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Sergei Lebedev
translated by Antonina W. Bouis
07 April 2023

On a desolate steppe, Kasatonov guards the railway – and with that, an empire. « In the cursed August of 1991 the radio informed Kasatonov that there was a state of emergency in the capital. Then it fell silent, as if the receiver had broken. »

« WHOOOO » is an excerpt from Sergei Lebedev’s collection A Present Past: Titan and other chronicles, published by New Vessel Press. His stories are set in the Soviet and post-Soviet world, and at the same time otherworldly: ghost stories, guilt stories, denial stories.

Sergei Lebedev

Kasatonov’s guardhouse stood in the middle of the steppe pitted with indistinct sinkholes. Kasatonov liked it: it was as if during a war here, artillery had been fired from a distance. War had in fact passed through here in 1942, but it left no visible traces. A column of German tanks had driven through, throwing up clouds of chalk dust, but nothing more. Nothing more had happened here since time immemorial. If not for the sinkholes, there would be nothing to catch the eye. Besides the guardhouse and the semaphore, of course.

The limestone covered with steppe grasses was unstable. Rainwater seeped in and undermined it. The embankment was prone to collapsing or sliding sideways, which would make the rails crooked and the switch jam. That meant supervision was needed. An attentive human eye was needed.

A post at any other switch would have been removed long ago. A team would arrive on a dilapidated, oil-stained repair trolley, oil the mechanism, regulate the automated settings, and that would be it. The watchman would have been sent off to the city to retire and do crossword puzzles.

But here, Kasatonov had a special switch.

An H-hour switch.

One day, multistarred generals in underground bunkers would break open special seals, or whatever it is they were supposed to open, they wouldn’t tell Kasatonov what, and military siren alarms would blare throughout the country, in all the barracks. Armies would move into staging areas to escape the enemy’s missiles. And then Kasatonov’s switch, which connects the single track with the main one, would join the points to the mainline rails. They would connect, without question. Trains carrying tanks and armored personnel carriers would pass over it.

It’s far to the cities from here. Even to the stations. Barren hillocks, you wouldn’t even run into a gopher, there was something they didn’t like here, the bastards: maybe the chalk in the ground was wrong. Sometimes in the distance, at the boundary of your vision, a deer would flash by in the haze of overheated air. But you couldn’t get it with a carbine, you needed an optical sight.

It was far, remote. That was why Kasatonov was stationed there, a skilled and proven man. He was repairman, lineman, and sentry. The guardhouse was an old freight car taken off its wheels. Post No. 4367STR.

Water was stored in a cistern, hauled in by a shunting locomotive once a month, along with food. In the winter, snow could be melted. There was never a lack of snow here.

Kasatonov tried planting potatoes, but they wouldn’t grow. And it wasn’t really suitable, it’s not a summer house, it’s a guarded site, and Kasatonov had the right to take the first warning shot, and then to shoot, he was given an SKS, a self-loading carbine, the weapon of the Soviet rear guard, military builders, warehouse watchmen, and prison guards. Kasatonov had asked for an automatic rifle. Still hadn’t gotten one, they kept dragging their feet, saying it wasn’t in accordance with the rules.

The rules called for two men to serve here, alternating twelve-hour shifts. One would rest, the other staying by the communications console, going out every two hours to check the switch and do the rounds. Those were the instructions written on a steel plate. Neither fire, nor water, nor a distant shell explosion could harm it. The instructions, embossed in metal, would survive a fallen watchman and be used by the next one.

Kasatonov respected that steel plate affixed above the console. He wiped it carefully to keep the paint from peeling. It was no toy, it was factory-made, stamped. Yet it seemed to speak to him directly: be on guard, Kasatonov, transmitting directives from the top, from the very towers of the Kremlin.

He was from a faraway forest region, forever beyond the reach of the railroad. They kept extending it, both tsars and the Soviet regime, but they couldn’t overcome the swamps. At the southern edge they established the Zelenoe station, but from there you had to transfer to river transport. It was there at Zelenoe that he saw his first train, when he was a conscript.

Yes, there were supposed to be two men. In the first few years they kept promising that his partner would be sent any day. They’ve already selected him, he’s coming, being trained, filling out forms, getting access, obtaining clearance for access to the instructions on the steel plate that Kasatonov put into the fireproof cabinet when the train engineer came for tea in the winter. It was a special post, and that meant the man assigned to the switch had to be checked up and down and inside out by the authorities.

He took inordinate pleasure in the words register, record, document. Registering meant seals and signatures, papers filled out, involving a person who was proven, trusted, verified, unassailable, subject to the Code and secret clauses of secret statutes, entered into the staff roster, allocated a salary, assigned to a numbered post, attached to a unit, a military unit, and through the unit to the whole, to the army, subordinate to command, required to maintain loyalty to his oath, guard the post, and be given a personal weapon — with the right to use it, if.

Except that no one was registered, no one was dispatched, even though Kasatonov had truly waited at the ready in those early years. He imagined his partner as a younger brother, the one he had never had. He would teach him the ropes, make sure he didn’t laze around, went out on time to check the switch, and memorized the instructions perfectly, because there could be a surprise inspection, which happened sometimes.

Then that passed. Instead he developed a suspicious, worried fear — don’t let them send someone, some slacker, some dolt who will need to be taught how to swat flies, while they pension off Kasatonov.

« You’re joking! » he would say to an imaginary fat lieutenant in the personnel department. « That won’t work. Kasatonov will continue serving. » And self-assured and relaxed, he would go out to the switch, his steady companion, and sit on a piece of the wooden tie. He would sit looking at the distant mountains beyond the steppe. The peaks matched up, snowy, jagged battlements; the Caucasus.

Kasatonov did not like mountains. You might think, what were they to him, let them just be, they’re beautiful. But they infuriated him. Who set them there across the flatness? The mountains didn’t let railroads through. They didn’t make room for trains. They had power over space.

Kasatonov would sit until twilight, and then pick up the long-handled hammer used at stations to check train wheels and brake boxes. He hefted it and eyed the spot and carefully beat out a ringing rhythm on the switch, gradually accelerating like a train.

Overwhelmed by loyalty and delight, he could feel the iron body of the railroad awakening, the railroad that exists in all parts of the country and in all its time zones. He struck one little railway joint, one hard bone sticking out, yet the response was from the whole, as if his insignificant tapping pleased it and he was allowed to place his ear on the rail as a reward. The echo of his hammer receded in the metal and then returned, transformed, from afar, having run thousands and thousands of kilometers across the great country created and bound by rails. The rails sang to him about everything that is and was.

About trains of soldiers that traveled from all regions to the west. About trains of prisoners that traveled from all regions to the north and east. About how you couldn’t trust land. It was cunning and unfaithful and that was why you had to load its back with heavy embankments, rails, and ties, and drive spikes into the ties — only then could the land truly be conquered.

In the cursed August of 1991 the radio informed Kasatonov that there was a state of emergency in the capital. Then it fell silent, as if the receiver had broken.

He spent three days at the communications console, waiting for the green call key to light up, for the bulbs on the train map to blink, for the trains to start rolling, for a surge of the power that had been accumulated over decades and written about in newspapers and celebrated in songs.

The air rustled with the frightened whispers of mainline dispatchers. Three times the apparatus came to life, the yellow key lighting up: expect a call. But the green never turned on. The order did not come. The military trains did not roll.

On the third day Kasatonov, disillusioned and desperate, barely able to stand on his feet from exhaustion but not allowed to sleep, pushed the call key himself. For the third time in his life.

Twice before, the blizzards had blown snowdrifts the height of a man across the line and he needed a snowplow train. Kasatonov — following the instructions — had made the call, and a clear voice responded instantly.

« Duty officer. I’m listening. »

Now, there seemed to be contact, the connection was on, but no one said anything.

« This is four-three-six-seven, over, » Kasatonov repeated.

On the other end, it was as if kids were fooling around: picking up the phone and breathing into the receiver. Someone seemed to be walking, breathing, smoking, sighing heavily, unhappily.

Kasatonov could not believe this kind of negligence was possible. He decided it was an error, the signalmen had messed up, and there was no connection with the control point at all. He ran his eyes over the metal plate with the instructions: if there is no connection with the control point, you must sound the alarm. He tore off the stamped lead seal from the red key and pressed with all his heart.

Jiggle, jaggle, and then nothing.

The sound in his earphones was harsh, like a strong wind blowing over an empty bottle.

« Whoooo . . . »

Kasatonov tried again: crack, clack, snap.

And in the earphones, « Whoooo. »

Third time: click and pop.

He shouted: « This is four-three-six-seven, come in! »

There was that sound again: « Whoooo. »

Kasatonov suddenly realized that in many thousands of guardhouses and cabins, booths and compartments, cipher posts, offices, and bunkers, frightened servicemen were shouting into microphones, zero one and zero two, sixty-nine and eight slash seven, secret and super secret, all trying to shout their way to the top. And the response was the monotonous, terrifying « Whoooo . . . »

Kasatonov flew out of the guardhouse. Silence.

In the distance were the mountains bathed in light, their broken lines, crooked battlements, battlements, battlements.

Far in the distance, space sang along with the airwaves, the wind playfully roaring among the stones: « Whoooo . . .  »

Oh, how he wanted to kill, shoot that Whoooo, tear it apart with explosions of shells, cut it to shreds with sprays of automatic fire! He grabbed his carbine and shot into the air.

« Bang! Bang! Bang! »

From the steppe the thrum settled around him: « Whoooo. »

He dropped the carbine, picked up his hammer, readied himself, and then banged out a melody on the rail, the secret code.

Nothing. The railroad was silent. Dead.

Kasatonov threw the hammer aside. Rushed to his bed, covered himself with his military coat, and stuffed cotton from the first aid kit into his ears so he could not hear « Whoooo. »

Only on the fourth day did Whoooo disappear from the airwaves. The voices of his superiors returned. But they no longer had their previous power.

Their military service was put under civilian command. He still served: wearing the insignia of a nonexistent country, with its military ID, with its bullets in his carbine. Kasatonov sensed that he could leave his post and nothing would happen to him for that. Many left; no wonder the rails were silent and did not respond to the hammer.

But where would he go? What did he have besides the guardhouse, besides the instructions on the steel plate?

Kasatonov believed that one day, not tomorrow, not in a month, but maybe in a year or two, the green call key would light up on the dead console, and a firm young voice would say, « Four-three-six-seven, do you hear me? Over! »

« Loud and clear, control point, over, » Kasatonov would reply, straightening his uniform.

« Check the points, four-three-six-seven, » the control office would order. « Readiness for twelve oh-oh. Tomorrow special trains will pass through you. »

« Will check the switch, over, » Kasatonov replied.

He would adjust everything, oil everything. In the morning, he would connect the side rail to the main line. The consists of trains would roll, the army would return, and the cheerful soldiers under the red banner would catch wind of Whoooo, chase it into the mountains, and kill it in the dark ravines.

During the day, Kasatonov hunted, setting snares in the steppes. In the evening, in the cooling twilight, he smoked the dried steppe grasses and stared at the distant city at the foot of the mountains.

They spoke a foreign language there, related to the language of mountain rivers, avalanches, and landslides. Even the dogs barked differently than in Kasatonov’s homeland.

Long, long ago, when he was a young conscript, a soldier in a railroad convoy, Kasatonov transported those local residents to the hot deserts, from the Caucasus mountains to Asian Kazakhstan, to a place where there was nothing taller than a camel. Hundreds of train consists traveled east, leaving the dead at wayside stops. The engines’ black smoke covered the rails. Kasatonov sensed that this was forever, there would be no return. That was what made convoy work magnificent and terrible. Not just a few Chechen prisoners here and there, but an entire nation, from young to old, was in its grasp.

And now this disorder — they were back. Once again, they were drinking the waters of their rivers, breathing the air of their mountains, when they were supposed to have rotted in the sands.

Before, when the highest command was in power, Kasatonov did not let himself ask why they had returned. Who let them? Now, he began pondering: how was this possible? By what right? Was this how the disintegration of a vast empire had started? Were the mountains beyond the city, the alien and insubordinate mountains, the source of that devilish sound? Whoooo.

Kasatonov expected the call keys to light up in spring, when the snows melted. He remembered what he was taught: war sleeps in winter, the troops burrow into their dugouts, the weapon lubricants freeze. In spring, the roads open up and the generals lay out fresh maps atop their desks.

The keys lit up in the final days of November, in a snowless period when all steppe creatures, now in their white winter coats, were helpless before hunters.

Kasatonov brought a white hare into the guardhouse, a huge one. The console was ringing, buzzing, ding-dong. His first thought was that it would freeze, just a click, and then nothing.

The green key was lit up.

Kasatonov turned it on cautiously, afraid he would hear that horrible Whoooo.

There was a loud voice: « Four-three-six-seven, respond! »

No Whoooo. He could hear other command voices, dispatchers calling other posts.

Kasatonov barely managed to respond, almost mixing up his own number, « This is four-three-six-seven, over! »

The speaker barked: « Battle ready! Four-three-six-seven, the password is APATITE!, repeat, password APATITE! Do you read me, over? »

« Confirming APATITE, over, » Kasatonov gulped and answered firmly.

The connection broke.

The instructions Kasatonov had showed the passwords BIRCH, TORCH, CORRIDOR, CORDON. No APATITE. He didn’t even know what apatite was. Maybe they meant appetite? Did his nerves make him mishear?

He could have honestly replied that he did not know this Apatite-Appetite. He had not been informed. They had not updated his code tables. But what if the dispatcher had hung up on him? Sent the trains through a different switch?

« Battle ready, battle ready, » he said to himself, tapping and greasing the switch. « Battle ready! »

His heart rejoiced.

« Apatite! Appetite! Appatite! Apetite! »

He wanted to stay up all night awaiting the signal, but fell asleep, exhausted, right at the console.

A horn blast woke him in the morning.

Kasatonov ran out of the guardhouse.

At the semaphore, at the switch, stood a consist of trains. Its end was invisible in the gray morning mist. His eyes scanned the cars and platforms: one, two, seven, eleven, twenty-two, he couldn’t see beyond that. A regiment, maybe even a brigade. All its tanks, armored personnel carriers, trailers, tech vans, antiaircraft installations, camp kitchens, tankers, tractors, repair shops — in one formation.

Wrapped in tarps, the tanks and armored personnel carriers poked at the fabric with their gun barrels, as if they had a soldier’s morning hard-on. The soldiers smoked and pissed from the train doors, the steam of urine mixing with cigarette smoke.

Kasatonov, moving the railway points, prayed for the diesel locomotive, rails, tanks, and cannons to depart, to pepper them with TNT over there, shoot, mutilate, clobber, wipe them off the face of the earth; crush them, bomb them out, so that the whole world would be brought to life by the shooting, and no one would ever dare say Whoooo on any speaker again.

The consist started moving heavily, crawled onto the main line, and set off in the direction of the mountains.

Days passed: as if the trains had not been there.

The communications console was silent again.

There still was no snow, as if winter was not prepared to come down from the whitened mountains to the plain.

Kasatonov began to think that it had been a dream: platforms, tanks, machine guns, quadruple barrels of antiaircraft guns, the evening call, the password APATITE or APPETITE.

Yet he knew definitively that the military trains had not been a mirage. The ties in the places where the zealous soldiers had urinated copiously still stank. He walked there, like an old hound around new markings, sniffing, where were they, the dogs, where did they go, why weren’t they raising their voices?

On New Year’s Eve, bare, black, terrible, the sky cracked open over the city in the distance, at the foot of the mountains. Pounding, roaring, yellow explosions, and red lightning bolts raced across the sparse clouds. He recognized the voices of tank cannon, the voices of artillery, and he danced in the icy wind and shouted into the darkness, laughing and mocking: « Whoooo! Whoooo! »

In the morning he was felled by a fierce fever, and the guardhouse was snowbound for days by blizzards. He didn’t hear them. Then Kasatonov began getting up. He had strength enough to heat the guardhouse and boil water. His ears were swollen, as if from the shelling, and he could not hear the sounds of the world, the inflamed echo of the nocturnal cannonade traveling through his body.

One icy morning, as if to restore his hearing, a diesel locomotive sounded at the guardhouse.

Kasatonov crawled out, dragging a shovel to dig out the snow-covered railway point.

The train was on the main line.

There wasn’t a single person on its platforms.

Only tanks and armored personnel carriers, dead, smashed, illuminated by the sun rising from the winter darkness.

They were poorly cleaned, like discarded tin cans. Like tin cans, they stank even in the bitter cold, reeking of rotted meat and cinders.

He stared in disbelief at the fractures of split armor, scorch marks, cuts, dents. At the black, human cracklings stuck to the slopes of torn turrets.

He heard the mountain wind howling in the dead metal, blowing into the blasted hatches and twisted barrels: « Whoooo. »

A Present Past
Stories by Sergei Lebedev

« Even though I was a child, I remember the phenomenon of mystical feelings, elemental and ubiquitous, as sudden as a volcanic eruption. » Sergei Lebedev writes about the Soviet and post-Soviet world.

A Present Past: Titan and other chronicles is published by New Vessel Press.