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Aleksandr Kuprin: Поединок (The Duel)

Kuprin’s best-known novel is the story of a young Russian sub-lieutenant, Georgi (known as Yuri) Romashov but it is also a criticism of the Russian army. Romashov’s unit is based near the Prussian border, in a dreary little town, with a preponderant Jewish population and which is, presumably, now in Poland. The work of the army is on the whole very boring, as nothing happens except the annual review. But Kuprin’s criticism of the army is important. His main criticism is leveled at the cruelty shown by the officers to the men, including vicious and unjustified beatings, working long and unnecessary hours, poor pay, often stolen by the officers or used to pay off officers for better treatment and no sympathy for any individuals. The counterpoint is shown at the important annual review when the captain whose unit does best is the one who treats his men decently.

But much of the book is about Romashov. Though a likeable young man, Romashov is not a model soldier. He is in serious debt (drinking, gambling, women). He neglects his duties at time, turning up late and not treating it seriously. At the start of the novel, he is ending an affair with a woman married to another officer (but is avoiding telling her directly) and is falling in love with another woman married to a fellow officer. He has dreams of going to the staff college but has not studied for months. He is an inveterate day-dreamer. Indeed, his daydreams cause him serious problems as, during the big review, he is so busy day-dreaming that he fails to see his men are not marching in line and his regiment is shown up before the general.

Not a great deal happens, though we know, both from the title and the talk about other duels, that the story will culminate in a duel, which, indeed, it does. The result is only given in an official report, on the last page. Romashov tries to avoid Raisa Peterson, the married woman with whom he has been having an affair, and there is a wonderful scene at a party when she gives him a hard time. He chases after Alexandra Nikolaiev under her husband’s nose, not realising that, while she is happy to be courted, she is ambitious for her husband, who is studying for his staff college exams, which he has already failed twice. He gets drunk, gets into trouble with his superiors, daydreams, berates his Circassian servant, who is devoted to him. Indeed, though likeable, the only spark of real decency he shows is helping a soldier who has been abused and brutalised at the review and who is thinking of suicide. But, of course, his behaviour will have its consequences and it all leads to the inevitable duel. But Kuprin tells a good story and one that makes you see why the Russian Revolution occurred.

Publishing history

First published in 1905 by Znanie, St Petersburg
First English translation in 1916 by Allen & Unwin
Translated by Josh Billings