Category: Novels
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Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer considered one of the greatest ever. He was present at the Siege of Sevastopol that began in 1854. Sevastopol is a collection of three stories detailing his experiences at the siege, published in 1855. While providing an account of the events that transpired, the author also shares his thoughts and delves into the philosophy of war, heroism and truth.


Leo Tolstoy

Translated by Isabel F. Hapgood


Sevastopol in December, 1854

The flush of morning has but just begun to tinge the sky above Sapun Mountain; the dark blue surface of the sea has already cast aside the shades of night and awaits the first ray to begin a play of merry gleams; cold and mist are wafted from the bay; there is no snow — all is black, but the morning frost pinches the face and crackles underfoot, and the far-off, unceasing roar of the sea, broken now and then by the thunder of the firing in Sevastopol, alone disturbs the calm of the morning. It is dark on board the ships; it has just struck eight bells.

Toward the north the activity of the day begins gradually to replace the nocturnal quiet; here the relief guard has passed clanking their arms, there the doctor is already hastening to the hospital, further on the soldier has crept out of his earth hut and is washing his sunburnt face in ice-encrusted water, and, turning towards the crimsoning east, crosses himself quickly as he prays to God; here a tall and heavy camel-wagon has dragged creaking to the cemetery, to bury the bloody dead, with whom it is laden nearly to the top. You go to the wharf — a peculiar odor of coal, manure, dampness, and of beef strikes you; thousands of objects of all sorts — wood, meat, gabions, flour, iron, and so forth — lie in heaps about the wharf; soldiers of various regiments, with knapsacks and muskets, without knapsacks and without muskets, throng thither, smoke, quarrel, drag weights aboard the steamer which lies smoking beside the quay; unattached two-oared boats, filled with all sorts of people, — soldiers, sailors, merchants, women, — land at and leave the wharf.

“To the Grafsky, Your Excellency? be so good.” Two or three retired sailors rise in their boats and offer you their services.

You select the one who is nearest to you, you step over the half-decomposed carcass of a brown horse, which lies there in the mud beside the boat, and reach the stern. You quit the shore. All about you is the sea, already glittering in the morning sun, in front of you is an aged sailor, in a camel’s-hair coat, and a young, white-headed boy, who work zealously and in silence at the oars. You gaze at the motley vastness of the vessels, scattered far and near over the bay, and at the small black dots of boats moving about on the shining azure expanse, and at the bright and beautiful buildings of the city, tinted with the rosy rays of the morning sun, which are visible in one direction, and at the foaming white line of the quay, and the sunken ships from which black tips of masts rise sadly here and there, and at the distant fleet of the enemy faintly visible as they rock on the crystal horizon of the sea, and at the streaks of foam on which leap salt bubbles beaten up by the oars; you listen to the monotonous sound of voices which fly to you over the water, and the grand sounds of firing, which, as it seems to you, is increasing in Sevastopol.

It cannot be that, at the thought that you too are in Sevastopol, a certain feeling of manliness, of pride, has not penetrated your soul, and that the blood has not begun to flow more swiftly through your veins.

“Your Excellency! you are steering straight into the Kistentin,” says your old sailor to you as he turns round to make sure of the direction which you are imparting to the boat, with the rudder to the right.

“And all the cannon are still on it,” remarks the white-headed boy, casting a glance over the ship as we pass.

“Of course; it’s new. Korniloff lived on board of it,” said the old man, also glancing at the ship.

“See where it has burst!” says the boy, after a long silence, looking at a white cloud of spreading smoke which has suddenly appeared high over the South Bay, accompanied by the sharp report of an exploding bomb.

He is firing to-day with his new battery,” adds the old man, calmly spitting on his hands. “Now, give way, Mishka! we’ll overtake the barge.” And your boat moves forward more swiftly over the broad swells of the bay, and you actually do overtake the heavy barge, upon which some bags are piled, and which is rowed by awkward soldiers, and it touches the Grafsky wharf amid a multitude of boats of every sort which are landing.

