Faberge jewels, the mysterious Rasputin, and a priceless violin: each plays a part in one young woman's fight for survival, and for love, in revolutionary Russia.
St. Petersburg, 1911. Inna Feldman has fled the pogroms of the south to take refuge with distant relatives in Russia's capital. Welcomed by the flamboyant Leman family, she is apprenticed into their violin-making workshop. She feels instantly at home in their bohemian circle, but revolution is in the air, and as society begins to fracture, she is forced to choose between her heart and her head.
She loves her brooding cousin, Yasha, but he is wild, destructive, and devoted to revolution. Horace Wallick, an Englishman who makes precious Faberge creations, is older and promises security and respectability. And, like many others, she is drawn to the mysterious, charismatic figure beginning to make a name for himself in the city: Rasputin.
As the rebellion descends into anarchy and bloodshed, a commission to repair a priceless Stadivarius violin offers Inna a means of escape. But what man will she choose to take with her? And is it already too late?
A magical and passionate story steeped in history and intrigue, Vanora Bennett's Midnight in St. Petersburg is an extraordinary novel of music, politics, and the toll that revolution exacts on the human heart.
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About the Author
VANORA BENNETT studied Russian at Oxford University and in the USSR. She began her career as a journalist at Reuters and went on to serve as the Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, winning a U.S. Overseas Press Club award for her writing on Russia. She now lives in Britain and has won the Orwell Prize for political writing for her work at The Times. She is the author of four novels, including Portrait of an Unknown Woman, and two books of non-fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Midnight in St. Petersburg
By Vanora Bennett
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Vanorissima Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The train was still hurtling through the darkness, with hours to go before St. Petersburg and dawn, when Inna had her fortune told.
Not that she'd ever meant to show her palm to a gypsy. She'd slunk on to that train in terror of being noticed at all.
Of course, she couldn't help hearing what was being said by all the raucous men crowded together on the bottom bunks of the communal compartment, drinking, eating sausage and chicken legs and eggs, and singing along to a squeezebox playing sad songs far too loud and fast. She couldn't help being aware, either, that there was a gypsy woman on the bunk below hers, reading the drunks' hands.
But she'd spent the first part of the journey pressed up against the wall of her top bunk, keeping very quiet, like all the other shadows in all the other corners she didn't dare look at, shying away from the noisy talk. In an attempt not to be overwhelmed by the racing of her heart, she'd been repeating, hypnotically, in time with the rhythm of the wheels, 'Nearly safe, nearly safe, nearly safe ...'
She'd never have imagined, alone with her fear, that anything or anyone could have persuaded her out of the prickly darkness. Until it happened. The talk had been enough to keep her hidden – the talk that kept coming back to the assassination.
The Prime Minister, shot dead in the theatre in Kiev by a terrorist. The Tsar, down south on a visit, standing in the brilliantly lit royal box, frozen-faced as a photograph, watching Stolypin hold his chest and stagger to his knees.
What I don't understand is, how did he get past the security police in the first place?
He had a pass, can you believe? I was told he was a police informer himself.
An anarchist, I heard.
Or some sort of Red. An SD, an SR ...
But a Jew, of course.
There, of course. Her heart thudded. It was only ever a question of time before the conversation turned to the Jews.
Reds, Yids, what's the difference? Always the Yids, isn't it? A viper in the much-suffering Russian breast.
The door kept banging. Word must have gone around in the restaurant carriage that there was a gypsy telling fortunes down in the third class. New drunks came, wanting to cross the woman's palm with silver.
Miserably, she heard: Yeah, give them a good kicking. And, after a rustle of newsprint, another voice, less obviously belligerent, but nasal and full of hate: Yes, like it says here ... 'The Government must recognize that the Jews are as dangerous to the life of mankind as are wolves, scorpions, reptiles, poisonous spiders and other such-like creatures. These are destroyed because of the risk they present to humanity. Yids must likewise be placed under conditions that will make them gradually die out. This is the task of the Government and the best men in the country.'
There was a roar of approval. Inna cringed back. Here, too, she thought; they're the same even up here.
And then it died away.
She risked a peep over, down from her bunk.
A thin man of medium height was stepping into the carriage. He had the longish hair and beard of an Orthodox religious man, and a big gleaming cross at his breast. He was dressed like a peasant.
