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,

Moscow Burns, the French are Defeated, and the Lovers are Reunited
an excerpt from Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol

posted Sep 27, 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

For the third time that day, Baklanov saw the exhausted French face him from the redoubt. Is this glory, he wondered? Is this victory? A pile of mud surrounded by the corpses of men and animals, and all around the screams of the wounded and dying.

Mon fils!” Count C*** exclaimed, running to him and taking his arm. “General Kutuzov has ordered me to retreat!”

Baklanov could not understand why he would not rejoice at the order.

“But he has ordered you to stay in position!”

A man who has seen the death of thousands can see a few more.

“How can I leave you here?” the Count cried. “A family cannot be separated, even on a battlefield!”

“As long as we have an army, we are not defeated,” Mitya said. “You must go.”

The Count embraced him, then took his head in his hands and kissed him on both cheeks.

“You are the bravest man in Russia. When your order to retreat comes, do not hesitate.  Natalia’s happiness and my own depend upon you.”

Her name, just one word, brought hot tears like the rain that soaks the field after a great battle.

Courage,” the Count said and returned to his regiment.

Colonel Baklanov and Hetman Yakov watched the last living Russian regiment form ranks, do an about face and march back up the slope, opening the Moscow Road to the invaders. But there was no one left to advance. As the guns sputtered silent and the Russians withdrew, a great moan arose from the field, as if the earth itself were sighing. Tens of thousands of wounded and dying cried for water, for their mothers, even for death, as they choked on the stinking air. Mitya removed his spectacles so he could not see their agony.

As the sky turned black before him, Baklanov ordered his regiment to fix bayonets and hold their place. This time the French turned a few of the guns left in the redoubt and fired, but the shot passed through Baklanov’s infantry without a ripple. Marksmen were called forward, only to see their shots streak harmlessly through the tightly packed ranks. Baklanov heard his ghosts gasp as the bullets streaked through them. They were waiting to see if he had the courage to die with them this time. Then the wind came up, and as the cannons quieted, thunder crashed over the road to Moscow.

The rain came quickly, washing the bodies and soaking the earth with their blood.  While other Russian regiments trudged away through the mud, Baklanov stood with his men. Lightening rippled over the redoubt, and he saw the French, too, were retreating. So exhausted they could hardly stand, the French infantry were picking their way through mounds of corpses back down the hill. Finally a courier brought him orders to form the rearguard. Yakov found him a horse, and he led his regiment onto the Moscow Road. Behind them half of each army lay dead or wounded. If only the romantic hero, dark and brooding had died there with them, we might never have to suffer like that again. Mitya Baklanov, too, would never read another novel.

The hundred eighteen versts to Moscow were the longest march he had ever made. Indecision and exhaustion as much as death kept the two armies apart. When the five golden domes of the Uspensky Cathedral finally appeared over the walls of the Kremlin, even the ghosts wept, because they knew they must abandon them to an enemy more destructive than the Tartars.

A week after the battle, surrounded by his glitterati, Napoleon trotted up the Hill of Greeting for his first view of Moscow.

“It is not a capital,” the great man intoned. “It is a cemetery.”

His entourage saw gray walls topped by golden domes and remembered Pere église in Paris. The Emperor’s secretary scribbled Bonaparte's epitaph for the Russian Empire in his notebook, while others fortunate enough to hear it savored it for their memoirs.

“Who will they send to welcome us?” Marshal Ney inquired, picking up the metaphor. “Their morticians?”

Horses shifted as the generals laughed, looking forward to their first good dinner in months.

Unlike Vienna, Berlin and Rome, however, no living delegation emerged from the silent city to greet their new master. Still enjoying the effect of his remark, the pretender opened his telescope to scan the empty road.

“Damn them!” he cried, snapping it shut.

Immediately a dozen staff officers raised their telescopes. The gate had opened, and a Russian colonel and a Cossack with a red banner trotted out to face the invaders. Behind them, visible only to those anointed by the devil, stood the ghost regiment. Finally Marshal Ney asked for the honor of leading his corps into the capital.

“I will not enter as a petitioner!” Napoleon snapped. “We will wait until they receive me as their Emperor.”

For the rest of the day, the Grande Armée waited before gates defended by one officer and one Cossack.

Hours later, when the domes of the Uspensky Cathedral glowed pink in the afternoon sun, the gate opened again and a mounted messenger galloped up to the Russian officer.

“A sally?” Ney cried in disbelief.

All along the French ranks, officers called their men to order.

Through their telescopes, the French watched Baklanov draw his sword and salute them, then turn back into the city, followed by the Cossack.

“One man has stopped an army,” Murat spat in disgust.

