A Story Told by an Eyewitness, about the Miracle of Miracles—a Mechanical Artificial Leg of Major Gavril Propoitsyn (of the Life Guards of the Cuirass Detachment), who Lost his Natural Leg in the Battle of Ochakov

Russia is a darksome land—
Given to us for joyful command . . .
—Oleg Okhapkin


Reading in the Russian Invalid about the extraordinary inventions of the unheralded Russian genius Ivan Petrovich Kulibin, which at that time enjoyed great favor, the restless Major in question expressed the desire to serve the Empress and Fatherland for even longer on the Field of Mars. With this in mind, he sent the Russian Newton a tearful letter, together with three full wagons of roach fish.

Having partaken of the fish, Ivan Petrovich Kulibin delayed the building of a steamboat on the lake of Tsarskoe Selo, and at his leisure fulfilled the request of the disabled veteran. In three-months’-time, he fabricated and exhibited in London a mechanical artificial leg that was comprised of six moving parts, and the appearance of which was strikingly reminiscent of a human one. Thanks to this leg—and in the presence of the Empress and an enormous gathering of people—the disconsolate major was made tremendously glad.

Being accepted into the cavalry once more, Propoitsyn found himself marveling at the peerless power of Russian talent, for the artificial leg became more kith and kin to him than his own real one. On more than one occasion, she protected her patron from enemy cannon fire with her chest, and in the darkest of nights fearlessly ran ahead of his horse and lead the way.

One time, when she was set at liberty at a bivouac, the leg in question secretly made her way into the encampment of the enemy, entrapping there the Turkish Pasha Hassan. For this act of selfless zeal, she was awarded the order of St. George with swords and a ribbon, directly from the hands of the commanding officer. Subsequently, she would embark on espionage missions in the garb of a Crimean Tartar.

At the battle of Borodino, the brave major was introduced to the renowned cavalry officer and maiden Nadezhda Andreevna Durova. Tying the bow with his beloved immediately upon the completion of the campaign, Propoitsyn, bathed in glory, abandoned his military service for the sake of the dulcet pleasures of family life.

With no task allotted to her, the leg abandoned her benefactor and never returned to him again. She sold a potent German medicinal elixir at the market in Elets, for which she was on more than one occasion subjected to the whip at the local precinct. Subsequently, she would visit many a corner of our expansive Fatherland, sowing rebellion and discontent with her unusual visage.

It was well-known that the criminal leg in question, armed with a six-barreled musket ordnance of Aglits craftsmanship, galloped off into the sunset from bushes in a field at Ermolaev. Frightening passers-by according to her whims, at the order of the local mayor she was caught and placed in a gaol. The community placed the children, begotten by the criminal mechanism and the merchant orphan Marfa Iroshnikova, in the state-run shelter.

Subsequently it was noted that this historical phenomenon made its appearance in live performances at the Paris Exposition. In full military regalia, it played on themes drawn from its Fatherland, finding love and respect among even the haughty French nation.

Further traces of the great invention have been lost to the historical record . . .

This history was transcribed from someone else’s words, in the border town of Narva during the summer of 1986.


Translated by from the Russian by Alexandar Mihailovic. Originally published in O & A Florensky, Dvizhenie v storonu knigi (St. Petersburg, Russia: “Retro,” 2002), pages 65–6.


Olga Florensky

Alexandar Mihailovic is Visiting Professor of Literature at Bennington College. He is the author of Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse, and the editor of the volume Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries. He co-edited, with Helga Druxes and Karolin Machtans, Navid Kermani, a volume of articles about the contemporary Iranian-German essayist and novelist. His most recent book, The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), will be also be published in a Russian translation in Fall 2019, by the New Literary Review (Novoe Literatrunoe Obozrenie) in Moscow. He has contributed reviews to the online journal Kinokultura: New Russian Cinema, and has published articles on religious studies, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and Ukrainian literature, cultural relations during the Cold War, and LGBTQ identities in Russia. He is currently working on a book about whiteness, gender, and race in contemporary far-right movements in the Russian Federation and the United States.

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