HORSEMEN OF THE SANDS
by Leonid Yuzefovich
translated by Marian Schwartz
Archipelago Books, 232 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
The translation initiative Read Russia characterizes Leonid Yuzefovich as a writer whose books “gray the lines between faction and fiction,” using historical figures and settings in his work. “Faction” is for artful historians (or for historian artists, perhaps), writers who know how to be suspicious of fictionalizing, but also know that history is never just facts. This description of Yuzefovich makes sense, since he is a historian by training and taught history for many years, but has emerged as an influential contemporary fiction writer in Russia.
Yuzefovich has been publishing fiction and nonfiction in Russian since 1980, but his work first appeared in English in 2013 with a series of historical detective novels, translated by the prolific Russian translator Marian Schwartz. Horsemen of the Sands is a new volume, also translated by Schwartz. The volume contains two novellas: The Storm, which takes place in an elementary school, and Horsemen of the Sands, a mystical tale about the real-life warlord R.F. Ungern-Shternberg, who fought both the Chinese and the Bolsheviks for control of Mongolia during the Russian Civil War, which lasted six years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
Each of these novellas grays the lines between faction and fiction in different ways, in their choice of subject and in the structural weaving together of historical elements and fictional characters. At first glance a reader might wonder why they were published together, but they complement each other in ways that a casual reading might not appreciate, and they indicate why Yuzefovich is a contemporary Russian to read, for Russophile readers and for readers new to contemporary Russian literature.
Horsemen of the Sands features “the Mad Baron,” General Ungern, who was captured and executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921. The story takes place when the Baron is powerfully roaming Mongolia (early 1921), recruiting villagers to his army with stories of his magical invincibility. The scenes of Ungern are framed by the narration of a young Soviet military officer stationed in Mongolia, who meets Boliji, an elderly herder who recalls an encounter with Ungern when he was a child. Boliji’s brother fought for Ungern for a time, and discovered the secret of the Baron’s invincibility: a gau, a Buddhist amulet that had been given to the Baron by a grateful Buddhist lama. The magical gau made it so that the rules of ballistics seemingly did not apply to Ungern: bullets fell before him, or were twisted into worthless pieces of metal on the ground. Boliji produces the gau as proof of his tale, and gifts it to the Soviet officer, which sets off another adventure for the narrator as he asks an excessively snotty historian (the kind who does not do “faction”) to validate the age of the gau.
The Storm takes place on a seemingly prosaic day in a contemporary elementary school, when Nadezhda Stepanova has safety officer Dmitry Petrovich Rodygin come speak to her fifth grade class about safety on the roads, and the dangers of intoxicated driving. Rodygin is well practiced at effective speaking methods; he has mastered the art of delivering stories in such a way that they “make an impression.” Unfortunately, Rodygin is also relationally ignorant: in his zeal to “make an impression” on fifth graders, he is inhumane in his storytelling approach and ends up upsetting several pupils.
The story’s viewpoint switches around several times, sometimes within the same chapter, following both what is happening in the classroom as Rodygin paces around (terrifying the children with stories of what happens to drunk drivers in Turkey and Singapore, and implying that wives and children are partly to blame if a man becomes a drunk) and what happens outside of the classroom, as the janitress cleans and students run to the bathroom and Nadezhda Stepanova goes to the market for a cake for the other teachers. The roving narrator is especially effective as Rodygin speaks to the class, congratulating himself on his teaching technique, while Vekshina, a student in the front, row suffers terribly with thoughts of her drunk father. The reader comes to understand the complicated relationships between Nadezhda, a beloved leader of her little “flock” of fifth graders, and the students themselves, who band together against the scary outsider Rodygin.
Rodygin floats back and forth across the front of the room, completely unaware of his inability to see the students as human beings with their own stories and relationships. He is convinced that he is a good teacher, but good teachers often say that the privilege of teaching is learning from one’s students, and I doubt that Rodygin has ever thought of himself as a student of fifth graders. While The Storm doesn’t feature any obvious “historical” character, there is something so veracious about the storytelling and the recounting of the elementary mindset that it feels like the reportage of an ethnographer. When Rodygin mentions someone who had a leg amputated, a little boy asks, with great practicality, “How far up?” Every story Rodygin tells becomes an imaginative foray for one student or another. One of them, Vera, who apparently thinks of herself as a grown up since she “developed” early, makes awful comments that a husband and wife are a single Satan, as if she has any idea what she is talking about. This is definitely fifth grade, rendered so faithfully that it doesn’t quite feel like fiction.
With such divergent subject matter and different approaches to narration and structure, it might seem difficult to detect the ways that The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands connect with each other, but thematically they complement each other very well. The most apparent thematic connection is that of Russia’s protean cultural identity: East and West, manifest by an older generation that saw the political upheaval of the late 20th century and the younger generations that did not.
