Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the Navy in Vietnam. He practiced law as a litigation partner with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati, Ohio, defending psychiatric malpractice cases and litigating business cases. In June 2010 he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal Retirement Homes. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award for “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser”, a story that appeared in Issue 37 of Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award winning collection of short stories in December 2009. For more information, please visit his website,

The District of B***
an excerpt from Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol

posted Jul 19, 2011

Read more of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol:
The District of B*** | The Lovers Meet | Jealousy | Separation | The Battle | Moscow Burns, the French are Defeated, and the Lovers are Reunited

The District of B*** resembles other districts so closely that visitors are never sure they are in B*** or somewhere else. As with much of our Russian landscape, the country is flat with a few low hills that merge into heat waves in the distance. Often these hills are illusory, receding like swells on a faraway sea and finally disappearing altogether. Scattered across the plains, trees that had escaped the serfs’ axes huddled together like survivors of a Tartar raid. A few forests surrounded manor houses or served as private preserves.

One winter in the middle years of the Empress Catherine’s reign, a delegation from the District Court rode out to present a petition to old Count C***. Mistaking his hunting preserve for the forest around his manor, they disappeared into the woods. When the snow finally thawed, they were found nearly perfectly preserved, but their petition had melted into yellow pulp clutched in a corpse’s hand. The petition had a greater affect on the Count than if he had been able to read it.

The most unusual natural feature is the river, which curves like a scythe through the District Town. On one side is the Governor’s palace, the District Court and officials’ homes; on the other the merchants’ shops and houses, and the cottages of a few emancipated serfs. The river separated village society like a chasm. When the river froze in the winter, the two sides were joined, but in winter it was too cold to fraternize. The only other way across was the old wooden bridge beside the Church of St. Vladimir erected, it was said, by the same giants who had built the Church.

When the ice broke up in spring, the river gushed through the village like a mountain torrent. In summer it slowed, turning a deep stagnant green and breeding millions of lacy insects to sting cattle and careless children. By late summer the river receded into a deep crevasse, only visible to someone looking straight down from the bridge at noon. Some people glimpsed sunlight reflected on an underground stream; others saw devils chasing the damned over steaming rocks; still others reported strange writing on the walls of a subterranean palace. Then the fall rains began, displacing summer’s visions with fears the river would flood before the winter freeze.

Like everything else in the District, the river was accepted as an unchanging presence beyond ordinary human understanding. During the Empress’ Catherine’s reign, young Count Anton C***’s German tutor discerned that the river flowed a different direction in the spring than in the fall. No one else had ever noticed the phenomenon; when the German tried to compare notes or share his observations, no one could agree which way the river flowed at any time. Even correspondents in Leipzig and Berlin were helpless before this mystery, though one recalled a river in Brazil said to exhibit the same phenomenon. Perhaps, the German speculated, the river was a huge ditch, filling and draining with the seasons.

To test his hypothesis, the tutor tried to discover the origin of the river and its end. Again he was the first to ever ask such questions. After long thought, old Count C*** recalled he had heard the origin was the Carpathian Mountains and the terminus the Don. Father Nikolai, priest for three generations, had once met a wandering monk, who said the river arose somewhere in the Caucasus and emptied into the Dnieper. Hetman Yakov, the last of the Cossacks to remember decapitating a Turk, had followed the river in one direction or another for weeks or months in his youth, until a party of Polish merchants distracted him and his colleagues from their researches. Shortly after this conversation, the German requested leave to return to his homeland to deal with a disputed inheritance. The Prussians were threatening our Polish lands, so the old Count complied to avoid the stigma of harboring a foreigner during a national crisis.

The location of the District was equally obscure. Some thought Moscow was to the North and West, others to the South and East. Everyone knew St. Petersburg stood in a frozen swamp on the shore of an icebound sea, but only the Countess Evgenia Nikolaevna C*** had ever been there, and her stories were less substantial than the northern lights. Constantinople and Kiev were on opposite sides of a river in a far away province, and Sevastopol lay across a great ocean that took generations to cross. Of the outside world, even less was known. Poland was a wasteland where the winter winds expired, and Sweden the devil’s resting place. In France it was said the men drank perfume and curtsied in the streets; in Germany they printed books in illegible type so that God fearing people had to hire tutors to read them.

Given their concept of geography, inhabitants seldom ventured outside the District. When Dmitri Sergeyevich Baklanov departed to accept a commission in an infantry regiment, the two aunts who had raised him sent Hetman Yakov along with strict instructions to bring him back alive or dead. Not only was their dear dead brother’s son leaving the District, but his eyesight was so poor he could barely find his way through the village by himself. In Russia, however, blindness has never hampered a military career. With black hair, fine features and the appearance of reticent innocence, Dmitri would have been the darling of Countess Evgenia’s balls, if his aunts could have afforded to send him.

