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Dmitry Bykov

Translated by Francis Greene

(from Glas 40)

 

The two episodes below come from Bykov's new novel, JEWHAD, a futuristic anti-utopia about imminent ethnic conflicts and the inevitable crisis of democracy and liberalism as we know them today. Although the novel is set in some distant future the events and situations described are drawn from the present-day army.

 

JEWHAD

 

Facing Company Commander Funtov in the Sixth Company HQ, currently located in the village of Baskakovo, sat a woman in her fifties of that indeterminate social position which now characterizes the country's intelligentsia, marginalized by society but none the less still retaining some breeding. The head of this petitioner was covered by a patterned cashmere scarf such as was often sported in the seventies, at the time of Soviet-Indian fraternization. Her hands were folded humbly on her knees and her face expressed entreaty. The woman was deeply agitated. This was Gorokhova, a soldier's mother.
The Company HQ was distinguished for its exceptional cheerlessness. Everyone who landed up here had it somehow brought home to them that all effort was in vain. Dreariness emanated from the yellowish stools, the scrawny brochures of regulations and the sullen gaze of Marshal Zhukov from his portrait above. The floor was scrubbed three times a day but was still grubby. From the ceiling hung three sticky tapes thickly speckled with fly corpses. On the windowsill a potted plant was drying out: the orderlies watered it regularly but something or other outside the control of the orderlies, permeating the very air, gulped up moisture from the dripping plant's pot, fed the flies and covered the windowsill with dust.
The white curtains on the windows would soon be yellowed by the dreariness. Much use would it be to dream of victory if the fate of the army was decided in offices like this! Were one to draw a picture on the wall, a rabbit, say, or a mole, the unbearable depression might be dispelled but no doubt the rabbit and the mole would turn out every bit as sour and crooked as the animals depicted on the walls of children's clinics and day nurseries. In the Sixth Company HQ any decent human being would want to hang himself. This ineluctable tedium was further amplified by Funtov's voice, monotonous as the buzzing of the flies but the sticky tape for a Captain Funtov has yet to be devised.
Even flies encountering Captain Funtov wanted to do away with themselves. Some couldn't hold out and zhzhzhik flew smack into the flypaper unable to withstand the boredom of the place. They must have simply envied Funtov, nonplussed by his flyishness: he was clearly outbuzzing and outcrawling them out-heroding Herod. Whatever way it was, from envy or from boredom, the flies threw themselves onto the flypaper as onto barbed wire but there death was drawn out, adhesive: their ending was not a pretty one and long they lay twitching on the gum. Serves them right. One must die when one gets the order, not from one's own initiative.
"Look here, this is your third time here" this in a monotone from Funtov, a short, almost rectangular man whose age was in fact not more than twenty-seven though he looked all of forty, portly, somnolent, as it were sprinkled with dust. It would be impossible to think of a topic one could discuss with Funtov after five minutes of being shut up with him in the same space. He could smirk lewdly over a mention of women, could lament the effeteness and puniness of the new intake, could yawn dreamily and enunciate his favourite saying: "Oh-ah, if ignorance was cash I'd buy me some country hussies so as to knock 'em about a bit." But there was absolutely nothing else in him.
The presence of this sort of person is particularly unbearable in moments of melancholy or anxiety when one eagerly awaits a kindly word and would gratefully welcome a single glance of understanding. But as far as that went Funtov was like a lump of clay, destitute of emotion from birth. At school he always dozed on the back benches but was famed for his ability quickly and efficiently to wring the neck of a pigeon. He wasn't much of an officer a slacker, without initiative and with negligible tactical or technical abilities but it was precisely his complete indifference to the fate of his troops (these to his understanding were not humans at all) which rendered him priceless in the eyes of the Command. Funtov was always put forward as a model at officers' meetings at which Colonel Zdrok gave hour-long speeches a la Fidel Castro. Funtov was in no sense a combatant, understood nothing of geopolitical briefings and most likely hadn't a clue as to with whom and why he was at war, but he did exhibit, to a degree that was even excessive, the most essential quality of an officer, namely obtuseness. To such a degree did it fill his entire being that it left room for nothing else, and on this account Colonel Zdrok loved him with a fatherly love and even General Paukov had said on occasion that Funtov was an able officer.
"Listen, this is your third time here," he drawled languidly, "Why do you keep coming? Your son, I mean, well, your son, see, he's being seen to. He's, like, under supervision, that is. You come up here and that's, like... annoying for others who don't have people coming for them. Him, he's not served six months yet. He's getting favours. He's still got the ways of civvy street. He's not a soldier, not yet. Him, he's a gherkin, a cabbage. And you keep on coming up here. What makes you come here?"
