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Authors: Simon Sebag Montefiore

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BOOK: Sashenka
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“Well,” said Sagan, “that’s that. Goodbye.”

Sashenka seemed indignant. “You’re sending me back? But you haven’t even asked me anything.”

“When did your uncle Mendel Barmakid recruit you to the Russian Socialist Democratic Workers’ Party? May 1916. How did he escape from exile? By reindeer sleigh, steamship, train (secondclass ticket, no less). Don’t worry your pretty eyes, Comrade Snowfox, we know it all. I’m not going to waste any more time trying to interrogate you.” Sagan pretended to be slightly exasperated while actually he was well satisfied. He had got exactly what he wanted from their meeting. “But I’ve enjoyed our conversation greatly. I think we should talk about poetry again very soon.”

15

Sashenka swathed herself in her snow fox stole and Orenburg shawl as the chief guard held open her sable coat. Stepping into its sleek silklined warmth was like sinking into a bath of warm milk. She shivered at the pleasure of it, scarcely aware of the warblings of Sergeant Volkov about “politicals” and “criminals,” Swiss chocolates and Brocard’s cologne (which he had applied liberally for just this moment).

Sashenka’s arrival at the Kresty seemed decades ago, not just the previous night. And when the sergeant said, “You see, I’m not your typical prison guard,” she suddenly wanted to hug him. He handed her the canvas book bag.

As she left the prison, she felt she was floating on air. Guards bowed. Door after door opened, bringing the light closer. Gendarmes wielded giant keys on swinging key rings, locks ground open. The gendarme at the counter actually touched the brim of his cap. Everyone seemed to wish her well, as if she were a scholar leaving a school for the last time.

Who would meet her? she wondered. Papa? Flek, the family lawyer? Lala? But before she could even formulate a prediction, Uncle Gideon was opening his strapping arms at full span and dancing toward her, almost falling sideways as if the world were tilting. He wrapped her in his fur, his beard scratching her neck, almost lifting her off the ground.

“Oh my heart!” he bellowed, regardless of the gendarmes. “There she is! Come on! Everyone’s waiting!” At that moment, she loved his cognacandcigars scent and inhaled it hungrily.

And then she was outside in the freezing light of northern winter. Her father’s RussoBalt landaulet, with chains on its wheels against the ice, lurched forward. Pantameilion, a flash of scarlet and gold braid, ran round to open the door and Sashenka almost collapsed into that leatherlined, sweetsmelling compartment with its fresh carnations in the silver vase.

Lala’s arms enveloped her and Uncle Gideon climbed into the front seat, swigged some brandy from his flask and took up the speaking tube.

“Home, Pantameilion, you young ladykiller! Fuck Mendel! Fuck the Revolution and all the ideeeots!” Lala rolled her eyes and the two women laughed.

As they crossed the bridge, Lala handed Sashenka the tin of Huntley & Palmers and her babushka Miriam’s Yiddish honeycakes. She ate every delicacy, thinking that she had never so loved the spire of the Admiralty, the rococo glory of the Winter Palace—and the golden dome of St. Isaac’s. She was going home. She was free!

Uncle Gideon threw open the door at Greater Maritime Street as Sashenka, running up the steps, rushed past Leonid, the old butler who, with tears in his eyes, bowed low from the waist like a village
muzhik
before his young mistress. Gideon tossed his shaggy furs at the butler, who almost crumpled under the weight, and demanded one of the footmen help him pull off his boots.

Sashenka, feeling like the little girl who was occasionally presented to her busy father, ran to his study. The door was open. She prayed he was there. She did not know what she would do if he wasn’t. But he was. Zeitlin, in winged collar and spats, was listening to Flek.

“Well, Samuil, the prison governor demanded four hundred,” said the toadlike family lawyer.

“Small change compared with Andronnikov…” But then Zeitlin saw her. “Thank God, you’re here, my darling Lisichkasestrichka—Little Fox Sister!” he said, reverting to one of her childhood nicknames. He opened his arms and she leaned into him, feeling his tidy mustache on her cheek, bathing in his familiar cologne, pressing her lips against his slightly rough skin. “Let’s get your coat off before we talk,” he said, releasing himself from her arms and leading her into the hall. Leonid, following dutifully in her wake, removed her coat, stole and shawl, and then she noticed her father was looking her up and down distastefully, his nostrils twitching. Sashenka had quite forgotten that she was still wearing her soiled Smolny pinafore. Suddenly she could smell the filth of prison that clung about her.

