The Last Russian Doll416
The Last Russian Doll416
In a faraway kingdom, in a long-ago land...
...a young girl lived happily in Moscow with her family: a sister, a father, and an eccentric mother who liked to tell fairy tales and collect porcelain dolls.
One summer night, everything changed, and all that remained of that family were the girl and her mother.
Now, a decade later and studying at Oxford University, Rosie has an English name, a loving fiancé, and a promising future, but all she wants is to understandand burythe past. After her mother dies, Rosie returns to Russia, armed with little more than her mother’s strange folkloreand a single key.
What she uncovers is a devastating family history that spans the 1917 Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s purges, and beyond.
At the heart of this saga stands a young noblewoman, Tonya, as pretty as a porcelain doll, whose actions—and love for an idealistic man—will set off a sweeping story that reverberates across the century....
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
London, June 1991
The man I've come to see is nearly a century old. White haired and lean, with just a dash of his youthful film-star looks remaining, he sits alone onstage, drumming his fingers on his knees. His head is tilted back as he takes a hard look at the crowd, at the latecomers standing awkwardly in the aisles, their smiles sheepish. At the young couple who have brought their children, a toddler girl swinging her legs back and forth, and the older one, a boy, solemn faced and motionless. At me.
Usually when two strangers make eye contact across a crowded room, one or both will look away, but neither of us do.
Alexey Ivanov will be reading tonight from his memoir, the slim red-jacketed book sitting on a table next to his chair. I've read it so many times by now that I could mouth it along with him: A hillside falls out of view, and voices, too, fall away. . . . We are like castaways, adrift on a single piece of wreckage that is floating to sea, leaving behind everything that linked us to humanity. . . .
Alexey stands up. "Thank you all for coming," he says, with the knife-edge of an accent. "And so I begin."
The Last Bolshevik is an account of his time on Stalin's White Sea Canal, told in short story form so that people don't forget to breathe as they're reading it. Today Alexey has chosen the tale of a work party's doomed expedition through a grim, wintry wilderness to build a road that no one would ever take. The holes that the prisoners dug were for themselves. It would be their only grave. . . .
My hands feel clammy and heavy, and my toes begin to tingle in my boots. The middle-aged man seated next to me pulls his coat tighter around himself, while just up ahead, the young girl has stopped swinging her legs and is as straight-backed as her older brother.
In a lecture hall full of people, Alexey Ivanov has snuffed out every sound.
He reaches the end of the story and closes the book. "I am open to questions," he says.
There's a faint shuffling of feet. Somewhere in back, someone coughs and a baby begins to fuss. A quick shushing by the mother follows. Alexey is preparing to settle back into his chair when the man next to me suddenly lifts a hand.
Alexey smiles broadly and gestures to the man. "Go on."
"My question is a wee bit personal," says my neighbor, in a thick Scottish brogue. He shifts in his seat. "I hope you don't mind. . . ."
"You dedicated this memoir to someone you only call Kukolka. Is there any chance you will share with us who that is?" He doesn't say it, but somehow we all hear it: Or who that was.
The smile slides off Alexey Ivanov's face. Without it he no longer looks like the famous dissident writer, the celebrated historian. He's only an old man, stooping beneath the burden of over nine decades of life. He glances around the room once more, just as the baby, somewhere out there, lets out another startled cry.
Alexey's gaze lands on me again for half a second before moving on.
"Hers is a name I never speak aloud," he says. "And if I did, I would shout it."
I leave my row and head for the stage. The audience is filtering out, but Alexey is still shaking hands, chatting with the organizers. I’ve read all his writing, mostly while hunched over in a reading room in the Bodleian, and this is the effect of those musty hours, that pure silence: No matter how human the man might look, Alexey Ivanov has become almost a mythical figure to me. A legend. Someone right out of my mother’s fairy tales.
"Hello there," he says, turning to me. He has a smile like a torchlight.
"I enjoyed your reading so much, Mr. Ivanov," I say, finding my voice. Maybe enjoy isn't the right word, but he nods. "Your story is inspirational."
I'd planned in advance to say this, but only after saying it do I realize how much I mean it.
"Thank you," he says.
"My name is Rosemary White. Rosie. I saw your advert in Oxford. I'm a postgraduate there." I cough. "You're looking for a research assistant, for the summer?"