She waited for him to join in too. But then she saw he was shaking his head. 'Did the Lord Jesus preach hate, brothers?' he said. His voice was quiet.
In the embarrassed throat-clearings and shufflings of buttocks on seats that followed, she heard the rustle of Zemshchina, the right-wing hate newspaper, being stuffed back into a pocket. No one liked being caught with a red angry face, baying for blood. Not up here in the safety of the north, anyway. Good, she thought, savagely. Good for the little father.
The peasant didn't press his point. He just moved on to the fortune-telling gypsy, right below Inna, and held out a coin, then his hand.
Inna hoped the gypsy would have a happy-ever-after fortune for him.
But instead she dropped his hand and said, 'I'm not telling your future. Take your money back.'
'What's wrong, my dear?' the peasant said in his burr. Now he was so close, Inna saw he had the soft expression of a countryman approaching a skittish horse, apple in hand.
Then he looked up at Inna, caught her looking down at him from her top bunk, and shocked her again with the directness of his gaze. He had extraordinarily pale eyes. 'Ah, well, all our hands are full of troubles,' he said to the gypsy woman. 'No escape from troubles, in these wicked times ...'
'Don't you go hunting for that coin any more,' he went on cheerfully, patting the gypsy's bedding for the coin she'd let fall. 'Tell the little lady's fortune instead ... the one up there.'
The gypsy squinted up at Inna in surprise; then, abruptly, she pulled Inna's hand down, as if to get the whole business over with as fast as possible.
Inna was too surprised to resist.
The peasant wasn't put off by the gypsy's hostility. As Inna felt the woman's bony fingers on her palm, he murmured, 'A happy future, mind: flowers in the field, a chicken in the pot, a handsome husband ...'
But the gypsy didn't look at Inna's hand for more than a moment, either. Then, with a scowl, she pushed it away too. 'Another one,' she muttered. 'One thing's for sure. We live in evil times.'
Inna kept her hand out. Her fear had receded a bit now and she wasn't going to let this woman make her cringe away as if she'd done something wrong. 'What did you see?'
But the gypsy shook her head, tied her scarf over her head and picked up her purse, as if she was off out shopping.
'Come on, tell me,' Inna said. She didn't know why her voice was trembling.
Perhaps the gypsy heard that. At any rate she looked reluctantly up and took back Inna's hand. 'Lifeline, here, see?' she said, jabbing at the palm, all round the base of the thumb.
'Well, it stops, doesn't it?' the gypsy said irritably, as if Inna was being stupid. 'Look. Just peters out. Nothing.'
There was a silence.
'You asked, Abramovna,' she said, loudly enough for Inna to think others might hear the contemptuous Jew slur.
Hating herself, Inna shifted hastily backwards into the darkest corner of her bunk as the gypsy flounced off towards the compartment door. She let her breath out. No one except the peasant had heard, and he was safe.
He was spreading his hands in resigned acceptance. 'Five kopeks wasted, that's for sure,' he said peaceably. 'Both of us doomed. Ah well, God be with her, poor thing, with her nasty thoughts – and at least we'll have each other for company on the road to Hell, if she's right ...'
He nodded and turned to make his own way out of the carriage. Once again Inna was left on her own, with her arms wrapped tight about her knees, and the rowdiness below gaining in volume, and, for comfort, only the rhythm of her phrase, 'Nearly safe, nearly safe, nearly safe,' in time to the wheels.
But now even that lullaby had stopped working so well. Different words to the rhythm were coming unbidden into her head. The gypsy's words: 'Peters out, peters out, peters out ...'
* * *
The poorer passengers were out of the third-class carriage almost before the train had stopped in St. Petersburg.
They rushed guiltily in the grey light along the platform of Emperor Nicholas Station towards the station building, ignoring the weight of their parcels and packages. It was only September, but already their quick breath came out white in the chilly air.
Anyone watching the fast-emptying green carriages would have seen the long-legged spider of a girl who emerged last, with only a smallish bag in each hand. She stood on the step for a moment, blinking, seeming bewildered by the pace of the retreat into town.
Then she jumped down, too, set her worn woollen coat with its respectable bit of beaver at the throat straight, adjusted her plain hat over her black hair, and strode off to catch up with the crowd.
