Presents a summary of:


by Boris Lavrenyov

Which was written only because it had to be written

Maryutka Basova was an orphan girl from a fishing village on the Volga near Astrakhan. From the age of seven on, she worked ripping open the slippery grey bellies of herring. When she was nineteen, she heard that the Red Guards were recruiting volunteers, so she went to sign up. At first they refused her, but she kept coming back day after day, so they finally let her in, on the same terms as the men.

She wound up in a detachment headed by Commissar Yevsukov, who wore a crimson red leather jacket. He was rotund, and the bandoliers formed an "X" across his chest. The effect was, he looked just like an Easter egg.

The main thing in Martyutka's life was her dreams. She was given to day-dreaming and to writing poetry. Whenever the detachment would enter a town, Maryutka would take her poems to the local newspaper. The editors, after a good laugh, would reject the poems. Maryutka took the rejection in stride, saying, "No good? No finish? I knew it. I chop them out of my heart like with an axe."

Maryutka was an excellent sharpshooter, the best in the detachment. In battle, Yevsukov kept her by his side and would point out enemy officers for her to shoot. She never missed. And she kept count of those she killed.

In February, in the Kara Kum desert of the Turkmen Republic, the detachment was surrounded by Cossacks. Over a hundred of the Reds fell, as did most of the camels. Managing to escape were only Yevsukov, 23 of his men, and Maryutka. The Cossacks don't bother to pursue them, reasonably assuming that the desert would finish them off.

Trudge across the:

Kara-Kum Desert
And if your hungry, hunt for the:
Animals of the Kara-Kum
In which a dark spot appears on the horizon and turns out to be, on closer inspection, Lieutenant of the Guards Govorukha-Otrok

The situation looks bleak for Yevsukov's detachment. That night, in the frozen, snowy desert, they gather around a campfire of saksaul wood and discuss what to do. Yevsukov decides they must march across the desert to the Aral Sea, and then around the sea to Kazalinsk, where the Reds have a headquarters. The men are dubious of their chances, noting they have very little food left...just some rice and flour. Yevsukov says that when the food runs out, they can start eating their six camels. One soldier impudently suggests that when the camels run out, they can turn to cannibalism. Yevsukov shuts him up, admitting that they might not make it, but the must try because, "It's revolution, comrades. It's for the workers of the world."

Everyone goes to sleep, except for Maryutka, who goes scouting around on a camel. Shortly before dawn she awakens Yevsukov with the news that she spotted a Kirghiz caravan nearby, with 40 camels. Quickly, the detachment catches up with the caravan and swoops down on it. They are met with rifle fire from some Whites, who are traveling with the caravan. Yevsukov sees a White officer in the caravan and points him out to Maryutka. She takes and and fires, fully expecting to have her forty-first victim. Perhaps her fingers were frozen, or perhaps she was trembling with excitement from running...whatever the reason, she missed. With all the other Whites already dead, the officer jumps up and surrenders.

Frustrated over her failure to kill the White officer, Maryutka hurls down her gun and bursts into tears.

The Kirghiz camel drivers beg Yevsukov not to take the camels. Without camels, they say, Kirghiz die. They offer Yevsukov any kind of money he wants...tsar money or Kerensky money. Yevsukov says the Reds are not stealing the camels, just borrowing the camels temporarily. He gives one of the Kirghiz a receipt, but the Kirghiz crumples it and throws it away.

Yevsukov then turns to the White officer, who arrogantly identifies himself as Lieutenant of the Guards Vadim Nikolaievich Govorukha-Otrok.

Concerning the inconvenience of traveling through the deserts of Central Asia without camels, with a reference to the sensation experienced by Columbus' sailors

They search Govorukha-Otrok and find papers identifying him as a representative of Admiral Kolchuk, supposed Supreme Ruler of Russia, to the Trans-Caspian state headed by General Deniken. Further, the papers say Govorukha-Otrok has a secret message to be conveyed orally. Gororukha-Otrok refuses to reveal this secret message.

I count it an honor to be taken captive by such a charming Amazon.
The men in the detachment are in favor of just shooting the White, but Yevsukov says they should take him to Kazalinsk. He puts Maryutka in charge of guarding him. She ties up the lieutenant with camel cord and wraps the other end around her waist.

Everyone sleeps deeply that night, including the sentinel, which was rather unfortunate. The Kirghiz took the opportunity to sneak into the camp and steal back all the camels. "That's revolutionary discipline for you," mocks the lieutenant.

The detachment trudges across the desert. One by one, the men succumb and die. Soon only eleven are left. Their clothes are in tatters, their fingers frozen. Maryutka could hardly drag one foot after the other. Men fall and beg to be left to die, but Yevshukov curses them, accusing them of deserting the Revolution.

Finally, one day, one of the men crawls to the top of the hill and shrieks, "Boys! The Aral Sea!" With he last strength, Yevsukov crawls to the top of the hill, scraping at the sand with his hooked fingers to see the blinding blueness. The Spanish sailors with Columbus had scraped at the deck of their ship in the same way on hearing the cry, "Land!"

