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Rumors in St. Petersburg

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Rumors in St. Petersburg

 

 

            When Dmitri officially becomes an orphan, he has literally never been less surprised by anything in his life.

 

“Mitya, malchek—” says Vlad, setting down the news periodical Truth, in which he has just read excited tidings of the royal family’s execution—an execution which included the household staff. “Moya Dimushka, your poor father and mother…”

 

Dmitri has never mentioned to Vlad that he thinks of the princess, the young auburn-haired girl who helped him plant toads in the royal samovar whenever Rasputin would be partaking.

 

He thinks of her now, before he thinks about his parents. The little auburn-haired girl lying—where? In the junk pile outside some shed in Tobolsk.

 

He has hidden her music box in a variety of places, now it is in the pocket of his coat. He feels like he would die before being separated from it.

 

He is looking over one of the newly-minted exit visas. No longer will a handwritten note from a party member or commerce soviet suffice; Piter’s new Bolshevik leaders are slowly revealing a profound and maddening passion for official-looking paperwork.

 

And stamps.

 

“Vlad, we’ll have to cut a stamp for the visas.”

 

The periodical was printed without an ink fixative, and his fingers are covered in smudges of dark ink.  

 

“You’ll get ink all over it,” says Dmitri, holding the visa out of the way.

 

“Yes, yes, the only thing in this city not coated liberally in coal dust. Give it here.”

 

 

            The most shocking thing to come out of the Revolution was Vladimir Konstantinovich. The head of the royal household, he spent most of his life the paragon of servile virtue, an encyclopedic resource on etiquette and snobbery, and the most loyal man in Europe to the Tsar.

 

And then one cold day, when most of the household was herded onto traincars to Siberia never to be seen living again, Vladimir stayed behind in Saint Petersburg to begin a meteoric career of petty criminality. 

 

Not that anybody is complaining.

 

Even the most fervid Bolsheviks have no compunction about seeking out a forger, someone to make them a little more blatnoy. And there is a lot of blat, the Bolsheviks desire a society built more or less only on paperwork, and the Mensheviks always want to see something different and perhaps in triplicate. Most people in Piter keep two sets of documentation, depending on who’s asking, and therefore a lot of things can be excused in service of getting or concealing blat.

 

It’s anybody’s guess why Vlad has set himself up at the helm of the underworld of nonviolent, high-quality forgery. And for a while everyone was too busy to care, too busy storming the abandoned dachas, finding them provisionless, and returning to Piter to tear down statues of the tsars and burn half the Hermitage collection.

 

Some of them persist, but for the most part people have moved on, more eager to flex the muscles of the unionized soviets and chase the White Army and their Prussian friends into Poland, than to continue to beat the dead Tsarist horse into the ground.

 

That said, somebody somewhere is probably beating the dead Tsar into the ground.

 

And so Vlad has quite the network of craftsmen looking to break into the business. He gives informal classes in forgery, offering a few introductory lessons in reading and writing before he will allow any well-meaning comrade near the good paper.

 

Dmitri he gives special treatment, satisfied finally with his mastery of script and print, he assigns a massive and likely unnecessary education in French, Lermontov, Pushkin, Shakespeare and Goethe. Dmitri and Vlad alternate between classical canon and rigging up an old printing press to spit out reasonable birth certificates.

 

Dmitri has stuck by Vlad from the beginning, originally because he had nowhere else to be and now because he is genuinely out to make something for himself in this brave new world.

 

But this new world, however brave, will always be hollow to him because of the expense of its purchase—Nicholas, who was kind and thoughtful and, Vlad claims, in agony whenever he mentioned the agony of Russia. The duchesses, who had Dmitri ferry flirtatious notes between themselves and the young Cossacks of the Royal Guard.

 

Anastasia Nikolaevna, who had taken the initiative in their friendship by putting a fieldmouse down his pants.

 

He thinks of her more often than he should. The rest of the time he thinks about scams and authentic passport typefaces. He thinks of his parents not at all.

 

It’s bad sovietsky, but he hopes she has met her family again and they are happy in heaven.

 

 -------

 

“To overcome all of our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.”