“Not a man,” Ney replied, scanning the road with his glass, where the last of Baklanov’s bloody specters were marching into the city.

Napoleon waited until the road was clear to order his vanguard forward.

Baklanov had never seen a city so silent. Like people under quarantine, Moscow awaited the outbreak of the pestilence. In the distance French drums and pipes sounded the bright, proud march of the conqueror. Tonight they would bivouac in the second Constantinople, stable their horses in the churches, and defile the very air with their breath.

“We can’t give up the city,” a sergeant behind him said.

“Silence in the ranks!” Baklanov cried.

“Regiment, halt,” another voice commanded.

Dmitri felt cold breath on his back and turned. The regiment’s dead Colonel stood at the head of the column. Seeing the young man’s surprise, the Colonel touched his hat with his left hand.

“I will be reassuming command, Colonel Baklanov,” he said, with the same emphasis as he used to say “Ensign”.

“Colonel,” Dmitri saluted him. “In all these nights, I have never seen you.”

“You would have had to die with us to know where I have been,” the Colonel replied.

His right arm dangled from his shoulder, but the Colonel smiled as warmly at his newest subaltern as when they first met.

“We have just one more service. They promised me that if we perform this well, we will all enter heaven the day the French leave Moscow.”

The Colonel touched his hat again.

“You have handled them well, Dmitri. For a beginner.”

Baklanov returned the salute. The Colonel ordered his bugler to play officers call, and the grisly shades gathered around him. Baklanov joined them for the last time to hear the Colonel assign their duties.

“And as for you, Dmitri Sergeyevich, there’s something about you the French don’t like. Form the rear guard with your Cossack but take care. You must be out of the city by nightfall. Anyone left behind will be changed into a demon.”

Baklanov stepped out of the magic circle and signaled the Cossack to join him.

“Post!” the Colonel cried, and the shades broke ranks and disappeared among the houses.

A moment later, Baklanov smelled smoke.

“This is our purgatory,” the Colonel called from the door of a burning house. “One last night march and we are free!”

Quicker than the sparks in the air, the spirits spread the fire. Hovels, palaces, shops, stables, the ancient timber cracked as the sharp flames leapt up. Residents who had stayed behind, hoping for mercy or for loot, staggered into the narrow streets gasping for breath. Terrified, screaming, disoriented by the conflagration, they ran in all directions through the burning streets. When a man in a pointed fur cap tried to jump on Baklanov’s horse, Yakov kicked him away. In a flaming inn Mitya glimpsed three seminarians laden with icons and goblets, raising a vodka toast. Then the floor collapsed, and they disappeared howling in a cloud of crackling sparks and flames.

Mitya’s horse reared away from the flames, turning again and again to escape the circling conflagration. Everywhere he looked was an inferno. Like Natalia at the ball, he was caught in a fiery gavotte of death.

Hetman Yakov turned his horse into Baklanov’s and grabbed the bridle to hold the panicked animal still.

“Cover his eyes with your tunic!” he cried.

The Cossack had already tied his coat over his horse’s eyes. While Yakov held the animal steady, Baklanov threw his tunic over the horse’s eyes. Still holding the bridle, the Cossack led Baklanov’s horse around a collapsed town house to a road out of the city to the East.

As Baklanov and Hetman Yakov felt their way through the burning city, the ghosts flew with the smoke alongside them, igniting houses and shops and churches. The most modern buildings with beautifully painted stucco facades collapsed like glaciers touching the ocean, sending clouds of sparks and debris and dust spiraling over the rubble. Worst of all was the smell of ancient rotten timber mixed with the lung-stopping stucco dust. Covering his mouth, Baklanov urged the horse through a smell worse than the stench of the seventy thousand corpses of Borodino.

A firm East wind blew the foul smoke into the faces of the French. Instead of cheers, the crash of collapsing houses welcomed them to Moscow. Instead of the aroma of scented candles and fine wines, they gagged on the stench of centuries old wood and corpses. Like demons in a dream, the Colonel and the Cossack receded before them into the fire, taunting them to follow as the city was engulfed. For the last time Baklanov glimpsed his old Colonel dancing on the roof of a four-story house, torch in his hand. Then the stucco front cracked, and he slid down the cascading rubble like a boy sliding over a waterfall. 

That night Napoleon walked the empty halls of the Imperial Palace in the Kremlin. Instead of filling him with elation, the Russian bear’s claustrophobic lair oppressed him, as it had all the Tsars and conquerors before him.  Like a man lost in a cave, he wandered under Ivan the Terrible’s blue gothic ceiling adorned with yellow stars, because the world outside was too terrible to face.

