/ 24 December 2001

Marching to Kamchatka

The Emperor of Russia was drilling a regiment of his soldiers in the grounds of the Kremlin. Watching the precise movements of the men as they responded to his commands, Czar Nicholas I became more and more fascinated by the power he exercised over them. He marched them to the very edge of the parade ground, making them grow smaller and smaller. When they were almost out of earshot, he summoned them back to life-size again. His voice condensed in the air, a huge, ghostly hand shifting the men this way and that like so many toys.

The czar had never felt more like an emperor in all his life. “These men will do anything I tell them to,” he thought.

Then a diverting idea came into his head.

Commanding the regiment to mark time, he called an orderly and instructed him to open the gates of the palace. When this had been done the czar issued one final command: “March to Kamchatka!”

The men heard this order with disbelief. Kamchatka was thousands of miles away. Between Moscow and the Siberian peninsula lay vast reaches of inhospitable territory. March to Kamchatka? It was impossible. Nevertheless, they had been given an order and they had to obey. They were soldiers. They marched out of the gates and the Czar watched them go with a smile on his face.

Once they were out of sight of the czar, they began to whisper among themselves about what to do next. They were all agreed that they had to go on until he ordered a halt. “It is just an imperial joke,” they decided, as they marched along. “Soon he will order an about-turn and then we will go back to the barracks and have a good laugh. Perhaps he will grant us a special furlough or hold a banquet in our honour?”

But the order never came. When it grew dark and they could no longer see where they were going, they stopped to sleep in a field at the roadside. At first light they went on again, less sure of themselves than before. They marched all day, and the day after that.

It became clear that the march was more than a joke. “Perhaps it is a test?” someone said. Now they began to take the whole thing more seriously. Probably they were being observed, secretly, to see if they were made of stern stuff. No doubt an important task awaited those who proved themselves, a rebellion to subdue or a territory to conquer, with the attendant honours and commissions.

In the beginning outriders hurried between the regiment and the czar, bringing news of their progress. But after a fortnight he lost interest in them. “Enough,” he said. “I am tired of these interruptions. Let me know when they get to Kamchatka.”

The regiment marched on, finding food and shelter where they could. Already some of them ached with the knowledge that this was neither a joke nor a test. It was simply an imperative. They were marching to Kamchatka for no other reason than that they had been ordered to do so.

Not a month passed before the first man was lost. Rising in the night to relieve himself, a corporal fell into a ravine. His name led a long roll of careless deaths. Now and again the tedium of the march would be broken by their passage through a town, when a few curious people came out to watch them. But they could never stop for comfort.

As they went steadily eastwards into the far-flung territories of the empire, the hand of power relaxed its grip on everyone but them. Weakened by hunger and hard living, beset by brigands and wild animals, storms and fevers, their numbers dwindled. One man choked on a pebble, another hanged himself in a barn, half a dozen died of food poisoning. Months and years passed. But always the survivors went on, marching and sleeping. Even when they slept at night their arms and legs twitched as they marched through their dreams.

Occasionally, a traveller brought word to Mos-cow about the doomed regiment. The czar had forbidden anyone to talk to him directly about the matter, but when snippets reached him they always made him smile.

A Siberian winter proved too much for even the hardiest of the survivors. Indeed, all the men perished but one, who shuffled into Cape Lopatka, the southernmost tip of the Kamchatka peninsula, three years after setting out from Moscow. There he stayed and, despite the hardships he had endured, lived a long and contented life, spoilt only by the nagging anxiety that the czar would one day order him home.

Ivan Vladislavic, recipient of both the Olive Schreiner and CNA awards, is author of The Restless Supermarket (David Philip)

The tale of the Czar’s Finger

There are many stories about the whims of Czar Nicholas I. One of them concerns the railway line between St Petersburg and Moscow, which was opened in 1851, towards the end of his reign, and is still in use today. The line was remarkably straight except for a pronounced kink about 160km from St Petersburg known as the Czar’s Finger. In recent years high-speed trains have had trouble negotiating this curve, and in October the line was finally straightened.

On the day before the opening of the new line, Kevin O’Flynn published a piece about the severing of the Czar’s Finger in The Guardian: “In 1850, according to the legend, Nicholas was shown the plans for a rail link between the czarist northern capital and Moscow. Taking an instant dislike to the convoluted route being proposed, he grabbed a ruler and drew a straight line between the cities. One third of the way down, the czar’s royal finger inadvertently got in the way and the railway line developed an unplanned bump.

“Too scared to question the czar, the railway planners duly incorporated a 17,6km curve into the line, known ever since as the Czar’s Finger.

“Sadly, the truth is more prosaic. The curve, also called the Verebinsky bypass, was actually built in 1877, 26 years after the line came into being, to circumvent a steep gradient …

“Railway buffs suspect a little-known Russian writer, Nikolai Grech, of starting the finger story, although the long history of Russian leaders playing havoc with the plans of architects aided its credibility. According to one tale, Ivan the Terrible blinded the creators of St Basil’s cathedral so that they would never create anything as beautiful again.”

I first heard the story of the march to Kamchatka when I was a child. A few years ago, I came across it again in a book by the Danish Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, and decided to write down my own version. But I would not be surprised if Grech was behind it all.