"I am," he says pleasantly. "Someone who can join me in Moscow."
I loosen my hold on my handbag. "I'd be interested to apply, if the position's still open."
"It most certainly is."
"I don't have much experience in your field, but I'm fluent in Russian and English-"
"I'll be in Oxford on Thursday," he says. "Why don't we meet up? I'd be happy to tell you more about it."
"I'm leaving tomorrow for Yorkshire. To visit my fiancé's grandmother. She lives alone." I'm not sure why I'm spewing information like this. "Would the weekend be alright?"
"Absolutely," he says. His voice is mild. All around us is nothing but people talking and bantering, a pleasing hum, but there is something in Alexey's eyes that suddenly makes me want to brace against a biting wind. Maybe the excerpt he just read out-the details of the White Sea, those barren roads, those long winters-is still too fresh in my mind. Maybe it's all people ever see, when they look at him.
It’s past my mother’s bedtime by the time I make it back to her apartment, but there’s a sound coming from her room, a low moan.
I knock on her door. "Mum? You awake?"
Another half-smothered noise.
I push the door open. Mum's bedroom is filthy and gloomy and she matches it perfectly. Unwashed, unmoving, she is sitting up in bed, slouched against her pillows, the musky scent of vodka rolling off her in waves. I drop in on her at least once a month, stay with her a night or two here in London. I've been visiting more frequently of late, but if anything, she seems to recognize me less. Mum carried on drinking even after the doctors said her liver was bound to fail, was failing, had failed. She's drunk right now.
"I was at a talk," I say. "Have you been waiting up?"
Her jaundiced eyes dart around the room before finding me right in front of her.
"Well, good night, then." I set the pillboxes on her nightstand upright and wipe my hands on my slacks. "Do you want me to wake you in the morning?" I pause. "I'm going up first thing to York, remember?"
She sucks in her bony cheeks and starts to grasp at her sheets for support. She wants me to come closer. I seat myself gingerly at the foot of the bed.
"Raisa," she mumbles.
Raisa. My birth name. By now it feels more like a physical thing I left behind in Russia, along with my clothes, my books, everything else that made me me. My mother is the only one who uses it.
When she dies, she'll take it with her.
"Too many things to say." Her breaths are staggered.
I bite down on my first response. "You don't have to say anything, Mum."
"I know your plans."
"Plans? Are you talking about me and Richard?"
Her gaze locks on mine, but she can't maintain it. "You've been trying to get back to Moscow. For months now."
"It's not a secret. I didn't think you'd want to hear about it."
Mum tries to laugh, a gurgling noise. "I've overheard you on the telephone with the embassy. Why do they keep denying you? Is it because of what you study?"
"It's because of the hash you made of the paperwork when we moved here," I say, bristling. "I just want to go for nostalgia's sake. One last time, to see it. It's different now than when we left, Mum. With Gorbachev in power-"
"You're lying, Raisochka. You're going to search for that man."
She must be drunker than she's ever been, to mention that man. Fourteen years ago, as our rickety Aeroflot jet took off into a deep crimson skyline, London-bound, I dared to ask her about him. Mum only stared straight ahead. That was her answer: There wasn't any that man. I dreamt it. I might have dreamt all of it.
"If you go away now, I won't be here when you get back," she says.
"Mum, please. Don't talk like that. And if you would just let us-"
"You mean let him. Him with his proper money. Thinks he's better than me."
"Are you serious? Richard doesn't think-"
"The dolls." Her pupils dilate. "No one will ever find the dolls."
I open my mouth and snap it shut. The vodka's definitely talking now. Her bisque porcelain dolls are impossible not to find, no matter where you look. They resemble taxidermized babies, with their stiff hands, blanched faces, unblinking eyes. Luckily they're stored on a shelf in the living room, or they'd be witness to this very conversation. To my wavering.
After she's downed a few, Mum often sits and speaks to them.
"I'll look after them," I say wearily.
"Not those." Her voice shrinks to a whisper. "The other ones."
I should have known there'd be more. Probably spanking new, still in their boxes, maybe in the closet, under her bed. Watching from places I don't even know about.
"Just be careful. . . ." She's fading. "If you see . . ."
