Russian Roulette

Russian roulette, duels, the Renaissance, the Nihilism, the wars – these are just some of the most famous characteristics of Czarist Russia in the first half of the XIX century. One of the youngest and loudest literature voices of that time was Mikhail Lermontov. In his short life (he died at the age of 26 in a duel) he wrote hundreds of stories, poems, and the novel “A Hero of Our Time” that represented the entire generation of highly erudite but bitter and bored young men who treated love and life just like another game of cards or a roulette.

Today’s bit of Literature – The Fatalist – was published in 1839 and only later included in the novel “A Hero of Our Time” that turned out to be a collection of stories united by the common hero, or rather an anti-hero Pechorin.
Is it true that a human’s fate is predestined, that it’s not in our powers to rush or postpone the death? Read Lermontov’s take on the fate and tell me whether or not you’re a Fatalist yourself? Was there something in those numbers “1″ and “4″, or was it only a tragic coincidence that Lermontov was born in 1814 and died in 1841, the last two digits of his year of death are the reversed numbers of his year of birth?

The Fatalist

by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)

I once happened to spend two weeks at a Cossack settlement on our left flank. An infantry battalion was also stationed there and officers used to assemble at each other’s quarters in turn, and play cards in the evening. On one occasion, having tired of boston and thrown the cards under the table, we sat on for a very long time at Major S——’s place. The talk, contrary to custom, was entertaining. We discussed the fact that the Moslem belief in a man’s fate being written in heaven finds also among us Christians many adherents; each related various unusual occurrences in proof or refutation. All this does not prove anything, gentlemen,’ said the elderly major. `I take it, none of you witnessed the strange cases with which you corroborate your opinions?’ None, of course,’ said several, `but we heard it from reliable people `It is all humbug!’ said someone. `Where are those reliable people who have seen the scroll where the hour of our death is assigned? And if predestination actually exists, why then are we given free will and reason, and why must we account for our actions?’ At this moment, an officer who had been sitting in a comer of the room got up and, slowly coming up to the table, surveyed all present with a calm and solemn gaze. He was of Serbian origin, as was apparent from his name.

Lieutenant Vulich’s looks corresponded perfectly to his nature. A tall stature, a swarthy complexion, black hair, black piercing eyes, a large but regular nose, characteristic of his nation, and a sad chill smile perpetually wandering on his lips – all this seemed to blend in such a way as to endow him with the air of a special being, incapable of sharing thoughts and passions with those whom fate had given him for companions. He was brave, spoke little but trenchantly; confided in none the secrets of his soul or of his family; drank almost no wine; never courted the Cossack girls (whose charm is hard to imagine for those who have never seen them). It was said, however, that the colonel’s wife was not indifferent to his expressive eyes; but he would get seriously annoyed when one hinted at it. There was only one passion of which he made no secret – the gaming passion. Once seated at the green table, he forgot everything, and usually lost; but continuous bad luck only served to exasperate his obstinacy. It was humoured that, one night, while on active duty, he dealt out the cards at stuss on his pillow; he was having formidable luck. All of a sudden, shots were heard, the alarm was sounded, there was a general scamper for weapons. `Set your stake for the whole bank,’ cried Vulich, without rising, to one of the keenest punters. `All right, I set it upon a seven, answered the other, as he rushed off. Despite the general confusion, Vulich went on dealing all alone, and the seven came up for the punter.

When he reached the front line, the firing there was already intensive. Vulich paid no attention either to the bullets or the swords of the Chechens: he was in search of his fortunate punter. `The seven turned up on your side,’ he shouted on seeing him at last in the firing line, which was beginning to force the enemy out of the forest, and, on coming closer, took out his purse and his wallet and handed them to the lucky gamester, despite the latter’s protest that this was not an appropriate place for payment. Upon acquitting himself of this unpleasant duty, he dashed forward, carrying the soldiers with him, and most coolly kept exchanging shots with the Chechens to the end of the engagement. When Lieutenant Vulich approached the table, everybody fell silent, expecting some eccentric stunt’ from him. `Gentlemen!’ he said (his voice was quiet though a tone below his usual pitch). `Gentlemen, what is the use of empty arguments? You want proofs? I offer you to try out on me whether a man may dispose of his life at will or a fateful minute is assigned to each of us in advance… Who is willing?’ `Not I, not I,’ came from every side. `What an odd fellow! Who would think of such a thing!… ‘ `I offer you a wager,’ I said in jest. `What kind of wager?’

`I affirm that there is no predestination,’ I said, pouring on to the table a score of gold coins – all there was in my pocket. `I accept,’ answered Vulich in a toneless voice. `Major, you will be umpire. Here are fifteen gold pieces. The other five you owe me, and you would do me a favour by adding them to the rest. `All right,’ said the major, `but I don’t understand, what it is all about? How are you going to settle the argument?’ Vulich without a word walked into the major’s bedroom: we followed him. He went to the wall where there hung some weapons, and among pistols of various calibre, he, at random, took one down from its nail. We still failed to understand, but when he cocked it and poured powder into the pan, several officers, with involuntary exclamations, seized him by the arms. `What do you want to do? Look here, this is madness!’ they cried to him. `Gentlemen,’ he said slowly, freeing his arms, `who is willing to pay twenty gold pieces for me?’ All were silent and stepped aside. Vulich went to the other room and sat down at the table: we all followed him there. With a sign he invited us to take seats around him. He was obeyed in silence: at that moment, he had acquired some mysterious power over us. I looked fixedly into his eyes, but he countered my probing glance with a calm and steady gaze, and his pale lips smiled; but despite his coolness, I seemed to decipher the imprint of death upon his pale face. I had observed – and many a seasoned warrior had confirmed this observation of mine – that often the face of a man who is to die within a few hours bears the strange imprint of his imminent fate, so that an experienced eye can hardly mistake it.

Tonight you will die,’ I said to him. He turned to me quickly, but answered slowly and calmly. `Maybe yes, maybe no… ‘ Then, addressing himself to the major, he asked: `Is there a ball in the pistol?’ The major, in his confusion, could not remember properly. `Oh come, Vulich,’ somebody exclaimed, `surely it’s loaded if it was hanging at the head of the bed. Stop fooling!’ `A foolish joke!’ another joined in. `I’ll bet you fifty roubles to five that the pistol is not loaded!’ cried a third. New bets were made. I became bored with this long procedure. `Listen,’ I said, `either shoot yourself or hang the pistol back in its place and let’s go home to bed.’ `That’s right,’ many exclaimed, `let’s go back to bed.’ `Gentlemen, please stay where you are!’ said Vulich applying the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead. Everybody sat petrified. `Mr Pechorin,’ he added, `take a card and throw it up into the air.’ I took from the table what I vividly remember turned out to be the ace of hearts and threw it upwards. Everyone held his breath; all eyes, expressing fear and a kind of vague curiosity, switched back and forth from the pistol to the fateful ace which quivered in the air and slowly came down. The moment it touched the table, Vulich pulled the trigger… the pistol snapped! `Thank God!’ many cried. `It was not loaded. `Let’s take a look, anyway,’ said Vulich. He cocked the pistol again, took aim at a cap that was hanging above the window. A shot resounded – smoke filled the room. When it dispersed, the cap was taken down. It had been shot clean through the middle, and the bullet had lodged deep in the wall. For some three minutes, no one was able to utter a word. With perfect composure, Vulich transferred my gold pieces into his purse.

A discussion arose as to why the pistol had missed fire the first time. Some maintained that the pan must have been clogged; others said in a whisper that at first the powder must have been damp and that afterwards Vulich added some fresh powder; but I affirmed that this last supposition was wrong because I had never taken my eyes off the pistol. `You’re a lucky gambler!’ I said to Vulich. `For the first time in my life,’ he answered, smiling complacently. `This is better than faro or stuss. `But then, it’s a bit more dangerous.’ `Bye-the-bye, have you begun to believe in predestination?’ `I believe in it, but I cannot understand now why it seemed to me that you must certainly die tonight.’ This very man, who only a moment before had calmly aimed a pistol at his own forehead, now suddenly flushed and looked flustered. `Well, enough of this!’ he said, rising up. `Our bet has been settled, and I think your remarks are out of place now.’ He took his cap and left. This appeared odd to me – and not without reason. Soon after, everyone went home – commenting variously upon Vulich’s vagaries, and probably, in unison, calling me an egoist for having made a bet against a man who was going to shoot himself, as if without me he would not be able to find a convenient occasions… I was walking home along the empty alleys of the settlement. The moon, full and red, like the glow of a conflagration, began to appear from behind the uneven line of roofs; the stars shone calmly upon the dark- blue vault, and it amused me to recall that, once upon a time, there were sages who thought that the heavenly bodies took part in our trivial conflicts for some piece of land or some imaginary rights. And what happened? These lampads, lit, in the opinion of those sages, merely to illumine their battles and festivals, were burning as brightly as ever, while their passions and hopes had long been extinguished with them, like a small fire lit on the edge of the forest by a carefree wayfarer! But on the other hand, what strength of will they derived from the certitude that the entire sky with its countless inhabitants was looking upon them with mute but permanent sympathy! Whereas we, their miserable descendants, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without rapture or fear (except for that instinctive dread that compresses our hearts at the thought of the inevitable end), we are no longer capable of great sacrifice, neither for the good of mankind, nor even for our own happiness, because we know its impossibility, and pass with indifference from doubt to doubt, just as our ancestors rushed from one delusion to another. But we, however, do not have either their hopes or even that indefinite, albeit real, rapture that the soul encounters in any struggle with men or with fate.

And many other, similar, thoughts passed through my mind. I did not detain them, since I do not care to concentrate on any abstract thought; and, indeed, what does it lead to? In my early youth, I was a dreamer; I liked to fondle images, gloomy or iridescent by turn, that my restless and avid imagination pictured to me. But what was left me of it? Nothing but weariness, as from a night battle with a phantom, and a vague memory full of regrets. In this vain struggle, I exhausted the ardency of soul and the endurance of will, indispensable for real life. I entered that life after having already lived it through in my mind, and I became bored and disgusted, like one who would read a poor imitation of a book that he has long known. The event of the evening had made a rather deep impression upon me and had irritated my nerves. I do not know for certain if I now believe in predestination or not, but that night I firmly believed in it: the proof was overwhelming, and despite my laughing at our ancestors and their obliging astrology, I had involuntarily slipped into their tracks. But I stopped myself in time on this dangerous path; and as I have, for rule, never to reject anything decisively, nor trust blindly in anything, I brushed metaphysics aside and began to look under my feet. Such a precaution proved much to the point: I very nearly fell, having stumbled over something fat and soft, but apparently inanimate. Down I bent. The moon now shone right upon the road – and what did I see? Before me lay a pig, slashed in two by a sword. Hardly had I time to inspect it, when I heard the sound of footfalls. Two Cossacks came running out of a lane; one of them came up to me and asked if I had not seen a drunken Cossack chasing a pig. I informed them that I had not encountered the Cossack, and pointed to the unfortunate victim of his frenzied valour. `The rascal!’ said the second Cossack. `Every time he drinks his fill of chihir’, there he goes cutting up everything that comes his way. Let’s go after him, Eremeich; he must be tied, or else… .’ They went off; I continued my way with more caution and, at length, reached my quarters safely. I was living at the house of an old Cossack sergeant, whom I liked for his kindly disposition, and especially for his pretty young daughter, Nastya. As was her custom, she was waiting for me at the wicket, wrapped up in her fur coat. The moon illumined her sweet lips, now blue with the cold of the night. On seeing it was I, she smiled; but I had other things on my mind. `Good night, Nastya!’I said, as I went by. She was on the point of answering something, but only sighed.

I closed the door of my room, lit a candle and threw myself on my bed; however, sleep made me wait for it longer than usual. The east was already beginning to pale when I fell asleep, but apparently it was written in heaven that I was not to get my fill of sleep that night. At four in the morning, two fists began to beat against my window. I jumped up: what was the matter? `Get up, get dressed!’ shouted several voices. I dressed quickly and went out. `Do you know what’s happened?’ said, with one voice, the three officers who had come to fetch me. They were as pale as death. `What?’ `Vulich has been killed.’ I was stupefied. `Yes, killed,’ they continued. `Let’s hurry.’ `Where to?’ `You’ll find out on the way.’ Off we went. They told me all that had happened with an admixture of various remarks regarding the strange predestination which had saved him from inevitable death, half an hour before his death. Vulich had been walking alone in a dark street. The drunken Cossack, who had hacked up the pig, happened to pitch into him, and would, perhaps, have gone on without taking notice of him, had not Vulich stopped short and said: `Whom are you looking for, man?’ `You!’ answered the Cossack, striking him with his sword, and cutting him in two, from the shoulder almost down to the heart. The two Cossacks who had met me and who were on the lookout for the murderer, came along; they picked up the wounded officer, but he was already breathing his last and said only three words: `He was right!’ I alone understood the obscure meaning of these words: they referred to me. I had unwittingly foretold the poor fellow’s fate; my intuition had not betrayed me; I had really read upon his altered face, the imprint of his imminent end. The assassin had locked himself up in an empty hut on the outskirts of the settlement: we proceeded thither. A great many women ran, wailing, in the same direction. Here and there, some belated Cossack rushed out into the street fastening on his dagger, and passed us at a run. The commotion was terrible.