-Grigory Zinoviev

 

But the time Dmitri is twelve, Russia is at war, ostensibly with the Germans. In practice, Russia is at war everywhere, and this is manifest in that everyone seems to be afraid of everyone else. They’ve lost Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, the queer Balkan states, Ukraine, and Belarus to a treaty that the periodicals (still printed without an ink fixative) are practically at arms about.

 

But that is always last-page news.

 

The front pages are reserved for the Red Terror, and the entire population surprised at how bored they have become of front-page news of hangings. There are hangings all the time. If you had a good means of conveyance you could probably do three a day.

 

“Who is there to serve you now?” asks the periodical Cheka Daily (it is not daily), under a grainy and gruesome photograph of some bourgeois group in nooses, not-quite-dead. “Who is there for you to debase and to terrorize? 100 kulaks were hanged this week in Nizhny Novgorod—farewell you rich bastards, you bloodsuckers.”

 

Vlad shakes his head. He has wisely taken to reading the periodicals with gloves on. “This is a deformity,” he murmurs.

 

“What’s this word?” Dmitri asks, pointing.

 

“’Bourgeois’? Or ‘swine’?”

 

Piter’s Cheka leader, Moisei Uritsky, has been recently assassinated, and somebody tried with Lenin, that’s what started the Terror. The whole Soviet Republic is cracking down, especially on Petrograd, by requiring even more paperwork. No one seems to be glib anymore about blat, as the absence of paperwork is what gets you on a train to Dalstroy.

 

Old people begin to die at a higher rate than normal, on the streets everyone looks a little wary and stressed and haunted. The ink in the periodicals still runs, and now it seems that the smug text itself is dripping blood.

 

The Krasnaya Gazeta had written on the subject: “For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinoviev and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible.”

 

More blood, as much as possible, is currently serving as something of a national motto, right alongside “more paperwork, as much as possible.”

 

Which is to say, business is booming.

 

Dmitri is currently making his way past the Smolny, couriering some exit visas uptown, and freezing. Cheka soldiers are out in force, sitting with uninterested vigilance astride their shifting horses. One of them is smoking, making it last, cigarette dangling, and Dmitri notes with surprise that the horse doesn’t seem to be bothered.

 

“Hey,” says the soldier with the cigarette, the snap of his voice smarting as Dmitri stops dead in the square. “Hey comrade, come here for a moment.”

 

Dmitri feels his lungs clench around his heart, and he thinks about pretending to be a shrub.

 

The horses shift some more, a clatter of hooves and steaming clouds of breath. The Cheka soldiers start laughing a little, at Dmitri’s terrified expression, and the young man with the cigarette’s theatrical moue of hurt.

 

“What’s this, huh? Anything to fear at all? Nobody here but us, comrade. A cold night, though, not a night you want to be alone,” his tone is placating, a very nice voice, a bit too nice for the current vogue of talking like an illiterate wheat-thresher. “Come the fuck here, are you deaf?” he snaps, losing the arrogant educated drawl in favor of the tried-and-true Cheka shout honed to induce men to wet themselves. The moonlight glints off his jackboots, and the cigarette burns, and the horses snort, and Dmitri, wise in the ways of survival, comes the fuck here.

 

“Y-yes, Comrade—” he searches the shoulders, but he has no godforsaken idea how Cheka rank works at all, so he just takes a shot: “Comrade Major.”

 

The soldiers laugh, good-natured. Dmitri is beginning to understand that they’re not about to shoot him. They’re just bored.

 

“He’s promoted you, Yevgeny,” someone snorts. “I’m not sure he can do that.”

 

“Well, boy, come here. I have an errand for you,” says Yevgeny, talking around his cigarette and fiddling around in his overcoat for something. “Will you do your duty to your comrades here and run this over to the Odessaya ulitsa? There’s a townhouse there, number six—”

 

“Christ, Yevgeny, you’re not serious.”

 

“Of course I’m fucking serious. Boy! Pay attention, you can’t promote me to major and then side with that Muscovy weasel-ass.”

 

The Muscovy weasel-ass looks a little pissed off.

