On December 17, 2015, Harper’s Magazine published “Revisionist History” by John Reed. This article poses the question, “Is George Orwell’s Animal Farm based on the work of a nineteenth-century Russian writer?” Harper’s published an excerpt of the story in question. We are pleased to share the story in full.
Animal Riot: Letter from a Little Russian landowner to his friend in St. Petersburg
by Nikolai Kostomarov, translated by Tanya Paperny
The most unusual thing happened over here, so unusual that had I heard it from someone or read it somewhere and not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. Completely incredible: riot, uprising, revolution!
You probably think this was some sort of defiance of masters by their subordinates. Precisely. But this was not a riot of subordinates exactly but of the indentured, and not of humans but of farm animals and house pets. We are used to thinking that since animals are mute, they must also be foolish. It seems rational using human logic: they can’t talk, we say amongst ourselves, so they must not think or understand anything!
But is this actually true? We can’t reason with them so we consider them foolish and mute, but it turns out—as we’ll thoroughly discuss here—that we can’t understand their language. After all, learned ones have shown that the Russian word for German, nemetz, comes from the word mute, nemoi, and that this nickname was given to the Teutonic tribes by Slavs because Slavs didn’t understand their language. The exact same thing happened here.
Recently, science has begun to understand that animals—whom we flippantly think of as mute and foolish—have a way of communicating emotions using their own language, which sounds nothing like ours, the human language. There’s already been much written about this, but since we live on a homestead out in the back country, we don’t read such articles and only hear they exist somewhere in Europe. However, one can find such wise men in these parts, ones who are even more knowledgeable than the learned Europeans about the ways animals express their thoughts.
On our own homestead we have one wise man like this. His name is Omelko. An unbelievable person, I tell you! He has never read any books or studied grammar, but he knows in entirety the language and dialects of all domesticated animals: cattle, horses, sheep and pigs—even chickens and geese! And how did he learn all this when no one here has a grammar book or dictionary of animal languages, you might ask?
Omelko achieved all this by virtue of his uncommon abilities, without any guidance, armed with nothing but a constant and stubborn observation of animal customs and ways.
Omelko has lorded over our animals since his childhood, for more than forty years now. There are others like him in Little Russia, but no one can match even a fourth of his knowledge. He has so completely mastered the language of animals that if a cow merely grunts, a sheep bleats, or a pig oinks, Omelko can tell you right away what this animal wants to say. This one-of-a-kind expert on animal nature would never agree with those who believe that the logical faculties animals possess are much weaker than those of humans. Omelko insists that animals display an intelligence no lesser—and sometimes even greater—than that of humans. Omelko has commented on this again and again: “You go out at night, you don’t know the road well and you get lost. You look and look, but you can’t find the way. So you let your horse lead, and he knows the road better than you and takes you where you need to get to.”
And with cattle it’s like this: the boys take them out to pasture and then play around or fall asleep and lose the cattle. Later the boys are crying, poor things, but the cattle—they find their way back without the herders. One time the sexton, having returned from our parish about five miles away, started telling us the biblical story of Balaam and his female donkey, which he called a mare so we’d understand. Hearing the story, Omelko said: “That’s nothing strange. It just means Balaam understood equine language. Entirely possible. A mare could have said the same thing to me.” Omelko told us much, so much, from his many years communicating with animals of different breeds, which explains the strange event we’ll now describe.
As far back as the fall of 1879, different animals on my estate started showing signs of resistance and disobedience, and a revolutionary spirit was born, directed against the rule of man, a power which has been anointed by the centuries and legends.
According to Omelko, the first signs of this movement appeared in the bulls, who since time immemorial have stood out for their willfulness—which is why humans have often relied on strict and sometimes even severe methods to restrain them. On our homestead we had one bull like this. Afraid to let him into the field with the rest of the herd, they instead held him in a locked pen. When they led him to drink, they put chains on his legs and a wooden visor over his eyes to prevent him from seeing anything on the path ahead. Otherwise he’d become so violent that he’d throw himself at every person he’d encounter and rear his horns for no good reason. A few times I thought about killing him, but every time his life was saved by Omelko, who insisted this bull possessed such great characteristics inherent in his bullish genes that he wouldn’t be easily replaced.
At Omelko’s insistence I decided to let him live, but only with the understanding that the strictest precautions be taken so this ruffian not do anyone irreparable harm. Sometimes when they’d shepherd him and the village boys could hear his terrible bellowing from afar, they’d run off in different directions so as not to find themselves face-to-face with the raging animal. We all thought it was just his beastly energy and the anguish of unending bondage that made him so violent, but Omelko—guided by his knowledge of animal dialects—noted that the bellows of our bull resembled something more serious: agitation toward mutiny and insubordination.
