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I'm trying to track down a piece of Cold War fiction I once read in an English-language SF anthology. It is set some time after World War III had broken out between the USSR and the USA (and probably lots of other nations), with a great many nukes being dropped on strategic targets. It appeared that the Soviet Union (and, by implication, the United States as well, and probably a lot of other industrialized nations) no longer existed per se. Just lots of isolated rural communities that had to fend for themselves. I probably read this story in the early 2000s, but I seem to recall that when I checked publication dates at the front of the book, I found this story dated back to the 1950s. I don't think the author's name rang a bell in my head at the time. I don't think it was written by anyone who ever became a "big name" in 20th Century SF, or else I probably would have run across the story again in other collections. Anyway, here's what I remember about the story itself:

Plot Points

  1. The viewpoint character is a man who had been of high rank in the USSR before the recent nuclear war. I don't remember his exact job title -- for instance, he might have been a "colonel" or a "commissar" or something else. (I'm pretty sure he was not called "general," at any rate.) He appears to still be a fervent Communist who sees it as his duty to preserve what he can of Soviet civilization and start the rebuilding process.

  2. He is now traveling alone; I think on foot. Big cities and military bases all across the USSR (and presumably across the USA, and other nations) have all gone up in radioactive smoke, and functioning motor vehicles with good supplies of fuel seem to be far and few between, but the story begins as the colonel (to call him that) finds a remote farming village where things appear to be going pretty well. It turns out that one reason things are going so well is that an American man has somehow ended up living in this village, and he's a very handy mechanic who has been helping to fix or replace various pieces of equipment in order to help the farmers get their crops planted and harvested. He has become quite popular within the community. I believe he speaks fluent Russian and has a friendly manner and a good sense of humor.

  3. The colonel is, of course, very surprised to meet one of "the enemy" in this remote village, and he would prefer to place the American under arrest as a POW, but eventually he sees fit to go along with the pragmatic attitude of everyone else in the village: "The war is over. Both sides lost. Now we need to leave all that in the past, and concentrate on figuring out how to take care of ourselves as best we can, locally. The American is a nice guy and a valuable asset, so let him keep doing his job!"

  4. At one point, the colonel and the American have a conversation in which the American cites a book he once read which he thinks is highly relevant to understanding what sort of problems will become prominent in the post-war world. The author of the book (I can't remember the name or title) had presented the thesis that the broad outline of the development of human civilization may be understood as a very long series of conflicts between horsemen and farmers -- in other words, between tribes of diehard nomads, and tribes who chose to settle down in one place and cultivate the same fields, year after year. The horsemen tended to see these agrarian settlements as their natural enemies; juicy targets which they tried to sack and pillage whenever they could. Of course, the farmer approach to life gradually became more and more widespread, with towns and cities being established in one place after another, often with high walls built around them to keep the horsemen out. But sometimes the horsemen scored large successes, at least briefly -- such as when the Mongols conquered large portions of Asia and Eastern Europe.

  5. The American's basic point is that old arguments about "capitalism vs. communism" are no longer important. The world has changed too much. The destruction of the big cities with all their industrial infrastructure means that lots of people will be reverting back to older ways of doing things, and in some cases this will mean a resurgence of the "nomadic warrior horsemen" school of thought.

  6. His point is proven when a large group of nomadic horsemen threatens the village. I have a vague idea that the American thinks everybody in the village should plan on migrating to a more defensible position, but the colonel is against it. (I think the village is out in the middle of open plains, making it easy for nomad cavalry to attack from any direction.) In the big battle, the villagers manage to beat the horsemen for the time being, but the colonel is fatally wounded while fighting courageously to defend the community. After the fighting is over, the dying colonel says something at the end that indicates he hopes the villagers will follow the American's plan for their own safety. I believe the implication was that he was now convinced of the accuracy of the American's thesis that the biggest problem for generations to come would be for "civilized" people to fend off the horse-riding barbarians, anywhere in the world.

Does anyone recognize the story?

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  • Any chance it's a prequel story in the Horseclans by Robert Adams? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseclans
    – LAK
    Jan 5, 2023 at 15:34
  • @LAK -- Short answer: No. Long answer: I think I read a copy of the first Horseclans book roughly around the same time I read the story I've mentioned -- "roughly" meaning "probably within a couple of years" -- and the two stories had very different writing styles. Also, I think this story was written in the 1950s, and Wikipedia says the Horseclans series started coming out in 1975. It's just coincidence -- lots of SF authors have played with variations of "after all-out nuclear war, what's left of humanity will regress to more primitive ways of doing things for a long, long time."
    – Lorendiac
    Jan 6, 2023 at 0:13
  • Ah, I managed to miss the part about the 1950s date for the story.
    – LAK
    Jan 6, 2023 at 3:20
  • That arguments about capitalism vs communism have become irrelevant reminds me of a Poul Anderson story, but other details don't quite match up. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of the story.
    – user888379
    Jan 12, 2023 at 14:56
  • @user888379 You're thinking of "The Last of the Deliverers." Two elderly men, implied to be The Last Capitalist and The Last Communist (at least in the USA), argue heatedly and finally fight a duel to the (mutual) death. They seem unable to grasp the idea that things have changed so much in recent decades that nobody else really cares about their obsolete ideologies. I agree that this story and the one I'm seeking share a common thought of "someday the capitalism/communism rivalry of the Cold War won't even matter any more."
    – Lorendiac
    Jan 13, 2023 at 1:11

1 Answer 1

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There is a decent chance that this is "Heirs Apparent" (1954) by Robert Abernathy. It was originally published in the June 1954 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the story can be read in its entirety in the context of its original publication courtesty of the Internet Archive.