 

Dmitri errs on the side of saying nothing. Yevgeny has produced a note, folded to a little packet and sealed, and is holding it casually with two gloved fingers in front of Dmitri’s nose.

 

Dmitri sniffs a little at a sharp scent, immediately recognizable in the cold.

 

“Lavender?”

 

The Cheka unit is unable to control its laughter.

 

“Shut up, you lot, and I mean immediately or I’ll have you shot. Boy! Pay attention. Where are you going?”

 

“The Odessaya ulitsa, number six.”

 

“Damn right you are. There’s a girl who lives there, her name is Nadya Paskalovna, and this is a reply to her letter. I just wrote on the back. If it’s scented it’s her fault.”

 

Someone snickers and disagrees.

 

“Is she going to send anything back?” Dmitri asks.

 

“A kiss!” someone calls.

 

“I don’t know. Come back if she wants you to, we’re out here until midnight at the earliest. She might give you some tea. Aren’t you glad you wandered by.”

 

Oh, thinks Dmitri, immensely. Any opportunity he can find to do favors for Cheka evens the odds of him and Vlad being caught and hanged, so if Cheka’s head of janitorial procurement wants someone to come to his house and make broth for his cats, Dmitri’s going to be first in line.

 

Yevgeny leans down over his horse’s neck, with the clear intent to menace Dmitri on his way. The horse bears it stoically, clearly annoyed. “That way,” Yevgeny says, pointing.

 

Dmitri trots off, waiting until he’s rounded a corner to start unpeeling the seal. He can reaffix it easily enough with spit, and anyway it’s a reused letter. Nadya Paskalovna won’t suspect anything, and if there’s one thing Cheka deserves, in the quid pro quo balance of eternity, it’s having their mail read by the carriers.

 

Mon cher Yevgeny,

 

It is with greatest happiness that I seek you out today. You are no longer at the dacha, though it seems to have remained in your family? That’s good news. Just wait for the rest. 

I had yesterday the most fulfilling conversation with one of my school friends. Her mother is a Parisienne, and though they are currently waiting it out in Brussels, she is something of an authority as far as gossip is concerned. I can see your face now, Zhenya, you would be giving me that bloody skeptical look that begs the speaker to shrivel up and desist. Hear me out please, you overbearing jackass.

My dear friend has most exciting news: the Dowager Empress is alive and well. She has reason to believe, additionally, that the little Grand Duchess Anastasia also survived. Where she is, I haven’t a clue. But Maria Feodorovna will stop at nothing to see her granddaughter again, that much is for certain. 

Have you heard any rumors of the sort in Petersburg? If Anastasia lives still, the exile guards from Tobolsk must know. Someone must know, and I have complete faith in a pan-slavic inability to keep a secret.

Write to me soon, Zhenya, and I hope it is good news.

Yours most exuberantly,

Nadya

 

Dmitri’s eyebrows climb up into his hat. The last thing he expected to courier for some meat-headed Cheka tough is a treasonous, dangerous conversation concerning the royal family—but could it be true?

 

Could she somewhere still be alive?

 

He feels the cold night disappear around him, the hope flaring in his veins sufficient to heat a stable.

 

Eagerly he flips the note over, barely noting the change in handwriting—if Nadya had composed her letter sitting at a desk sipping tea, Yevgeny had composed his wrong-handedly, on horseback, in the dark.

 

Nadya—

 

You’re right. I’ve heard the same rumor. I didn’t credit it because it tends to come up when anyone who was at Tobolsk has been drinking. First they tend to claim that Nicholas haunts them, then sometimes they talk about one of the duchesses—the pretty one, I forget—being straight apotheosized. Then they mention that Anastasia was not in Tobolsk at all. Someone thinks he saw her getting on a streetcar the night of the revolution. Someone else thinks he saw her falling out. Definitely no one remembers killing her.

If you are right and there is something to this then perhaps it is time to join the émigrés. Tell me if you find out anything else. I can’t say how good it is to hear from you, stilted and affected though you sound when you write. I can barely remember the time we were engaged, Nadya, and I have to tell you it’s wonderful to be free from that and at such liberty to criticize you. You deserve it.

Affectionately.

