• The Mysterious Case of a Mongolian Murder That Might Have Been…

    Leonid Yuzefovich Follows a Footnote Across 100 Years and 1,000 Miles

    The surrounding region was wild—forest and mountains with poor Chinese fanzas and Evenki nomad camps lost in the back of beyond. The male half of the settlement’s residents worked for the railroad or hunted, usually both. They shot pheasant and duck, hunted boar, bagged weasels, and set traps for foxes and wolves. Considered most profitable was hunting for Manchurian wapiti; Chinese traders paid generously for young antlers sawn off the deer during the first summer months. The antlers were used in preparing medicines. Very rarely, someone would track down and shoot a tiger, and then the fame of this favorite of the gods would travel the length of the Western rail line as far as Qiqihar and Hailar.

    Less than a year after the Mogutov-Kapsheviches settled in Halasu, an old hunter went missing. A search began for him. Kapshevich and another man took part in the search, but when Kapshevich came home from the forest, he found his wife dead. She had committed suicide by swallowing strychnine, which Kapshevich used in his wolf traps.

    It’s a terrible death. The face contorts. The body is wracked by spasms. It arches, stiffens, and freezes, resting on only the nape and heels.

    This is probably how Kapshevich saw his wife—looking like a volunteer from an audience at a public hypnosis séance put under a trance lying across the backs of two chairs—except she was lifeless and her eyes had rolled back.

    The destiny she’d evaded in Urga when Dr. Klingenberg was poisoning Jewish women with the same poison had caught up to her here.

    The woman’s name remains a mystery. She probably had two names: a Russian name for her husband and neighbors; and a similar-sounding Jewish one—for her dead parents, sisters, and brothers.

    “Quiet and kind,” Gomboev, who remembered her well, wrote about her.




    She died at the height of summer, during “antler season,” as Gomboev called the wapiti hunting season, and after the funeral another local hunter returned from the taiga. When he learned of the old man’s disappearance, he said that a week before, in the hills, he had come across a basket containing deer antlers and not far from there had seen Kapshevich. Kapshevich was suspected of killing the man over the antlers, and although there was no proof and he himself denied everything, the hunters, without contacting the police, suggested he clear out of Halasu and never show his face there again if he didn’t want to end up in the taiga like that old man.

    Kapshevich had grown up in Ukraine, did not know the taiga, and was only used to shooting at people. He hadn’t made much of a hunter. But his money had run out and he had nothing to live on. Their entire family property consisted of his rifle and traps. He was afraid to sell the antlers he’d taken from the old man. He couldn’t even scrape up the money for a train ticket to leave Halasu, so a section foreman who at the time was being transferred to the Handaohetsza station on the eastern branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway took him into the train car set aside for his goods and chattels and his livestock.

    Kapshevich got off at Handaohetsza, remarried, and a year or two later a local hunter there was found dead in the taiga. Suspicion again fell on Kapshevich. Upon searching, they found a basket of antlers, which the dead man’s widow recognized, and according to Gomboev, the murderer “suffered his deserved punishment.” He should have been sentenced to at least ten years of hard labor, but Russians said that the Chinese prison in Qiqihar, which was positively medieval in its arrangement and customs, was worse than death. More than likely, Kapshevich never left it.

    People do not always end up on execution squads by chance. There are also those who by their nature are better suited to those occupations. Kapshevich, apparently, was one of them. His wife understood everything about him, nonetheless hoped that that was in the past. When he brought the antlers to her in Halasu, she had no hope left. She guessed their origin right away, or else he himself admitted everything to her. The shadows of her relatives rose up before her, as they had before, and she preferred being with them rather than him.

    Whatever this man was like, though, for me he remained the desperate second lieutenant who risked his life for the sake of a quiet, kind young woman he’d never laid eyes on before. No seductive eyes, no luxurious figure, no fire, no coquetry. Now I knew for certain that she had not aroused any stormy passion in him in Urga. He’d simply felt sorry for her. Occasionally pity can rouse a person to something better than passion can.

    Their story was more ordinary and terrible than I’d thought, but one murky spot remained: the item in Dawn. Now that item seemed even odder than it had a year before.

    Suddenly I realized that its date of publication, August 1922, coincided with the time when Ekaterina Georgievna had come across her old acquaintance in Halasu, on the street or on the train station platform. Her son hadn’t written where Kapshevich had come from or where he’d been living before that, but a young man with a university education, even if he didn’t graduate, and with a knowledge of English so rare among Russian refugees, which gave him good chances of finding a job in a bank or a respectable trading firm, at first had scarcely intended to earn his living by hunting boar and fox. He and his companion from Mongolia had no doubt been moving toward Harbin.

    A year and a half later, Kapshevich showed up in Halasu as Mogutov, but kept his real first name—Peter. Otherwise his wife might slip up in front of people and call him what she was used to calling him. It was logical to assume that something had happened in Harbin that made him have to clear out, change his name, and become a hunter. This was not a romantic flight from civilization into nature’s lap or an office clerk’s mad break for freedom but a forced necessity: if he’d applied for a job, they would have checked his documents, which were evidently not entirely beyond reproach, and made inquiries about his past, where no Mogutov existed.

    “Whatever the story, the thought came to mind that he himself had written this item for the purpose of convincing someone that he was no longer among the living.”

    Having thought it over, I dismissed murder. If he had killed someone and his wife knew it—and she would have had to have known—then she probably wouldn’t have killed herself but she wouldn’t have gone anywhere with him, either. Harbin is a big city where you can find work and rent lodgings. Here, in the thick of life, even alongside her husband, she might have had maidenly dreams about someone coming for her one day, appreciating her, and giving her the different, better fate her sufferings had earned her. This was later, another year later, in a remote settlement amid mountains and forests, without hope or money, and death seemed like the only solution.

    There was one more argument: had Kapshevich had blood or some other serious crime behind him, he would have kept away from the Chinese Eastern Railway. This was a zone of relative order where the railway police would have quickly caught him even under a false name. Forgery, embezzlement, or unpaid debt was more likely, since Kapshevich had worked in a firm, but right then I realized that there could not have been any crime at all. Or rather, he might have committed it not in Harbin and been afraid not of the police. I am aware of an instance when one of the civilian executioners under Sipailo was shot in Manchuria by the brother of a Kolchak officer executed in Urga. Might Kapshevich have feared the same lot?

    Whatever the story, the thought came to mind that he himself had written this item for the purpose of convincing someone that he was no longer among the living, but the xerox of the newspaper column lay in front of me, and I suddenly saw a woman’s hand come through the typeset letters.

    I picture the spouses sitting at the table one evening in their apartment. Dinner is over and the tea is drunk. He says, “Last spring you wanted to kill me, so write what you felt then.”

    There is no point objecting. He knows everything about her and vice versa, but she wishes she could get out of this commission.

    “Why me?” she asks. “Why not you?”

    “It will come out better from you,” he replies.

    Sighing, she dips the pen in the inkwell and leans over the sheet of paper. Kapshevich suggests there’s no need to mention their names, or address, or the date and method of killing, so as not to attract police attention. The person this is intended for will understand who it’s about.

    She writes about herself in the third person. Like many sweet, feminine, domestic young women, she has large handwriting and one sheet isn’t enough for her.

    The pen runs swiftly; there’s no need to reflect. She remembers everything she lived through during the first few months after their flight from Urga. She’ll never forget any of it.

    “A memory which there is no one to share with and cannot be obliterated”—she describes what she experienced a year and a half before and about which I would read nearly a century later but would not immediately understand whose hand traced these lines before they landed in a newspaper—“gratitude that turns into hatred, like wine into vinegar, the loneliness of a young woman, yesterday a schoolgirl, shackled by ordinary weakness to a loving man but a man coarsened in war, who sees in her nothing but a prize in a dangerous game, a reward for the bravery he showed, incapable of repentance for his past or of understanding the soul suffering alongside him—this was the state in which she killed her savior.”

    “Good job,” Kapshevich says approvingly after reading it. “Just the thing.”

    He seals her creation in an envelope and in the morning posts it without signature or return address to the Dawn editorial office, where they eagerly print these kinds of brief articles, and the person to whom it is intended, an avenger or a deceived merchant, like many in the city, knows the story of the Kapsheviches, husband and wife, perfectly well.

    Will he believe in his death?

    Chances are, not, but it wasn’t much trouble, either. What’s the harm in trying?

    That same day, they load their pitiful belongings onto a wagon and drive to the train station, buy tickets for Halasu, and board the train. A new life lies ahead. Kapshevich is cheerful, making plans. She looks out the window. Forest, hills.

    Only now did it dawn on me that not only did he love her but she loved him, too. For him, saving this young woman was the chief justification of his off-the-rails life. Only with her did he feel like a human being, but she had traded places with him. She pitied him as he had once pitied her. She formed a womanly attachment to him and forgave him everything, but what both of them tried to forget was always with and between them. In front of them, too.

    But for now they are riding on a train. The sky is growing dark and turning blue-black on the brink of night. The milk-white moon is ringed by a soft glow. They do not know that if they keep their eyes on it for a long time it will turn into a pearl, and that pearl into the goddess of mercy. Then before they know it they will be able to make out tears of happiness in her eyes and call on her for help.

    I turned off my computer and walked over to the window. It was early May again. Clear and cold. The leaves had still not come out on the trees I could see in the gap between the buildings. Behind Guan Yin, now at home on this window, behind her two rust-dusted, scalloped haloes set one into the other, spread roofs made of the same substance. Overhead, a white night’s otherworldly light.

    –Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz

    Leonid Yuzefovich
    Leonid Yuzefovich
    Leonid Yuzefovich, a historian and writer, was born in Moscow in 1947 and spent his childhood and adolescence in the Urals. After graduating from university in Perm, he served as an officer in the Soviet Army in the Trans-Baikal region from 1970 to 1972 and for many years taught history in high school and college. He began writing as a young man but did not become well known until 2001, after the publication of his detective novel trilogy about a real-life 19th-century police inspector, Ivan Putilin, which has been filmed several times and been translated into various languages. Yuzefovich was awarded the Big Book Prize for his novel Cranes and Pygmies in 2009, and has been shortlisted twice for the Russian Booker Prize.

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