Bulls, as Omelko realized, can have qualities like we encounter in some of our brother-humans: they have a sort of constant, untamable desire to agitate without clear purpose—strife for strife’s sake, revolt for revolt’s sake, a fight for fight’s sake. Calm bores them and order nauseates them—they want everything around them to be seething, everything to make a racket—and on top of that, they delight in knowing that they and no one else orchestrated it all. Like we said, you can find these kinds of beings among humans—they also exist among animals. That’s how our bull was, and so the horrible uprising—which we’re talking about now—started with him, that all-animal agitator. Always standing in his pen in a sad loneliness, our bull bellowed non-stop day and night, and Omelko—the legendary expert on bovine language—heard him cursing all of humankind, using curse words even Shakespeare couldn’t have dreamed up for Timon of Athens. When the bulls and cows would come inside the pen in the evening after grazing, the bull would carry on evening conversations with his horned brethren, sowing the first seeds of criminal dissent among his class of comrades. For his many years of service, Omelko had been promoted to oversee the whole animal domain, and under his supervision were not only bulls and cows but also sheep, goats, horses and pigs. You can imagine how at his managerial level, with his many and varied responsibilities, it was impossible to keep a regular and close watch on these scandalous conversations, so taking immediate preventative measures was the responsibility of less senior persons.
But because of his deep familiarity with animal languages and customs, it was enough that Omelko had walked into the cattle pen two or three times. When the rebellion exploded, he could immediately point to its origins from his few observations. Unfortunately, I will add, Omelko had an extremely gentle and mild disciplinary style, so he approached with leniency that which, as the consequences showed, should have been dealt with using the harshest methods to nip the evil in the bud. More than once, upon walking into the pen unexpectedly for a short while, he’d overhear the scandalous antics of the bull, but Omelko dismissed them as the delusions of youth and inexperience. The speeches the bulls heard at these protests translate roughly into human language as follows:
“Brother-bulls, sister- and wife-cows! Honorable animals, worthy of a better lot than the one you bear at the will of some unknown fate, one which enslaves you to the tyrant-human! For a long time—so long that our animal memory cannot even estimate—you have drank from the trough of calamity and can never seem to get to the bottom.
Using the superiority of his mind over ours, the treacherous tyrant subjugates us, we of feeble minds, so much that we have lost the dignity of living beings and have become like unthinking tools to satisfy his whims. The humans milk our mothers and wives, depriving our little baby-calves, and what don’t they make from our cow’s milk! After all this milk is our property and not theirs! Instead of our cows, let them milk their own women. But no, apparently they don’t like their own milk so much—ours is tastier! And that’s not all. We bulls are a kindhearted people: we would have allowed ourselves to be milked as long as they didn’t do anything worse. But again, look what they do to our poor calves. They load the poor little things in a cart, tie their legs, and take them away! And where do they carry them? To have their throats cut, torn from their mother’s teat! The greedy tyrant has taken a liking to their meat, and how! He considers it one of his best dishes! And what does the tyrant do to our adult brethren?
Over there, our brother the noble ox is carrying a heavy yoke on his neck to drag a plow and dig holes for the tyrant. Our tyrant throws seeds into the ground dug up by the ox’s labor, and from that grain grows grass, and from that grass our tyrant knows how to make this clod, just like earth only whiter, and our tyrant calls this bread and devours it because it is very tasty.
And suppose our horned brother dares to walk out onto the field—plowed previously by his own labor—to enjoy tasty grasses. Our brother will be chased out with a whip or even a club. But in fact, the grass growing on that field is our property and not man’s. After all it was our brother who dragged the plow and tilled the earth. Without that this grass would not have grown on the field by itself. He who labors should get to reap the benefits of that labor. So it should follow: you yoked us to the plow and used our labor to dig up the field, so give us the grass sown on that field. And if man needs to take some grain, which he tossed into the land dug up by our labor, for himself, then he should at least give us half and take the other half for himself. But he greedily takes it all, and what is left for us is nothing but a beating. Our animal brothers are such a kind-hearted people that they would tolerate even this. But the cruelty of our tyrant toward us grown bulls does not end there!
Has it ever happened to you, brother, that you are grazing in the field and see them driving a herd of our brother cattle, or even sheep, along the posted road? The herd is so plump, happy and playful! You might think the tyrant has taken pity and repented for his misdeeds against our breed. He fattened us up and set us free. Not a chance! The stupid bull is playing and thinks he has just been set free to the wide open steppe. But he will soon find out what kind of freedom awaits him! Yes, the tyrant fed him alright: all summer our brother-beast walked the fields in complete happiness, and they didn’t torment him with work, but why? Why did the tyrant become so merciful toward his animals? Here is why: ask where they are taking this bull now, and you will learn that the enemy-master sold his bull to another evil member of the human race who will then take the bull to a huge human pen, which they call a city. As soon as they get there, they will drag the poor animal to a slaughterhouse, and there the old bull will suffer the same fate as the young calves, only more torturous. Do you know, brother, about this slaughterhouse where they are taken? You will feel a chill creep through your veins as soon as you realize what they do at that slaughterhouse, so it is for good reason that our brother-beast lows pitifully when nearing the city where it is located. They tie the poor bull to a post, and then the evildoer approaches with a hatchet and hits him square on the head between the horns. The bull howls from fear and pain, stands on his hind legs and the evildoer gives it to him one more time—then a knife to the throat. One after the first, then a third, then a dozen and another dozen, until he’s gotten a hundred bulls. Bovine blood spills in torrents. Then they take the skin off the dead ones, cut the meat into chunks and sell it in their markets. The other bulls that were brought to the city to be killed walk past those stands and see the meat of their comrades hanging there, and their bovine hearts sense that soon the same fate will befall them! From our skin, the tyrant makes shoes to protect his cursed feet, and from that very skin he makes different types of bags to pack his things. These he tosses into a cart, and to this very cart he’ll tie up our brother. And from that same skin he cuts out narrow strips to make whips, and he strikes us with those same whips made of our skin. Sometimes they even beat one another with these whips made from our skin! Heartless tyrants! Not only do they behave this way toward us: they manage no better between themselves! They enslave one another, they torment and torture one another…what a mean breed these humans! There is no one meaner on earth. Meaner than all the animals! And somehow this fierce, bloodthirsty creature ensnared us innocent animals into hard, unbearable bondage. Now, considering all this, is our fate not sour?