"Mum?" I say, but she's already asleep.
At half eight in the morning, Mum is still out. Her face is slimy with sweat, but she appears so relaxed, so restful, that she might well have died overnight. I touch her wrist for her pulse, faint as a stain, and then reach over to her nightstand to fix the pillboxes-she always knocks them over, groping for something to throw back-but the surface has been cleared. No boxes. No crumpled pound notes, no bottles.
All that lies there now is one of her porcelain dolls. Facedown.
I feel a burst of nerves as I turn it over. The doll has bland off-yellow hair. It wears a frilly hotel-maid frock, knee-highs, and block-heeled black shoes. I move my gaze to the face, to the gaping-wound eyes. The hair falls strangely around the cheeks. Loosely. And in half a second, I can see why.
The scalp is not attached to the body.
It's a fully separate piece. A circular, skin-colored skullcap to which the wig is glued. Wincing, I remove it, revealing the doll's hollow head. The doll is still smiling. In fact, now that it's partly beheaded, its smile looks even wider.
Mum has dismembered one of her precious porcelain prisoners, when I'm not even allowed to breathe near them.
I cast an uneasy glance inside the head.
Is there something in there? Behind the doll's eyes?
I reach in, blindly, feeling like I'm performing an autopsy. By touch alone, it's a key. I pull it out, hold it high, like maybe it'll tell me something. It doesn't. A tiny brass key, dulled by time. It wouldn't fit any door I know.
"Mum," I say, so startled I nearly drop the key.
She claws for me, and unwillingly I take her hand.
"I . . ." Something, possibly the bile from her liver, is so high in my mother's throat that it cuts off her voice. "Raisa . . ."
"What's this key for?" I try to pull away, but she's the one holding on to me now. My hand against hers feels sticky. The key is being branded into my palm. "Have you been hiding things inside a doll's head?"
"I'm sorry," she says, like that explains it.
Maybe it does. I'm sorry too, sorry that I'm the one who ended up here with her. That she wasn't able to leave me behind, because if she had, maybe she could have left that man behind too.
Everything that has ever gone unsaid hangs in the air between us, as thick as the smell of decay that emanates from the pried-off piece of cranium on her nightstand, and its original owner.
Or perhaps from what is left of my mother.
"I will help you, Raisa . . . to find that man."
"Mum, you're not making any-"
"This key is for my drawer in the stenka," she says in a single breath. She's using up all her air to get this out. "Ludmila is still there, living in our . . . in Moscow. You go, you look, you make your choice. You promise me?"
I can taste bile myself. I have no idea what she's asking me to do. "I promise."
"Open the window. . . ." Her eyes close to a sliver. "Too many shadows."
Mum's always on the verge of sleep while she talks to me, no matter what time of day it is. She just can't keep her eyes open.
The doll stares at me, wide-awake as ever.
"Mum, wait, can you . . ." I say, a plea, but my mother has stopped murmuring to herself. She lets go of my hand.
As the train pulls out of King’s Cross, I rest my forehead
against the glass. Richard is already in York. It’ll be a decent drive out to where his grandmother lives, in a cottage that sits, or floats, in the nothingness of the northern moors. It is where Richard and I will marry in autumn. Mum has never been there, but she’d love how it looks rugged and angry one day, winsome and windswept the next. Like a landscape from her stories.
I've always hated her stories.
They're the single thing about her to become more vivid and not less, after a tipple. Strange little vignettes, fairy tales in miniature, often with a nightmarish tint. They all start with some version of her favorite line: far away and long ago. That line is not a coincidence. Most of my mother is far away and long ago.
As Charlotte shows us where the musicians will be set up and, with a slight huff, instructs us not to venture anywhere near her rose garden, a chilly gust of air whisks past. I shudder, and Richard’s grandmother glances at me, her smile just as chilly.
"Does it not suit?" she asks.
"No, it's-it's beautiful."
Richard shrugs off his coat and puts it around my shoulders. We approach the house from the back. Charlotte's dog, some pesky, ankle-high breed, is yapping by the door, jumping up and down on all fours like a mechanical toy. The dog is usually to be found on his living room cushions, sniffing at a tray of treats. He is not the sort of dog that sneaks out on purpose. He isn't what most people would even call a dog.