Throngs of gray soldiers, black sailors, and women of various colors move noisily along the shore. The women are selling rolls, Russian peasants with samovárs are crying hot sbiten; and here upon the first steps are strewn rusted cannon-balls, bombs, grape-shot, and cast-iron cannon of various calibers; a little further on is a large square, upon which lie huge beams, gun-carriages, sleeping soldiers; there stand horses, wagons, green guns, ammunition-chests, and stacks of arms; soldiers, sailors, officers, women, children, and merchants are moving about; carts are arriving with hay, bags, and casks; here and there Cossacks make their way through, or officers on horseback, or a general in a drosky. To the right, the street is hemmed in by a barricade, in whose embrasures stand some small cannon, and beside these sits a sailor smoking his pipe. On the left a handsome house with Roman ciphers on the pediment, beneath which stand soldiers and blood-stained litters — everywhere you behold the unpleasant signs of a war encampment. Your first impression is inevitably of the most disagreeable sort. The strange mixture of camp and town life, of a beautiful city and a dirty bivouac, is not only not beautiful, but seems repulsive disorder; it even seems to you that every one is thoroughly frightened, and is fussing about without knowing what he is doing. But look more closely at the faces of these people who are moving about you, and you will gain an entirely different idea. Look at this little soldier from the provinces, for example, who is leading a troïka of brown horses to water, and is purring something to himself so composedly that he evidently will not go astray in this motley crowd, which does not exist for him; but he is fulfilling his duty, whatever that may be, — watering the horses or carrying arms, — with just as much composure, self-confidence, and equanimity as though it were taking place in Tula or Saransk. You will read the same expression on the face of this officer who passes by in immaculate white gloves, and in the face of the sailor who is smoking as he sits on the barricade, and in the faces of the working soldiers, waiting with their litters on the steps of the former club, and in the face of yonder girl, who, fearing to wet her pink gown, skips across the street on the little stones.

Yes! disenchantment certainly awaits you, if you are entering Sevastopol for the first time. In vain will you seek, on even a single countenance, for traces of anxiety, discomposure, or even of enthusiasm, readiness for death, decision, — there is nothing of the sort. You will see the tradespeople quietly engaged in the duties of their callings, so that, possibly, you may reproach yourself for superfluous raptures, you may entertain some doubt as to the justice of the ideas regarding the heroism of the defenders of Sevastopol which you have formed from stories, descriptions, and the sights and sounds on the northern side. But, before you doubt, go upon the bastions, observe the defenders of Sevastopol on the very scene of the defence, or, better still, go straight across into that house, which was formerly the Sevastopol Assembly House, and upon whose roof stand soldiers with litters, — there you will behold the defenders of Sevastopol, there you will behold frightful and sad, great and laughable, but wonderful sights, which elevate the soul.

You enter the great Hall of Assembly. You have but just opened the door when the sight and smell of forty or fifty seriously wounded men and of those who have undergone amputation — some in hammocks, the majority upon the floor — suddenly strike you. Trust not to the feeling which detains you upon the threshold of the hall; be not ashamed of having come to look at the sufferers, be not ashamed to approach and address them: the unfortunates like to see a sympathizing human face, they like to tell of their sufferings and to hear words of love and interest. You walk along between the beds and seek a face less stern and suffering, which you decide to approach, with the object of conversing.

“Where are you wounded?” you inquire, timidly and with indecision, of an old, gaunt soldier, who, seated in his hammock, is watching you with a good-natured glance, and seems to invite you to approach him. I say “you ask timidly,” because these sufferings inspire you, over and above the feeling of profound sympathy, with a fear of offending and with a lofty reverence for the man who has undergone them.

“In the leg,” replies the soldier; but, at the same time, you perceive, by the folds of the coverlet, that he has lost his leg above the knee. “God be thanked now,” he adds, — “I shall get my discharge.”

“Were you wounded long ago?”

“It was six weeks ago, Your Excellency.”

“Does it still pain you?”

“No, there’s no pain now; only there’s a sort of gnawing in my calf when the weather is bad, but that’s nothing.”