"Please understand," Gorokhova, the soldier's mother, was speaking nervously in the sincere belief that if now she found some really convincing words Funtov would know how to mitigate her son's sufferings. No he would not, to be sure, send him back from the front. It was wartime: they were more and more reluctant to admit her to the unit's location, she had to pull strings, to ring up a former classmate of hers whose replies were increasingly curt. Humiliation. Terror. But then, if only some soft duty could be found for him, something at headquarters or maybe in the rear, nearer to home... She had no doubt that the officer sitting opposite her must have a heart and she needed only to find some way to move it... But Gorokhova did not know how. She had come up to Baskakovo for the third time in four months because her son was driving her wild with his complaints and pleas, yet there was nothing she could do to help him and ahead was still a year and eight months of torment. In the three years prior to his call-up and in the first four months of his service she had aged twenty years and her face acquired the permanently woeful, suppliant expression of a person who has lost all self-respect.
"Do please understand. He writes he's got boils and can't walk but they make him run."
"They all write they've got boils," droned Funtov. "Nobody is made to run. There are slippers. Everyone walks in slippers. There's a medical centre, see. With the medics everything's as it should be. You didn't get him ready for the service, see? So he writes, like. If you'd got him ready, see, to serve, see, he wouldn't be writing, get it? But there it is, he writes and you come up. What's the point of coming?"
"He asked to be allowed socks," Gorokhova gabbled on, "He can't wrap his footcloths, doesn't know how, well couldn't he, surely, have socks, if only to start with..."
"Footcloths, see," said Funtov, "Footcloths let the feet breathe. A foot sweats. Feet get sweaty. In a boot a sweaty foot rots, it rots because it's sweaty, get it? And so as it doesn't rot from sweating they apply the appropriate regulations about footcloth, military, made of cloth. Also cotton, regulation kind. It lets the foot breathe, and then there's those ancestors too."
"What about our ancestors?" asked the alarmed mother.
"Those ancestors of ours," Funtov explained limply, putting on the sorrowful face of a peasant woman, "always fought in footcloths. There's Marshall Suvorov now: 'Serve by the rulebook and win honour and fame.' There was Stalingrad they fought in footcloths. Kursk in footcloths. The feet don't rot and you can do anything. Even route marches like. But you must have the know-how. Know the trick of it? You got to put the sole of your hoof down on one corner, then stretch it tight so's there's no wrinkles, and then wind it round quick. And afterwards wind it round a bit more so it clings to the foot. It lets the old sweaty hoof breathe. Then after it's tucked back under like this," he lazily sketched in the air exactly how to do it, wrapping up one stubby-fingered hand with the other as if the soldier's mother Gorokhova, right away, here in the Company HQ, would be needing to wrap her feet in footcloths in readiness for a training exercise. "And that's all there is to it. It's a matter of fifteen seconds, give or take. You stamp on it to firm it up. A sock doesn't let the foot breath, it'll go mouldy in it. You'll get an abscess starting and all." (Funtov himself went about in socks at his training school and got put on duty rosters for it but he just couldn't master the trick of winding on his footcloths.) "The footcloth is the Russian soldier, it's so very Russian that invention of ours. You got a Russian soldier, you got footcloths, everyone knows that. Europe knows it, Australia, er..." His voice slowed, then, remembering where else there was, "Africa knows it."
"But please understand," Gorokhova repeated, all the more despairing, "he's not able to. Perhaps it is not possible for everyone. He can't run. He writes nicely, quite a calligraphic hand. Perhaps you could pick him an occupation of some sort. I don't know, I'm not a military person, what sort of duties you would have. Perhaps something using biology: he's a biologist, second year..."
"I'm telling you," said Funtov flatly, "he's got to go through Basic Training like everyone else. What's this biology stuff got to do with us? He'll go through Basic Training and then he can have his biology. After Basic Training anything you like, demagology. We've got our smart chaps too, students. We've, like, got a warrant officer of that sort, he knows words your son wouldn't have heard of most likely. A modern army, that's what it is. All one family. The lads eat together, doss down together... It's a male collective, that's what. As for boils, every man-jack of 'em's got a boil. When it's parade drill they've all got boils, and when its greasy-spoon time then they'll be ready to dance dances."
"What's greasy-spoon?" soldier's mother Gorokhova asked stiffly.
"Greasy-spoon. The soldiers' canteen," explained Funtov. "They call it the greasy spoon. It's all proper there, there's gingerbread, sugar to buy if you want. We've nothing against it, that place. But ahead of the greasy spoon comes, like, the Fatherland, see. Got to Serve the Fatherland. You take a little morning run in the fresh air and then you can have your greasy spoon. And a stroll in the evening. But if your mother keeps coming up all the time with saucepans, see, what sort of a soldier will you be then? Especially in wartime."
