oil painting by Nikolay Karazin depicting a Russian assault on the fortress of Geok Tepe during the siege of 1880-81
[ This is a public domain photograph of an oil painting by Nikolay Karazin depicting a Russian assault on the fortress of Geok Tepe during the siege of 1880-81. ]

Nothing Much to Lose

Perhaps, he thinks, the closer one gets to the end, the more one remembers the beginning.

He hasn’t thought of Petra in over sixty years, but now he sits in the darkening park and the memories come unbidden, so sudden, so unexpected, so clear. He remembers the sweet smell of the stable, the soft touch of her muzzle, the whiskers heavy with hoar frost, her nostrils dilating to take in his own scent, the heavy winter coat of the pony, her deceitful good manners while she was being groomed.

It was only when he mounted that Petra transformed into the vicious little thing she really was, bucking sometimes, running off more frequently, once trying to roll on the ground with him much as a dog might try to scratch its own back, and almost always, on every ride, trying to scrape him off against a tree or under a branch.

And yet, because of Petra, by the time he got to cavalry school he could sit anything. So many of the other students came from real wealth, relatives of the Imperial family, counts and barons, spoiled arrogant idiots whose fathers had great stables with hundreds of horses—choose another, son, find one you get along with—so they could ride a well-mannered horse well enough, but God help them if they drew a rank one.

He remembers other smells from that time: the heavenly, pungent smell of the coarse black rye bread the serfs baked for themselves and that he enjoyed so; in the spring, dark earth freshly turned under the plow mingling with the intoxicating scent of mixed blossoms, apple, cherry, pear, wildflowers; the smell of summer rain coming across the fields before it fell, so that standing in dusty golden sunlight on a hot day there would suddenly be a few cool moments of life-giving cleanliness, like the scent of God Himself, that made him want to fill his lungs beyond their capacity.

It’s the cold, he thinks, that brings back all these memories from so long ago; the cold, and the hoar frost on his own moustache.

Nothing in this city makes him want to fill his lungs, unless it’s the smell of cooking food as he passes restaurants and taverns and bakeries. He doesn’t care for German food, or at least the man he used to be doesn’t care for German food, but right now he would eat anything that didn’t bite him first. German cooking is a step above the barbarous mess the English make of their food, but really only the French and the Italians have a national cuisine that can compete with well-prepared traditional Russian food. What wouldn’t he give for a bowl of shchi right this minute! Ah, just to smell the steam…

At the cavalry school they made a surprisingly good shchi. The other students complained about it—of course, that’s what students do—but in reality it was quite acceptable. The long tables in the dining hall, the uniforms, the bearded faces, the portraits on the wall, the medals displayed at the end, the latakia hanging in the air, all mingling to create, ah, magic.

When Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich the Elder came and singled him out, Vladimir Sukhomilov, for his riding, and pointed to him afterward from the dais in the dining hall, calling out, “That boy can ride,” they had served shchi that day too and he had thought his career was on its way, so that the mingled scents of shchi and latakia always evoked triumph.

Alas, Nicholas Nikolaevich the Elder may have known horses and good riding, but he proved himself an incompetent buffoon. The dull eyes betrayed an even duller brain. Plevna! My God, he thinks, what an unmitigated disaster there. If he had been with Nicholas Nikolaevich then, instead of with General Skobelev, his career might have ended before it began.

More smells: gunpowder, the sharp scent of blood and bowels blown out of dead and dying men and horses, the smell of putrefaction—they were supposed to get all the bodies buried by midnight, but so frequently it couldn’t be done, and the Turks apparently were not so fastidious about their dead—and the ranker, most pervasive smell of all, the constant stink of thousands and thousands of unwashed men and the unwashed wool of their uniforms, a miasma hanging over everything, a miasma that moved with the army. He remembers the terrible screams of the horses, the moans and calls for help of the dying men, all of it as something apart from himself, as if he were remembering things heard and seen and smelled by someone else and recounted to him.

Back then—oh, he was young then, full of courage and ambition—it all seemed normal, a natural part of things. It was war. Men die in war. Women and children too, sometimes. Geok Tepe was bad, very bad, but my God, what else could they have done? The Turks outnumbered them three-to-one, so what else? What option? In a war, it is the duty of soldiers to kill people, and the side that kills the most, wins. Ah! If it had been left to Nicholas Nikolaevich the Army of the Danube would have been wiped out there at Plevna. Instead, General Skobelev, the White General, the ablest soldier Russia ever had, was called back in disgrace for breaking the will of the Turkmen and winning the war. Thank God the general had already recommended him for the Order of St. George.

It’s a curious phenomenon, but even as the light is dying, the air appears to be warming. Perhaps an early spring is coming to this inelegant and smelly metropolis.

