I feel guilty about my double life. By day I am a mild-mannered chair of an English department, by night a Russian soldier—or an idiot. I honestly don’t know which. I’ve not told anyone at school, but I did ask one professor for those Russian translations of military commands. She’s pretty suspicious. And some colleagues stare when I arrive at a meeting in sweats and then have to make a hasty, unexplained exit to get to Lincoln Center.
Still, when we march well, I am unaccountably proud of not only myself but the whole Ismailovsky Regiment. When we stomp down the hardwood rehearsal floor in the last run of the day in pounding unison and I can see the scissoring perfection of our kicks, in perfect time, I tingle all over. We are excellent! I yearn to know the Russian word for “Excellent!” I can tell that other men feel the same way. Sweaty with exertion, we pat each other on the back, throw our arms around each other. In our generosity (a kind of noblesse oblige that is characteristic of Ismailovskies), we even applaud the grenadiers, the poor bastards, when they march well. Who are these wonderful men I didn’t even know last week? This is what life is: to be alive and marching!
I know, I sound like Pierre, the clueless philosophical gentleman in War and Peace who wanders the battlefield in white top hat and tails. But I can’t help it. Now I know what esprit de corps feels like. I really like it!
I like it when my marching mate, William,1 a charming Southerner—who is doing a one-person musical-comedy show when he’s not marching—makes jokes about sharing his bedroll with me on those long Russian nights: “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you warm!” He purses his lips in a cat-who-ate-the-canary smirk. He promises that if I happen to fall in battle, he will fall on top of me. He asks how much I weigh and says if I’m wounded he’ll carry me like a baby. I’m sure this is what actual Russian soldiers joked about minutes before the first barrage.
Today, they are handing out the rifles and backpacks for rehearsal. Everyone but the Cossacks gets rifles. “Well, you can’t trust a Cossack with a rifle,” I quip to my fellow Ismailovskies in a cool undertone, and am mighty pleased with myself at the smattering of comradely laughter I get (“I’m one of the boys!” I think). That is, until one of my comrades appropriates my half-joke and repeats it over and over as if it were his own. I’m sorry I said it, and feel now that my mates are blaming me for introducing it into our communal life. But William is busy comparing the size of his bayonet with mine and others, worrying aloud that his bends to the left, with mock-salacious glances, and the laughter continues. I love my unit: my military unit, I mean.
We do our turn about the room in our regimental formations, which have to come together at right angles and then “peel off” in synchronization, all in time to the beat of the music. We are supposed to march not only to the “Ley-voi! Ley-voi! Raz, dva” (Left! Left! One, two) beat but also to the rhythm of the piano music, a playful mazurka (imagine the galumph of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”). My marching mate, Musical-Theater William, is helpful, telling me to make sure my leg is in the air “between the beats.” We come to a halt (at “Stoi ras dva!”) with a pleasing clump of 160 left feet stomping down.
Then, the dark General Kutuzov1 appears. He should have Darth Vader theme music. Some of the men say that, with his blunt features and shock of black hair, he looks like Charles Bronson in The Great Escape. Only, when Kutuzov arrives, it’s we who want to go under the wire, or over the wall. We begin marching. When a regiment does well, he shouts, “Five dollars!” We’re confused, but we think it means we deserve a bonus. When someone makes a mistake with his footwork, he yells the only other English word he seems to know: “Change!” This is an existential demand. I’m trying, but change is hard with a Russian screaming at you.
Kutuzov is rearranging men by his own interior calculations, disrupting the formations that the other directors have taken pains to commit to a grid. General Kutuzov is arguing both with the American directors, one of whom speaks some Russian, and with the rehearsal pianist, who does not. Another one of our instructors, Sasha, translates and mediates, seeming, as he often does, to soften the impact of Kutuzov’s Russian screaming. Kutuzov claps out time in the face of the pianist. This mild man looks up at the irregular meter Kutuzov is clapping like a toy monkey with cymbals and says, “That rhythm does not exist in music.” Kutuzov is agitated. Sasha draws him away, then returns to smooth the pianist’s feathers.
We shift around and exchange worried looks with each other: it’s demoralizing to see dissension among our superiors. In the novel and the opera, backbiting and second-guessing ensue when the real General Kutuzov decides to abandon Moscow after what seems like a disaster at the Battle of Borodino. Some of the other officers believe the old, blind Kutuzov is an intemperate fool. But the hero, Prince Andrei, says battles are not lost because of lack of preparation but because the men lose faith in their leaders and their spirits flag. I sense the spirit of the men is very low. I inch over to share my insight about the Bakhtinian, heteroglossic corollaries between the novel and our rehearsal with the tall, ponytailed soldier to my right. He scowls at me. He’s a Cossack. I should have known better.
1 Not his real name.