In her head, she was reciting the address she was making for. Strictly speaking, she didn't need to. Next to the passport in her wallet she had folded the much-fingered piece of paper on which she'd written it down. She didn't know where it was, exactly. She didn't even know her way out of the station. But she knew she'd be safe once she'd found it.
She let her hand brush against the pocket in which she could feel the wallet. She was already walking fast. But she speeded up.
'You there, girl!' Inna heard a man's rough rasp just behind her, talking in the exclamatory way the lower classes of Russia talked to their women, labelling everyone either 'girl!' 'woman!' 'aunty!' or 'granny!'
She ignored him, raised her nose a fraction higher and speeded up. That kind of voice meant trouble.
'Baryshnya,' the voice said, sounding less certain as it moved up the social scale with its forms of address, but following her, all the same. Definitely her. Footsteps still right behind. 'Mademoiselle?'
Inna had left her own Jewish documentation behind in Kiev. No point in keeping it when all it allowed her to do was live in the south of the empire, in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were supposed to stay under strict police control. It wouldn't get her anywhere here, up north, in the imperial capital.
She didn't need her papers any more anyway, since she'd been lucky or quick-witted enough to pick up Olya Morozova's evening bag in the panic at the theatre. She'd known what was in the bag because Olya had spent the whole of the first interval showing it off to her classmates: a travel passport to spend a month with her grandmother in St. Petersburg, missing the start of term at their secondary school in Kiev. It was something Inna could only dream of, and, oh, didn't Olya, impeccably Russian, and the daughter of the city's deputy police chief to boot, know it, and didn't it sweeten the pleasure for her in showing Inna the pass.
But Olya hadn't had time to think about her bag in the second interval, once the man in the shabby coat had walked in and they'd heard the shots and the entire audience had erupted in panic. She'd been too busy screaming.
Somewhere up ahead, in the echoing heights of the station building, a melancholy brass-band version of the overture of 'A Life for the Tsar' could be heard. They'd been playing the same patriotic Glinka in the theatre, too, Inna remembered; the music brought it back.
The frightening crowds in Kiev after the assassination had also had the Tsar on their minds. The leaflets which had covered the town like a snowfall by dawn, with their ugly, hastily put-together type, full of grammar mistakes, telling the people the assassin was a Yid, as well as a Red: they all had the same message. It was time for patriotic citizens to show their loyalty to the Tsar by ridding the Motherland of this noxious nation of Christ-killers.
Inna had picked one up late the next day, once she'd used Olya's passport to buy her ticket for the night train. Her fear had lessened once she was on the move and taking control of her own destiny: it was still a series of stifling rises in the gorge, but at least not that numbing helplessness. After a glance, she'd trodden the leaflet into a puddle, outside the station. She'd ground it underfoot, and watched it disintegrate into the wet black of the water.
There'd been more crowds of patriots out all that day: snub-nosed, tow-headed, thickset men, in and out of the pubs, in and out of their Black Hundreds meetings, with their double-headed eagle pins gleaming on their lapels, carrying their pictures of the Tsar and his family, handing out the leaflets, chatting to the burly policemen in their midst as if they were brothers (which all too often they were). No blood had been shed; there had been no screams, or shop windows broken, or bonfires in the street, which Inna knew from hearsay was how things went when a real pogrom got going. But still, these people were dangerous as they milled around staring at those others – the shadows flitting by lugging parcels to the station, or to carts or carriages or motorcars. Tonight's escapees were all hoping not to be tomorrow's victims, and Inna was glad to be away.
Well, now she was away. But was she safe?
She turned and stared down her nose at the greasy jowl of a man in a dark uniform with silver and red facings. She felt something rising in her throat, but her voice sounded steady as she said, 'Yes?'
He looked suddenly uncomfortable as he wriggled in his too-tight tunic. She could see him thinking that he'd mistaken the shiny thinness of the cloth at her elbows for the submissiveness of the poor, and got his tone wrong. Dropping his eyes, he said, 'Begging your pardon, mademoiselle,' with an extra note of respect.
