Saturday, March 02, 2013

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

…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, 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 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 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.

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.

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. Kept them bent until the February revolution stirred things up although they held to the front 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 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. The message said that Trotsky himself 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. 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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