Hearing about wartime Gorokhova snapped out of her stupor and lost all self-control.
"Wartime!" she cried. "Your soldiers can't even fire a shotgun, in wartime! My son was saying how in four months service he'd been to the range only once! With you, soldiers peel potatoes in wartime and scrub the floors and are made to run round the perimeter until their feet are worn down to the bone! You all keep saying that we didn't prepare our sons properly, and who are you preparing? You've been fighting four years and where has your fighting got you? Don't tell me we've failed to prepare them! You just want dumb cattle, cannon fodder, to send where you want and to hell with them!"
At that moment the soldier's mother realized that she had irretrievably lost her son any chance of a transfer to the HQ or of some other freeloading assignment: she had done something uncalled-for, unthinkable, she had raised her voice and bawled out the officer on whom everything depended. She slid from the stool onto her knees and beat her forehead on the incessantly scraped and still dirty floor of the Company HQ.
"Forgive me, I beg you," her voice turned into a wail, "I implore you, forgive me. His father's ill, he can't stand on his feet, my husband, his father! I'll do anything you want. He's our only son. For God's sake. Anything you say, just whatever you say. Forgive me for God's sake. I have no more strength left."
Funtov sat unstirring. "Woman," he drawled, "Mother Gorokhova, get up! What's got into you? Seems like, well, seems like you think as you're in your own home! This is a military place, see! What you've been saying, as how his father can't stand up for all of them it's 'he can't stand up', any one of 'em will sing that tune.... Look here! For you this here may be a circus. This isn't a circus. This here's the office of a military company. Really, look at you, it's like you're getting married for the first time or something. Give over!"
"I'm not going anywhere," babbled the mother Gorokhova. "I'll do anything you want. I'll clean your shoes for you. Money, anything. I implore you. I won't go..."
"Orderly!" yelled Funtov. The orderly came in, a tubby soldier called Dudukin whose face never lost its expression of imbecile happiness. Dudukin was considered a model soldier despite his stoutness. He was a poor runner but they often gave him domestic work details, he adored washing floors, he squeezed out the rag with dexterity and generally would manage the incessant cleaning as easily as a woman. For cutting hair, shaving the back of someone's neck, carving out with his little knife the figure of a peasant with a bear, for these Dudukin was a true expert.
"Orderly Dudukin reporting and ready for duty!" he roared out with satisfaction.
"This here, look," said Funtov. "Pull that woman up, like. See she gets seen off from here. Give her some water. Put the reserve guard on watch duty. It's OK. Seems like soon this won't be Company HQ so much as a real number 14 madhouse." Why 'number 14' nobody knew, but to Captain Funtov this was a popular adage.
Soldier's mother Gorokhova felt really frightened. She finally realized that before her was a person with absolutely nothing inside him and that it was precisely for that reason that he was now in command of her son. She realized how terrible it must be for her son to be surrounded by this altogether inhuman mass of people, messing with them, dossing with them, winding on footcloths. A fly would feel likewise, persuaded of the uselessness of appealing to the flypaper for human or flyish feelings. Making requests was pointless, one might have to kill if kill one could, but nobody had taught soldier's mother Gorokhova how to. There remained only one outcome: to let her son be turned into that same sort of crude human biomass, for in no other way would survival be possible. He would have to become as they were, or else he would still be wearing his feet sore, sobbing, writing pitiful letters. Surrendering him to that biomass was even more frightful than sending him off into the army but there was no alternative: the soldier's mother felt as a homely adolescent feels on being beaten up by hooligan thugs. He knows that his entreaties are totally useless, that this is for real, that they are really determined to smash him up and will indeed do so, and no matter what he does nothing will deflect them from it. The soldier's mother came out of the Company HQ reeling. There would be no point in her going there any more.
Her son Gorokhov knew nothing of it yet, he was hoping for an easing of conditions, was angry with his mother for taking so long and with himself, that she had to humble herself because of his own inability to be like the others. Besides which Gorokhov was hoping for a treat, he knew his mother had come with some patties but she went straight in to the Company HQ first. In civilian life he would never have thought that on the day of his mother's arrival, at the hour when his fate was being decided by her talk with his commander, his mind would be focussed on meat patties. But so it was. He saw the patties clearly; even if the Commander would not agree to anything at all at least there would be some food, only it would have to be eaten quickly, it would never do to take it back with him to the unit. The spectacle of his mother's patties being devoured by his barrack-mates would be quite unbearable. Gorokhov thought his mother would be coming over to see him right away and that on that account they would let him off 'geopolitics' and perhaps even the next day's duty detail.
