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Mikhail Bubennov

1. Joyful and beautiful bloom the wild flowers, vibrant with color, in the Kama Valley in the summer of 1918. Then come the Whites, trampling the flowers as they raid and plunder. Following the Whites along the Kama River is a barge with a gallows on its bow. Wherever it docks, it leaves behind the bodies of the executed, who wash up on the shores of the river.

2. The death barge docks near the mouth of the Kama River, where it takes on numerous prisoners, including one named Mikhail Cheremkhov. From the village of Yelovka, Mikhail had been conscripted by the Whites not long ago and was serving along the Volga. White scouts captured a Bolshevik sailor and Mikhail had been instructed to escort the prisoner back to headquarters. Instead, Mikhail freed the Bolshevik and deserted.

Mikhail is brought before the death barge's Lieutenant Bologov, who is arranging flowers on his desk. Bologov demands to know why Mikhail let the Bolshevik go. Mikhail says he that as he was escorting the sailor, the sailor began singing in the most beautiful voice. It wasn't long before Mikhail and the sailor were walking arm-in-arm and singing together. Then, all of a sudden, the sailor called Mikhail a fool and dashed off into the forest. Mikhail just decided not to shoot or pursue him.

Bologov, weak by nature, enjoyed destroying cocky, strapping sorts like Mikhail. Bologov orders a pock-marked soldier named Serga Myata to flog Mikhail. Myata is reluctant to do the deed, and at first whips Mikhail only lightly. However, under Bologov's insistent gaze, Myata begins whipping faster and harder. Mikhail, who has never been whipped before, does not cry out in pain, feeling more the sting of injured pride than the sting of the whip. When the beating is over, Mikhail snarls unbowed and unrepentant at Bologov.

For the weak whipping, Bologov orders Myata to be placed under arrest for 24 hours without bread.

3. There are over 200 prisoners in the hold of the barge--Russians, Tartars, and Chuvash. There are were many prisoners from Mikhail's village of Yelovka.

Yemelyan Pugachev Leader of the peasant rebellion of 1773-74. Claiming to be the murdered Peter III, he announced the abolition of serfdom. With his army, he overran the middle and lower Volga districts and the Ural region and took Kazan and several fortresses, threatening the throne of Catherine the Great, who was waging war on the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, Pugachev was betrayed, taken to Moscow, and beheaded.
From The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition Copyright ©1994, 1995 Columbia University Press.
Yelovka has a long history of rebellion. Its people rose up to help Yemelyan Pugachev in the 18th century; they had frequently rebelled in the famine years as well as in 1905. In the autumn of 1917, they seized the landlord's estate, shared out the land and property, and were one of the first villages to form a Soviet.

Most of the Yelovka prisoners had already been executed. Only two now remained--Stepan Dolin, the old and sickly chairman of the Soviet, and Natasha Glukharyova, a young war widow who had been a member of the Soviet.

4. Mikhail, who has passed out from the flogging, is tossed into the hold. After reviving him, the other prisoners learn that he is from Yelovka, so they take him over to Dolin and Natasha. Upon seeing Natasha, he hurls himself at her feet and, with boundless rage, claws at the planks with his fingernails.

5. In Yelovka, Mikhail had been a wild, hot-tempered, but loveable lad. Natasha was a sad, listless war widow. For over a year she lived alone in her cottage, seemingly apart from the world. When the village Soviet was formed and Natasha made a member, she seemed reinvigorated, bustling around busily.

Natasha caught Mikhail's eye, and he sought out ways to meet and talk with her. But he could never figure out how she felt about him. Sometimes she acted happy to see him; other times, she angrily pushed him away, saying she never wanted to see him agaqin.

One day, Natasha gave Mikhail a tobacco pouch as a present. Overjoyed, Mikhail grabbed Natasha and kissed her. But Natasha's mood quickly changed and she pushed him away.

Undeterred, Mikhail sent a matchmaker to Natasha, but she rudely rejected the proposal.

Enraged, Mikhail went on a drunken spree, smashing the windows of the local fortuneteller as revenge for misleading him about Natasha. He considered tarring Natasha's gate, but thought better of it and didn't.