In contrast to the soldiers, the nobility found it almost impossible to leave. A year after Ensign Baklanov’s departure, Countess Evgenia C*** decided to take her daughter Natalia Antonova to St. Petersburg to wait upon the Emperor Alexander and converse in French about the latest fashions. Like Dmitri Baklanov, Natalia had striking black eyes and features created to express great longing. Unlike most of her peers, however, she preferred fresh air to sitting swathed in damask in the manor and spent countless hours walking with her father in his preserve.

Count Anton C***, now middle aged, opposed his wife’s venture. The last member of his household to depart had been his German tutor thirty years earlier. The Countess, however, was insistent, so with great dignity Count C*** escorted the Countess and Natalia to the carriage. With four horses, three maids, two coachmen, one postilion and a Cossack escort, the Countess and her daughter set off. As a parting gift the Count gave his wife a proclamation to every post house she might encounter, commanding them to provide fresh horses or face a terrible judgment. So off they all galloped through the forest around the manor and past the Count’s hunting preserve.

No one knows what route they followed. For days travelers and huntsmen brought tales of a four-horse carriage surrounded by howling Cossacks, galloping wildly across the steppe. Soon everyone was whispering that the Don Cassocks had risen. The serfs rushed to bury their foodstuffs and the aristocracy their jewelry. That rumor was dispelled when the carriage passed so close to Prince Ivan H***’s window that he recognized the Countess reading quietly beside Natalia. The aristocracy raced to their rooftops and the peasants to the bell towers. All they could see was a pillar of dust moving slowly across the horizon.

With each sighting, the horses ran faster. In lots of four, the strongest horses were taken to the post houses to be broken by just one relay. Suddenly, as if the phantom carriage had reached a critical velocity and broken free of the earth, the sightings ceased.

To Father Nikolai’s dismay, however, the District was not completely separated from the world. While Natalia Antonova was learning to read, novels about isolated young men haunted by dark passions penetrated polite society. Instead of devoting themselves to the lives of the saints, girls locked themselves in their rooms and read of unrequited love until their eyes burned. To discover their attraction to the girls, young men read the same novels, and soon every man under thirty exhibited a sad and distant expression that suggested unspeakable sorrows. Then the novelists’ dark hero came to life, and even the District of B*** trembled.

From the wreckage of French royalty emerged a man in a military cape brooding over landscapes covered with fresh corpses, regretting only the battle’s end. Ideas more intoxicating than vodka swept across Europe under the dread tricolor. One day they were in Vienna, the next Madrid and Berlin, and no one could separate reality from rumor. Still everyone knew B*** was safe, hidden in the unmapped interior of an empire ten times vaster than the usurper’s wildest hallucination. If he ever dared approach, incantation and ritual would break his evil spell, and the Grande Armée would dissolve into smoke.

In such exciting times, society revolved around three patriotic events: the muster of the militia in the spring, the marshaling of the nobility on Prince Ivan H***’s estate in the summer, and Countess Evgenia C***’s ball on her saint’s day the week after Epiphany. Each ceremony served a unique purpose. Muster provided soldiers for the army and conversation for the gentry. Bitterly complaining how much they needed their souls on their estates, landowners brought their weakest men to the meadow behind the Governor’s palace. Aristocrats and retired officers watched the spectacle from their horses and carriages. If the District’s quota was not filled, the Governor would send out a squad of Cossacks to round up stragglers.

To his aunts’ delight, Ensign Baklanov returned to escort the new levy to his regiment. He was almost unrecognizable in his dark green uniform and air of newly found self-confidence.

“Is that Dmitri Sergeyevich?” a retired post captain exclaimed incredulously.

From her parents’ landau, Natalia Antonova looked up and closed her novel. Dmitri caught her glance, and the sun flashed off his face.

“What’s he wearing over his eyes?” she cried.

“Spectacles,” replied her father, who recognized them from a German newspaper.

Dmitri’s deep brown eyes now saw every detail, and instead of boyish confusion, he exuded command. With a wave he sent Hetman Yakov trotting along the swaying ranks to bring the new soldiers into line, then took off his cap and bowed to the onlookers. Natalia was the first to stand up and applaud. To her dismay, however, her father signaled the coachman to drive to the Governor’s Palace for the reception before they could speak

The moments trapped in the reception line with her parents were the longest in Natalia’s life. At the far end of the room, retired officers debating the tactics of past wars surrounded Ensign Baklanov. After just one glass of champagne, however, he presented himself to the Governor and requested permission to depart with his conscripts.

“Cannot we tempt you to spend just one evening with us?” the Governor asked.

“My Colonel ordered me to rejoin the regiment immediately,” Baklanov replied, glancing at Natalia.

