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,

an excerpt from Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol

posted Sep 6, 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

Will there ever be another June like that, when invaders more ravenous than the Sacred Horde poured into Poland? It was high summer; the grain should have been waving in the fields and vegetables ripening in every serf’s garden. Instead of green grass, however, the tricolor legions marched across ashes. Our souls had stripped the fields and set fire to the stubble. So the revolutionaries sent out squadrons with freshly printed tracts to introduce our illiterate serfs to liberty. For our souls, however, a soot-streaked icon was far more precious than the Rights of Man. Instead of escaping the bondage of the Romanovs, they rushed to support it with their most valuable possession, their sons.

At first contemptuous, then angry, then frightened, the Grand Armée gathered around their ovens at night for warmth, even when there was no flour to bake bread. Then there was no wood for the ovens. Cursing the Cossack patrols on the horizon, the French plunged deeper into our Russian vastness, driven by honor, anger, and increasing desperation. If only they could bring us to battle, the war would be over. Like a mirage on the desert horizon, however, our army fell back before them over the endless low hills toward the East.

The anguish of the invaders, however, was nothing compared to the agony of our soldiers. In a series of forced marches across half of Russia, Dmitri led his phantom soldiers to meet the enemy. Exhausted, half-starved themselves, the Colonel and Hetman Yakov knew the Russians could only fight once. At last they smelled the wall of fire separating the two armies, and then glimpsed the tricolor flags dancing like the banners of the damned above the flames. Behind them like an approaching storm, the ghosts of their regiment howled, eager for battle. No sooner had they seen the enemy, however, than the order came to retreat. So the ravenous French, eager for the battle that would liberate them from this monstrous campaign, saw only a single officer and a Cossack on horseback. Mirages, they thought, like all the others that floated over the burning steppe.

At night Baklanov and Yakov had only the food the fleeing serfs offered and nothing but water to drink. They dared not light a fire for fear of drawing a French patrol, and the cold breath of their dead soldiers froze the air around them. If they looked to the East, there was only the black, starry darkness of the Russian night. To the West the red glow from the burning fields lit the sky like a false dawn, quenching the stars in the bitter smoke. They were in the saddle long before French trumpets awakened the Grand Armée to another day’s march into hell.

Day after day Baklanov’s regiment marched east, herding displaced serfs and landowners before them. Who would not flee when the devil himself reached for them through walls of fire, ghosts surrounded them, and the decisive moment was postponed again and again? So our army continued to retreat behind a line of burning fields and villages that stretched three hundred versts, and the invaders advanced through ashes. Terrifying rumors spread that we would retreat far beyond Moscow to Ekaterinaburg and rebuild the Holy City on the edge of Siberia.

When word came that Smolensk had fallen, the Governor of the District of B*** ordered his Cossacks out on patrol. They found terrified peasants choking the roads with stories of fiends in blue and white dancing in the flames.

“The devils are coming!” the Governor cried and sent out messengers to recall all the retired officers and discharged soldiers to the colors.

Every man who could still walk or ride responded. In B*** there were always more retired officers and discharged soldiers than those on active duty. So the aged, the lame and the mad, wearing uniforms that stretched back three generations, formed into ranks in the same meadow where Baklanov had once marshaled his conscripts. Instead of pride in their patriotism, however, an argument erupted among the nobility that threatened the very existence of the newly formed regiment: who would assume command?

An elderly general, who had been with Tsar Peter at the siege of Azov, demanded the honor. One of the Empress Catherine’s favorites, who had fired volleys at Frederick the Great at the Battle of Zorndorf, claimed his knowledge of modern tactics qualified him alone. Brigadiers and invalids from the Turkish wars argued that their courage or their wounds made them the only choice. In Russia, however, military experience rarely overcomes rank in society.

When Count Anton C*** entered Governor’s palace, stomping the mud off his riding boots, the Governor saw the only solution that would spare the regiment from destroying itself before it ever faced the French. So that very afternoon, with only one toast to the Tsar and without banquet and further good-byes, the District of B*** saw its third regiment march off on the Moscow Road under the command of Count Anton C***.

Did I say the Moscow Road? In whist, or love, or battle, there are moments the world stands still. Seconds stretch into hours, and every movement is perceived as the first and last the world will ever know. When Napoleon invaded Russia, we had months of such moments. So as Count C*** marched his ancient regiment out of the District Town along the river, the road to Moscow suddenly appeared as fixed and certain as any other road. So it is with passages to hell.

The Countess was hysterical. First her daughter’s lover had left for the front, then her own husband. Dressing herself entirely in black, she called for the carriage, vowing not to leave St. Vladimir’s until the war was over and the Count and the Colonel had returned safely or been buried with full honors. Natalia realized that her last tie to the earth was about to be broken. Suddenly she saw herself old, without husband or father, and her role with her mother reversed. Instead of the Countess restraining her daughter’s passions with reason and common sense, the daughter would have to restrain her mother from following her husband into death.