He did not know that at that time his mother, all bent over, was trudging back through Baskakovo to the bus stop, further and further from the former school where the company was stationed. Soldier's mother Gorokhova did not have the strength left to see her son again, to look into his eyes and to promise a change for the better. He must not harbour hopes. Having landed here he must become part of the biomass. The bag with patties swung against her legs. After a half hour the bus came and with a wailing sound carried soldier's mother Gorokhova to the district town from which there was the prospect of 24-hours travel to get to Moscow by the only train. The bus was wailing, Gorokhova was wailing, the slimy scenery beyond the window wailed.

It was at this very time that on the parade ground, now tumid from three days of rain, a group of writers, who had come to Baskakovo at the behest of the newspaper Red Star, were undergoing combat training. The writers had been sent to General Paukov for two reasons: first, because he was believed to be one of the best combat generals and, moreover, had a resolute ideological outlook. He could seriously and with thoroughness expound the objectives of the war, the morale of the troops and the inevitable triumph of the Russian cause. Second, Baskakovo was a relatively safe sector, they had of course long ceased to mollycoddle writers but an empire can't call itself an empire if it doesn't look after its bards. War is war but there should be some culture too.
The writers' unit had been put together in Moscow and despatched to the South-Russian front, but there they had got holed up once the fighting began, the High Command categorically refusing to allow their return to the rear. To be sure they were in no direct danger. They hardly ran the risk of being killed by the Jewhadists but they might be seized as hostages and to this the High Command was mightily averse. All too many minor writers, the swine, had deserted to the Jewhadists in this way, seduced by the promises of freedom. They never got any freedom and on the whole the ethnically alien elements in the Jewhadist army were openly mistrusted: Channel One had even shown film on how the turncoats were treated there as prisoners of war. However among writers the commonplace myth about liberty-loving ways in the Khazar army was widespread, which was why it was worth protecting this group of loyal citizens. And so it was that a posse of patriotically orientated writers numbering eight was inflicted for three weeks on General Paukov, to chew on army rations and to get to know the soldiers.
It was first decided that the writers would all lodge together at HQ but a directive came from Moscow to pitch them into real army life. After that directive the guests were dispersed among various lodgings and made the acquaintance of the Company's officers while those officers were ordered to facilitate contacts between the Moscow literati and any particularly gallant privates. Puzzled, the Company Command declined, it would have been difficult to tease out from the ranks of Paukov's division heroes worthy of gracing the pages of Red Star. The army was occupied in achieving excellence at square-bashing, geopolitical instruction and the cleaning of weapons. It diversified its days with increasingly frequent shootings of its own men.
"Take, for example, private Krasnukhin, he's a good soldier." With an embarrassed smile platoon sergeant Kasatkin was offering his help. "He hasn't performed any great heroics as yet, but while on guard duty he let off a warning shot when the NCO checking on him purposely failed to give a password. He almost shot him too. A good soldier."
"Hullo then," the selected one was being addressed ingratiatingly by writer Kurlovich, a half-Khazar by birth but still a convinced statist. Seated opposite in the Lenin Corner, his huge hands reposing on ample knees, was ginger-haired Private Krasnukhin. "Tell me something please about your achievement."
"Well, what's there to it?" said Krasnukhin in some confusion. "That is, I'm standing there and somehow I'm dozing off, but I'm telling myself no, you mustn't!"
"And what was it you were guarding?" Kurlovich was anxious to get things right.
"Why that, whaddyercallit, I was guarding the watch mushroom."
"Um, quite so." Kurlovich, the writer, gave a slight nod, hurrying to show his familiarity with military life. However his story demanded precision, and why the watch needed a mushroom was something about which Kurlovich had no notion. Maybe it was a matter of foot-fungus having struck the watch which now had to be put under guard lest the infection reach epidemic proportions?
"Excuse me," continued the writer after a brief moment of indecision, "but all the same what is a mushroom for?"
"Well, as for that..." Private Krasnukhin gave his explanation unwillingly, fearing that here there was some sort of trickery, perhaps this was a crafty way of testing him for knowledge of the regulations? "According to Section Five of the Code for Guard Duties... the built up area attached to a rural location where is billeted a platoon, company, regiment or other military formation must be protected by night-time patrol of sentries spaced at fifty metre intervals and equipped with sentry mushrooms, each in conformity with the specifications for such mushrooms. The mushroom specification according to regulations are five in length, three in width and the height of the base two meters to ensure protection of the perimeter patrol post against rain, squally wind, snow storms, drifting snow and severe hail and with the intention of preserving personnel from colds, suppurating boils and other undesirable conditions." Krasnukhin had run out of breath while Kurlovich scribbled away. "Well there you are, the mushroom's standing there. All according to specifications, we put it up ourselves. And the rain was teeming down, 'like to God and my mother', it was."