"A deep blue, a velvety blue,
with the sparkle of sapphire."

The Aral Sea:
Info and Satellite Images

In which Maryutka holds her first conversation with the lieutenant, and the commissar fits out a naval expedition

Along the shore, the expedition comes upon a Kirghiz settlement. An old man greets then and reacts with horror and respect when he learns that Yevsukov and the others have just crossed the Kara-Kum. The Kirghiz feed them, and the men then fall immediately asleep. Only Maryutka and the White lieutenant remain awake.

Maryutka starts writing out some poetry. The lieutenant asks her to read it to him. Maryutka says he wouldn't understand--it's not rich man's poetry about flowers and love; it's about poor folk, about revolution. The lieutenant says he himself might not write about such things, but he still could undertand.

So Maryutka reads her poem. The lieutenant says it has a lot of expression and feeling in it, but still it's bad poetry, with no polish. Maryutka dreams of having a volume of her poetry published and asks him if he knows the secret of getting "polish". He says art has to be studied, just like engineering. She decides that after the fighting's over, she'll go study in a school that teaches how to write.

Before the lieutenant goes to sleep, Maryutka, for the first time, unties his hands, but not before making him swear "by the proletariat" that the won't try to escape.

Yevsukov finds an abandoned fishing boat, large enough for four persons. He decides to send Maryutka, the lieutenant, and two other soldiers---Semyanny and Vyakhir--across to the mouth of the Syr-Darya River and from there onto Kazalinsk, to turn over the prisoner and to inform headquarters about their plight. Before the group sets off, Yevsukov tells Maryutka to kill the lieutenant if they run afoul of any Whites.

Stolen from beginning to end from Daniel Defoe, except that Robinson has not long to wait for his Friday

The Aral is a dull sea, smooth as a mirror. It has only one beauty--the amazing blue of its waters. The largest island in the Aral is Barsa-Kelmes, which the Kirghiz say means, "Island of Death".

As the group sets sail, Maryutka unties the lieutenant's hands; after all, there's nowhere to ecsape here. He even takes his turn at the tiller. He used to have his own yacht in Petersburg. Maryutka comments on the astonishing blue of the sea, then is surprised as she notices that the lieutenant's eyes are just as blue.

A storm begins to blow, and they decide to head for Barsa-Kelmes. Waves wash over the sides of the boat, and the passengers are ankle-deep in water. Semyanny and Vyakhir start bailing. Even the lieutenant, after a moment's hesitation, joins in, bailing water with his Finnish fur cap. A roaring wave washes Semyanny and Vyakhir overboard. Instead of doing something useful like bailing, the lieutenant keeps crossing himself until Maryutka curses him, spurring him to action. They manage to make it to Barsa, pulling the boat ashore and saving the food and rifles. Maryutka stands on the shore calling for Semyanny and Vyakhir, but there is no answer. Maryutka sits down and cries like a woman. The lieutenant shrugs and says, "Robinson Crusoe and his good man Friday."

Recording the second conversation and explaining the harmful effects of sea bathing at a temperature of 2 degrees above freezing-point

Maryutka and the lieutenant stand freezing, with teeth chattering, on the shore. The lieutanant, when he was a schoolboy, read that fishermen build sheds on this island in the summer where they salt fish and sometimes store fish here through the winter. He says they should look for such a shed. The lieutenant also refers to Maryutka as "Friday". Thinking he is a little daft, Maryutka reminds him that it is Wednesday.

They find a shed, piled high with carp and sturgeon. Maryutka suggests that they burn some fish for light. The lieutenant thinks that's the most daft idea he's ever heard. But that just goes to show what a soft mama's-boy bourgeois he is. Using flint and wood chips they start a fire and, sure enough, the fish burn.

The lieutenant says they should dry their clothes. He suggests that Maryutka go first and he--out of delicacy--will wait outside. Mayutka laughs at his foolish bourgeois morality and orders that they both get naked.

The next morning, Mayutka discovers that their boat has been washed away, leaving them stranded. And more bad news: the lieutenant becomes feverish and delirious.

Which is baffling at the beginning, but beomces clear in the end

The delirous lieutenant lies ill for a week. He has a bizarre dream in which he sees a general who is half-man, half-cat. This strange general threatens to court-marshal the lieutenant because his intestines are showing. Finally, the fever breaks, and the lieutenant awakens to find Maryutka, with catlike eyes, tending to him. For a moment, the lieutenant doesn't know where he is, but then he remembers and says, "Oh, yes. Robinson and Friday." Confused, Maryutka says she doesn't know what day it is. The lieutenant says Robinson and Friday are from a story about a desert island that maybe he'll tell her someday.

The lieutenant wants a smoke. Maryutka give him some tobacco she found in Semyanny's pack. Looking for cigarette paper, she finally decides--against the lieutenant's protests--to rip up some of her poetry. For this sacrifice, the lieutenant is profoundly grateful.

