blinked, and hundreds of Congreve rockets flew into the air with a terrifying sound. It was still somewhat dark, and red pillars of flame, exactly like flaming serpents, cut across the sky, illuminating the whole landscape with a fantastic red light… They rose high, stopped, gave forth a horrible screech—and showered the earth like hail. Here one is flying straight at me; I see it… this is my final hour. I crouched, clutched my chest with my hand and felt the icon under my uniform, blessed by my servant. The rocket whistled—passed by me—and ten paces behind me disappeared into a pile of loose soil thrown up from the pits into which the gun carriages had been entrenched. The shell did not explode; I was in one piece.

The Congreve rockets let loose from Yevpatoria were the beginning of their reply. Right after them came cannon fire, and our side began to slacken.

“Wait, Vaska! Let them shoot—give those bandits a chance to show themselves!” said the old artilleryman to his countryman. From one of the enemy embrasures there was a flash…

“There, uncle!” said Vasilii, pointing his finger. The older man wanted to aim the gun, but at this moment Vaska involuntarily tumbled to one side, and something howled past him like a live thing, leaving a smell as it blew past, and smacked heavily a few paces behind… As Vaska looked at the column of dust rising from the spot where the cannonball hit, the older man’s sick groan struck his ear… He turned, bending toward the uncle. The old man lay on the Kabanov aiming sight[5], with blood streaming from where his leg was torn off.

“Aim there, Vaska,” said the soldier, and putting his left hand to the gun trail, he pointed the cannon. The shot burst out.

“Magnificent, Vaska, wonderful!” said the gunner, and crossing himself, he once more fell to the ground. But he did not see the results of his aiming. The ground shook and quaked, and there was a terrible deafening screech and clap of thunder. With a huge burst of flame, two windmills suddenly flew into the air, waving their wind vanes… they stopped… shuddered, and breaking into a thousand pieces, they flew down onto the besieged town. The sky was smeared with the red glow of buildings on fire. The shell fired by the gunner and his countryman had penetrated the door of a powder magazine and blown it up.

Riding along the front, I saw how a cannonball had carried off the soles from both feet of the soldier from Yaroslavl, whose talk I had heard in the early morning dark. His comrades laid him onto a stretcher and carried him to the aid post. He was swearing and blaspheming terribly.

“Stop it, Serezhka! That’s enough! God will punish you worse!” said the same soldier who had tried to quiet him in the night.

Meanwhile it became a little lighter, and a Turkish column came of Yevpatoria’s gates on the left to attack us. We opened up a terrible canister fire onto them so that they had to retire, but not for long. In order to stop our own firing, they dragged forth from the town all the women, girls, and babies at the breast and placed them opposite themselves as the surest protection.[6]

Our regiment was ordered to make an attack on them, but we had to turn around because ships standing offshore showered us with a storm of cannonballs and shells.

Our column has some 500 Albanians[7] attached to it. These were volunteers who out of hatred for the Turks had come to share all the hardships of war with us. The Albanians were a very handsome people. Their dress consisted of a very wide skirt reaching down to the knees, a kind of woman’s calico jacket[8], and over this was a jacket of red, dark-blue, or other colored velvet and cloth, trimmed with gold. On their heads was a red fez with a black cross, and on their legs—colored leggings reaching to the knees, and postoli, which are shoes made from a piece of unfinished leather held to the legs by long straps. This costume was very reminiscent of Roman soldiers. Their weapons were a dagger and pistols carried at the waist, a curved Turkish saber worn on the side, and a musket over the shoulders, which they considered a sacred thing and handed down from generation to generation.

The bombardment lasted a long time. Many of our men were killed, but finally the order was given to make an assault. The infantry set off with the Albanians in front. The whole mass went forward with drums, martial music, and singing, to almost certain death. As soon as the Turks could hear that against them were coming their terrible enemies the Albanians, they almost all abandoned their guns and fled to the pontoon bridges to save themselves. Unintentionally, this turned out to be fortuitous for their own side, since they were replaced by French riflemen whose weapons shot up all the Albanians who were hurling themselves onto the ramparts with enraged fury.

It was a terrible battle. Screaming, outcries, the moans of dying and wounded men, cannon fire, shouting—but nonetheless we had to retreat after losing a ghastly number of dead and wounded. It was moving to see the brave Albanians, with less than a tenth of their number remaining, go into the ditch in front of the fortifications to recover the inherited muskets of their dead comrades, and risk their lives just to keep their sacred weapons from abuse by the enemy.

