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Veniamin Kaverin: A dream of war

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

Russian writers on war

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Veniamin Kaverin
From Two Captains
Translated by Bernard Isaacs

Pencil in hand, he began figuring out the mineral resources of the Kola Peninsula. Now here I was on my own ground. But the nocturnal visitor counted all these peaceful minerals as “strategic raw material” needed in the event of war, and mentally I started arguing with him, convinced as I was that there would be no war.

“I assure you,” the man said, “that Captain Tartarinov understood perfectly well that at the back of every Arctic expedition there must be some military purpose.”

“Of course he did,” I mentally retorted in that queer state of drowsiness when you can think and speak, which is the same as not speaking and not thinking. “But there won’t be any war!”

“It is high time we set up defensive bases all along the route of our convoys. I’d like to see a good long-range battery on Novaya Zemlya, say….”

He went on talking and talking, and all of a sudden, from this quiet hotel room where I lay curled up in an armchair and where Sanya had just covered the lamp with the end of the tablecloth to keep the light out of my eyes, I was transported to some strange town half-destroyed by fire. Here, too, it was quiet, but with a tense, deathly hush. Everyone was waiting for something to happen, talking in whispers, and one had to go down into a basement, groping for the damp walls in the dark. I didn’t go. I was standing on the front steps of a dark, empty wooden house with the clear mysterious sky stretching above me….

Sitting curled up in the armchair, pretending to be asleep, lazily examining through half-lowered eyelids our unexpected nocturnal visitor with his ardent manner, his childlike burring speech and that amusing Cossack’s forelock of his, I was glad that my dream had been only a dream, that the whole thing was just nonsense which you could dismiss from your mind.

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Here lay men who had been wounded in the face. Just as I arrived they brought in a young man who had had his face blown away by a mine.

In nursing these men – I realized this in my second or third day there – one had to keep reassuring them, as it were, that it didn’t matter, that there was nothing to worry about if a scar remained, that they must grin and bear it and hardly anything would be noticeable. But how was one to deal with that hidden, unspoken fear lurking behind every word, that horror with which a man gets his first glimpse of his own disfigured face, that endless standing in front of a mirror on the eve of discharge, those pathetic attempts to look smart, spruce themselves up?

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“Killed in action in defence of the country,” a message that was coming to hundreds and thousands of our women. At first she would not grasp it, her heart would refuse to accept it, then it would start fluttering like a captive bird. There was no escape from it, nowhere you could hide away from it. The grief was yours – receive it!

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