But are we actually stuck here? Are we actually so weak that we can never free ourselves from this slavery? Do we not have horns? Were there not times when in a fit of righteous indignation our horned-brothers ripped open the stomachs of our oppressors? When our horned brother kicks a human, does he not immediately break the human’s leg or arm? What are we, weak? After all, our enemy harnesses our horned brother precisely when he needs to carry a heavy load, one a human can’t lift himself.
Hence our tyrant knows well that we have much strength, more strength than he. Our oppressor only dares when he does not expect any resistance from us; when he sees that we will not submit to him, he calls over other brother-men who run to join in the treachery. Some days the cattle herd does not want to obey the herder—he is herding to the right but the bulls want to go left—so the herder will call on other herdsmen to surround us, one from one side, another from the other side, and the third will get up in front to scare one of our brothers. This way they can lead the whole herd where they want to. For their feeble-mindedness, ours do not realize that even though they are surrounded on all sides by herders, those cattlemen are still smaller than our brothers. They should not obey but point their horns at the herder, who would then go away because they would not be able to manage our herd. But ours do not realize what to do and are obedient—they walk where they are led and just sigh, for there is much to sigh about. Our brothers would love to eat some tasty field grasses and play around a bit the way they like to—butt each other with their horns for fun, scratch up on the tree. But they do not let us over there and instead lead us to a pasture where other than some short knot-weeds, there is nothing to nibble on, or they chase us into a lonely pen to chew on straw. All this because we are obedient and afraid to show our animal dignity. Let us stop obeying the tyrant: let us announce our intentions not just with our bellowing but with simultaneous jumping and head-butting; let us show that we want to be free animals by any means necessary and not his cowardly slaves.
Oh, brother-bulls and sister-cows! We have long been young and naïve! But a different period has come—new times are upon us! We have now matured enough, wisened up, evolved! It’s time to throw off the miserable chains of slavery and avenge our ancestors, those tortured by work, emaciated by hunger and bad feed, stuck under whip cracks and heavy carts, killed in slaughterhouses and ripped into chunks by our torturers. Let us rise up together, united under one horn!
And we cattle are not alone as we rise up against humans: for one, the horses are striking with us, and the goats, sheep and pigs—all domestic creatures whom the human has enslaved will rise up for freedom from our shared tyrant. We will cease all our internal fighting, all petty disagreements between individuals, and at every moment we will remember that we share a common enemy and oppressor.
We will achieve equality, liberty and independence; restore the overthrown and trampled dignity of all living animals; and bring back those happy times when animals were still free and not trapped under the cruel reign of humans. Let us go back to those blissful old times: all the fields, meadows, pastures, groves and wheat fields will be ours, and we will have the right to graze, buck and playfully butt our heads where ever we want. We will start living in total freedom and absolute happiness. Long live bestiality! Down with mankind!”
The bull’s outrageous speech achieved the desired affect. Afterwards, for the whole summer, cattle spread revolutionary ideas throughout the pens, pastures and paddocks, and they started underground meetings where all they talked about was how and with what act they should launch their revolt against man. Many were of the belief that acting alone was easiest, ramming one’s horns at one or the other of the cattlemen until all were eradicated; others who were a bit more courageous proposed it was better to right away get rid of the one giving orders to all the cattlemen: first slaughter the master himself. But those oxen who used to go on Chumak trading trips and had expanded their worldview offered the following idea: “What good will it do if we kill the lead tyrant? He will not be in power anymore, but then another will just take his place. If we are taking on the grand project of liberating the animal kingdom, then it needs to be done firmly to carry out a fundamental transformation of animal society, and we need to use our animal minds to develop foundations on which to forever establish our well-being. And can we as cattle organize this for everyone else? No! No! This is not exclusively our project, but one for all the different animal species enslaved to man! Horses and goats, sheep and pigs, and perhaps even caged birds all need to rise up against our common enemy, and when we throw off our wretched bondage, we will have a general gathering of all beasts to establish a new liberated union.”
This bullish insubordination spilled over to the horses, whose herd grazed on the same field as the cattle. The spirit of mutiny then fully penetrated their neighing society. According to Omelko’s observations, equine language differs completely from bovine, but cohabitation has led to some points of closeness between the two breeds. It’s become common among the horses to understand bovine language and vice versa. The word among the bovine breed which means “bull,” among the equine breed means “stallion” in all cases.