Meanwhile it had already started to get dark and we were ordered to withdraw. Going past where some infantry was standing, I saw a soldier on his knees leaning on his musket. I called to him, but he did not answer. I rode up to him and saw that a small Congreve rocket with its guide stick had hit him in the back, passed through, and pinned him to the ground.

We withdrew and set up camp in a valley. The main medical aid post was not far from us, located in the dugouts which the infantry used during the winter. My tent was ready, and I went inside and began to undress when Saburov suddenly appeared.

“Praise Thee, our God, praise Thee!” he intoned with tears in his eyes, embracing and kissing me. “I don’t know why, Pavel Yegorovich, but I thought I would never see you again. I ran to the hospital five times to ask if you had been wounded.”

“I was almost killed, Saburov. One flew right over my head.”

He stepped back, crossed himself, and with a ceremonious air looked at me. “But poor Novikov—he’s badly wounded. I saw him as they brought him into the hospital. Lieutenant Zhukov also. You have to go see him.”

Novikov was an old sergeant major[9], a veteran who was loved by the whole double-squadron.

“Of course I’ll go see him. Get me something to eat, if only tea and rusk. I must visit our unfortunate comrades,” I said, leaving the tent.

Dark and unwelcome night came over the earth. There was not a star in the sky, nor moon. I would not have wanted to go out in such a night for an ordinary patrol. Wrapped in darkness, a wood still bare of leaves stood gloomily, reaching up with its dry and crooked limbs, as if weeping over those fallen on the field of battle. Then some kind of dull sound rose up and froze in the air—and once again all was silent, as if nature had vanquished the predawn sun. The predawn gloom became thicker and darker, and this darkness and silence pressed on my spirit most heavily.

I went into the dugout and there it was even harder to see. The long narrow dugout was barely lit by two or three oil lamps; it smelled of damp and sweat, and some sort of vapor hung in the whole space. I heard low groans, moaning—only some sisters of mercy, those blessed souls who devoted themselves to relieving physical and moral suffering, walked among the wounded. The medics on duty were blissfully dreaming, and surely were envisaging scenes that were happier and more pleasant. No doubt they dreamed of their homeland, perhaps of their close relatives or some bride or sweetheart they had left behind. No matter how regretfully, one of them had to be woken to be asked where my wounded men lay.

“Lieutenant Zhukov, sir,” said a sleepy medic, “lies in Number 48 on the left side across from the lamp, while Novikov is in the corner on the right.”

I went over to them. Zhukov was unconscious, so I left some tea for him and set out to find Novikov. Going carefully between the wounded men, I saw his familiar figure in the corner. In the lamp’s weak glimmer I saw this sepulchral figure rise up, cross himself three times, and without a groan or sound fall back on his straw bed. I went up to him—Novikov was already dead. As in life he was a hero, so he died heroically. Peace to thy remains, glorious soldier! I closed his eyes and left the dugout.

The dark predawn sky grew paler, and a gentle rosy light just began to play in the east. Its crimson glow, herald of dawn, appeared to me like a harbinger of my life to come, while the ground being lit up was the gates of day, opening up to receive the souls of the warriors who died heroically for Faith, Tsar, and Fatherland.




* 5 February, 1855. Written down as told by a participant, a colonel of the *** Lancer Regiment.

Unless indicated otherwise, the following notes are by the translator.

[1] A nickname form of Vasilii. Notice how the older artilleryman quickly runs through three such variations.

[2] “Uncle” is commonly used in Russian without implying actual kinship.

[3] Feierverker, from the German Feuerwerker.

[4] Yunker, an officer candidate.

[5] Invented during the Napoleonic Wars, Kabanov’s sight was a removable vertical sliding scale, produced from 1811 to at least 1827.

[6] Perhaps a more likely explanation for the civilians coming out during the battle would be that they were fleeing the burning town

[7] These were actually a battalion of Greek volunteers, but contemporary Russians often used the word "Albanian" to refer to such soldiers.

[8] In the east these jackets [kofty] are worn instead of shirts. [Original note by the author.]

[9] Vakhtmeistr, from the German Wachtmeister.

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Translated by Mark Conrad, 1999.