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Alexei Tolstoy: The one incontestable result was dead bodies


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war


Alexei Tolstoy
From The Sisters (1921)
Translated by Ivy and Tatiana Litvinova

Arriving at the battle zone, the thunder of which could be heard miles away, the carts and troops seemed to be swallowed up. Here all that was living and human came to a standstill. A place in the earth, in a trench, was assigned to each – a place in which to sleep, to eat, to kill lice, a place from which to shoot into the fine mist of rain till the senses reeled.

At night the whole horizon gradually reddened with the high crimson glow of conflagrations; the chains traced across the sky by rockets, and punctuated by fiery sparks, ended in a burst of stars; shells flew up in a crescendo of wails, to explode in columns of fire, smoke, and dust.

Here fear gnawed at the vitals, made the skin creep, the fingers clench and unclench. Towards midnight the signal would be given. Officers would come running up, their faces convulsed, and the soldiers, puffy from sleep and damp, would be aroused with oaths, shouts and blows. And men ran out over the field, stumbling, swearing, and howling like wild beasts, now flinging themselves down, now leaping up, and at last – deafened, maddened, half-stunned by terror and rage – throwing themselves into the enemy’s trenches.

Afterwards, nobody could ever remember what had happened in these trenches. When it was desired to boast of heroic feats – to explain how a bayonet had been thrust, how a head had cracked beneath the butt end of a rifle, there was nothing for it but to lie. The one incontestable result of these attacks was dead bodies.

Another day dawned, and the field kitchens moved up. The soldiers, weary and half-frozen, ate and smoked. After this they talked smut and women, here, too, lying freely. A brief spell in which to hunt for lice, and then to sleep. They slept for days on end in that naked spot of thunder and death, befouled by excrement and blood.


“Here I am in the trenches, a few hundred paces from the enemy. What’s to prevent me climbing over the breastwork, going into the enemy trench, killing anyone I think fit to kill there, stealing money, blankets, coffee, and tobacco? If I were quite sure they wouldn’t start firing at me, or that, if they did, they wouldn’t hit me, then of course I’d go ahead and kill and steal. And they’d put my portrait in the newspapers, as a hero. All, apparently, quite clear and logical. And now that I’m not in the trenches, but in “Château Cabernet,” a couple of miles from Anapa, what’s to prevent me going to the town at night, breaking into Muraveichik’s jewelry store, and helping myself to precious stones and gold? If Muraveichik gets in the way I can stick a knife into him, just here, with the utmost ease.” He pointed firmly to his own throat. “How is it I haven’t done this so far? Again – simply because I’m afraid. Arrest, trial, execution. I’m being perfectly logical, I hope. The problem of murdering and robbing the enemy has been solved by the State, that is to say according to morals laid down by the authorities – I mean the legal code – in an affirmative sense. Consequently, the problem narrows down to whom I consider my enemy.”

“I tell you – mobilization has been a brilliant success in all countries, and the war has been going on for nearly three years despite the protests of the Pope, simply because every one of us, each individual, has outgrown the diaper stage. We want murder and robbery, or if we don’t exactly want them, we have no real objection to them. Murder and robbery are organized by the State. Fools and milksops still go on calling murder, murder and robbery, robbery…The tiger takes what he wants. Aren’t I superior to the tiger? Who dares to limit my rights? The legal code? The worms have eaten it.”

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