The Countess, however, would not be restrained. A woman who had galloped with the wind in a magic carriage would go wherever passion pointed her. For unknown to her daughter, she had secretly read all Natalia’s novels and developed her own passion for dramatic deeds. What could be more attractive to the Russian mind than making vows of a cloistered life on the eve of a great battle? No mere novelist had ever ascended to such a dramatic height.

Natalia could never have dissuaded her, if the chance of war had not intervened. She was kneeling beside the carriage, begging her mother to stay, when Count C***’s cousin arrived from Smolensk with his family and house servants and everything he owned piled onto his carriages and wagons. The refugees brought news that set the bells ringing: the Tsar had replaced General Barclay de Tolly in command of the army with Prince Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov. Now the French would see how we Russians could fight. The Countess climbed out of her carriage and changed from black into her brightest silk gown. She would fulfill her vow by dispensing largess in her own mansion to her own people.

Far more than the Countess’ own people arrived that night, moving through the woods in the twilight, then with torches as the fall sun set. Hundreds of serfs, merchants, German tradesmen, civil servants, tutors and their families, and priests streamed onto the dark green lawn around the manor as if they were entering paradise. The Countess permitted the serfs to gather dead wood from her husband’s groves for the first time in seven generations. Soon campfires were lit where it had been a flogging offense for a soul to step. Cooks who had prepared delicacies for the aristocratic survivors of Smolensk stayed up until midnight cooking porridge and carrying it out to the refugees in huge wooden bowls.

Natalia was the only one in the District who did not go to sleep that night praying for a great battle. While two of her younger second cousins were getting ready for bed in her room, she slipped outside. As anonymous as any refugee, she walked among the campfires watching mothers trying to make their children comfortable on the ground or in a wagon. The men stood together with their pipes, talking about the years it would take to rebuild the city, and where they could graze their animals, and whether the Tsar would rout the French before winter. Sometimes they looked at the mansion looming over them with yellow candles burning in every window, and wondered why God had favored them with such patrons.

Natalia’s eyes filled with tears; was there enough grain in all the storehouses of Russia to keep her people alive through the coming winter? Then she heard a balalaika and children laughing. Stepping over the traces of a wagon, she saw a peasant boy playing while his little sisters and brothers laughed, and his mother dished porridge into their bowls. A cook from the manor recognized Natalia and started to speak, but she raised her hand for silence.

“Would you like some?” the peasant woman offered a bowl to Natalia.

“No thank you,” she said. “I’ll just stand her for a moment and listen to the children.”

Natalia returned to her room with the music tinkling in the darkness behind her, knowing that the world was not going to end. She laughed like a child herself as she tucked her little cousins into her bed.

That night, with the country in flames, the army in retreat, and the dispossessed begging for shelter, the modern age was born in Russia in the soul of Natalia Antonova. For neither Voltaire, nor Rousseau, nor Diderot could turn us from prayer books in Cyrillic script to political theory. If we ever went mad with ideas, we would be intoxicated on liquor we fermented ourselves from some foreign mash. Russia might be doomed to countless invasions and catastrophes, but no foreign army would ever hold her. Ideas and armies that shook the world may linger awhile like dust over a distant caravan, but eventually they would drift away and be forgotten. We could not stop these things from occurring, Natalia understood, but we would always survive them. The vast Russian night, the campfires and the music and the murmuring voices, they would endure.

So Father Nikolai had to wait alone in St. Vladimir’s for news of the great battle. How many more funeral masses could the old priest endure? Rome had fallen, Constantinople had fallen, Moscow alone endured. If Moscow fell the dome of every church in Russia would collapse, and the Church itself would die. Shaking, he uncovered the icon of the Mother of God that was only exposed on Epiphany and Easter. Surely she would intervene to save the faith from extinction.

Kneeling before the icon, he could not tell if the tears he saw were hers or his. What did it mean when God sent such confusing signs? Alarmed, he mounted the steps to the tower. There were no ghosts in the evening clouds, no angels floating heavenward in the last evening rays. All he could see was the August sun sinking into a fiery bed on the horizon, a bed that did not die when the sun disappeared. Father Vladimir crossed himself and fell to his knees weeping. He had his sign. The fires of hell were spilling over the steppe; the French would take Moscow.

Approaching Borodino from the West on the Old Smolensk Road like countless travelers before him, Dmitri Baklanov was tired and bored, hoping for something to break the endless rolling hills spotted with clumps of birch and pine. Along this bare soil, rutted by caissons and cannons, Colonel Baklanov and his Cossack led their spectral regiment.

Several miles to the North lay the New Smolensk Road, preferred by merchants eager to escape the risk of protection from a passing regiment. The New Road had been broken in the time of the Empress Catherine when she sent an army that way to quell the upstart Prussians. Their boots had torn up the plain, and only in the late summer and fall, before the winter rains began, was the New Road truly passable.

For the last two days the army had gradually slowed its eastward march, as if exhaustion had finally overcome it. The road was so clogged with infantry and cavalry and artillery that hardly anything was moving. Baklanov called a halt to water his horse at the Kolocha Stream just south of the Old Road. He was leading his horse back to the road when a party of staff officers, glorious in bright ribbons and braid, galloped along the line, shouting for the officers to assemble for orders. Trumpets called over the rumbling wagons, and thousands of men felt a stab of fear and relief in their chests. In hurried conclaves generals and colonels and majors gathered to receive their orders and search the landscape for their designated positions. Men in the ranks waited while the officers pointed and argued, until the countryside was transformed into a camp for eighty thousand men. General Kutuzov had finally chosen his position. The army would stretch itself like a human barrier across the New and Old Smolensk Roads. The hated French would never follow the Kolocha Stream to water their horses in the Moscow River

Only Baklanov was without orders. By early evening the Old Road was empty. Dmitri and Hetman Yakov watched the Moscow Militia, outfitted in the dress of every trade from tanner to parfumer, dig fortifications north of the road. Without picks and shovels, they threw themselves at the earth with knives and bayonets and hatchets, and carried the dirt in their arms. Slowly a huge mud V appeared pointing down the slope toward the Kolcha. Then a lone staff officer rode up.

“Thank God I’ve found you!” he cried. “Take your regiment there, above the redoubt, and wait. General Kutuzov is sending reinforcements.”

He turned his horse to the East.

“Whatever you do, don’t retreat. Stand until you die!”

He galloped back down the Old Road to Moscow. Baklanov called to his troops and formed them into line. In the evening when the fires are lighted and ghosts are most visible, their gray outlines stood out against the deepening sky. The men in the great redoubt cheered as it appeared that still another regiment was taking its place above them. Had they wondered why there was only one campfire for a thousand men, or had they been close enough to feel the chill as their silent comrades passed, the citizen soldiers of Moscow might have read their presence as an awful omen of what awaited them the next day.

From above the redoubt, the plain was like a great city speckled with cooking fires, ready to slip into sleep on a crisp fall night. Only a dark band a few hundred yards across separated the French from our soldiers. But it was a city without women, without children, without the parents of its citizens. In the morning this city would turn like a hydra and lunge at itself across the dark space to devour its inhabitants. For only on the night before a battle are two armies brothers in their fear and hope for the dawn.

On the eve of his second great battle, Dmitri Baklanov felt a sorrow as touching as love as he looked over the darkening fields. How many lovers would be forever separated, how many families shattered by what the morning would bring? Now there was just one more night, perhaps his last, to contemplate the woman he had once touched and the life he might never lead. How could mere ghosts stop the polyglot army that had ravaged Europe and lumbered halfway across the continent to storm the last bastion of hope?

Below him artillerymen were grunting and beating their horses to drag the guns into their mud fort. Like a giant arrowhead clawed in the earth, it pointed at the French lines. Like many of our Russian formations, however, the symbolism of the design outweighed its utility. Hetman Yakov remarked that the guns could fire at the sides but not at the front.

“That’s why they’ve stationed us here,” Baklanov said to encourage him.

“And look!” the Cossack cried. “Here’s another regiment.”

Silhouetted against the stars, a regiment dressed as oddly as the Moscow Militia marched up the slope. Generals and colonels barked orders at squads, and majors and captains filled the ranks. Some sported steel helmets, some shakos, some tricorn hats. A company of pikemen was followed by a company armed with arquebuses. At the head of the column, unperturbed by the oaths and arguments of his officers, rode the only man in Russia who could command such a formation.

“It’s Count C***!” Yakov exclaimed.

Dmitri ran to the Count and saluted.

“Baklanov!” cried the Count, climbing down from his horse. “We shall be brothers in the line!”

They embraced like father and son.

“And now, mon fils, you must help me get these men into position,” the Count said. “The sun will be upon us too quickly.”

For the first time in his military career, Colonel Baklanov gave real orders to real soldiers, endured the objections and complaints of the officers, and thought seriously about how close the French would have to be for their ancient weapons to reach them. Before the French infantry advanced, however, would come a cannonade that would drown out the bells of Moscow. Only ghosts could survive such a shelling, or the artillerymen digging their guns into the mud.

“Dig!” Baklanov suddenly cried, violating every Russian military principle. “Dig trenches! Dig firing pits! Dig down to hell before you stop!”

“Dig?” cried the outraged colonels and generals from B***.

The only Russians to dig in the face of an enemy were serfs burying grain and landowners hiding silver. For an aristocrat or an officer to dig was to bury their very honor, to claim kinship with the Moscow shopkeepers and teamsters.

“Dig!” the hero of Austerlitz repeated. “Dig for your lives! Dig for the Tsar! Dig for Russia!”

No one but Baklanov could give an order like that to our forces, and only a regiment like the District of B***’s irregulars would have obeyed it. Exhausted, enraged, insulted, in other words enjoying the highest morale, the regiment dug itself in on the slope above the great redoubt. By the time Count C***’s tent was pitched and a champagne supper served, he had the honor of commanding the only properly situated regiment at Borodino.

Read the next installment of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol