‘Nobody had time to stroke their noses’

One book begets another, at least that’s how it seems. You have intentions to read about Egypt, to start to educate yourself about a country you know little about but are soon going to visit. You have already bought several books, they are by your bed, but first you decide to read a book about Mongolia in the 1920s,

not because you have any pressing need to learn about this subject, but because it is a large hardback at the bottom of the pile of non-fiction you are definitely going to read (as opposed to the piles and shelves of stuff you might one day read). This book has been there so long (at least three years) that the sight of its spine induces a kind of shame, like that caused by those emails you receive from good friends, that you click on eagerly, that you enjoy, and then do not respond to for weeks, months, even though it would only take a few moments, five or six sentences, to adequately reply. And so you drag it out, dust it off, see how many pages it has, then dutifully start to read. You find yourself enjoying it. You did not know about the Czech Legion during WW1. You are amazed at the atrocities of Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. When you finish you look at the Egypt books,  try to decide which to read first. You are not sure, and while you think, you look at the pile you will definitely read, then at the might-read pile, and there you find a book you only bought because it was £1, Peter Fleming’s, ‘The Fate of Admiral Kolchak’.

Again, you had had no thought to read about White Russian armies, but it does relate to what you have just read, and if you do not read it now, then when? And so you begin. You read about the armoured trains used on the Trans Siberian railway.

You read about rearguard actions against the Bolsheviks, and the stresses of command. This is Baron Wrangel’s description of General Slachtov, who was holding the Perekop Isthmus in the Crimea in 1920:

His face was deadly pale and his mouth never ceased to tremble, while tears streamed from his eyes… Incredible disorder reigned in his railway carriage. The table was covered with bottles and dishes of hors d’oeuvres; on the bunks were clothes, playing-cards and weapons, all lying about anyhow. Amidst all this confusion was Slachtov, clad in a fantastic white dolman, gold-laced and befurred. He was surrounded by all kinds of birds; he had a crane there, and also a raven, a swallow and a jay; they were hopping about on the table and the bunks, fluttering round and perching on their master’s head and shoulders

As for this account of the horses abandoned during the White Russians’ retreat from Omsk in 1919, you find it surreal and heartbreaking.

They were as tame as pet dogs, but nobody had time to stroke their noses. They stood in the streets ruminating over the remarkable change that had taken place in their circumstances. They walked into cafes. They wandered wearily through the deep snow. Droves of them blackened the distant hills.

After this, it makes complete sense to read a book about the Ukraine, then one about Armenia.

Tomorrow, you will write to Viktor, tell him you are well.

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