"You love your mother?" Kurlovich asked with a warm smile.
Again Krasnukhin suspected a trick question.
"Excuse me, but that's a way of speaking."
"I understand," exclaimed Kurlovich, "after all, I'm Russian, aren't I!" (As was mentioned above he was not). "But I would like to fill in the details, you understand. So you are standing there in pouring rain at the guard post thinking about your mother."
Private Krasnukhin on that night and indeed very frequently did remember a mother but one with no relationship to his own parent, a tall, bony woman from near Voronezh. Rather, to him the word referred to the secret mother of all creation, she who had engendered the night, the rain, and the sentry-mushroom that was constructed in accordance with specifications.
"My mother's a hospital nurse." Krasnukhin spoke confusedly in a deep bass. "We don't have a father, but mother's O.K. She writes."
"Well, what was it you were remembering?" Kurlovich was insistent, having sensed that here there was some vivid, juicy detail to be had. "Perhaps the smell of home-cooked cutlets? Don't be shy, home cooking is also a part of our domestic life, our love for our native land!"
"No, with mother it was rather things made from spuds," averred Krasnukhin, "little flat cakes, know what I mean?"
"I know, of course I do," the writer was joyfully nodding in assent; potato-cakes are not mushrooms, here he was on familiar ground.
"Well there you are," the private was pensive. "Cabbage rolls too, sometimes."
"Tell me, can you remember what your mother's arms were like?"
Krasnukhin recalled his mother's long arms, her swollen joints and her flat fingernails. He felt sorry for his mother from whom to be sure he had had little tenderness but he felt no resentment on that score. After all, she had not beaten him although she should have done. Out of youthful folly he had several times been slung into the juvenile detention cells of police stations and once he had had a hand in robbing a trading stall and only by a great stroke of luck had not been caught. Altogether, if it hadn't been for call-up it would have been only too easy for him to have landed up in one of those "not so distant places", that is to say, a prison camp. His mother had been just a mother like any other, no worse, so what was this bespectacled nit banging on about?
"Well, yes," he replied with irritation, "But what about her arms? What's my mother got to do with this anyway?"
"But it was you who brought her up."
"Only in the sense that I said it was raining like to God and my mother."
"Tell me, do you believe in God?"
"Believe? In God you mean?" Krasnukhin asked. "According to the rulebook Holy Russia is a divinely chosen power, appropriately and symmetrically laid out over a sixth part of the world's land surface and gloriously arrayed through the munificence of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, her protection being the sacred charge of the Orthodox Army which has been provided expressly to preserve, uphold, guard, and with conscientious vigilance keep watch over her."
"Was that your own?" Kurlovich was startled. "Those are your own words?"
"Why mine?" from puzzled Krasnukhin. "That's what's written in the Sixth Epistle from Sophronius the Eremite in the General Military Rule. Haven't you read it?"
"Of course, of course," spluttered Kurlovich, "Just, you understand, you had it so pat. I was wondering whether maybe you did any writing... verses perhaps, poetry?"
"No, that's just not my thing. I'm one of the platoon sentries. Standing orders is to swab the floors, smarten yourself up, put up a mushroom shelter when it's called for..."
"All right then," Kurlovich was disappointed. "You were standing there then, and so what happened next?"
"I heard a rustle," Krasnukhin was speaking slowly, "I shouted out: 'Halt! Who Goes There?' and according to regulations I should have got the reply 'Horse in Underwear', but seeing as I'm not getting the reply I slaps a cartridge into the breech and repeats the question 'Who Goes There?' And when I doesn't get an answer on the third time of asking I fires into the air and then Sergeant Glukharev as was going the rounds checking up shows himself to me and gives the order 'Attention!' But as I hadn't been given the password I turned my rifle on Sergeant Glukharev and loaded another cartridge into the breech and told him to give the password. And then Sergeant Glukharev said the right words and after that I lowered my rifle and replied in proper form."
"Tell me," Kurlovich asked with a degree of nervousness, "What if Sergeant Glukharev had not given the password?"
"Well, then," and it seemed as if Krasnukhin was himself astonished by his own words, pronounced with some perplexity: "Well then. Then I would have let off a round into the chest of Sergeant Glukharev according to regulations, even if that meant killing the Sergeant stone dead."
"But look here, he was your duty-sergeant, you knew him perfectly well, surely..."
"So what of it, that he was duty-sergeant?" Krasnukhin, still perplexed, answered with an enquiry of his own. "He was doing the rounds. Some enemy might infiltrate on pretences. Or suppose he'd been recruited by one. Or he was drunk, so as he couldn't remember the password. He'd broken the rules, right? Breaking rules means getting shot. And then I had asked three times, I'd cocked the rifle. If he was Sergeant Glukharev he should have reacted, but what if he was a zombie? They had shown us Night of the Living Dead. You've seen Night of the Living Dead?"
"I have," said Kurlovich in a low voice, "But surely Sergeant Glukharev had not been coming from the direction of outside the perimeter? He had come from the village side, yes?"
"That's right," acknowledged Krasnukhin, not grasping the relevance of the question.
"In that case," Kurlovich launched into an exposition in proper rule-book style. "He was approaching your position and his direction of movement was not from the region outside but from the area of the unit and he gave no indication of any intent to capture and carry off anybody or anything anywhere?"
"So?" Krasnukhin conceded. So much was the obvious.
"Then what would you have killed him for?"
"But what difference does it make to me that he was coming from the inside bit or from the outside? He was breaking the rules so I had to act in accordance with regulations. It could be that he was intending to run away from the unit. How about that?"
"Yes indeed," said Kurlovich. "I hadn't thought of that. And then what next, if you had killed him?"
"I'd have got some leave." Krasnukhin smiled, distending wide lips which could have been made of rubber.

The writers passed a fortnight engaged in interviews such as this at the end of which Zdrok and Paukov were sick of them. These people were living alongside the soldiers but getting up at any time deemed appropriate by themselves and were altogether oblivious of military discipline. They had been told to immerse themselves in army life but this was turning out less an immersion than a quick dip. Furthermore, a directive had been sent from Moscow to lay on literary question and answer sessions in the evenings with the personnel, but the personnel had not read the works of the writers in question and had used up all their questions on the very first day. They had asked the writers how much they got paid, and what for, and inquired about their "creative plans", but the specification had been to devote an evening of questions and answers to each one of the writers and in the group, it will be recalled, were no less than eight. Something had to be done with these writers; all things considered they might stay holed up here for a long time and General Paukov made a decision which the Jewhadists' legendary figure Solomon might well have envied. For the first half of each day the writers were required to march, keep in formation, carry out loading and unloading exercises, in a word to emulate the drudgery of a soldier's life to the utmost degree. Then in the afternoon when the troops were kept busy with geopolitical instruction or were preparing kit for parade they recovered their writerly status, met the privates, put questions to them about the service or provided answers about their own literary labours.
After a week of pack-drill the writers fell out among themselves. Prior to this they had not been particularly fond of each other (as might be expected considering their rather putrid profession) but after the first bout of square-bashing and respirator drill and with the ending of their relatively untrammelled life on an officially approved posting they began really to detest one another. The notion of disobeying Colonel Zdrok, still less General Paukov, never for a moment entered their heads they were politically-correct "cultural representatives" enlisted in time of warfare at the disposal of the Red Star, apportioned special rations, and to each was assigned the suitable military-style designation, one that is reserved for cultural workers after an outbreak of hostilities: Second-Class Kultrep. (First-class was conferred only on those in the performance arts: film actors and the stage comics or anecdotalists touring the front lines with specially sanctioned repertoires about Jewhadists.)
The writers conscientiously performed their route marches, donned their gasmasks and ran cross-country in full kit, beginning to puff after the first hundred metres. Their sergeants, in a fatherly way, steered them onwards with kicks and when Honoured Author Osetrenko fell to the ground and started wheezing that he could go no further the others had to drag him along on their backs, that being what was expected on normal cross-country runs.
After that the writers took it out on Osetrenko no less than the sergeants had and indeed a healthily ruthless spirit began to manifest itself amongst them. Colonel Zdrok listened with approval to the NCO's reports of the route-marches and screw-drills (as chemical warfare practice was termed by the army). For the second half of the day the writers, who had hardly yet come to their senses, met again with the personnel to answer questions from those very sergeants who had just been laying into them on the parade ground. So was achieved a balance between military service and homage to the muses.
Just now Sergeant Gryzlov was dressing the line of the team of writers in front of the Baskakovo school building beside some rickety basketball goal posts and a tilting wall of parallel bars.
"Stretch your feet out!" he shouted menacingly. "Pull the arse in! Your arses, pull them in, you egg-heads! You've been gorging yourselves on civilian grub. This is the army, not a farm! Why have you got that shitting-dog look? AttenSHUN! Ra-aight TURN! About TURN! By the right, qui-ick MARCH! Secshun, HALT, one two. We'll have it again! Left leg, RAISE. LOWER! Is that a leg or a lump of shit? Kultrep Second Class Strunin! I can't hear your answer!"
"A leg," the aged writer Strunin's lips formed the answer.
"I don't see a leg! What I see is a lump of shit!" Sergeant Gryzlov was enjoying himself. "Others stand fast, Strunin will do commands on his own. Leg, RAISE. Leg, EXTEND. Stretch your foot out! Halt! I said HALT, you skiver!"
Strunin, standing on one leg, staggered and collapsed into the mud. Not one of the writers tried to help him, each fastidiously keeping his distance. Strunin, truth to say, was a poor writer, none of his colleagues liked him and his collection of essays about Russian army writers Nightingales of HQ was considered excessively sycophantic even by the patriotic camp.
"Pick yourself up!" said Gryzlov disgustedly. "What's this then, Kultrep Strunin? If your wife were to see you now what would she have to say? You don't tumble over when you're on top of her? Leg RAISE!"
"All the same, this is the devil and all." Grushin, a big and imposing "patriotic" writer, spoke with a deep sigh over a bowl of thin, over-salted bortsch or rather beetroot-water with the occasional rotted cabbage leaf sitting in the canteen among the soldiery. "How long do we have to stand for it? We could have been back in Moscow long ago!"
"So who put this brigade together," this to Grushin with loathing from the gaunt and bilious satirist Gvozdev. "Who was it had us all brought in?"
"Well, look here," Grushin shrugged his shoulders, "I always considered that the place for a Russian writer is in the ranks."
"So what's the grouse? Every morning you're out there, in the ranks."
"But everyone serves in his own fashion. I serve with my pen..."
"Well, you can stick your pen in Zdrok's backside," said Gvozdev. Grushin gazed at him in silent reproach and turned over in his mind the terms in which he would write a note of denunciation that evening. All the writers wrote accusing notes about each other. The Secret Service officer Evdokimov kept them in a special file and they constituted the pearl of his collection. These writers knew how to write, the expressions they used were elaborate and colourful. Grushin excelled, calling Gvozdev first a tame hyena, next a rabid fox. The playwright Shubnikov wrote well too in a firm rounded hand with a lapidary style honed on the composition of serial episodes. His words were mostly monosyllabic louse, swine, scum for in serials two-syllable words had long become exceptions and trisyllabic ones were crossed out by the producers.
After lunch, as was required, the writers answered questions. That same Sergeant Gryzlov who had just been comparing Strunin's leg to a lump of shit and concerning himself with how he used to bed his wife now asked in servile tones: "Comrade Second-Degree Kultrep! Please tell us about your creative plans."
There was nothing of pretence about his demeanour. Sergeant Gryzlov was what is termed an "eager-beaver", that is to say he went by the book with the intention of winning himself rank and renown. Following instructions and the rules applicable to sergeants he applied himself to the writers in the first half of the day as he did to any new draft which had to be ground down so that these rookie reinforcements would understand just where it was they had landed up. And for the second half of the day he regarded them as writers on a visit to the unit. In essence, the chief military virtue was and is (Gryzlov to be sure was unable to formulate this for himself, lacking certain necessary words, but he felt it in his very vitals) behaviour one-hundred percent appropriate to the role required of one, whereby all other affinity other than what is determined by rank is abolished.
Gryzlov no doubt would treat his mother with affection should she come to the Company base on what was called 'parents' day', the annual occasion when parents were officially permitted to visit the soldiers. But supposing it possible for her to arrive as one of the draftees he would have made her drill and haul herself over the assault-course obstacles, she in that context being not so much a mother as human raw material. The political officer Ploskorylov thought highly of this sergeant and paid close attention to him notwithstanding that Gryzlov was not really one of the traditional warrior breed. Gryzlov to be sure was a real product of the old-fashioned, intellectually backward indigenous population, but he had taken up the true spirit of military life: not merely its outward appearances but its essential spirit. Gryzlov would take on the shape of any mould into which he had been poured, or in this case confined.
Strunin had often in former times answered questions about his "creative plans". He was almost never asked anything else. He gave a cough and began ponderously:
"You see, the Army has always played a large part in my creative work. I consider that if you stand a teacher, let's say, side by side with an officer the officer turns out to be the better teacher of the two. Or if it is a driver and an officer. Or, say, a trainer and an officer. In every case the officer turns out the better man. I have always been an admirer of the Russian officer caste, it has, you will agree, a special bearing and poise. And so I'm thinking of writing a book now about the officer class, about how it has come about, about how it has become a real military aristocracy, about the best Russian officers from the time of Ivan the Terrible. I would like to give some sort of composite portrait or even a laurel wreath to crown the Officer of Russia who, chest held high, fought out a road to the sea, who with his whole body shielded his brotherly fellow Slavic peoples, who is always distinguished by his remarkable decency. So if I consider myself worthy of it I shall soon be launching myself into this book. I think that a deserved place in the gallery of brilliant Russian officers will be occupied by General Paukov, Commander of this very division who is now hosting us. Have I answered your question?"
