By Alexandra Grabbe
Waking up in an unfamiliar place gives me the willies so I think about home as I wait for the woodstove to remove the chill from my cousin Yuri’s bedroom. It’s a cold morning in mid-March, 1917. We’re going book-shopping today. I’m a big fan of Arsène Lupin and Yuri says he knows where I can buy the French burglar’s latest adventure to read on the train to Kislovodsk in Southern Russia.
I devour my share of breakfast – three sweet buns with butter. Yuri waves me over to the window and rubs the glass with his pajama sleeve. The matted frost clears enough to see the snow-covered Neva stretching to either side. Mist shrouds the opposite bank.
“What a view!” I exclaim.
“Over there to the right? That’s Peter and Paul Cathedral.”
Yes, I can make out the narrow spire, a golden needle that sparkles in the sun. Down on the river a few pedestrians stagger across the uneven ice, too lazy to walk to the bridge. Below us, a man trudges along the quay. His gloved hand trails on the granite wall, raising white puffs of snow.
Once we’re dressed, Yuri hands me a tortoiseshell comb. I run the comb through my unruly blond hair, parting it in the middle with a dab of saliva. His expression remains unchanged although he must miss his long hair, gone due to military school regulations.
“The chauffeur didn’t come today,” the valet says. He gives Yuri a cap and leather gloves, then helps with his coat, a heavy black military overcoat.
“Which means Kolya and I have to take the streetcar?”
The valet waddles after us. He’s got this horsehair clothes brush in one hand and is attempting to brush off Yuri’s lapels. They make a funny pair: Matvei, short and stout, and Yuri who has shot up several inches since Christmas.
Our fathers were brothers. Mine died five years ago. That’s how I know life can change in a minute. I pay particular attention to the rest of their conversation.
“Maybe you and Nikolai Pavlovitch should stay home,” Matvei is saying.
“There might be...it might not be quite safe....”
“How’s that? Unsafe?”
“Worse than unsafe. Dangerous. My carpenter friend came by last night, trying to get me to leave...you know, again. He said the revolution was supposed to start tomorrow. That means today. We can expect shooting in the streets, he said.”
“And you believed him?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, I don’t either.” After a moment of hesitation, Yuri nods his head toward the hallway, where I stand in front of a mirror. I’m ballooning out my cheek, examining the mole I hate so much. Also checking for pimples. “We have to go on an errand. Kolya here needs a book.”
With a reluctant shrug, Matvei pushes the door shut.
“Shouldn’t we tell your mom?” I ask on the stairs.
He breaks into a grin. “No need.”
I envy Yuri his independence. Auntie lets him go out by himself, and he’s only eleven months older than me. Although I turned fourteen last month, I’m forbidden to go anywhere without a chaperone.
Outside, in the brisk morning air, I pull down the flaps of my otter skin cap and peer over my shoulder at the row of townhouses behind us. Most of the blinds are drawn, although it must be close to ten o’clock.
Yuri pivots to look back too. “Everything seems normal. Let’s go.”
I thrust my hands deep into my overcoat pockets. If Mum knew about our errand, she’d be horrified. She keeps saying there may be another revolt. That why we’re going south tomorrow.
“Pay no attention to Matvei,” Yuri says as we approach the bridge. “He always worries about me. You got a valet?”
“A tutor,” I reply, lest he think we’re unable to afford servants.
“I used to have a tutor. Now I attend the Corps des Pages.”
“Mum says we can dispense with valets since we don’t live in the city anymore.”
Yuri’s a good sort. From the way he narrows his eyes, I can tell he has remembered my mother’s a widow and our circumstances no longer allow multiple servants. Mum has her lady’s maid. Irina’s like family. Matvei, too, obviously cares about Yuri. I hurry to catch up as we approach the broad avenue leading to the city center.
We proceed in silence for a while. I ask how he likes military school. He says it’s okay. I ask about his father, whether he’s afraid something might happen to him since he has an important position at court according to Mum, another topic Yuri doesn’t want to discuss. I bring up hobbies. He collects postage stamps. I tell him I carve miniature boats out of bark.
At the streetcar stop, I stamp my feet on the rectangular platform to remove snow. I haven’t spent much time in Petrograd since fall when Mum made me attend cotillion. How I hated those dance lessons.