“How did you come to be wounded?”

“On the fifth bastion, during the first bombardment. I had just trained a cannon, and was on the point of going away, so, to another embrasure when it struck me in the leg, just as if I had stepped into a hole and had no leg.”

“Was it not painful at the first moment?”

“Not at all; only as though something boiling hot had struck my leg.”

“Well, and then?”

“And then — nothing; only the skin began to draw as though it had been rubbed hard. The first thing of all, Your Excellency, is not to think at all. If you don’t think about a thing, it amounts to nothing. Men suffer from thinking more than from anything else.”

At that moment, a woman in a gray striped dress and a black kerchief bound about her head approaches you.

She joins in your conversation with the sailor, and begins to tell about him, about his sufferings, his desperate condition for the space of four weeks, and how, when he was wounded, he made the litter halt that he might see the volley from our battery, how the grand-duke spoke to him and gave him twenty-five rubles, and how he said to him that he wanted to go back to the bastion to direct the younger men, even if he could not work himself. As she says all this in a breath, the woman glances now at you, now at the sailor, who has turned away as though he did not hear her and plucks some lint from his pillow, and her eyes sparkle with peculiar enthusiasm.

“This is my housewife, Your Excellency!” the sailor says to you, with an expression which seems to say, “You must excuse her. Every one knows it’s a woman’s way — she’s talking nonsense.”

You begin to understand the defenders of Sevastopol. For some reason, you feel ashamed of yourself in the presence of this man. You would like to say a very great deal to him, in order to express to him your sympathy and admiration; but you find no words, or you are dissatisfied with those which come into your head, — and you do reverence in silence before this taciturn, unconscious grandeur and firmness of soul, this modesty in the face of his own merits.

“Well, God grant you a speedy recovery,” you say to him, and you halt before another invalid, who is lying on the floor and appears to be awaiting death in intolerable agony.

He is a blond man with pale, swollen face. He is lying on his back, with his left arm thrown out, in a position which is expressive of cruel suffering. His parched, open mouth with difficulty emits his stertorous breathing; his blue, leaden eyes are rolled up, and from beneath the wadded coverlet the remains of his right arm, enveloped in bandages, protrude. The oppressive odor of a corpse strikes you forcibly, and the consuming, internal fire which has penetrated every limb of the sufferer seems to penetrate you also.

“Is he unconscious?” you inquire of the woman, who comes up to you and gazes at you tenderly as at a relative.

“No, he can still hear, but he’s very bad,” she adds, in a whisper. “I gave him some tea to-day, — what if he is a stranger, one must still have pity! — and he hardly tasted it.”

“How do you feel?” you ask him.

The wounded man turns his eyeballs at the sound of your voice, but he neither sees nor understands you.

“There’s a gnawing at my heart.”

A little further on, you see an old soldier changing his linen. His face and body are of a sort of cinnamon-brown color, and gaunt as a skeleton. He has no arm at all; it has been cut off at the shoulder. He is sitting with a wide-awake air, he puts himself to rights; but you see, by his dull, corpse-like gaze, his frightful gauntness, and the wrinkles on his face, that he is a being who has suffered for the best part of his life.

On the other side, you behold in a cot the pale, suffering, and delicate face of a woman, upon whose cheek plays a feverish flush.

“That’s our little sailor lass who was struck in the leg by a bomb on the 5th,” your guide tells you. “She was carrying her husband’s dinner to him in the bastion.”

“Has it been amputated?”

“They cut it off above the knee.”

Now, if your nerves are strong, pass through the door on the left. In yonder room they are applying bandages and performing operations. There, you will see doctors with their arms blood-stained above the elbow, and with pale, stern faces, busied about a cot, upon which, with eyes widely opened, and uttering, as in delirium, incoherent, sometimes simple and touching words, lies a wounded man under the influence of chloroform. The doctors are busy with the repulsive but beneficent work of amputation. You see the sharp, curved knife enter the healthy, white body, you see the wounded man suddenly regain consciousness with a piercing cry and curses, you see the army surgeon fling the amputated arm into a corner, you see another wounded man, lying in a litter in the same apartment, shrink convulsively and groan as he gazes at the operation upon his comrade, not so much from physical pain as from the moral torture of anticipation. — You behold the frightful, soul-stirring scenes; you behold war, not from its conventional, beautiful, and brilliant side, with music and drum-beat, with fluttering flags and galloping generals, but you behold war in its real phase — in blood, in suffering, in death.

