Home > Uncategorized > Nikolai Gogol: The dove not seeing the hawk. War in the Ukraine

Nikolai Gogol: The dove not seeing the hawk. War in the Ukraine

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

Russian writers on war

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Nikolai Gogol
From Taras Bulba (1834-1842)
Translated by Angus Roxburgh

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But the future is inscrutable: it spreads out before man like an autumn mist rising out of a marsh; birds fly madly up and down therein, scoring it with their wings, not recognizing each other – the dove not seeing the hawk, nor the hawk the dove, and neither knowing how far he flies from his ruin.

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All around arose the snore of the slumbering army, answered from afar by the neighing of their stallions, indignant at having their feet hobbled. In time the splendid July night gained ominous magnificence from the glow of fires still burning in the distance. At one point a flame spread calmly and majestically across the heavens; at another, encountering something combustible, the flame would burst into a whirlwind, hiss and shoot upward to the very stars, dying away in tatters high in the firmament. Over there, the black, burnt-out monastery stood menacingly like a stern Carthusian monk, displaying its sullen majesty at every new flare. Nearby its orchard was in flames; one could almost hear the trees hissing in the twisting smoke, and when the fire leapt up, its phosphorescent, lilac light illumined the ripe-hanging plums and turned the yellow pears into pure gold; and in their midst the bodies of poor Jews and monks, consumed by fire together with the building, hung black from the walls and from the boughs of the trees. High above the conflagration hovered a flock of birds, like tiny crosses against the fiery background. The beleaguered town appeared to be asleep. Its spires and roofs, its stockade and walls silently flickered in the light of the distant fire.

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The square seemed dead, but Andrii thought he heard a faint moan and, looking around him, saw two or three people across the square, lying almost motionless on the ground. As he screwed up his eyes to see whether they were sleeping or dead, he stumbled across something lying at his feet; it was the lifeless body of a woman, evidently a Jewess. She seemed young, though her distorted, haggard features belied this. On her head was a red silk scarf and two rows of pearls or beads embellished her ear-caps, from under which a few long ringlets curled out and lay across her wizened, veiny neck. By her side lay a child, clutching her flaccid breast and twisting it involuntarily in his fingers, in fury at having found it milkless; he had stopped crying and screaming, and only his gently rising and falling stomach showed that he had not quite drawn his last breath.

They turned into a street and were suddenly stopped by some madman who pounced on Andrii like a tiger when he espied his precious bundle, and clung to him, crying, “Bread!” But his strength was no match for his madness and he flew to the ground when Andrii tried to fend him off. Moved by compassion, Andrii threw him a loaf of bread, which he seized like a mad dog, tearing it and gnawing at it, and right there on the street he expired in terrible convulsions; for too long he had been deprived of sustenance. At almost every step they were shocked by the terrible sight of the victims of starvation. It was as though many had not been able to withstand the torment in their homes and had run outdoors in the hope of finding something in the air to revive their strength. One old woman was sitting at the door of her house, and it was impossible to tell whether she had fallen asleep, died, or merely sunk into oblivion; whatever the case, she was sitting quite still, her head on her breast, unhearing and unseeing. From the roof of another house, a shrivelled body hung limply from a noose; some wretched wight could not endure the pain of hunger and had judged it better to expedite his demise by suicide.

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[M]any were the nobles…who had equipped themselves either with their own ducats, or from the royal coffers, or with money obtained from Jews on the security of all that could be found in their castles…Sometimes they had not enough to buy a drink, but they all spruced themselves for the war.

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Red rivers were running everywhere, bridged by the corpses of Cossacks and their foes. Taras glanced upwards and saw a string of vultures stretched across the sky. Ay, someone would gain from it all!

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They were a product of that coarse and violent age, when man still lived a bloody life of martial exploits, hardening his soul thus, and never knowing humaneness. In vain did a few exceptional men try to oppose these terrible measures.

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