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The story, based on Olga Carlisle's own family's experiences, alternates between awkward (but mercifully brief) commentary on the actual historical events, as narrated by daughter Marina Nevsky, and accounts of the Nevskys' role in these events. All begins in Paris of 1909: Marina, age nine, is the only child of Anna and Vasily Nevsky, the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR); because of their politics, the family is living in exile. Vasily, now convinced that the revolution should be nonviolent, refuses to allow the assassination of a traitor, then moves his family to their villa in Italy. There, while Vasily refines his political message, the family entertains Max Gorky (Marina's godfather) and rescues from a sinking yacht the treacherous dancer Tamara Sermus, who will later betray them repeatedly. Marina initially identifies with the prevailing family politics and falls in love with Dmitry, her father's devoted disciple. But in 1917, when rioting breaks out in Petrograd and the Nevskys return to Russia confident that the SR's time has finally come, Marina discovers that her hopes are unrealistic. The SR does hold the majority, but the high-minded Vasily is soon out-maneuvered by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. After flights to the countryside, plus betrayals that bring them all back to Moscow and hurl Marino and her mother into the Lubyanka prison, the three, with Gorky's help, are allowed to return to exile. There, Vasily, at last understanding the brutal realities of the Bolshevik revolution, warnsto no avail of the lasting consequences for Russia.
Well-intentioned and well-written, but without the dramatic sweep and tension that would make this horrendous and tragic tale truly memorable. .
On a raw, gusty winter afternoon following a rain, two men, neither of whom could be mistaken for a Parisian, met at the gates of the Parc Montsouris and walked rapidly along the rue Gazan in the direction of the boulevard Raspail. They walked in silence, falling in and out of step, for one was tall and solidly built with the long, powerful stride of a countryman, while the other, who used a slim walking stick, was slender and of ordinary height, with the quick precise gait of the city-bred.
The taller of the two, Vasily Ivanovich Nevsky, the leader of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, was one of those large men perpetually at war with their clothes. His heavy shoes splashed through puddles; his loose, fur-collared overcoat, unbuttoned, billowed behind him, the right pocket weighted by a nine millimeter Browning pistol. His astrakhan hat exaggerated the broadness of his Slavic features, which, usually composed and even dreamy, were now locked in determination.
In contrast, his companion, Boris Victorovich Savinkov, a member of the same party's Combat Organization, was nattily dressed in the British manner: black bowler, fitted gray overcoat, black oxfords, gold-handled stick. His pale, narrow face with its trim Vandyke beard was calm. In a shoulder holster, he carried a Smith and Wesson semiautomatic.
On the boulevard Raspail, carriages and cabs rumbled over the wet stones. Oblivious to his surroundings, Vasily stared at the third-floor windows of a blackened apartment building next to a café on the corner opposite the Montparnasse Cemetery. In one of the windows, dull light shone behind heavy curtains.
"Someone's home," said Vasily, suddenly remembering their quarry's wife and the two boys. "We certainly—"
"We'll wait at the café."
"He may be up there already."
Savinkov took out a pocket watch and held it up to the light of a gas lamp. "Then we'll intercept him on the way out. He must have known that Burtsev's evidence would expose him. He must be trying to leave the city, if he hasn't already. We'll wait twenty minutes at the café, then go up to the apartment. If he's there with his family, we'll take him aside and tell him that we've come to help him escape the assassins the Central Committee has sent after him. Then we'll lead him over behind the cemetery. It will be a simple matter."
"And if he's not there?"
With an appraising glance at Vasily, Savinkov slipped his watch back into his waistcoat pocket. "In that case," he said, "I shall await your instructions."
Vasily understood. During the past hour, since the thunderbolt had struck at the trial which had been held in Savinkov's apartment on the Luxembourg Gardens, he had recognized the fairness of the Central Committee's resolution that he, Vasily, should be responsible for punishing the traitor, and he had accepted that duty. It was proper, for it had been Vasily himself who had proposed Azef to fill the position of power and trust as leader of the terrorist arm of the party known as the Combat Organization.
Yet while the task ahead on this night might appear simple to Savinkov, it did not appear so to Vasily.
For the past decade, Vasily had served in an advisory capacity in the Combat Organization, whose operations included the assassinations of Minister of the Interior Plehve and of the Grand Duke Sergei. However, circumstances and, no doubt something in Vasily's nature, had prevented him from engaging directly in acts of violence. The Browning had never been fired.