On emerging from this house of pain, you will infallibly experience a sensation of pleasure, you will inhale the fresh air more fully, you will feel satisfaction in the consciousness of your health, but, at the same time, you will draw from the sight of these sufferings a consciousness of your nothingness, and you will go calmly and without any indecision to the bastion.

“What do the death and sufferings of such an insignificant worm as I signify in comparison with so many deaths and such great sufferings?” But the sight of the clear sky, the brilliant sun, the fine city, the open church, and the soldiers moving about in various directions soon restores your mind to its normal condition of frivolity, petty cares, and absorption in the present alone.

Perhaps you meet the funeral procession of some officer coming from the church, with rose-colored coffin, and music and fluttering banners; perhaps the sounds of firing reach your ear from the bastion, but this does not lead you back to your former thoughts; the funeral seems to you a very fine military spectacle, and you do not connect with this spectacle, or with the sounds, any clear idea of suffering and death, as you did at the point where the bandaging was going on.

Passing the barricade and the church, you come to the most lively part of the city. On both sides hang the signs of shops and inns. Merchants, women in bonnets and kerchiefs, dandified officers, — everything speaks to you of the firmness of spirit, of the independence and the security of the inhabitants.

Enter the inn on the right if you wish to hear the conversations of sailors and officers; stories of the preceding night are sure to be in progress there, and of Fenka, and the affair of the 24th, and of the dearness and badness of cutlets, and of such and such a comrade who has been killed.

“Devil take it, how bad things are with us to-day!” ejaculates the bass voice of a beardless naval officer, with white brows and lashes, in a green knitted sash.

“Where?” asks another.

“In the fourth bastion,” replies the young officer, and you are certain to look at the white-lashed officer with great attention, and even with some respect, at the words, “in the fourth bastion.” His excessive ease of manner, the way he flourishes his hands, his loud laugh, and his voice, which seems to you insolent, reveal to you that peculiar boastful frame of mind which some very young men acquire after danger; nevertheless, you think he is about to tell you how bad the condition of things on the fourth bastion is because of the bombs and balls. Nothing of the sort! things are bad because it is muddy. “It’s impossible to pass through the battery,” says he, pointing at his boots, which are covered with mud above the calf. “And my best gun-captain was killed to-day; he was struck plump in the forehead,” says another. “Who’s that? Mitiukhin?” “No!... What now, are they going to give me any veal? the villains!” he adds to the servant of the inn. “Not Mitiukhin, but Abrosimoff. Such a fine young fellow! — he was in the sixth sally.”

At another corner of the table, over a dish of cutlets with peas, and a bottle of sour Crimean wine called “Bordeaux,” sit two infantry officers; one with a red collar, who is young and has two stars on his coat, is telling the other, with a black collar and no stars, about the affair at Alma. The former has already drunk a good deal, and it is evident, from the breaks in his narrative, from his undecided glance expressive of doubt as to whether he is believed, and chiefly from the altogether too prominent part which he has played in it all, and from the excessive horror of it all, that he is strongly disinclined to bear strict witness to the truth. But these tales, which you will hear for a long time to come in every corner of Russia, are nothing to you; you prefer to go to the bastions, especially to the fourth, of which you have heard so many and such diverse things. When any one says that he has been in the fourth bastion, he says it with a peculiar air of pride and satisfaction; when any one says, “I am going to the fourth bastion,” either a little agitation or a very great indifference is infallibly perceptible in him; when any one wants to jest about another, he says, “You must be stationed in the fourth bastion;” when you meet litters and inquire whence they come, the answer is generally, “From the fourth bastion.” On the whole, two totally different opinions exist with regard to this terrible bastion; one is held by those who have never been in it, and who are convinced that the fourth bastion is a regular grave for every one who enters it, and the other by those who live in it, like the white-lashed midshipman, and who, when they mention the fourth bastion, will tell you whether it is dry or muddy there, whether it is warm or cold in the mud hut, and so forth.