A key character is a Soviet colonel with ragged clothing per your points #1 and #2:

He was a strange, skulking figure -- Nikolai Nikolayevich Bogomazov, onetime Colonel of the Red Army and Hero of the Soviet Union; now ragged and half-naked, face concealed by a scraggly growth of beard, hair slashed awkwardly short across the forehead to prevent its falling into his eyes. His shoes had gone to pieces long ago and the rags he had wrapped around his feet in their place had worn through, leaving him barefoot; he did not know how to make shoes of bark, peasant-style. His army trousers flapped in shreds around his bony shanks. The torn khaki shirt he wore was of American manufacture, a trophy of the great offensive two years earlier that had carried the Russian armies halfway across Europe and through the Near East into Africa... those had been the great days: before the bitter realization that it would never be enough to defeat Western armies; after the destruction of the great cities and industries, to be sure, but before the really heavy bombardments had begun...

Bogomazov does come across a new village that includes an American:

They looked at one another uneasily. The spokesman gulped and stammered, “The... the American is responsible.”

Bogomazov’s composure was sorely tested. He frowned searchingly at the speaker, “You said -- amerikanets?"

Da, tovarishch.”

Bogomazov took a deep breath and two steps toward them. “All right. Take me to this American... at once!”

The following passage from the story seems very much in line with your point #4:

The American said hotly, “You’re still blind to what this development means! You... Well, before this war some of our Western ‘bourgeois’ historians -- naturally you wouldn’t have read their writings -- saw human history as a long struggle between two basically different ways of life, the two main streams of social evolution: Civilization and Nomadism. Civilization is a way of life based on agriculture -- principally cereal crops -- on fixed places of habitation, on comparatively stable social patterns whose highest form is the state. Nomadism, on the other hand, has as its economic foundation not fields, but herds; geographically, it rests not on settlements, villages, towns, cities but on perpetual migration from pasture to pasture; socially, its typical higher form of organization is not the state, but the horde.

“Since written history began the boundary between Civilization and Nomadism has swayed back and forth as one or the other gained local advantage; but in general, during the historic period -- really a very small part of the whole past of humanity -- Civilization has been on the offensive. The last great onslaught from the nomad world was in the Twelfth Century -- the Mongol conquests, which swept through this very region and brought about the period that your historians call the Tartar Yoke. By the Eighteenth Century the counterattack of Civilization had been so successful that the historian Gibbon -- another bourgeois you probably haven’t read -- could rejoice that ‘cannon and fortifications’ had made Europe forever secure against any more such invasions. It looked as if Nomadism was through, due to disappear altogether... But Civilization went on to invent the means of destroying itself: weapons indefinitely effective against the fixed installations that civilized life depends on, but of little consequence to the rootless nomad.

“And now -- where are your cannon, your fortifications, your coal mines and steel mills, your nitrogen-fixing and sulfuric-acid plants? When you discount these raiders as nuisances, you’re still living in a world that’s just died a violent death. We no longer have the whole of Civilization backing us up; we’re on our own!”

A part shortly thereafter lines up with your point #5:

“In spring the razboiniki will be on us again -- and perhaps in the meantime their fragmentary groups will have coalesced into bigger and more formidable hordes. With their rediscovered technique of nomadic life, they’ll be expanding into the vacuum created by the internal collapse of the civilized world, as the Huns and their kindred did when the Roman Empire fell. ... I think we have no choice but to migrate west as soon as the spring crop is in. This country can no longer be held for Civilization; for one thing it's too badly devastated, and for another it's all one huge plain, natural nomad country. The Eurasian plain extends through Northern Europe, clear across Germany and France; we should move south to look for more favorable geography..."

At the end of the story, the Russian is killed trying to resist when horsemen forcibly disperse the village. There is no endorsement of the American's plan. Otherwise, it seems like a pretty good match.

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    The story was recently identified in another query (scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/271727/…), and the answer to that question has some additional information about it.
    – Otis
    Feb 1, 2023 at 2:22
  • That's got to be it. Looking on ISFDB at the list of places it's been reprinted, I conclude that I probably read it in Science Fiction of the Fifties. I even see that the story which user88873 was asking about in a previous comment, Poul Anderson's "The Last of the Deliverers," was reprinted in that same volume. I don't recognize the name "Robert Abernathy" at all, but I may make an effort to find some more of his work from way back when, now that I know who he was.
    – Lorendiac
    Feb 1, 2023 at 2:34

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