When we finally got there, we saw a crowd surrounding the hut: its doors and shutters were locked from within. Officers and Cossacks were eagerly discussing the situation; women were wailing, lamenting and keening. Among them I noticed at once the striking face of an old woman which expressed frantic despair. She sat on a thick log, her elbows propped on her knees and her hands supporting her head: it was the murderer’s mother. Now and then her lips moved… Was it a prayer they whispered or a curse? Meanwhile, some decision had to be taken, and the criminal seized. No one, however, ventured to be the first to take the plunge. I walked up to the window and looked through a chink in the shutter. White-faced, he lay on the floor, holding a pistol in his right hand; a bloodstained sword lay beside him. His expressive eyes rolled dreadfully; at times he would start and clutch at his head as if vaguely recollecting the events of the night. I did not read strong determination in this restless gaze and asked the major why he did not order the Cossacks to break down the door and rush in, because it would be better to do it now than later when he would have fully regained his senses.

At this point an old Cossack captain went up to the door and called him by his name: the man responded. `You’ve done wrong, friend Efimych,’ said the captain. `There’s no way out except to submit.’ `I will not submit!’ replied the Cossack. `Have fear of the Lord! Think, you’re not a godless Chechen, but a decent Christian. Well, if sin has led you astray, there is nothing to be done; one can’t avoid one’s fate.’ `I will not submit!’ fiercely cried the Cossack, and one could hear the click of a cocked pistol. `Hey, my good woman,’ said the captain to the old woman, `talk a bit to your son, maybe he’ll listen to you… All this only angers God. And look, the gentlemen have been waiting for two hours now. The old woman looked at him fixedly and shook her head. `Vasily Petrovich,’ said the captain, going up to the major, `he will not surrender – I know him; and if we break the door open, he will kill many of our men. Hadn’t you better give the order to shoot him? There is a wide crack in the shutter.’ At that moment, an odd thought flashed through my mind. It occurred to me to test my fate as Vulich had. `Wait,’ I said to the major, `I shall take him alive.’ Telling the captain to start a conversation with him and, having stationed three Cossacks at the door, ready to break it in and rush to my assistance at a given signal, I walked around the hut and went close to the fateful window. My heart beat violently. `Hey you, cursed heathen!’ the captain was yelling, `are you laughing at us? Or do you think we shall not be able to subdue you?’ He began to knock on the door with all his might. My eye against the chink, I watched the movements of the Cossack who did not expect an attack from this side. Suddenly, I wrenched off the shutter and flung myself through the window, headfirst. A shot sounded above my very ear, a bullet tore off one of my epaulets; but the smoke that filled the room prevented my adversary from finding his sword which lay beside him. I seized him by the arms; the Cossacks burst in, and three minutes had not passed before the criminal was bound and removed under guard. The people dispersed. The officers kept congratulating me – and indeed, there was reason enough.

After all this, how, it would seem, can one escape becoming a fatalist? But then, how can a man know for certain whether or not he is really convinced of anything? And how often we mistake, for conviction, the deceit of our senses or an error of reasoning? I like to have doubts, about everything: this inclination of the mind does not impinge upon resoluteness of character. On the contrary, as far as I am concerned, I always advance with greater courage when I do not know what awaits me. For nothing worse than death can ever occur; and from death there is no escape! After my return to the fort, I related to Maksim Maksimych all that had happened to me and what I had witnessed, and I desired to know his opinion regarding predestination. At first, he did not understand the word but I explained it to him as best I could; and then he said significantly shaking his head: `Yes, sir! this is, of course, a rather tricky matter!… However, those Asiatic pistol cocks often miss fire if they are not properly oiled or if you do not press hard enough with the finger. I must say, I also do not like Circassian rifles. Somehow, they don’t seem to be suitable for the likes of us: the butt is so small you have to be careful not to get your nose burnt… But then, those swords they have – ah, they’re really something!’ Then he added after some thought: `Yes, I’m sorry for the poor fellow… Why the devil did he talk to a drunk at night!… However, this must have been what was assigned to him at his birth!’ Nothing more could I get out of him: he does not care, generally, for metaphysical discussions.

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on