If I do not get out of this place, he thought, I shall go mad.

“Find me a door!” he cried to his orderly. “Let me see the farthest stars of my Empire!”

Pages and orderlies scrambled to find a door and threw it open, only to fall back choking. The thick greasy smoke of all the violated centuries swirled into the mad Tsar’s blue cage.

Gagging, Napoleon covered his mouth with his handkerchief and lurched out onto the battlements. Far below flames rolled against the Kremlin walls.  Like embers in a furnace, the skeleton of the cremated city glowed and hissed beneath him. To the East a blackened throng of refugees was streaming away from the city, preferring to starve in the countryside than serve him in their ruined city.

“These barbarians are not worthy of me,” he muttered to himself.

“You spoke?” a page cried.

“Give me my glass,” he ordered.

The page placed his spyglass in his outstretched hand. Something among the refugees had caught the great man’s attention. Like Satan searching for an angel at the edge of hell, he scanned the road to Ekaterinaburg. Sure enough, the Russian Colonel and his Cossack were sitting on their horses just off the road, looking back at the burning city. This time, however, the ghosts were not lined up behind them. Napoleon dropped his arm, and the page took the glass. The great man’s gaze fell again on the glowing city. Like workers in a charcoal furnace, the ghosts had stayed to stoke the flames scorching the Kremlin’s walls. Bonaparte covered his eyes.

“I have opened the gates of hell and seen devils dancing on the rooftops,” he muttered to himself.

Something rustled behind him. Eager to save every word, his secretary had followed him onto the battlement with his notebook.

“Give me that!” he screamed, snatching the notebook and hurling it over the parapet.

Hundreds of versts away, Father Vassily read the destruction of the city in the flaming evening sky and climbed the ancient tower. Through his tears he saw Vassily Ivanevich galloping across a cloud chasing a French cuirassier.

Will they still be fighting in heaven, he wondered?

Then he saw the ghost regiment in perfect ranks marching up a sun slit in the clouds. To the pipes of the wind off the steppe, they marched eagerly, like soldiers returning from a long campaign to their homes and families. Not looking back they disappeared into the sunset with the lasts wisps of the clouds. Then the old priest understood that Moscow could fall and the devil could haunt the Kremlin, but Russia and her Church would endure.

Three months later, the man who demanded gourmet meals for himself on the battlefield led his starving army out of the city. The few who survived the horrible winter march said the cold was so hard it formed ranks around them until Kutuzov’s cavalry cracked through the glacier to cut them down. Only those who had come near Baklanov’s ghosts understood.

In early October, before the winter struck, Marshal Kutuzov had sent Baklanov and Count C*** with the B*** regiment to escort Vassily Ivanevich’s body home. Both Dmitri and Vassily now wore a second Cross of St. George, one on his tunic, the other on his casket. When the Count’s ancient regiment tottered into the District Town just ahead of the first snow storm, the populace went wild. I cannot describe the banquet at the Governor’s palace, when champagne flowed more freely than the spring floods, and broken crystal brighter than diamonds sprinkled the ballroom floor. The only ones not to join in the cheers and the weeping were Mitya and Natalia. Holding hands they sat together in a corner, trying to read the future in each other’s eyes.

Everyone in the district turned out for Vassily Ivanevich’s funeral at St. Vladimir’s, crossing themselves and bowing until the odor of the candles and the chanting overwhelmed them. Still Father Nikolai went on, as if Vassily could not enter heaven unless every saint was invoked by name. Finally the only mourners left were Prince Ivan, Baklanov and Natalia, and Count and Countess C***. Dmitri had taken off his glasses so the angels and devils that fought over the dead at funerals would not distract him from the woman beside him. When he put them on again, he could see in her eyes that she had been watching his thoughts.

Before Baklanov left the army outside Moscow, Marshal Kutuzov promised him another regiment. All through Epiphany, while Natalia and the Countess planned the wedding, Dmitri lived in dread of a troika arriving with orders to the front. The Tsar and Marshal Kutuzov disagreed over many matters of military strategy, but they agreed that a man who had commanded the dead should not command the living. Some critics whispered, however, that on the eve of his victory, the Emperor did not want to be followed by those ghostly reminders of his two great defeats. So when the troika with the Imperial crest finally appeared during Pentecost, it brought a third Cross of St. George for Colonel Baklanov, this time without a citation, and a Cross for Count C***. Protocol dictated that no aristocrat wear a lesser decoration than that worn by an officer marrying into his family.

Neither Mitya nor Natalia ever solved the mystery of his third Cross. The troika had arrived three months after their wedding, and they were so excited about what to name the baby that the courier departed unquestioned.