The White General. My God, he would have followed that man into the jaws of hell. He did follow that man into the jaws of hell. What else could you call Siret, the Green Hills at Pleven, Lovech, all that beautiful countryside? Not so beautiful with bodies strewn all over, but land as rich and receptive as a nubile girl. And General Skobelev called back for doing his job, just as four years later he would be called back again for predicting the Great War. What fools they were, the Tsar and all his blue-blooded sycophants, not to recognize what they had in the White General. If Skobelev had lived, this dreadful city might belong to Russia right now and there would never have been any revolution. Victory inspires everything! Trust, loyalty, obedience, sacrifice, love. Even love.

Ekaterina. He was Commander of the Kiev District by then, and like everyone else he spent his holidays in Biarritz. Those were fairytale days, with all the crème de la crème of Russia there at the Hôtel du Palais. All his holidays, all the sunny days and glorious nights are distilled by memory now down to a single evening in the grand ballroom when he first saw her. He knew even before they spoke that she knew who he was. Everyone knew; they were already damning him in those days, all those aristocratic twits and the bureaucrats, for protecting the Jews, though it was nothing compared to what came after he was called back to put down the October pogrom. When he asked for the honor of a dance, she slipped into his arms the way another woman might slip into bed.

He had known many women already—he was still married then to his second wife, for God’s sake, and had many others beside, before and since—but he had never known any who compelled him so, as if that direct look of hers, right into his eyes, unblinking, confident, as if it were an invitation to unimaginable ecstasies. So young, so incredibly young and lovely.

“General, they say you are the finest horseman in Kiev. Is this true?”

“Madame, I am the finest horseman in the Ukraine, and very likely all of Russia.”

“Better even than the Grand Duke?”

She was challenging him to make derogatory statements about his superiors, as later she would challenge him to take her to his bed, and that challenge brought an immediate physical arousal. He slid his hand farther around her waist, drawing her closer to him. Ah, that firm familiar feeling!

“The Grand Duke would be the first to admit he is not as great a rider as his father, the Elder, and his father said I was the finest horseman he had ever seen at Nikolayevskoe.”

They were dancing a Viennese waltz, and now he takes his bare hands out from where they are curled together in the worn sleeves of his greatcoat and he holds an imaginary waist, an imaginary hand, and moves his arms in the warming air to three-quarter time. He hears the music again, as he heard it so long ago in the brilliance of that ballroom with the lights reflecting off ten thousand crystal pendants and a thousand diamonds almost as large as the pendants, diamonds in constant motion, on hands and throats and bosoms, the rustle of silk, feet sliding on the parquet, the murmur of voices, swirling around and around and around to the most beautiful of all music.

Just the memory of that dance, that room, and that lovely slim waist under his hand has filled him with life. If he weren’t so frightfully tired he would stand and dance now.

He was in the ascendency then. Of course, the higher you climb, the less ground there is to stand on, so that ascendency and fall are closely linked. He was caught between those incomparable morons the blue bloods, and the whining would-be revolutionaries in the Duma, between unfounded entitlement and fuzzy-minded socialist idealists. Between incompetence and incompetence, each faction fighting like Mongols for its own brand of incompetence to succeed.

Both hives buzzed with their envy and their lies, so that his every word was picked and plucked and stripped to its bones in an effort to find something. Anything, even a joke: “I have not read a military manual for the last twenty-five years.” The patricians wanted fortresses, for God’s sake! Wars are not won with fortresses planted in the ground like mountains. An army goes around a mountain. It goes around fortresses or blows them up. Anything built by human hands and minds can be destroyed by human hands and minds. Ah! Even much that was built by the mind of God has been destroyed by the destructive hands of men. Mobility wins wars, not holding useless static fortresses. Oh, what fools!

And the Duma on the other side, wanting to read and inspect and debate and authorize every minute detail, as if wars were won with minutia any more than fortresses, not that they knew the first damn thing about war. Guchkov knew better. He was not a fool, Alexander Ivanovich Guchkov. He was President of the State Duma by then and he knew better, but he was so busy opposing the patricians, and Guchkov lumped him, Sukhomlinov, into that group. As if a fine uniform and some money made a man a titled fool.

He remembers their duel. The white trunks of the trees, the seconds dark against them on the edge of the clearing, the doctor with his bag resting ominously at his feet, the coachmen standing farther back in the trees, watching, the silence, save for the distant singing of birds and a frog in a nearby pond, the heat already building even that early, the gnats swarming around his eyes, the absolute confidence on Guchkov’s face.

Guchkov had fought many duels and knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, they both knew what the outcome had to be, but he was nowhere near as sure of his marksmanship as Guchkov, so he shot first, quickly, dropping his arm contemptuously off to his right so that his bullet hit the ground twenty feet to Guchkov’s left.

But he, Guchkov, took his time, slow, deliberate, aiming precisely at his head, trying to intimidate him. Ha! It was one of the few stupid things Guchkov ever did. If you’ve ridden behind the White General against American-supplied rifles and German-supplied artillery with nothing but a sword in your hand and your soldiers equipped with rifles that couldn’t fire the bullets loaded with wheat instead of powder, rifles that weren’t accurate even when they had real bullets to fire, a single man pointing a gun at your head doesn’t mean so much, especially when you both know that if he kills you he will spend the rest of his days digging graves in permafrost for his fellow prisoners. He remembers hoping his smile looked natural and relaxed.

But Guchkov… He was a hell of a shot. The bullet went so close past his ear that the snap! made his stomach flip. The bastard. Still, he had held his ground and showed his contempt for that mongrel factory owner’s son and never flinched. Afterward, they shook hands and went back to war preparations as if nothing had happened. So silly.

The air in the park is definitely warming. He opens the top buttons of his greatcoat with difficulty, his fingers and the buttons both equally stiff and awkward, his struggles making him hotter still.

Strange to think both he and Miasoedev had fought duels with Guchkov. Of course, Miasoedev’s duel was well-known at the time and widely publicized, poor devil. Poor Nicholaevich Miasoedev, born under an unlucky star and everything he turned his hand to doomed to disaster before it began. He was an intelligent and able man, but God must have turned His hand against him. They said he screamed and wept like a woman when they dragged him out to hang him. Well, and why not? He was innocent of all the charges: treason, spying, corruption… Well, everyone dipped his hand into the till a little—who didn’t?—but Miasoedev was never a spy. The poor devil knew he was innocent, they knew he was innocent, and he knew they knew he was innocent. He, Sukhomlinov, had seen with his own eyes the military prosecutor’s report exonerating Miasoedev, but he, Sukhomlinov, had seen too the Grand Duke’s words and signature scrawled at the bottom of the last page: “Hang him anyway.” The Grand Duke would have hung his own mother to hide his incompetence.

Perspiring, he unbuttons the rest of his coat and pulls it open. Even that little activity exhausts him. Ha! To remember how he bounded like a hare across the fields as a boy, how he rode and fought and rode again forty-eight hours straight without sleep and still had enough left in him to want that girl he saw scything barley, would have had her too, if her father hadn’t been there. And now, unbuttoning a coat is a major event. Age!

He didn’t realize it then, not at first at least, but the Tsar was a big part of the problem. He was smarter than most people gave him credit for. Or more cunning. He was certainly more manipulative than he, Sukhomlinov, had realized, and that’s the truth; he suspected it then, but he knows it now. The Tsar wanted to control all the military, all of it, even though he knew no more about war than the socialists in the Duma, so he had played them all off against each other, the patricians against the praetorians, entitled aristocrats against professional soldiers, and both against the Duma. Looking back now, from a park bench in a dreadful German city, he realizes how it was, and to what degree the Tsar played them all, but back then he felt like the fellow in that statue, what was the name, fighting the snakes: grab one firmly by the throat and get it under control and two others come at you from behind, and when you are fighting for your life, sometimes you don’t see things as clearly as you should.

Still, he had built up the army, streamlined it, made it as ready as he could, given the little money there was to work with. He had seen how bad their rifles were at Plevna, even when they had bullets that actually fired, and he had improved all that, and updated the artillery. He would have abandoned all the useless forts if the Grand Duke hadn’t been such a stubborn, ignorant, incompetent fool, almost as stupid as his father. Alright, he had wanted to stay with horses for transport perhaps more than he should have—the automobiles he had driven in and seen back then did not inspire confidence; he knew and trusted horses—but when he saw the need, he capitulated. For God’s sake, he was the one who added aircraft to the army. How much more modern could he get? What more could he have done with all those damned snakes writhing around his body, choking him?

He stands now with difficulty, using the arm and back of the bench to help his uncertain legs. He peels off the heavy greatcoat, folds it carefully—Army habits die hard—and sits back down again with it in his lap.

The Tsar. The Tsar. For all his autocratic formality, and his poor judgment, he was a likeable man. Ah, it’s hard not to like any man who laughs at your jokes. But the Tsar seemed oblivious to the lessons of 1904 and ’05. Nine thousand kilometers, more, almost ten, on a single train line, so all that could be done was to feed Russian soldiers one by one, so to speak, to the Japanese. And yet, even with that lesson so recently learned, the Tsar and so many of the bluebloods, in particular the mentally negligible Grand Duke, had fought him on every issue of upgrading mobilization. Perhaps stupidity runs in family lines, like looks.

Ekaterina. So beautiful. It is possible to love too much. He knows that now, but then, back then, ah, he was in a frenzy. Every day he counted the hours until he could go home to her. His enemies said he spent a fortune on her and it was true he bought her all those things that ladies love so much. Beautiful young ladies are like magpies: their eyes are drawn to anything that sparkles, and he, thirty years older, how could he refuse? Of course, it wasn’t as bad as they all said, but, well, yes, he did buy her the things she wanted. And why not? He could afford it. He had made a lot of money by then, and it was his wealth that made so many of the aristocrats and the socialists both hate him.

