Patient is the Eagle; and patient, too, is the sun-crowned lion, that waits by the waterhole for its prey.
They seek no glory; they make no defiant show against superior strength. The eagle’s eye glares, from the mile-high crag, to find the prey that cannot fight back. The lion hunts the weakest antelope in the herd, not the broad-shouldered leader.
And yet, what can one say of those who would make war on the trackless plains of the Rus? Even the Eagle’s gaze may be lost in these shimmering distances. The steppes swallow up men, armies, entire nations, as though plunging them into the bottomless ocean. A thousand men, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, marching shoulder to shoulder, cannot fill even the smallest part of this boundless horizon. Like ants crossing the floor of a palace, they are lost in emptiness. To strike when a foe is weakened is inglorious; but to dream of conquest in such a space is ambition to the point of madness. Let the man scorn who has never dreamt grandly. His own smallness will be his just and terrible punishment. The eagle and the lion take no notice of such. They strike when they sense weakness, no matter the size of the foe.
The steppes have never been governed. Oh yes, men have reigned here, have even ruled for a time; the Czars have drawn lines on maps, have claimed the allegiance of the tribes, have even won tribute from them to be displayed pridefully in the palaces of Novgorod. But to govern, to impose the rule of paper law on peoples who can move their flocks a hundred miles in a week and melt into the horizon? As well govern the sea, as well impose one’s laws on the inrushing tide!
Crowns and trumpets and thrones, all are vain under this pitiless sky. Here the only throne is the saddle, and a good horse is worth more than its weight in gold; for gold cannot always buy horses, but the man with a horse and a strong bow may be assured he will find gold.
In the end, therefore, the grand ambition retreats in the face of reality; the width of the steppe is too much for any army. The highest-aimed arrow must eventually waver and fall; but the arrow aimed low, or never fired at all, cannot flash silver in the sunlight. It is the man who dreams of building new countries, and not the carping critic who calls the project a castle in the skies, who will leave behind more than the dust of his body for posterity. If the Bear is not dead, still its claws have been clipped, its fangs muzzled. Salami is sliced thinly, but in the end the sausage is gone. To regain the Black Sea coast has been the ambition of generations of Emperors. Only by contrast with the wildly daring vision of a Cossack State does victory feel like defeat.
The Eagle is patient. There will be other carrion.