Yuri scans the bridge. “See any streetcars?”
I give my head a quick shake. Frost bites at my feet. That’s when we hear a hum, and a streetcar careens around the corner. We step back as it thunders past.
“How odd,” Yuri says. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, I doubt it. A revolution means street fighting, noise, shooting.”
There’s none of that. The place is mournful. Not a sound. Like a cemetery. Across from where we stand, an alley breaks the even line of low buildings. Yuri points at a rickety pushcart, abandoned by some fruit vendor. We move the heavy pushcart onto the rails.
The next streetcar’s wheels make a high-pitched metallic whine once the conductor spots our barricade. While he clears away the debris, we climb aboard.
I stare out the window as the cityscape flies by. Irina gave me some wool to plug up my ears, but I hesitate to put it in, afraid Yuri might make fun of me. I don’t know him all that well. Our families only get together at Christmas and Easter.
We pass my sister’s new flat, where Mum spent the night, hoping to convince her to join us. My sister’s husband and my brother are both at the Front. They see military service as a means of advancement in life. Not me. I’d prefer to write about war, as a journalist, say, or an author of mysteries for children.
We’re going fast, faster than necessary. Yuri gropes his way to the front of the swaying car.
“Excuse me, what’s your hurry?” He rings the bell several times. “Stop!” he shrieks. “Nevsky Prospect! We need to get off.”
The conductor slams his foot on the brakes. “I’m trying to get out of the way. Nothing more, Comrade. And I would give you fair warning to do the same.”
As we hop out, I notice he’s wearing a red ribbon on his uniform. When my tutor described the worker strikes of 1905, he said white means surrender, black represents anarchy, and red stands for revolution. The conductor’s insolence brings to mind the valet’s warning. I gnaw the interior of my cheek, booted feet gripping the sidewalk, toenails curved down, watching the streetcar speed away, rattling and shaking.
“Yuri, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
He responds with a light laugh, as much as to say not to worry.
The city center is crowded. Not only sleighs but highly polished automobiles glide by, making the crusted snow crackle. Some pedestrians chat, while others stride along muffled in fur. A gold-spectacled birdlike fellow with a neat beard and a doctor bag scurries past us, waving. Yuri tells me it’s his family doctor, Anatoly Petrovich Sharin, who lives nearby. A merry company of men and women – actors? – emerge from a restaurant or it could be a nightclub. An elegant man with a goatee exchanges a few words with an izvostchik, leaning against his sleigh.
“Net, barin,” the driver says with a good-natured smile. “One ruble? Have pity! I’d take you yonder for five kopeks. I would tomorrow, but today...”
Something is definitely going on. I glance at Yuri and suggest we head back. He slaps his cheek in disbelief and asks whether I want the book or not. It’s a good question. I’ll be bored with nothing to read.
My apprehension fades once inside the bookshop. It’s warm and smells of peppermint. Leather-bound books are piled on the counter. I find the foreign books section and locate 813, one of my all-time favorites, a mystery about how Arsène Lupin, accused of murder, gets disguised as a police investigator and clears himself by finding the true killer. I ask the shopkeeper for The Golden Triangle. He gives me this long explanation about the difficulties involved in the import of foreign literature. During our conversation, I notice we’re his only customers, which seems a bit odd. He says his shipment may arrive later and we’re welcome to return, only he can’t guarantee the shop will be open. I buy a fresh copy of 813, instead.
While we’re crossing the bridge over the Fontanka, Yuri shades his eyes. I follow his gaze down the Nevsky. Half a dozen blocks away, shadows flit back and forth. Windows open as shots ring out. Couples cluster on balconies. Yuri quickens his pace.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I shout after him, feeling more anxious by the moment since he’s now heading in the wrong direction. I’d be willing to go investigate if not for all the warnings we’ve had this morning. In fact, right this minute, I’d prefer be home in bed or even at dance class. The most exciting thing that happens in our village is the birth of a foal. Sometimes, in fall, mushrooms pop up through the dead leaves after a heavy rain and our cook makes mushroom pies, enough to donate a couple to the local clergy.
“Yuri, I think we should go back to your house,” I say when I catch up.