Now there was no choice. The SRs' leader and chief theoretician, whose brain teemed with sensitive intelligence about the Russian revolutionary movement over the past century, as well as with a broad vision of its ultimate victory, had willingly accepted the role of avenger of the party. Savinkov was Vasily's technical counselor. With Savinkov at his side, the mission's success was virtually assured. No one was more experienced in the execution of revolutionary murder than this dapper, intricate man, this litterateur whose inner nature remained an enigma, despite the clue that he himself had offered: in a remark to a friend—widely quoted throughout émigré circles—Savinkov had declared, "My soul is choked in blood." This utterance had impressed Vasily, for whether it was the calculated effusion of a writer dramatizing himself or an authentic cri de coeur, it was undeniably an arresting phrase. What was not in doubt was Savinkov's success in carrying out the projects of the Combat Organization. The deaths of Plehve and the grand duke had been principally his work, carried out under the directives of the very traitor whom the Central Committee had less than one hour ago doomed to die: Yevno Filipovich Azef.
Suddenly in Vasily's mind flashed an image of the living room of the Azef apartment, which he knew well from numerous visits: the armchair with its yellowed antimacassars, the fringed standing lamp, the upright piano with its melancholy shawl and sheets of French chansonnettes in the scrollwork rack, the chromolithograph of the tsar, its presence so duplicitous.
Vasily could almost smell the stale tobacco odor which impregnated the oriental carpet, the chair, the pocked velvet curtains, mingling with the acrid smell of the traitor's abominable cat. And suddenly in the armchair appeared Azef himself, massive body, short fat arms, balding head, black eyebrows, black beard, obscene scarlet lips. How could they ever have placed their trust in him?
With a stab of shame, he remembered his fiery defense of the Judas. He had excoriated Azef's accuser, feisty little Vladimir Burtsev, chief of SR counterintelligence, who had wagered his life to prove his case against Azef before the Central Committee. And Burtsev had declared calmly, "Vasily Ivanovich, your faith in the Central Committee as a privileged family shielded from criticism by its moral standing has created an atmosphere in which treason has flourished!" And then he had presented irrefutable proof—the confirmation of a conversation between Burtsev and a former chief of the tsar's all-powerful secret police, the Okhrana, on a train traveling between Cologne and Petersburg. There could be no further doubt: for almost sixteen years, Azef, director of the Combat Organization, had been a prized, highly paid agent of the tsarist police, the Okhrana.
Vasily recalled that his wife, Anna, and even his nine-year-old daughter, Marina, had had some sort of vague intuitions about the traitor, though never clearly brought forward and to which in any case he had not paid attention. But Savinkov! No one had ever accused Boris Savinkov of going about with his head in the clouds. He had worked more intimately than anyone else with Azef, planning and carrying out the enterprises of the Combat Organization. How could Savinkov have been taken in?
As they neared the Montparnasse cemetery, in the freshness of the receding rainstorm Vasily caught a whiff of roasting chestnuts. Across the street, in front of the café terrace enclosed by steamy glass, a chestnut vendor was tending his brazier. As they started across the street, Savinkov left Vasily's side and went over to the vendor's cart. There, in a swirl of smoke, he exchanged coins for a newspaper cone of chestnuts. Suddenly, Vasily, whose fault it seemed was to have trusted everyone blindly, trusted no one at all. Why was Boris buying chesnuts when at any moment Azef could pop out of the building and vanish into the night?
Good God, was Savinkov too in the pay of the Okhrana? Had he voted for Azef's death to cover himself, perhaps to secure the assignment of executioner and then allow him to escape? As Savinkov came up to him and offered him a chestnut, Vasily's mind was reeling with this thought which paralyzed the will to vengeance that had possessed him since he had left the apartment on the Luxembourg Gardens.
The chestnut burned his fingers. He juggled it, blew on it, broke it with his teeth, and ate the hot bitter meat. A motorcar chugged by. The chestnut vendor stirred his coals, releasing sparks that swarmed skyward, reminding Vasily of fireflies of a summer night on the Volga. Savinkov watched him closely, seeming to sense his malaise and perhaps his suspicions as well. With his comrade's odd, yellow-flecked eyes on him, Vasily felt that he whose soul was choked in blood was peering directly into his mind, which suddenly was assailed by yet another threatening consideration.
The thought of Azef's wife, presumed to know nothing of her husband's police connections, and of the boys had shaken him. Under no circumstances, he vowed to himself, must these innocents suffer. Yet when he tried to think of an honorable way to shield Azef's wife and children, he could find none. The Central Committee's decision had been clear, the vote unanimous.
Suppressing his qualms, Vasily led the way into the partly filled café, choosing a table with a view of the entrance to Azef's building. He ordered a fine à l'eau; Savinkov, a marc.
Savinkov produced a silver cigarette case and matching lighter. He tapped a cigarette on the case and lit it. Without his bowler, his appearance was altered, for though only thirty he was quite bald. He inhaled deeply, letting the smoke escape slowly through his nostrils. "Are you certain that he should be killed?" he said.