“Oh Sashenka, is that blood?” her father exclaimed.

“Oh dearest, we must get you bathed and changed,” cried Lala in her high breathy voice.

“Luda, draw a bath at once.”

“Sashenka,” murmured Zeitlin. “Thank God we got you out.”

She yearned to wash yet she stood still, reveling in the shock of her father and the servants. “Yes!” she proclaimed, her voice breaking. “I’ve been to prison, I’ve seen the tombs that are the Tsar’s jails. I’m no longer the Smolny girl you thought I was!”

In the silence that followed, Lala took Sashenka’s hands and led her upstairs to the third floor, which was their own country. Up here, every worn piece of carpet, every crack on the landing walls, the damp stain on the pink wallpaper of her bedroom with its playful pictures of ponies and rabbits, the yellowed enamel of the basin in her English washstand, reminded Sashenka of her childhood with Lala, who had decorated her room to create a loving sanctuary for an only child.

The landing was familiar—a mist of Pears pine bath essence and Epsom salts. Lala brought her straight into the bathroom, which was lined with the most indulgent British toiletry products, beautiful blue and amber and green bottles of lotions and oils and essences. The chunky bar of Pears soap, black, cracked, beloved, waited on the wooden bath rack.

“What are we having today?” asked Sashenka.

“Same as always,” replied Lala. Sashenka, even though she now regarded herself as an adult, did not resist as Lala undressed her and handed her stinking clothes to Luda.

“Burn them, will you, girl,” Lala said.

Sashenka loved the feel of the soft carpet under her feet and the misty essences curling around her. She glanced at her nakedness in the foggy mirror and winced at a body she preferred not to see as Lala helped her into the bath. The water was so hot, the bath (English again, imported from Bond Street) so deep that immediately she closed her eyes and lay back.

“Darling Sashenka, I know you’re tired,” said Lala, “but just tell me, what happened? Are you all right? I was so worried…” And she burst into tears, large teardrops trickling down her wide cheeks.

Sashenka sat up and kissed the tears away. “Don’t worry, Lala. I was fine…” But as she settled into her bath, her mind traveled back to her final conversation with Mendel last summer holidays…

It had been
soomerki
, that beautiful word for summer dusk. The oriole sang in the pine forest. Otherwise, it was quiet in the lilac light.

Sashenka had been lying in the hammock behind their house at Zemblishino, rocking gently and reading Mayakovsky’s poetry to herself, when the sleepy swinging stopped.

Mendel had his hand on the hammock.

“You’re ready,” he said, sucking on a cigarette. “When we get back to the city, you’ll take on some workers’ circles so you can teach them what you know. Then you’ll join the Party.”

“Not just because I’m your niece?”

“Family and sentiment mean nothing to me,” he replied. “What are such things compared to the course of history itself?”

“But what about Mama and Papa?”

“What about them? Your father is the arch exploiter and bloodsucker of the working class and your mother—yes, my own sister—is a degenerate haute bourgeoise. They’re enemies of the science of history. They’re irrelevant. Understand that and you’re free of them forever.”

He handed her a pamphlet with the same title as the first book he had given her weeks earlier: “What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Party” by Lenin. “Read it. You’ll see that to be a Bolshevik is like being a knight in a secret militaryreligious order, a knight of the grail.”

And sure enough, in the weeks that followed, she had felt the joy of being an austere and merciless professional in Lenin’s secret vanguard.

When she returned to the city, she began to lecture the workers’ groups. She met ordinary workers, proletarians in the colossal Petrograd arms factories, men, women, even children who possessed a gritty decency she had never encountered before. They slaved in dangerous factories and existed in airless grimy dormitories without bedding or baths or lavatories, without light or air, living like rats in a subterranean hell. And she met the workers who manufactured the rifles and howitzers that had made her own father a rich man.

Daily, she worked with the most fiery and dedicated Party members who risked their lives for the Revolution. The clandestine world of committees, codes, conspiracy and comrades intoxicated her—and how could it not? It was the drama of history!