Then the Whites captured Yelovka and started conscripting young men. Mikhail was completely apolitical and didn't care about what government was in charge of things. However, going off to fight somewhere did not mesh with his plans. He feared that in his absence someone might woo away Natasha. He considered chopping off his finger to avoid military service, but he couldnt persuade anyone to do it for him.

Late one night, Natasha was awakened by village elder Komlev and two soldiers along with Mikhail's father, Vasili. (Vasili, by the way, was opposed to Mikhail's interest in Natasha.) They were searching for Mikhail, who neglected to report for military duty. They searched the cottage, but found nothing. After they left, Mikhail dropped down from a hiding place, startling Natasha. Natasha hugged him and said she loves him, but that she hasn't completely forgotten her first husband yet.

Vasili, Komlev and the soldiers returned and nabbed Mikhail. Natasha grabbed one of the soldiers, calling him filthy scum. The soldier took Natasha by the hair and flung her to the ground. She was arrested at once and sent to the death barge.

6. Ivan Belsky, one of the prisoners, is a Bolshevik and a man of regular habits, even on the death barge. Every morning he washes his face, combs his hair, and polishes his boots. Known and respected by all the prisoners, Belsky spent much time bucking up the others' spirits. He himself was constantly worrying, trying to figure out a way that he and the others could escape.

White soldiers come down and call out names of those to be executed. They call Belsky's name. He starts up the stairs but then stops and laughs at the soldiers, saying that they killed Belsky a few days ago. The soldiers mutter in confusion, then shrug their shoulders and scratch the name "Belsky" off their list.

Unfortunately, on deck, another prisoner tries Belsky's rouse. The makes the Whites suspicious. Bologov suspends executions while they take a roll call of all the prisoners. At the end of the roll, only Belsky stands alone, not having been called. He says his name is Chugunov. Bologov believes him and writes down the name, assuming that it had just been left off earlier in error.

7. The barge sails on and stops near the village of Shurany. Bologov requisitions three carts of new hay and tosses it down in the hold. At first the prisoners are happy, and they arrange new soft beds for themselves. But then the hay--fresh cut and smelling of the fields--makes the prisoners think of freedom. A Tartar prisoner named Shangarei sings a song about the beauty of the fields, freedom, and the desire to live. All the prisoners become sad and more fearful of death.

8. A tug is pulling the death barge along the river. Bologov sees an old fisherman in a rowboat and orders him to come over. The old man is Vasili Cheremkhov, Mikhail Cheremkhov's father. Bologov sees that Vasili has caught a large sturgeon, Bologov takes the fish away from Vasili, including the rope it's tied on. The soldiers gather around and admire the sturgeon. Bologov orders that it be cooked for dinner.

Bologov notes that the corpses on the gallows are beginning to stink. He orders them to be cut down and some new prisoners executed. When informed that they are out of rope, Bologov says they'll hang the next victim with the rope on the sturgeon.

Some soldiers, including Serga Myata, cut down the dead bodies and toss them in the river. Myata is secretly bitter.

9. Mikhail is chosen for execution. He kisses Natasha, who then hurls herself on the straw, sobbing. Mikhail takes off his shirt and boots, gives them to Shangarei, and goes up onto the deck.

Bologov stands on a stool, tying the noose. Proud of his work as hangman, Bologov takes his time carefully tying the knot, then greasing it with soap. When finished, he tauntingly sticks his own head in the noose and winks at Mikhail.

With a frenzied kick, Mikhail knocks the stool out from underneath Bologov and leaps into the river. As Bologov dangles from end of the noose, the White soldiers run around in confusion, trying to cut down Bologov and shooting at Mikhail. Mikkhail manages to hide behind a tree trunk that is floating in the river.

10. Vasili has a fisherman's shelter on the right bank of the Kama. He goes there and fumes over Bologov's theft of his sturgeon.

Vasili had worked hard all his life and built up a successful little holding of his own. After the Revolution, he dreamed of a quiet and peaceful life. He approved of the Soviets...until he was called on to deliver some of his grain to the town. Vasili hid his grain, but it was found and confiscated. Vasili was insulted, and felt furious at the Bolsheviks. He consulted with Komlev, his well-to-do neighbor, who was sympathetic.
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Khleb-Sol by Irina Tolstikova
Bread and Salt
Russian symbol of hospitality
Image: "Khleb-Sol" by Irina Tolstikova

When the Whites came to Yelovka, Vasili and Komlev met them with bread and salt. But soon they realized that they had miscalculated. The Whites returned the estate to the landlord and forced the peasants to pay all their tax arrears for the past few years. Then they started requisitioning grain and cattle and everything they could lay their hands on. And they conscripted all the young men.