Too late: He has already pushed open a door and yanks me into the building after him. The lobby smells of cooked cabbage and the English Rose perfume my mom’s sister used to wear. Dr. Sharin receives patients on the second floor, according to a wall sign, but the receptionist there tells us he has gone upstairs to his other flat. We dash up the spiral staircase to the fourth floor. The doctor looks surprised to see us when he answers the door.
“Sorry to bother you,” Yuri says, polite as can be. “Something unusual is happening on your street. Do you mind if we take a look?”
The front parlor is furnished with a deep-buttoned sofa, armchairs, a couple lamps, a thick oriental rug. Gold-framed landscapes with cows cover the wall above a highly carved credenza. Yuri throws open both windows. I take up position on the far side of the room, behind a fringed lampshade, relieved to be on the fourth floor. A breeze has thinned the mist, and the automobiles and sleighs have all but vanished. I glance over at Dr. Sharin who removes an ornate watch from his waistcoat to check the time and shuffles off into a corridor, saying he’ll fetch opera glasses.
The sky is luminous, with pearl-grey clouds dominant in the west. No doubt it will snow again this afternoon. The windows have deep ledges and one corner wears a cuff of white, tinged with black specks. I stick my gloved finger in to break up the crystals and form a loose snowball, which I toss from hand to hand. In my mind, it’s the dead of night. Arsène Lupin, dressed as a cat burglar, leaps onto the ledge in order to save a damsel in distress. I see myself at the foot of the building, steadying his ladder.
My daydream fades as a shot rings out, followed by two more. Pedestrians duck into doorways or crouch down low. Men have filled the Nevsky, crying in high-pitched voices, “Freedom! Revolution!” Some carry rifles with fixed bayonets. Many wear red armbands. My heart pounding, I watch them raise a red flag that flashes with gold.
Below us, a line of soldiers marches around the corner and rolls a machine gun toward the intersection. I’m rooting for the governmental troops, who seem to have arrived in the nick of time. We hear more shots, followed by a heavy burst of gunfire. An empty sleigh, pulled by a frantic horse, tears off toward the river.
“That must be a Maxim,” Yuri calls to the doctor who has located his opera glasses at last. “Look at the size of the thing.”
Dr. Sharin’s left hand claws at the windowsill. “Good lord,” he gasps. “I do believe they intend to shoot people.”
Pedestrians race down the sidewalks, leaping into doorways to avoid bullets. Some fall headlong, struck from behind. In awkward positions, they remain where they’ve fallen or crawl forward, arms outstretched. I squeeze my eyes shut and open them again. I can’t believe people are actually dying. It’s grotesque, like finding oneself in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. A tall woman, wearing a veiled hat, similar to the one Mum wore at Papa’s funeral, clutches her breast as she stumbles to the ground. I retreat a step and swallow hard.
The doctor collapses into an armchair, head in his hands.
Yuri snatches the opera glasses, fiddles with the focus. “Here, your turn,” he says after a minute or two. “Hold them like this.”
I do as told, although I don’t need opera glasses to realize our side is losing. The horde of shabbily dressed men fights with furious determination. There’s a final mighty rush for the Maxim. Slowly, moving in a body, the governmental troops back away. A truck speeds by. More revolutionaries leap out and hoist the gun onto its carriage. In no time they’ve rounded the corner. I immediately push Yuri toward the door.
“Boys, wait!” Dr. Sharin calls out. He removes a worn sheepskin coat and a leather cap trimmed with fur from a closet. “Put these on, Yuri Pavlovitch. It’s probably not safe to walk around in military clothing.”
Without a word, Yuri discards his overcoat.
We dive down the stairs, two by two, into the lobby, now filled with frightened people, a dozen or more, packed into the narrow space. They cluck and groan about the shooting. A nanny tries to comfort a little girl with a muff. An older woman bends her head in prayer.
“Coming through,” someone shouts. Two men carry in an elderly woman on a stretcher and start up the staircase. Gurgles come from her mouth.
“What kind of outfit are you masquerading in?”
Startled to have one of the strangers address us in such an aggressive tone, we swing around to confront a young man who glares back at us, his black eyes half-closed as though he’s a judge, and Yuri, a criminal.