When she should have been at dance lessons or visiting Countess Loris’s house to play with her friend Fanny, she started to act as Mendel’s courier, carrying first leaflets and spare parts for printing presses but then “apples” (grenades), “noodles” (ammunition), and “bulldogs” (pistols). While Fanny Loris and her schoolfriends composed scented letters in curling, girlish handwriting to young lieutenants in the Guards, Sashenka’s billetsdoux were notes with coded orders from “Comrade Furnace,” one of Mendel’s code names; and her polkas were rides on public streetcars or her father’s sleigh bearing secret cargoes in her lingerie or her furcollared
sluba
cape.

“You’re the perfect courier,” said Mendel, “because who would search a Smolny schoolgirl in a snow fox stole riding in a bloodsucker’s crested sleigh?”

“Sashenka!” Lala was shaking her gently in her bath. “It’s lunchtime. You can sleep all afternoon. They’re waiting for you.”

As Lala rubbed her back, Sashenka thought of her interrogation by Sagan, the whispers of Natasha, Mendel’s woman, and her own ideals and plans. She realized she was stronger and older than she had been yesterday.

16

Five minutes later, Sashenka stood at the door of the drawing room.

“Come in,” said her father, who was warming his back against the fire and smoking a cigar. Above him hung an Old Master painting of the founding of Rome set in a colossal gold frame.

She was surprised to see that the room was full of people. In Russian tradition, a nobleman held open house at lunchtime every day, and Zeitlin liked to play the nobleman. But she had expected her parents to cancel this mockery on the day she was released from prison. As she looked around the room, she wanted to cry—and she remembered a time when she was a little girl and her parents were giving a dinner party for the Minister of War, a Grand Duke and various grandees. That evening she had longed for her parents’

attention, but when she appeared downstairs her father was in his study—“I asked not to be interrupted, could you take her out please”—and her mother, in a beaded velvet gown with gilded acanthus leaves, was arranging the placement—“Quick! Take her upstairs!”

As she left, Sashenka secretly seized a crystal wine glass, and when, on the third floor, she heard the fuss as the Emperor’s cousin arrived, she dropped it over the banisters and watched it shatter on the flagstones below. In the fracas that followed, her mother slapped her, even though her father had banned any punishment, and once again, Sashenka had found Lala her only source of comfort.

Sashenka recognized the inevitable Missy Loris (in an ivorycolored brocade dress fringed with sable) talking to her husband, the simian but goodnatured count. Gideon held up his glass for another cognac and addressed the lawyer Flek, whose bulging belly was pressed against the round table.

There was an English banker too—a friend of Ariadna and Mendel’s longdeparted brother, Avigdor, who had left in 1903 to make his fortune in London. Two members of the Imperial Duma, some of Zeitlin’s poker cronies, a general in braid and shoulder boards, a French colonel, and Mr. Putilov, the arms manufacturer. Sashenka gave him a satisfied smile, as she had spent many hours instructing his workers to destroy his bloodsucking enterprise.

“Would you like a glass of champagne, Sashenka?” her father offered.

“Lemon cordial,” she answered.

Leonid brought it.

“What’s for lunch?” she asked the butler.

“The baron’s favorite, Mademoiselle Sashenka: Melba toast and terrine, blinis and caviar, Pojarsky veal cutlets cooked in sour cream with English Yorkshire pudding and
kissyel
cranberries in sugar jelly. The same as ever.”

But everything had changed, Sashenka thought. Can they not see that?

“A quick chat in my study first,” her father said.

I am to be tried, decided Sashenka, and then I shall have to talk to this bunch of shop dummies.

They went into the study. Sashenka remembered how, when her mother was away, her father would let her curl up in the cubbyhole under the desk while he worked. She loved being near him.

“Can I listen?” It was Gideon who threw himself onto the sofa and lay back, sipping cognac. Sashenka was delighted he was there; he might help counteract her mother, who sat down opposite her, in her father’s chair.

“Leonid, close the door. Thank you,” said Zeitlin, leaning on the Trotting Chair. “Do sit.”

Sashenka sat. “We’re so glad you’re home, dear girl, but you did give us a hell of a shock.

It wasn’t easy getting you out. You should thank Flek.”

Sashenka said she would.

“You really might have been on your way to Siberia. The bad news is that you’re not going back to Smolny…”

That’s no funeral, thought Sashenka, that institute for imbeciles!

“…but we’ll arrange tutoring. Well, you’ve shown us your independence. You’ve read your Marx and Plekhanov. You’ve had a close shave. I was young once—”

BOOK: Sashenka
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