Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Poet’s Corner- Claude McKay-If We Must Die-In Honor Of The 94thAnniversary Of The Communist International- Take Four

…they had heard that a group of White Guards, a first detachment on horse, maybe from the dreaded mercenary Czech Legion that were running amok from Siberia to the Urals, paid for by who knows who, some said the English some said the French, or worst maybe the dreaded Cossacks, who needed no outside pay but only their Ataman’s word to bend contemptible peasant heads to size, and who took no prisoners, none, were heading their way, heading right for their line of defense in the city ready to take back Kazan for the asking, so those Whites thought. Kazan fallen then the road to Moscow lay wide open and perhaps the end of the Soviet experiment in that dragged on second year of hellish civil war. But Commissar Vladimir ( assigned that title because he, a little more literate, a little cooler under pressure, than the vast bulk of lumpish peasants, mostly from Monsieur Orlov’s land around Omsk, who had signed up to fight and to die for the land, their land from what they had heard, was listened to by that mass unlike the city boy reds) and his band of comrade brothers, five in all, (and one sixteen year old sister, one stray Red Emma, they called her who learned of revolution and sex, young love smitten sex even in war-torn Kazan with young Zanoff, in that exact order while in their company and proved as fierce a fighter both ways, according to that same Zanoff, as any man), the last remnant from the old Orlov estate who survived the bloody endless Czar war swore, swore a blood oath on their tattered red flag, the previous day that they would retreat no further, that here was their stand, their last stand if necessary, but no more moves away from Moscow.

[Red Emma, real name Nana Kamkov, deserves a better fate that to written off as some play thing for some loutish peasant boy, Grisha Zanoff by full name, no matter how Red Army brave he was just that moment and no matter how peasant handsome he was, and he was, to Nana’s eyes. Nana had come off the land as a child, as fate would have it Orlov’s land, when after the last revolution, the one in 1905, the government encouraged capitalist exploitation of the land in order to break down the backward-looking peasant communes. Her parents had abandoned the land had travelled to live in Kazan and her father had set up shop as a locksmith, a good one. Nana had gone school and had been an outstanding student if somewhat socially backward (she had not been like the other girls boy-crazy) and desperately wanted to become an engineer although the family resources precluded such a fate.

One day in the summer of 1917 at the height of the revolutionary fervor she ran across a Bolshevik agitator in Kazan (later killed in Kiev fighting off some White Guards in that location) who told her, young impressionable her, aged fourteen, no more, that if the Soviets survived she would be able to pursue her engineering career, hell, the Bolsheviks would encourage it. From that time she had been a single-minded Red Guard soldier performing many dangerous tasks until the Whites threatened Kazan and she was trapped in the city and had joined Vladimir’s remnants as a result. And there she spied Grisha among his soldiers, loutish, foolish Grisha, although handsome she admitted. Perhaps it was the time of her time, perhaps she still had a little foolish schoolgirl notion to be with a man just in case things didn’t work out and she was killed, or worse, executed but one cold night she snuggled up to the sleeping Grisha and that was that. She was teaching him to read better and to think about things just in case they weren’t killed, or worse executed. Practical young woman, very practical. And so young Nana enters the red pantheon, and maybe she will drag Grisha along too.]

It had not always been that way with them, not even with Vladimir, not by a long shot. They had all farmed, like their fathers going back eons before them, the same fruitless task (for them) land for Orlov, the richest landowner in Omsk, and never lifted their heads when the Social Revolutionaries had come before the war and during that last revolution, the one back in 1905, with glad tidings (and before them other city radicals, narodniks or something like that, had spoken to their fathers and grandfathers). They just shoveled the dirt, kept shoveling, and kept their heads down.

[Vladimir, Vladimir Suslov (whose grandson, Misha, would become a high Soviet dignitary in the 1980s) also deserves some additional mention so one does not get the impression that they had dug deep into the bottom of the barrel and he was all they could come up with from the loutish lumpish peasant mass that decided, decided almost just yesterday, that they should first raise their heads and then actually go out and fight for their land, come hell or high water. No Vladimir, even as a child was a leader of the boys, the peasant boys who spent more time avoiding work and hiding in the woods than bending to the plow. And contrary to his stolid appearance (added to, and aided by, those miserable years in the trenches) which endeared him to his fellows, made him appear older than his thirty years, he was a good reader, and could write some, including fancying himself a minor peasant poet. Like he told the political commissar of his unit one night when things had dusted up it paid to NOT appear too much brighter than the fellows or else you would be treated like poor Red Emma, Nana, who actually had the heart, the heart of a red warrior princess. And so Vladimir led, led by just being a little ahead, being a little bit better able to read maps, and people and get his fellows out of more than a few scrapes. Of such men revolutions flourish, for a time. Then the grandsons, the Mishas, come along and think they have done it all themselves. ]

Then the war came, the bloody world war as it turned out, and the Czar’s police (Orlov’s really but in the name of the Czar so the same thing) came and “drafted” them into some vast ill-fed, ill-clad, ill-armed peasant force which proved no match for the methodical Germans as they were slaughtered by the millions in and around those foul trenches. And still they kept their heads bent, Vladimir and his four Orlov surviving farm brothers the only healthy alive ones left from the twenty-two that had started out from Omsk in the summer of 1915. Kept them bent until the February revolution stirred things up although they held to the front line trenches even then since no one told them not to leave and in the fall of 1917 they had just followed their fellows out of the trenches and went home. Not the first ones out, nor the last but just out. Went home to farm Orlov’s land again they figured with bent heads again. Even when the Bolsheviks took power in November and decreed the land of Orlov’s theirs they kept their heads bent. It was not until Orlov, his agents, and his White Guard friends came back and took the land, their now precious land, theirs, that they roared back. And they had joined one of Trotsky’s red brigades passing through on a recruiting drive. They had moved here and there as the lines of battle shifted but mainly back, mainly retreats or break-ups since then and hence the blood oath, and no more retreats. The peasant slows in them had been busted, busted good.

Just then a messenger came to their line, a messenger from the river in front of Kazan, from the wind- swept Volga. The message said that Trotsky himself , Trotsky of the phantom armored train rushing to this and that front, seemingly everywhere at the same time, that put fear in the hearts of whites and reds alike, had decided to fight and die before Kazan if necessary to save the revolution, to save their precious land. Vladimir and his comrades, including Red Emma, Red Emma who if the truth be told despite her tender years of sweet sixteen was the best soldier of the lot, and should have been the commissar except those lumpish peasants would not have listened to her, reaffirmed their blood oath. They were not sure of Lenin, thinking him a little too smart, and maybe he had something up his sleeve, maybe he was just another Jew, he looked the part with that bald head of his, but stout-hearted Trotsky, if he was willing to die then what else could they do. If they must die they would die in defense of Kazan, and maybe just maybe somebody would hear of their story, the story of five peasant boys and a pretty red-hearted city girl as brave as they, and lift their heads and roar back too….

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

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