Not that there was any need for a man in uniform to apologize. If you were a subject of the Russian Emperor, and wished to go more than fifteen miles from your home, you needed permission from the police and the Ministry of the Interior that ran them. It was the ministry's task to stop terrorists throwing their bombs or sticking their knives into ministers' throats in the secret civil war everyone preferred to pretend wasn't convulsing the land. You could be watched, searched, fingerprinted, arrested, interrogated, exiled, fined or handed over to military justice on nothing more than a policeman's hunch that you might be doing something political or were a Jew – since Jews, it was believed, were especially prone to dangerous politics.
Yet even so a lowly individual policeman, like this one, could always fear that the next person he dealt with might just be privileged enough to harass him back, ensuring he lost the certificate of trustworthiness without which he would be banned from public employment.
'Your documents, please,' he said, definitely less sure of himself now.
She put down her bag and got the wallet out, looking straight at him.
He unfolded the wallet, tsking at the thin sheets of paper in the little internal passport booklet that wouldn't separate, and making a big performance of blowing on them while giving Inna vaguely menacing looks. But there was nothing wrong with the red stamps and dates, Inna knew, or the permission from the Kiev Ministry of the Interior that the passport gave for Morozova, O. A. (occupation: student of Fundukleyevskaya Academy; age: 18; faith: Orthodox; residing at: Kreshchatik 86, Kiev; social class: hereditary noblewoman; facial features: dark hair and no distinguishing marks; daughter of: Morozov, A. P., hereditary nobleman, 6th-grade colonel of the Corps of Gendarmerie, Kiev department) to visit Morozova, A. A., hereditary noblewoman, her grandmother, residing at Italian Street, St. Petersburg, for family reasons, from last week, for the month of September.
After a lengthy examination of the booklet, the policeman gave it back. Somewhere in his reading, perhaps at the mention of Morozova, O. A.'s father's exalted status in the services of state repression, his expression had become timid. He bowed, now, too low for comfort given his girth and the tightness of his tunic. 'Checking for passengers from Kiev ... have to, after ...' he muttered. He didn't want to say the word assassination, Inna saw, and she felt a momentary pang of pity for him, with his cruel, stupid job.
'Looking out for Yids on the run,' he added in a stronger voice, straightening up. Inna noticed that he had a double-headed eagle pin on his stand-up coat collar. 'Murderous Red swine. Scared they'll get their come- uppance. Don't want to stay and take the punishment they've got coming. Running everywhere, thousands of them – like cockroaches. But we don't want that filth here, do we?' If he was expecting an answering leer from her, he was disappointed. 'Well ... well ... I wish you a pleasant stay in our city, your excellency.' He handed back the booklet and, avoiding her eyes, turned to seek out a new victim among the hurrying third-class passengers.
Inna watched as he moved to intercept one of the other shadows she'd been aware of, a man in his early thirties, with the sadness in his soul clearly visible. He had a deathly white face behind his dark Jewish-looking beard and shadows under his eyes, and, every time Inna had glimpsed him, on both trains, he'd been holding tight to the hand of an unnaturally quiet little girl of about ten. No mother; Inna had tried not to wonder what had happened to her. Now, as he saw the approaching gendarme, the last flicker of hope left him. The little girl's face crumpled into panic.
Excerpted from Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett. Copyright © 2013 Vanorissima Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: September–December 1911,
Part Two: 1916–17,
Part Three: 1918–19,
About the Author,
Also by Vanora Bennett,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very excellent read. The idealism of the primary characters as the story starts that gives way to pragmatism, then cynicism and finally hopefulness made for a satisfying read. I have read all of Vanora Bennett's past novels and anxiously wait for the next.
This complex, historical novel was a satisfying read. It read a little differently than many novels do these days in that the third-person point of view switches among all of the main characters, leaving a limited amount of time in the main character's perspective. This was an interesting difference that made me feel like I was reading a more classic novel for some reason. I was also interested in the setting, since I have not read much about Russia during this time period - the Great War and thereafter. Many of the political and social changes left me a little confused but also educated me about what was going on at that time. The main character, Inna, is very idealized through all of the eyes that view her - surviving against all odds. The love triangle that exists between Inna, Yasha, and Horace is frustrating to me at times. I can see why Inna makes the choices that she makes, but at time she seems to have no shame and her rationale for acting in that way is not necessarily developed enough for me to understand her motivation. Seeing how the characters change and survive over the years in St. Petersburg makes this worth reading.