The stallions were a rowdy bunch, by nature inclined toward all kinds of defiance, predestined for the role of agitator, you could say. On my estate there was a chestnut stallion in the equine herd, a big bully. When they were shepherding him and would tie him up, it would take two herders without fail to hold him back by the reins. They once tried to harness him to the shaft and drive him and the carriage down the road, but he immediately and willfully swerved to the side, reared his front legs into the first hut he came across, and neighed loudly. Another time I had guests, and I ordered him to be brought over to be shown off with other beautiful horses. He bit two of my geldings for no good reason and kicked a third one with his hooves. When the geldings struck back, it became such a mess that I ordered them immediately separated and taken away.
What a prankster! Regardless of his childish games, he was held in high esteem among the horses, and they were all ready to heed whatever he said. In equine mores, combativeness is not considered a vice; on the contrary, it earns one respect and attention, just as it once did among the Vikings. This chestnut agitator started rallying the horses against human domination:
“We have suffered enough under the human tyrant!” he cried. “The two-legged villain has enslaved us, forever free four-legged creatures, and keeps our offspring in the most terrible bondage. What will he not do to us? How he abuses us! He saddles us up, rides on our backs and tricks us into bloody battle with his enemies! Did you know that the humans call this cavalry? The cavalry horses have told horrors about what happens to our brothers. The hairs on your mane stand up straight when you hear these stories.
They mount our brother and rush at one another. They want to kill each other, and they kill us in the process. Their ruthless, severe hearts do not pity us. So much noble equine blood is shed. Then such horrible sights! A poor horse, having lost one leg, hops behind the others on three legs, spilling blood until he falls unconscious. Another, having lost two legs at once, crawls around in vain trying to stand up on the remaining two. A third, pierced through the chest, lays on the ground and wishes he were dead. A fourth—his eyes poked out. A fifth—his head chopped off. Piles of horse and human carcasses!
And for what? Do we, poor things, even know why they are fighting amongst themselves? That is their business, not ours. If they do not get along, fine, then they can fight and squabble amongst themselves and slaughter each other. After all, when we get into fights, we squabble and bite and kick, but we do not call them over and entangle them in our fights! Then why do they drag us into a violent death when they fight between themselves?
They don’t ask the cavalry horses if they want to fight a war, but they saddle and ride them to fight; they never consider that maybe our brother has no interest in dying without knowing what he is dying for. And even without a war, you would not believe how man oppresses us and how he curses at us! He loads up his cart or wagon with all kinds of heavy things, saddles up our brother, and makes him tug; urging him on, he unmercifully beats the horse with a whip on his back, his head, where ever it lands, without the slightest mercy, until he beats him to death. Sometimes a horse will draw his last breath while others get injured from the excessive burden—they break their legs and the heartless tyrant will leave them to die and go saddle some other horses to the same torment. Oh brothers! Man is cruel but sly too: do not be deceived by his cunning. Man pretends to love us, praises us in front of other people. Do not believe him. Do not be seduced by his seeming concern for the propagation of our breed, that he collects a herd of mares and lets the stallions in. He does this for his own good and not for us: he wants our breed to procreate and bear him slaves. Some of us he leaves alone to create progeny, but others—and in much larger number—he savagely mutilates, denies the ability to bear offspring and condemns to perpetual involuntary labor and all kinds of torment. The despot perverts our noble breed and want us to have the same social hierarchies that humans have, where some luxuriate and others suffer.
Some of our brothers, satiated with oats and hay, are not tormented with work; if they get saddled or harnessed, then only for a short time, and then they are spared and sent to rest. They stand in their stables and eat plenty of oats, and as soon as they get let out to graze, they play, jump and enjoy themselves. Some do not get left in the stalls all—instead they walk in total freedom through expansive fields with their mares, while others, always half-starving, exhausted from the incessant chase and from heavy loads, get no reward for their hard work other than blows from a whip!
Brothers! Have you no hooves and teeth? Can you not bellow and bite? Or did you become weak? But look how often our tyrant pays miserably for his arrogance when he attacks a proud horse who, in a burst of memory about his equine nobility, breaks out so that even four villains cannot contain him; and if the arrogant and defiant despot dares mount him, this horse will throw him off and sometimes even stomp on him a bit, enough that the bastard lays injured for several days!
The despot considers us so dumb and slavishly obedient that he is not afraid to give our brothers weapons we could use against him. Did he not hammer nails into our hooves! Horseshoed horses! Turn the weapons he gave you back on him: smite him with your horseshoes! And you, un-shoed ones, show him that even without horseshoes your hooves are so strong and heavy that with them you can demonstrate your superiority over man! With or without horseshoes, let us unite our hooves and rise up in brotherhood against our fierce enemy.
Besides hooves, let us consider our teeth. With those you can inflict no less harm upon our subjugator! Let us fight for our freedom! Future equine generations will honor you for many centuries. And not just the equine race but other animals will honor you: we will all join at once! All of the grains left on the stalks and all the grasses will be ours. No one will dare chase us out of there like they used to. Never again will they harness us, saddle us or urge us on with whips. Freedom! Freedom! To battle, brothers! Collective freedom for all animals, for the honor of the equine race.”
After this speech there was riotous neighing, mutinous shrieking, thunderous stomping, the throwing of legs in the air and other standard sounds that accompany equine bravado.
“Get the human! Get the human! Get the fierce tyrant! Kick him! Beat him! Bite him!”