At his fisherman's shack, Vasili lights a fire and makes some soup. He then sees a half-naked man climb out of the river. It is Mikhail.

Vasili apologizes to Mikhail for turning him over to the Whites. Mikhail, in a fury, overturns the pot of soup and hurls Vasili into the bushes.

Happiness is like a fox; it deceives everybody.
Mikhail has a smoke and calms down. He sadly remembers Natasha, then asks his father how things are going in the village. Vasili says the situation is bad. "The people are groaning under this cursed government. They live like fish under the ice."

Vasili says he knows of a place near the Black Gully where some of the village lads are hiding and fighting as partisans. By sunrise, Mikhail is at the Black Gully.

11. Recovering from his near-hanging, Bologov recalls the many defiant and courageous souls he's hung. He begins to have doubts about the ultimate success of the White cause.

12. Belsky tries to calm Natasha, who, choked with grief over Mikhail's apparent death, is raving.

13. At first, Shangarei is thrilled to have Mikhail's boots. He had never owned a pair of leather boots before. But then he becomes melancholy as he realizes that he probably only had a few days to wear them before his death.

The death barge docks near Smylovka. In the morning, two prisoners are given the opportunity to step up on deck to get buckets of water. It is a much sought-after duty, since it affords a rare opportunity to see the sky and the river. It is Belsky's turn to go, but he gives up his place to Shangarei, who very much wants to go.

14. Filling a bucket with water on the deck of the barge, Shagarei sees that bad weather is approaching, and he feels even worse. He puts down his bucket and turns to Bologov. He begs for mercy, asking Bologov to let him return to his wife and seven children. Bologov is thunderstruck. No one has every asked for mercy before.

Bologov considers the request, then says he'll let Shagarei go if he kisses his boot. Now it's Shangarei's turn to be thunderstruck. He loathes the Whites, but he very much wants to return home. So, slowly Shangarei bends down, inclining his lips to Bologov's boot. But then, at the last second, Shangarei stops himself and says he will not kiss the boot. In a rage, Bologov kicks Shangarei in the teeth, then keeps kicking him savagely across the deck. After Shangarei is unconscious, Bologov orders the soldiers to "finish him off."

15. A motorboat approaches the barge, and White Captain Arnold Yurievich Nei comes on board. After Bologov makes his report, he and Nei have a conversation. Bologov confesses that he is worried about the way things are going. He wants to know why the people he executes behave so bravely and defiantly. Nei says it is because they know--or at least feel--why they are dying.

Nei asserts that the Whites have blundered irreparably. They ought to have deceived the people, done things with a lot less bloodshed. Bologov says that Nei is a Utopian, that that peaceful way of doing things is impossible. Nei retorts, "then our victory is impossible, too."

According to Nei, things are going badly on the Volga. The Reds might capture Kazan. When Bologov says that will never happen, Nei counters that too many Whites look at events through rose-tinted glasses. Nei goes on to say that the Soviets are excellently armed--not with weapons, but with faith in their ideal.

Nei passes on orders that Bologov is to go up the Belaya river to the estuary, where he is to take on another group of captured Bolsheviks. Bologov asks what he should do with the 200 prisoners he already has. Nei leaves that up to Bologov's discretion. Bologov pledges that none of the prisoners will make it to the estuary.

That night, after Nei departs, 20 prisoners are shot.

16. Vasili is on the shore, getting fish out of a weir. Nei and three soldiers ride up in their motorboat. Unarmed, they approach Vasili and, in a very friendly and polite manner, ask for some fish. Vasili readily obliges, helping them pick out the best ones. Vasili then shows them the proper way to cook fish soup. The meal is delicious. As darkness falls and the wind shifts, Vasili volunteers to get some water for tea and to make sure that the motorboat is secure.

For the first time he had sacrificed his interests for the sake of a great new cause, And that filled him with pride and a vague sense of joy.
After tea and some pleasant good-byes, Nei and the soldiers get in their boat and sail off. Vasili laughs, pleased with himself because he stole the guns from the boat--a pistol, three rifles, and ammunition. Nei and the soldiers soon discover their loss and head back for the shore. But Vasili shoots at them. The boat turns around and high-tails it out of there.