At this moment, Vasily felt that he had entered an alien world which resembled an ordinary Parisian café but in which it was impossible to get one's bearings. "You voted for execution," he said.
"In order to stand by you. But will liquidating Azef serve the party? That should be the only question."
"The Central Committee made its decision."
"The Central Committee no longer exists."
It was true. The Committee, which had included Vasily and Savinkov, had agreed to resign en masse in penance to the party's rank and file for its negligence in the case of Azef.
"It existed when it issued the order."
"My recollection is that the order came after the resignation," said Savinkov. "In any case, the decision is yours."
"I know that very well."
"You are our leader," insisted Savinkov, smiling in a way Vasily didn't like. "You embody in your person the spirit of the Socialist Revolutionary Party."
As the waiter served the drinks, Vasily reflected on Savinkov's words. Their substance did not surprise him, but their falsely deferential tone suggested that Savinkov, with Azef out of the picture, was setting himself up as kingmaker. He tilted back in the tiny metal chair, which barely supported his large frame. At that moment, he caught sight of an astonishingly pretty woman entering the café. She wore a dark fur coat with a cowl, which she threw back as she shook out her blond hair. With her was a fashionably dressed young Frenchman who seated her at a table near them. The woman met Vasily's gaze and smiled.
Savinkov was clinking his glass against Vasily's. "The SR party will triumph, Vasily," said the literary artist whose soul was choked in blood. They drank.
Between the brandy, his comrade's words, and the remarkable young woman at the nearby table, Vasily suddenly felt perfectly capable of carrying out the mission that the Central Committee had assigned to him.
"We have grown weak," Savinkov was saying. "We must profit by Azef's treason to strengthen the party. We must prepare ourselves to assume power."
"Through the Constituent Assembly," replied Vasily.
"Which we must control."
"The people will control the Constituent Assembly. We shall lead them to it."
"If the Combat Organization is revived, the road will be shorter."
"I'll give it some thought," said Vasily, though, at that moment, in his heart he promised himself never again to allow terror to corrupt the SR Party's high purpose.
As the two men talked, Vasily's glances at the young woman became less guarded, and she responded with the softest of smiles, unnoticed by her companion.
When it came to the female sex, Vasily could say that he knew himself well. He was an out-and-out romantic. He loved beauty, mystery, and sensuality in a woman, preferences which did not, however, prevent him from treating with hearty comradeship women in the party whose contempt for the upper classes, along with their fierce assertion of the equality of the sexes, caused them to adopt a severity of manner and an antifeminine dress and hair arrangement. But Vasily knew firsthand that revolutionary dedication and female charm need not be incompatible. His wife Anna was endowed with both. She was also intelligent and kind, compulsively selfless in fact, admirable in every respect. But the young woman at the nearby table reminded him of someone else: slender and lithe, running toward him through the silvery grass near the house with the broad veranda overlooking the Volga.
Savinkov glanced at his watch and nodded.
They found the front door to Azef's building unlocked. The hallway window to the concierge's apartment was black. There was a strong smell of stale soup and eau de Javel. Savinkov pressed the minuterie button that illuminated the landings above with pale yellow light and preceded Vasily up the stairs. At the third landing, Vasily took the lead, easing his weight along the creaking floor toward the door at the end of the hall. He drew his pistol. The light went off. The two men groped their way back to the head of the stairs where Savinkov found the light button. They tiptoed back to the door. Vasily raised his left hand to knock. From inside, they heard approaching steps and quickly pocketed their weapons. The door opened a crack. Azef's short, plump wife peered at them, terrified. Then, recognizing them, she threw the door wide open and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Ah, Vasily," she said. "Thank God it's you! And dear Boris. Come in. Anna's here."
As he entered the room, Vasily beheld a scene so unlike the one he had anticipated that at first he could not take it in. In the heavy armchair with the hideous antimacassars, in which he had expected to see Azef, sat his own wife, looking up at him from the book which she had been reading to the Azef sons, five and seven. The little boys sat on either side of her, staring at Vasily, their dark, intelligent eyes seeming to read his startled thoughts.
"What are you doing here, Anna? Marina is home alone."
"I'm paying a call on our friends, Vasily. These are difficult times for all of us."
Vasily found no suitable reply. At Anna's feet, the Azefs' hollow-flanked Persian was pawing at her green suede shoes.
From the opposite wall, Tsar Nicholas II gazed vacuously into the room.
"Have you seen Yevno?" Azef's wife asked anxiously.
"We've not," replied Vasily.