These exclamations were overheard by members of the cattle herd who could understand equine speech. The cattle delighted in hearing that the uprising, which first took hold in their midst, had spilled over to the equine race. Oxen and cows boldly butted horns and let out a militant bellow. Then the horned and the hoofed moved in two militias toward the manor.
To the right of the herd, separated by a ravine from where the horses grazed, goats and sheep roamed on a hill. Seeing the turmoil in the cattle and horse herds, they got agitated and the whole flock began storming over to the cows and horses. They had to either walk around or jump across a ravine, which wasn’t wide. The goats considered themselves by their very nature the most fit to walk at the head of the herd: baaing, they darted toward the ravine and hopped over it with their caprine liveliness, proudly raising their chins and shaking out their beards, as if waiting for approval of their bravado. The goats behind them jumped across the ravine just as easily. But the sheep were not so nimble. Granted, some who followed closely behind the goats found themselves on the other side of the ravine, but many fell in, crawling along the bottom, scrambling over one another as they bleated pathetically. This didn’t stop the rear from following their lead. The sheep ran in the direction indicated by those in the front and also found themselves at the bottom of the ravine. The ones that did cross to the other side didn’t know what to do, so they crowded together and let out a sort of pathetic-democratic bleat.
The rams shuffled from side to side, bumping into one another’s heads. The pigs, moving along the opposite side of the road which led from the field to the village, saw the turmoil between the different breeds of animals. They were immediately seized by the revolutionary spirit, which had likely penetrated swine society earlier. The hogs, tearing at the ground with their tusks, ran up ahead and turned onto the road which led straight to the master’s manor, and behind the hogs, the whole oinking drove ran along that very same road, raising such dust that you couldn’t even see the sun through it all.
Seeing the alarm among the animals, Omelko rushed to the road where the pigs were running and thought he’d start subduing the rebels with them. Having learned oinking language, Omelko overheard the hogs urging fellow pigs to keep up with the other beasts rising up against the intolerable rule of man.
Omelko could heard them angrily recalling charred hogs at Christmastime, bristles torn out of the backs of live pigs, and piglets slaughtered throughout the year. A fat pig grunted about the humiliation that humans brought upon the swine race when they called anyone they found disgusting a “pig.” Another pig, running alongside the first, responded: “That’s nothing. What is worse is that while despising pigs and criticizing our characteristics, man still cuts us up for lard and makes ham and sausage from our pig meat. Our fat and meat suit his tastes. He considers a live pig to be far worse than most creatures, but a chopped up pig is repaid with more honor than others, as if to degrade our piggish race.”
Running down the road to the master’s estate and oinking, the pigs stirred up hatred for man in one another.
“Where should we start?” they asked each other when they’d neared the estate.
“Our job is to dig up dirt,” others answered. “We’ll invade the master’s garden; there he has a vegetable patch. We’ll dig up all the rows. Then we’ll break into his flower bed, which he planted right near the balcony for his own pleasure. There we’ll turn everything upside down, like pigs! Don’t let those humans forget what pigs did to his garden and to his flower bed!”
Omelko ran alongside the pigs for a few minutes believing he could hold back their raid, but then he decisively abandoned those plans after one of the hogs threatened to stab at him with his tusks. Omelko veered off the road and headed straight for the estate, cutting across the field.
As soon as Omelko arrived at the homestead bringing news of the universal animal uprising, my two sons and I headed over to the tower on our property and looked through the telescope. The rioting animals flocking toward the estate looked to me like a cloud at first, but then the hordes became more distinct. Through the telescope I could see the running horses occasionally kicking up their hooves and the bulls bulging out their horns. Both were apparently taking pleasure in imagining how they would soon kick and head butt us.
Both were already getting close to the estate. The sheep and goats stood by the ravine bleating and baaing, as if wondering what to do. After running down from the tower back to the house, I peeked through the window on my way out to the garden and saw that the pigs had already invaded, getting in through the spot where a wooden fence around the garden had fallen apart and never been fixed. Some were furiously laying waste to the rows of potatoes, radishes, carrots and other vegetables and greedily eating up the roots, while others, who had gotten ahead of the rest, had already raided the flower bed along the same wall of the manor where I was looking through the window. I watched as the insolent pigs dug up roses, lilies and peonies with their snouts.
I ran into the room where I kept the guns and took three shotguns—one for me and one for each of my sons. On top of that, I handed a shotgun to each of my servants and walked out onto the porch facing the gates of the garden. I ordered the fence and the garden gate, which led to the courtyard from the outside, to be locked. Our weakest front was in the garden, which the pigs had already gotten into, and it seemed dangerously likely that other animals would flock there, but we were reassured by one last hope that even if they managed to take over the garden, we still controlled the courtyard, which was impossible to reach from the garden other than to approach via the ruins of the mansion, which separated the garden from the courtyard.
When walking into the house for the guns, I also ordered one of my servants to ride on horseback over to town, the one 10 miles from ours, to ask the police chief to authorize the dispatch of military forces to quell the rebellion. But this attempt didn’t work out. As soon as my messenger mounted the cavalry and got to the other side of the fence, the horse threw off the rider and ran to join the mutiny.
I had many dogs—I sometimes went hunting. The dogs, as expected given the reputation of their breed, didn’t have the slightest intention of joining the rebellion. So we counted on them. We had to split them into two squads: we sent one to the garden to see if they could push out the pigs and positioned the other in front of the gates to beat back the rush of animals if they started to overtake that entrance. The wall around the yard was made of brick but not tall.
The horses, rearing onto their hind legs, were already hooking their front ones onto the edge of the wall and making mean faces at us, but they couldn’t jump over it.
Then a servant ran up to me on the porch with more threatening news: a riot had exploded in the bird house. First the geese rose up. Who knows how the rebellious spirit—having already gripped four-legged domestic animals—penetrated their coop. Only the geese, who with their snake-like hisses threatened to carry out an evil plan to bite the birder. The latter had barely managed to step toward the gates of the birdhouse when she heard the liberal honking of the ducks, who were also waddling from side to side with the most impudent look as if to say “we have no use for humans anymore!” Behind them, turkeys arrogantly spread their tails and huddled together, letting out the most horrible screams, as if they wanted to scare someone.
A big fiery-colored rooster gave the rousing signal with his loud voice, and then roosters crowed, hens clucked and the whole society of chickens began taking flight, either landing on a beam or flying off onto the ground.
Peering into the chicken shed, Omelko could tell that the chickens had lent their wings to the uprising and were threatening to peck at humans out of revenge for all the chickens and chicks slaughtered by cooks and all the eggs taken away from hens.
After hearing this news, we waited on the porch for a bit. I pointed out that where we stood was dangerously low and that we needed to choose a different, more elevated position. Looking around our courtyard, I realized that the highest point in the whole place was the wooden tower which served as a dovecot, and so we stepped off the porch and headed there. We decided to climb up to the top and wait there until the rioting animals could get us out of there and tear us to shreds or until some unforeseen circumstance could deliver us from death. But then we were met with something unexpected: four cats sitting together on the ground. Two of them lived in the estate, and the third—fat as can be with a white coat and big black spots on his back and belly—was a favorite of the female servants and a big mouse eater who’d acquired great fame around the courtyard for his victories over huge rats.
That cat, always sweet and friendly, always purring and rubbing up against humans, was now out of nowhere sitting in the middle of the courtyard with the other cats and giving us such dirty looks like he was readying to jump and claw at our faces.
Dogs never seemed like they’d switch sides, but we’ve long expected this from the feline race.
So it appeared this house cat of ours, in a critical moment for our safety from the enemies, was going to play the role Mazepa once played for Peter the Great. We stopped unwillingly, seeing the feline group ahead, but then my youngest son—without thinking long—whistled for the dogs, directing them at the cats and yelling “get ‘em!” The dogs launched at the cats, who got frightened and ran off in different directions. I watched as the fat, motley cat climbed up a post on the porch, and while grabbing on with his claws, looked back with menacing eyes at the dogs, wishing he could get them and making the kind of noise a cat makes in moments of anger and frustration.
We reached the dovecot and started to climb up the narrow stairs, when all of a sudden, doves started flying at us, as if aiming to hit us with their wings and peck at us with their beaks. We started waving them aside, sensing that the birds who we had gotten used to as meek and sweet were now overtaken by the rebellious spirit which had gripped all four- and two-legged animals under the rule of humans. We guessed that they now remembered those bitter moments when the cook showed up at their dovecot with his slaughtering knife to find a good stew bird.
You over in the Great Russian provinces don’t eat squab, so if your domesticated animals rioted, then you’d be insured against any threat from the doves. However, in that moment, the hostility toward us humans did not last long. My youngest son fired his shotgun and the birds flew off. Unimpeded, we assumed the highest point in the dovecot and from there looked down on the huge horde of cattle and horses overtaking the garden. It was impossible to talk or hear one another over all the howling, shrieking and neighing.
After running out of the dovecot, Omelko paced about the courtyard like a madman, and it was clear that like us, he didn’t know what to do. I called him over to the bird house and said:
“You alone know animal languages and can communicate with them. Of course I won’t force you into the yard because the minute you stick out your head, some bull will ram into you or some mare will bite you, and then they’ll tear through the fence and we’ll all be done with. But what about this: can you climb onto the wall and negotiate with the rioters from there? Try it!”
Omelko sent off to fulfill my request. We watched his movements with rapt attention and saw that after putting up a ladder, he climbed onto the wall, but we couldn’t hear what language he was using to speak to the rebels. We couldn’t tell whether he mooed or neighed, but we heard the most horrible noise from the other side of the fence and saw Omelko jump off and walk back toward us while waving his arms, like one does to show that the plan isn’t working.
“Master, there’s nothing we can do with the bandits!” he said, coming back to the dovecot. “I tried to admonish them; I told them that God himself made them to serve man and man to be their master. But they all shouted, ‘Who is this god? That is your human thing, this god business. We animals do not know any god. We will ram you with our horns, tyrants and evildoers,’ shouted the cattle. ‘Stomp on you with our hooves,’ said the horses. ‘Chew you out with our teeth,’ shouted others in unison.”
“So what do we do now, Omelko?” I asked with indescribable alarm.
“There’s only one option left,” said Omelko. “Tell them we’re letting them all go: the bulls, the cows and the horses! ‘Go out to the field, graze like you know how; you can eat everything planted on the hills. We won’t enslave you with any more work, so go!’”
“Overjoyed, they’ll spread out into the fields. Then we’ll deal somehow with the sheep, pigs and birds.”
“We just need get rid of the horned and hoofed ones: they’re the only danger because they’re strong! They’ll go to the field and amuse themselves for a while, but then they’ll start to fight amongst themselves and tear at each other—let them trample the fields since most of the wheat is already cleared away. Yes, we’ll lose what’s left, but at least we’ll remain alive and intact! It’s too bad about the hay in the haystack. Those bandits will devour everything!”
“But then the animals won’t know what to do with themselves, and we can find a way to get them under our power again. The longest their freedom could even last is until the first frost, and when there’s nothing left growing in the fields, they’ll come back to us on their own! Autumn isn’t that far off, after all!”
I permitted Omelko to do as he proposed. He climbed up onto the wall again, and even more attentively than before, we watched his every move. After a few minutes, the whole horde of animals besieging the yard ran headfirst to the field, howling and neighing. We could see the horses and cows jumping out of apparent joy.
Omelko climbed down, came back to us and said:
“Got rid of them, thank God! Managed to let out only the horses and cattle. Send the dogs out into the yard with the pigs, let the birder pacify the birds and I’ll go take care of the goats and sheep.”
“How did you get rid of the horned and the hoofed?” I asked Omelko.
“Oh, like this,” he explained. “ ‘What do you need,’ I asked them, ‘tell us now. Maybe we’ll give you what you want.’ ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ the horned and hoofed shouted in unison. And so I told them, ‘Well fine then, go be free! Step out into the field, take all the wheat that’s left on the stalk. We won’t work you any longer. You’ll be free!’ As soon as they heard me, they immediately stomped, bucked and shouted, ‘We are free! We are free! We got our freedom! Freedom—ours for the taking! Freedom! Freedom!’ And they ran off.”
“Good work Omelko,” I said to him, “you deserve much honor and praise! You saved us all from disaster.”
We climbed down from the dovecot. I ordered all the remaining dogs to be gathered up and led through the house into the garden to join the dogs sent there earlier to deal with the pigs. Up until then, their job couldn’t have been going very well since the number of dogs sent out to the garden was small compared to the number who arrived to help them from the courtyard. When those dogs were brought out, I walked into the house and up to the window, pointing a loaded rifle out of the open pane. I aimed at the hog who was working on a lilac bush in the flower bed, trying to pull it up by the roots. The bullet went straight through the predator.
Frightened by the shots and defeated by their bold canine enemy, the pigs abandoned the flower bed and ran to their comrades who were working on the vegetable garden on the other end of the yard. The dogs had them cornered: some sunk their teeth into the pigs’ legs while others ran ahead and grabbed them by their ears, pulling while the pigs made pathetic piggish moans. Two servants with guns ran in behind the dogs, fired two shots and injured two pigs, sending the dogs into a feverous rage.
Soon the yard was cleaned of pigs and the dogs chased them down the road—they raised such dust, just like when in a militant and swinish fever they ran down that same road earlier to storm the yard.
We headed to the bird house. It was in a total disarray of the highest order. All the birds were flying, hopping up and around, jumping, tossing about, running and shouting in different voices: cackling, hissing, whistling, moaning, clucking and crowing. My youngest son fired his gun. At first, avian society seemed to get even more agitated from the shot, but then right away it got dumbstruck and quieted down in an instant. Omelko took advantage of the moment and yelled:
“Why are you all screaming for no reason? Tell us what you want. What do you need? We’ll do whatever you ask.”
“Freedom! Freedom!” yelled the birds in their different languages.
“Freedom! Freedom!” said Omelko, making fun of the birds. “Well, fine. We’ll give you freedom. Geese and ducks! There are your wild, untamed brethren—how high they fly! Fly up to them. We let you go. We’re not holding you back. You have wings, so fly!”
“But how are we supposed to fly when we don’t have the strength for it?” cackled the geese. “Our ancestors were just as free as those who now fly up there. But you, tyrants, enslaved them, and our grandparents and parents were descendant from them, so we were all born in slavery. Because of our enslavement, none of us know how to fly like those who remain free.”
“That’s not our fault,” said Omelko. “Think it through with your own goose brains and duck brains. Was it us who took away your freedom? Did we do something to you so you can’t fly up there anymore? We’ve had you since you hatched, and from those first days until now, you’ve never known how to fly; and your fathers and grandfathers who lived here also couldn’t fly like the wild, free ones. Your race has been subordinate to man for so long that not only do your goose brains not recall, but even we with our human minds don’t know how long ago it was! The ones who enslaved your ancestors are long gone. How are we who now live on this earth to blame for your inability to take flight? We are setting you free! Fly! And if you don’t know how, then don’t blame us.”
The geese responded:
“We don’t have the strength to fly, so we’re staying with you. Just don’t butcher us. We want to live.”
After the geese, the ducks quacked out a similar idea. Omelko responded:
“You want to live, you say. But I assume you also want to eat. So you expect us to feed you but not get any use out of you? No, no, that won’t work. Fly away if you don’t want us to butcher you. Fly away to your freedom. We’re not holding you back. But if you want to stay with us and want us to feed you, then give us something in return. We feed you, and so we eat you. We expect food from you because we give you food. Why is it such a travesty if once in a while the cook butchers your brother-goose for stew? It’s not like he butchers all of you at once! It would be worse if you were set free and then a ferocious animal or angry bird would attack you. It would destroy you all in one go. Over here, the cook takes two or three geese or ducks to be butchered. But for that, you can stay here and be well cared for. You’d never survive on your own like you do here. Go ahead, try—fly away and live free!”