In Horsemen of the Sands, the scene that speaks most eloquently to this theme is the narrator’s encounter with the Bronze Horseman, the famous statue of Peter the Great in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). One of the more iconic images in Russian literature, the Bronze Horseman shows Tsar Peter on a reared up horse, triumphantly leading Russia toward a powerful future as a major player on the European stage, with his new European city, St. Petersburg, laid out before him. As the narrator considers the story that Boliji the herder has told him of General Ungern, he imagines Ungern as a second horseman, this one made of sand. Unlike the Bronze Horseman, the one made of sand “falls to dust” in the wind.
These two horsemen do not merely illustrate the competing personalities of Peter and Ungern. The iconic image of the horsemen draws the text’s speculation about Russia’s identity crisis much deeper than that of national leadership; the men represent completely different cultural visions. The narrator speculates that while his grandparents were small children and these horsemen faced off, “East and West 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.” Different leaders always make for different ideas about national direction; in the case of Russia, these two horsemen actually represented completely opposite cultural faces for Russia, either of which could be Russia’s heritage. As far as being a work of history, this is one of the more interesting things about this novella: we see the bloody competition of Ungern’s “yellow faith” (Buddhism) for dominance, we see how powerful and ambitious the anti-Bolshevik presence was in Ungern’s time, and we see a sliver of Russia’s violent contact with China; all of these parts of Russia’s “Eastern reflection” are elements of Russian history that we Westerners rarely encounter.
The Storm approaches cultural identity from the standpoint of generational change. Rodygin represents a past generation, a “specimen” of an old order of thinking that will inevitably die off. While buying some berries from an elderly woman, Nadezhda Stepanova considers what her old age will be like. The teachers’ boardinghouse where she enjoys the summers used to have a man-made pond where an eccentric man kept two Nile crocodiles. One of those crocodiles was shot, and is now stuffed and sitting in a museum collection: “Like any dumb creature, it lived outside history; on the other hand, by its death it inscribed itself into the context of the period and reflected the singularity of the historical moment.” Nadezhda Stepanova’s memories of the crocodile resurface when a colleague comments that there’s “quite a likeness” between the stuffed amphibian and Rodygin. “He’s a specimen, too,” remarks the colleague. “But that’s all right, their rule will end soon.” A moment later a little boy spits out a berry pit that makes “the sound of a bullet,” a clever metaphor emphasizing the inevitability that children grow older and take the cultural reigns from their elders, whether elders are willing to give them up or not.
As a teacher, I like the idea that the “bullet” is aimed at the instructional style that Rodygin represents, where teachers know everything and students’ tasks is to become like their instructors. But Yuzefovich has more in mind; Rodygin represents rule through fear and misinformation. What’s more, the story asks questions about how we should age: while Rodygin feels that his soul is burning with the frustration of being “misunderstood” by the students, Nadezhda Stepanova thinks of getting older in the boardinghouse with her letters and pictures from her students hanging on the walls. Some adults are the shepherds for the younger generation, and some adults only become stuffed “specimens” of another time, too full of their own ideologies to recognize value in the vivaciousness of younger people.
These are fitting novellas to bring to an American public in particular; they eschew the Russian penchant for long philosophical monologues or dialogues that create philosophical debate and meaning in a work, and instead, Yuzefovich opts for the more “American” style of communicating meaning through events themselves.
These are fitting novellas to bring to an American public in particular; they eschew the Russian penchant for long philosophical monologues or dialogues that create philosophical debate and meaning in a work, and instead Yuzefovich opts for the more “American” style of communicating meaning through events themselves. However, this very quality makes him a writer for readers who are willing to read closely. He doesn’t waste words, and events and moods change quickly, sometimes within a sentence. I got the gist of the stories the first time I read them, but had to read a second time, and slower, to really appreciate the nuance of his descriptions and precision of his syntax. The internal consistency of the novellas is a testament to the craft of the writer, and also to Schwartz’s translation, which insured that the text’s internal arguments remained intact.
I don’t want to make these novellas sound too erudite though. Schwartz commented in a 2017 interview with Book Riot that it’s unfortunate to hear people describe translated Russian literature as overly difficult, 800-page tomes. While Russians certainly do love their Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Schwartz argued that a good translation is pleasurable and worthwhile to read, that a translation “is a door to a new world very likely not accessible any other way.” Russia is a huge country with countless writers waiting in the queue to find their way into English. I have no doubt that it’s a difficult, even somewhat painful task to decide which writers should make their foray first to other audiences. As a Russophile, I don’t think I could make those decisions. As a result, I appreciate it when someone has made that choice wisely and artfully. Yuzefovich deals with philosophically interesting themes, but the unique structure and his “faction” bent certainly do make the novellas a pleasurable and worthwhile introduction.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.