by Lars Sundhøj
Translated from the Danish by Thomas E. Kennedy
Translator’s note: In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” not all things were as smooth as that term seems to imply. Russian troops were still stationed in many eastern European countries and abruptly stopped receiving pay or provisions. But they had weapons, ammunition and vodka and as quickly as the Soviet was no more, many of them deserted, collecting in bands of armed criminals, stealing and terrorizing the populace. The following tale is not fiction. It is a true story about real people, brothers, who are known to the author.
-In four days the amnesty takes effect, one of the brothers said and reached for his glass on the table.
-Let’s drink to that, said the other.
For some time then, they sat without speaking. The apple tree cast a comfortable shadow over the terrace. The younger brothers’ grandchildren were playing on the lawn.
There was simply not much to say.
For nearly twenty years the shadowy memory had darkened their lives. For nearly twenty years, they had been uneasy every time the door bell rang or a car slowed in front of the house. For nearly twenty years, they had feared being arrested for what they had done that night in the woods.
-We had no choice, said the older brother.
And really they had no other choice, but how many would understand that today, when the world was – fortunately – very different from back then. But in four days it would be over. They would no longer have to fear the appearance of the ghost of what they had done.
The day the cold war ended between the great powers of the world, and that cessation reached the little corner of the map in which the two brothers and their families lived, the losers in the death struggle became more dangerous than before. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were cheated of everything they had all their lives been raised to take for granted, abandoned to the scorn of the peoples they had so long and effectively occupied and oppressed.
The Soviet’s formerly proud, all-powerful, occupying red army was humiliated, impoverished by the initial collapses of its leaders, and no longer received supplies from home. Discipline slackened and vanished. The previously effective war machine was transformed to a wounded, raging beast.
In truth, the whole thing had developed from a banal event. As banal as anything could be when the world had broken down and the occupation forces, which for nearly forty years had sat heavily on the nation, collapsed, rotted from within, as all dictators do sooner or later, and abandoned its stinking wreckage over a large expanse of the world, including here, where the two brothers had been born.
The worst of it, perhaps, were the drunken, wildly unpredictable bands of former soldiers, deserters, who survived by roaming the countryside, looting and ravaging what they could. Hardened by all too much violence and degradation, their last bit of humanity deadened by huge quantities of vodka – which the occupying army had always been certain there was a surplus of, even if everything else was in deficit.
The younger brother surprised three of the deserters one day breaking into the garage behind the forest ranger’s house where he and his family lived. Presumably they were hoping to find antifreeze, which every soldier knew was a useable alternative when the vodka ran out. Two hard punches and a threat from the muzzle of his high-caliber hunting rifle quickly discouraged them from their project. Flinging drunken curses and promises of what they would return and do to him and his family, they disappeared again into the woods.