Clustered around the Governor, the astonished aristocracy witnessed the first time in memory that an officer had put the army ahead of society.

“At least allow me to introduce you to those who will pray for your safe return,” the Governor continued graciously.

Baklanov bowed, and the Governor presented him to the nobility in order of rank, beginning with the Count and Countess C***. Natalia froze. As in a dream Baklanov bowed and touched her hand, searching her eyes for some sign of welcome. When she did not speak, did not even breathe, his expectant face fell, and he passed to the next person. At the end of the greatest agony of her life, Natalia saw him looking over the crowd at her from the door. He put on his cap, saluted, and disappeared. At that moment she felt a greater agony than any novelist had ever conceived.

In the meadow parents and relatives believed their sons were in good hands. As they marched off, bundles on their shoulders, everyone waved and applauded as if they were going to help a neighboring landowner with the harvest for a few days. Baklanov rode at the head of the swaying column like a schoolmaster leading his charges on a holiday, while Hetman Yakov rode behind like an usher to keep anyone from falling too far behind. Father Nikolai’s principal bass, who sent three sons that year, prayed loudly and hopefully for their safe return.

Marshaling the nobility fulfilled the aristocrats’ need to feel part of Greater Russia and parade the martial virtues of their ancestors. While the Prince posed dramatically in his enormous ballroom, majors and staff captains arched their eyebrows at titular councilors and collegiate secretaries and an occasional seminarian. Beside the Prince stood his son Vassily Ivanevich, too young for a uniform but old enough to watch hopefully for some slight that would provoke a duel.

Vassily resembled his father as much as any of the young people on the estate, except for one feature. After a lifetime of leaning back to take snuff and snort disdain, Prince Ivan’s pink eyes had regressed into slits. Vassily’s eyes were wide and curved like a scimitar at the edges. Old women whispered that the wet nurse had confused the young prince with a Tartar foundling born the same night. When she returned him from a far wing of the mansion where both mothers had given birth, there was no one to question the sallow skinned heir. The Prince’s wife had died in childbirth. In character, however, Vassily Ivanevich was indistinguishable from the Prince.

As for Countess Evgenia’s ball, I must describe it like a viewer at a dumb show, for the French of my St. Petersburg tutor is not the French of the District of B***. While ladies circled the floor in the styles of the courts they had once attended, the gentlemen paraded in ancient uniforms. Costumes from Tsar Peter’s reign mingled with those of Catherine and Paul, as in a folio of fashion history. Champagne enlivened the dance, and feet seldom out of stirrups or house slippers attempted intricate steps that had defied Versailles.

Before the men could drift away to brandy and billiards, the Countess presented select young ladies to gentlemen whom she somehow fathomed were ready to assume their ancient duty to marry. She did not, however, present the youngest and most beautiful of them all, her daughter Natalia. With an expression of amazed innocence accented by her auburn hair and a laugh that could arouse even Prince Ivan from his torpor, she watched the dance from behind a phalanx of mothers and grandmothers. Sweeping by with one of the older girls, Vassily Ivanevich caught her eye. She blushed so deeply he missed a step and tumbled into old Princess Olga D***’s lap.  The dancers halted, the musicians held their bows, and the most beautiful laugh anyone had ever heard soared over the frozen floor.

“The gavotte is a dance, not a steeplechase,” the Princess rebuked him.

Vassily Ivanevich did not hear her. He did not see the startled faces of the dancers or the servants rushing to attend the Princess. All he saw were two laughing eyes and a smile that stunned his heart.

The Countess watched him scramble to his feet and rush after Natalia. Still laughing her daughter darted away, while the old ladies detained Vassily with concern about his fall. From years in society, the Countess knew he could not be held back long. That was the evening she told the Count she was taking Natalia to St. Petersburg.

They reached the capital too late: Alexander had already departed for the war. The Emperor and his army disappeared as quickly as a summer shower to be replaced by rumors. And what glorious rumors!  More splendid in his white uniform than an icon in sunlight, the Tsar was leading his sacred army to the West. Shamed by his example, the Emperor of Austria called out his legions and offered them to Alexander to pen the raging demon Bonaparte in his lair. Long days passed, then weeks, filled with almost unbearable anticipation. The atheist French could never stand against armies anointed by both the Patriarch of Moscow and the Pope. At the sight of their banners and icons, Napoleon would be seized by such trembling that he would not even be able to utter the command to retreat

In the quiet of the evening after vespers and every morning before the bells rang for matins, everyone in the District listened for the far away bells that would signal the great victory. Faster than any horseman, faster even than the wind, church bells would ring across Poland through Russia to Moscow, then reverberate to the ends of the Empire, where the bells of St. Vladimir’s would clang until the bell tower swayed. Serfs set aside vodka and aristocrats champagne to celebrate the glorious victory to come.

Read the next installment of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol