Horsemen of the Sands

No, I have not suddenly developed an interest in modern Russian literature.

Review: Horsemen of the Sands, Leonid Yuzefovich, trans. Marian Schwartz, 2018.41GoWkUhEXL._SX421_BO1,204,203,200_

This anthology has but two stories.

“The Storm” is a rather pointless, meandering story that seems that takes place on one rainy October day. The main point of interest is Dmitry Petrovich Rodygin, a tedious man who shows up in the classroom of Nadezhda Stepanovna.

He’s there to teach the kids about “traffic safety rules” and what follows is a tedious afternoon discussing braking distances of cars (including faking some measurements after the students unexpectedly get an answer right) and upsetting a young girl whose dad was arrested recently for drunk driving. All the while, he’s congratulating himself on his skillful presentation which eventually veers off to discussing the merits of various national punishments for driving while drunk.

I suppose, given his ultimate fate and his being compared to a stuffed crocodile, we’re supposed to see him as a symbol of the Soviet man who is going to disappear in a couple of decades.

Much more amenable – and the reason I requested a review copy of the book from Amazon Vine – is the title story.

It’s a flashback story told by a Soviet army officer in the Trans-Baikal region in 1971. On maneuvers there, he runs across a Mongolian shepherd who he befriends and who gives him a magical charm worn by Baron Ungern-Sternberg, that apocalyptic White leader of the Yellow Faith in the Russian Civil War.

(Yuzefovich seems to be drawing on his own background with his protagonist, and he’s written a biography of Ungern-Sternberg called Autocrat of the Desert. It does not appear to have been translated into English.)

The shepherd, Boliji, tells about his unfortunate older brother crossing paths with Ungern-Sternberg when the latter took his Asiatic Division into Mongolia in 1921. In telling the story of that charm and by jumping back and forth between 1921 and 1971 with a substantial section featuring the Baron as a viewpoint character, Yuzefovich provides a pretty coherent of the Baron in his last days and his involvement with the Whites. That includes Mongolian religious beliefs and the Baron’s strange use of them.

It doesn’t all work. There’s a plot diversion involving a crooked academic that plays, near as I can see, no purpose, but that’s a small part of the novella.

There is even a more benevolent, less refractory version of a Rodygin-style Soviet man in the narrator’s commanding officer.

All in all, worth picking up if you’re interested in a fictional version of the Baron in the context of his actual life and not in some sort of fantastical setting.

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