To appreciate fully this very short story, apparently no more than a sketch, one must understand its context. Most significant is its position as the first of thirty-five related stories originally collected under the title Konarmiia (1926; Red Cavalry, 1929). The stories all deal with the Russian campaign against Poland—from July through September, 1920—undertaken by General Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry. The author, a Jew from Odessa who rejected Judaism to become a communist, participated in this campaign (which was unsuccessful) as a propaganda officer and a war correspondent.
The narrator of the various Red Cavalry stories is apparently the same person throughout and autobiographical in essential features. Consequently, although little information is given about the narrator of the initial story, one learns from later stories that he is Jewish.
“Crossing into Poland” begins with a note that Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn. Now the rearguard is marching on the highroad from Brest to Warsaw, crossing into Poland over the twisting torrents of the River Zbruch.
The largely peaceful and brightly colored sights of nature—fields, flowers, streams, the sun, and finally the moon—are described as a prose poem often employing striking, disturbing, and contradictory imagery. Late at night, the narrator reaches Novograd and is billeted in a house where Jews live. He describes them as “scraggy-necked” and living in filth. He angrily orders the young pregnant woman of the house to clean up the mess.
Eventually he lies down on the floor, on a ragged feather bed, next to one of the Jews, who is lying huddled to the wall with his head covered up, evidently asleep. The narrator soon sleeps but then is awakened from a nightmare by the pregnant woman, who tells him that he has been crying out. Suddenly he sees that the old man, next to whom he has been lying, is dead: “His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two; in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.” The woman laments the loss of her father, killed by Poles that day—and the narrator is shocked to silence as the story abruptly ends.