“How are we supposed to fly when we don’t have the strength?” repeated the geese. The ducks said the same with their quacks.
“Then live peacefully and don’t riot!” Omelko said commandingly. He turned to the chickens: “And you, dumb chickens! You too wanted to fly! Then fly, hurry up and take flight and explore the clouds up there, find out how they live without you in complete freedom. But you stupids can’t even get ten feet off the ground—you’d be eaten up by ferrets, cats, swallows and eagles; kite birds would snatch up your chicks, and magpies and crows wouldn’t let you lay your eggs! Dummies, you’re stuffed dummies! You more than any of the other birds on earth can’t live without us brother-humans. Accept it, stupids, and submit: this is our fate, you and me. We have to watch over you and feed you, and for that we butcher you and take your eggs.”
The chickens started cackling and making most disgraceful noises. The rooster let out a lively cock-a-doodle-doo, which as Omelko explained, meant they acknowledged the fairness of our demands and promised total obedience.
And so it looked like all the birds had calmed down and were content, except the turkeys, who were groaning and complaining as usual about their hapless and irreversible fate. Omelko headed over to the sheep and goats. Those sheep who had managed to make it across the ravine were still standing in a group and not moving forward, looking stupidly back at their fallen brothers in the ravine. The poor things were thrashing around at the bottom of the ravine and didn’t know how to climb out along its steep walls. While they could have gotten out by just walking straight along the bottom of the trench, the sheep weren’t sharp enough to figure that out. As soon as they saw Omelko approaching them, the goats—who were standing up at the front—started stomping their legs and trying to display their caprine dignity by raising their bearded faces and butting their heads as if to say “don’t come near us—we’ll stab you!”
But Omelko, picking up a long switch, struck one after the other on the side and scared them away. He then called over the herders and ordered them to pull the sheep out from the bottom of the ravine and chase them back to the pen.
“Look at me,” he shouted at the sheep. “If you think of revolting again, you’ll suffer! We will demand that the head instigators be used for lard! Look, idiots! They wanted freedom, they got it! You dummies would have all been eaten by wolves if we humans had set you free! Be grateful that we are so kind-hearted and forgive you for your stupidity!”
The sheep bleated gratefully, as Omelko demanded.
Having been granted total freedom by Omelko, the herds of cattle and horses ran first to the field and gave into a wild ecstasy: they hopped around, jumped, ran, mooed, snorted, neighed and—in a display of shared joy—stood up on their hind legs and hugged one another.
By then, August was already coming to a close. The fields had been flattened and mowed, the grains carted off and stored in haystacks. There were only a few dozen grains left, the kinds that got harvested last. The animals descended upon the remaining row of buckwheat and trampled it so badly that not even one stalk remained. They went in search of another unharvested field of grain, and when they found one, they did the same there. But soon the harmony between the hoofed and the horned—established only recently during their shared fight for freedom—disintegrated. Honestly, I don’t know how the disagreement arose, but I know that the cattle started butting at the horses, who in return started kicking them back, leading both to head off in different directions. Afterwards, both herds experienced an internal division.
The cause was apparently a fight between males over females, probably not unlike human fights over who gets the best land, fights which are often the cause of broken agreements and friendships and lead to sad endings.
Both the cattle and the horses split off into groups and, after separating from the mass, walked further away from their former comrades. Omelko knew the animal traditions so well that he had already prepared for this eventuality when he set them free. He then focused on those who had split off. He found those herds of cattle and horses roaming separately and by his sheer eloquence was able to convince them and the others to return to the village.
He lured them with promises of much hay and oats for the horses. Some who had split off from the pack had gotten into other people’s fields, ruined their grains, stolen hay off the stacks in the fields and found themselves once again captive.
Hearing of their fate, Omelko bought these animals back from other owners, paying for the losses inflicted and shepherding them back to the village.
Finally, as Omelko predicted, only the most zealous and stubborn animals roamed the fields until late autumn, when snow started to fall and there was nothing left on the stalks. Last fall, as you likely know, this happened earlier than usual. Seeing that there was nothing for them to eat in the fields, the animals sobered up from the luring yet vain hope for freedom and began returning to their pens of their own accord. Then came the humbled agitators: the bull who roused the cattle and the chestnut stallion who urged the equine race to revolt.
Both suffered a harsh punishment: the bull’s sentence, decided by Omelko and confirmed by me, was execution—bludgeoning to death by a club—and the stallion was neutered, harnessed to a yoke and made to haul heavy things. And by the way, the punishments—equal to the crimes—were meted out after a fair and unbiased investigation carried out by Omelko.
This is how our animal riot ended, an extraordinary event, peculiar and—as far as we know—never before heard of anywhere else. With winter approaching, everything has quieted down, but only spring will show what’s next. It’s impossible to guarantee that next summer or sometime in the future the same wonders we saw won’t repeat themselves, though the prudent and vigilant Omelko is taking active measures to ensure this never happens to us again.