The story of Roman Fyodorovich Ungern-Sternberg—“a Russian general, Baltic baron, Mongolian prince, and husband of a Chinese princess”—more or less writes itself. In his novella, Horsemen of the Sands, Russian writer Leonid Yuzefovich tells the story largely from the perspective of the Buryats—ethnic Mongols living in Russia—through the medium of a lost talisman.
The narrator is a junior Soviet officer on manoeuvres near the Chinese border in 1971. He comes into contact with a Buryat herder by the name of Boliji. “It’s hard to vouch for the authenticity of this amazing tale,” starts Yuzefovich in a way that will be familiar to readers of Russian stories,
especially since its main protagonist was not the narrator himself but his older brother Jorgal. It may be that Jorgal embellished events and his role in them ever so slightly and that Boliji contributed his mite as well. Neither suffered from a lack of imagination.
Fighting never breaks out, but fear runs through the ranks:
Everyone feared the Chinese soldiers’ fanaticism; there were rumors that on Damansky and outside Semipalatinsk they’d preferred death to captivity. Men spoke of this with a combination of respect and a sense of their own superiority, as if it were something we, too, once possessed but had abandoned in the name of new, higher values.
Boliji ends up giving the narrator his amulet, one which—he says—had belonged to Ungern and had been stolen by his brother Jorgal when he fought—or was forced to fight—with Ungern’s forces.
Most of the account is a series of fictionalized flashbacks of Ungern’s quick rise to prominence in Mongolia and his equally quick fall. This is a rip-roaring story: there is Ungern himself—driven, brutal, introspective and probably mad—plus a magic medallion that makes him invincible, a white horse who carries the spirit of the Buddhist deity Sagan-Ubugun protecting Ungern; the steppe, cossacks, yurts; in Jorgal, a fearless Mongol youth avenging his father; death, hope, fear, futility and fatalism. Ungern is both romantic and terrible. There’s a bit of The Man Who Would Be King in here; also a bit of El Cid, at least the Charlton Heston version.
The story spins out in the aftermath of both the Bolshevik victory over Ungern and the amulet apassing into Russian hands. The impermanence of all things, the sense of mystery, the struggle between good and evil are captured in the title:
Countless terrifying horsemen in gleaming armor galloped across a vast, wild, and gloomy plain, but a wind blew from the lips of a righteous man, and the horsemen scattered to dust, for they were all made of sand.
Horsemen of the Sands is here paired with another story, banal rather than exotic, but perhaps even better. The Storm tells the story of a visit of Dmitry Petrovich Rodygin, a traffic rules instructor, to a school to a Soviet provincial town. He’s a bit of disciplinarian, rather more so than the class’s regular teacher Nadezhda Stepanovna.
His lessons don’t always turn out as planned, nor is clear where he gets his examples from.
He told them how in Turkey, when they caught a drunk driver, they made him walk thirty kilometers. Policemen would follow him on motorcycles so that he didn’t get any ideas along the way about stopping or sitting down somewhere cool.
“Anyone who gets behind the wheel drunk in Singapore is arrested and put in jail for fifteen days.” Rodygin cited that figure for clarity, though he had no idea what term was stipulated in that article of Singapore’s criminal code…. “There wouldn’t be anything particularly original about this if it weren’t for one piquant detail: those drivers are put in jail with their wives.”
Meanwhile, there are various subplots. Nadezhda Stepanovna feels her life slipping away and slips out to buy some cake. The best student in the class, Vekshina, has some personal history that interacts badly with Rodygin’s examples of automotive misbehavior, while Filimonov, the class troublemaker skips out the bathroom:
Filimonov saw an ambulance, and right then, squeezing his left hand into a fist, he made a wish. He knew this trick from Vekshina. Today in the lunchroom she had taught him that if you saw an ambulance on the street you had to make a fist and not let go until three people wearing glasses walked by. Then you had to open your fist quickly, say your wish out loud, and it would come true. Filimonov wished the public safety instructor would be struck dead by lightning.
Then a tempest breaks, figuratively and literally, and the story comes to a head in the storm.
Because Leonid Yuzefovich seems to have drunk at the same spring that nourished two centuries of great Russian writers, you may feel that you have read him before. But you probably haven’t. He has been well-served by his translator Marian Schwartz, who delivers these very Russian stories in pitch-perfect English.