"I expected him home by now. We've just come back from the brasserie. Anna took us there for supper. She's been so kind through this whole horrible misunderstanding." She took Vasily's hands in hers. "Tell me at once. Were you able to clear Yevno's name?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anna shake her head, confirming that, indeed, Azef's wife knew nothing of her husband's police career. The boys' eyes were full of dread. Vasily hesitated. No, he decided, I won't be the one to inform these children that the rest of their lives will pass in the shadow of their father's infamy.
"Justice has been rendered," he said.
"Thank God!" said Azef's wife, throwing herself into Vasily's arms, sobbing into his chest. The cat, its green eyes suddenly violet, spun away from Anna, clawed at the carpet, raced in a circle, leaped to the piano, and with a single pass of its paw, swept the sheets of music to the floor. Then the cat dropped to the carpet, scampered to a wall, turned, ran, and in a single bound clutched at the fringes of the standing lamp behind Anna's chair, lost its grip, fell to the floor, and began cleaning itself.
Azef's wife had not noticed the cat. Still clinging to Vasily, she was gazing up at him with tears streaming down her face. He could feel her relief and gratitude through her dress.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you."
"You're most welcome," said Vasily, easing himself out of her arms and nodding to Savinkov, signaling immediate departure.
"Everything considered," said Savinkov, "it might be better if Yevno leaves Paris for a while."
"Yes," agreed Vasily. "There may still be those who wish to do him harm."
"Thank you," she said again. "I'll never forget what you've done for us."
"Are you coming, Anna?" said Vasily.
"I'll read to the boys a little longer. We have to finish our story. Go back to Marina, Vasily. I'll be along soon."
Read to the boys a little longer? Finish their story? Vasily did not always understand his wife. Why would she be reading to the traitor's sons when Marina was alone in the apartment watched by secret police agents? Why did she put the welfare of others, including every sort of unworthy person, before that of her own family? Marina was a precocious child, wise beyond her years, but she was still a child. With a surge of concern for his daughter, he realized that lately he too had been neglecting her. He must hurry home and sing her a song before she fell asleep.
* * *
On Raspail, Vasily and Savinkov walked in silence, watchful, now and then glancing over their shoulders, approaching the café. Their former table was unoccupied. The one where the lovely young woman and the Frenchman had sat was now taken by an elderly couple. The chestnut vendor was gone. The wind had died, and the night had turned bitter cold.
"He must have been warned," said Savinkov at last.
"Who would do that?" said Vasily, keeping his voice even, but thinking, Perhaps you?
"He had friends," said the poet-assassin, glancing narrowly at Vasily. "Do we pursue him?"
"Nothing could be gained," said Vasily. "In any case, the worst punishment for Yevno will be to go on living, for he will never know a moment's peace. As for us, we must report his escape to the Central Committee and begin at once to rebuild the party."
Savinkov smiled. "In Italy?"
Vasily pictured in his mind a stone house with a red tiled roof surrounded by almond and fruit trees and overlooking the village of Alassio and the sea. The sea was blue. The sky was blue. The sun was warm. The air was heavy with the fragrances of sea, herbs, and flowers. For months, long before the source of the malaise within the Paris Central Committee had been identified, Vasily had dreamed of getting away to this house, so full of light and good omens. Anna had found it through her friend Ekaterina Peshkova, Maxim Gorky's wife, long separated from the writer, and who now lived near Alassio with her son Max. In any case, a change was essential. With the Paris SR organization in shambles, Vasily was confident that he could conduct the affairs of the party more effectively and with fewer distractions in the country of Garibaldi, a patron saint of the SRs. Savinkov strenuously disagreed.
"Nothing is final," Vasily replied.
"You're needed here."
Am I? thought Vasily. Why, Boris? So that now you can attach yourself to me as you did to Azef, while immersing yourself in the dubious pleasures of Parisian bohemia?
Thinking of Italy, Vasily could scarcely believe that only a half hour before he had steeled himself to kill Azef in cold blood. Remembering the frightened little boys with Anna, he marveled at his wife's goodness. He thought of Azef's wife. What a calvary awaited her! He thought of his daughter waiting for him at the apartment, and he wondered how much she understood of what was happening. Suddenly, he stopped and spread his arms wide.
"We need space, Boris! Space and sunlight—not intrigue and murder. We must rededicate the party to the honorable service of the Russian people!"
Savinkov's smile darkened. "And will you be closer to the Russian peasants on the Italian Riviera, Vasily?"
"I am close to them wherever I am! I am one of them!"
"So you're going?"
"Nothing has been decided."
"Then I wish you well."
"We'll talk soon. Good-night."
They walked on. At the corner of Raspail and the rue Boissonade, they shook hands and parted. Savinkov headed in the direction of the Luxembourg Gardens, while Vasily continued up Raspail, hurrying, almost running, in the direction of the rue Gazan, where in the distance the bells of the Church of Sainte Anne were striking eight.