“Foronov!” Yuri says with affected cheerfulness. “What a surprise. This is my cousin Kolya.”
Foronov’s clothes are immaculate. His nose, pinched by a pair of almond-shaped eyeglasses, is slightly puckered and his eyebrows are drawn in an obvious attempt to look severe. He wears his military cap tilted forward, conforming to the best of all accepted fashion. Its top, both circular and stiff, resembles a dried pancake. The tsar’s initials glisten on the golden epaulettes, as do the metal buttons of his long black overcoat. I recognize his swagger. My brother adopted the same attitude in his final years at Corps des Pages. He was particularly proud of the tsar’s initials on his shoulders.
Foronov readjusts his eyeglasses with grave deliberation and clears his throat. “I’m surprised to find you in our midst...to find one amongst us who displays signs of cowardice and hides in civilian clothes at the approach of a little danger. How dare you discard the uniform worn by His Majesty’s soldiers?” He jerks his hand into a tight salute, as if mere mention of the tsar were enough to call forth feelings of blind loyalty.
When Yuri objects, Foronov raises both palms. “Although I regret it deeply, I find myself compelled to report you to your superior officer. Let’s go.”
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid?” With a self-righteous sneer, Foronov draws a small revolver from his pocket.
Outside, the snow is stained with blood. I stare at it for a moment before hurrying after Yuri. The Nevsky is deserted except for a few men carrying away bodies. We cross the Fontanka, veer right, follow the canal. Distinct bursts of rifle fire float in on gusts of wind. A coal-black cloud of smoke rises in the eastern sky. Soon we come alongside a barge. The ice is broken in several places, creating pools of inky water from which vapor rises. Foronov leads us toward a shop in a one-story brick building, saying he’s out of cigarettes. A bright green sign indicates Fresh Colonial Commodities and Other Dainties can be purchased inside. No one answers his knock. He says to wait, that he’ll go in the back.
On either side of the door are display windows, containing wide-mouthed jars, full of pickled mushrooms and cucumbers. We’ve come at least a dozen blocks from Dr. Sharin’s apartment. I’m not as scared as before, but this unexpected detour has made me nervous again.
“Yuri,” I say, my voice firmer now. “Let’s get going. My mother...”
“He’s a senior. I have to do what he says,” Yuri mutters.
That’s when an olive-green car shoots up the street, canvas roof down, siren wailing. I clamp my hands over my ears and implore the Fates to let the car speed past, but it stops a few yards away. I steal a glance at the sailor behind the wheel and the soldiers on the running boards. Four men lounge in back with a machine gun. Around their chests hang ammunition clips. Bits of red cloth adorn their lapels. Each carries a rifle, a revolver tucked into his waistband. Two more men lie on the fenders, bayonets pointing at us. Pee trickles down my thigh.
“What’s the quickest way to the palace bridge?” the driver yells, half rising from his seat. He’s tall and square-bodied. Friendly enough. There’s a gash on his cheek.
After a hasty consultation inside the car, the men all jump out except for the one with the bloody kerchief tied around his head. He’s got one of those red ribbons attached to his lapel. Clasping my arms to my chest to prevent their shaking, I watch him settle behind the wheel.
“Open up, you cursed band of lepers,” the sailor hollers and bangs his fist against the shop door.
At a wag of his finger, his companions, who must all be deserters, bring their guns crashing down against the display window. Amidst the jangle of broken glass, we hear a muffled cry of protest from within.
Suppressing the wild desire to break into a run, I try to attract Yuri’s attention: “Psst, psst!”
I go all quiet. It’s the man with the bloody kerchief. A paralyzing fear lumps up my throat. I can feel the exact spot on my back between the shoulder blades, where the bullet will lodge. At such close range, I will surely die. Mum will be grief-stricken. Why oh why did I tell Yuri I needed that stupid book?
“What do you think of this here revolution?” he calls.
“I...I don’t know.” It’s a lie. I know exactly what I think. Mum says we will lose everything if these thugs manage to overthrow the regime. I step away, eyes never leaving the deserter, whose disgruntled look makes me hasten to add, “I think, I am quite sure, that it’s all right.”
“Sure is all right,” he says with a grunt of pleasure. “Equality, freedom, that’s what it is.”