"All correct!" Gryzlov replied joyfully. "Contingent! Ask questions!"
"Comrade Kultrep Second Class," in an uncertain voice from Private Saprykin, "tell us please of your creative plans."
Strunin gave a cough.
"You see," he began "the Army has always played a large part in my creative work. I consider that if you stand a doctor, let's say, side by side with an officer, the officer turns out to be the better doctor of the two. Or for example a conjurer and an officer, the officer turns out to be the best conjurer. The Russian officer is a Jack of all trades he has been taught this. And so I am thinking of writing a book about the characteristics of the officer class, how it has turned into a special caste: the Knights of the Sword. About how by and large not just anyone can become an officer but only one picked out as worthy of the title. I would like, you know, to weave a wreath or garland to crown the Russian Officer who was in the vanguard of fighting out an outlet to the sea. Who with his breast shielded his brotherly fellow Slavic peoples and who is always distinguished by a remarkably pleasant scent.... So if I feel I have the strength I shall soon be launching myself into this book. I think a prime place in the gallery of brilliant officers will be taken by General Paukov to whom our writers' brigade is now entrusted. Have I answered your question?"
"All correct!" answered Gryzlov on Saprykin's behalf, he being more conspicuous. "Contingent! Questions for the Comrade Kultrep!"
"Comrade Kultrep Second Class," rapped out another know-all, plainly Under-Sergeant Sukhikh, "Your creative plans?"
"And what's the magic word?" Gryzlov growled threateningly.
"Please," barked Sukhikh.
Strunin gave a cough.
"You see," he started, "the Army has always played a large part in my creative work. I consider that if you stand a mother, let's say, side by side with an officer, the officer turns out to be the better mother of the two. Or for example a camel and an officer, the officer turns out to be the best camel. The officer has been taught to be a Jack of all trades. In the Russian officer there is some sort of special roundedness, cosiness. And so I am thinking of writing a book about the officer class, how it has become an ivory tower. About how not just anyone can become an officer and I would like to weave a network... Whose foot opened Russia's door to the sea and whose backside... whose backside covered up his fellow Slavic peoples. So when I get worked up, as I should be, I'll set about it. I think it wouldn't do to leave out General Paukov. Hah, mm. When would things get done without Paukov? Our whole writers' collective is grateful to him... Have I answered your question?"
"All correct," waking from a brief doze (in the Russian army they all know how to drop off during any spare moment) Sukhikh briskly answered.
"Com-pany!" commanded Gryzlov. "In single file, to the doors, March! Thank you Comrade Writers!"

That evening, before bed, the writers bickered.
"You are still living in nineteen ninety-nine," began Grushin.
"Fancy you remembering," yawned Gvozdev. "I could recall what you were writing about Banan at that time..."
"Oh, I can remember all right. I remember what I was writing and what you were writing. And that there Mr. Strunin, what he was writing. Remember, Strunin? I could inform the Political Officer of the issue number and even send him a copy..."
"You always did envy me," Strunin yelled, almost hysterically. "Always did! You're not special for cleanliness neither. Your feet stink!"
"You're special in a nasty way. I know your real name's Stryutski."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" Kurlovich was trying to make them see reason. "We are intelligent people, creative artists. Gentlemen..."
"And you shut up, don't mess in a Russian quarrel!" Grushin shouted him down, forgetful just then that Strunin himself was not altogether ethnically pure. But in comparison to Kurlovich Strunin was practically an ally. I'll show the Political what you wrote about Khazars in ninety-six!"
"Stop it! You should be ashamed!" Kozaev joined the fray, one of the writers in the tandem that signed KozaKi, writing thrillers about the adventures of the Russian special assault units.
"Don't forget we're at the frontlines," assented his co-author Kirienko.
"Yes, you're at the frontlines," roared Grushin, "Puny little warriors, peddlers of pulp fictions..."
The KozaKi didn't listen and left for their own hut where they had the prospect of sitting up until dawn cobbling together the sixteenth sequel of the exploits of their hero: Secret Service agent Sedoi. The book was supposed to be submitted to the publisher no later than the fifteenth of August and a delay could result in their being struck off the special rations list.
And for a long while Grushin, Gvozdev and Strunin continued to exchange abuse in the darkness while, as if in duet, the dogs of Baskakovo yelped away and lazily scratched themselves.