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Maxim Gorky: Only time to train cannon fodder, not soldiers


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

Russian writers on war

Maxim Gorky: Selections on war


Maxim Gorky
From The Specter (1938)
Translated by Alexander Bakshy


The streets and squares of the city had long since been in use for drilling soldiers, and everywhere rang the command:


The command lingered in his memory from childhood, when, in the tranquillity of a provincial town, it had rung assured and imperious, although coming from a distance – from the field. Here in the city which commanded the forces of the enormous country, the life of a hundred and fifty million souls, this command sounded irritable, hopeless, sometime actually despondent and futile, like an appeal or a cry of despair.

Samghin, listening to the order, shook his head incredulously, and came to a stop. Before him, striding along the cobbled pavements of the street, he saw small men in faded uniforms, all of them ill-fitting. Many of the men were still in civilian clothes. They stepped out as if against their will, as if unable to believe that in order to go and kill they must stamp vigorously on the cobbled or wooden pavements.

“Left! Left!” admonished a tall soldier huskily. He had a cross on his chest, and stripes on his sleeves. He limped, supporting himself on a thick stick. The diverse faces of the little men in ranks were lined with the same expression of sullen boredom; their variously colored eyes were marked by an identical vacancy.

“‘Tion!” shouted at them officers wearied by ordering about a living, but sluggish, group of people who seemed to Samghin as crumpled and empty as deflated rubber balls. The humid, hillocky sky, shredded with clouds, hung over the ditches of the streets, over the squares. The withered sun, scattering murky light, expanded somewhere far behind the clouds.

“‘Tion!” commanded the officers.

The city was already waking and rattling. Men were removing the scaffolding from an unfinished house. A fire brigade was on its way back from work. The wet, crinkled firemen stared at the men who were being taught to walk on the earth shoulder to shoulder. From around a corner came an officer, riding on a pied horse. After him crawled small guns, cutting across the firemen’s path, rumbling metallically. Soldiers in steel helmets marched on. A small crowd of men variously costumed passed by, led by s black-bearded priest bearing an ikon, beside him a youth carrying a pole with the national flag across his shoulder, like a rifle.

Samghin stood on the sidewalk, smoking, aware that the whole business did not depress him so much as it embarrassed him – embarrassed and saddened him. The soldier with the cross and the stripes ordered, in a subdued voice,

“At ease – smoke – ”

Limping, thrusting his stick at the pavement, he crossed to the sidewalk and and sat down on the curb, where he pulled a newspaper from his pocket and hid his face behind it. Samghin observed that the soldier, as he glanced his way, wanted to salute but thought better of it.

“Training them?” he asked. The soldier, reluctantly, looking at him over the paper, replied in a low voice:

“Yes. Rough-hewing them. But you can’t make a soldier in a month – as you can see for yourself.”

Samghin walked on. After this when he saw soldiers drilling, he stopped for a few minutes to watch, and to listen to the comments of passers-by, to other watchers like himself. The remarks were sarcastic, angry, glum, sullen.

“Small-caliber men – ”

“The big ones, I suppose, have been destroyed.”

“Heroes like that won’t be able to thrash the Germans.”

And the women sighed:

“Oh, Lord, when will the end be?”

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