For which no explanations are needed

Maryutka does all the work while the lieutenant lounges around, recooperating. One day, while exploring, Maryutka finds a relatively well-equipped fisherman's shanty. It has unbroken windows, a stove, dishes, sleeping bunks, and some moldy rice and flour. As they move to their new quarters, Maryutka, laden like a camel, carries everything. The lieutenant carries nothing.

They settle in to wait for spring, assuming that then some fishermen will show up to rescue them.

One evening, Maryutka asks the lieutenant to tell her the story about Robinson and Friday. They curl up together in the warmest corner and the lieutenant begins, "There was a rich man in the town of Liverpool...." Maryutka stops him right there, wanting to know why stories are always about rich folk, princes and princesses. The lieutenant doesn't have an answer for this. Maryutka says when she finally gets some learning, she'll write about the common, poor people.

The lieutenant continues the story. Maryutka listens with wrapt attention, nestling against his shoulder. After the end of the story, Maryutka makes the lieutenant promise to tell her a story every evening. Maryutka strokes the lieutenant's hair and sees a spark of tenderness in his wonderful blue eyes. She kisses him on the cheek.

Lieutenant of the Guards Govorukha-Otrok was to have been the forty-first on Maryutka's death list. He became the first in her list of joys.
In which it is proved that, although the heart defies all laws, one's being, after all, determines one's consciousness

Maryutka develops a tender yearning for the lieutenant and his blue eyes. She settles into a domestic routine. She cooks and cleans and keeps a lookout for sails. Gone now was is longing to be part of the world raging beyond the dark expanse of the water. Every night she nestles happily with the lieutenant, listening to his stories.

One day, the lieutenant launches into a grandiloquent speech, saying his previous life was claptrap. He wandered the globe, spent gobs of money, but still felt a great emptiness sucking at his vitals. But now he feels he's living his most meaningful days, merged with nature. Maryutka puts is more simply: "I'm happy here," she says.

The lieutenant says he wishes they could stay forever on this island. Maryutka smiles a little guiltily, and says she, however, must rejoin the Red Army. She can't sit back and enjoy herself when others are fighting and dying.

The lieutenant says he's sick of war and death. Before the war with Germany, he lived only for his books. But when the war came, because of the burden of a celebrated lineage, of family honor--something, he notes, Maryutka can never understand--he joined the amry. Then came the Revolution, and the lieutenant had hope for a better future. But the Reds disappointed him. All his time serving in the tsarist army, he never laid a hand on a soldier. But the Reds snatched the shoulder straps off his uniform and spat in his face. So he fought with the Whites, to defend his country and his honor.

But now the lieutenant feels that his country and the world is rotten and falling to pieces. It's stripped of its guts and dying. He doesn't want to soil his pretty white hands any more. Let others dig in the dung if they want. The lieutenant says, "I don't want justice. I want peace." He suggests that after they're rescued, he and Maryutka retire to his country retreat in the Caucasus. He'll just lie on his sofa reading books, ignoring the world. And Maryutka can finally study.

Maryutka is aghast. Never could she lie idly on a feather bed eating chocolates knowing every chocolate is bought with somebody else's blood. She mocks the lieuteant saying that while others are ploughing up the earth with their bare hands to make a new world, all he wants to do is keep indulge himself. She calls him a worm and spineless creature.

Offfended, the lieutenant calls Maryutka a coarse slut. Maryutka slaps him. The lieutenant hisses, "Lucky for you you're a woman. I hate you, you cheeky little hussy!"

In which Lieutenant Govorukha-Otrok hears the roar of the doomed planet, and the author dodges the responsibility of ending the story

For days, Maryutka and the lieutenant don't speak to each other. Weeks pass. Scurvy starts to set in. One day, Maryutka says if fishermen don't come soon, she'll kill herself. The lieutenant smirks and tells Maryutka to be patient--one day she'll be a big chief of a robber band. Maryutka tells the lieutenant to drop the subject. Sure she got mad at him, but she had good reason to--he, a no-good, had wormed his way into her heart. This sends the lieutenant off into peals of laughter.

The lieutenant also says that he now realizes that this is not the time to return to his books. He must bare his fangs and bite like a wolf, otherwise Maryutka and her Bolsheviks will ruin the earth.

Just then, they see a sail in the distance. They jump and shout for joy. As the boat approaches, they see that it is a vessle full of Whites. The lieutenant dances happily in the water, waving to the boat. Maryutka recalls Yevsukov's words, "If you run foul of the Whites, don't give him up alive." Maryutka raises her rifle and orders the lieutenant to get back. He ignores her, so she shoots. The deafening blast of the planet, shattered by fire and storm, the blast of the dying world, is the last sound the lieutenant ever heard.

Maryutka flings down her rifle and throws herself over the lieutenant's dead body. She cries, "Oh, what have I done? Look at me, sweet! Open your dear blue eyes!"


Return to: - 
One-stop shopping for all your Soviet Literature needs.

Address all correspondence to:

(c) 2012 All rights reserved.