-Y.S.G

 

Dmitri is stopped dead on the street by now, the foggy ghost of his breath caught hovering above the letter, trembling in his mitten.

 

Alive.

 

Very likely it is because he helped her escape. The music box is still in his pocket, too delicate to be very heavy, but it drags at the coat; he is keeping it safe for her. He will keep it safe for her forever.

 

He licks at the seal and squeezes it back on the paper, a reasonable approximation of the real thing.

 

Nadya Paskalovna answers the door when he knocks, in bedtime dishabille, and she scoots him toward the fireplace before he can stammer out that he’s come from Yevgeny.

 

Anastasia, he thinks, alive, and when he sees the blush of joy on Nadya’s face he has to pretend indifference, huddling as close to the fire as he can get without actually combusting. He reaches into his pocket for the music box, trying to warm it as well, thinking of the intricate machinery that too much cold can ruin; how disappointed Anastasia will be if it stopped working.

 

 ------

 

At sixteen Dmitri is spending a lot of time hiding from Vlad’s personal life. For someone with such a rotund, rosey-cheeked, grandfatherly air—not to mention the odd tufts of hair and the smudgey glasses—Vlad has a sizeable number of lady friends. Dmitri spends time away from the flat, trying to think about other things, but for the most part they’ve settled into a routine.

 

The heady thrum of civil war is fading.

 

Pepelyayev has surrendered. Vladivostok belongs to the Republic. 250,000 enemies of the people have been executed, along with a gigantic number of Ukranians and Cossacks.

 

Buildings are crumbling.

 

The sewers are backed up.

 

People are settling down, miserable, bored and hungry, but St. Petersburg is fun if you let it be fun. Dmitri gets his kicks tripping people and working with the boy in the flat next door to secure themselves some French magazines.

 

Rumors fly around St Petersburg more than ever. By unspoken consensus no one uses the disrespectful “Nicholas Romanov” anymore.

 

No one has found Anastasia, and Dmitri begins to understand that soon, he’ll have to face it that no one ever will. She’s officially been sainted along with the rest of her family, and that honor never goes to the living, so someone is reasonably certain she’s not going to surface.

 

The city seems more crowded than ever despite a substantial decrease in the Russian population, everyone jostling each other all the time, looking at the ground, passing quickly from one place to another but never seeming to go home until it is absolutely necessary.

 

The newspapers are finally printed with fixative (a wonder that anyone could get together behind that and not fix the sewers). They’re delivered along routes, and daily or weekly with regularity. There are departments for things like passports and extradition, courts of law—at last a real country, albeit one without food, Yediny, moguchy Sovetsky soyuz. Dmitri is at once proud of the tough shit they are willing to put up with to hang onto the idea of this republic, and actively resentful of the tide of blood it sailed in on—as well as Cheka’s focus on killing a good time.

 

He skims the paper for any mention of the specific rumor he’s hunting—but it’s all human-interest, or politics, and the former mostly crap. He flips past a page about a farmer in Arkangelsk who discovered a frozen dinosaur corpse, annoyed.

 

Spring is nice in Piter, but “nice” is a relative term in this part of the country. It’s tolerable at least, with a cold breeze, sunny at the moment but moist enough to indicate rain soon.

 

“Aren’t you Dmitri?” a girl’s voice asks, and for a second he is struck with a bolt of idiocy, staring at her auburn hair and big brown eyes.

 

“If I am—who’re you?”

 

She gives him a skeptical look. “I, uhm, I was told I could speak to you about some paperwork? If you’re the Dmitri I’m looking for.”

 

He takes off his cap to run a hand through his hair, feeling almost dizzy as he comes down from the excitement. This girl isn’t Anastasia. Barely looks like her.

 

“Alright, alright. That’s me. Not here, okay?”

 

She nods, looking out onto the riverbank. “A lot of ducks this year.”

 

“What?”

 

Anastasia had spent hours with him chasing the ducks. They’d been trying to kick them like footballs.

 

“I said, a lot of ducks this year. See right there? About ten ducklings. That’s an unusual amount of ducks.”

 

Dmitri blinks. “Really tempting to kick them, don’t you think?”