Vasili sets off for the Black Gulley, proud of himself because, for the first time in his life, he sacrificed his own interests for the sake of a great cause.

17. In the Black Gulley, Mikhail has joined a small partisan group made up of two lads from Yelovka (Smolov and Kamyshlov) and two others from a neighboring village (Vorontsov and Zmeikin). They know they are a small unit and that their strength is weak. So they live like beavers in a burrow, stubbornly waiting for the situation to change, for the Red Army to arrive.

Mikhail chafes under the idleness. It is dificult for him to retrain the restless forces rising in him. Moreover, thoughts of Natasha give him no peace. He tells Smolov that he'd like to smash the world and rearrange the whole Earth himself. He also keeps suggesting that they attack the death barge.

18. Vasili shows up in the Black Gulley and hands over the stolen guns. The partisans are delighted. They decide to accept Mikhail's suggestion and attack the death barge. They will follow it in Vasili's fishing boat and board it at night when it is at anchor, take the sentries by surprise, and release the prisoners.

19. At one of the barge stops, the White soldiers go ashore and return with all sorts of plunder: geese, fish, apples, mushroom, and some home-brew. Getting tipsy, the soldiers have a gay old time, singing and laughing. Only Myata doesn't join in the merry-making. He sulks alone.

In the hold, Dolin, coughing and spitting up blood calls Belsky over to him. Dolin says that he's sure to die in a day or two and asks Belsky to honor his dying wish. Belsky tries to comfort Dolin, telling him to hang on.

While Belsky had been on deck getting water earlier that day, Myata had slipped him a hunk of bread. Belsky gets the bread and gives it to Dolin. Happily surprised to see the bread, Dolin takes a few bites, but then starts coughing up blood again. He's a goner, he thinks, so he gives the bread to another prisoner, a partisan named Samartsev. Samartsev nibbles on the bread, but then decides that he's still relatively strong and it would be better to hand it to someone weaker. And so this hunk of bread gets passed from hand to hand in the hold. Everyone figures that his neighbor is in greater need of succour than himself. In the end, the bread winds back up in Belsky's hands.

The barge drops anchor. The Whites call out various prisoners who are taken on deck where they are hung or shot. They call the name "Chugunov" (Belsky's new pseudonym). Belsky starts to get up, but Dolin, using his last reserves of strength, shoves Belsky aside and steps forward to take his place. Belsky protests, but Dolin orders him to be quiet in the name of the Party.

On deck, Dolin and Myata are surprised to see one another; they are distant relatives. "Killing your own folk?", Dolin asks pointedly. Hurriedly, Myata tells Bologov that this isn't Chugunov. For this attempted deception, Bologov slaps Dolin, who loses his balance and falls into the river, where he drowns. Bologov orders that the real "Chugunov" be dragged out and shot immediately.

Belsky has a plan. An armed soldier comes to the hatch and calls out for "Chugunov". Belsky, pretending to be ill, weakly starts to crawl up the steps on all fours. Annoyed, the soldier bends down to pull Belsky to his feet. Belsky takes the opportunity to drag the soldier down the stairs and grab his rifle. Belsky flourishes the rifle and threatens to shoot the next soldier who tries to come down. The soldiers slam the hatch shut. Bologov says he'll starve the prisoners to death

20. Because he's the only one still sober, Myata is put on sentry duty. A thick fog enshrouds the barge. Myata is haunted by Dolin's last words, "Killing your own folk?" He steps to the edge of the barge and jumps off.

21. It is past midnight and everyone is asleep on the barge. Mikhail, Vasili, and the other partisans silently let the current carry their rowboat up to the barge. Mikhail climbs up on deck, expecting to encounter the sentry...but there is none. Mikhail uses a fire axe to try and pry the padlock off the hatch. But the Whites' scraggly dog wakes up and starts barking. This awakens everyone else. Zmeikin, who's supposed to be guarding the soldiers' cabin, loses his nerve and slides back into the rowboat. The soldiers pour out of their cabin and trip up Smolov. Mistaking each other for partisans, the Whites start pummeling each other, which allows Smolov to make it back to the rowboat.