My crab-steps have brought me closer to Yuri. “Shouldn’t we be on our way?” I manage, a tremor in my voice.
“Hold on.” The man fumbles with his lapel and unpins his red ribbon.
“Here, Comrade.” He presses his lips together in a grimace of determination. “Take this and wear it, this badge of freedom.” His voice has dropped an octave.
Although my legs feel as wobbly as the meat aspic we were served last night at dinner, I shuffle over to the car and pin the ribbon to my coat. “Thank you very much. Good...good luck.”
The sailor steps out of the shop, examining a piece of paper, which he folds into his pocket, possibly directions to the bridge. At that same moment Foronov emerges from behind the building. In no time, he’s ranting about the ribbon, his face flushed scarlet.
“Leave him alone,” Yuri shout-whispers. “Let’s get out of here.”
“With you two? Not unless your pal removes that ribbon,” Foronov responds as the revolutionaries encircle us.
“Why shouldn’t he wear a ribbon?” The sailor nudges his companions who all snicker at his sarcastic tone.
Lips pursed with annoyance, Foronov buttons up his chamois gloves. “Make it snappy. Throw that damned thing away.”
“Throw it away?” The sailor’s eyes have become slits.
“My friend here was only joking,” Yuri says.
“No, wait. I want to hear what he has to say.” The sailor cocks his head.
“Why not, lieutenant?” A hint of menace has crept into his voice. The golden epaulettes must have made him mistake Foronov for an officer.
Their argument reminds me of a puppet show I attended in Rome, before Papa died. We sat on wooden benches. Pulcinella clobbered the other puppet with a nightstick. Mum found it funny, but I kept my eyes shut most of the time, certain something awful was about to happen.
Foronov barely succeeds in controlling his temper. The color drains from his face as he reels off the military school creed: “Because, a soldier of His Majesty...”
“His Majesty indeed! Nicholas the Second? The second and last. What do we care about him? It’s Nico...Nicolasha,” the sailor spits out. “Yeah. Nicolasha, that’s all he is to us. His Majesty? That’s over. No more such.”
“How dare you speak that way of His Imperial Majesty? Enough!”
“Enough is right,” the sailor snarls. “We’re the law now. Got that? The law. As for your precious Nicholas the Second, Imperial Majesty, and all that crap, that’s what we fought against and defeated. It’s Nicolasha to us, plain nothing.” He fixes on Foronov a look of intense hatred. “Remove those initials from your epaulettes.”
Abruptly the sailor flings out an arm and tears off one of the epaulettes. He spits on it, tosses it to the sidewalk.
Foronov whips out his revolver and shoots.
Yuri and I exchange glances, dumbfounded. What an idiot! Don’t they teach diplomacy at his stupid military school?
In two seconds flat the soldiers have disarmed the upperclassman. They grab his shoulders, move toward the canal, swing his body over the railing. He falls headlong onto the ice, which cracks open.
“Help!” he cries, clutching the rim of the hole.
The soldier with the gash on his cheek raises his rifle, aims, fires. Foronov’s body slips below the murky water. The ripples soon vanish. Alone his cap remains afloat.
I can’t believe I’ve witnessed the deaths of two more people. My throat swells up. I feel sick to my stomach, wasted, vulnerable.
The wounded soldier retrieves the folded paper from the sailor’s pocket and motions everyone into the car. Once his companions have hoisted the dead body into the backseat, the car speeds away.
We jog through the streets, past the crumbled ruin of the courthouse. Columns of smoke rise into the air. Tears blur my vision. My cousin’s face is ashen. I know what I want to say – Told you so. We should have paid more attention to your valet – but what good would it do to lord this over him?
A bit farther on, we reach a barricade: piled carts, wooden crates, discarded furniture. Suspended from a rifle wedged into a wicker basket, a piece of red cloth confirms my fear that life has taken a new direction.
We hurry along in silence. At the river, we follow the deserted quay. The daylight turns soft and the sun sinks below the horizon. Purple tints the snow. Yuri fishes a key out of his pocket. Only then do I realize I left 813 at Dr. Sharin’s. I won’t tell Mum. She’s upset enough as is. I’ll tell her when all this is over, after our return from Southern Russia. We’ll laugh about it then, once home and back to life as usual.