AUGUST 30, 2018
ENGLISH SPEAKERS WHO are at all familiar with contemporary Russian detective fiction know Boris Akunin (real name Grigory Chkhartishvili) through ample translations of his immensely popular series featuring sleuth extraordinaire Erast Fandorin. The highly versatile Akunin has also made forays into historical nonfiction and novels about Russia’s premodern period, an engagement with history that is hardly surprising given the expertly crafted 19th-century settings of the Fandorin novels. Akunin’s work in both the detective and historical spheres, which has been greeted with a rare combination of commercial and critical success, is reminiscent of another contemporary Russian writer, Leonid Yuzefovich, whose literary endeavors are a kind of inverse of Akunin’s. In Russia, Yuzefovich is known for his trilogy of novels about a real 19th-century detective, Ivan Putilin, the concluding volume of which won the National Bestseller Prize in 2001; his detective fiction has also been short-listed for the Russian Booker. But he is a historian by training, and he has twice received the Big Book Prize, Russia’s most prestigious literary award, for his inventive historical novels: Cranes and Pygmies (Zhuravli i karliki, 2009), about Russia’s turbulent early 1990s, and The Winter Road (Zimniaia doroga, 2016), about the Russian Civil War, which also won the National Bestseller Prize.
Despite Yuzefovich’s prominence in his home country, he has lagged far behind Akunin in English translations. In 2013, Glagoslav Publications brought out the first volume of his Putilin trilogy, Harlequin’s Costume (Kostium Arlekina, 2001), in a fine translation by Marian Schwartz. This year, Archipelago Books is publishing Horsemen of the Sands (Peschanye vsadniki, 2001), also translated by Schwartz, which gathers two novellas written in the 1980s, The Storm (Groza) and the lengthier Horsemen of the Sands. This volume will go some way in catching English speakers up, introducing them to Yuzefovich’s range as a writer. Despite the fact that the two novellas in Horsemen of the Sands are both written in realist style, they sharply diverge in themes and execution.
The Storm, set in the Urals, where Yuzefovich spent the first several decades of his life, is the externally straightforward story of a class of unruly fifth-graders whose routine day is upended by a guest lecture on traffic safety. Dmitry Petrovich Rodygin is a well-meaning but overly self-important instructor whose tough-love approach to discussing the necessity of observing traffic rules — “Children, there are states on the planet where drunk drivers are immediately sentenced to death” — greatly upsets some of the kids, because their lives have been concretely affected by the abstract ideas he expounds. Their backstories provide a counterpoint to his lecturing: Vekshina, the best student in the class, has a father who is, as the others inform Rodygin while the girl sobs, “an alcoholic and he was put in jail”; another student, Filimonov, was hit by a motorcycle the previous spring and is so traumatized by a discussion of misjudging braking distance that he leaves class to throw up.
This primary plot line is interspersed with a secondary one, focusing on the children’s teacher, Nadezhda Stepanovna. While on break from class, she goes to the open market and buys bird cherries, and has an incident with the fruit seller. Her presence in the novella is tinged with a gentle melancholy, including having a “casual office romance” with a married teacher. And in keeping with an over-tired tradition of portraying female characters as maternal figures, she serves as a counterweight to Rodygin.
Importantly, however, the novella’s seemingly ordinary facade is a cover for the more emotionally significant processes underneath. There is something Chekhovian about The Storm, in which the buildup of mood and atmosphere is, at least until the very end, more affecting than the external action. At the same time, readers become aware early on that a storm is brewing and something is about to happen: the narrator observes, in quasi-direct discourse from Filimonov’s vantage point, that “[t]here was the smell of electricity,” and Nadezhda Stepanovna “smelled that ominous scent suffused through the air, too.” This envelops the humdrum goings-on in an air of impending disaster, culminating in a denouement that contrasts ironically with the topic of Rodygin’s lecture (which, without wanting to spoil the ending, is not the one that readers might assume from this description). The open-endedness of the novella’s conclusion is also Chekhov-like, with readers pondering the metaphorical implications of the storm without being given definitive answers.
The second novella, Horsemen of the Sands, is far different. Its subject matter is a familiar one for Yuzefovich, who addressed it in the historical novel that first brought him literary recognition, The Sovereign of the Desert (Samoderzhets pustyni, 1993, revised 2012). Both that novel and the novella center on a real-life figure, Roman Fyodorovich Ungern-Sternberg — Ungern for short — “a Russian general, Baltic baron, Mongolian prince, and husband of a Chinese princess,” the facts of whose life Yuzefovich weaves seamlessly into his fictional narrative. Born into a Baltic-German noble family that eventually settled in the Russian Empire, Ungern was a military commander who fought against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918–1922) in the Trans-Baikal region, where “he’d commanded the Asiatic Division […] under the command of the Cossack Ataman Semyonov” and where he performed his most famous military feat: taking control of Mongolia and restoring the Mongolian ruler to the throne after expelling the occupying Chinese forces.