 

“What?”

 

“Eat. I mean eat. Those ducks look delicious.”

 

The girl looks affronted. Dmitri shrugs, not his problem; and wonders what the princess would be like at that age.

 

-----

 

At seventeen, Dmitri takes matters into his own hands, finally disturbed that his fondest and, God help him, most affectionate memories are of a nine-year-old girl.

 

“Dimushka!” A lazy voice from red lips trailing smoke from a cigar. He’s on very good terms with all sorts of dark market types, and Tatiana has a connection in Prague who helps her import pears.

 

And cigars, apparently.

 

“What the hell?” he asks, plucking it from her lips.

 

“Oh, I’m in tears, Comrade, I'm a lady nevertheless."

 

Dmitri snorts around his puff, and ends up coughing badly. Tatiana starts laughing and then he starts laughing, and then she reaches from the bed with her foot and kicks him in the stomach.

 

“Tanya, a gang of Magadan toughs who haven’t seen a girl in ten years wouldn’t mistake you for a lady,” he wheezes, ruffling her short hair. Blonde. His girl is a blonde, thank you, and that surprises even him sometimes.

 

“The lipstick is supposed to be a kind of signpost.”

 

Magadan, my dear. They’ll just think you’re a Young Pioneer who’s been raised too long by Mama. And anyway, shouldn’t you be careful about that sort of thing?”

 

“I can get people pears, malchek, you think they want to fuck with me? Even Cheka likes pears.”

 

Which, incidentally, is the secret to his success as well. As long as you’re an illegal purveyor of something Cheka likes, you’ve got old age on your death certificate. 

 

“I’ll bet Cheka loves pears,” he mutters, keeping his tone friendly. He doesn’t care what Tatiana does, or with whom, as long as she continues to do it with him as well.

She tries to kick him in the back of the knees and he grabs her ankle to prevent it.

 

His eyes catch on something out the window—the winter’s first swirl of snow, twirling to mix with the industrial puffs of smog.

 

When he puts on his coat, his hand goes by instinct to make sure the music box is still in there in the pocket.

 

He begins to wonder, in an odd moment of moroseness, what is left for him in Russia.

 

-----

 

And then, finally, Pravda runs the piece about Anastasia. Anastasia Romanov: Alive? Dmitri has long since answered that question to his own satisfaction: No.

 

He comes in one day to find Vlad tapping a finger thoughtfully on the headline.

 

“Do you think it’s true?” Dmitri asks, for conversation. If she’s alive, someone would have found her by now.

 

“I don’t think one way or the other. Have you read this?”

 

“Yes,” Several times, despite the opinion that it is crap.

 

“The Dowager Empress is offering a substantial reward for the safe return of her niece.”

 

“Substantial…?”

 

Francs, comrade. Or sterling. Whichever.”

 

Dmitri pulls his lapels up, feeling the cold in their flat. There’s no wood for anyone’s stove this week, so the entire city is freezing until the Siberian railway fixes the tracks.

 

Piece of shit country, Dmitri thinks. But he sees Vlad’s plan, clear as sunrise over the river, and he thinks it’s brilliant. He’ll never see the little auburn-haired princess again, and frankly he hasn’t thought about her for about two years—but this would put them on the map. Also conveniently move them about the map.

 

The biggest con in history.

 

Difficult to think that the glittering Winter Palace had ever been. That he had ever put frogs in the bright copper samovar, or that he had ever run through a garden in summertime, enabling the duchesses in their flirting with the soldiers.

 

Time to put those surreal memories to good use, though: a one-way ticket out of the Republic and to whatever immortal glory is due to con-men for being very good at their jobs.

 

In his pocket, he still has the music box. He’s glad now that he hasn’t sold it; it will be the perfect seal on whatever story they cook up.

 

“We’ll need a theater,” he says, beginning to grin, “and we’ll need to get the word out about some auditions—we’ll need some kind of ingénue, you know, a girl who looks like she’s just been wandering about for the past ten years, completely clueless.”

 

We’ll be rich, he thinks.

 

We’ll be out.

 

And St. Petersburg will have some more to talk about.