Mikhail and a White roll around the deck, fighting and muttering imprecations. Finally, they roll off deck and into the water. Afraid to shoot one of their own, the Whites don't fire. Mikhail swims around, lost in the fog, desparately trying to find his comrades. His leg begins to cramp.

22. Vasili and the others manage to find Mikhail and drag him, exhausted, into the rowboat. They go ashore a small island and fall asleep.

In the morning, they see numerous steamers and barges full of Whites sailing by. But they don't see the death barge.

While gathering firewood, they come upon Myata. Mikhail's first impulse is to shoot Myata. But he restrains himself and asks about Natasha. When Myata reassures him that Natasha is alive, Mikhail calms down somewhat. Myata apologizes for flogging Mikhail and begs for Mikhail to kill him or at least flog him in return. Mikhail refuses.

Myata asks if he can stay with the partisans, and they agree.

23. When Mikhail learns from Myata about Bologov's plan to starve the rebellious prisoners to death, he is enraged. He convinces the others that they should sail downstream in search of the death barge.

24. Captain Nei comes aboard the barge again. He tells Bologov that all the steamers and barges moving on the river are Whites retreating with their tails between their legs from Kazan. The Reds, proving themselves to be strong and intelligent soldiers, smashed the Whites in Kazan.

Bologov refuses to believe that the situation is irreparable. Nei says the only hope for the Whites is to withdraw behind the Urals and spend the winter resupplying and reorganizing. Before departing, Nei tells Bologov that the river is a dangerous place and counsels the lieutenant to abandon the barge if he gets in trouble. Bologov pledges that he will never do that.

The tug captain wants to continue on to Bogorodsk, because they are in desperate need of oil. But since Bogorodsk is now in the hands of the Reds, Bologov orders they they turn around and head upstream, following the fleeing Whites. The death barge and tug are the last White ships moving on the Kama.

25. A swift-moving gunboat moves up alongside the partisans in their fishing boat. The partisans are ordered aboard and brought to the commander, who is wearing the uniform of a White lieutenant. Realizing that there is no point in lying, Smolov proudly announces that they are Bolsheviks. The lieutenant is about to say something when he notices Mikhail. He rushes up to Mikhail and hugs him. Mikhail recognizes him as the Bolshevik sailor he let escape at the beginning of this whole escapade. His name is Zhilov

It turns out that this is a Bolshevik gunboat doing reconnaissance. Zhilov had put on the White uniform just in case.

When told about the death barge, Zhilov says they must immediately set off in pursuit of it.

26. A storm rages on the river. Bologov and all the White soldiers are on the tug. The tug and the barge are racked by the wind and the waves. The bow of the barge cracks open and water pours into the hold. Sukhov orders that the barge be cut free of the tug.

27. As the gunboat pitches wildly in the storm, Mikhail is starting to get a bit feverish.

In the morning, after the storm, they see the barge. It has run aground in some shallows. It is low and listing, but not sunk. Mikhail and the Reds hurry aboard and smash open the hatch. The prisoners rush out, dirty, wet and hungry. The last to emerge is Belsky. He is surprised to see Mikhail alive. Mikhail says, "Belsky....", but Belsky interrupts him and announces, "I'm not Belsky. Call me Dolin-Belsky from now on. Now I'm two men. Now I'm going to live for both of us."

Mikhail deliriously thinks he sees Dolin and Shangarei come out of the hold. He desperately waits for Natasha to emerge, but, alas, she is dead.

28. Some days later, on the steep bank of the Kama, Mikhail lays Natasha to rest. Grief has changed Mikhail. He is serious, not mischievous. His powerful frame now emanates a new strength, no longer blind and wayward, but stern, concentrated.

Vasili suggests they raise a monument with a star over the grave, not a cross. Mikhail agrees and wants Vasili to write on the monument, "Here lies Natasha Chermkhova", not "Glukharyovna", as if they had been married.

Now enlisted with the Reds, Mikhail carves "Natasha" on the butt of his rifle. He boards an armored tugboat, under the command of Dolin-Belsky, and sets off to join the battle.

29. TheRed flotilla sails to the upper reaches of the Kama and smashes the remnants of the White forces.

"The air was filled with a strong scent of decay. But in the fields, the process of renovation was going on--the blades of autumn-sown rye were beginning to show. With calm grandeur, nature was marching on its wise, eternal course."


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