Ungern had an abiding interest in Eastern cultures and converted to Buddhism. He was also known for being extremely violent. After entering Mongolia, he ordered the killings of Bolsheviks, Jews, and the Chinese inhabitants loyal to the occupiers. His brutality was not restricted to his enemies; Horsemen of the Sands dramatizes his summary executions of people in his own circle for perceived disloyalty. His marriage to the Chinese princess was a calculated move to secure political clout, and he “lost all interest in her when it became clear that the Chinese monarchists were just as much worthless windbags as the Russian ones.” Ungern’s reign of glory ended when he tried to invade Siberia and eliminate the Bolsheviks, who captured and executed him.
Yet Horsemen of the Sands is anything but a straightforward recounting of this larger-than-life figure’s grotesquely fantastical military exploits. Rather, it is concerned with the act of storytelling — with the questions of why and how we tell the stories we tell. The idea of storytelling is highlighted by the novella’s two-level structure. The frame narrative, set in 1971, is related in the voice of a Soviet soldier stationed in the Trans-Baikal region, who has become fascinated with Ungern. This narrator seems to be a fictionalized stand-in for Yuzefovich. The account of Ungern’s life is given within this frame, told to the narrator by Boliji, an elderly Buryat shepherd (the Buryats are the main ethnic group in the region), whose older brother, Jorgal, served in Ungern’s army. Boliji’s story centers on an amulet — a gau, as he calls it in Buryat — that was worn by Ungern himself, and which he gives to the narrator as a gesture of goodwill. The amulet’s magical powers, emanating from the spirit of the almighty Mongolian god, Sagan-Ubugun, are said to protect its owner from death. While wearing the amulet, Ungern had staged demonstrations of his inviolability by having people shoot at him in front of the locals, whom he was trying to win over to his side in the war. The gau comes to Boliji through Jorgal, who steals it from Ungern in an attempt to kill him, in order to avenge the warlord’s murder of Jorgal and Boliji’s father. A less than honest yet guilt-ridden researcher in turn steals the amulet from the narrator. Ultimately, what is most significant in Horsemen of the Sands is not the physical object, which disappears from the narrator’s possession, but the story about this object. It is the classic MacGuffin.
Two linked questions loom large for the narrator and the novella as a whole: whether the story is true and whether that matters. As the narrator admits in the opening paragraph:
The tale was told to me by Boliji […] but it’s hard to vouch for the authenticity of this amazing tale, especially since its main protagonist was not the narrator himself but his older brother Jorgal. It may be that Jorgal embellished events and his role in them ever so slightly and that Boliji contributed his mite as well […] I won’t attempt to distinguish poetry from truth.
Chigantsev, the narrator’s training officer, insists that Ungern must have had himself shot with blanks, a fact he physically demonstrates to Boliji. For his part, Boliji is equally adamant, as was Jorgal, about the gau’s magical properties. If the story is untrue, he angrily insists, then Jorgal would be “wrong in everything” during and after his time with Ungern. Of course, as the narrator belatedly realizes, Boliji may well be aware that the story is false, but he needs to go on believing it in order to hold on to the image of a beloved brother who is no longer there: “[M]y throat tightened with admiration and sympathy for this old man whose faith was nothing but pride, his pride memory, and his memory love.”
The humane thing to do, as the narrator recognizes, is to let people believe what they need to believe, regardless of its veracity. As they take leave of each other, the narrator says, “I smiled at Boliji. The horsemen of the sands had passed between us and scattered.” The stolen amulet, Ungern, Jorgal — all have scattered into nothingness. What remains are the stories about those no longer present. Perhaps, Yuzefovich’s novella suggests, the important thing is not whether the stories we tell are entirely factual, but that they sustain our vision of the world and the memory of those we love.
Although it calls the very notion of truth into question, the novella still offers an intriguing glimpse into the realities of the Civil War era and of the late Soviet period in a lesser-known part of the world. The descriptions of the Mongolian landscape and of local Buryat culture are rich and evocative. And given its mix of Russian European and indigenous elements, Horsemen of the Sands also touches upon the age-old dilemma of Russia’s “Eastern” and “Western” aspects. Can it reconcile the two? “East and West,” writes Yuzefovich, “were two mirrors placed on either side of Russia, and Russia looked first at the right, and then at the left, each time amazed that its reflection in one mirror did not look like its reflection in the other.” Any reconciliation that occurs is on the individual level, as the narrator’s friendship with Boliji demonstrates. This friendship also contrasts with the war and bloodshed in Ungern’s part of the narrative. Russian losses in Mongolia are enormous:
Thousands of Russians […] were killed by Chinese soldiers, cut down by Ungern’s Cossacks, and slaughtered by Mongols desperate to find the source of their own adversities. Russian bones lay white in the rocky ravines […] on the bare slopes.
In the late Soviet period, when the narrator and Boliji meet, soldiers are still being trained for war, yet the novella ends on a note of tranquility. Two individuals have come to share a gentle camaraderie rooted in the simple act of drinking tea and the more complex one of telling stories.
The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands are not fast-paced reads, but they move purposefully. The former asks readers to go beneath the surface, while the latter opens up an unfamiliar world and invites us to think about the stories we tell. One can only hope that more of Yuzefovich’s work makes its way into English with all the speed and determination of the horsemen he chronicles.