During the half-hour which you have passed in the inn, the weather has changed; a fog which before spread over the sea has collected into damp, heavy, gray clouds, and has veiled the sun; a kind of melancholy, frozen mist sprinkles from above, and wets the roofs, the sidewalks, and the soldiers’ overcoats.

Passing by yet another barricade, you emerge from the door at the right and ascend the principal street. Behind this barricade, the houses are unoccupied on both sides of the street, there are no signs, the doors are covered with boards, the windows are broken in; here the corners are broken away, there the roofs are pierced. The buildings seem to be old, to have undergone every sort of vicissitude and deprivation characteristic of veterans, and appear to gaze proudly and somewhat scornfully upon you. You stumble over the cannon-balls which strew the way, and into holes filled with water, which have been excavated in the stony ground by the bombs. In the street you meet and overtake bodies of soldiers, sharpshooters, officers; now and then you encounter a woman or a child, but it is no longer a woman in a bonnet, but a sailor’s daughter in an old fur cloak and soldier’s boots. As you proceed along the street, and descend a small declivity, you observe that there are no longer any houses about you, but only some strange heaps of ruined stones, boards, clay, and beams; ahead of you, upon a steep hill, you perceive a black, muddy expanse, intersected by canals, and this that is in front is the fourth bastion. Here you meet still fewer people, no women are visible, the soldiers walk briskly, you come across drops of blood on the road, and you will certainly encounter there four soldiers with a stretcher and upon the stretcher a pale yellowish face and a blood-stained overcoat. If you inquire, “Where is he wounded?” the bearers will say angrily, without turning towards you, “In the leg or the arm,” if he is slightly wounded, or they will preserve a gloomy silence if no head is visible on the stretcher and he is already dead or badly hurt.

The shriek of a cannon-ball or a bomb close by surprises you unpleasantly, as you ascend the hill. You understand all at once, and quite differently from what you have before, the significance of those sounds of shots which you heard in the city. A quietly cheerful memory flashes suddenly before your fancy; your own personality begins to occupy you more than your observations; your attention to all that surrounds you diminishes, and a certain disagreeable feeling of uncertainty suddenly overmasters you. In spite of this decidedly base voice, which suddenly speaks within you, at the sight of danger, you force it to be silent, especially when you glance at a soldier who runs laughing past you at a trot, waving his hands, and slipping down the hill in the mud, and you involuntarily expand your chest, throw up your head a little higher, and climb the slippery, clayey hill. As soon as you have reached the top, rifle-balls begin to whiz to the right and left of you, and, possibly, you begin to reflect whether you will not go into the trench which runs parallel with the road; but this trench is full of such yellow, liquid, foul-smelling mud, more than knee-deep, that you will infallibly choose the path on the hill, the more so as you see that every one uses the path. After traversing a couple of hundred paces, you emerge upon a muddy expanse, all ploughed up, and surrounded on all sides by gabions, earthworks, platforms, earth huts, upon which great cast-iron guns stand, and cannon-balls lie in symmetrical heaps. All these seem to be heaped up without any aim, connection, or order. Here in the battery sit a knot of sailors; there in the middle of the square, half buried in mud, lies a broken cannon; further on, a foot-soldier, with his gun, is marching through the battery, and dragging his feet with difficulty through the sticky soil. But everywhere, on all sides, in every spot, you see broken dishes, unexploded bombs, cannon-balls, signs of encampment, all sunk in the liquid, viscous mud. You seem to hear not far from you the thud of a cannon-ball; on all sides, you seem to hear the varied sounds of balls, — humming like bees, whistling sharply, or in a whine like a cord — you hear the frightful roar of the fusillade, which seems to shake you all through with some horrible fright.

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