And so they lied and gossiped. Like snakes. When they weren’t trying to strangle him, like Laocoön—that was the fellow! He was a priest who did something wrong at Troy and the snakes killed him and his sons—and when his enemies weren’t trying to kill him, they tumbled in coils at the Tsar’s feet, hissing their lies, spreading their distortions and rumors.

Ah, but two may play at that game. He had known immediately that it would be counter-productive to fight lies with lies or even with truth, and he remembers now that morning, walking through the great hall, wondering how best to combat those slithering hate mongers, and suddenly, like God’s own answer, there was Rasputin walking toward him, on his way to see the Tsar, and right away he knew, right away he began to cultivate the fanatic.

There was no more religion in that man than there was in a rag picker’s cart horse, but there was something. There was undoubtedly something and whatever it was shown wildly out of those mad eyes. But Rasputin too, like the Tsar, could be led by his funny bone and the first time he made the fanatic roar with laughter he knew he had the conduit he needed to fight the snakes.

To think Ekaterina did what she did. If she did what they all thought she did. He would never have asked, but he never had the opportunity in any case. It wasn’t that the fanatic was dirty—those were just lies spread by the patricians who hated Rasputin as much as they hated him—but he always appeared greasy, and there was an unpleasant smell in spite of his constant bathing. There was something repulsive and frightening about that illiterate peasant. Madness is always a little frightening.

What did she do? He wonders now, with a little shudder of revulsion, but with no anger. How could he possibly be angry when it was how she got him out of prison, and yet… And yet.

So tired. And extraordinary how warm it has become, almost like a summer’s night. He pushes the folded great coat along the seat of the bench to the end and lies down, his head on the rough and filthy pillow, he that used to sleep on satin because Ekaterina liked satin.

How ridiculous, he thinks. An old man lying in the dark on a park bench in a German city, an old man who has lost everything: wealth, power, prestige, reputation, honor, the houses, the stables, the glorious horses, all of it, seventy-seven—or is it seventy-eight now?—years old, not enough money in his pocket to buy a crust of bread or a bed for the night, yet still as jealous as a boy for a girl long dead. Ah, but how he had loved her!

He loves her still.

It was her eyes, her eyes and something inside he couldn’t identify, something he had never encountered before and God knows never would again, something that aroused him in a way no other woman ever had. What? Some kind of chemical interaction between her molecules and his? Who could say? It’s the kind of mystery that reaffirms a man’s faith in God: after all the learning, the dissecting, the discoveries, the inventions, the exploring, there is always still and will always be the vast unknown, vaster by far than all the sum of puny man’s puny knowledge, and that unknown and unknowable is God.

But her eyes. Unless she was actually weeping—and he could count on the toes of one frozen foot the number of times he had ever seen her weep—her eyes made her look as if she were laughing inside, vastly amused by some secret that you longed to know and share. She was beautiful, yes, but he had known more beautiful women: the French military attaché’s wife, for one; Countess Medvedeva was another; that Italian princess in Yevpatoria; even filthy old Vanka’s daughter so long ago—what was her name?—if she were still alive she would probably weigh as much as a small draft horse and have no teeth, but back then, ah, back then.

It was more than just beauty. He had known very few other women—or men either—anywhere near as intelligent as Ekaterina, but no other woman had ever reduced him to such a helpless piece of wax in her hands. Yet it was more than brains and more than beauty and more than both together. Her courage was part of it; how she had conducted herself all during that sham of a trial! Such dignity, such grace under unimaginable pressure. But it was even more than that. Ah. It was the unknowable.

When they arrested him for the first time, his only fear was that they would take her too. It was an interesting sensation, to be taken off to that prison fortress in the river and to think only of her, to worry only about her. It wasn’t selflessness. On the contrary, it was the ultimate selfishness; she was his most prized possession and he dreaded the thought of losing her. And yet, now he doesn’t even know where she is buried. Shot in a filthy room by Lenin’s thugs and buried in an unmarked grave. She, who should have had monuments raised to her!

He lies by himself in the dark on a park bench in Berlin. How extraordinary, he thinks, the immense adaptability of man! He can lose everything, even the one person he loves and cherishes most in the world, and still go through the motions of being alive, hanging on, as if the next morning might bring relief.

News item from the Berliner Morgenpost, 1 March, 1926:

“The body of an elderly gentleman found frozen to death on a bench in the Grosser Tiergarten has been identified as Vladimir Aleksandrovitch Sukhomlinov, former cavalry general of the Russian Imperial Army, Chief of the General Staff, and Minister of War under the late Tsar Nicholas II.”